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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

WJWD on New Year's Eve

2007: Alone in my studio watching someone ring a big bell in the giant plaza in Seoul.
2008: Clubbing around Hong-ik University in Seoul. Lots of Vodka, then fried chicken, then maybe an incident in the restroom, fighting with George about the right way home, getting lost, finally getting back to the hostel, then maybe have another incident in the restroom.
2009: Watching a big TV in the central square in Kuala Lumpur, then taking a taxi with a local to a restaurant at the top of a hill outside of town and watching 3 or 4 fireworks displays at once.
2010: Dressing up in forest garb, listening to shirtless people in baggy pants playing drums and guitar, looking at the moon, sitting in a giant circle and OMing for an hour.

Note the time on the picture: 2011/01/01 00:01 Awesome, eh?

Where am I? At a little temple on top of Namsan (Mt. Nam / South Mountain) in Gyeongju.

What was I doing there? Sitting around with friends and strangers eating rice cake soup and drinking quince tea and chanting the same Buddhist sutra - "The Great Darani" - 108 times.

How the heck did I get there? I was asking myself this same question the whole night - here's the rundown:

Not too long ago, I briefly mentioned the Vegan Potluck Gorgefest I attended for Thanksgiving. I met some really cool people there, by which I mean people who think more or less like I do about food and food politics. Many of them knew each other from a Yoga camp that had gone down sometime in October.

The VPG was such a smash hit that we decided to follow it up with a Random Vegan Smorgasboard for Christmas. Eight of us rented a "pension," which in Konglish means a vacant country house, for the reasonable price of about 90 bucks a night. We all brought backpacks full of fruits, veggies, nuts, powders, cookies, squash, noodles, teas, spices, and whatever other edibles we had on hand, along with a few computers, mp3 players, speaker sets, a dwarf Christmas tree, and of course my trusty projector. We spent two nights and three days drinking tea, enjoying fine cinema (Home Alone and the animated Grinch), playing card games, drinking wine, lazing around on the hot floor, and cooking whatever we could, which included a pumpkin/noodle/perilla powder mash, a spinach-ginger-tomato-coconut milk soup, curry, bean burgers, flat bread, crepes with blueberry jam, and homemade fig jam on toast.

On our last morning, we decided to go out for a stroll. After passing some shacks and traditional tile-roofed houses, we wound up walking through a field of completely dried out red pepper plants and then somehow found ourselves heading up a mountain path. We heard some click-clocks and a weird droning, which turned out to be coming from a lone man, reciting some sutra and syncopating on his mok-tak (Mahayana Buddhist fish-shaped wooden percussion instrument) as he made his way up. We followed him for a while, then passed him and continued to the top of the mountain, where we ran into a monk who spoke excellent English and poured us several rounds of green tea to warm us up. She invited us to stay for the Sunday service, which consisted of about an hour of chanting, a few minutes of meditation, and a short dharma talk. She commented that though some foreigners had found the temple and stayed for tea, none had ever sat through a service, and then invited us to come back the following weekend for some mega-sutra action (my words.)

So, the following Friday, a few of us caught a bus to the intercity bus terminal, then another bus to Gyeongju, then another bus to the bus stop closest to the foot of the mountain, then followed the sign to Ch'ilburam.

We arrived around 6, just as it was getting dark and just in time for a bowl of hot rice-flake soup. Promptly at 6:30, the chanting began. One prayer to the triple gem (no clue what that means), then 12 Great Dharani sutras, which took about 30 minutes. Then a 30 minute break. Then 24 Dharanis (one hour) and another half hours break. 24 more, rest. 24 more, rest. 24 more, rest. 12 more, rest, and a closing thousands eyes and hands sutra brought us to about 3:30AM. Though there was barely enough room for all of us to sit, we somehow managed to spread out and catch a few hours of rest.

We woke up again at six, had some more of the same soup, and then headed up to the top of the mountain to wait for the sunrise. The monk said a blessing, then for about twenty or thirty minutes we chanted "Gwan-se-um-bo-sal," a prayer to the Boddhisatva who is supposed to be watching over the world, protecting people and ensuring good fortune. It was a cloudy morning, but we were lucky: the clouds were floating just high enough over the mountains to the East that we were able to get a decent view of the sun on its way up:

After the sun had disappeared behind the clouds again, the monk gave another short Dharma talk. I couldn't really follow it, but it was something about how the sun wasn't really new and neither was the year but in any case it was as good a time as any to try to renew our dedication to living a kind and compassionate life. Or perhaps I'm just projecting what I would like to have heard.

Then the assistant monk insisted we get a picture of all the foreigners together, along with some of the Koreans who had been speaking English to us throughout the night.

In case you're wondering how I got the picture: the photographer, a devotee of the hermitage, posted it on the official website and sent it to me via email.

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