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Korean Temple Stay Experience
At Musangsa Temple on Mt. Gyeryeongsan
By Eileen Meehan
Special Contribution
Gyeryongsan International Zen Center in Musangsa Temple

Oct. 22, 2005 — To say that we are all on a quest to find ourselves is an awful cliché — but one in which I am sorry to have to say, does contain a granule of truth. Aren't we constantly looking for what will ultimately make us happy?

I know we mightn't realize it straight off, but isn't that desire for a better car (or simply just a car), or a bigger TV, or better labeled clothes, or to live by the sea and spend more time with the person we love (or find someone to love) — isn't all of that just about wanting to be happier? And thinking that these things will achieve that for us?

But something comes before that. Before we decide that saving $400 a month to save up for the down-payment on the new Mazda MX-5, or that having a relationship with that new colleague would make us the happiest we think we could be, something else happens — we actually have to think about what we want and therefore... I hate to say it ... who we are.

Before deciding that the Mazda MX-5 is the only car to fulfill my needs and make me deliriously happy, I have to think about the fact that I am a person who enjoys thrills and likes speed, so therefore a Mustang won't do; I also have to think about my image — that of a "cool, young, twenty-something blond chick," so a sedan won't do. All of this usually happens unconsciously though, so that's why we rarely think that we spend a lot of time on a quest to find out who we really are.

An image Buddhist temple in S. Korea

But, if you take five minutes to stop and think about it — it is what we spend our whole lives doing. We move from one thing to another, subconsciously deciding that,"I am this type of person, so this thing will make me happy" — on and on until one day we get to have it all (or not as the case may be) and realize that all of that stuff hasn't made us happy at all!

Let me just state for the record that I am saying "we" here because of course I do it too — I'm not preaching from any soap-box here — I'm right there, with all you guys, thinking that if I can just get that bigger apartment with that better view, that PCS phone instead of my crappy old green thing, lose 5 kg and get my teeth whiter-than-white, I'll be as happy as a pig in s**t. So what's different? What have I got to say that's any different from the rest?

Having lived in Korea for three years, I've gotten to absorb some of the Asian ways — both good and bad! On the downside, I now find myself asking for my "loom key" at my apartment complex, but on the upside I've had the chance to really see what real Eastern Philosophy was all about. I deliberately say, "was" here as things are changing mighty rapidly thanks to the openness to western ideas.

Thankfully, Buddhism is still relatively strong in Korea and I have to say that I think Westerners have helped this in some way. Since being here, the most famous monks I've heard about have actually been the well-educated Americans that decided to follow the Zen way.

An image Buddhist temple in S. Korea

Feeling the need to give my spiritual side a super-charge before the start of my new job, I decided to go into the mountains to spend some time with the monks. I went to Musaangsa Temple — an International Zen Centre located in a beautiful mountain range about two hours from Seoul (or one hour if you take the new KTX train). When I say a super-charge, I mean a super-charge — this was no chill-out, go-to-two-meditation-classes-a-day type of thing.

This was doing exactly what the monks do — get up at 3 a.m., do 108 bows or prostrations, then an hour and a half of chanting followed by two 40-minute sessions of meditation, breakfast and then an hour of work. Then perhaps a break, followed by a meeting, more chanting, lunch, reading, chanting, dinner, chanting, meditation and bed by 9 p.m.

Although this schedule sounds like torture for the normal lay-person (and it was for one guy — he lasted one night and almost had skid marks on his floor he was trying to get out so fast), I found it to be like an oasis. Yea, the schedule's difficult, but these monks do it everyday, and what made me feel such tranquility was the fact that I think it has been the only place that I've gone to where everything I heard was the absolute truth!

Gyeryongsan International Zen Center in Musangsa Temple

Trust me, you won't find a screed of bull **** here — maybe perhaps from the visitors — but certainly what the monks have to say is so refreshing and wise that you just want to dive into the calm sanctuary of the truth that permeates the environment and not come out.

What does all this have to do with my earlier conjectures on happiness? Well, for one, every single Buddhist monk I have met — Korean or foreigner — have had this look about them, as if everything is just fine. Having worked in a shipyard for a while, I've gotten to see many a soulless and spiritless face, on which nothing but regret and emptiness is written.

Ironically (or not as the case may be), these people were the ones with all that external trapping — the car, the house or houses, the big bank accounts, business-class air tickets, etc. And these monks, with nothing but a robe to their name had abundance, prosperity and true happiness written all over their faces.

How can this be? Can it really be so that having all the external trappings might not make us happy but having internal knowledge and enlightenment as to the true ways of the world can?

Of course you know that was a leading-question and the answer of course is yes! One of the main teachings of Buddhism is the fact that everything is impermanent. If you think about it, it's true. Are you the same person that you were yesterday?

No, you're not! Your body changes all the time and changes completely every seven years — your mind changes all the time (especially if you're a woman)! Is your relationship the same? Your job? Your clothes? — over time, everything changes and disintegrates — nothing lasts forever and is constantly changing, even in minute ways that we don't immediately recognize.

Why do we attach so much importance to one thing if it is constantly changing? How can we be attached to something that constantly changes? This is the teaching of Buddhism; that our minds will cause us suffering by attaching to things and making us think that those things will make us happy. But those things can never make us truly happy because they are always changing.

What Buddhism does teach is that we need to go beyond the superficial attachment of our minds to external things — that we need to get to another level where we can understand the oneness of everything and the true nature of why we are here, which really is about helping all other people. This can usually be achieved through practicing meditation and mindfulness — this is only doing one task at a time — if you are reading, only read, if you are showering, only shower, if you are eating, only eat. I don't know about you, but what I find myself doing a lot is thinking about work while I'm eating, or thinking about my job while I'm reading, etc.

I'm not saying that this is as simple to do as it is to write — that's why I admire monks so much — they dedicate their while lives to the discovery of these truths and to the teaching of others.

What they achieve though is a sense of non-attachment to the typical things that the rest of us are attached to — money, sex, food, TV, etc. What's so great about this view is that in lay-person's land, it's actually fine to have all these things, but just realizing that an attachment to them won't get us what we want — it won't make us happy, but it can provide an enjoyable backdrop to our lives. The real happiness resides in going beyond our egoic desires and finding out "what lies beyond" — a truth, a connection, a oneness, a serenity — a happiness.

The above story was contributed by Ms. Eileen Meehan, a free lance writer operating in Seoul



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