Friday, July 29, 2011

Final Month: An Action-Packed July

SO much to write about. No intro here. Just getting right to the point. (Remember that the HUGE events of July were the last days of work and my Templestay experience. Those got separate posts.)

1. Makkoli Factory: Makkoli is a popular rice wine here, and it was fun to go to a factory in Cheongju (about an hour away) and see how it is made.
That's a lot of makkoli.
2. Uam Park: Historical, very beautiful park in Daejeon.
3. Geological Museum: Very cool national museum in Daejeon.
Me and Tri.
4. Changdeok Palace and Secret Garden: World Heritage Site in Seoul that was one the last palace used here in Korea, and the descendants of the last ruler lived here until quite recently. So, it has modern trappings that other Korean palaces do not. And the garden behind the palace is enormous and incredibly beautiful.
Part of the Secret Garden.
The palace had a carport added on!
5. Buddhist Arts Museum: SO awesome. Thousands of Buddhas.
6. Beach: YES! Great beach and Mud Festival on Korea's east coast. Got sunburned, but ate a corndog and rode a banana boat.
Painted in colorful mud.
7. Jincheon: This small city has a lot to offer, including some hiking that afforded this awesome view, and a neat-o Bell Museum.
Now that's a big bell.
8. Retreat with Sanaru Center: I spent 3 days and 2 nights with the kids, pastors, and teachers from Sanaru Community Center. I had been teaching at this Center on Fridays and also helping with their feeding program for home-bound people and people experiencing homelessness. We went to a very neat mountainous area near a huge National Park in Central Korea. Even though it was hard to have no-English for nearly 72 hours, sleep on a hard floor, and share a smallish room and tiny bathroom with 18 females, it was a nice experience. These retreats, staying at big group pensions, are very popular in Korea.
In historical times, a railroad ran from Busan to Seoul so that the upper class could come to take the national exam and take care of business in the capital. The rail system is defunct, but the rails themselves have been fitted with large, 4-person bikes, which we rode through the very scenic countryside.
Playing in the creek.
In front of an ancient gate that guarded this strategic mountain pass.
With the Sanaru staff in front of the pension.
9. On my last day of Taekwondo, there was level testing. This is very stressful, and I had to stand up and perform in front of the Master with kids watching. Don't worry, I passed! Check out my green belt! I have been so fortunate to have been able to learn taekwondo this year, and the Masters and kids have been enormously generous and patient with me. I appreciate them so much.
10. Hanwha Eagles Game: The Eagles are Daejeon's professional baseball team. We are currenyly ranked 7th out of 8 teams, but their games are still super fun! As my last outing with my amazing friends the Khims, we went to support the Eagles and eat some ballpark food. There WAS a game going on, you just can't tell from these pictures.
Getting me some kisses.
Auditioning to be a cheerleader. Korean baseball teams have cheerleaders.
Mmm. Silkworm Larvae. Take me out to the ballgame!
11. Gwangju: A friend from Ohio University, Kaia, is teaching in southern Korea. So, we were able to meet up in Gwangju, which is about halfway, and have a mini reunion. It was nice to see a familiar face and remember the days when I studied Africa and Swahili (aka last year).
Eating Nepalese food. Not sure what the SF stands for.
My last few weeks have been so jammed packed. In addition to these activities, I've been trying to get together (and usually eat) with a lot of friends I have made this past year. As I am leaving, I realize just how many people I know here and how much they all mean to me!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Getting my Zen on: Life as a Buddhist monk

Korea has a program (Templestay) where Koreans and foreigners alike can spend time in a Buddhist Temple and experience the early wake up, simple ecological eating, long meditations,
spiritual chanting and deliberate lifestyle of the monks there. According to the Templestay website, "Templestay is a unique cultural program which lets you experience the life of Buddhist practitioners at traditional temples which preserve the 1700 year old history of Korean Buddhism."

I had been wanting to do this ever since I heard about it, and I finally got the chance. Two friends and I traveled to Jijangjeonsa Temple to spend one night and two days learning and experiencing a way of life that is drastically different from the hustle and bustle of Korea's huge cities.

