Wednesday, March 15, 2006

the ass-kicking Sunday

CHAPTER 1: BUKHAN-SAN

The indomitable Sperwer and I spent five hours on Bukhan-san (North Han Mountain, not North Korea Mountain) this past Sunday. Our purpose was to hike up the mountain and then across it, eventually ending up at Hwagye-sa in time for 1PM ch'am-seon (zazen). We started our walk next to the blasted husk of the P'yeongch'ang-dong Olympia Hotel, and quickly left most of civilization behind.

This being a Sunday, it was inevitable that we would run into mountain gnomes. Our first encounter with such a gnome happened at a ticket booth located next to one of Bukhan-san's many trailheads. We asked the old (and friendly) gnome in the booth about how best to walk from where we were to Hwagye-sa; he offered us a hand-drawn sketch of the path to come, along with approximate times for getting there. With that, we started up our chosen path. Only a few yards after the trailhead, we had a taste of interreligious encounter in action: Christian graffiti on a Buddhist rock.

Behold the saving power of Jesus:



The large, vertical Korean inscription on the left is for Mireuk, also known as Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. You'll note two Christian crosses painted on the rock-- the left-hand cross is faded and is right next to the Buddhist inscription (which simply reads, "In the name of The Great Maitreya Buddha"). There's also some black-ink graffiti under the right-hand cross, but I don't know what it says. Sperwer, who took all the pics on this pilgrimage, was amused by the Christian folly.

The day was colder than I'd anticipated, and it was a damn good thing I'd decided to wear a sweatshirt along with my tee shirt and thin windbreaker. I had no gloves and opted not to use my hood: I know my own body pretty well, and therefore know that I'm capable of sweating even in below-freezing temperatures. Fortunately, the cold also kept the muddy ground firm, so slippage was not as big an issue as it could have been during the hike.

The trail wended its way upward, but didn't switchback very much. There were moments when Sperwer and I had to stop to get our bearings, or to make sure we were heading up the correct fork of a given trail. There were balisages (here's a Swiss example) along the way, pointing to major destinations and offering estimates on distance that Sperwer and I soon learned to mistrust.

A lot of what we did wasn't so much hiking as climbing. There were plenty of moments when we had to slide down some rocks, or heave our large selves up and over other rocks, or use a rope (already there on the trail, waiting for use) to pull ourselves along, or grip a convenient railing to keep steady on steeply angled surfaces. The trail also had some precarious spots where a rope or railing would have been nice.

After about an hour of walking and politely letting other, faster hikers pass us, we stopped and Sperwer snapped some pics of Where We'd Come From. Here's one such pic, looking down from our heavenly perch to the mundane realm:


At one point, we stopped after a set of stairs and made some new, temporary hiking friends: a group of middle-aged (and very fit) Korean men and women who shared tangerine wedges with us and bantered about life in the US and Korea and elsewhere. One man from that group actually stayed behind to walk with us while the rest of his party went on ahead at a quicker pace; we found out he'd been to a lot of places in the US that where familiar to both Sperwer and me.

Eventually, we made it up to Dae Seong Mun, the Great Fortress Gate. I'm proud to say we managed this in about 1.5 hours, which put us a half hour ahead of the schedule laid out for us by the ticket booth gnome. We sat and rested in the cold air and paradoxically warm sun; Sperwer seemed to take the hike in stride better than I did. Tough bastard, he.

Interesting aside: during our trek, we were accosted by a group of Korean hikers who brought us a better map than the hand-drawn one originally given us by the gnome. The lead hiker in that group told us he'd been given this new map by the gnome, who, I suppose, had felt guilty about sending us on our way with only a few squiggles to guide us. I don't think either Sperwer or I minded the hand-drawn map; it held all the relevant information. The new map, a photocopy from some guidebook, had a bit more detail but showed us essentially the same salient landmarks. Once we were up by the fortress wall that spans the ridge of Bukhan-san, it was hard to get lost.

