one might naturally assume that an overnight trip to the serene temple of unmunsa, quietly nestled in the mountains, for buddha's birthday would be a peaceful, relaxing experience. the thing is, and maybe i've said this a million times before, i have come to discover that in korea events rarely go as planned and many times things do not turn out to be what one would have even remotely expected. i guess this is par for the course when living abroad, especially in a culture so different than one's own.
where to even begin.....well, sarah, her mother, who was fresh off the plane from windsor, ontario, christina and i made our way to unmunsa via bus on sunday afternoon. we made it by 4:30pm which we thought would be plenty of time to stop off for a bite to eat before entering the temple and securing our "hermitage" accommodation. the evening drumming ritual was to begin at 6:15pm, and we did not want to miss it. we enjoyed our acorn jelly salad, pumpkin "chan" (pancake), kalguksu (noodle soup) and a big bowl of dong dong ju (fermented rice wine) and then headed into the temple grounds around 5:30pm. we figured, no problem, we'll just drop our bags off at the hermitage and then catch the evening rituals at the temple. a few yards from the temple entrance we saw a sign pointing up a mountain road that read "sariam - 2.3 km." "sariam" was indeed our desired hermitage destination. at the newfound knowledge of 2.3 km, a sliver of doubt passed through our minds that we'd make it back in time for the ceremony. however, with great determination, we decided to try our hand at hitchhiking! luckily the next two cars that passed picked us up. turned out the 2.3 km was more like 3 or 4 km. quite a trek. we reached what we thought was our final destination only to discover that we had to hike even farther up the mountain. i was thinking to myself, "we'll just hike this last little bit, maybe 5 minutes or so, and then hitch a ride back down. we'll make it just in time for the drumming." chris and i went up ahead of sarah and her mother. we hiked at a steep and steady incline for what seemed like eternity with no end in sight...
a little shrine we passed on the way....it was 7pm before we arrived at sariam. it was the longest hike of our lives as each 5 minutes we thought for sure the hermitage would be around the next bend. i kept groaning thinking of sarah's poor mother, jetlagging like crazy, hiking up this god-awful, freakin' mountain with endless rocky twists and turns. our destination was literally on the mountain peak. the views were outstanding, absolutely gorgeous, but oh the pain of getting there.the hermitagechris and i managed to communicate that we needed a place for 4 people to sleep. it took awhile, but we worked it out. turns out our accommodation was not even close to a "hermitage." it was community living at its finest. we scrounged up the last 4 blankets and 3 pillows and made our makeshift beds on the floor amidst about 50 others with not an inch between. oh, if only it would have remained so spacious....little did we know what a monkey pile it would become.
sarah's mom, tuckered out with walking stick in hand....relieved to have made it!
needless to say, we did not attend the evening ceremonies at unmunsa. there was no way in heaven or hell that any of us were going to trudge back down that mountain and up again in the same night! actually, we were filled with so much awe on top of the world that we soon forgot about our missed plans. we found ourselves breathless at the beauty of the sunset behind jaggy mountain peaks.......and the hundreds of lanterns lighting up the dark, cool night accompanied by the sounds of the nuns' chanting...filling our beings with a vastness of peace.
sitting amidst the buddhists doing their reverent bowing rituals and chanting with heartfelt devotion, any loneliness, confusion or anxiety that had occupied even the slightest space in me vanished. i felt held by something so huge and a deep understanding for why people take part in religion. the structure, the stories, the rituals, the community, the sense of belonging.... and even though i don't think i'll ever claim any one particular religion again, i felt the validity and purity of that longing. amidst all the dogma in every religion that has created its own measure of suffering and division, i felt an understanding of the intense needs that people have, the primordial insecurity in us that seeks meaning and ground. and how sometimes something really beautiful can come from that...like this night of shared ritual beneath the night sky with only lanterns for light.
around 9pm, sarah and her mom were already passed out asleep on the heated floor.chris and i crawled in after a community sponge bath. i remember commenting, "oh i'm so happy to be getting to bed this early, maybe i'll wake at 3am for the morning chanting ritual!" HA! little did i know that i would, generously speaking, sleep a total of one hour the entire night and for the rest of the time be in a ferocious state of rage. the whole experience was ruthless. women were coming and going ALL NIGHT LONG...and loudly. those who had no spots on the floor reserved, i kid you not, DOVE throughout the entire night into the miniscule spaces, both real and imagined, in between and overlapping on top of bodies. some even tried to snatch blankets and pillows out from under others. i was in a constantly fearful of being trampled or raided of my blankets....i had strangers' feet tangled in my hair, knees poking me in the back, jabbing into my ribs. from midnight on, an older woman was spooning me and there was nothing i could do about it. the room was sweltering with all the bodies packed in and the floor heating turned on full blast. it was brutal. exhaustion, rage and anxiety coursed through my body...i spent a great deal of time cursing korea and the fact that i ever came here. extreme heat, strange smells, no sleep, and over-crowdedness ('bourgeois suffering," as pema chodron would call it!!) are not a good combination of conditions for my temperament. i can't even begin to articulate how uncomfortable and insane the night was. i felt like i was doing buddhist practice on and off all night long to keep myself from flying off the handle. i was so close to screaming at everyone and then running down the mountain waving my arms and ranting like a madwoman all the way to the airport. the peace and well being that i'd felt earlier in the evening while sitting with the chanting buddhists was like a distant dream.
at 7am some woman turned on the vacuum cleaner and started cleaning the room, signaling that it was time for everyone to get moving. so, in about 5 minutes the bedding was cleared and people had scattered like chickens. feeling nauseous, greasy, and terribly gruff, i made my way in a fog to the community sponge bath room and doused my face with ice cold water. then i found sarah and her mother and we made a b-line for the coffee machine. it helped. with caffeine in hand we spotted chris already having breakfast in the dining area, so we joined her for some early morning bibimbap. after the sustenance we explored atop the mountain a bit more...somehow the fresh air, the magnificent views and the sweetness of everyone's spirits eased my nightmarish memories from the sleepless night.
lotus lanterns with prayers hanging on slips of paper...early risers doing bowing prayer rituals behind menuns overseeing the hanging of lotus lanternsincense burning altar with a stairway up to a shrinean area for bowing rituals near a huge wall of rock on the side of the mountainthe four of usa long way downtemple kitty
we made our way down the mountain, which was not nearly as bad as the way up because we knew what to expect...but our knees were pretty wobbly by the end!chris and i takin' a breather
a generous woman gave us frozen persimmons half way down, which refreshed us for the last leg of the journey....and then with the luck of the canadians, we caught a ride the rest of the way down the mountain to unmunsa.
here we are at the temple!sarah fillin' up on holy water!temple tops and mountain peakssome volunteers preparing lanterns to be hunga sea of prayers....people waiting in line to enter the main sanctuarydaydreaming...beautiful images of kuan yinthe old pinedaisies...