Thursday, May 17, 2012

What do I have in common with Buddhist monks? You'll be surprised!

Several years ago, Gloria and I met while visiting China and South Korea with a group of teachers from the University of Georgia. (We live a few miles from each other, but we met for the first time in Beijing. Small world, huh?) It was a remarkable trip in many ways. We toured museums, temples, historical sites, little villages, and became lifelong friends.

Perhaps the most physically demanding, albeit interesting, experiences we had was spending a night at a Buddhist monastery in the foothills of the Taebaek mountains in South Korea. We arrived in the afternoon, climbed to the top of a steep rock outcropping to see the carved Buddha figures in niches along the way, and climbed back down. I have to admit that it had been worth the climb to see the art.

We were then encouraged to participate in a “physical training” session. Unfortunately for Gloria and me, it wasn’t tai chi or yoga, which we might actually have been able to do; the exercises were obviously designed to turn us into ninja warriors. The head monk appeared to be highly disappointed when we ended up sitting on our mats, breathing heavily and refusing to move another muscle.

From there, we went to dinner. Again, I proved to be a disappointment. The day before our visit, I had become acquainted with a nice South Korean doctor who gave me some pills for the stomach problem I’d acquired in China. Despite a day’s dose of antibiotics, my stomach was not likely to happily digest kimchi or anything else that was on the menu except the rice. I took a small scoop of rice, and ate it slowly. I did finish every last grain, which was important to the monks, but I’m afraid I ended up looking like the ugly American who refused to eat local food.

There was another exercise session after dinner, and finally we were allowed to retire for the night. We were each given a blanket and a small section of wooden floor. There was a toilet and sink, but no shower. If the object of the monastery visit was to make us miserable, it was completely successful. However, we certainly understood more about how Buddhist monks live than we had before our visit.

It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise for me to learn this week that I might actually have more in common with Buddhist monks than I had thought. Reuters reports that “South Korean TV networks aired shots of monks playing poker, some smoking and drinking, after gathering at a luxury lakeside hotel in late April for a fellow monk's memorial service.” Where were those monks when I was camped out in austerity exercise hell?

Of course, the moral of this story is that American tourists and South Korean
Buddhist monks are all human beings. Although we strive to be whatever our version of “best” is, we sometimes fall short. C’est la vie.