Since I’ve been in Korea I’ve felt more alive in these 2 short months than I ever have. I took the red pill, and haven’t regretted staying in wonderland for a second. I want to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes- which is more than I can say for Cypher! Seriously, I’m so glad I made the decision to come here because it’s invigorated my life to a degree I can’t explain. I wish I could bottle this feeling and have it for life! I’ve been on so many trips and met some really amazing people. And yet, at the end of the day I’m lonely. Everything I do I want to share it with the one someone I love more than anything in the entire world, and I can’t. No matter how hard and how eloquently I try to convey how something was- and boy do I try!- no amount of words I can string together ever seems to do the experience justice. Last weekend was my 26th birthday, which I spent at a Buddhist temple. The experience was beyond words. We arrived at the temple which was secluded from everything, nestled in the middle of these towering mountains lush with the greenest trees I’ve ever seen. Everything was lit with the most beautiful, bright colors in the middle of a Korean forest. We immediately received an etiquette training, because let’s get serious, us westerners don’t really thrive in that category. Sorry, but it’s true. Compared to the rest of the world, westerners look like a bunch of uncultured animals, drunkenly running about and destroying everything in the way. We also learned the correct form of bowing, which is similar to a burpee. You start standing, with your hands peaked together in the praying position, and bow from the waist. Then you come to your knees, crossing your left foot over the right and place 5 points of contact on the mat: your head, both hands palm down by your ears, and your feet. Then you turn up your palms to face the ceiling to allow Buddha into your heart and mind. Then you stand up and do it all again. Then, we walked to what I refer to as “The Magic Fountain of Eternal Faith.” Legend has it that, thousands of years ago Korea was in a war against the Huns, and the soldiers were worn down and ready to surrender. But, they happened upon this fountain, the very same from which I drank, and it gave the soldiers restorative energy necessary to not only continue fighting but become the victor in the battle! Now, I can’t speak of it’s restorative properties in times of war, because I think starting one at a Beddhist temple might be frowned upon? However, it was pretty darn good tasting water. In fact, I would venture to say it might have been the best tasting water I’ve ever had- if water actually had a taste, that is. I was asked “How does it taste?” So I said “like water.” Everyone laughed except for the monk! #awkward. I don’t know if I should have said “like eternal happiness and salvation” because all water tastes the same to me unless it has lemon in it…But maybe they aren’t aware because they live in the mountains, so I left it at that. Which might’ve been too much already? Monk was not amused!
Afterwards, we were allowed to roam about the temple grounds, and everything was so beautiful! There were thousands of them hung, and a big graveyard of the ones that didn’t make it. For those that don’t know, during the third week of May (the week before I did my temple stay) was Buddha’s birthday. A joyful holiday celebrated throughout many Asian countries, where people come together for a night and make lotus lanterns to signify prosperity and good fortune throughout the coming year. They’re all lit and set free into the night sky- it’s truly a sight to see. I was so bummed that I couldn’t go, but at least the next week I got to do this temple stay and eventually get a chance to make my own.
Then I saw this dog and we had a moment. I named Abraham. Because nobody is named Abraham anymore, unless your parents are super religious- or you have come back, reincarnated from another life. Plus this is what I envision an Abraham to look like: shaggy, old and pensive. He kept meandering about the temple so I deduced that he was reincarnated here, having some purpose to fulfill, and his overgrown hair stayed with Abraham throughout all his lives. I tried putting it up in a pony tail so he could see clearly, but he really wasn’t up for silly games that day so I let those herbal essences locks dance free in the wind!
