I am not a fit person. I’m not wheezing my way up flights of stairs or making weird grunting noises when I get up from my sofa, well, not loud ones anyway, but I’m not exactly “active”. And nowhere was this made more apparent than during an overnight stay in the Bulguksa Buddhist Temple in South Korea.
Located in Gyeongju-si, in the South-East of the Korean peninsula, Bulguksa is a UNESCO World Heritage Listed structure designed to be “an architectural representation of paradise”. As such, everything has meaning and purpose.
The two stone staircases used to access the temple are named Bridge of White Clouds and Bridge of Azure Clouds and represent an ascension from the real world to the spiritual one.
And the other-worldliness of the place is not limited to its man-made features, as the whole complex is nestled amidst a misty, mystical looking ‘stepping stone’ forest. A place where, on my visit, trees, stripped bare by winter, jutted out between huge slabs of moss-covered stone and adults leapt excitedly from stone to stone like children while keeping a watchful eye out for deer and centaurs.
Actually, that was probably just me.
After being given a guided tour of the complex and ample time for quiet contemplation and selfies, we were ushered into the large hall that we would soon be meditating, prostrating, and sleeping in. We changed into formless light-blue pyjamas to wear for the rest of our stay (which I’m guessing made us easier to spot in the event of an unlikely “temple break out” later in the evening) and sat down for afternoon tea and a Q&A session with the head monk.
Short, robed and thoughtful, the monk told us, via a translator, about being a typical teenager living in Seoul, who, following his 17th birthday, decided to devote his life to Buddhism much to the chagrin of his parents who wanted him to become a doctor. He went onto say that, although his decision meant making many sacrifices and disappointing a great many people in his life, it was the right path for him. He didn’t find any joy in modern conveniences and preferred the austerity and simplicity of life in the temple.
We all nodded sagely and agreed that the world was getting way too noisy, distracting and superficial, all the while secretly wondering if the temple had WI-FI so we could tweet about it.
When it was time to ask questions, mine went something like: “Should I be focusing on something specific when I meditate, or should I be thinking of nothing? And, if it’s nothing, what is nothing exactly? And why is nothing so hard to think about? And, isn’t thinking about nothing actually thinking about something?”
Wisely, his translator turned my garbled, word salad into a much more articulate and streamlined statement, something like: “She has trouble meditating” and the monk nodded, paused for a moment, pushed his wire-framed glasses up his nose and said: “You’re overthinking it.”
My struggle with meditation now a thing of the past, it was time to quieten our monkey minds, bring our awareness back to our breathing and achieve total relaxation.
Before that day, I’d never really considered meditation a group activity, and after having experienced a communal mediation session I still don’t, but I have to admit that after many days of travelling, room sharing and sightseeing as a group, it was lovely to be quiet and still for 40 minutes. It’s just unfortunate that it was all just a prelude to an exhausting Buddhist practice known as the 108 prostrations.
Effectively a sequence of bows, the 108 prostrations are designed to align body and mind in
excruciating pain peace. The sequence goes like this, begin with a standing bow, followed by a drop to the knees, a deep forehead-to-the-floor bow and back on your feet for another standing bow. Rinse and repeat 108 times.
If that’s hard to follow, here’s a handy video to demonstrate:
As an extra physical challenge and spiritual twofer, our group would also be making our own string of prayer beads during the ritual. Every drop to the floor required us to thread a bead before standing up again. And this all had to be done, quickly, mindfully and in unison.
To help, a drum was beaten to keep the time. Actually, now that I think about it, that could have just been the continuous thump of 8 pairs of knees all hitting the wooden floor at the same time. We had been provided with a cushion for our pampered, wussy, western kneecaps, but by the 10th drop to the floor it may as well have been an ice cream wafer for all the comfort it provided.
The ritual was (at least for me) fast paced, uncomfortable and frustrating. Mercifully, being temple visitors, we were permitted to stop and rest during the ritual, but there was no opportunity to “make-up” prostrations later and we were still expected to string our beads in time with the group. Admirably, 5 out of the 8 people in my group completed the ritual without stopping.
I was not one of them. After 15 prostrations I knew I was beat. My feet and legs, which had been throbbing from all the walking we’d done on the tour were screaming at me to rest. So I did. And, once I did, my monkey-mind went to town, tossing up question after question, including this little gem:
“If Buddhism is ultimately about the achievement of enlightenment, isn’t my realisation that “this experience is not for me”, a kind of enlightenment in itself?”
This was swiftly followed by the thoughts:
“Wait, did I just achieve enlightenment?”
“Is that a squirrel?”
and “I wonder what’s for dinner.”
Of course, nothing makes you feel more of a useless-bovine-flesh-sack than seeing elderly people nailing something you can’t do without coughing up a lung, so my “enlightenment” was tarnished somewhat the next day when I saw local women in their 80s repeating the prostration sequence effortlessly.
Still, rather than beat myself up about the previous night’s failure, I decided to reframe the situation with the help of a little Buddhist self-acceptance. And, as I continued to watch the petite, track-suited, Korean great-grandmothers gracefully move through the sequence of bows without breaking a sweat, I simply acknowledged and accepted the fact: that I was out of shape.
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