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The Land of Dogs: Lotus Lantern Temple, Part 2

May 10, 2010

The 3 AM wake up was easier than I had expected, so sleepless was I when the morning moktak sounded to rouse us to our morning prayers. Me and my companion and friend, Justin, exchanged apologetic glances acknowledging that we were both ready to be irritable this morning, and I tried hard to remain silent and stoic when I pulled my torso off my hard mat on the harder floor and my head off of a “pillow” filled with thick plastic macaroni.

I was not silent and stoic like the pre-dawn is silent and stoic, pierced only by the thunk of the moktak. Had I the presence of mind this early in the morning, I might have reflected that the night has no need of meditation to calm frayed nerves, insomnia, or life.

**

At the dawn of this second morning at the Lotus Lantern Temple we met the light of this world from out of our long, unearthly meditations, from out of an uncanny non-time one feels when one wakes as early as 3 AM into chanting, prostrations and meditation. As if suggesting we stroll around a desolate land newly discovered, our monk guide led us from these four hours of silence into the gray morning landscape.

Everything felt fresher after our long asceticism – our conversations had a simultaneous buoyancy and gravity to them, with no trace of small-talk, and the monk spoke to us of an ancient poet-monk interred in the town and of the origin of their second, black and white dog, a cute, frenetic little terrier named Yeonhwa, or ‘Lotus Flower’ – who simply appeared at the monastery one day – and the first, a friendly, adopted Labrador Retriever named Yeondeung or ‘Lotus Lantern.’ They ran around us, playfully, while we walked.

(The afternoon before I sought a moment of solitude, and I tramped up a hill thick with mud to find a clearing where tree trunks, like old memories, surrounded the solitaire sepulcher of the monk who founded the temple. The night was the same monochromatic gray of the morning, but the sky was beginning to darken, and I heard all around me the barking of dogs. But not isolated countryside dogs – it was cacophonous and unceasing, like a dog kennel.)

When everything had been said, we kept walking past rural houses that could be rural houses anywhere – rural trucks, dogs and patches of land – or suburban houses, suburban dogs, little yappers with heart-attack energy, plastic medical umbrellas around their necks, gates and doghouses and pampering owners. As they got louder, we got quieter, more content to look around and listen. A conversation around us was happening – maybe a warning.

In the fog, deafening our silent steps, there was finally an eruption while rounding the last bend to return to the monastery. Twenty, thirty, forty registers of bark, woof and howl met us, accosted us from the open space that had just opened up to our right. Pressed against a make-shift cage appended to a damp-gabled, dark and brooding house were 15 dogs piling on top of each other, middling to big dogs, ranging a thin spectrum from mutt gray to mutt brown to mottled and muddy. A warren of plywood and wire cage stretched out over the lawn of the house where pathetic and terrifying dogs hurled themselves against the tension of their chains and sent us single, piercing barks like bullets from out of their barricades.

We walked slowly, but still wondered, and were all waiting for the silence of our morning walk to be broken. We murmured a bit – dog-fighting ring, run-down kennel? And we looked towards our monk, who said he had not walked here before.

“But they do eat dogs here, you know.” He said it matter-of-factly.

Strange, I thought, because how can we protest? Someone uttered some reference to genocide, holocaust. But it felt nothing like it; the morning calm was too complete, too eerie, too clouded with fog and, though pierced violently, remained invulnerable to the dog-shout. Yeonhwa and Yeondeung, who barked at most of the neighborhood dogs until then, were even placid and somber, uttering not a single sound of protest or even recognition. Had Yeonhwa escaped from here? Had every domestic dog, in a sense, escaped from here and, in domestication, lost their sympathy for these mutts and strays?

We walked on – the fog soon blocked the dog farm from earshot. Yeondeung and Yeonhwa began barking and wrestling each other again – and we began to talk, or to stay silent, until we returned. We had a breakfast of curry, mushrooms and rice and reentered the prayer room for the last time that weekend.

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