Friday, October 21, 2005

Camp Buddha -- part 2

The monks were sitting in the "front rows" right up against the long grand pedestal with the statues, and to see them from behind was inspiring. They sat so still. After about twenty minutes, one stood to begin chanting, and I was awestruck. He sang a line, and everyone repeated it in a resounding chorus, including the guests. It was absolutely breathtaking.

Bowing or prostrations came next. You kneel, lean forward, place your hands down and touch your forehead to the mat, lift your hands palm up to offer thanks, lift up to sit back on to your heels, then push up to standing. It was starting to feel a bit like when I go to Catholic mass: I can follow it, and sometimes I do all the stand-up-sit-down, but in the end it's best left to those who really feel what they're doing, or it's kind of hypocritical. I should not do it just to go through the motions. So, I did prostrate myself, but I also returned to the sitting pose on the mat for part of the service. I know about and really believe in mindfulness practice and some of the dharma, and the rest I shouldn't fake.

The chanting went on and on and on. It was so mysterious and beautiful! I was, as I have said, pretty much in awe. After a short time the monks leave, and then it's time for the regular folk to do their thing supplicating. This is when I mostly just sat, as I wasn't really asking the universe for anything in particular. Quite the contrary, I was actually musing about how I had everything that I wanted in the world: not possessions, just everything in my heart. I had left behind my decidedly not nourishing job, I had taken the step of coming to Asia to teach English, I was traveling, I was surrounded by nature's beauty on an incredible adventure, I felt independent, I was truly happy, I had people who loved me, I felt free.

The day before, Friday, I had been having similar thoughts actually -- so thrilled with where I am, and so thrilled with the turns my life has taken in this latter half of 2005 -- and as I sat in my pre-school class I noticed a bunch of unidentifiable bug bites on my itching arm. I thought, in my sarcastic-but-maybe-a-tiny-bit-serious way, "Great, random Asian bugs biting me, surely I'm going to die now, and oh my gosh maybe I really am going to die, because I am so truly happy right now! I have everything and it's all good! I've been wondering this whole week why the universe is allowing me to feel this happy and maybe it's because I'm allowed to feel this happy for a little while right before I die..." This thought went on for a good long while, longer than it reasonably should have while surrounded by precocious and hyperactive six-year-olds who you would think could draw my attention away from it.

But it crept back up there in the temple, only in not nearly so morbid a fashion. I just felt wonderful in the truest sense of the word.

When the service was over, it was after 8 p.m., so there wasn't much time before lights out and bedding down at 9:00. Woman-who-speaks-English showed me the toilets (in the ground, gross, but tolerable) and the wash room (running water, but no sinks nor showers, just basins). Before going back inside I stood alone for a minute at the top of the steps leading down to the "dorm." The moon-- about 3/4 full?-- had just risen above the craggy, coniferous mountaintop silhouetted agains the violet sky. I stared at it as if I'd never seen it before.

"Do you like the Buddha?" my little friend asked me as we lay down on our blankets.

"Well, yes," I said. "I studied a little bit in the United States." Here I lifted my hand out from under the covers to hold my finger and thumb very close together to emphasize just how little. "I want to learn more."

"These people are here, they hope to the Buddha for something," she said.

I looked around the room. It was such a haggard group of women, all so exhausted. Haeinsa is apparently the most important temple for the Hwaom sect of Buddhism, so I imagine coming to the prayer service here must be like a Catholic going to hear mass at the Vatican? or a Mormon attending general conference? or something like that. Of course, as we lay in the dark and I tried to fall asleep and several of the woman started hacking and coughing, I was all the more convinced I was going to die because surely they had crazy diseases and that's why they were here, to ask to be cured,and now I was going to pick up some strange ailment, and...and....

To say I tossed and turned would be an understatement, but I did manage to get in some dreams. They were mostly about waking up early for morning prayers and finding other people from my real U.S. life up early for breakfast, surprised that I wondered why they were up before the crack of dawn.

