Everything is Pain: My 20 Hours at a Buddhist Temple


Hour 15 – The Meditation

We had been taught to make a circle with our hands and to rest that circle on our laps like the sun sits on the horizon at dawn.  The circle served a purpose.  If my fingers wilted and the circle broke, bending and folding like yarn, the monks would be able to see that I was sleeping.  Sleep in not allowed during the meditation.  Anyone sleeping during the meditation would be struck with a bamboo stick.  The stick itself was split so that it would make a loud clapping sound when it landed on your shoulder.  I kept my circle firm and my eyes fixed on a spot on the floor that was slightly darker in color, making it look as though the wooden floor had a birthmark.

The meditation had been going on for nearly a half an hour.  My legs were numb.  We had been told to count our breaths, that counting your breathing is a valuable tool to block out thoughts.  One doesn’t think during the meditation, not the way we think and reflect when we’re, say, on the toilet.  Across the room from me was the young boy and although I tried to stay focused on the discolored spot, I couldn’t help but notice him.  He was wiggling around all over the place, couldn’t stay still.  Movement is not a part of the meditation.  The younger monk came over and said something to him.  I felt anger towards him because I envied his movements, his will to wiggle in the face of kinesthetic adversity.

At the time, I had no idea how much longer we would be meditating.  I began to feel frustrated and anxious.  It needed to end soon.  My mind was going a mile a minute.  I felt like I was going crazy.  The spot on the floor sat there.  I tried to look out the corner of my eye at TTD, to see if she was doing okay or if she was losing it like I was.  She looked calm, composed.  The floor seemed to move in waves all of a sudden, like it wasn’t made of wood anymore but of water, and the spot looked like it was floating along, sailing in the wooden waves.  Breathing was becoming difficult because I was so conscious of it; I wanted to stand up and quit the meditation but instead I waited.

Finally the monk struck the bamboo stick on the floor, signaling the end.  I stretched out my legs.  The nerves tingled like crazy.  Yeo Yeo said the day before that in Buddhism, everything is pain.

I told myself to listen to her more closely.  She knew what she was talking about.

Hour 2 – “Where is Buddha?”

Yeo Yeo was a short woman with a large smile and a kind face.  She was the monk – or “nun” I guess – who would lead us through our 20 hour program at Myogaksa Temple.  During this time, we would be meditating, learning the basics of Buddhism, and doing other things that I was only vaguely aware of.  TTD, my friend who I was there with, had told me that we would drink tea and make a necklace.  She knew more about the program than I did, even though it was my idea to go.  There were about ten other people there from all over the world: a tall man named Jorge from Brazil, a blonde Australian woman, two people from Germany visiting Korea because their band had played a concert in Seoul (he played piano, she played the flute), a Korean mother and her young son, a guy from Iran who was raised in the States and now lived in Asia, and a handsome man from India which, as it happens, is where Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha himself – was from.

“I will ask you a question,” Yeo Yeo said.  We were all sitting on the floor.  There were two images of Buddha in the room with us.  One was a picture of a wood statue that showed Buddha gaunt, his ribcage popping out of his chest.  The other was a gold representation of him, plump and content.  Yeo Yeo smiled when she talked.  She looked from person to person and asked, “Where is Buddha?”

Although I’ve been around religious people enough to know they generally aren’t completely literal when they ask things like that, I decided the take the question literally.  He could be on the wall, or she could mean his body.  What the heck happened to it?  I had no idea.  His body must be someplace, right?  Buried?  Or maybe his body was lost or something.  I looked at the picture of him thin and emaciated.  Wherever he is, I thought, he must look something like that.

“He’s inside…” someone said.  “In my heart.”

“Yes,” Yeo Yeo told us, “except not just you.  All of us.  We all have a Buddha mind.”  She explained that there is no “my” or “mine” in Buddhism but only “ours.”  Then she said that there are things that surround our Buddha mind, that cloud it.  Food.  The desire to possess someone.  Money.  Sleep.  Power.

I looked back at the golden Buddha.  Did he have any of those things?  Power, perhaps, and by the looks of him, he had food too, although maybe he just stuck to rice to avoid complexity.  I wondered if it mattered where his physical body was.  What does it matter if he was buried or cremated or frozen like Walt Disney?

What I was thinking, though, hinted at the ideas in Buddhism that intrigued me.  The duality of thought, for instance.  Self and object, separation and distance.  Me and him, one alive and aware, and the other somewhere in the ground or cremated.  It didn’t feel like Buddha was inside me.  It didn’t feel like there was anything inside me except my own thoughts, my own constant analysis.

Hour 7 – Mosquitoes and Mad Monks

We were sitting in the main room an hour before bedtime.  It was about 9:00 at night.  Yeo Yeo had come back after our first meditation.  She began to talk about becoming a monk and the first time she shaved her head.

