I awoke on Friday morning to a vicious stomach virus. Eighteen trips to the bathroom later (seriously) I went to work. I struggled through the hours, sitting in a chair for all of my lessons and struggling to keep my students’ attention. I couldn’t eat a thing, nor keep down even water, for the whole day.
And I’d planned a templestay for this weekend.
In Korea, many temples run programs where lay people can stay overnight and participate in the monastic lifestyle. I found a temple with a program I liked and sent an email a few days before my planned arrival. 50,000 KRW ($44) offered three meals, lodging overnight, and the temple program of teaching and experiencing traditional Buddhism in Korea.
Suffice it to say that I was pretty empty physically by the time I made it to the Geumsunsa temple. I walked up to the temple through a cave for prayer, which was built into the mountainside and had a stream running around the stairs and through the cavern. When I finally came up through the foundations of the temple, I found myself near the bell pavilion, sweaty from the walk up the mountain and the long trip from Suwon.
I walked into the temple, and was immediately greeted by the staff. They were so kind-natured and laughed when we discovered that they’d planned on me being a man! It didn’t matter much except for room assignment, since I ended up wearing a men’s large temple uniform due to my totally not petite and feminine size.
My roommate wanted to take my picture more properly, but my camera’s battery died just then. It was fine. I wasn’t there to be a tourist anyway. I turned off my cell phone and resigned myself to a few precious hours apart from the modern world.
We met our monk, and did the first three of many full prostrating bows in the weekend. He gave us a tour of the whole temple, from top to bottom. It was 5:00 PM and I still hadn’t eaten anything since Thursday night. I felt so ill, likely from low blood sugar. It was awful trying to be respectful while trying not to double over with nausea. Luckily we had a lot of downtime and I got to go lay down in the room almost right away.
Just before our meeting about the sutras we would be chanting, an orange and white kitty appeared in the temple courtyard. He was yowling at the tops of his lungs, a tom cat a bit gone to seed. He was a fitting apparition since we’d just been talking about mountain guardian spirits who ran with tigers in the old times.
I broke my 24-hour fast with vegetarian temple food with vegetables gathered from the mountain, and I settled into silence. I was happy not to be tied to my phone. One of the reasons that I never get a smart phone while I’m abroad is that the connection to everything (meaningful and meaningless) is too tempting, and draws me away from the experiences at hand.
The chanting ceremony was mesmerizing and felt very connected to greater things somehow. It sounded a lot like this, but much quieter and simpler as there were only three monks at our temple. It struck me that I’d never attended a non-Christian religious service, much less participated in one. Yet it felt familiar. White candles lit on the altars, frescoes on the walls, and the familiar “Church Smell” of incense and a little bit of mildew. I got the chanting stuck in my head.
Finally, it was time for the climax of the stay: 108 bows. Yes, one hundred and eight. All the way to the ground and back up again, using almost solely leg strength and willpower.
I’ve done yoga since my early teens and I’ve been working on my meditation here in Korea, but little prepared me for how hard the bows were. The temple staff had given us a hand out about the meaning of the bows beforehand, and I felt that it connected in some amazing ways. Each bow is in repentance, gratitude, or a vow to strive to be a better person. Some are particularly poignant in the 21st Century.“I prostrate in repentance from having taken for granted all who have provided my sustenance.” “I prostrate in repentance to all those whom I have harmed through fits of anger.” “I prostrate in repentance for having disregarded our home, the Earth.” “I prostrate in repentance for having discriminations based on absolute rights and wrongs.” “I prostrate with gratitude for having come to see the beauty of this world.” “I prostrate with gratitude for having come to see that love is the greatest power of all.” “I prostrate as a vow to refrain from saying harmful things.” “I prostrate as a vow to be positive in everything I do.” “I prostrate as a prayer for an end to all wars.” “I prostrate as a prayer that all beings may live in peace.”
It normally takes the monks fifteen minutes to do 108 bows, but for those of us who were doing it for the first time, it took about thirty. It was very interesting to watch my emotions and thoughts wander past as I bowed and struggled. At first, I was super-committed. I was ujjayi breathing it up in the Buddha Hall. But then my right knee started to hurt. Then my left foot, from compensating. Then my right foot, from compensating for compensating.
At two points in the bows, I lost my balance standing up and nearly toppled out the open door behind me.
There was a moment around 80 bows that I felt alive and connected and present. It was short-lived, since negative thoughts began intruding and I got angry until I finally caught myself thinking, “This is stupid.” That was the second to last bow.
But it wasn’t stupid. It was tough, but it wasn’t stupid. It pushed me, which is what contemplation and repentance are supposed to do. The little halo of sweat on my kneeling pad was evidence of how many times my forehead had touched the ground. It was clearly visible by the end.
After stretching our legs, we began meditating. In Zen meditation, one focuses on great questions to be answered and contemplates them deeply. The questions sound a bit like riddles, and ours for the night was, “A bird was placed in an expensive vase as a tiny bird, and grew and grew until it cannot get out. You cannot break the vase, because it is so expensive. How do you get the bird out?”
As I settled into meditation, I found my answers quickly. Put the bird on a diet, keeping him alive but making him lose weight until he can come out of the vase. Or, break the vase. No object could be worth as much as the life of a living being. Besides, one could always put the vase back together. One can’t resurrect the bird.
To be continued…