Here I am at Dae Seong Mun, in Kim Il-sung pose:


Not wanting to rest too long lest the cold cause us to cramp up, Sperwer and I set off from Dae Seong Mun toward Dae Dong Mun (Great East Gate) and K'al Bawi (Knife Rock). We eventually broke away from the fortress wall and started downhill, trickling toward a hotel called Academy House.

By this time, we'd been hiking about four hours, and our bodies were starting to feel it. I began to wonder whether sitting zazen at Hwagye-sa would even be possible. The rocks at some points were tilted so haphazardly that I remarked to Sperwer that the terrain reminded me of a carnival house of horrors. Hiking with Sperwer was fun because he knew how to keep his good humor. I've hiked with people who let fatigue get in the way of their enjoyment: they started the hike on the assumption that one's good humor would be linked to one's energy level. Not a wise assumption when doing anything strenuous.

We finally made it to thicker, warmer air and level ground. Having come off the mountain at a point close to Hwagye-sa but not quite where we'd hoped, we decided to cheat and grab a cab: with only 20 minutes left to reach the temple, I needed to change out of my sweat-sogged clothes before meditating.

CHAPTER 2: HWAGYE-SA

We reached the temple with enough time for me to rush into a restroom, take a whiz, change my clothes, and clump up to the fourth-floor International Zen Center. I had no intention of sticking around for the dharma talk; I simply wanted to get my meditation in.

The first 30-minute round of meditation went fairly well, except that I did almost nod off at one point. It's a good thing I didn't slack off too badly: Hwagye-sa seems to have instituted a new disciplinary measure-- monks now patrol the meditators with a jang-gun ch'uk-p'i (lit. "general's stick," as Robert Buswell notes in his The Zen Monastic Experience; people familiar with Japanese Zen will know this stick as the kyosaku), a stick with which a meditator is lightly whacked to provide that extra push to meditate properly. As the monk walks by the meditator, the latter can request (through a hapjang-style bow) the administration of the stick, which is applied as light, slapping blows to one or both shoulders, usually on the trapezius muscles. This disciplinary measure can be found at other Korean temples, and is the stuff of Zen neophyte legend at Japanese temples, but up until a few weeks ago, I'd never seen the General's Stick being used at Hwagye-sa.

Sperwer decided he needed the stick, so he bowed and got a couple taps on each shoulder. A woman to my left got the stick twice; in her case, she had been nodding off badly enough to be easily visible from the corner of my eye. The stick doesn't help only the person struck by it: the repeated slap-thuds also encourage the rest of us to tighten our practice.

The second round of meditation also went well, but not perfectly. I found myself doing another nap-jerk, and my damn ticklish throat started up again, so I ended up coughing several times before the tickle went away. I hate my throat, but unlike in the old days, I now know better than to play an ego-game when the tickle begins: instead of pridefully attempting to repress the tickle through poorly executed biofeedback, I simply let the tickle happen, ride through the experience, and keep on meditating. Make nothing, keep nothing.

I survived the third round of meditation as well (10-minute walking meditation sessions in between the seated sessions), and that was that. Thank you, Jeebus! Sperwer and I headed out the door and caught a taxi back to P'yeongch'ang-dong. The cabbie let Sperwer off, then drove me downhill to the nearest bus stop. I had originally hoped to ride the cab all the way back to Smoo, but the cabbie apologized and told me he was scheduled to do something else, so it wouldn't be possible. I told him it wasn't a problem, got out of the taxi, limped toward the nearby bus stop... then said "fuck it" and flagged down another cab.

That evening, I took three aspirins to quell the throbbing in my thighs. By Monday morning, my legs were a mess. Meanwhile, Sperwer sent me a sprightly email saying he was feeling much better: apparently, the man heals from his aches as fast as the liquid metal T-1000 Terminator recovers from gunshots.

While Sunday kicked my ass, it also kicked ass. I was happy to get out and do something I'd been wanting to do for a while; now it's a matter of recovering and doing it (or something like it) again.


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2 comments:

Jelly said...

That was a good read about a good day. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you guys had fun. I'd love to join you for a hike some time, but for me it would most likely have to be Saturday.