And then it was 3 a.m., and time for "Rising" as noted on my schedule. I washed and put in my contacts, and for the first time another woman in the room spoke to me. In Korean, naturally. She came over to motion to me not to put anything (like my contact case) on top of the blanket (which would of course then be passed to the next person to sleep there) but to do it on the floor instead. The way I was sitting my shirt was riding up just enough for my tattoo to peek out, and when she crawled over to me she touched it, then touched it again, put her whole hand on it, and patted it a few times. I remain unsure as to whether this was approval or amusement.

3:30 a.m. I walked toward the temple and noticed the moon, now above the mountain on the other side of us, like it made its little journey while we slept. I had a flash of worry as to whether I'd fall asleep during the service so early in the dark, but there was nothing to fear. I was able to concentrate better that morning in my mediatation than I had the night before. Then, that initial invigorating jolt of chanting took me to a new place. I loved that I recognized it now. I can still hear it, if I try.

The morning service was just as captivating, and a lot more crowded, as two (Korean) tour groups were in attendance. I watched two particular girls a few yards in front of me, twentysomethings in jeans, going through all the dozens (hundreds?) of prostrations throughout the service. One stopped at the changing of the chant. They had taken places in the front row after the monks left, right up against the Buddha platform. I couldn't help wondering what they had journeyed here to ask for: university exam time is at hand, of course, and I'd heard how much pressure that exam puts on people. The mix of devout people in that temple was intriguing to me. I felt like such a heathen.

This service finished around 5:20 a.m. In the courtyard I marvelled at how MANY stars there were! It was comforting to spot the Big Dipper, and Orion, and remember it's all the same big world and I'm just standing on a different part of its surface. After a quick journal entry I rested on my blanket until 6:00 breakfast.

My English-speaking friend went to sleep and didn't come to breakfast, but one of the other women, maybe in her late sixties, adopted me. I'm glad she did, too. I thought I was taking a spinach soup thing in one compartment of my tray but after a taste I feared it might be seaweed (to which I am allergic). I did not know what to do, the wasting of food being so forbidden. With my two-word vocabulary and lots of gestures I managed to get this new friend to eat it instead. Phew! That was close!

But it's still not as bad as what I did in the sleeping room Saturday night. Out of habit, I killed a bug. I know, I know...I can hear you gasping from around the globe. Of all the places in the WORLD to kill a bug, I of all people just reach out and squish it at a Buddhist temple, where every living thing is sacred. This was when I was about to go to sleep. It was crawling on the floor right next to me and I was afraid it would bite me in my sleep (augmenting my collection of scary bug bites) and I totally, thoroughly, completely suck, but I reached out with my little tissue and killed it. And then I thought, Oh dear. If I don't get struck down by lightning now I surely never will. I seriously sat frozen after I did that. No one saw. I think the lesson here (besides the fact that I just plain suck and am clearly not approaching nirvana in this lifetime) is that I kill them when I feel defenseless against them and I felt so defenseless amid those women whom I didn't understand in a temple in the mountains...I mean, I generally do try to put bugs outside in lieu of killing them, it's only the cockroaches and the big scary ones I feel I must, whatever, I'm just rationalizing. I suck.

It was all of 6:25 a.m. There is not a lot of time wasted on eating there. I knew that at 8 o'clock the building housing the 81,000 wood blocks would open, and they were the whole reason I had been intrigued to come to Haeinsa in the first place. I wandered around and looked at the buildings again and saw the oldest fir tree in Korea, which legend has it sprouted when the famous monk who was around for the founding of the temple threw down a branch. It was big. I walked around the edges of the grounds looking at the hills and saw some monks performing chores. Time crawled along. I used my dictionary for a while to translate some signage. I could make out "every week Wednesday through Monday display 8:00 a.m." in front of the woodblocks building.

