Two Savages in Southeast Asia

216 Prostrations

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108 each, to be exact, which we performed last night before our evening meditation. We feel every last one as we wake up at 0430 (well before sunrise!) to catch the morning bell striking and chanting ceremonies. In Buddhist tradition, the morning is greeted with 28 strikes of the Brahma bell, one for each of the heavens. Geumsunsa is somewhat short on resident monks, so only the bell is played, but there is also the gong, the dragon-fish, and the giant drum. Morning chanting comes with a side dish of meditation, during which some of the less alert temple-stayers nod off. Can’t blame them, really; some of them came in looking even more exhausted than we did, and I imagine 0430 doesn’t really exist in conscious time for most people.

After that, we head down to the dining hall for a ceremonial meal, which turns out to be accordingly heavy on ceremony. In order:

  • You are given four bowls, a pair of cloths, chopsticks, and a spoon.
  • You lay out one of the cloths, then silently place the four bowls in their designated corners.
  • You take a portion of clean water, then swirl it around the four bowls in order to clean them. The water is left in the third largest bowl, to be used later in final cleaning.
  • You take a small portion of rice into the largest bowl, a couple of ladles of soup into the next largest, and a small bit of each side dish into the smallest. The different parts of the meal are never mixed between the bowls.
  • Finally, you take a piece of pickled radish and put it in the largest bowl with the rice. You do not eat this radish until the end.
  • With everything served, the group chants in unison to start the meal.
  • Before eating the rice, you ladle one or two spoonfuls of clean water over it.
  • You lift the bowls to your mouth, covering it from view as you eat small portions using the chopsticks (or spoon) with your right hand.
  • Once finished, you rinse the bowls with the water, using the radish to clean off any leftover bits.
  • You eat the radish and deposit the water into a communal offering bowl for the Hungry Ghost. The Hungry Ghost is said to have a very narrow throat, so the water offered to it must be as clean as possible! The monks inspect the water to see if the Hungry Ghost will eat well or choke.

This is one of the more unique meals I’ve had, but the portions are, well, monastic. I’m left feeling a bit peckish for the communal work hour, in which I clean our room and help sweep the courtyard. Where will I get the energy for our quick hike up into the hills around Geumsunsa? No worries – the monks are prepared with miniature Snickers bars, one per person. This provides the quick burst of tasty sugar needed to conquer our 15-minute uphill climb to this beautiful rocky lookout over the valley below. It’s a bit surreal, feeling like you’re out in the middle of nowhere while still within eyeshot of Seoul Tower atop Namsan. We share our hiking path this morning with an eager-looking crew of rock climbers, which underscores this point: we’re really not that far from civilization, so to speak.

Then it’s back down to the temple for a conversation with one of the monks, who happily fields questions with the help of an English interpreter. There’s the usual set of inquiries: how long have you been a monk? How long does the process take? Do you see your family? Do you really get up at 0300 every morning? One of the women asks a more prickly question: why are there temples and other places of prayer when the Buddha is not a god? (To further complicate this question: some other faiths, such as Hinduism and the Baha’i faith, hold that he is a manifestation of divinity, although I’m nowhere near familiar enough with either to understand the full implications there.)

Finally, we sate our growing hunger with a massive lunch, our last meal from the dining hall! We’ve got a bit of time yet before we have to be at the airport, so we meet Taejin downtown by one of the ancient palaces, where there’s a changing of the guard ceremony taking place at 1530. After that, we have just shy of an hour to check out City Hall, which has some super-cool attractions on the lower floor. There’s a small archaeological museum featuring some of the ruins discovered under the building, a common space where vendors have set up a makeshift market, and a public clown performance for kids. The clown spots Valkyrie and promptly calls her up on stage to help him demonstrate a balloon trick, much to the amusement of Taejin and myself.

The last part of the day is a blur of travelling: from Seoul to Incheon by bus, then the usual slog through security, a short wait for the plane, a three-hour hop across a single timezone to Manila…

…but wait! Things can’t possibly be that smooth, not with a major typhoon afoot. Instead of gliding serenely into Manila, we’re awoken by some impressive turbulence as the plane skirts the storm’s edge. Then the captain comes on with an announcement: we can’t land yet, owing to limited runway availability and dodgy weather. We fear the plane might be diverted to another airport, but after three loops around Manila it finally descends to land about an hour late. On the ground, everything is chaos. The taxis won’t take us to our hostel, saying that the roads are flooded in that direction. We ask around, but to no avail! Finally, we give up on reaching the hostel tonight, and instead use the last of our cellphone battery to look up a nearby hotel on the airport’s wifi. The taxi ride is overpriced, as is the hotel given the sorry state of the rooms (and the horrific rattling of the air conditioners therein). Oh well; at least it’s a place to sleep, which is better than some have tonight.

Maybe we’ll be able to reach the hostel tomorrow. Who knows? It all depends on the weather…