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My Travel Essay for Rough Guides

December 27, 2009

I recently submitted an article for a Rough Guides travel scholarship and will find out within about two weeks whether or not I will get the scholarship prize, which is a trip to Japan and a chance to write an article published in Rough Guides: Japan 2010. Hope you enjoy it! This is about Hwagyesa Temple, about which I wrote three other posts (click the tags to see the others — yes, I borrowed a little from the old posts!). The hardest part for me was keeping within the 500 word count, of course.

Update: I was disqualified because I was one word over… bummer…

“Ah, Ocean’s Thirteen!” exclaimed Po Hwa Sunim, the head monk in Seoul’s Hwaygesa Temple, as he met our group of thirteen foreigners with a smile that seemed to constantly sneak around his lips and his bespectacled eyes. At once, we found ourselves reliving this man’s spiritual journey, recounted under the variegating fall foliage of Mount Bukansan and the camera snaps of tourists.

“For months I asked myself the question, ‘what do I call this?’ Cup, fine china, vaso, or even ‘hat’?” The teacup in his hand hovered over his head playfully before he thrust it out in front of him and addressed it peremptorily, in a deep, growling voice: “Thing, what is your name? This was the koan, or meditative puzzle, that I thought upon for years.” He smiled; it was striking how directly he could describe 16 intense years of Zen practice in a casual talk with visitors. I wondered how much more we might learn from him over our 24-hour stay.

Equipped with a koan, our own practice began by wandering Hwagyesa. The Zen Buddhist temple, a staple of Korea’s religious life, is a space of remarkable beauty and total lack of ostentation, full of colorful and serene illustrations of mountain fauna and monks, the mountain’s turning foliage, and grey pagoda sculptures standing eternal in their majesty and symmetry.

But the most striking companion within the temple grounds was the silence. I walked along the outside of the main building, surveying portraits of Zen monks like Hyecho the scholar and the bald, bearded and ecstatic Bodhidharma. Upon encountering a monk, a lay-person or even a fellow foreigner during such meanderings, a simple nod communicated our pleasure and peace. This silence was made only more visceral with the soft intonations from the prayer room—throaty, deep hums glowing with hidden mystery.

Our meditations into the evening would see the green leaves turn purple and disappear; our 3 A.M. wake-up witnessed their miraculous reemergence. These small things mattered the most – like the neutral smell of the mats on which we bowed our faces, the shuffling quietude of our feet in kinhun (walking meditation), the playful glances of the three golden Buddhas in the prayer room, and the mellifluous unity of the sung sutra melding with the reverberations of the heavy prayer drum outside.
So rich was the setting and its myriad impressions that the final meditation, on a sun-struck rock ledge of Mount Bukansan, brought me to an intoxicating conviction that I would find some wisdom or answer to take home with me, and I resolved to discuss our koan with Po Hwa Sunim.

I approached him feeling ready, profound: “So, the mountain in the koan is like truth… and we see the mountain all around us… but we can’t see… um….”

The head monk listened and chuckled, “Be simpler.” He gestured towards a nearby canteen, “Want some tea?”

As we drank he asked, “So where is home?”

I smiled; my search for an answer only brought me a new question.

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