My Weekend with the Monks
I’ve done a lot of cool things in my life. A few experiences stand out to me. As I have aged I am more aware how unique some of these moments have been; taking a shower on the Serengeti with water heated over an open fire, eating honey and coffee with the leaders of a village in Ethiopia, sitting cross legged on the floor in the traditional home of an ancient Japanese master paper umbrella artist while he gave my family a personal demonstration of his craft. Swimming with sea lions in Ecuador and dolphins in Zanzibar. Participating in the annual bird inventory on Molokai and summiting Warma Wanusqa Peak (13,500 feet) on the Inca Trail in Peru.
I never really set out to accomplish anything specifically unique. I only have found myself in situations that seem unique to others. And these moments are the ones that have defined me and have broadened my awareness of the world. These moments I hold dear, each difficult to describe or put into words and accurately share. They are the definition of indescribable.
And now once again, here in Korea, I’ve had an indescribable experience spending the weekend with Monks in the Geumsunsa Temple in the mountains outside of Seoul. Adding this to my list of unique and memorable life experiences.
I went into this with next to no knowledge of Buddhism. I still know very little, but I did gain awareness of a way of life that is not a religion, but a goal to practice living life with an open heart. According to Buddhist traditions a Buddha is a fully awakened being who has completely purified his mind of the three poisons of desire, aversion and ignorance.
The Geumsunsa Temple is perched on Mount Bukhan to the North and West of Seoul. We arrived late, our Garmin refusing to cooperate and maneuvering through the streets of Seoul without it proved a difficult task. Once we found the parking lot at the base of the mountain we hiked the last quarter mile straight up the mountain to the temple entrance – the only access to the temple is on foot.
Arriving late I was frazzled and frantic, and certainly not in a transcendental state of mind. We entered in a room with about a dozen other people where the orientation had already begun. We sat quietly in the back trying to catch our breath and catch up on the presentation. It was presented in both Korean and English.
We were given a tour of the temple and some history. The 1000-year-old temple is small compared to some (five monks when some temples have 200) but it is very beautiful and well maintained. I wish I could visit in spring or fall, I’m sure it is spectacular when all the foliage on the mountain is out.
We were served a very good vegetarian dinner with soup, rice and multiple kimchee and vegetable choices. We were instructed that we had to eat everything that we took, down to the last grain of rice. No food could be wasted. We were shown how to use an apple slice to clean our plates of all food remnants so they almost appeared to not even need to be washed.
Following dinner we were escorted to the Buddha room, a beautiful part of the temple adorned to praise Buddha, the teacher. A Buddhist temple is called Vihara and is a place for education. In the shrine room of each temple is where a large Buddha and statues of his disciples are. Here is where we began our 108 prostrations. I was worried about accomplishing this task. Starting in a standing position to lying prone on the floor, methodically and with purpose 108 times in a row. I was already finding my body was having a great deal of difficulty sitting cross-legged on the floor – an unnatural position for most Americans I think. We were instructed how to do the prostrations and how to release our minds from turmoil. The practice of Buddhism is the never-ending humbling of the ego. Humbling yourself before the world, by lowering your body you realize that you are one with everything. Performing 108 prostrations is yet another path towards the realization of the True Self.
And so we began. 108 times; each prostration symbolizing a goal, or gratitude or repentance; For example; I prostrate myself to show appreciation to my parents for giving birth to me. Or I prostrate myself to ask forgiveness for people I may have hurt. Or I prostrate myself for a humble mind. Or I prostrate myself for peace among all countries and an end to all wars.
And on and on, 108 times. It lasted about 30 minutes and I was sweating and exhausted when it was over.
We were later asked to choose one of the prostration sentences spoke to us specifically and we drew pictures then shared with the group. Many people in the room were brought to tears during this circle time; some feeling stress in their jobs or sadness in lost relationship, and others wanting to show love to their parents who are ailing. It was an emotional experience for many. I chose the one that asks to be more humble. This is truly a goal I have been working on for some time, so it called to me.
I thought doing 108 prostrations would be the most difficult thing I did during my visit, but no. Sleeping on the floor was. Or trying to sleep I should say. We slept side by side (men and women separated) on an extremely hard floor with a blanket and pillow. It was a very, very long night.
The bell chimed at 4:30am for wake up. I wasn’t sad to get up. I really couldn’t lie there anymore. Our morning was spent in silence and meditation followed by wake up exercises harder than my yoga classes and then a vegetarian ceremonial breakfast, very ritualistic and eaten in silence. We all then shared in chores around the temple before sitting down to have tea and a conversation with one of the monks. I think this was my favorite time.
The monk prepared and poured the tea for us as she answered each and every question we had about her life as a monk, Buddha and Buddhism, philosophy, the temple and much more. It was fascinating and enlightening to see a human being choose to live this life and walk away from everything materialistic and dedicate everything to the practice of becoming Buddha.
Finally we headed up the mountain for a beautiful hike on the cold and sunny morning. We spent time sitting at the top of the mountain enjoying the spectacular scenery and each other’s company and meditating on our time together. We hiked back to the temple for our vegetarian lunch, paper lantern making and then farewell to our new friends and Temple Geumsunsa.
My back and hips were killing me and I was desperate for a nap and a large coffee as we hiked down the path to the car, but my heart and mind were full as I thoughtfully considered what I learned from this experience. I felt validated in my Fabulous Fifties objectives to not look outside for approval and rather to find it within. My knowledge that being true to myself, despite what others believe and grateful for all things in my life, good and bad, is the best destiny. Being honest, forgiving, following my intuition and celebrating the one short life we have is my practice.
I prostrate myself for a humble mind.