Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Three Days at Haein-sa" (written in 2000)

What follows is an essay I wrote after a trip to South Korea in 2000. It chronicles my own, independently arranged "temple stay" at Haein-sa, a Korean Seon (Zen) temple. The essay contains what I now know to be some factual errors; I was in grad school at the time and was still a neophyte in religious studies, though that's not really an excuse for not being thorough. I've added asterisks to the main text and have appended notes and explanations below the horizontal divider at the end of the essay. If you scroll down past the notes, you'll see a few photos from the trip.


I fear and loathe roller coasters; it's a control thing. But there's something oddly calming about the jarring swoop and slalom of a Korean bus; it appeals to my fatalistic side. In Seoul, buses jostle for position with remarkable adroitness and maneuverability; they stop for precisely the amount of time it takes the last passenger to lift his or her foot off the ground and clear the bus' hydraulic ingress, then off they launch. Once aboard, you cannot perform hands-free "bus surfing" the way you might on a plodding DC Metro bus: letting go of your handhold is a sure way to send yourself flying either down the aisle or through a window, especially if you are, like me, 260 pounds of half-Korean jiggle beast.

Our bus driver from west Taegu to Haein-sa, though tearing across roads that offer no challenges comparable to the vehicular nightmare of Seoul, is nevertheless intent on pushing his metal destrier beyond its prescribed limits. Down valley straightaways and up great, serpentine mountain switchbacks we fly, the bus tilting dangerously as we whip around unbanked curves at blinding speed. Through it all, I am serene; my life is in the Buddha's compassionate hands. Why, then, do I hate roller coasters?

Haein-sa, a Zen Buddhist temple located on verdant Kaya Mountain, is a refuge of calm completely unlike the tourist-trodden and chaotic Pulguk-sa, the popular temple to the southeast of us in Kyungju. All Buddhist temples, however, share a certain unobtrusive quality; unlike Christian churches and cathedrals, which so often seek to impose a preconceived sacred geometry upon the landscape, Korean Buddhist temples tuck themselves into the environs like an octopus settling among coral outcroppings. They have no prescribed form; each temple is unique in its configuration. Call it feng shui (or poong soo, as it's pronounced in Korean); an effort has been made to harmonize with, and not dominate, nature.*

My companion, Park jeondosa-nim, is a fellow Presbyterian, though the fervid style of his religion is more reminiscent of an American charismatic Christian's. A jeondo-sa is a preacher or evangelist; a kind of missionary. Park is my guide for this trip. I arrive at Haein-sa with no warning to the monastic community, and promptly ask if I may stay on the temple grounds a few days to learn a little about temple life and Korean Zen. Park interprets for me; my Korean, while functional, isn't refined enough for pious cajolery. The grey-robed workers at Haein-sa's administrative office are happy to oblige; we are provided with simple monk's quarters, and I am to receive free meals from the temple's refectory. I pay a small price for this remarkable gift: the proofreading of a barely salvageable English language document about Haein-sa's current abbot. The textual surgery takes me three hours; not a bad trade-off for three days' exploration.

Park is uncomfortable from the beginning. Our first night at Haein-sa, he stays up and prays. Sitting cross-legged in a corner, his hands raised in warding or supplication, he performs what some Christians call "spiritual warfare," perhaps in an attempt to keep our little monk's cell free of evil spirits. The word "Yae-su," Jesus, appears repeatedly in his speech. I sense no spirits; our first night at Haein-sa is cool, rainy, serene, and beautiful. I shower and sit outside on the front stoop of our chambers while Park, inside, prays and prays.

Eighteen years ago, Park jeondosa-nim was a Buddhist himself. Now he is, from my perspective, a Christian zealot. Though he's a nice enough person and a hard worker, he has all the traits of what Eric Hoffer ominously termed a "true believer." But I'm here in the name of interreligious dialogue; in a sense, Park's presence, and his chary attitude toward other religions, is a blessing in disguise. Conflict will ensue; I will watch and assiduously take notes.

