Sunday, September 14, 2008
three strikes and i'm outta here
why do you have two eyes?
where were you before you were born?
these are the "don't know mind" questions the zen master abbot asked me in my interview with him during the meditation retreat i attended this weekend, or should i say, half a meditation retreat i attended. my friend and i fled in a taxi this morning at 7am when no one was looking.
more on the zen master abbot later.
after visiting many temples in thailand last january, i felt a pretty strong disenchantment with buddhism in asia. this weekend, we broke up.
my friend and i arrived at the temple yesterday morning at 9 am. it was a three hour journey from where we live. we checked in, were given our monks' robes and then shown to our rooms. thankfully, it didn't appear that it would be a repeat of the buddha's birthday temple stay at unmunsa last may, where there were piles of women crammed into one room like sardines. there were only about 15 lay participants in this co-ed retreat. i shared a room with three other women. we slept korean style with each our own mat and a blanket on the floor.
orientation began right off the bat. no warm welcome, we just got right down to the nitty gritty details. it seemed that the monk who was leading our retreat may have been in the military at some point. orientation took all morning. the number of details we were given to remember and later demonstrate was downright insane for a two day retreat, especially with the level of rigidity and reprimanding that went along with mistakes. the formal meal process alone was enough to make me sweat, not to mention the chanting ritual etiquette, how and when to do the different prostrations, very particular sitting and walking form, etc... i felt like a jr. high school student again: clumsy, insecure, terrified of being scolded in front of others by the almighty authority figure. it was not pleasant.
our first formal meal was lunch. i almost started choking to death on some red pepper paste that got caught in the back of my throat. and i ended up making a massive mistake during the meal. i drank the water that was meant to be saved for the after-meal offering. oh holy jesus. when i realized what i had done, my heart stopped beating. the head monk noticed my faux paux, got up, and came over with the kettle to pour me some new offering water. he did not have an air of compassion or lightheartedness. it was serious business and it was pretty clear that i now had a score of strike 1. at least he didn't hit me with a stick.
the abbot (a westerner who has been a monk in korea now for 20 years) gave a sleepy, hardly coherent dharma talk before we began practicing sitting and walking meditation in the afternoon. instead of getting restless and judgmental immediately, i decided to just sit with the feeling of being bored and see what might be underneath, but all there seemed to be was more and more boredom and a whole lot of judgments about this guy's lack of intelligence. i felt really irritated that he was the abbot of this monastery, that i had to bow down to him, and be subjected to his dull and repetitive thoughts.
the one part of the dharma talk that caught my attention was the stick he kept waving around and bumping into the microphone cord, creating a lot of extra noise. it seemed so odd to me that this "mindful" zen master didn't seem to be aware of his surroundings, however, by the time i left the retreat, i wasn't so sure that mindfulness was part of this particular tradition anyway. we were to scarf down all of our meals within 5-10 minutes. we cleaned our dishes as fast as humanly possible. the last person to finish was always stared at by the head monk and abbot as if they were about to be sent to the corner with a dunce cap. frightening. and we did walking meditation in a single file line as briskly paced as mall walkers. i have never experienced such an approach within buddhism. but, then again, this was my first retreat outside of northern california!
it occurs to me that perhaps i should not speak negatively of the abbot of a monastery. i'm sure i'm breaking some rule. however, my first impression of him energetically was very negative/creepy and my experiences to follow were quite disturbing.
during the afternoon sitting and walking meditation, my adolescent fear came to fruition. i was scolded in front of the class! after three hours of silent sitting meditation, i felt as if a knife was stabbing me between my shoulder blades. so, during walking meditation, to relieve some of the tension in my upper back, i clasped my hands behind me, resting them on my low back. the correct form is to walk with your hands clasped on your upper belly. the ex-military monk saw my posture and said in a gruff, loud voice, "put your hands on your stomach." strike 2. i did as he commanded, but a holy hell of rage unleashed itself inside.
after dinner, i had my interview with the abbot. the head monk chose me to go first. i was instructed to enter the room and do a full prostration at his feet. bowing down on my hands and knees, forehead to the ground. it was all i could do not to vomit in his lap.
