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Kate's Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Kate Liptrot
"All Americans are weak" proclaims my chauffeur, an overweight and garrulous monk. He is taking full advantage of having an audience, and we sit politely as he continues his scathing monologue, dismissing whole vast areas of society in seconds. "They're not like the Koreans. We are able to control ourselves" he informs us self assuredly.
We met at Busan's Beomeosa temple. Gratefully my friend and I accepted the offer of a ride back in to the city, thanking him for his kindness and complimenting the Koreans in general on their willingness to help us. "Do you think that it is merely kindness?" He asked, smiling. "Men like to assist you. You are pretty young girlsâ€¦"
As the mountain recedes behind us and we are swallowed in to the concrete mass of the city, he talks of his Cadillac and of life in LA. In fact, he talks on many subjects whilst negotiating the hour long drive. "Chained people!" he declares dismissively as we pass a wedding car.
Wishing to divert the conversation on to a less controversial topic, I ask about the Buddhist stance on creation. He asserts that the idea is for "small minded people. The world simply is, and people who believe differently are ignorant". All things considered, he seems displeased with the majority of the world's citizens.
This dismissiveness is disconcerting. The renunciation of ego and ambition that is represented by the shaved head and simple robes of this man clash with his desire to force his opinions upon us and have us believe that all alternative ideas are inferior. I become more and more anxious to get out of the car.
"Where are you taking us?" I ask. His reply is mocking, "I'm abducting you. Are you scared?" A little, in truth, because it is almost possible that he is a fraud, so great is the difference between him and my expectations.
In fact, he drops us where promised and soon afterwards my friend and I make a resolve to seek out a Buddhist experience which will counteract this one and reconfirm that monks lead a selfless, peaceful life.
Templestay Korea beckons. The slogan runs: â€˜Changing the way you see the world'. As my view of monks has already been changed once, I now hope that it will be returned to what it formerly was. The Templestay program offers the chance to spend twenty four hours in a temple, and in the days leading up to our stay visions of be-robed monks, seated in meditative silence or drinking green tea, fill my head.
The Zen calm of the temple has been broken long before we arrive by a huge cement mixer, the presence of which rather overwhelms the small grounds. Not wanting to let this colour our judgement, we calmly sit drinking tea and await the arrival of Patrick, who, we are told in broken English, will be able to converse with us.
Patrick soon appears, shaking his hair out of his motorcycle helmet. We take a glance at the gleaming red Harley parked outside. By this point we have been joined by four other foreigners, one of whom gives voice to our confusion and asks Patrick why he doesn't shave his head. "I'm not a monk." Ah. Who are you then? "I practice Buddhism and so they offered me a job here, showing you guys around."
Meditation doesn't begin until five o clock, so we accompany our host on a walk up to a nearby rice paddy, the brilliant yellow field suddenly revealing it self as we emerge from the surrounding orchards. It forms the ideal setting for a moment of tranquillity, something which the building site at the temple does not.
Fortunately, the cement has been laid by the time that we are ready to begin meditation. We are seated in one of the temple's main ceremonial halls before the shrine, and as always when confronted with the bronze statues, paper lotus prayers and vast arrays of flowers, I can not help but find the spectacle a little gaudy. The Korean love of all things kitsch has truly found an outlet in their temple decor.
I close my eyes. Patrick has explained two options: watch your thoughts or watch your breath. The former requires a level of detachment which I don't believe my fidgety brain to be capable of, so I opt for the latter. Unfortunately, there is one huge distraction. Walmart. Our journey here took us past it, and as I sit in the early evening gloom my greedy mind can not resist lingering over thoughts of all those coveted western goods, sitting waiting to bring an infusion of America in to my Korean life.
It is the first of three meditation sessions, the second taking place at 5am the following morning. The difficulty on this occasion is not keeping my lively brain in check, but rather the opposite. I am close to sleep and longing to be back on my mat, soaking up the warmth of the Ondol heating system.
We four girls crawl back on to our warm sleeping mats before 6am, only to be awoken by one of the resident children, calling us for breakfast. In the dining room, the temple's only nun waits for us as we bustle in, late and bleary. She is a calm presence amongst a random assortment of foreigners, the occasional long term guest, and a handful of children, one of whom is her adopted daughter.
I consider the life of this child. It seems on first glance to be very far removed from that of the pampered, ambitious Hagwon students so well known to foreigners in Korea, yet perhaps this is not entirely so. Just like them she is subject to a rigid and tiring daily schedule, and just like them she is constantly in the presence of westerners, their language, and their tastes. I think again of Patrick's Harley.
The temple's tangible lack of a strong monastic presence would appear to be a contributing factor to the diluted nature of the traditional experience. Monks would seem rather an essential ingredient to gaining an insight into the life of a, well, a monk. But then, as Patrick so concisely puts it: "This is the anti-Templestay".
Perhaps I am not cut out for the full Buddhist experience anyway. My closest encounter comes at the end of our stay: a one and a half hour lecture, delivered entirely in Korean. One of the objects of meditation is strengthening concentration skills and gaining the ability to sit and observe your emotions without being subject to them. Patrick defines our feelings as â€˜internal weather'. Were anyone to take a forecast, they would discover that I am experiencing a miserable downpour. The sheer boredom of sitting, comprehending nothing, is true practice in the art of Zen calm.
Having apparently nailed the goal of living entirely in the moment and not contemplating the past or future, Patrick had neglected to plan in advance any real itinerary for our trip. So it was that the previous night we found ourselves pouncing upon his suggestion of watching a movie, in wont of any more authentic pursuits being on offer. Thematically, â€˜Seven Years in Tibet' has some relevance, but this did not entirely alleviate my guilt as we sat watching it under the gaze of three huge Buddha statues, the TV being situated in the ceremonial hall.
As we watched I recalled how in conversation earlier that day Patrick had refuted various assumptions that we as a group held about monks. "They're human, they still have egos" he explained as I described to him the narrow mindedness displayed by my Buddhist chauffeur in Busan. Turning my attention back to the screen, I watch Brad Pitt listening with confusion as the way of the Tibetan people, their renunciation of ambition, is explained to him. Both he and I are coming to realise that a little insight in to a culture can result not in clarification but in yet more uncertainty.
The stay may not have changed my view of the world wholesale, as the brochure promises, but I have questioned and scrutinised it as a result of what I have seen. As with so much that I have encountered during my time in Korea, it is not the cultural differences that take me by surprise, it is the similarities.
I came to the temple expecting an utter retreat from the modern world, and yet I found Brad Pitt next to Buddha, and Patrick with his electric guitar down in the prayer room. The Korean meeting of east and west continues to enthral and entertain me, and it will take more than one night in a temple before I fully understand its many complexities.
October 22 , 2005