Around three months ago at the beginning of Korea’s humid summer I went to Zen Buddhist Musang temple to interview a number of foreign monks and nuns living the monastic life there. Talking with these diverse and intelligent people from Poland, the Czech Republic, China, and the US had me intrigued. I applied to go and partake in a seven day retreat during the end of their summer kyol che. Kyol Che means ‘Tight Dharma’ and refers to the three months during the summer and winter when monks and nuns spend the majority of their days meditating. The retreat schedule is very intensive and my experiences at Musangsa saw me bowing, chanting, being hit with a wooden bat, sitting for seven hours a day trying my best to meditate, hitting the floor in answer to a question, and making friends without words.
The Night Before
Fruit flies have congregated in my kitchen and I go on a killing rampage. When I recall where I am going tomorrow, I feel very un-Buddhist. I sit down and take out The Tao of Pooh, a book that Seon Joon, an American Nun mentioned when I interviewed her at Musangsa.
I read – ‘The essence of the principal of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed.’
Musangsa is beautiful, hidden in the mountains, engulfed by nature and humming with the song of cicadas. On arrival I am asked to hand in my phone, and then to wait for a little while. The retreat is a silent one, unless talking is absolutely necessary, so I sit in silence next to a Korean girl. We are taken to a four story building where we will sleep and eat, on the 4th floor there is a room containing hundreds of the spartan grey robes we will wear for the week. I’m in a room with two others, Mary-Ann and Brie. Mary-Ann is doing the full three month retreat and she writes me a note ‘Welcome, my name is Mary Ann if you need any help please ask.’ She hands me a little blue and white package containing some Chinese herbal heat patches for muscle pain, which later on prove to be very helpful. The floor of our room is yellow and the windows look out to the building where we will be meditating. We each have a thin floor mat to sleep on, a blanket, and pillow. My other roommate Brie who also arrived today appears to be a bit younger than me and I really want to talk to her, to ask her the usual questions you do on meeting someone, but instead we go downstairs together in silence for orientation where one of the monks goes through the rules of the retreat with us.
Following the brief orientation I feel pretty unprepared for everything. I came for the experience not really knowing what it would entail and I still don’t, it proves to be a matter of just doing it. We have our first meditation session beginning at 1.30pm. On entering the tranquil meditation room with the same yellow floor that is in our sleeping room, we bow towards Buddha, then walk to our allocated mats. There are small cushions available to use to make the long periods of sitting more comfortable. There are about 35 of us in the room which has large open windows on most of the walls displaying beautiful views over the dark green mountains. There are also fans around the perimeter of the room dull the midsummer heat. The head nun whacks a wooden stick against the palm of her hand and we prepare ourselves for meditation. I sit cross legged for maybe ten minutes, staring at the floor in front of me with lowered lids. I try to empty my mind. My right foot starts tingling, and then it is numb and then I can’t even feel it. I get an itchy face. I close my eyes tightly. I open them. I wiggle a bit. I massage my right foot, trying not to distract the lady beside me who sits in deep meditation, completely still. Everyday I worry that I will distract her with my outer struggles, thankfully the physical pain dissipates after the first couple of days but mentally meditation is a challenge.
I wash my face and lay down on the hard floor, lights are out by 9.20pm. I can’t sleep. It’s because I know I have to get up at 3am to start the day with 108 bows. I fall into a restless doze but wake up to a thunderstorm at 2ish. I’m awake when the wooden percussion instrument called a mohtak is hit. I get up splash my face and put on the robes. They are so comfortable and easy, there’s no thought involved in dressing. We walk silently in the dark to the mediation room, it is dimly lit and we begin the bows. I am pretty puffed after 30 or so, and am starting to sweat, I miss a couple and then finally we get to 108. We walk back to our rooms and have time to quickly splash some water on our faces and make an instant coffee, before the wooden gong is hit for chanting. I walk up the hill to the elaborate Buddha Hall. Brie and I are on mats near the front and an extra large fan blows air onto our hot faces. We have a book from which to read the chants and I really enjoy it once I get the hang of the timing and the Korean pronunciation. Our 35 or so voices are accompanied by a solo wooden gong and it feels uplifting.
After chanting we sit for an hour or so in meditation then it’s time for breakfast. Breakfast is a formal and traditional meal. We sit in silence on small maroon cushions lining the perimeter of the dining hall. We each have four small bowls that fit into each other like Russian dolls. The brown bowls are wrapped in a white and a grey cloth with a pouch for chopsticks and a spoon. A bamboo stick is hit by a head monk and we all unwrap our utensils and bowls. First we lay out the grey cloth and then place each of the four bowls on it from smallest to largest, we must use our thumbs and we don’t make any noise. Next a monk or nun serves each person a little rice, we then help ourselves to side dishes. The food is really simple and nutritious; it’s vegetarian and often organically grown at Musangsa. There are only about 15 minutes to wolf it down after the formal proceedings of the meal and I feel a lot of pressure to eat fast enough and to ensure my bowl is completely clean. Someone goes around once we have finished eating and pours a little water into our bowls which we can drink, then hot tea is poured into the bowls and we clean them with our chopsticks and a piece of radish or kimchi. The white cloth is then used to dry the bowls which we place back inside each other and wrap up for the next meal. After the first few meals I found that my attempts at cleaning my bowls with kimchi were not overly successful and my white cloth was becoming stained, I was a bit embarrassed since everyone else seemed to have the hang of it. Eventually I went into the dining room when it was quiet, just a lovely nun from Malaysia was in there, I showed her my stained white cloth and she got me a new one saying that her trick was to use a tissue to remove any remaining food before drying the bowls. Initially I struggled a bit with the protocol and seriousness of the formal meals, but after a few days I figured out how things worked. I think the whole point of it is not to enjoy the taste of the food, but to be mindful about what you are eating, not to waste anything, and to be completely present in the moment.
The thing that is getting me is meditation; I try to empty my mind. I focus on my breathing and imagine a rock sinking, before coming to settle on the ocean floor. But ultimately my body gets sore and I can’t stop from focusing on it. This is by no means relaxing, not that I thought it would be, but it is harder than I expected, I actually feel stressed. It’s even a respite when after around 20 minutes the head nun gets up and walks around with a bamboo stick. If you want to be hit on each side of your back you can clasp your hands together then lean forward and place them on the ground. For me getting whacked on the back is a release from my struggles with meditation, it doesn’t hurt and is somewhat of a distraction, although I’m sure that is not how it should be perceived. In the afternoon of the second day during our longest stretch of meditation from 1.30-4,30pm I realize that my mind does feel very clear.
Brie and I are working in the kitchen; we do the dishes after breakfast, prepare a morning snack and help a watermelon loving adjumma with cutting and peeling the vegetables for lunch. I enjoy washing, peeling and cutting the fruit. It smells so good and it’s nice to be doing something other than sitting.
Live simply so others may simply live-Ghandi
I leave tomorrow, how fast and slow the week has been. It’s been hard on body and mind but more than worthwhile. There was the occasional time when during meditation my breathing became so slow and shallow and I felt clear and empty and warm, these times were worth all of the stress and struggle. Good things take time and discipline and the monastic life is definitely an example of this.