Seoul Searching

Zen and the city … a journey through modern Korea

Published in the August 2009 issue of enRoute


I’m standing before an altar at Jogyesa Temple in downtown Seoul. Three giant Buddhas as shiny as gold coins gaze down at me, while the dharma hall fills with the faint sound of chanting monks and the whirr of traffic outside. A handful of worshippers quietly perform their bows to repent worldly desires, their movements focused and captivating. Then I notice something odd on the altar. Traditional offerings of rice are placed alongside bottles of water – and a six-pack of drinkable yogurt.

This tiny temple – the seat of South Korea’s main sect of Buddhism – and others like it occupy Seoul along with tea shops, highrises, Mister Donut franchises and the indomitable Han River. Decimated by wars and invasions and then bulldozed and rebuilt for the sake of modernization, Seoul is a place where jjimjilbangs, those bathhouse/spa sanctuaries for the body, sit beside shrines to technology and where ancient Buddhist temples rub shoulders with temples of commerce.

Contemporary Seoul was modelled on equally chaotic Tokyo, yet legend has it that when its founders were looking for a new site for the capital, they sent a Taoist monk to scout locations. He picked a spot where four brooks flowing from four surrounding mountains converged into one stream, a sign of good feng shui. But drive through the One-Pillar Gate of Bongeunsa Temple in the city centre, leaving behind the temple’s colourful murals depicting stories of the Buddha, and you find yourself confronted with the COEX complex, a hulking point of geographical reference where Gagnam-style girls in green miniskirts totter about on chunky white patent heels hawking cellphones.

In Korean Seon (Zen) Buddhism, sudden enlightenment is followed by continual practice. This is an apt metaphor for Seoul. One of the planet’s densest urban areas, its too-muchness that hits you immediately. Take Dongdaemun Market with its kilometre upon kilometre of shops selling everything from Astroturf to baseball caps to melon-size balls of yarn. What one person describes to me as Seoulites’ collective bali-bali (rush-rush) mentality partly explains how the city has achieved so much so quickly. But the capital’s complexity and history are revealed over time. At Dongdaemun, I discover a latent spirituality; the market is sometimes called Heunginjimun, which means “gate of rising benevolence.”

The act of searching is emblematic of South Korea. Several years ago, the country changed its slogan from Land of the Morning Calm to Dynamic Korea; the English dailies at my hotel echo this new cultural aspiration. In the early 1960s, Korea was poorer than the Congo and Sudan, but thanks to rapid industrialization and IT giants like Samsung and LG, it’s now one of the world’s richest nations. Still, Seoul is a hybrid: its streets, as tangled as the circuit board in a plasma TV, mesh with a mountain-studded topography that defies all sense of direction, including, occasionally, my driver’s GPS.

When I arrive at Bongeunsa Temple, I’m greeted by a young, serious-looking man dressed in casual pants and a crisp button-up shirt. He hands me a cream-coloured business card with his title printed in brown sans serif letters. The Official Manager of Dharma Spreading shepherds me inside, past a minuscule temple with old wooden sutras (scriptures) stacked along the walls, and through a courtyard watched over by a 23-metre-tall stone Buddha.

Bongeunsa, tucked at the base of Sudo Mountain in Seoul’s business district, was founded 500 years before the city itself and has survived the waves of suppression that have plagued Buddhism for centuries. After years of post-Korean War nation building, renewed interest in the country’s history has raised the profile of temples. Bongeunsa, like Jogyesa and dozens of temples throughout South Korea, offers a temple-stay program – a kind of Buddhist boot camp that lets you live like a monk for a couple of hours or a few days. Its traditional Korean rituals, like the tea ceremony, chanting and meditation and the 108 bows, are all designed to renew body and mind.

The Official Manager of Dharma Spreading and I slip into a sparse room where two women wearing hanboks – long, colourful ceremonial dresses – are absorbed in dado, the way of tea. Like synchronized swimmers, they pour the same amount of hot water into delicate cups at precisely the same moment and hypnotically rock the cups back and forth to warm the sides. Lasting as long as two hours, the ceremony is a form of active meditation; the preparation is as important as the drinking.