I make the acquaintance of three monks (seu-nim**) during my stay at Haein-sa: Gahk Ahn seu-nim, Dae Oh seu-nim, and Man Gahk seu-nim. Of these three, only Man Gahk seu-nim consents to have his picture taken. The other two don't see the use; I suspect they feel a student of interreligious dialogue shouldn't act like an undignified foreign tourist. Perhaps they're right.

Gahk Ahn seu-nim meets with me the first night-- the night I'm proofing the butchered English bio of the abbot. We talk about Zen and Christianity and drink oolong tea as the monk rocks placidly back and forth. I am impressed by his calm demeanor, and come away from our talk with a pleasant feeling of gentle companionship.

The following morning, around 5am, Park leaves for Taegu and I am on my own, without an interpreter. My halting Korean will have to suffice. A few hours later, I meet Dae Oh seu-nim, who epitomizes the archetypal Zen master. Though merely a monk, Dae Oh seu-nim's eyes are bright with conviction. He doesn't appear nearly as serene as Gahk Ahn seu-nim, but his manner is more consistent with the teachers I've read about in the annals of Japanese Zen: he is quick to judge, excitable, filled with boundless intelligence. There is nothing ethereal about him; he's more like a drill instructor than a holy man. I learn that he is acknowledged as one of Haein-sa's foremost scholars.

Dae Oh seu-nim's first reaction to me is barely concealed derision: my Korean is laughable, my knowledge of Chinese is nearly nonexistent. "You have to learn all that!" he exclaims in Korean while shaking a Chinese text in my face. I quietly explain that I'm here to find out what I have to learn, that my hope is to return to Korea some years from now as part of a doctoral program, armed with more Korean, Chinese, and Sanskrit knowledge. Dae Oh seu-nim seems to understand, and he speaks with me for an hour or so. Like Gahk Ahn seu-nim, he tends to rock back and forth as he talks. Since formal Zen practice involves so much sitting, I suppose this is an almost inevitable quirk. He baits me, too: at several points, he stops his lecture and asks, "Do you understand?" This is, of course, a Zen trap. Stupidly, I fall in every time: "Yes." Dae Oh seu-nim grimaces, shakes his head violently, fans the air with his hand as if I've just passed foul wind. "No, no, no! Then you don't understand!" Of course not. Zen speaks to absolute reality, which is so completely ordinary that it lies in the realm of the nondiscursive. This is Dae Oh seu-nim's next point: "If you study Zen... all your ideas about God, Buddha-- throw them out!" We create God just as we create Buddha and the world, he says. It's all in our minds. To know truth, you have to know your true mind, which is no mind. You can go in circles if you try to approach this logically, but it's nevertheless true.*** To misquote the Tao Te Ching, the reality you can talk about isn't true reality.

My next visit is with Mahn Gahk seu-nim, an older monk, probably in his sixties. "Where are you from in America?" he asks in English. I tell him I'm from Virginia. Mahn Gahk seu-nim makes it clear that his English is out of practice and that he'd rather speak to me in Korean. He promises to speak simply, and the rest of the conversation is in Korean. I strain to listen. "Your body is like clothing," he tells me. "Eventually, it gets old and you cast it off." As I listen to Mahn Gahk seu-nim lecture, I nod and mutter, "Mmm. Hmm." At one point, the monk stops and gently corrects me: in Korea, it's highly rude to go "Mmm, hmm" to your elders. Somehow, I'd missed this piece of etiquette in all these years of dealing with Korean friends and relatives. I apologize, and Mahn Gahk seu-nim smiles tolerantly. From that point on, I respond with a full "yae," the formal way to say "yes." Like a little Yoda, Mahn Gahk tells me that all life is one-- we all share the same life. It's a simple sentiment, and I've heard variants of this before, but somehow it seems clearer to me just because I'm hearing it in this rarefied context.

