September 12, 2008

Temple Stay at Silleuk-sa!

Anyone with a remote interest in Buddhism may want to opt out of reading this post. It has the potential of making you wildly jealous.

Yeoju is home to a famous Buddhist temple called Silleuk-sa (pronounced shi-look-sah). It is the only Buddhist temple located on a river in Korea (most Buddhist temples are located up in mountains), which makes it both extremely accessible and extremely beautiful.

So in Yeoju there's this group called MSM, whose purpose I do not fully understand because I was told it was created to help the native-speakers (as we are called) adjust to life in Korea by introducing them to some Koreans and native-speakers who have been here for a little while already. Basically we go out to dinner and then drink together (Koreans actually drink more alcohol than Americans do, if you can believe it). But, everyone in MSM (mostly Korean co-teachers and incumbent native-speakers) is also involved in this program affiliated with the Gyeonggi-do Provincial Office of Education that does English camps with low-income kids in the area. In fact, this is how I met them. John kept talking about this Temple Stay his co-teacher had lined him up to participate in and I was all bummed because I was the only one in the area not signed up to do it. Plus, it's the one thing I really wanted to do in Korea. (My idea of a temple stay was that you spend the weekend with monks learning about what they do and maybe making kimchi). So John's co-teacher got me in on it, picked me up early from school last Tuesday, and took us to Silleuk-sa......where we arrived on the scene for a training session. Actually, I had no idea until I arrived that it was a training session.

So, unknowingly, I had signed myself up for an all-day Temple Stay for low-income kids on Saturday. Haha, which was fine. We were there on Tuesday for a crash course in meditating and participating in a Baru Gongyang, or Bowl Offering, which we were going to teach little kids how to do on Saturday. We were also going to tell them how to do yoga, but we didn't train for that.

And then I meditated with a Buddhist monk, in a Buddhist temple, in Korea. It was truly sublime. He sat there with us and explained everything, first - how to sit, why we sit that way, why we hold our hands this way, why we hold our tongue in our mouths a certain way, and what we are trying to do when we meditate. He explained that while we meditated we were to imagine letting in all of the energy in the universe. He said that humans are good at utilizing water energy and food energy, but not air energy. So he told us to focus on our breathing. With our mouths closed and our tongue on the roof of our mouth, we were to breathe in deeply and hold the air in our bodies and then exhale only 2/3 of what we breathed in. We were to breathe in, hold, and exhale for the same number of seconds each.

Then he hit his bamboo clapper three times, which signaled "begin", and we meditated. It was only for a few minutes - just enough to get an idea of what we'd be doing on Saturday - but it felt really good. It felt like I had just woken up in the morning. It's not like it was the first time I'd ever meditated, either. It's just that before I had no idea what I was doing. Having guidance from a monk and meditating in the tranquil setting of the temple made all the difference. Monks generally meditate for 2 hours at a time, but on Saturday we were going to be meditating with the kids for only 20 minutes. (Still a long time to ask little kids to sit still and be quiet, if you ask me).

The Baru Gongyang training took hours. We sat waiting in one of the temple buildings for a really long time - apparently some things came up that needed attending to immediately. When we finally got going, we were hungry, and we were learning the Buddhist monk eating ritual without the food (that's what a bowl offering is). You can't imagine how frustrating this was, especially when the monk would talk in Korean for minutes and minutes at a time and we got zero translation as a reward for our patience. But the meditation had put us in a particularly amiable state and most of us weren't too upset by it. Anyway, so we learned the ritual, step-by-step. When monks eat, they are given four bowls that fit inside each other complete with a lid, a placemat-napkin, a white napkin for cleaning, a pouch with wooden chopsticks and spoon, and a sash for tying it all together. I will not go through the entire ritual with you, but the important details are as follows:

- the ritual is very meaningful to the monks, who believe that all of reality consists of different forms of energy, and so the taking in of energy (water, food, and air) is of utmost importance.
- nearly every movement in the ritual has a rule for it (the way to untie the sash, the way to fold the sash, where to place the sash and white napkin, how to eat, which utensils/foods may be placed in which bowls...the list goes on, but really once you do it the only difficult part is re-tying the sash.)
- the ritual is to be completed in absolute silence (no talking, no making noises while placing the four bowls on the placemat-napkin or while using the eating utensils, etc.)
- you must not take more food than you can eat, because you must eat absolutely everything in your bowls, including the water and raw radish slice used to clean them afterwards.

