What’s the one question you want to ask a monk but dare not? Well Pedro did.
It was a question that smashed the silence and washed in a gush of much needed relief. He didn’t completely come straight out and ask it but it was enough to have me cackle my obtrusive laugh as I rocked on my cushion on the floor of Heinsa Temple.
Our monk-ee (as he refered to himself) had taken 25 minutes to answer the first question and 30 minutes to not answer the second. During our question and answer time with the monk, people were beginning to shuffle and stretch forwards in attempts to relax both bums and backs. Monks can sit up to 16hrs in meditation, monkee informed us. The road to Zen is not that Zen like. In fact, it was a little prison like. At least that was exactly what I was thinking as we shuffled across the courtyard of Heinsa Temple, double lined, holding our hands in front, heads bowed and wearing our gray prison garb / pyjamas.
Pedro, our tour leader, drove our group on a deep frosted Saturday morning up the mountain to the home of the Tripitaka. I knew the word Tripitaka but I wasn’t sure why. I think subconsciously it had stuck in my mind just because of the way it bounces and flings itself off the tongue …takaka… It turns out it is the name given to the most complete set of ancient Buddhist scriptures in existence which were carved onto 80,000 wooden blocks and still held in their architecturally genius building, designed to care for the wood. Although, to be quite honest, I was more concerned as to whether this 802 AD built temple would have heating. At 4.30pm we were joined on the blissful heated floor (the only thing more blissful than the Korean ondol are the heated toilet seats) by ten other foreigners wanting a slice of this bit of Korean culture. Monkee was also pretty cute. This Zen stuff was going to be easy.
Then came the prison gear, the silence, the mushroom soup, the sitting, the 3am alarm clock and the 108 bows. Apparently being zen requires you to not be able to walk the next day because each thigh feels like it has been stretched across the other due to the repeated bending up and down off the floor. However, we all put in the effort. Except for the silence. We were instructed that our stay should be done in silence, that included not eating nosily or clanking plates but as soon as we left our introduction sitting, whispers and giggles erupted. The French girls were the worst and when a monk burped in the dining hall. That was it.
Except it was me that had to swallow my judgment (along with the regretful mushroom soup) at their disregard of the zen requiring instructions when Pedro popped out his question. No food was to be left on the plate and I kicked myself for taking such a large bowlful of something that smelled of old socks. However, the biggest silence interrupter and giggle generator was actually carried out by a monk. It was the loudest thwack of bamboo on the wooden floor issued by the smiling monk to wake up a nodding meditator. My stomach hit my mouth at the sound, my eyes peeking into the dimly lit 4.30am room to see a unfortunate sleeper being prodded on each shoulder before having to bow as a mark of respect to say thank you.
At 9pm we tried to settle down on the floor to sleep knowing that we were to wake at an ungodly hour but we did it and in the 3am darkness, deep rumbles could be heard. We crunched over the frost and under sparkles to watch a monk bounce long arms across the biggest drum I have ever seen. Everything else was silent allowing the drumming to wake up every cell inside my body which were then bathed in the sound of 60 chanting monks. People say they will have experiences they never forget. This is mine. Their earthy tones amidst the green and golden colours of the temple in the crisp, fresh morning gave me something which I still carry. These sounds I will keep deep in my belly.
Monkee didn’t speak English but we listened through the most delicate and graceful translator. Lines would cross her face when the words were hard to find and physically we could see her every effort to relay monkee’s words. She sat back in silence when Pedro perked up onto his knees, looked round the room, nodded then bounced his out words,
I am a healthy man.
Once more he nodded around the room and internally I crunched knowing what was coming next.
What happens in your head when you see you a beautiful woman?
No sex was mentioned but Pedro’s eyes glinting from under his little round glasses were all that was needed. My outburst of laughter was an override to any giggles the French girls had made.
There was one sound we didn’t hear during our 15 hour temple stay. We never heard the answer.