Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Korea Herald article

Bell at Hwagyesa temple

The Korea Herald must find writers hard to come by these days because today they published a story I wrote along with the above picture:

Far from the madding crowd
By Aly Young

In Korea, there is an abundance of Buddhist temples to explore, but as a foreigner wanting to experience Buddhist meditation and Dharma talks in English without doing a temple stay there are limited options.

However, during my first month in Korea I was lucky enough to stumble into the Seoul International Zen Center located at Hwagyesa temple in northeast Seoul.

Every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. foreigners and Koreans alike can sit and meditate together in 30 minute periods, each separated by 10 minutes of walking meditation. At 3 p.m. a Dharma talk is given in English, usually with consideration that there will be newcomers to Buddhism in the audience.

The temple was founded in 1523 by Master Shinwol and burned down in 1618, then rebuilt the following year. It fell into disrepair and was repaired in the late 19th century. It now houses several famous statues, including a carving of the Bodhisattva Kstitigarbha as well as two urns donated by the Queen Consort of King Honjong.

I found Hwagyesa temple 5 months ago and have since been to many Sunday meditation sittings, Dharma talks and even a weekend of "Kyol Che" with the monks where I woke at 3:30 a.m. and participated in chanting, bowing and 9 hours of meditation each day.

Kyol Che translates into 'Tight Dharma' and refers to a 90-day summer and winter meditation retreat when monks spend the majority of each day meditating.

It was a very new experience to have such intense, disciplined introspection. When I thought about long periods of meditation before that weekend I had imagined a rather undeviating experience of sitting and merely clearing my mind. The roller coaster of thoughts and emotions I actually experienced was very far from that preconceived idea.

In the beginning I went to the temple out of curiosity. I continue to go because of the all-encompassing question that Buddhism has sparked within me: What am I?

The chaos of the city melts away within the serene confines of Hwagyesa Temple, despite it being just a short walk from the crowded streets of Seoul.

When I walk through the temple gate on Sam Gak mountain I feel detached from the city. A stream runs alongside the path to the temple, which leads to one of the entrances to Bukhansan National Park right before coming to the Main Buddha Hall.

The meditation period begins with the hollow wooden beating of the chugpi. I sit propped up on a pillow in the half-lotus position and begin letting the thoughts and emotions collected in a week of teaching kindergartners and a lifetime full of attachments drift away.

Pursuing meditation has admittedly not been an easy undertaking, but the more I do it the easier it becomes.

The Dharma talk that follows is usually an hour long followed by questions from the audience.

On this particular weekend the room was crowded in anticipation of hearing the inspiring and entertaining words of Hyon Gak Sumin, the guiding teacher for Hwagyesa.

He was born into a large Catholic family in New Jersey, graduated from Yale and received his Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard. He decided to become a monk after meeting Zen Master Seung Sahn (the founder of the Seoul International Zen Center) at Harvard, and has since written the bestseller "Man Haeng: From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah Temple" and translated several of Sahn's English-language works into Korean.

The Dharma talk was unscripted and interactive, and many times drew laughter from the audience. Questions of innocence and evil, cartoons and killing and the impermanence of everything were all discussed. At one point Buddhism was even related to The Matrix.

Hyon Gak Sunim answered many questions with a simple, "shut your mouth," and at one point had a confused questioner come up to where he was sitting in order to hit him with his wooden stick.

However he was not being rude, he simply wanted the questioners to to use their "don't know minds," to clear their minds of preconceptions.

Besides being a very entertaining and passionate speaker, Hyon Gak Sunim has a very important message behind his words that cannot be taught through just his speaking.

To get to Hwagyesa take subway line 4 to Suyu station and go out exit 3. Take bus 2 to Hwagyesa stop. From there it's a 5 minute walk up the mountain.

For more information visit www.seoulzen.org.