Forty-five granite steps climb above the green to the temple’s face. Three segments of thirteen steeply inclined stairs make their way to the uppermost platform upon which Dabosa sits. Six more footfalls take the walker to the temple structure's great doors. Dark, thick bee sap falls from the awning and collects in a gooey splat, feeding hordes of well-nourished ants. Detailed paintings of Buddha's life adorn the interior walls, a story laid out beneath a ceiling saturated with lotus flowers. Finely carved wooden dragon heads spiral above the focal effigy of Buddha. Paper lanterns and flowers hang from the ceiling, white and pink and bright, hovering above the meditation cushions.
|Looking down on the residence and dining hall from Dabosa|
Dabosa is nestled amidst thick forest that clings to the steep Sobaek Mountains of central South Korea. Sandy bedrock cliffs jut out of the canopy like spots of skin revealed beneath the furry green coat. Small farms and a narrow road tuck in alongside the clear creek that carves the valley. All the eye sees is forest, rock, cloud and sky in all directions, the vista enveloped and protected by Sognisan National Park. The ear is treated to the almost electric whirring of cicadas from mid-morning on with the accompanying chorus of birds, bees, and breeze through the trees. It feels like a long way from anywhere, and indeed the bus ride here ferried me through endless landscape paintings of rivers and hills, sparse settlements and fields of crops three and a half hours from the capital city of Seoul in the north.
Eight times a day I ascend to the meditation hall, beginning pre-dawn under the starlight, continuing through sunrise and the heat of mid-day, with the final trip after nightfall as the cool mountain air permeates camp. The slow climb encourages a focused entry into the coming sit, a preparation for the internal work I am about to do. The even slower descent is a product of the radical pain flaring through my knee joints, a byproduct of sitting for long hours and releasing the hellfire from within (more on that later).
|Yinchuan, China in May|
At the base of the steps is a small lawn, partitioned into two for male and female usage. Upon this lawn the participants of this ten day meditation course saunter, stroll, pace, power walk, lope and do laps. There is no contact permitted between students. This includes speech, eye contact, gesturing and physical touch. We are prohibited from writing, reading, and engaging in essentially anything that would distract us from the work we have come here to do: sharpening and purifying the mind.
With all of these distractions removed, and still having free time between sits, naps, and eating, I delve into the rich life of my surroundings. Giant frogs, tree frogs, mini-toads, dragonflies, ugly-butts, cicadas, praying mantis, long-green-legs, ants, spiders, and bees. The small green metamorphoses into an insanely interesting and incredible insectorium filled with hours of entertainment and rumination.
A small cord bisects the lawn, keeping the (human) sexes segregated. The local dragonfly population has noted the perfect positioning of this line and its members sit perched upon it, using it as a hunting platform from which they can launch and devour their prey. I encounter one just as he touches down on the cord, the head of a sizable gnat in his mouth. The legs of his captive kick in constant struggle as he slowly munches away, jaw extending down and away from his oblate head and engulfing bit by bit the gnat’s entire body. Legs continue to flail as the transparent wings pop off as if they were connected by cheap, desiccated glue. The dragonfly works his mouth unhurriedly. The gruesomely fascinating display bolsters my recent decision to relinquish my own carnivorous habits.
|Where do sunflower seeds come from?|
I am particularly fond of the dragonflies. They are stunning creatures, clothed in a broad spectrum of spectacular colors, crimson flowing to burnt orange and radiating gold, amber speckled with jade, lightning bolt yellow across a body of black. And their relative ease with my proximity offers the opportunity for extreme close-ups and advanced scrutiny. Their head is quite large, and the neck by which it is attached to the rest of the torso surprisingly small. Their eyes are massive, dusty and opaque, the color of rust at the apex, and becoming increasingly metallic and mirrored toward the base. They have an endearing way of cocking their head to the side while they view you, somewhat like a dog does when it hears a perplexing sound, but considerably more buggy in character.
A much less aesthetic member of the lawn community is the ugly-butts, as I have so named them because they have ugly butts. They appear to be a blend between malnourished bumblebees and elongated horseflies, though fortunately with neither the biting nor stinging capacity of their unlikely relatives. They are hairy, with bristles covering the rear half of their body and sprouting from between their eyes. In flight their wings produce a sound like a giant mosquito, and their skinny little hairy butt rises up in the air akin to a scorpion’s tail preparing to strike. This style of flight strikes me as particularly ungainly and gross.
What I assume to be the males are infinitely occupied with finding a mate. They have a white film oozing from the tip of their rear, which is likely some kind of sperm/egg/or supercharged hormone they wish to swap with a member of the opposite sex. Perched upon a step, rail, or other elevated surface, they scout for ladies who may be huddling in the grass. Bullying is standard to maintain a good viewing platform, and fisticuffs erupt whenever one’s zone has been infiltrated by another.
|At Seolleung Royal Tombs, Seoul|
When finally a mate is selected, they link butts. This ritual grossly lacks style and grace, in stark contrast to the mating dance of the dragonfly. Stacked one on top of the other, the dragonflies both face the same direction and hover in unison, apparently enjoying their brief union. Grounded or aloft, the pair moves together as a unit. The ugly-butts apply no such form to their reproductive function. Facing away from their ugly partner, the only thing connecting the two are their hairy rear ends. When forced into flight, one dangles behind the other and struggles to flap its wings, producing a sickly dissonant hum as it flies in reverse. Most unpleasant to behold.
