Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Monks, meditation and monsoon rain

This past weekend I traveled to Ganghwa-do which is located on the west side of Korea, about 2 hours west of Seoul. It is a beautiful rural island attached to the mainland by a land bridge. As you know, it has been a challenging time for me and I had decided to spend my long weekend at the Lotus Lantern Meditation Center learning about Buddhism and participating in an intensive meditation program.
It took me about 4 hours to reach the meditation center by bus, subway, bus (again) and then taxi, but was well worth the long journey.
The center is located down a long pathway and is surrounded by mountains and rice fields. It is the permanent home to 4 monks – The head monk is Korean, there is another monk from Bangladesh, one from Vietnam and a new ‘monk-in-training’ who is from America. Each of them is very kind and open.
The monk from Vietnam, Thich Van Phong, was my favorite. He spoke two words of English: ‘Go’ and “ok” but managed to communicate very effectively (his Korean is much better then his English). He was very funny and warmed up immediately to each of us. He was very eager to spend time with the foreigners and always was ready to show us new things around the center.
I knew the schedule would be challenging, but I had no idea how much work would be involved.
On my first day, I arrived around noon and spent the afternoon relaxing, reading and drinking tea with others while we waited for others to arrive. We were given a brief orientation and then after dinner began our first chanting and meditation session.
Everyday Monks follow a strict routine: wake up 3:30am, chanting and completing 108 prostrations (each one is a bow that starts standing, then you kneel down, place your head on the ground and lift your hands -palm up- towards your ears, then stand up again...very hard especially when you have to do 108 of them – after doing this for 2 mornings in a row, my legs are very sore).
Once this is finished around 5:00am there is meditation for half an hour. Breakfast is at 6:00am. Then the rest of the morning is spent doing meditating and study. At 11:00am more chanting and prostrations (this time only about 15 or 20). After lunch there is time for rest and tea. Then continued meditation practice. Dinner is eaten around 6:00pm and then at 7:00pm there is the last chanting and prostration session followed by 2 more hours of meditation. Everyone is expected to be in bed by 9:30pm.
As visitors to the temple, we were expected to follow this schedule.
It was difficult and very tiring – but well worth it.
The entire weekend the monsoon rain poured down. It stopped for less then a few hours during the whole three days. It was almost magical sitting in the main temple as the monsoon rain beats down and the monks chant in the darkness of the pre-dawn light.
Words can not describe how incredible it felt.
I had a chance to learn many things. Not only did we participate in the daily routine’s of Monks, we were able to practice a traditional meal offering, try calligraphy, take a field trip to a near by temple and we were even invited to be in a commercial that is being filmed to promote the center (yep I will be on a Korean television commercial!! ). The commercial will feature several foreigners and the Abbot Monk meditating.
My favorite experience during my stay was on my last day. The Abbot Monk (head monk for the center) invited 6 of us to his private office for tea with him.
The room is a small, warm room with lovely floor cushions and a very large, floor-to-ceiling window that looks out over the center grounds. We sat for almost an hour drinking tea with him and the other 3 monks. He showed us photos of a recent trip he took to India, along with some of his favorite items that people have given to him (among them was a beautiful vase made by a local artisan and a leaf that he had picked from the Bodhi Tree where Buddha sat near Bodhgaya, India.)
It was all very surreal to be sitting, laughing and drinking tea with the monks. We discussed literature, travel, their lives and he asked us many questions about our lives in Korea. The monks took a genuine interest in each of us and it was an unforgettable experience to be able to share in some intimate conversation with them.
I feel honored to have shared this weekend with them.
I have left feeling much more at peace with myself and the world around me.
Zen Buddhism teaches that the answers are within us – we all have Buddha nature. Through meditation and practice we can discover that nature. I think that after this weekend I have seen a glimpse of my own Buddha nature. As I return to back to home I am tired and sore, yet I am feeling hopeful about the future and my purpose in it. There will always be pain and times of suffering in this life – but through training and practice I hope to learn how to let go of my attachments and strive for happiness.


At 10:57 p.m. , Anonymous Nathan B. said...

Colleen, thank you so much for sharing your experiences as you remember your dad and try to discover your inner buddha. I think your blog has become very beautiful, and I am sure that many people who read it will be touched and refreshed because of your words.

By the way, I've been to Gangwha Island, too, although I've not (yet) been to the Lotus Lantern Meditation center.

Best wishes,


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