Sunday, October 16, 2005

Camp Buddha - part 1

I have just returned from one of my top 10 most incredible life excursions - so far!

The destination was Haeinsa, site of a Buddhist temple founded in the 9th century that is nestled in the mountains of Gayasan National Park. One of its main draws, as if the gorgeous temple and surrounding nature themselves weren't enough, is the fact that it has the Tripitaka Koreana, which are 80,000+ wood blocks that are a thousand years old and contain the entirety of Buddhist scripture. I was all kinds of eager to see them. They are an official Korean National Treasure and Haeinsa has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of them!

So for my first weekend's adventure I decided to hop the bus to Haeinsa, which superconveniently leaves from Daegu several times an hour and costs 4000 won (approximately $4). Haeinsa is a little more than an hour away via bus. It would make a nice day trip, but my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook said you can stay at the temple overnight, provided you will adhere to monastic customs like early lights out, rise for prayer service, sleep in separate men's and women's dorms, etc. I was extremely intrigued by this prospect.

When the bus plopped me (and a bunch of others) down in the middle of Haeinsa town, I thought I was in a Korean version of Aspen, or that main street of Park City, or some mountain town that consists of a bunch of shops and restaurants only there because of the tourists/skiers/hikers who flock there. I strolled up (and I do mean UP) the street to check out the "plush" acccomodation option, creatively called Tourist Hotel. It wasn't all that exciting: I thought the lobby might be more spectacular, but it was still a nice enough place to freshen up.

This being a national park, there were a LOT of Korean tourists. The whole thing felt very Yellowstone-like. If Yellowstone had a centuries-old cathedral, maybe.

In front of the hotel I made eye contact with the only other white/Western/non-Korean woman I'd seen so far in town, and she said hi in a sort of knowing way.

It was almost 4 pm, so I checked when the last bus left to go back to Daegu: 7:50pm. I had nearly four hours to explore the temple and decide if I was really going to stay the night here!
I deciphered a few more signs, spotted some English and arrows, and began making my way down the hill toward the entrance to the temple site. On the way, I met a girl from Daegu who wanted to speak in English with me. Sure, I said. She turned out to be a 20-year-old deep in the studying for her university exam. When I asked her if she had been to Haeinsa before she didn't understand my question at first so I rephrased it. (I've become quite good at rephrasing in my job here!) "Do you come here often?" I asked, and then I laughed and had a private joke with myself at how she would have no idea that that is the ultimate joke of a pick-up line.

We went to the Haeinsa museum together and looked at the amazing Buddhist painting, sculpture, and crafts. You had to take off your shoes and change them for "slippers" to walk through the museum. The slippers are actually hard plastic or rubber open-toed open-heeled shoes, like flip flops but sturdier, and they are everywhere here. Much better than exchanging your shoes for sweaty, gooey bowling alley shoes.

The museum had about five rooms in an arc with various Buddhist art from this and other temples, including folding screens of the 33 Zen masters, and lots of "color indigo." There was also a mural on the second floor. Some of the art had calligraphy, and if there was any writing on these screens, paintings, etc., it was all in Chinese (seeing as this temple pre-dates the invention of the Korean script, hangeul, which wasn't until the 14th century, I believe). Many of the museum's display cards were in Korean and English. Yes! Throw a bone to us Westerners who come to visit! I wondered idly how the Europeans and western hemispherians (no, but it so should be a word!) feel about the fact that the Roman-alphabet language of choice here is English -- that's it. Like in the airport, on the subway, you might see Chinese, or possibly Japanese, and then maybe English.

Anyway, most of it was pretty good at the museum, but occasionally there was an amusing translation. It was especially funny whenever it talked about the significance of a particular artifact. It would almost sound like it was lecturing, but it was cute. "That makes this a very important piece whose importance is very stated. It is not a small thing." Stuff like that. I wanted to say, hey, you don't have to convince me of the significance of all this! I was getting very excited at the prospect of seeing thesamazing 80,000 wood blocks at the temple. We left the museum and started climbing. My new nameless friend and I made pleasant enough conversation, but I could see why she was eager to practice her English. No offense, but she definitely needed to! Anyway, we had a nice walk up (and I do mean UP again) the mountain the half-kilometer from the museum to the temple.

What a sight to behold!!!

The temple consists of several buildings built up the mountainside, so you're at the first building and you walk up some steep steps to reach the terrace on which there are the next three buildings, around a 'clearing'-type area, and then up more steep steps to the next building, etc. The buildings are kind of Chinese-pagoda-sloping roof style and are very beautifully painted in bright reds, golds, blues, and greens with dark wood and roofs. The first couple levels are the boring stuff (an information desk and a few informative displays, now that this is a tourist site!) but then it gets really good higher up! There is an amazing building where the actual temple services are, with five golden statues of Buddha.

