Buddhist retreat lets you work out the bugs

Globe and Mail, Oct. 27, 2010

Seoul, South Korea -- Be it ashrams, retreats or kibbutzim, a break in routine for spiritual realignment or escape provides a welcome mental holiday.

That's exactly what you'll find at Temple Stay Korea, established by South Korea's largest Buddhist order to allow foreigners a chance to experience Buddhism. Leaving behind traffic, cellphones and laptops, I drove a couple of hours outside Seoul to the Lotus Lantern Meditation Centre to see if I could find myself.

Built 12 years ago, the centre offers Zen Buddhist teaching and meditation in a beautiful temple surrounded by forest and farms, with basic but well-maintained facilities, including garden pagodas and a koi pond. On arrival, I am given a training uniform of grey pants, T-shirt and waistcoat to be worn at all times. The overall atmosphere is one of tranquillity, and it seems as if the mere act of raising my voice would violate some unspoken rule.

Inside the temple, overlooked by a golden statue of Buddha, a shaved-headed Russian monk named Aleksander introduces me to the basic concepts of Buddhism, explaining that enlightenment is the ultimate goal of meditation. He stresses repeatedly that if I have any questions, I should just ask, and if I feel physically uncomfortable during any of the practices, I should just relax. I am yet to encounter the mosquitoes.

Visitors can choose to stay for the weekend program, for an intense week of meditation or for a longer period of rest. The daily schedule involves chanting, meditation, garden work, walks, calligraphy and several other options for those who need to keep themselves busy. All meals are vegetarian, eaten in silence, although one monk's cellphone did ring during dinner, leading to a chorus of muffled giggles.

Considering monks eat not for pleasure but to sustain themselves on their path to enlightenment, the food wasn't too bad. I'm told that I must finish everything on my plate, to avoid waste and consume consciously. After washing up, I head to the meditation hall for my first lesson. The trick is to empty your mind and focus on a mantra, becoming aware of how thoughts flow in and out of your head. Aleksander tells the group to count to 10 repeatedly and to be aware of any errant thoughts that enter our minds. Large mosquitoes cloud about, raining bites on my bare arms. I ask if mosquitoes constitute a sentient life form, a sly-handed way of inquiring whether it's okay to squash the buggers in a Buddhist temple.

“Monks do not kill mosquitoes,” says Aleksander, waving a couple away from his face. This could well be the single biggest obstruction to me ever becoming a monk.

Like learning to play piano, meditating takes time and practice. After a few minutes, I give up and spend the next half-hour enjoying the silence, the space to breathe. A moktak, a traditional wooden instrument, resonates, indicating the session has ended, and we have some free time before lights out at 9:30 p.m. Thin mattresses and blankets are provided, and mosquito netting mercifully keeps out the bugs while letting in a cool forest breeze. I wake at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of the moktak, signalling that it is time for chanting in the temple.

In the glow of candlelight, the monks have gathered to begin chanting. I try to follow with the helpful English guide, but prefer to stare at the slightly closed eyes of the golden Buddha, the smiles on the deity statues that surround him, and the bright colours painted on the dragons overhead. Prostrating oneself is a form of meditation and a sign of devotion: Korean Zen Buddhism has 108 prostrations, each to a different chant. Bend down onto your knees, put your head to the mat, hands turned upward, stand and repeat – it becomes a strenuous, dizzying physical challenge to keep up with the monks. I notice that sweat is starting to stain the mat where my forehead touches, but together with the rhythmic sound of the moktak and the chanting, the overall effect is almost hypnotic.

During each session, it becomes a little easier to focus on my breathing, to see the numbers click over in my imagination. The outside world floats away, save for the clear calls of birds, the buzz of insects. Garden work, cleaning or simply strolling into the surrounding forest are viewed as forms of meditation, mostly done in silent mindfulness. You can even put on a personal Do Not Disturb sign, in the form of a “Quiet Time” tag that asks everyone to respect your vow of silence. Concluding my overnight stay, I exchange my training uniform for my street clothes, bow my head in thanks to the monks and volunteers. I'm rested, as if freshly woken from a long deep sleep.

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