The temple is beautiful, set up in the mountains and surrounded by forest. We were the first group to be part of their templestay, so it was fun to be the pioneers!
Only the monks can enter through the central doors. Everyone else uses the side doors.

There are different sects of Buddhism in Korea, but this particular temple adheres to the belief that it is ok for the monks to be married. So, of the three full monks who reside here, the head monk is married and his son Bubwon is another head monk, also married. Quite the family temple.

We were given special clothes, a simple cloth vest and baggy, comfortable pantaloons. Then we were taught the seated and walking meditation techniques, as well as how to correctly bow.
Learning the walking meditation.
Learning the seated meditation.

While most Templestay programs are confined to the specific temple, we were lucky to be taken off-site and experience some other cultural facets of the area. We drove into Buyeo, a town that is near the temple and an ancient Korean capital, so it is rich with culture and history. There, we ate at a well-known but very rustic restaurant in the woods (still in our distinctive dress).

We also went to a neat cultural performance to see traditional singing, dancing, instruments, and even a play.
With some performers.

Then it was off to a beautiful park named Lotus Flower Garden, or the King's Park. We walked around there for a bit. It was beautiful!
Our guides were Mr. Lee and Ms. Kim.

Next stop was an elderly care facility that is run by the temple. We got to tour the facility and meet some of the residents. We were the first foreigners to ever visit there. Wow. The temple also supports a childcare center and an NGO that runs a feeding program in Cambodia.
Eating at the elderly care facility.

After eating at the elderly care facility, we returned to Jijangjeongsa Temple to ring the bell (5 times), do chanting and bowing, and practice our seated and walking meditations, as well as learn how to play the moktak, a handheld wooden drum that is the heartbeat of the temple and is used to lead the services. All the chanting is done in an Indian language, a reminder of the religion's roots in India before it spread to China, then Korea.

Then, came the highlight of the trip for me. We had a conversation with one of the three monks who live at the temple. His name is Bubwon Sunim (sunim is how one addresses a monk), and he is a great guy! We had several hours of very interesting conversation even though Bubwon spoke very little English and there were some funny language lapses, but we made do and were able to connect enough that Bubwon called us Dharma Friends. He told us, "a potato is just a potato. A person is just a person. There are not good or bad people, just people." He lives by the idea of being alert, awake, and conscious of the world and existence, thinking and acting deliberately, thoughtfully. I asked him if he was always happy, and he explained that "if you have one friend who always calls you and wants to hang out and is fun to be with, you will spend more time with that person. If you have another friend who never returns your calls and does not act like a good friend, you will not want to be around that person. Same with feelings." He seeks out and wants to be around good feelings, not bad feelings. It was an amazing experience to hear the wisdom of a monk and feel a connection with someone despite religious, cultural, and language barriers. I
It was off to bed at this point, because the next day we woke up at 4:15 am. Temple life starts early! We rang the bell again, this time 36 times. After each ringing, you slowly walk the circumference of the bell, chanting.
A group ringing.

Then we had morning devotion with the monks, and Monk Bubwon helped us with our walking and seated meditations. We were told not to worry about anything besides the "here and now." Simply breathing in. Appear...Disappear as we breath air and exhale air. Acknowledging every thought we have, repeating it three times, then letting it go.

Then it was time for breakfast, which was quite the ordeal. Eating temple food is a very ritualistic and deliberate process. There were specific ways to lay the settings, serve the food, eat the food, clean the bowls, and wrap up the setting. Whew! A lot of work for a little food, but very interesting, nonetheless. Buddhist monks don't imbibe alcohol, and they eat simple, vegetarian food which adheres to some strict dietary rules that even Ms. Kim didn't quite understand.
After a little rest, we made prayer beads. 108 beads, to be exact, which was rather a lot of work because the holes in the beads were often smaller than the string. I think it was supposed to be a meditative process, but I did not feel too serene.
Then we went into the temple to join the Sunday congregation when the temple members come for their worship. Of course we were stuck right up front. But Monk Bubwon introduced us to the congregation, which welcomed us generously. The Buddhist practitioners did bowing, chanting, and some singing, though the three of us mainly just observed.
See the green vests up front?
After the official service, we stayed in the Temple with Mr. Lee to do the ritual of 108 bows. Each bow represents a different aspect of the Buddhist belief system. The session is accompanied by a pre-recorded arrangement of chanting, and each time you hear the moktak, you bow. Knees down, right hand down, left hand down, head down, palms up (optional), fold hands, stand up without using hands. Rather tough on the knees after a while. We used our 108 prayer beads to keep track of the number of bows. It was a little tedious but very calming and a feat I am proud to have accomplished. On certain occasions, the monks will do 3,000 bows in one day, which takes them 6 hours. Ours took 20 minutes. Their quads must be huge.