Clearly, I had spent too much time with Abraham so it was time for “dinner.” I use this term very, very loosely because my God, that temple food was the absolute worst. I also don’t use that term loosely. We sat down, starving, and were greeted with the most foul tasting, overly salty and rubbery kimchi (and I love kimchi!), paired with the most bland soup of all time, and an assortment of fermented vegetables in what had to be pure vinegar, oh and some rice. I was gagging through the whole time and I honestly felt really bad because we were instructed not to waste anything. Monks are never wasteful of anything, because a farmer had to harvest every grain of rice, and the amount of work to put into harvesting all the food was considerable and blah blah. All I could think about was how to spit out the food without anyone noticing. But they were all noticing. They were all just standing there, watching us eat. So I had no choice but to suffer through it, or face eternal damnation for not finishing my horrible, horrible food. I was vegan very recently so the vegetarian food wasn’t an issue- it tasted like nothing else I can compare it to, it was just horrid. Temple food is the worst, and I’m sorry Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Tom Cruise, Oprah, et al. I ended up just putting the food in my mouth, giving an encouraging smile to the onlooking monks, and then just swallowing because I couldn’t bear to have it in my mouth much longer, no less spend the time to actually chew it. I kept thinking about the oranges I packed and how I will need them to rid my mouth of the lingering taste in the privacy of the bathroom. Legit ran there as soon as I could break away. Here’s a before picture. Little did I know what I was about to put in my mouth. The naivety:
After that sorry excuse for dinner, again- sorry to all the deities- I couldnt escape because we had to go ring “the bell.” An extremely large one at that, rung by hammering a log which is suspended to the ceiling of an outdoor gazebo-to signify the beginning of meditation. It is to be rung no more, no less than 33 times. I tried asking why the number 33 was so significant but the question was lost in translation. Immediately, I thought “Thou shall count to three, and the number of the counting shall be three. No more, no less. Thou shall not count to two, unless thou shall then proceedith to three. Four is right out.” This quickly escalated to a bell-ringing competition, complete with golf claps, ratings and cheering. I got second place out of 18. “I would just like to thank my mom, and Buddha for letting me get there. And thank you to the academy for nominating me, and to all the peasants who voted for me!”
After the holy ringing of the bell, we made our way back to the pension to make our own lotus lanterns. An artistic outlet for love or hate, whatever you chose was up to you. The lotus is a very important symbol in the Buddhist faith because of what it represents. It’s roots are deeply embedded in the muck and mire of an otherwise disgusting and muddy pool. But once it’s ready to blossom, the flower blooms it’s beautifully colorful petals for all to marvel at. The Buddhist faith teaches us to be like the lotus- that despite your shortcomings and all the negative things you might have experienced in your past, it doesn’t matter because you can turn it into something beautiful. “Don’t let your past define you- be the lotus!” The monk told us this, and had us think about someone we love, or better yet someone we hated. If you chose the latter, take the time to focus on them so that you might find forgiveness and allow love to fill that space in your heart. It was truly a calming, and peaceful hour. I chose to make my lotus with alternating red and pink petals, rather than one monochromatic flower and it really looked beautiful with a lighted candle inside, and the lights off.
Once the lights were off, we began our first meditation session. Someone should have focused more on the etiquette part of orientation. During the hour meditation, this guy from panama right next to me fell asleep. Which wouldn’t have been an issue if his snoring wasn’t so aggressively loud, that it could have risen Buddha from his eternal resting place. It sounded like something had actually died in his mouth. And I’m used to people snoring- my better half has sleep apnea and a deviated septum for crying out loud! He was 3 feet from me, but I figured if the monk didn’t do anything to stop it I probably shouldn’t either. Despite the relentless snoring, I oddly found it a little peaceful. It reminded me of my previously mentioned better half. I focused on that image and the snoring stopped being an issue for me, because it very weirdly calmed me with the reminder of my guy back home. If I was trying to sleep on the other hand, I would have foregone all Buddhist etiquette and lofted various soft objects in his direction, but meditating is different so I let it go.
Not everyone in the group was as fortunate as me, I can attest that much. After our meditation/nap commenced, we talked with the monk briefly and were sent to bed at 9pm because we had to wake up at 4am the next morning to pray with the praying monks. At the temple, every monk has a different duty. A praying monk is one who devotes 10,000 consecutive days or 40 years of their life to praying at the same temple. This is an automatic guarantee to eternal salvation and admittance to heaven or the after life, etc. As well as your name carved into a rock atop a nearby mountain located on what’s now a military base just before the DMZ begins. When we woke up we formed 2 lines facing north and then walked towards the east to face the rising sun. When we got to the temple the monks began the session with their rituals and then the bowing and praying started. The praying was beautiful- it sounded like they were singing rather than normal praying which I’m used to “5 hail marys’ and 2 our fathers’.”
We did this for a half hour and then headed back to our pension to start our 108 bows. Again, I tried asking the significance of the number but alas, the question was lost in translation yet again. The 108 bows are a little excessive, as I mentioned that the bowing is a similar movement to a burpee. But this was surprisingly relaxing because 1- the group had a rhythm to follow. The monk would hit a bamboo stick to tell us when to bow, and then hit it again to tell us when to get up and do the process over again. 2- because in between the time when we got on the mat, and then stood up again, we placed a meditation bead on a string. I had already spilled my cup of 108 meditation beads all over the floor, so I was more concentrated on the beads and not holding up the entire thing; than I was with the bowing. I think that was the key- focus on the activity of the beading rather than the work your doing with the bowing. The whole thing took over an hour, and I occasionally noticed some people stopping along the way. It was continuous work- up down, up down- no breaks!!