7:40 a.m. The Korean tour groups who had stayed the night were being led on their formal tour of the buildings, and I noticed they went through the gate up to the display hall. Then I saw two of the other women who'd slept in the dorm go through the gate as well. The other women were all wearing these gray pajama/robe/scrubs-like garments, but I had not got those. Who knows why? Because I wasn't part of a group? Because I wasn't Buddhist? Because I stayed only one night? I'd kind of stopped asking questions I didn't need the answer to. If they didn't seem to care if I wore street clothes, who cares, really, if I was the only one? I had zero chance of blending in anyway. And I'd purposely dressed in comfy pants I could sleep in since I'd intended all along to ask about staying at the temple.

The woman the night before had said I was free to roam and do whatever I wanted during free time, so I thought perhaps as a temple guest I could go up there now too. I stepped through the open gate and peered around a building. A man came over and said "no, no, no" and then pointed at his watch. "15 minute," he said. So, fine. I wandered around some more, enjoyed the sunlight finally hitting me to warm me up a bit, spotted a Westerner with a camera and said hi, he said hi.

I had my back to the Janggyong display hall when I felt a hand on my shoulder turn me around and it was the man who had said "no" now motioning me to go in. With him was one of the monks, who I figured was like "don't mind her, that's just some crazy girl who stayed the night," but actually he was handing me a gift -- a little piece of wrapped fruit candy. I remembered that I am supposed to accept gifts with two hands so I did, and I thanked him a lot, none of which he understood, I'm sure. I couldn't believe a monk who has nothing was giving me a little present, and yet I could. They both then gestured "go in, go in," so I did, and was finally on the top terrace of the temple site, where the two long display halls and two short display halls in a rectangle display the woodblocks.

It seemed like the culmination of days, not hours, at the temple. I peered through wooden slats to see rows and rows of long blocks with Chinese inscription. They are just so old! It's unbelievable. How very much wisdom is contained in those writings! There have been fires that have destroyed buildings at this temple, but not these tablets. Various Japanese invasions have wiped out other historically significant things in Korea, but these scriptures have survived, for nearly 1000 years. I wandered and wandered, up and down the lengths of the building, gazing. It takes up a lot of space to display 80,000+ woodblocks that are about 8" high and 24" long, by my rough estimation.

In one of the two buildings was a sign that looks like a swastika, but facing the other way (points to the left). I'd seen the same symbol on a flag next to my studio apartment in Daegu and was very intrigued. Western-man-with-camera was down at the end of one of the buildings, so I wandered over. He didn't look American, maybe European, but he had said "hi." I asked if he spoke English? "Yeah," he smiled. Australia, turns out. And he'd been there before. Jackpot! I asked if he knew what the symbol that looks like a swastika was, and he said it's a sign for Buddhism, he thinks specifically Korean Buddhism. "It's back to front from how a swastika is," he said. Well, sure, but it still looks like one--just as a mirror image looks like the person in front of the mirror. I am very intrigued by the origins of this symbol, and how a similar look came to represent both extreme love and extreme hate.

I looked for about half an hour, then slowly began walking away from the temple. What an amazing fifteen hours of my life! In the parking lot down the hill I saw one of the women from the dorm with a bunch of her family. She ran up to me and grabbed both hands and said, "Hi! Hi!" a bunch of times. She seemed to be showing me to her family. I smiled a lot.

On my way down from the mountain I saw the same Western woman from yesterday and we smiled and greeted each other. "Did you stay at the temple?!" she asked. I did, I told her. "So, you made your prayers at 3:30 a.m.?" I sure did! We talked for a bit. She was very friendly. She's from Holland and her husband from France. They asked about the food, the monks, etc. and we discussed the beauty of the national park for a while. I bade them enjoy the amazing woodblocks display, and they said have a good time in Korea, and we parted.

Another of the women from my 'dorm' room was boarding the bus to Daegu too, and she fell all over herself greeting me and started telling the people she was with something about me. I'd felt so out of place, but maybe those women found me a little bit endearing after all. Before getting my bus ticket, I bought a coffee in the Haeinsa town mini-mart although oddly I was not craving the caffeine, despite having been awake more than six hours. I was exhilarated. I think I was tired but I did not feel sleepy. I could not believe I had found my way through the tangle of life to this experience!

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