“The other monks stood outside in the open,” she said.  “They were not worried.  My head was bald and when I went back to my room, I discovered I had many mosquito bites.  The mosquitoes came and bit me on the head.  I thought about the other nuns and I was confused.  How could they stand there in comfort?  How come the mosquitoes did not bite them?”

I liked this story because it was about a practical aspect of monks having to shave their heads.  I had never considered this before, that getting mosquito bites could be a problem.

“Then I remembered,” Yeo Yeo said, “all of the bodies of the mosquitoes in my bathroom, by my shower.  I had killed them with my hands.  I remembered and I said, ‘Thank you, mosquitoes, for biting me.’  They had reminded me that I had killed their ancestors.  It was not revenge…they were only reminding me.  And then I knew that I had killed them, and I apologized to the mosquitoes.  After that we were in peace, and the mosquitoes did not bite me anymore.  This was why the other nuns were not worried.  They, too, were at peace.”

Near the end of the temple stay, I asked Yeo Yeo if she uses an electric razor or a straight razor to shave her head.  She told me she uses a straight razor.  Then I asked if she shaves her own head, or has another monk do it for her.  She told me that she does it herself.  “Back long ago,” she said, “it was very dangerous.  A long blade was used to shave the heads, and the monks would shave each others.  But many monks lost their minds during their worship and as they got older.  It was always dangerous because no one knew what might happen…no one wanted to have their head shaved by one of the monks who was going mad.”

I enjoyed this story very much as well.  The idea that at one time someone sat in the peace and tranquility of the Temple, perhaps nervous (although I pictured the person sitting calmly), and had his head sliced open by a mad monk on head shaving day.  I pictured the blood running down the smooth skin of the monk’s bald head and the other monk – the mad one – gazing at it and then at the same blood running red and brilliant down the edge of the blade, wondering what he had done, why he’d done it, and what that all meant.

Hour 18 – An Interruption

We were waiting in the meditation room when a male monk came in.  He looked stoic and wise.  At the bell ceremony, he guided us through the ringing and then explained the chants to us.  He also told us to walk sideways through doorways so we wouldn’t disturb any ghosts that were there.  I liked him very much.  He seemed to live in a world of folk tales and philosophy, a place where chants and the tolling of a bell carried the significance that alarms, emails and bus schedules did in my day to day life.

He began to speak to us, but as he did, his cell phone, tucked away somewhere in his robe, rang.  Annoyed, he looked to see who was calling him.  The ringtone was upbeat and jazzy.  I wondered if he’d gotten it from ITunes.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’ve got to take this.”

Hour 8 – Kung Fu Panda

Yeo Yeo is allowed to leave the Temple to see her family once every ten years.  The last time she left, they asked her what she wanted to do, and she told them she wanted to see movies.  Her family showed her the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then, since there are a lot of kids in the family, they watched Kung Fu Panda.

“I watched it and I thought, this is not a kids’ movie,” she said.  “This is a Buddha movie.”

She’s right, of course, but then again, when one lives in a Temple, maybe every movie becomes a Buddha movie.  Yeo Yeo talked about it and drew parallels to her religion.  She asked us questions about the soup and about Po’s father.  No one knew the answers to her questions, but people seemed to be vaguely aware the Po did, in fact, have a duck for a father and that there was a soup involved.  I realized, as she spoke, that she wasn’t talking about Kung Fu Panda because it was what she knows.  No, she was talking about a silly cartoon because it’s what we know.

We were in a temple, listening to a monk talk about a Dreamworks cartoon, because that – Kung Fu Panda – was our frame of reference on Buddhism.

I understood everything she said.  Then I looked at Buddha, and I felt ashamed.

Hour 4 – Prostration Bows

TTD told me that we’d make a necklace.  Neat.  That seemed like a fun and easy thing to do.

We were given a bag with 108 wooden beads in it and told to pour the beads out onto a pillow.  The pillow sat at the foot of a cushioned mat.  Yeo Yeo explained the significance of the number 108 in Buddhism, although I had trouble following the explanation (no reference to Pixar to help).  She then told us about the importance of bowing.  A prostration bow involves facing the Buddha, getting on one’s knees, touching one’s head to the floor, kneeling, and then standing up.  It looked poetic when she did it – it was fluid and dancelike.  When I tried, it was laborious and difficult.  I felt stiff and clunky like Frankenstein.  I couldn’t sit with my ass on the back of my feet, and I couldn’t stand from the kneeling position without using my hands.  Yeo Yeo asked me at one point if I was still breathing.

She gave us our instructions – for every prostration bow we did, we could place one bead on the string.  That meant that to complete the necklace, we had to do 108 prostration bows.

