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Has Jesse Buddha-Nature? Mu

October 29, 2009

Having spent the last two or three years practicing meditation on and off, I was immediately excited by a proposition to go spend a weekend roughing it in a Zen temple retreat. The Zen Buddhist temple is a staple feature of Seoul’s religious life, albeit one that appears to be on the wane and has been for several centuries relegated to monasteries scattered around Seoul’s many mountain ranges.

We arrived at the Hwagyesa Temple at the base of Bukansan Mountain at 10 AM on a Saturday morning, with the curious plan of attending this temple stay with a group of about 15 people from our orientation group, though the temple stay was hardly an occasion for significant weekend socializing. For when we weren’t requested to be silent by the monks themselves (most notably — and painfully for some — during dinner), we found we wouldn’t dare speak, so deep in unfamiliar rituals we were within hours of arriving at the site.

The beginning impressions were rather light. They gave us lunch, which wasn’t all that bad the first time — a Korean bibimbap or mixed vegetable and rice dish with some tofu — though the crew quickly become tired of it after we realized that lunch was also dinner, and also breakfast the next morning. We were invited to go to a nearby bazaar, featuring, bizarrely enough (no pun intended), a flamboyant Christian singer doing a sort of Michael Jackson routine in a suit while selling raffle tickets or something. And we casually returned to the temple grounds to hang out and relax a little before getting the outdoor introductory spiel from the head monk, Powah Sengnim (‘sengnim’ means monk), a charming and affable bespectacled monk with a very chuckle-filled zen air about him and surprising references to American pop culture like Ocean’s Thirteen (which is what he called us when he saw we had 13 members) and random foreign expressions like ‘vamonos’ and ‘andiamo’.

The spiel was meant to introduce the practice of bowing to us and to direct us towards the particular object of meditation that this temple centered around, which was the relation between language and the world. My favorite thing about Zen was precisely this — it is very philosophical in a way, and is incredibly thought-provoking. There is not really the same emphasis on sheer faith in Zen practice as there is in Christianity — one comes to it more with ones mind than in other religions. But at the same time, the head monk emphasized that the goal was not to reason our way through our meditation. He related how his practice centered around a koan, or puzzle, that he had set out to understand and meditation upon for years.

So what was this puzzle, that could consume this cheerful man for so long? He lifted the tea cup from the saucer that an assistant had just brought him, held it out to us, and asked, “What do I call this?” Is it sufficient to call it a cup, or a vaso, or a piece of china, or a water-holder? So many things that we say about this cup, but never do we really get to it with our language. We never get its essence. This, precisely, was precisely what he meditated upon for so long, and finally came to a profound realization following his long practice, a realization that he could not possibly communicate to us except, perhaps, through the benign and cheerful glimmer in his eyes. This relation between language and the world was also what we were to meditate upon, albeit with a differently phrased koan (which I am not allowed to tell you — I’m sworn to secrecy).

And meditate upon it we did, over and over, at several times of the day and in an array of different settings. In my next post I will tell you the exact schedule we followed (it was quite a feat, looking back on it) and post the pictures from the occasion.

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4 Comments
  1. Yanni Gogolak permalink
    October 31, 2009 4:08 am

    Hahaha, Bazaar and Bizarre? That pun was sooo intended.

  2. November 5, 2009 3:14 am

    my boss, while i was teaching, really pushed the ‘everything is meditation’ idea. sly….i think it was also meant to be my coping mechanism for working in what was often a stressful environment.

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