Sunday, April 10, 2011

All in a Monk’s Day (20 February)

Determined to have a full temple experience, I force myself to get up at 3:00am to prepare for the pre-dawn ceremony which is the first of the day’s prayers at the temple.  The 3:30am call is optional and only half of the girls decide to get up for this experience while the rest opt for an extra hour’s sleep.  We quickly dress and put away our beds before meeting ByungWoo and the temple staff outside to be shepherded to the main temple where we’ll get to participate in the ceremony.  It’s not as cold as we’d expected at this hour.  Nevertheless, there’s a definite hustle to get seats directly next to the heaters in the main temple.  Once again, I can’t help wondering what made the monks decide to give in to modern items like heaters for the cold winter months considering the simplicity of the rest of their lives….

Disappointingly, this ceremony seems to be over in less than 20 minutes and we’re soon bowing our way out of the main temple and heading back to our sleeping quarters where the remaining AK members are woken to join the rest of the morning’s activities.  Apparently the room where we slept is actually a meditation room and so it is needed for part of the morning's activities which means that the early wake up call is no longer entirely optional much to the apparent disgust of several foreigners who are struggling to wake up – my guess is that it’s the same group of girls who were considerate enough to only go to sleep at around 2:00am this morning thanks to their constant chatter and laughing for nearly four hours last night.

And Now for 108 Bows

As irritable foreigners wipe sleep from their eyes, our monk greets us with some unexpected news which ByungWoo translates since the temple’s translator is not yet present: It’s time for us to do 108 bows.  The regret in ByungWoo’s voice is echoed in the moans heard around the room as I take in the general Ah crap! expressions around me.  I’d been told about the 108 bows that we’d have to do when making our Buddhist prayer beads but nobody had mentioned the 108 full bows that are part of the morning prayers.  In addition, no one seems to have considered that such rigorous exercise at an hour when we’re barely awake is tantamount to torture for many a foreigner – it’s the equivalent of flogging us or locking us in the stocks.  Nonetheless, our monk cracks the bamboo stick and the bows begin.

Each crack of the bamboo stick signals the start of a full bow.  Many of you are probably thinking that our reluctance to perform 108 full bows is a bit churlish since your idea of a bow is probably bending from the waist which, after four months, I’m used to now doing on a daily basis.  Allow me to clarify that a full bow means bending into a kneel on the ground, bending over, raising your hands on either side of your head and then standing up only to repeat this motion over and over again.  Not only is it tough on your thighs and knees but the speed at which you move from one bow to the next is rather quick – 108 bows takes less than 15 minutes.  The speed is just too fast for me and I’m disappointed that I only manage to do 64 bows before having to excuse myself for fresh air and a respite from the stifling heat of the room.  Even with the doors open, the room is unbearably hot.

After the agony of 108 bows, we’re introduced to meditation and our monk teaches us the correct posture for mediation.  I’d always thought that meditation involved closed eyes but according to our monk, it involves squinting at your nose – closed eyes means that you’ve fallen asleep and that earns you a reprimand from the meditation master.  Meditation is followed by group massages as dictated by our monk.  By 6:00am, we’re starving and grateful that it’s breakfast time even if it is a traditional Korean breakfast.  As much as I like kimchi, I’ve never eaten if for breakfast and I’m a bit hesitant about this meal which is also going to be eaten in the traditional monk style – Baru Gongyang.   We’re assigned to two groups: One will collect all of the breakfast things from the dining room and the second group will return the breakfast things and take care of the dishes.  My group hastens to fetch breakfast and, when we return, our monk selects people to serve the various parts of the meal and we’re shown how to serve these things and how to receive them.  We’re also shown how to set out the bowls correctly on the place mat.

Baru Gongyang

There are four bowls in the set and they all fold away neatly into one another.  The first (and smallest) bowl is placed in top left hand corner and is used for the side dishes – this means the kimchi and vegetables in the meal.  The second smallest bowl is placed beside it and is the water bowl – this is the water that you use to clean your bowls and the water that you ultimately have to drink.  The second largest bowl is placed in the bottom right corner and is used for soup while the largest bowl, naturally, is used for rice and remains in the bottom left corner of the mat. 

With our bowls in place, we’re ready to get the ‘cleaning’ water.  I’ve already heard about the process involved in this meal and can’t help sending a rather fervent prayer that the previous person cleaned these bowls thoroughly.  I’m grateful though to have been told that the water used to clean the bowls also has to be drunk at the end of the meal so when we’re told to decide how much water we think we’ll need to clean our bowls, I’m careful to consider the ultimate action in this meal and accept less than half a bowl of water as opposed to the full bowl of the person sitting beside me.  The water is poured into our rice bowls where it is swirled around before being transferred to the soup bowl then the side dish bowl and finally the water bowl where the chopsticks and spoon are also cleaned.  From here, we have soup and rice served to us and we’re invited to help ourselves to side dishes.  We’re reminded to take radish which ultimately becomes our scrubbing brush when it’s time to do our dishes. 

I can already hear several foreigners complaining about the meal ahead as we’re reminded to only take as much as we will eat since the monks don’t believe in wasting food: Everything in your bowls must be eaten so it’s advisable to choose your food carefully.  The meal is tastier than expected although it simply feels strange to be eating soup, rice and kimchi so early in the morning.  We’re told that everything that the monks do is done as quietly as possible and we’re encouraged to make no noise while eating.  I’m disappointed to hear several foreigners grumble, complain and ignore this as the clatter of chopsticks and spoons continue to echo around the small meditation room in which we sit. 