We ate lunch and said our goodbyes. Since then, I have been texting with Monk Bubwon and trying to incorporate a little more zen into my life. The Templestay experience was incredible. I feel fortunate to have been able to take part in it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Farewell to Seomna

On July 13, I had my last day of working with the kids at Seomna Center. These are kids that I have seen almost every day for 10 months. We have spent incalculable hours playing ping pong, board games, soccer and playground games. We have eaten dinner together nearly every night. They have sat through my English classes, we have gone on some field trips together, and they have shared their life with me in ways big and small. These kids have been my main form of socializing, my Korean language teachers, and my most vivid glimpse into Korean culture and way-of-life. These kids have tough home situations, they are not privy to the resources of the Korean miracle, and some of them deal with things that I have no idea about. I love them.
My last day was bitter sweet. I feel relieved and proud of myself that I did it. I survived. I made it. There were days that were so boring, days that I felt completely helpless and foolish, and days when I just felt like giving up. But I didn't; I stuck it out the entire time and I think I did the best I could! This is made real to me by the fact that I know I will miss the kids a lot. There are some that I feel really close to, and just seeing them in the Center brought joy to my life. They could be snots, but they could also be breathtakingly kind, generous, and insightful. They are funny and energetic.
On my last day, the kids had all written me cards. Some were generic, but some are so sweet and heartfelt that they bring tears to my eyes. There was a cake and extra snacks. We had a karaoke session where the kids sang, and when it was my turn, they clapped, danced, and had a raucous good time, then screamed for an encore. The entire group, teachers and all, serenaded me with a sweet song about loving me. One kid, one of my pals, stood up and read a letter that was from the whole center. It made me cry, it was so wonderful.
The first graders singing karaoke.

After the jostling to see whom I would sit next to at dinner, we ate together, and the kids were sitting so close that I couldn't even put my legs down as we sat cross-legged on the floor. All day I had received constant hugs and kids wanting me to hold hands or even just touch them. After dinner, we took tons of pictures and I gave final hugs and promised the kids I would not forget them. I won't. They mean so much to me. They showed me their love that day, which was made even more powerful by the fact that I have often felt unappreciated and sometimes neglected at the center by the people charge.
I hope and pray that these kids lead happy, healthy, successful lives. They all deserve it. They deserve to move out of their depressing neighborhood and be given a fair shake. They deserve better schools, better clothes, and better toys. I am pretty sure I will never see any of them again, which breaks my heart, but I am simply honored by the chance to spend this year with them. They have given me so much. I'm grateful for them and for their friendship.

A few days later I had my going-away celebration with Rev. Kim and the foreign immigrant women. These women, though the individuals come and go, have all patiently put up with me learning Korean alongside them, teaching them English, accompanying them on outings and totally failing in craft projects. At the end of the year, all the women were Vietnamese, but we've had people from Nepal, China, and Thailand.
For our last gathering, we went to Daecheong Dam and out to eat. It was lovely. These strong women inspire me, and I hope they find my joy and success in their Korean lives.
My time at Seomna has often been a struggle, and I have had my share of frustrations and disappointments. But I have also done so much, learned things I never knew I never knew, and participated in a world of South Korea that exists in the shadows. This world is not the glitzy, commercial, up-scale world you see in a lot of the country. I worked in communities that never show up on brochures, and I learned to love people who are not the poster children of economic development. I know the experience of working at Seomna Center will stick with me for years to come, and though I may forget names, I will never forget the joy and the love I have been shown.