After we finished we had made a wonderful meditation necklace. You are supposed to close your eyes and say Namu Amita Bul (namu-ammi-tabul) while touching a bead, and repeat the word 108 times. The word literally translates to mean “Homage to Infinite Light.” I have done it at home and it actually works! I didn’t do the bowing though, I’m a lazy American. After the bowing, we got to eat some more temple food. This time the food wasn’t AS bad as dinner, I could actually stand to chew it this time, but it definitely wasn’t good. My favorite part of the temple stay was after breakfast, when we were led up a small nearby mountain to meditate in the nature. We listened to “earth’s music” and I actually fell asleep, I was so relaxed! It was so peaceful up there, despite us being able to see the DMZ from where we were- which was about 3-4 miles away! (we were actually on a military base- so cool!)
After the hike we got to talk to the monk who guided us through our temple stay. She heard that it was my birthday, and prepared special 10 year old tea and rice cake for us all to enjoy. It was so sweet and really put the cherry on top of the most special birthday I’ve ever had…Even though rice cake is my least favorite Korean food. It’s so gross, and doesn’t ever taste good- even though it frequently comes in deceptive colors and shapes. It looks so good! All lies, it’s work of witches I tell you! So, I suffered through that too but it wasn’t nearly half as bad as the other food I was given so I ate it. After we left the temple, we visited a beach on the way home. On the way there, we were all so hungry and starved for some real food. Since it was my actual birthday, I lobbied the group to get what I was craving- a back cheese burger. I’m no longer vegan, and all I wanted was a burger on my birthday. Everyone supported me, and we told the driver who said ok- it made my day! I was so happy for not temple food! How fast my dreams were pulled out from under me like a rug, and a sick prank. Shortly after, the driver remembered there was a “famous” Korean restaurant on the way and was overruling the desires of all on the bus. After all he was the one driving, so we couldn’t fight him. I was only upset when I found out the restaurant served only 2 kinds of food, both of which were Korean water noodles. Water noodles? WATER.NOODLES?! Water NOODLES?!?!?! After suffering 2 days worth of horrible vegetarian temple food?? What kind of sick joke was this, it’s my birthday! I’m the queen for the day, everyone else are surfs for the day. That’s the thing about Korea. You stick out like a sore thumb, so when a Korean tells you about something in Korea, they aren’t just telling you to tell you for the sake of it. They’re telling you because it’s famous. Everything F*ing thing in Korea is famous. “Hey, here’s this grain of rice. It’s famous, you should see it.” “Look at this rock, it’s famous.” No matter how loudly you doth protest, you will be taken there against your will, I can assure you. Because Korea.
When we got to the beach there was no one there, and it was wonderful. The sand was so white and pristine and perfect, the water was so blue and inviting- it was like a scene out of a movie. Then we were yelled at and kicked off because I took a picture on military property. We obliged and moved to the public beach down the street, but the only problem is that there was a huge observatory in between the military and the public beaches allowing for better pictures than the one I took on the beach, and had to erase. #idowhatiwant #canttellmenothing #becauseKorea. Only Korea would prohibit you from being on, and taking pictures of a beach- while having a huge observatory less than a mile away. Only Korea would call it the Sea of Korea while the rest of the world calls it The Sea of Japan. Because Korea. When I found myself at the Sea of Japan or rather, the Sea of Korea- I did what any rational person would do. I jumped into the freezing cold water…twice! You can’t come all the way across the world, to find yourself facing an entirely new ocean on your birthday and not jump in!
It was a wonderful birthday, spent with amazing people that I will never forget. It was the happiest birthday I can ever remember having and it was made special by strangers. That’s the thing, it was made special by strangers. All of whom were so great, but I didn’t have anyone I loved there with me to celebrate. I didn’t have my family or friends, and I sure didn’t have my man. I wasn’t alone, and I felt special but I didn’t feel loved or cared for by the people I shared my day with. I know it’s what I get for wanting this life- a life I’m so blessed to live! I earned it, and I’m loving it. I just miss my people everyday. I miss them when I have special moments with Abraham- no one knows about my connection with the afterlife! He was so wise. No one knows my struggle with that darn food- dat food dough! ugh. I have many visitors coming this month which will surely take my mind off this loneliness I feel. I just don’t want them to leave again.