Buddhism the Jack Kerouac Way: A South Korean Templestay

S KoreaBy Ailsa Ross

Jack Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums, is so full of sweet words and joy that every line I read made me want to jump out of my window, go climb a mountain and pray. Kerouac never gave a ‘goddamn about the mythology and all the names’ of Buddhism, he just sat cross-legged in the Californian wilds, meditating in peace. Which sounded just fine to me, but I was in Seoul, surrounded by over fifty Buddhist temples. This could be my only chance to hear someone talk about Kharma, without wanting to ridicule.

So this January, I went to a city temple named Myogaksa on a two day programme advertised by the Korean Tourism Board. The temple stay promised prayer-bead making and bell striking, meditation and pre-dawn trekking over two days and one night.

Myogaksa temple was a brush of colour in a city choked with grey, hidden up an alley just off Dongmyo street, itself crammed with pizza joints and hundreds of the city’s poor wrapped in duffle coats, hawking second-hand tin pans and hiking boots.

There were twenty three of us that weekend, mostly American college kids on a $12,000 global semester. The programme began at 2.30pm. I had felt fowl that morning because I’d slept in, and I didn’t feel any better as we donned our orange uniforms. An hour later, seated on cushions in the gleaming meditation room, the beautiful, shaved-headed nun, Yeo Yeo, gently led us through the basics of Zen Buddhism.

‘We all have Buddha minds,’ she said. ‘But there are three layers that stop us from reaching that point, stopping us from reaching happiness. The first is greed. Are you greedy?’ she asked.

The room stayed silent.

‘Really? ‘You don’t want to be rich?’

Some of the $12,000 hippie kids nodded their heads, vehement.

She changed tact. ‘Would you rather be rich or poor?’

‘Rich’, we sulked.

‘Second is food. When we waste it, it comes back as water and air pollution.’

‘Third is love. You girls like handsome guys, right? How do you feel when your boyfriend looks at a beautiful girl? Angry? Try not to be. You don’t own anyone, so don’t be attached. And don’t try to change other peoples’ minds. It’s not possible. Concentrate on your own mind.’

‘Next is sleep. In the morning, when your alarm goes off, you all groan and want five more minutes sleep, right?’

We laugh politely.

‘Me too,’ she smiles.

‘But we should be wakeful in this life. Lastly, are you greedy for success?’

Given up on that one, I think.

‘Don’t be attached!’ She says, lifting her robed arms above her head.

‘When you are greedy for money, food, love, sleep and success, it leads to anger. The last layer hiding your Buddhist mind is foolishness.’

Yeo Yeo tells a story.

‘I love Gillete Mach 3. You know why?’ She smiles, stroking her shiny head. ‘See? No cuts. When I first because a nun twenty years ago, I had so many cuts on my head. Meditating in the summer, oh it was agony. Sitting still for hours, while mosquitoes fed on all my cuts. Oh, terrible, they only came to me, and for a long time I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realised I had been killing their brothers and sisters in my bedroom. I went and apologised to the mosquitoes, for hours and hours I bowed to them and said, ‘Thank you, you never killed me’. Really, I was never bitten by a mosquito again.’

Maybe it was a fable, but sitting, listening in that moment, I believed everything she said.

‘Every living thing has a Buddha mind,’ she says. ‘Even the trees. We must be kind, try not to  hurt the leaves. Monks and Nuns don’t like walking up mountains in Spring and Autumn. Do you know why? So many bugs! Bugs under all the leaves on the path, so many Buddha minds! We don’t want to risk standing on them by accident and hurting them.’

I feel exasperated, how can I do anything right?

‘Every breath you take,’ she continues, ‘Kills a hundred cells. Us nuns and monks feel terrible about it. So in Korea, we wear grey, to show our humility. We also do 108 bows each day, to say sorry to the universe for our greedy, angry and foolish thoughts or actions. Are you ready for your prostrations?’

I’m ready, otherwise I’ll fall asleep, just sitting.

We press our palms together, take a deep bow, then sink to our knees and lower our foreheads onto the cushion, to show we are humble, we are nothing. We lift our palms up slowly, raising the universe in our hands to show respect, then thread a bead onto our prayer necklace, and gently stand up. We bow like this 108 times, until our necklace is finished, which would be fine, but half way through, a wooden percussion instrument chimes to say that dinner is ready. I’ve only had one bowl of porridge all day. My ‘I am nothing, I am nothing’ mantra quickly changes to, ‘Don’t be greedy, don’t be greedy’ with exasperation. I chuck my finished necklace on the floor, and race through to the plain canteen next door.

Most of the group are already there, eating soybean soup, purple rice, pickled roots, kimchi pancakes and apple slices. All in total silence. I think of the barbeque restuarants round the temple. They’ll be full of Koreans, shoveling down meat and bottles of Soju, talking and smoking and gesticulating with chopsticks, always my favourite start to a Saturday night. I’m out of my comfort zone here, but somehow at peace. We shuffle out of the canteen and relax upstairs in the study room, lined with religious books, but all I can think of is hot chocolate, cream and gooey fondants. I sneak down to my locker and gobble my emergency chocolate biscuit in a bathroom cubicle, regretful even as I eat.

Meditation before bed. TK, the floppy-haired young monk in-training takes us through the Lotus position, and tells us we will be meditating with the Zen Master tomorrow morning. ‘Breathe through your nose, concentrate on your breathing, and do not make a sound.’ He says. ‘The Zen Master can hear twenty four times better than us, and if you break his meditation you’ll get so much bad Kharma. Also, we have a Buddhist saying. If you turn a door knob during meditation, you’ll go to hell.’ We look around, bemused by his words after such a gentle day.

None of us will go to hell tonight, we sit still through the meditation ten minutes long. The male volunteers leave, while the women lay bedding on the floor and chat, with lights out at midnight.

At 4.30am, the mokta’k sounds. I wake, stuffed up from the overheated floor.  Splashing my face with cold water and buttoning up my blue winter coat, I join our group and trundle up to the roof, where we ring a bell as a young nun chants into the wind. Each chime is said to relieve those in hell from pain, if only for a little while. Red neon crosses illuminate the sky, dozens and dozens of lights from the churches below.

We go back to the warmth of the meditation room, sit on cushions and get ready to pray. The Zen Master comes and sits at one end of the hall. Time to go. Ten seconds in, I realise I can’t breathe through my blocked nose, so I open my mouth like a fish. A minute later, my throat is dry. I try to swallow as quietly as possible. GULP. Sweat. Two minutes in. GULP. Three, four, GULP, GULP. My greedy belly starts to gurgle and groan with hunger. How do I that with my tiny mind? My hair tickles my face, my legs go numb. My throats feels feathery. I can’t cough, I just can’t. Gulp, gulp, gulp, ACHOOOO! The mokta’k rings in the end of the session, phew. The Master leaves, Yeo Yeo stands. ‘Congratulations, you all did so well.’

We climb Naksan moutain just behind the temple. It only takes about ten minutes. Yeo Yeo tells us the Japanese destroyed its granite peak, in order to destroy Seoul’s Feng Shui. In the freezing depths of night, ajummas and ajoshis exercise at the outdoor gym. We rest at a pagoda, where Joseon royalty once sat, and look out to White Tiger mountain, sleeping under the navy sky. For the first time since I came to Korea, I can feel it, I’m in the East.

Back at the temple we have more rice, more kimchi, some beansprouts and an orange slice. We perform a traditional tea ceremony, and at 11am, are let out. I did more that morning than I would normally do in a week.

Two weeks later, and I’ve molested every Buddhist practice Yeo Yeo taught us. My 108 bows have turned into sit ups, my meditations are made less dull by playing Eddie Vedder on repeat, and Yeo Yeo said ‘Don’t be attached,’ so I finished with my boyfriend last week.

In those two weeks, I also won at monopoly for the first time in my life, and my friend gave me a ticket to see Beirut play. Those good things would surely have happened even if I hadn’t gone on the Temple Stay, but because I could pretend it was good Kharma, I appreciated it.

Jack Kerouac wrote, ‘The closer you get to real matter, rock, air, fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.’

So yesterday, I climbed white tiger mountain which I saw from the temple – granite boulders, snow covered conifers and robins singing into the blue cloudless sky, not a soul the whole way, and then at the top a Shaman. Some wild old woman, chanting and clapping tin pans together, offering bowls of noodles and makgeolli to the spirits. Two fat cats scrambled round the rocks like mountain goats, and I was left ‘feeling happier than in years and years since childhood, I felt deliberate and glad and solitary.’ You can find whatever you want if you take a look around.


Related Literary Traveler Pieces:  Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck on the Californian CoastCoffee and Bob Kaufman, Poet of the PeopleBeyond Ideology: The Poetry of Separation in South Korea; Jack London’s Korea

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  1. What a beautifully written, thoughtful piece, light-hearted but sensitive. It makes me want to read Jack Kerouac and climb White Tiger mountain.