Transcend weekday stress, discover empty Zen mind
This isn’t a question the average person is asked every day, at least not in the metaphysical sense. So when the Venerable Oh Kwang asked me during a weekend-long retreat at the Seoul International Zen Center in Hwagye temple, I sat dumbfounded.
Which, apparently, is the appropriate response.
The bare-headed monk let my silence hang in the air before replying, “‘I don’t know’ is the closest answer.”
The aim of the retreat was not just to make peace with our ignorance, but to “return one’s mind to a state before knowing and not knowing,” the monk explained. It was also a chance for foreigners with limited Korean skills to participate fully in the Zen tradition.
On the retreat, the day starts at 3:30 a.m. with 108 bows ― down to the cushion, and then up again, followed by a series of chants. That gets the blood flowing. The rest of the day is consumed by hours of “sitting meditation,” concluding with sleep at 9 p.m.
Retreat activities take place on the fourth floor of the main temple building, in a long room with a modest altar containing three Buddha statues.
On Saturday night, many of the retreat participants were “interviewed” by the Venerable Hyon Gak, the center’s well-known guiding teacher. Hyon Gak is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and author of the best-selling Korean book “Ma Haeng: From Harvard to Hwagye Temple.”
Again, I did not acquit myself particularly well.
He asked, “Where did you come from?”
“Nowhere?” I tentatively answered.
“Nowhere?” he replied. “So you just came into existence, poof, out of nothing?”
I sat quietly.
“Even nowhere is already somewhere,” he said, and launched into an explanation of the Buddhist concept of “primary point,” the place before form and “opposites thinking” that we were supposed to attain through sitting meditation.
This made sense. But I felt a surprising disappointment. After a weekend of meditation, I realized I had always secretly wished that apprehending spiritual truth would involve complicated intellectual acrobatics. The monks instructed me that it invovled “don’t know mind.”
But the mental challenge was nothing compared to the physical one. It is difficult to empty one’s mind when one’s left leg insists on going completely numb every ten minutes. Fortunately, the monks are happy to give pointers and suggestions for stretching exercises to increase flexibility.
My pain seemed petty compared to what the real devotees must have endured. On Saturday night, the retreat participants were invited to join the Korean temple members in performing “3,000 bows” in the main hall, from 9 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. Fortunately, this was optional. So we slept and awoke to the same rumbling sounds of Korean chanting, knowing it accompanied the physical exertions by students of the Dharma much sturdier than us.
Relatively speaking, this retreat was very forgiving to novices. A more experienced participant, Mark Herbetmann, gave me some friendly advice and pointed out how lucky I was to be at Hwagye.
“I think compared to other retreats the discipline here is less. They want to attract new people,” he said. “In this school you are allowed to stand up if the pain gets too intensive. When I practice in Germany they always say, ‘Don’t move, don’t move.’”
“Sometimes when you shift positions to get more comfortable it only gets worse,” he said. “You might want to try not moving.”
I did my best, and by the final session on Sunday morning I had coaxed my legs into a position that, though painful, didn’t cut off blood circulation as severely.
I may not have found enlightenment over those three days, but the regular schedule and vegetarian fare did make me feel healthier and calmer than I have in months of irregular meals and erratic sleep.
Jeong Weon-hee, a resident of Bundang who was finishing her three-week stay at the temple as a volunteer, felt the same way. “Time passes so slowly here, because it’s so peaceful and I don’t have to worry about something,” she said. “It’s good to sleep when your body wants to sleep and wake up when it’s good to wake up.”
by Ben Applegate
The Seoul International Zen Center can be reached via taxi from Suyu station on line No. 4. The center runs weekly meditation sessions followed by a Dharma talk on Sundays starting at 1 p.m. The winter retreat is now underway and lasts until February 12. All are welcome to join the retreat and leave at their convenience. The fee can be paid in either American or Korean currency, and one full week costs $175 or 220,000 won. For more details, see the Web site at www.seoulzen.org or call (02) 900-4326.