What I Learned at a Buddhist Temple Stay


About 6% of the world is Buddhist, and about 20% of South Koreans. Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand,as well as Japan (sort of) are the big Buddhist countries. Of course China and NK would be heavily Buddhist too if they permitted freedom of religion.

Buddhism is, thankfully, not that important for IR or world conflicts. Buddhism is not focused a deity and so lacks the ‘my-god-is-the-right-one’ theistic furor that sets Islam, Judaism, and Christianity against each other. When Huntington argued for an East Asian civilization grounded in Buddhism and Confucianism, Asians yawned, but for the dictators who wanted to use ‘Confucian values’ as a legitimizing prop. Monotheists will slaughter each other over doctrine, but Buddhists rarely do (possible exception). They seem to find it bizarre that monotheists would war over catechistic mythologies like Muhammad’s flight to Jerusalem or which way to make the sign of the cross. I find this terribly liberating. This is another of the great benefits of living outside your own culture. The locals see things you never would, in this case, the idiocy of monotheistic absolutism. I always tell my students when I teach the GWoT how nice it is to live in a place where religion is not a fraught contentious social division one must tip-toe around. Buddhists seem far more open to criticism than Muslims or Protestant evangelicals particularly, with their bitter insistence on the literalism of the Bible or Koran, creationism, female sexual restriction, or deitical supremacy. And I find it disappointing that exactly this sort of burning Protestantism is making inroads into Korea. Charismatic evangelicalism is a big wave here. The nocturnal skylines of Seoul and Busan are filled with (rather creepy) neon red crosses. Every time I go to the Busan train station I get harangued by protestant ideologues at the escalator telling me I am going to hell if I don’t embrace Jesus. Ah, how nice to be reminded of Jesus Camp and the Bush years even here so far away…

So off I went last weekend to a ‘temple stay’ at the big Buddhist temple in southeast Korea – Beomeosa. Basically you live like a Buddhist monk for 24 hours. Here a few thoughts.

1. Religion as an endurance test! If you thought Catholic weddings or praying 5 times a day were rough, then try Buddhist bowing. A full Buddhist bow (to images of the Buddha and other major monks, as well as important monks you meet in person) requires great dexterity, particularly ankle and knee strength, and you do it a lot. About half the participants in temple stay were curious westerners like me. We really struggled, as the full bow requires you to go down to the floor and then back up without supporting your body weight with your arms. You could hear knees cracking all over the place. My girlfriend laughed at my pathetic ability and pain. On top of that we had to get up at 3 am for morning prayers and then hiked up a mountain to a shrine. Koreans like to hike up, not across. I think I lost weight by the end of it.

2. Metaphysics instead of theology. We didn’t learn too much theology, and then I remembered of course, that Buddhism doesn’t really have a logic of a god. So instead, it was a lot of (fairly soft, I thought) metaphysics about self-abnegation and finding oneself within. The best account of this I read for a westerner is Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, but I have to say I find it a little depressing. I asked our monk leader if he didn’t miss having a nice glass of wine looking at the sunset or eating a delicious well-cooked meal. Didn’t he find life kind of dry and flat without these experiences (much less sex, rock’n’roll, nicotine, scotch, etc)? He just laughed at me.

3. Formalism. Chris Rock once said in a stand-up routine that he doubts God will make his decision to allow one into heaven based on what one eats. I must say I agree. I have never understood things like kosher or halal. Our monk leader told us that they don’t even eat garlic or onions, least they ‘stimulate’ the body too much. And then of course, came all the other ritual as well, so common in established religions. There were a great many rules about dress, the arrangement of bowls at dinner time, the manner in which to walk (double file line with right hand on top of the left in front of you), when to talk, etc. It seems to me that rules that start functionally (don’t eat pork because you might get trichinosis), over time solidify into precepts irrespective of other change, and then become central doctrinal tenets that determine to whether or not you get to heaven or nirvana. Will Haredim really make it into heaven because they wear those hats? Do I need to shave my head to achieve nirvana? Really? Do they even believe that?

4. Social science vs meditation. I found my social science training collided badly with quietude of mind the monks told us to cultivate. I am one of those people who can’t even watch dumb movies without analyzing them to death. So when we went on our meditation walk in the forest, all I could do is observe and think instead of clearing my mind as we were told to do. I drifted: What is the importance of this particular shrine? What kind of tree is that? Why are the pathways so uneven? I was supposed to be thinking of inner peace and calming my mind. Instead, I found myself wondering if Korea has liability laws, because on the dark, uneven path, you could easily trip and break your legs badly.

So I guess I am not cut out to be a Buddhist, but it was good exposure.

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