Scrub Little Radish, Scrub!

After our meal, it’s time to do our dishes.  Once again, I’m semi-grateful to have already been told what doing the dishes involves in this particular meal and I feel slightly disgusted at the thought of what lies ahead.  We pour water from our water bowls into our rice bowls and use the slice of radish as a quasi-scrubbing brush to scrape the remnants of rice from the sides of the bowl.  Once the rice bowl is clean, we transfer the water to the soup and side dish bowls respectively repeating the cleaning process with each bowl before finally eating the radish and drinking the water.  Many people are thoroughly grossed out by the idea of drinking this water but, as KiwiKat has already explained, it is all just food and it’s food that you’ve just eaten – assuming, of course, that the previous person who used those bowls cleaned them thoroughly.

Touring the Grounds

After breakfast, we’re given just over an hour of free time.  Most people seem to opt to use this time to get some more sleep but I’m wide awake at this point even though it’s barely after 7:00am so I decide to explore the temple grounds a bit more.  I’m amazed at how many Korean visitors there already are on the temple grounds but the relatively peace and tranquillity of the morning is thoroughly enjoyable as I wander from temple to temple reading the notes about each building and thinking about how much history is contained in some of the buildings.  I may know next to nothing about Buddhism itself but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the beauty of my surroundings and I'm reminded of just how much I enjoy the early hours of the morning - if only I could get myself out of bed at this time more often.

At 8:20, we once again meet in front of the meditation room where people are just waking up for the second time in over four hours and we assemble for our tour of the temple grounds – the same self-guided tour I’ve just taken.  The community work segment of our itinerary involves chopping logs of wood but sadly this seems to be more of an experience to simply try to chop wood than any real interest in doing community service and most foreigners don’t even bother to try and chop a log of wood.  The final part of the tour is the monks’ graveyard which, although very small, has an incredible sense of history surrounding it.  With the tour done, it’s time for a meditation walk in the pine forest where we’re shown a beautiful love tree and told that anyone wanting more love in their lives should stand beneath this tree.  The walk ends with a brief meditation in the most tranquil and beautiful parts of the forest and I have a sudden desire to stay in this spot all day.  Unfortunately, our meditation is short and we’re soon heading back to the main temple grounds for the final part of the temple stay experience: Making Buddhist prayer beads. 

108 Bows: Round Two

Back in the meditation room, before being shown how to make the prayer beads, we’re first offered tea and rice cake in celebration of Mariah’s 30th birthday.  Our monk has dubbed her Mariah Carey since she first pointed out that her first name is pronounced the same way as that of Mariah Carey – and not Maria as so many Koreans apparently say.  She’s given three large candles to blow out while we all sing “Happy Birthday” and the ‘birthday’ cake is handed out.  I genuinely like rice cake and this is some of the tastiest rice cake I’ve had in Korea.  With the celebrations done, the monk gets down to the business of demonstrating how to make the prayer beads.

This Is How We Do It...

Before we can even place one bead on the string, we first have to do three full bows to Buddha.  Once we’ve done the introductory bows, we have to do a full bow for every bead that we place on the string; there are 108 beads so a bow for every bead, three introductory and three concluding bows means a total of 114 bows just to make one set of prayer beads.  We’re each given a packet of beads, a cloth to work on, an hour to make the prayer beads and the option of which temple we’d like to use.  Most people opt for the main temple which has large heaters in it but I choose the oldest temple because I like the sense of history and I’m fascinated by the three enormous statues in this particular temple.  Fortunately, there are also some heaters in this temple although the weather is rather mild for a winter’s day. 

Working at my own pace, I’m determined to do all of the bows this time although prostrating myself to Buddha just feels odd.  I’m not overly religious but I do feel a slight sense of guilt with each bow and the cross around my neck weighs heavy on my conscious.  Midway through the making of our prayer beads, a monk comes in to do the midday chants.  It’s rather relaxing listening to the rhythmic chant of the prayer and I find myself moving in sync with the rhythm of his chanting.  Unfortunately, I also find myself the midday entertainment for a number of Koreans who have come into the temple for the midday chants.  I’m the last person in this particular temple to finish my prayer beads but I feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing that I’ve actually done this as I head back to the meditation room where we’ll be helped to finish off our beads. 

Back in the meditation room, I’m asked if there are definitely only 108 beads on my string.  I’ve used all of the beads in the packet we were given and I’ve just assumed that this means there are 108 beads on the string.  Once again, I experience that assuming anything in Korea only leads to screw ups as I count the beads carefully and discover that there are, in fact, 144 on my string.  I did an extra 30 bows for beads that I must now remove in order to have a correct strand.  I reluctantly pull of the extra beads and hand the string to an ajumma who finishes off my strand of prayer beads by putting on the decorative and mother beads before tying a knot, burning the edge of the string and handing it back to me.  With the final activity now over, we have lunch where a random ajumma seems fascinated to see so many waegooks in monastic wear.  She walks up to us with a camera and starts taking photos of us as we stand in a line waiting to wash our lunch dishes before collecting our bags, returning our monastic wear and heading to the AK bus for the trip home.  

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