Man Gahk seu-nim takes me over to one of the meditation halls on the temple grounds. He asks me if I'd like to join in some meditation. I tell him I'm not ready, but will probably do so in the future. I wonder at my own hesitancy. It's not as though I'm being asked to go white-water rafting. Or maybe it is. Each monk has told me, in his own way, that the only way to learn about Zen is through practice and commitment. As an old teacher of mine said, "You can shop, but eventually you either buy something or leave the store." The meditation hall is filled with adepts,**** none of whom have shaved heads. Haein-sa serves as a refuge for people seeking calm from the tumult of the outside world; I conjecture that most of these folks are from Seoul, Pusan, or Taegu, the big cities. The hall is more silent than the most hermetic American library. The noise of my socks against the polished floor is disturbingly loud. The monk and I watch the people for a while. Nobody moves. Nobody speaks. Fascinating.

I spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the temple's main area, noting the repeated, fractal lotus patterns in painting, woodwork, and sculpture; the small stone pagoda, the huge swastika (turning in the opposite direction from the Nazi swastika) and the "Three Jewels"-- symbolizing the Buddha, his teaching, and the religious community-- painted on the sides of some of the larger buildings. Certain ancient trees important to Haein-sa's long history have been fenced off; I stare at them for a long time and think about impermanence. Tourists are about, and I am swamped***** by uniformed hordes of Korean middle school girls. A particular gaggle smiles and waves at me, chanting, "Hello! Hello!" in English. I turn, smile rakishly, and wink. The girls scream in unison, clap their hands over their mouths, and cluster tighter as they move off rapidly. Amused, I watch them retreat.

That evening, Park, my absent guide, returns from Taegu, and we are led to the chambers of a fourth monk. I never learn this monk's name, but our visit with him produces the most memorable incident during my stay at Haein-sa. Before we enter the monk's cell, Park tells me dryly, "I think they going to try teach me about Buddhism." True to form, the monk incenses Park, and the debate becomes heavily theological. Within a few minutes, I am completely lost; the speed and vocabulary of the conversation surpass me. Evangelist Park and the unyielding monk go back and forth; the monk, agitated, even pulls out a text that quotes Deuteronomy to make a point; Park responds with counter-quotes from the Bible. I can't make out the contents of the conversation, but I can make out the tone, which is becoming increasingly bitter. I knew this was going to happen, because Park's theological formation makes his behavior predictable. This is a holy crusade. Another man in the room with us, a certain Mr. Kim, gangs up on Park by taking the monk's side.

Then suddenly there is a loud shout from outside the monk's cell. The disputants clam up. The silence is almost a shock to me.

"Kim! Get out here!" a voice roars. It sounds familiar. Mr. Kim bolts out the door, shutting it behind him. We listen in awed silence as Mr. Kim is upbraided in extremely foul, abusive language by a monk whose voice I finally recognize: the very calm, very placid Gahk Ahn seu-nim, with whom I drank oolong tea the previous day. I was obviously mistaken when I assessed the man as serene. He, like Dae Oh seu-nim, is capable of thunder. I smile inwardly. It's always good to see holy men with character, people who don't forget their humanity.

Later that evening, I ask Park what was going on. "Mr. Kim spoke out of turn," Park says. "He not supposed to discuss religion with me and seu-nim." This sounds more like a Korean issue than an interreligious issue. In Confucian society, everyone knows his place. Mr. Kim forgot his; a corrective was applied; end of story. "Anyway," I continue, "it sounded like an interesting discussion between you and the monk." Park looks at me crossly. "Not discussion! They talked to me for thirty minutes, then cut me off when I try to speak! Not discussion! I tried to tell them Gospel, tell them Jesus died for their sins, that only Jesus can save! They cut me off! They say Buddha is a saint, and Jesus is not."

I listen to this and find it hard to sympathize with Park's position. One thing I know: you can't initiate a dialogue with finger-pointing. Dialogue isn't a zero-sum game with a definite winner and loser. Then again, Park's goal isn't dialogue; he's an evangelist out to save souls. From his perspective, his cause is just. He may have pushed the monk too far; in my talks with Dae Oh seu-nim and the others, I mentioned Jesus a few times, quoting biblical verses that share a thematic affinity to Buddhist thought, and my answer was invariably smiles. I fail to see how beating someone over the head with holy scripture is going to win converts. What's more, I fail to understand the urge to convert. But at the very least, such debates are entertaining as hell to watch. Park falls into prayer, weeping-- weeping!-- because he is unable to untwist the perverse, misguided minds of his Buddhist interlocutors.

