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Buddhist Monks Come Out of Hibernation

By Kim Ki-tae, The Korea Times Staff Reporter, Feb 23, 2005

Hadong, South Kyongsang Province (South Korea) -- No newspaper, no television and no e-mail. Any form of communications with the outside world was strictly banned. Speaking was discouraged or, in some cases, prohibited. Reading of any kind, including letters, was forbidden. Ending yesterday, many monks had isolated themselves at Kumdangsonwon Monastery in Hadong for three months, each seeking the answer to a single question given by a teacher.

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Far from secular distractions, each spent the winter contemplating such questions as ``What is nothingness??? ``Where do I come from??? and, perhaps the most elusive of all, ``What is it??? Kumdangson Monastery is an annex of Ssangyesa Temple, one of the nation?s largest. It is one of 60 monasteries and 31 nunneries belonging to the nation?s Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism taking part in the ascetic winter retreat, or ``Tongango.??

A total of 2,115 individuals - 16 from Kumdangsaon - flowed out of the long-closed doors yesterday to rejoin the temporal world.

``I have nothing special to say,?? Rev. Nungwon said in Kumdangsonwon Monastery on the first morning after the three-month seclusion. ``If the meditation went smoothly, would I have come down to speak with you now??? he said with a cryptic grin. ``Some predecessors were known to have pricked themselves with awls to rid themselves of sleepiness during Tongango. But I did not go to that extreme,?? said the monk, who joined the order 20 years ago. Every day during the retreat, Nungwon and his fellow seekers woke up at 3 a.m. and conducted morning prayer until 5 a.m. Afterward, meditation sessions took place all day with three breaks for meals. The day finished at 9 p.m. after evening contemplation. Tongango lasts from the 15th day of the tenth month to the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar.

The practice dates back to Sakyamuni?s era around 2,400 years ago. Buddha discouraged his followers from wandering around during the three-month monsoon season, lest they trample on budding grass or insects.

The summer retreat changed into a winter practice as Buddha?s teachings spread into northern Asia.

``During Tongango, clerics face two obstacles. One is sleepiness and the other is daydreaming,?? Rev. Kosan, the abbot of the monastery, said in a meeting with reporters on Tuesday.

``Some monks rush to attain enlightenment and become frustrated at the sluggish pace of their search. Such hastiness is also bad for seekers,?? the master of Son Buddhism said. ``Son?? is Chan in Chinese and Zen in Japanese.

Around 10,000 monks, or 20 percent of the Chogye Order, participated in the intensive session. Very often the applicants outnumber the quota, especially in famous monasteries. ``Abbots have no choice but to screen the applicants, reviewing their records and careers,?? said Rev. Sungjeon, deputy director of the Jogye Order. Ssangyesa Temple was first established in 722 during the Silla period. A legend has it that two monks named Kim Tae-bi and Sambop brought the head of Huineng (638-713), the legendary sixth Chan patriarch of China, with them when they returned from studying in the neighboring nation. The name of the Chogye Order also stems from the mountain where the Chinese monk stayed.

Korea?s leading Son Buddhist sect stresses an authentic meditation experience and ``sudden enlightenment,?? emphasizing the role of the mind in realizing truth without depending on text or words for meaning.

During the opening ceremony of Tongango in November, Chiyu, abbot of Bomosa Temple, explained the manner in which the mediation should be approached. ``You can face Son only when you don?t have anything but extreme zeal, like when you encounter the very person who killed your parents,?? he said.

``Likewise, you need to wash away all your knowledge, without any stain remaining in your mind.??

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