When it’s my turn, I rush through the steps, holding the lid of the teapot in one hand and pouring hot water with the other. I grab my linen napkin to wipe the water from the pot at the wrong time. The ladies in hanboks gently correct me, then urge me to shake out the teapot to prove that I have poured every last drop. I lift a small iridescent teacup with both hands, concentrate on the tea’s scent and admire its colour before I finally take three sips, rolling the liquid on my tongue to distinguish five tastes: bitterness, astringency, saltiness, sourness and sweetness. I’m as focused as a surgeon – at least until halfway through the lesson, when the Official Manager of Dharma Spreading gets up to take a call on his mobile.

Seeking spiritual enlightenment and renewal in the city starts to feel like drive-through Buddhism: Jogyesa promotes a “mini temple-life program” from 11am to 5pm, while Bongeunsa throws in a small souvenir with its two-hour tour. At Jogyesa, I’d heard I wouldn’t find the true spirit of Korean Buddhism until I left Seoul. “When you’re in the countryside, you’ll understand,” people told me. True Zen, it appears, is still at odds with urban life.

Little Buddhas on a rock, Korean monastery

The banging starts at 3am, a measured rap, rap, rap competing with the trill of tree frogs. The noise is as gentle as wind slapping a branch against a tree but as persistent as the tick of a metronome – and impossible to ignore. This is my wake-up call in a remote temple several hours from Seoul in a place where the devout and the merely curious have come to make 108 bows before three golden Buddha statues. The day begins long before anyone outside this sheltered mountain valley is even dreaming about what lies ahead.

At Baekdamsa, a small seventh-century temple nestled at the confluence of two rivers in Gangwon province, I find a quiet sense of urgency. Sunims (monks) check their watches the way the rest of us check our e-mail, and temple routines are run with military precision. At 3.20am, we gather for the hypnotic banging of the dharma drum and chant and bow for an hour and a half before the Buddhas. It’s taxing yet oddly energizing. At 6am, when people in Seoul are hitting the snooze button on their alarm clocks, we eat a breakfast of white rice, kimchee, wild greens and tea, with the occasional slab of tofu. (During the day, a man from Seoul, who supervises the kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton, and I head for the gift shop to stock up on chocolate bars.) We go for long, silent walks in the woods, and lead each other blindfolded over a craggy path to get in touch with our senses. These exercises have a way of erasing the rest of the world, of emptying the mind until you have no excuse but to focus on the present.

In Zen Buddhism, monks sometimes assign disciples a kong-an, or koan, a riddle or esoteric question to concentrate on during meditation. Late for a meditation class at Baekdamsa, I circle a building with walls of sliding doors, searching for an unlocked entry. A crack Buddhist, I wonder if this is a kong-an: So many doors, which one to enter? The sunim is waiting on her mat. Throughout the class, I fold and unfold my body into various interpretations of the half-lotus position, squirming like a child in Sunday school. Trying to focus my mind, I hear a click and glimpse the flash of a camera. “When we’re gone,” a novice, who documents our stay with the temple’s digital camera, says with a wry smile, “these pictures will be all that’s left.”

Afterwards, the sunim asks us to listen to the river. She pauses while we listen, then continues: “You are the subject. The river is the object. They are the same thing.” She looks at me and, in Korean, asks: “What is the mind?” Everybody in the room shifts their eyes toward me while I attempt a reply. You may escape the city to one of the most remote, pristine mountains in the country and yet the paradoxes and complexities of the world keep knocking at the door.

On our last day at Baekdamsa, we gather in front of the temple to make a pagoda, one of dozens built by previous visitors on the riverbank. One man ambitiously gathers the biggest rocks he can pry out of the dirt. The structure grows rounder and taller until it towers over the others. I pluck a pretty black rock the size of a deck of cards and place it on top. It wobbles, uncertain, and another man puffs up his cheeks and blows hard on it to see if it will fall over. It stays firm. And the only sound is the river rushing by.

+ Read more from enRoute – Creature Comforts: time travelling to the Galapagos Islands