I've been sleeping and eating like a monk for three days. The meal is the same, no matter the time of day: watery rice gruel ladled into a metal bowl, mixed with spicy marinated vegetables and kimchi. Very tasty, but guaranteed to drive an inveterate carnivore insane. On our last day at Haein-sa, Park and I pack our belongings. We meet Gahk Ahn seu-nim on our way out; I bow to him in the Buddhist manner: palms together and close to the chest, saluting the shared life within the other. This is one of the many things the monks taught me, and I'm happy to practice it. Gahk Ahn seu-nim wishes us well,****** and I ask him to please pass on our thanks to the other monks I met. We stroll out; there is only one more thing to visit.

Once again entering the main area of the temple, we climb the steps to the highest level in order to view the "pal man dae jang gyong," the over 80,000 wooden printing blocks containing the entirety of the Tripitaka Koreana, the most complete version of the Tripitaka anywhere. I am disappointed to discover the blocks are closed off from the public; they can be viewed only from behind the barred wooden doors that separate me from them. Monks still use the blocks for printing and study; I can only hope that, should I come back to Haein-sa as a bona fide researcher, I will be able to see them up close. As it is, I thrust my camera between the bars and snap two pictures. Park takes a picture of me as well.

We step onto the express bus for west Taegu. Park and I argue about whether Jesus said he was God. I claim he never said any such thing, that others said it about him. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus say, "Hey! I'm God!"******* Park tells me I'd better learn more about my own faith before I try to dialogue with other religions. Our bus leaps out of Haein-sa's terminal, and I think over the enormous gift I've received: this rare opportunity to live and speak for a few days with the monks of a Korean Zen Buddhist community, finding out how much I don't know. I ask myself: will I ever understand?

Heh. Be careful how you answer that.


*Taken literally, this paragraph contains at least one factual error. The idea that Buddhist temples have "no prescribed form" isn't entirely correct. Almost all Korean temples, no matter what strain of Buddhism they represent, have certain parts in common. For more on that, click on this link to learn about the major parts of a typical Buddhist temple. At the same time, however, it's true that each temple is unique and is constructed with great sensitivity to the energy flow of the natural surroundings. The nature of that flow is determined through geomancy (feng shui, or poong-su in Korean pronunciation). Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Buddhist temples still retain strong echoes of the original Indian sacred geometry that governed the construction of Hindu and Buddhist temples on the subcontinent, a fact that invalidates my rather rash claim that Korean Buddhist temples have no preconceived sacred geometry. In truth, temples and churches have more in common than I gave either credit for.

**As much as this romanization appeals to me, most people prefer to romanize the word as "sunim." It's pronounced, approximately, "sneem." That's how I used to address blogger Andi when she began her life as a haengja, or Buddhist postulant on her way to nunhood.

***This final phrase makes me cringe now. I sound like a heedless convert to a cult, someone who's uncritically swallowed the party line.

****"Adept" is probably the wrong word. These were probably just good old citizens on retreat, not people preparing to shave their heads in preparation for monastic life, and certainly not lay folk training to become Zen teachers.

*****It really wasn't crowded, though: this trip took place during high tourist season, and Haein-sa, despite its fame, just didn't have that many visitors while I was there. So much marketing energy gets devoted to Bulguk-sa-- which, by the way, isn't a Zen temple.

******Gahk Ahn sunim also noted, with wry humor and perhaps a hint of satisfaction, that I looked as if I had lost weight after six meals at the temple.