It was all good fun until around bead #50, when I realized I was covered in sweat, my body hurt, and I still had a hell of a lot of beads left.  To motivate myself, I looked over at TTD and decided, in my head, to race her.  Her bows were more relaxed than mine.  She popped up and down with relative ease.  I accused her of cheating.

“You double beaded!” I whispered.  “I saw you double bead!”

“What?” she whispered back, confused.  “What are you talking about?”

We were down on our hands and knees in front of Buddha.  “You put two beads on the string during the same bow.”

“I did not,” she said, shaking her head.

“Yes you did,” I replied, confirming my position.  “You’re a double beader!”

“I’m not a double beader!”

After that, she picked up her pace and eventually beat me by two beads.  When I finally finished my necklace I wanted to turn over on my back and scream, “Thank you, Jesus!”

But that would have been out of place.

“My legs are killing me,” I told TTD.  “This is ridiculous.  I need to take flexibility classes or something.”

“Flexibility classes?” she said.  “Do you mean Yoga?”

“Yeah, whatever you Asians call it,” I said, stretching my legs out.  If there’s one advantage to Christianity, I thought, it’s that it’s less demanding physically.  In all my years of going to church, I’ve never felt sore or broken a sweat.  If I would decide to get further into Buddhism, I would have to start working out.

Hour 5 – Eyelids

The young nun was pretty in a Sinead O’Connor kind of way.  She spoke no English, only Korean, and the older male monk translated for her when she talked.  We were in the main room, about to meditate for the first time.  She had shown us how to make the circle with our fingers and had warned us of sleep.  Monks drink a lot of tea to fight sleep.  Sleep is bad.  The young nun directed our attention to a painting on the wall.

The painting showed a bearded monk with enormous eyes.  She told us about him.  The monk in the painting meditated for several years, but every now and then he’d fall asleep.  This didn’t sit well with him, as he couldn’t find enlightenment in the midst of all this dosing off.  One day he went to his room, took a knife, and sliced off his eyelids.  Without the ability to close his eyes, he was able to meditate soundly.  He meditated for many many years and became very wise.  In the painting, his eyes were huge and white as clouds.

Wisdom is all about keeping one’s eyes open.  The young nun taught us the lotus position, whacked the bamboo stick upon the floor, and we all began meditating, eyes wide open.

Hour 20 and Beyond: The Body and the Right Tooth

At the end of my Temple stay – I mean OUR Temple stay, as there is no ‘my’ in Buddhism – I had learned about our Buddha mind and had many things to think about.  At the conclusion, Yeo Yeo told us about Siddhartha Gautama’s death.  His followers placed their hands on him, and he told them that there is no Buddha, no leader, no ONE.  He was unimportant, just made of ideas.  And people like Yeo Yeo later listened to those ideas, still, even in a strange and technological world, and put the two together to see what would come of it.  She ended her story about the Buddha’s death, and then we all posed for a picture together.  Later, she posted it on her Facebook.  Why not?  Pope Benedict doesn’t have a Facebook, and maybe he should.

Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about that body.  Where was it?  What happened to the Buddha’s skin and bones after he delivered that last message and kicked the bucket?

It turns out that he was cremated, just like my grandmother and my pet dog Toby were.  But, unlike Grandma or Toby, some of Siddhartha Gautama’s remains were kept as relics.  The most important of these is his right tooth.  There’s an entire temple dedicated to it.  If one travels to Kandy, Sri Lanka, he or she can pay visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  I’m not sure how open the place is to tourism.  It has been bombed twice by terrorists and each time had to be rebuilt.  The tooth itself was never harmed.

On Wednesdays the monks at the temple conduct a ritual bathing of the tooth.  A mixture of water, herbs, and flowers are used to wash it.  It is, from what I’ve gathered, the only major remainder of the Buddha’s physical form in our world – other things, like his collarbone, are said to have been given to worlds beyond.

TTD and I left the temple and went Dunkin Donuts for coffee.  We text messaged people.  It was a warm Sunday morning.  Back at the Temple, Yeo Yeo was free to meditate, to think, or to do whatever else she did on Sundays.

Everything is pain, she told us.  Pain has its place.  Just like the smile on her face, or the Buddha’s tooth in Sri Lanka, or the cynical analysis in my head that I can’t stop.  It doesn’t matter what hour it is.  Some things just always stay.



3 thoughts on “Everything is Pain: My 20 Hours at a Buddhist Temple

  1. Bradd Quinn

    Man, you live an awesome life, my friend. I wish you had screamed “thank you, jesus!” just to see what the reaction would have been.

  2. sonam

    Love and compassion is the principle of buddhism and respect and honour every religion as long as it serves the humanity and sentient beings and bring peace to all. Therefore, if you had screamed it would have invited more love and compassions…

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