In one exhibit room, a worker approached me and said, "Welcome to Haeinsa." I said, "Thank you." That was about the extent of her English, but she sure tried to tell me about the displays in that room. In one case there was a small piece of gold from -- well, from something significant. No amount of rephrasing actually clarified the matter for me. She even enlisted the help of my Daegu student friend, who could not translate either. And then the worker decided Daegu girl was my translating companion and I was like, no, don't, it's OK! I'll just look, really! I didn't want this poor girl to get suckered into being used as my translator.

But suckered in she got. The next building had informational resources and a woman asked me, "Temple stay?" I replied, "Actually, I do want to know about staying the night here..." Well, those two words had exhausted her English supply, so she turned to my friend (all right, let's just say we were friends by this point) and I was like, "No!" and I think the poor girl was also trying to tell her she had just met me or something, and then the worker asked if she wanted to stay the night too and she was like "No!' I felt like she was probably cursing under her breath, 'Leave me out of this!' No, not really, she was very sweet.

Well, I used my dictionary a little bit, and 10,000 won later I had a schedule (in English!) and the woman led me to the dorm where I would stay the night. Miraculously, divinely, cosmically, or something, there was a Korean woman among the many staying there that night who SPOKE SOME ENGLISH! I mean, like a vocabulary of hundreds, perhaps a thousand? two thousand? words, not just pushing a dozen. What luck! How did that even happen? So that nameless woman became my replacement friend as Daegu girl took her leave of me. I thanked her profusely and apologized about a million times that she had got roped into translating. She reassured me that she was so happy to speak English! I said, "Well, listen, if you ever want to speak English in Daegu some time..." still amusing myself with how much it sounded like a cheesy scene being played out in a bar (and it was so *not* that at all) and I gave her my e-mail address and explained I'd be getting a new phone number within a day or two so I couldn't give her that but hoped she'd e-mail. I will speak English any time, friend. "Oh, and I didn't catch your name...?"

It was almost time for 6:00 dinner so the young friend went on her merry way and my new English-speaking friend wanted me to decide if I would sleep in the room she was in, with about 20 other 50-to 70-year-old Korean women, or in the room next door, also with about 20 or so women. I must have looked frightened at disappearing into the other room. "OK, you can sleep with me!" she said, that decided. She arranged me a blanket and a blanket.

Right. There weren't exactly beds. No, not mattresses either. No, I wouldn't go so far as to say sleeping mats. When I say "dorm" what I really mean is, a building divided into rooms in which groups of people sleep. On the floor. Twenty+ of us, in a room about as big as a small motel room, on the floor, in a square, then another group in the middle.

We walked over to the dining room. We bowed to the Buddha to offer thanks for the meal and went along the table filling our trays with various dishes the monks had prepared: rice (of course), different vegetables, tofu. I made it clear to my friend I could *not* have the seaweed, to which I am allergic, and she looked out for me when it came to the two soups. "I think you have this one," she said. She spoke a lot of present tense, but that's OK. No tense like the present, right?

We sat at tables on one side, us campers (I'd decided that's what this felt like, a very surreal summer camp), and the monks sat on the tables on the other side of the aisle. We were a living breathing representation of how the other half eat, I guess. Now, I did know a thing or two about a thing or two from my previous reading and learning about Buddhism and mindfulness practice, and I knew that I should eat everything I took, that these monks never waste a bit of food, not a morsel. I was also reminded that this was not social hour; no one really talked and the monks finished eating in about two seconds, undoubtedly to get on with the important business of cultivating their garden and whatnot. Well, I was close to done (though not quite) and quite handily using the chopsticks, I might add, though I had a spoon for the soup. There were about seven or eight rice remnants in the rice section of my tray, and English-speaking friend picked them up and put them on my spoon and said, "Eat! eat! You leave nothing!" I was like, "I know, I'm not done--OK, sorry." I ate. Humbly.

On the way out we each drank a cup of hot water. (I'd read about that, too.) Next was the 6:30 p.m. prayer service. What a truly awesome time! My friend ushered me into the long rectangle building. We sat in two long rows across, on gray prayer mats facing the five huge golden statues, Buddha in the middle surrounded by boddhisatvas and other wise ones, maybe a king or two. I've attended a (much much much smaller) Buddhist temple-like place in L.A., and the Cambridge Zen center in Massachusetts, so I knew what was going on here. Ironically it was harder for me to empty my mind and observe the space between my thoughts here than any of those other places, I think because I kept returning to the consciousness of the fact that I was meditating here of all places!

Tale of transcendence to be continued...

No comments: