On their knees, shoulders pushed forward, head bent towards the floor they prostrate themselves. Their prayers rise like incense smoke towards the gold Buddhas along the altar. I peek in through the jade and carmine filigreed portals hesitant to intrude, yet needing to partake in the timeless tranquility of the room. The light has just broken in Seoul, South Korea tinting the welkin lavender, silhouetting the multi-inclined roof of the Jogyesa Temple. Among the sleek skyscrapers the shrine’s squat structure and blue ceramic tiled gables almost disappear. Its sonorous bell, clanging to greet the new day, captures my attention. Once I enter through the iljumun, the outside world falls away. None here furtively check email, tweet their experience, or surreptitiously update their status. I look at the shoes laid out on the steps — sneakers, boots, flip-flops, jeweled sandals — waiting patiently for their owners. Even they have an air of sweet resignation. The cacophony of modernity withers as I enter the main hall.
Uncertainly I fold down to the prayer pillow and close my eyes. I listen to the murmured chant cascading in rolling waves across the chamber. No one tells me what to supplicate for or what incantations to recite. I allow the measured cadence to encompass me. This is not the strained stillness of a cathedral but the sedate hum of equanimity. I attempt meditation, calming my breath, centering my mind, focusing on my elusive chakra. “What a fantastic soundtrack this would make,” my inner imp says. “Perfect white noise music.” I hush the voice by swallowing hard and bending my head forward. Notwithstanding, my natural tendency vacillates towards instantaneous pursuits. “Did I get a reply from that editor yet? Is it too soon to revamp my profile? Have I gotten any more views on that new pic I posted yesterday? I must watch that video from last night….” The monotone is insistent; the more forcibly I try to quieten it the louder it gets.
Restless, I wander around the courtyard. I regard the happy Buddha statue and the ancient pine tree with envy — dealing in immutabilities they have no requirement for instant gratification. I, on the other hand, struggle with being left out of the loop. Staying relevant takes priority. As information, jargon, and processes advance I lag in the catch up. I am still mastering yesterday’s news, last month’s computer program, the year before’s slang. I hear songs sung a decade ago and excitedly present them to friends as innovative discoveries. I bestow books written the previous century like new birthed puppies to coworkers. I like to compose full sentence text messages. Lately the universe seems to be passing by in a whirl while I scrabble at the edges. Though I am able-bodied and vigorous minded, I am growing old-fashioned. I ascertain words like “periscope,” “snap,” and “squad” in sentences that make no sense. I am developing into the crabby senior citizens I used to deride when they shook their heads at me, declaring, “You whipper snappers don’t know a good thing when you see it. In my day we used to have real music, real films, real literature….” Is there something wrong with me or society that the harder I run the farther I fall behind?
A homeless man droops on a bench near the pagoda. As worshippers pass him they bow hands pressed to lower abdomen. He takes no notice. A monk comes by, rests with him, chats in a low rumble. I watch the vagrant’s jittery legs slacken, his twitching palms come to rest upon his lap as he apprehends the cenobite. I understand his anxiety. Sanity seems a toe hold away from the precipice. Approaching the offering stand I remain unsure what to wish for. More concentration? Tidy reasoning? A transfiguring incident? Instead I light a joss stick and send off an orison of gratitude. Perhaps I am not au courant with tidings. I may not have an arsenal of acronyms at my disposal. Trends will continue to evade me. Nevertheless, I am beholden to eternal truths. I shall go on believing that the things of utmost importance will be lasting. In case I miss it now, these matters of consequence will find me at the opportune period.
Gazing at the vapor wisps ascending into the brightening sun, I consider how my inner growth has transpired through archetypal interactions. Fads, vogues, whims have often turned my head but never swayed my passion, nor unnerved my core. With every invention insisting it is a classic, however, it is difficult to determine what will fade and what will abide. In the meantime, I strive to be vital without succumbing to futile madness. The gong tolls in dulcet tones, its echoes advising me that absence from social media for a few hours should cause no regret. Strolling Jogyesa’s perimeter I encounter three novices sweeping the monastery steps. Their movements are deliberate, composed, subdued, reminding me I will repent if I do not soak in the present serenity. This sacred place has conspired to grant me a few fleeting minutes when I am free from obligations, a space into which the ceaseless clamor of headlines and dispatches does not intrude. I am a fool to allow common hubbub to interfere. All the same, the awakened metropolis’ shops and busy streets beckon me to explore them. My phone buzzes with unheeded alerts.
I force myself to delay leaving. I admire the self-control of Jogyesa’s patrons. They are immersed in their devotions, able to separate their spiritual and quotidian lives. While quantity trumps quality, likability equals worth, and income is tied to visibility, I have to keep shouting into the internet’s black hole. A fallen tree is only important if someone gleans its topple. That tree becomes essential when everyone perceives its demise. In my efforts to be the recognized utterance, balance — essential to my well-being, crucial to the Buddhist culture — is suffering. I can no longer summon equilibrium from within. Increasingly I must seek out pockets of peace where repose is imposed upon me. As the haze dims into a grey miasma, locals scurry out to begin their hectic schedules. I linger, eager to be near the zen Jogyesa tenders.
The chief shrine of South Korea’s Sion Buddhism, Jogyesa offers a temple stay for visitors which allow guests to experience the life of a twenty-first century monk. The cultural program incorporates various traditional activities such as tea ceremonies, nature walks, and conversations with resident mendicants all designed to educate the curious, regardless of faith, about living a tranquil, centered existence.
Do you ever feel the pressure to be constantly alerted to what is happening? How do you deal with it? If you have visited any Buddhist temples and have a story, please share them in the comments below.