Day 6: Meditating in the countryside

Post 6, Friday Dec. 9, 2011

Day 6 – Meditating in the countryside

Wonhyo was known as a great harmonizer and reconciler. How important is harmony and how do we create it?

For the first time on the Wonhyo pilgrimage we stopped and meditated. It wasn’t planned.

We were looking at a Confucian shrine that overlooks a river valley not far from Dae Jeon Temple when Rhea Metituk, who joined us Thursday night, said this is such a great place to meditate.

Rhea, a Canadian who teaches English to children, used to attend Buddhist meditation classes with me in Seoul when I lived there about three years ago. When she heard about the Wonhyo Pilgrimage she grabbed the opportunity to attend while she had time, before she starts a new job in Pusan. She joined us about 9 pm Thursday night at Dae Jeon Temple.

So three of us – me, Rhea and Sangmin sunim – sat down on the brown wooden floor of the shrine overlooking the valley and meditated for half an hour. It was a clean-cut building, painted black and white with brown pillars. The meditation was refreshing and brought to mind the real reason for our pilgrimage – to look inwards and seek self understanding.

Sangmin sunim, the Jogye Order monk, who helped us so much on the first day of the pilgrimage, also returned to us on Thursday night. He arrived with handfuls of presents for the pilgrims and some Korean plasters for my painful left heel.

I had to get up twice in the night to urinate. The first time tiny white snowflakes speckled the air underneath the temple lights. The second time a dusty white covering coated the ground. I felt apprehensive. The pilgrimage would be in trouble if we had a heavy snow fall.

We got up about six am for breakfast, which consisted of miso soup, rice, lettuce, seaweed, kimchi and spicy radish in the common cafeteria. Right after breakfast Sarasu, the staff supervisor, invited us to a tiny room where we first thought a coffee ceremony was taking place. The  room was decorated with an old-style black-and-white sketch of misty mountains where the two nuns of the temple, Jeong Hyun sunim and Seong Muni sunim, were preparing coffee. Jeong Hyun was grinding the Ethiopian coffee beans and creating a mouth-watering smell.

The delicious Ethiopian coffee, mild without a bitter after taste, was just a starter. After coffee came cups of tea made from herbs gathered in the nearby mountains with the subtle taste of fresh berries of various kinds. “It’s good for your skin,” said Sarasu.

“And for nose disease,” added Sangmin sunim.

After the tea, when Sarasu discovered that Chris had recently had a birthday, she gave each of us a small pouch in which she had put money for good luck and a silk coaster.

We walked from the temple past the stalls and shops straggling up from the base of the mountain towards the temple – shops selling herbs, bark and berries for all kinds of aliments as well as religious souvenirs. I tried unsuccessfully to get some money from an ATM machine at the base of the mountain and then we began retracing our steps along a red, rubberized asphalt path until Chris realized that he couldn’t hear my walking stick tapping and I realized that I had left it in the ATM machine.

He took off back to retrieve it. (He is the fastest walker of us all.) And we continued along the red road, with the fast-flowing river on our left, the apple orchids on the right and the smell of manure or a chicken farm in our nostrils. A white heron flew up from the river and glided through our line of vision. Shards of clear ice glistened in the sun in muddy puddles as we settled down into a steady walk.

At the end of the red asphalt pathway, just to the left, was a roadside café – the one Chris and I were given free coffee the previous day – and we decided to wait there for Chris. We discussed Wonhyo and harmony while waiting for Chris and, after the meditation at the Confucian shrine, had lunch in a roadside restaurant in Cheongunri – spicy tofu stew with side dishes of fish, sprouts, lotus root and fried minnows

It was about 3 pm when we arrived at our destination of Cheongsong town. Sangmin inquired about temples and we were directed to one, which was a Confucian temple, and another one didn’t have facilities for overnighters. Somehow Mr. Choi, the staff member at Dae Jeon Temple, appeared in a car across the road from us. He volunteered to drive us to a third temple about a half hour’s drive from the town. It was a beautiful temple, but unfortunately had no facilities for us.

Back in town, we had a choice of three large hotel/motels and selected the one with a sauna. Mr Choi helped us carry our bags in and then we discovered he had also paid our hotel bill.  He was gone before we could stop him. We felt deeply grateful and decided we would send him a gift.

At the roadside café when we were discussing Wonhyo and harmony, Sangmin sunim said he was familiar with Wonhyo’s theory of Hwajaeng, an approach which does not recognize distinctions between negative and positive and postulates the interconnectedness of everything in the world. Wonhyo believed that the whole and the part exist as one. Sangmin sunim said Wonhyo has good theory but you have to be careful about some of his beliefs – for instance the belief that one could reach a heavenly state simply by repeating the name of the Buddha.

Rhea had said that mind is a like a drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion. She said you need courage to face internal issues and to integrate and harmonize conflicting elements. “In order to harmonize things, you have to bring things out into the open and deal with them,” she said. She said that examining the everyday mindset is the key to solving problems.

I think Wonhyo was on the right track. Enlightenment is a state of absolute harmony – harmony with yourself and all other powers and forces. When there is harmony there is no conflict. When there is no conflict, suffering is reduced. How do we achieve harmony? Through wisdom, proper behavior and compassion, and by developing the mind.

One Response to “Day 6: Meditating in the countryside”
  1. Kevin Kim says:

    “Wonhyo believed that the whole and the part exist as one. Sangmin sunim said Wonhyo has good theory but you have to be careful about some of his beliefs – for instance the belief that one could reach a heavenly state simply by repeating the name of the Buddha.”

    Definite echoes of Hua-yen (Kor. “hwa-eom,” 화엄) and Pure Land (Kor. “jeong-to” 정토) metaphysics, here. One of my Buddhism profs joked that Pure Land Buddhism is Protestant in tenor: calling on the name of the Amitabha Buddha is a form of “salvation by grace through faith.”

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