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On being a monk: silence and stillness

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Boston Globe, March 4, 2007

GYEONGJU, South Korea -- In the middle of a bamboo grove, a monk clad in a loose gray tunic and pants did a perfect split in midair, his feet splayed against two pieces of bamboo.

<< At Golgulsa, a small Buddhist temple about three hours southeast of Seoul, rows of stone statues sit, exuding calm. At Golgulsa, a small Buddhist temple about three hours southeast of Seoul, rows of stone statues sit, exuding calm. (CAROLYN Y. JOHNSON/GLOBE STAFF)

"Oh my God," I whispered, watching him levitate. One of the monks came up and imitated my American accent and girlish wonder: "Oh my Go-od." We both laughed.

This was not a scene out of some artfully filmed martial arts movie. It was the culmination of my day as a Korean Buddhist monk after an overnight stay at Golgulsa , a small Buddhist temple about three hours southeast of Seoul.

I was looking for some inner peace. I'd been bombarded by Seoul. My mom and I were still recovering from a lame Korean-language bus tour in "Korea's Hawaii" -- an over-the-top resort island called Jeju. And mom had begun to lose her English, speaking in clipped verbs and nouns, then ceasing to talk to me altogether.

I started my visit to Golgulsa as I had every other Buddhist temple I visited. I sipped water from the plastic dippers that hung near the fountain and set off to explore a dozen shrines scattered over the hillside.

At the very top, a giant Buddha was engraved in the rock. In candlelit alcoves, rows of stone statues sat, exuding calm; brightly colored lanterns were strung all around, in celebration of Buddha's birthday.

Then I stepped into my role as a monk, an exercise in stillness and silence. A quiet woman brought me to the women's dorm and handed me the schedule.

After dinner -- a simple meal of rice, kim chi, spinach, bean sprouts, and soup -- we walked to the bottom of the hill and learned the basic breathing and movements of Sunmudo , a "Zen martial art" that seems a mix of tae kwon do and yoga.

After warm-ups, the more advanced class executed ballet-like kicks. A monk took us aside and showed us how to begin Zen breathing, a controlled exhalation that seems to tap into deeper energies in a body. We tried a simpler maneuver that ended with one leg outstretched parallel to the floor, arms clasped next to our heads. The class finished with delicate, flowing hand exercises in which our thumbs touched and grew apart from one another as if we were conjuring lotus flowers in front of our hearts.

At 10 p.m., I unrolled my traditional Korean bedding, a thin mattress called a "yo" that lies on the heated floor, or "ondol."

Before we knew it, the sound of a hollow, rhythmic thumping was approaching. It was 4 a.m. We had been warned.

"If anyone absent the morning chant (4:30), he or she should do 3,000 times of bow for punishment, and everyone in Golgul-Temple should fast one day," the schedule read.

At chanting, we bowed methodically as the monks voices' vibrated. Then, we began meditation: First, we sat and cleared our minds, focusing on stillness; then we walked in silence; and finally, we ate.

For monks, food is meditation and breakfast is eaten in silence where even the clacking of chopsticks on a bowl is loud. Food, water, and soup are poured from one bowl to another, and a piece of kimchi is the sponge to wipe everything clean.

After breakfast, the monks immersed us in a kind of basic training for monks that left our muscles aching. We hopped up a few dozen stone stairs, crawled down on all fours, walked up the stairs in a low squat, and then wheelbarrow raced down as the monks used one of their few English words: "faster."

Then, we went for a walk down a steep hill, up past terraced rice paddies, and to the edge of the bamboo grove.

"Run!" they yelled, and we started into the grove, slipping and falling on the slick mat of bamboo leaves that covered the ground. Only then did the monks begin to laugh, clambering up onto the stalks of bamboo, pirouetting above us.

At first it was intimidating, the slippery, flexible rods swaying. But then, yanking on my thighs, straining with my arms, I made it about eight feet off the ground, did a split, and let go of everything. The monks were bracing my feet, but it didn't matter -- I felt I was no longer connected to the ground.

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