After we learned the Baru Gongyang, we all went out to eat. It was fun! Mr. Kim is the man in charge, I think, and he's just this crazy middle-aged man who's unbelievably sweet, and has the energy and demeanor of an 8-year-old. Anyway, our go-to girl's name is BoYoung. She's a beautiful young English teacher who speaks better English than any Korean I've met so far. She's really cool, too. Both of them plus a few of our co-teachers were at the dinner with us. We went to another Korean restaurant where I had a chance to show off my chopsticks skillz. I'm starting to get really good at the whole eat-at-a-Korean-restaurant thing. I've probably had the experience around 5 times now. People like to go out to eat together, just like in the States. They just talk less while they're doing it. The first time I ate out with Ms. Park at that cafeteria on the way to my apartment, I asked her what sort of things are acceptable dinner conversation in Korea. That's when she told me that Koreans don't actually talk much while they're eating together.

So Saturday rolled around and the camp went just fine. True, the roles we had volunteered for were all switched around and we didn't know what we were doing until we were doing it (Pretty much as it was happening, I was handed a little pamphlet on the temple and then told to teach each group of children about a designated building, then quiz them and give them gifts), but we had a ton of fun. The kids were really cute and enthusiastic for the most part. We also bonded a ton with the other English teachers, in addition to partaking in the Temple Stay activities ourselves. It was my most productive Saturday in a while. Oh, and we got paid 100,000 won (about $100) for it!

Sejong Gate (see post "Sunday" to discover who Sejong is), the entrance to Silleuksa. The temple compound is a solid seven-minute walk from here.
Sejong Gate detail....this is what's underneath the gate! So beautiful. According to a plaque on the side of the gate, the painting is done in the traditional Korean style called geumdancheong.

There's a really sweet goldfish pond on the walk from the gate to the compound. I took a ton of pictures of them. They're huge! And bright.

Jackie, this is for you and me: a dragon detail on a smaller gate just outside the temple.

Annie, this is for us. That, my friend, is the badass-est turtle ever. Too bad I can't bring it home to you!

Josadong, the building chosen for me to teach little kids about. Inside portraits of the temple's three most important monks (Jigong, Muhak, and Naong) are enshrined. The juniper tree encircled by a fence in front of Josadong is over 500 years old. Apparently Muhak planted it in memory of Naong. Also, there is a 1000 year-old gingko in the area, and a 2000 year-old juniper on a Korean island in the East Sea. I will be making pilgrimages to these trees, rest assured.

Views of the temple proper (however poor they may be). The first picture is one of the temple's "treasures". This object was John's to present. It's a skillfully made pagoda called Dacheung Seoktap. It was constructed in 1472. The building on the left in the second picture and the one pictured in the third are the same building. The building on the right of the second picture was where I did 108 bows in a row on Saturday, which left me sore for days afterward. When you do the 108 bows (which I didn't learn about because I took the opportunity to visit the restroom), you give a full bow with your hands together in front of you, then get on your knees (with your hands still together), sit on your feet, and put your head and hands on the ground in front of you. Then you sit back up, put your hands together, and get back up (hands still together). 108 of those is exhausting, and takes just short of an hour to accomplish. It was a really good way to spend an hour, though. Not only is it an excellent workout for your thighs (which literally barely functioned for me afterward), but it is also really peaceful.

