Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

South Korea: Bootcamp for Buddhists

So busy is Audrey Young reflecting on the meaning of life and concentrating while practising her '108 bows' at the Haeinsa Temple in South Korea, that she doesn't even get around to breaking open her emergency rations.

The Haeinsa Temple in South Korea. Photo / Thinkstock
The Haeinsa Temple in South Korea. Photo / Thinkstock

If you're in pursuit of the meaning of life, Do Mu Ji is not your monk. His name means Just Don't Know. He lives at Haeinsa Temple in South Korea, where he is our host.

He is politely welcoming but restrained. His name is pretty much the motto he lives by.

At the monastery Just Don't Know wears black slipper-shoes that have small question marks stencilled on them.

It is a motif by which to recognise them from the dozens of others lined up outside the Buddha hall where prostration takes place, three sessions a day. We learn all this over several sessions with our host monk.

Do Mu Ji ("Just Don't Know"), a monk at Haeinsa Temple in South Korea. Photo / Audrey Young

He makes it clear he is not interested in providing answers to soul-searching questions such as: where did I come from? Where will I go when I die?

Uncertainty is a virtue.

Do Mu Ji is the name given to him by another monk, one who came to him in a dream soon after he answered the call.

The call came in 2003. He was a law student from Daegu in the south of the country when a subway train fire claimed 200 lives in February. A month later, the invasion of Iraq also had a profound effect.

"There are two types of monks," he tells us, a fresh intake of visitors who have arrived a few hours earlier from Seoul.

The first type want to escape the grind of studying, graduating, marrying, having children and working so hard they have no time to ask the basic questions of life: where did I come from? Where will I go when I die. What am I truly?

The second type have witnessed the death of someone in their family or a close friend and are confronted with their own mortality and emptiness of their lives.

"I am the second," he says.

Life in the monastery has few distractions. Photo / Thinkstock

He doesn't volunteer the personal information.

It is drawn out of him over two sessions where we are told we can ask him anything.

There are 14 in our temple stay group, young and old, some fit and nimble and well practiced in yoga and meditation and some not.

I could have told our host I arrived at the temple in the belief there are two types of visitors: those who seek enlightenment in the contemplation of the meaning of life, and those who are just plain nosy.

I am the second type. I'm as interested in what's on the monks' clothesline (clothes) and why they have a satellite TV dish (for their satellite TV) as I am in enlightenment.

The only personal dilemma facing me at the temple is whether taking chocolate to the temple stay is cheating.

Apparently the occasional luxury is no problem.

The most important thing to forgo is boisterous behaviour. And that is easy. The tranquillity of the environment demands it.

Haeinsa Temple is one of the most famous in Korea - set in the picture-perfect mountains of Gayasan National Park. But it didn't end up there because of the scenery.

Under the Joseon dynasty, which began in 1392, Buddhism went into decline and was pushed out of the cities and into the mountains, while the influence of Confucianism took hold.

The Tripitaka Koreana (which record Buddhist scriptures) in the Panjeon Hall, at Haeinsa Temple in South Korea. Photo / Audrey Young

We are each given a set of brown cotton trousers and a jacket to wear when we arrive and allocated communal sleeping rooms, men and women being segregated.

The guest quarters are spartan apart from blankets, pillows and quilts but what the floor lacks in mattresses, it makes up for in under-floor heating.

Dressed in our brown uniforms we are ready for lessons from our monk in temple etiquette, meditation and bowing.

We are practising for what is billed as "108 bows" after a 3am wake-up call, though graceful bowing doesn't quite describe what is expected of us - "squat thrusts" would be closer.

There is a lot of standing up and down, crouching, kneeling, and stretching.

We are instructed where to put our legs, how to straighten our backs, how to turn our palms, and where to keep our eyes.

Just Don't Know has a friendly prodding stick to help with adjustments where required but he is a very tolerant taskmaster and you are allowed to go at your own pace. Written rules for temple etiquette are posted on the wall.

Noble Silence, for example, is encouraged as a way of having a conversation with yourself. "Experience the joy of looking inward."

The spartan routine leaves much time for thought. Photo / Audrey Young

Meals are a part of the spiritual practice of a temple, the rules say. You are to eat in silence with no slurping or clanking of bowls.

"Comments about the taste or quality of the food are highly discouraged."

In the interests of obeying the rules I have nothing to say here about the taste or quality of the food, absolutely nothing, although I can say that after a less-than-noble silent conversation with myself over dinner I decide that bringing chocolate and melons is not cheating.

We are asked to walk everywhere in two lines and to keep silent.

Silence is broken after dinner for a ritual beating of the dharma drum to call all monks to the 6pm service in the main Buddha hall.

The drumming master is videoed by a colleague on his Galaxy tablet so as to play it back to him later - in the interests of perfecting the technique.

A monk uses a tablet to film another monk playing a dharma drum at Haeinsa Temple in South Korea. Photo / Audrey Young

We are then back for tea and a session with Just Don't Know to throw more questions at him.

We've only been here four hours and he is relaxing.

"Guys, did you get drunk last night? You all look very tired."

He tells us the number of bows is 108 because there are 108 afflictions - presumably each bow keeps one away.

He tells us that he has cut off all contact with his family, except for one visit to see his father in hospital.

He tells us that to become a monk you have to be under 50, have no criminal convictions or tattoos, no disease and no wife.

The closest he gets to trying to convert us to say that: "Jesus is like a shepherd and the people are like sheep. With Buddhism, everybody can become a shepherd."

We retreat to the under-floor heating for a few hours sleep before the 3am rise and 108 bows - and I'm too tired to cut up the melon or open the chocolate.

The early morning prostrations are performed to the soothing sounds of chanting monks, and intermittent creaking knees as we rise and kneel and bend and stretch on the temple mats, followed by a session of theoretical contemplation at dawn in our own private Buddha hall.

This turns out not be as relaxing as it sounds, with Just Don't Know quietly patrolling the group with his stick, prodding a leg here, a hand there.

After breakfast about which, again, nothing can be said, he and some colleagues take us on a private tour of one of the most precious Buddhist collections in the world - before the tourist packs arrive.

The Tripitaka Koreana is a set of 81,258 blocks, engraved more than 800 years ago, which record Buddhist scriptures, laws and treatises. They were carved over 16 years into slabs of birch wood that had been immersed in the sea for three years.

The building in which the tablets have been protected for centuries, the Panjeon Hall, has Unesco World Cultural Heritage status, and the collection itself is designated a world cultural record.

It seems Do Mu Ji has come to know us better over 17 hours and we are given rare permission to take photos not only of the Tripitaka Koreana but in some of the Buddha halls as well.

As we head back to make our farewells it seems wrong not to at least to ask him about the meaning of life: where does he think we come from and where do we go when we die?

Uncertainty is his virtue.

"If you think you know, you are already wrong," he says, sounding decidedly all-knowing.

"There is no answer."

The Haeinsa Temple in South Korea. Photo / Thinkstock

It's a glorious place for a temple, perched on its various levels up the mountain. There has been a lot more exercise than contemplation - climbing steep steps as well the prostration - a sort of temple boot camp in the nicest possible surroundings.

But it is the people who have counted most. We head down the hill for our farewells and sincere thanks.

The only thing I have to give is just the untouched melon and chocolate, and he is very pleased.

That much I know.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Korean Air flies from Auckland to Seoul four times a week. From October 27 it will be five times a week and from December 17 the service will be daily.

The South Korean Templestay Programme: See eng.templestay.com.

Further information: See koreabeinspired.com.au for more on travelling in Korea.

The writer was a guest of the Korea Tourism Organisation.

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