Go East, Young Monk: a Western Touch at a Buddhist Blast
On Buddha's birthday, South Korea's 15 million adherents cut loose with a flurry of rites and celebrations. Foreigners were not excluded.
SEOUL — The sounds of swaying trees, rain pouring off garishly painted roofs, or a wooden clacker calling monks to eat are usually the only things one hears at Hwagye Temple.
But on Buddha's birthday - the biggest annual holiday for South Korea's 15 million Buddhists - adherents gathered in the early morning. The 2,541st birthday celebration on May 14 was reminiscent of a neighborhood block party with a truck blaring traditional instrumental music, food, and kids beating drums.
An eclectic group of Westerners who became ordained monks have become the rage in South Korea's media.
Myonghaeng, a twentysomething Cornell University graduate ("I used to be David") appears identical to his Korean colleagues in gray robes with shaved heads. Like 14 other foreigners hailing from South Africa to Hong Kong, he wants to exchange his worldly desires to help "all beings."
What training is like
Myonghaeng, which means "bright action," says, "almost every other occupation seems to be self-centered and harmful" to him. After a humbling year of labor, he recently underwent three weeks of monk training which he likens to "army boot camp."
Up at 3 a.m., the initiates heard endless lectures and did 1,000 prostrations a day - from standing, one bows until one's forehead, palms, and the tops of one's feet touch the ground.
If that sounds rough, it is. Zen masters punished dirty shoes, lateness, and other infractions with extra bowing. It's meant to "cultivate mindfulness," says Myonghaeng.
As a final rite, initiates burn their forearms with a candlewick for 10 seconds. Myonghaeng calls it a "brief experience of your Buddha nature."
Chongdo, or "clear path," used to be Geraldine Finegan from Baltimore. In America, she performed acupuncture for AIDS and drug detoxification patients, but felt inadequate counseling them. "I felt like I really need to face my own mortality [first]," she says. "Zen is freedom from life and death."
Another initiate, Miluk, says his American name "doesn't exist anymore."
He has an immovable presence, and his face twists intensely one moment, only to deflate the next as he rambles on about life. Based on a hospital ship during the Vietnam War, he says he would have committed suicide if he hadn't found Buddhism.
For three months in summer and winter, the monks and nuns head into the mountains for silent retreats. "A lot of speech is self-serving," says Chongdo. Not talking helps one to observe one's thoughts. By discovering "the habitual ways you relate to things, deeper unresolved issues come up."
You learn to "put [your ego] down and become more connected with the world around you," Myonghaeng says. Knowing oneself is the first step to helping others.
The Hwagye Temple is perched by the cascading waters of a creek, and sits on the border of Mt. Pukhan National Park and the congested city of Seoul.
Dating back to 1522, foreigners only arrived in 1984, thanks to Master Seung-san, one of three remaining Zen masters in America. He began establishing Zen centers in Cumberland, R.I., in 1972, and they are now on every continent.
Most Koreans regard foreign monks with curiosity and appreciation for traveling so far for Buddha. Others instinctively see them as outsiders.
Chongdo says it's good to be in a place with so much community support after "growing up kind of isolated" in America.
"Americans want to be individuals, but don't know what it means to be truly free," says Miluk.
'What am I?'
Taking a comfortable Lotus position, Changan, a Hungarian, explains how to empty one's mind. "Focus on your energy garden [just below the navel]," he says. "Now breathe in. 'What am I?' Breathe out. 'Don't know.'
"We're not interested in any textbook [answer, but in] how clearly you see truth and ... function. The Ultimate is beyond name and form," he says.
The goal is to return to "that center of existence without losing the true achievements" of modernity, he says, sitting beside cables from his computer and fax. Changan says many Christians come on retreats as laymen. Zen , he says, is "a non-religious but highly spiritual approach. We use Korean Buddhism as a vehicle.
A couple days before the birthday celebrations, Seoul's major congregations gathered in a downtown stadium. Their chant "form is emptiness" echoed skyward.
Carrying paper lotus lanterns, symbolizing the enlightened mind, nearly 20,000 people flowed down a major boulevard. Walking with a lantern, Lee says, "commemorates someone who tried harder to understand the meaning of life."
Drummers careened around, as a glowing dragon mounted on a float swung its tail and blasted smoke from its snout. At the destination, a pop star whose backup vocalists were dressed like baby Buddhas sang "Happy Birthday."
Many of South Korea's 10,000 temples are modest storefronts with a lotus lamp and bronze statues of Buddha in the window.