At the base of the stairway leading up to Dabosa sits a giant granite urn. Functioning as a cistern to catch rain-water for use by the residents of the grounds, the half-spherical stone goblet spills overflow into a smaller rectangular basin and then out again into a drain. At the very rear of the urn is a small hole, which I presume connects to a well that plunges into the bedrock below. Seeing no pump, I wonder if it is an artesian well. In that tiny hole lives a small frog, jade green and very cute.
|My good friends Lena and Derek in Shanghai|
She remains settled back in her niche through the heat of the day, but in the early and late hours when the air is ripe with insects to be plucked, she edges herself out to the brim of her abode and snipes unsuspecting bugs mid-flight. She is rather skittish and my multiple attempts to approach her have all been rebuffed. I’m guessing she’s already taken.
The next morning I come across a small praying mantis upon the white and black crystalline stone. Leaning close to deepen my inspection, I note how wobbly he looks when he walks, with such a wobble you could call it a hobble. He has none of the speed or precision of the little mantis from Kung Fu Panda, and I wonder why a world renowned martial art would want to emulate such an awkward looking creature. I briefly consider trying to roundhouse kick him to see how he may counter my attack, but seeing as that may distract the other meditators I decide to refrain. I watch him penguin-mantis walk a little further, as if on two peg legs that have been overly worn down and need replacing, and then leave him to his mysterious training regimen.
You are probably wondering what kind of “sharpening” and “purification” (heavy emphasis on the quotes) of mind I am doing when it seems that my only achievement is a reversion to a childlike simplicity of thought. But this in itself is part of the work I am doing: to be present in this moment. To be here now. To see the beauty and richness of that which surrounds us, and to dive in and relish it as a child would. To embrace the beginner’s mind, as Shunryu Suzuki describes it.
And when we begin to see the fullness of the now, the brimming juices flowing from every experience, we find that what we have is more than sufficient. That wonder exists in the mundane. That a walk to the store contains an epic poem beyond the Odyssey in scope, and that a slice of watermelon is so saturated with ecstasy that my roommate Dan can’t resist polishing one off in only two sittings (he’s a pretty happy guy). That we can find our own Eden in our backyard, in our everyday.
|Friend and fellow meditator Sasha in Seoul|
But these realizations take work. We have been trained out of seeing things with this vision. We wander aimlessly in the misty, tangled cloudforests of our past and the shifting new moon shadows of our future. We rush through our days to get to the next five p.m. clockout, weekend or vacation.
So we must work to retrain our minds, to remind ourselves how to be aware. There are a multitude of phenomena that reach our sense organs every moment, and produce unconscious responses in the body and mind. To begin to observe that flow of input and response is the key to gaining deeper insight into how we act and behave. To understand ourselves and our environment. As Deepak Chopra describes, our bodies are a “cosmic computer,” through which we can listen to the song of the universe. With such a magnificent melody forever engulfing us, how could we instead choose to don our i-Pod ear buds or let our smart-phone multi-media digital machines suck us in?
The work is not easy. To return to the aforementioned hellfire; I am beginning to gain some understanding of the commonly used Christian terms of purgatory and hellfire. They always appeared to me to be scare tactics to frighten the listener into living a moral life based on the effects in the afterlife. Sin and you will wander the barren plains of purgatory, somewhere between heaven and hell, cold and alone. Or worse, be scalded, boiled, burned, and tortured in the ever plunging circles of Lucifer’s inferno, according to your crime.
But to believe that we must wait until death to reap the fruit of our action (whether sour or sweet) is an illusion and disservice. Anger burns within this body, and the products of this fiery furnace, all soot, smoke and ash, absolutely manifest in my daily mental state and course of action. Buddha described anger as a hot coal in a fire that we have picked up, planning to throw at someone or something, the object of our rage. Yet the coal never truly leaves our hand, as the seething emotions are never truly delivered to their target, and we boil inside just as the hot coal burns flesh.
|King Sejong the Great, who created hangeul, the Korean alphabet, seated in Seoul|
When the anger is not observed and let go, it gets stored in our body, in our unconscious mind, as a habit pattern of response. The storage tanks of the unconscious are vast and deep indeed! So when I sit, and observe what I feel and experience in this moment, both in body and mind, the old anger bubbles up, boils up, and manifests as very real hellfire throughout my body. Oftentimes the flames of pain lick around my knees and ankles, shooting up and down my legs as if I am stewing half-submerged in a cast-iron cauldron.
I use anger here because it is my strongest negative emotion with which I battle. Others will likely experience other strong negative emotions that overpower them from time to time. And often our unchecked emotions push us away from those we care about, in the form of open conflict or through the more subtle workings of pride and envy. Ultimately we can even lose ourselves in these experiences, not understanding why we feel a certain way or being confused about an irrational act or statement. Why am I so agitated? How could I hurt someone I love like that? And is this not purgatory, wandering alone through life, without even the solace of the self, an understanding of our own inner workings?
The beauty and richness of life and the world we live in is here. We just have to start seeing. The light and strength and love are within all of us, we just have to start believing. And then when the path is revealed to us, we just have to start walking.
As S.N. Goenka says, “only you can work out your own liberation. No one else can do it for you.”