At 4:30AM, the monks woke us with the slapping of a bamboo clapper. It was dark. I’d slept like shit on the floor, where the underfloor heating made rivulets of sweat run down me to the point that I awoke thinking bugs were crawling in my shirt.
I put on my temple vest and threw myself outside as fast as possible, trying to escape the heat. I could see one of the monks standing quietly in the dark, striking the huge bell. He would wait just long enough for the vibration to become imperceptible, then strike again. My tired legs did not want to walk up the steps to the Buddha Hall, but somehow I made it and took a seat.
I found that my mind was already very quiet, almost in a meditative state already. I wasn’t sleepy. I was wide awake, but very still and calm. The morning chanting service was the same as the evening one (complete with around ten more bows!!!), and then we meditated again. My legs fell violently asleep, drawing my focus from my breathing disruptively. We rested, had a formal monastic meal complete with silence and ritualistic bowl-cleaning, and then cleaned the temple.
Orange and white kitty came down to yowl at us again after breakfast. I lured him down to the ground from his perch high above us, and he came and sat in the laps of several of the participants. He stayed the longest in mine, wrapping his front legs around my knee and purring loudly. I noticed only afterward the nearly empty bag of cat chow near the monk’s living quarters. I like a religion that respects all forms of life, especially kitties!
After the kitty meeting, we met with the abbot of the monastery over tea to ask questions and share our experiences. It was a very connecting experience, to hear the reasons for which all the participants came. One was 21 years old and had just suffered a very ugly breakup. A married couple came to reconnect to calm in their lives. One man claimed that his nervous tic had been cured by the 108 bows.
When the abbot came to me, I expressed my gratitude for how accepting the temple was to everyone, from all backgrounds. I was really impressed by how they acknowledged and incorporated indigenous beliefs without judgement or exclusion. He looked straight at me.
“You seem very calm, Coleen.”
It was strange, after so many years spent working on myself and knowing my thought patterns. I’m a very anxious and emotional person by nature. In the past, those characteristics had often overtaken me and made situations worse than they needed to be or brought needless suffering. That the abbot commented on my calmness was striking…could it be that my work on myself over the past few years has finally made a tiny bit of headway? I take it as a great sign that a Buddhist monk thought I seemed very tranquil.
We went for a quick and sweaty hike on Bukansan, one of the most famous mountains in Korea. I sweat a lot more than Koreans in general, but especially in a thick temple outfit going off-trail up rocks and bouldering. I was out of breath and dripping with sweat by the time we got off the trail. When we reached the top, all of Seoul was spread out below us. It’s a sight that never gets old for me.
We made our way back down, with some falling on the gravel and me playing at parkour on the boulders, and it was time to have our final meal. After that, it was once more up the stairs to the Buddha Hall for a closing ceremony in which the abbot reminded us to be present in the moment, to forget about the past and the imagined future.
“Remember how happy you are in this moment,” he said through our interpreter.
This weekend, I found that some parts of Buddhism click with me on many levels. Love openly. Be childlike. Love all beings, even kitties and butterflies. Eat vegetarian. Be humble. Be happy in nature. Don’t pay too much attention to money. Getting overly attached is a recipe for disaster. Respect the Earth.
Every religion has some aspect that shoots off into that relatively hippy-dippy paradigm. I’d be willing to put money on the Buddhists I met this weekend accepting Francis of Assisi as a saint of their own, regardless of his Catholic faith. What struck me about Mahayana Buddhism was its pervasive acceptance and nonjudgement. It is in such stark contrast with the missionaries who bang urgently on my door, hold loud annoying streetside church services outside the train stations, and wander down the street with a giant cross attached to themselves shouting about the AntiChrist.
I am trying to actually work on myself, through my vertiginous emotions and my natural tendency to catastrophize. I felt light at the monastery, and happy. Butterflies were everywhere. I didn’t want to leave.
But the inevitable pull back to real life came as it has to, and I went from walking down the mountain with my new friends to the crush of the Seoul subway within a few minutes. But the happiness stayed. The desire for silence, too. Normally I watch TV online or at least listen to music, but tonight I am only annoyed by such distractions.
Something awakened and moved this weekend. It was a feeling that I might have sneakily become at peace with myself without even realizing it. I feel grounded and renewed.