Try if you can to imagine the place at twilight, the temple building with the candles glowing red from the inside and forested mountains and the Han river as a backdrop, and without my friend Billy's head getting in the way of your view all the time. Throw in the fact that you just meditated with a Buddhist monk in a Korean temple and you have one of the most sublime experiences of your lifetime. I wish I could have captured it on camera for all of you, but I didn't take pictures on Tuesday. These are all from Saturday. I doubt it's possible, anyway.

The building of the bows.

Cool doors.

The gang! On the far left is Billy, a creative writing major, who is kind of hilarious. He has all these ridiculous ideas. Next is Mr. Kim, behind him my friend Alex, who's really cool (she and I and our friend Shannon went on a hike on Monday the 15th for Chuseok), then John, me, this guy Art who takes amazing photographs and has been here for a couple of years - super nice and helpful, in front of Art is Mark, then BoYoung holding the shirt up, then this really nice co-teacher who wears designer clothing all the time (she's wearing Guess jeans for the Temple Stay), next to her is a co-teacher named Dan (he kidnapped us later by feigning an offer to drive us home from dinner after and then asking us to meet his brother (another English teacher) for an hour at a Korean cafe). In front of Dan is Alex's co-teacher, and next to her the director of the Yeoju English Stars program who was hanging around near me while I was teaching about Josadong and took a liking to me. Despite the language barrier, he was able to communicate to me that he would be running a marathon the next day. An unbelievably sweet man. [Notice the cell phone in his hand, mid-group photo. Cell phones are exalted here, I think. And behind him is some woman. I actually have no idea who she is.

The unofficial official photo. In front are the two monks we worked with. The monk on the left is the headmaster of the temple. You know how in animated movies the turtle character is always old and wise? This monk looks exactly like that - an old, wise, inwardly happy man whose face resembles a turtle. The monk on the right has a great face, too. He taught us to meditate.

That's all for now!! I'm sorry I didn't get pictures of the kids.....but I will see them again. We do something like this every other weekend.


Danny Shahar said...

Hi Sarah!

Yea...kinda really jealous.

Reading your post, I found it really interesting that they talk about air as being a source of energy. But when I tried breathing the way you described, I noticed something: by keeping your lungs in a more inflated state, you absorb substantially more oxygen. As this happens, you get a sort of head rush and your mind clears and focuses. If I didn't know what was happening, I think it would be extremely reasonable to think that the air that I had breathed in had given me energy.

And further, if these guys are breathing more deeply as a matter of habit (which I suspect is the case), then it seems quite likely that they're operating with higher blood-oxygen levels (which I think is one of the reasons that athletes feel more energetic, and why people from high altitudes do too when they come closer to sea level). Accordingly, we might be able to understand their claim that most people don't properly use "air energy" to mean that people's breathing leads them to maintain lower levels of oxygen in their blood than they would if they adopted different breathing patterns. Because low blood-oxygen levels lead to feelings of lethargy, it makes perfect sense.

Incidentally, it occurred to me that we might compare their ritual to "oxygen therapy," which is becoming more popular around the world and seems to take advantage of the same basic mechanism.

Anyway, I'm really glad you had such a great experience (as well as super jealous)! As always, much love (and pass some on to the good doctor).


P.S. Super frustrating and flattering experience: we had a graduate level seminar this weekend, which was really effin' sweet and interesting. One of the most important libertarian economists working within the school of economic thought in which I'm most interested basically offered me a fellowship in his program if I wanted to go there for a PhD in economics (!!). And I had to turn it down! Ugh! So frustrating! When I get into grad school for philosophy, it'll be okay, but in the interim I can't help but feel like I'm passing up a once in a lifetime experience, and it's giving me some serious angst. Blah.

Dad said...

Ok, Sarah, this whole Korea thing gets more and more interesting. Sounds like the temple experience was amazing. And I have to say, I am really enjoying your writing. It is so you! And I am glad you and John get to share it together. Gotta run. Love you. Dad.