*******If you're thinking of gospel verses like "I and the Father are one" in John, well... first, there's the question of whether Jesus ever said this, or whether the evangelist (writing sometime between roughly 80 and 120 CE, depending on the experts-- at least 50 years after Jesus' death) was putting words in Jesus' mouth as part of a larger polemic against hoi ioudaioi, the Jewish element aligned against the values and convictions of the Johannine circle. Second, there are other biblical passages that clearly indicate that Jesus saw a distinct separation between himself and God. One result of the attempt to reconcile these contradictions was trinitarian doctrine, which holds that God is unitary, yet is also a hypostatic union of three Persons in perichoretic relationship. I don't think the mystery of the Trinity makes any logical or discursive sense, but it's a marvelous kong-an.




Charles said...

Great essay! I've always wanted to do a temple stay myself--and by "wanted" I mean: it would definitely be an interesting experience, but I would also probably find getting up at four o'clock in the morning very tiring. That must sound incredibly shallow, but if it weren't for that I would seriously think about trying it.

A few comments on various things:

1) I don't think your discussion of temple geography was as far off the mark as you might think. Granted, it could have been more nuanced, but I understood your point as being that Korean temple architecture conforms to the environment, rather than the other way around. In that regard, I think you're correct. There may be certain elements of form and layout, but they tend to be flexible.

2) On the Romanization of 스님... From everything I've seen, very few people actually use the Revised style, preferring to go with Sunim. I'm not sure about "sneem," though--it makes it sound more Japanese, where they really do swallow their vowels. (Have you heard from Andi, by the way? I know she had a blog for a while, but I've kind of lost track of her.)

3) 박 전도사님... We always used to refer to 전도사 as PITs, or "pastors in training." The word may literally mean "evangelist," but PIT is a more accurate rendition, I think. They're definitely not 선교사, though--there is a huge difference in terms of hierarchy between "evangelist" and "missionary" in the Korean church.

I just have to wonder why 박 전도사님 ever agreed to be your guide...

Anyway, that was a good read, as your long-form stuff usually is. Loved the pictures, too--especially the one at the end of a younger, hairier, and possibly more svelte (haven't seen you in a while, so I can't tell for sure) Hominid.

(Let's see, that's comments on four posts in a row. That has to be some kind of record.)

Kevin Kim said...


1. Thanks. I think, though, that my silly attempt to compare Buddhist temple layouts with that of Christian churches pretty much fell flat due to lack of fact-checking. At the same time, the "octopus settling among coral outcroppings" image does make a certain amount of sense of you factor in the hermitages, and their tentacular trails, that often surround the temple's main area.

2. I've never heard "sunim" pronounced with a distinct "seu" at the beginning, hence my joking "Sneem!" to Andi. There often seems to be a rush to get to the initial "n" of the second syllable. I liken this to the "eu"-abuse I hear in the Korean pronunciation of "Christmas": although I write it out as keu-ri-seu-ma-seu, what it generally sounds like is "krees-maas," with a Spanish-style "r" (i.e., off the tip of the tongue) and perhaps the faintest hint of an "eu" where the hyphen sits.

3. I appreciate the clarification. Even now, years later, I've never quite been able to decode how Korean Christians label themselves. There seem to be more than just pastors, elders, and deacons.

Mr. Park knew my #3 Ajumma (wife of Mom's third-eldest cousin); she asked him to accompany me to Haein-sa, and it was thanks to him that we got in and got ourselves a room without paying anything more than the temple's very cheap admission fee.

Yes, at 260 pounds, I was 40 pounds more svelte back then. It's been a while since I was at my 1989 Switzerland weight of 200.

Charles said...

Re: #2... Maybe it's just that I keep comparing it to Japanese. Who knows.

I thought of another comment while I was at the gym this morning, but I have since forgotten it.

Oh, wait, I remembered! It was about your comments on "Mmm, hmm." I had a similar experience, but the other way around, when I first came to Korea. I was teaching this girl English, and she kept saying, 예, 예. Being still quite unfamiliar with Korean at the time, I heard it as "yeah, yeah" and got somewhat annoyed. I never said anything, though, and later I found out that she was just being really polite. I felt bad about it in retrospect.

(According to the word verification, we are: "pards." Heh. I love you, too, Word Verification.)