after the prostration, i sat on a cushion facing him and we had an alpha stare down. i felt not an inkling of fear or intimidation. i did not look away. i don't think i even blinked. finally, as he broke eye contact he said, "so do you have a question?" i asked, "do men and women have equal rights and privileges in this particular sect of buddhism?" he asked me to clarify what i meant. i thought i'd stated it pretty clearly the first time. i think he was groping for time to figure out his answer because i've never seen a monk fumble so uncomfortably. when he could finally get the words out he said that monks and nuns in this form of buddhism could be compared to the priests and nuns in catholicism. he said that men do have privileges that women don't have. then he went on to defend the inequality by saying that "mens (yes, "menS") can do things that womens (yes, "womenS") can't do and womens can do things that mens can't do. "for example," he said, "womens can cook, clean and sew better than the mens. have you ever been to a women's monastery? it's much cleaner. and mens may be able to get a higher paying job while womens can have more security in the home. and womens get to have motherhood. mens can't have children." i just stared, jaw hanging half way open. appalled. disgusted. a volcano of seething, hot rage inside. this zen master went on to encourage me not to think in opposites, not to think dualistically, as it will only keep me from experiencing a calm mind, which is my true nature. he urged me to have "don't know mind', to have clear mind, to accept what is. finally, i stopped him and said, "so, are you saying that patriarchy, the oppression of women, is acceptable just the way it is?" he had nothing new to say, he only repeated his spiel about not thinking dualistically.
then he asked me the two questions that i posted above under the first picture. all that i could muster was a half ass "hmmmph," all the while continuing to look at him with bewilderment and disdain. he ended by telling me to just be here in the moment, right here and now. i did the closing bow and then left. my entire body was shaking with anger. instead of going back upstairs to the sitting meditation, i went outside. i wanted to throw myself down on the earth and sob. pretty soon the ex-military monk came outside and told me to get upstairs to finish the meditation. strike 3. i didn't move. i just stared at him. he stared back. finally, he turned around and went back inside. after a couple of minutes i went in and took a seat on my cushion.
the following two hours of sitting silently were like a wild and crazy dream. i felt out of my mind with madness. murderous rage. at certain points, i wanted to jump up off my seat and run. to run and keep on running far away from there. memories from all stages of my life of times when i felt captivity and a desperate need for freedom passed through my mind. my thoughts were moving quickly but with intense clarity. it began to feel as though the anger was burning through my body and mind, purifying it, cleansing, like a forest fire burns away so that new growth can emerge. finally my mind began to settle into a clear stillness. that is when it became 100% apparent that i really did have to leave the retreat. i could not stomach bowing down to that abbot one more time. i could not follow behind men in walking meditation anymore. i just could not. and i knew what i had to do.
that evening in the dark, outside of earshot, my friend and i devised our plan of escape, as we both felt similarly about the oppressive energy of the place and the attitude of the head monks.
we awoke at 3am and took part in the chanting ritual and then were to do 108 prostrations. i probably only did about 60. my quads are still quivering. after that, we did sitting meditation. i left halfway through and went back to bed until 6am. according to the escape plan i thought it best for me to disappear for awhile during practice time so that my complaint of being ill would seem more realistic. after breakfast, i found a nun and told her that i was sick....diarrhea and a migraine! she took me to a medicine cabinet and began gathering all kinds of korean medication for me to take. suddenly, i realized i would be in a predicament if she wanted me to ingest the medication then and there, so i stopped her and said, "i really just need to go home." she told me i had to get the head monk's permission.
so, i found him. i told him my situation and at first he wanted me to go to the hospital. i told him "absolutely not, i don't go to hospitals unless i'm dying. i have medicine at home to treat this." he agreed but wanted me to wait two hours for the office to open before leaving so that they could try to rebook our train tickets. when i went back to tell my friend, she said, "i don't have a good feeling about that. let's get a taxi now, go straight to the train station and rebook our own tickets." so, we found a woman who spoke korean and she called a taxi for us using her cell phone. within ten minutes we had thrown off our monks' robes, packed our things, and slipped out down a backwoods path to catch our ticket to freedom.
our grand escape was accompanied by immense feelings of liberation!
and three discoveries from this weekend:
1. my longing to someday experience a monastic life has been given a serious reality check
2. my dharma path most certainly includes the continued fight for women's rights and liberation
3. a state of absolute fearlessness