New life from scratch. New beginning. New me. Transformation. Enlightenment. Forgetting the past. Forgiving myself. Those were the words playing in my mind when I made my decision to apply for a silent retreat (Winter Kyol Che 2019) at Musangsa Korean Zen Buddhist temple, and I must admit, those words sounded quite appealing.
Though, it would be wrong to say that there was no practical reason for that idea whatsoever. Yes, practical! No matter how contradicting the words ‘practical’ and ‘temple’ may sound. I had a problem, and the problem was huge.
How it all started
I’ve worked as an online ESL teacher for over three years, teaching Chinese kids English through an online platform, one of the biggest online companies in the world.
I was happy and complacent. Working online and having a steady income means you have the entire world at hand, as long as you have fast internet and a U.S. passport, which was definitely my case. I’ve been to Italy, Spain, France, Poland, Hungary and finally Asia—Vietnam and Korea. And that’s where my problem started.
Korea is a fast-growing country with an average monthly income of $2,000, which is two times more than what I was making with my online job. Though it wasn’t as hopeless as it seems at a glance, I did have an opportunity to make more money if I took more classes per day. So I decided to load myself with work to reach the goal of at least $1,500. And I did reach it, but it came at a price. And the price was my voice. I lost it!
The weirdest thing about my condition was that the voice loss was not due to a vocal cord injury, but it resulted from some kind of psychosomatic disorder. I couldn’t talk effortlessly. All my speech-organ muscles would become extremely tense, and my voice sounded squeezed, hoarse, as if I had been drinking and smoking all night long, and yelling drinking songs ’til morning. It also sounded as if I was about to start crying.
After several unsuccessful attempts to consult with all possible medical professions (such as an ENT doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a physician who couldn’t find any problems), and having researched the symptoms on YouTube, I diagnosed myself with quite a rare disorder called Muscle Tension Dysphonia.
Nobody knows what causes it, and there’s no particularly effective cure for it. They say Botox injections may temporarily relieve it, but then the symptoms would come back. I was shocked, pissed off, frustrated and simply in despair.
I didn’t know what to do, as I was making money with my voice. I thought that if I stayed silent for some time, and tried to balance my energy channels in meditation, it might help. That’s how I came up with the idea of joining the 2019 silent retreat at Musangsa Temple in South Korea.
The genius of simplicity
My first enlightenment experience came when, upon arrival, I handed over my phone and passport at the Musangsa office. The clerk took me to an empty room and told me to wait for about an hour.
Anyone in my shoes could have been bored to death, waiting for an hour without having their phone in their hands, updating their Facebook status to “Came to a seven-day silent retreat at a Buddhist monastery,” chatting with friends or just surfing the web.
So was I, but my reasonable mind reminded me patiently, “Hey, you really don’t need to keep your friends informed on each step you take in your life.”
I kindly thanked it for being so patient, and realized that using the phone had become my reflex. This little piece of technology that keeps my mind excited, aggravated and stressed for each and every minute of my life has become an addiction, which is so hard to give up.
I looked around the room—a big, empty room with a Buddha statue in the middle; no furniture, no decorations, just a big pile of red mats and the clock ticking on the wall, ‘tick-tock, tick-tock.’ In a way, it felt like returning to the past when I was a child, often bored but never depressed. I was always happy because each moment was so new and interesting and offered so much to learn.
First encounter with Zen Buddhist monks, nuns
Next was the orientation, which lasted for about an hour. A bald-headed Korean lady introduced herself as a nun in charge of the household.
She looked like someone I definitely pictured in my mind when I was envisioning a real Buddhist nun—round eyeglasses, a soft voice, unbelievably graceful gestures and a demure smile intrinsic to Japanese women.
“Each of you will have daily jobs to do,” she said. “Diana, you will be responsible for cleaning the study room at 8 a.m. every day.” I felt relieved and excited—the job was easy, and I’d get to look through the best book collection of the founder of Korean Zen Buddhism himself.
“Oh, and wash dishes after lunch, you know, those big pots and pans used for cooking,” she added with a smile on her face, which this time seemed quite spiteful—or maybe ‘spiteful’ was my mind’s interpretation of her smile, since I’ve always hated washing dishes. I tried to hide my disappointment with a forced smile, but I also realized I had come here to try and tame my mind.
Shortly after she finished with her instructions, the chief nun came to tell us about the rules of conduct before, during and after the meditation practice. She had a very strong Eastern European accent, which made the instructions really hard to understand. What I did understand seemed quite shocking:
- During the meditation, she might come up to me and hit my back with a wooden stick, and
- During a so-called ‘formal meal,’ I needed to clean the four bowls I was eating from with a little bit of water and a piece of kimchi, and then DRINK IT. She also explained the order in which all four bowls should be taken out, placed, eaten from, and then washed and put together. Trust me, it was one of the most difficult things to remember in my entire life. And as she seemed to have enough experience dealing with beginners, she obviously knew it was impossible to remember it all in just five minutes. So all she said was, “You’ll get it. Just look at other people and follow them.”
How fear breeds terror—or my first blush
My first experience in the Buddha Hall was quite shameful. I came in when everybody was just sitting with their legs crossed, and did the same thing—just sat down and crossed my legs.
As I looked up, I saw the Master Hye Tong, the chief nun and 20 other people looking at me as if they were waiting for something.
Since I’m not that much into Buddhist traditions, I couldn’t have possibly remembered what the chief nun told us: Every time you come into the Buddha Hall for morning and evening chanting, you should bow to the Buddha three times, do three prostrations, bow to Kwanseum Bosal and then to the portrait of Sunsanim—Seung Sahn.
Through the darkness of the room that was backlit with candles, I saw a young girl looking at me, ready to help by using her body language. From her eyes and hand gestures, I understood that I needed to do all those bowings and prostrations. “Oh my, God does exist and can help me through other people!” I thought.
I had my next shameful experience during my first formal meal. I did remember the chief nun mentioning, “Put only as much food as you can eat” (on your plate) during our orientation.
Of course, I knew my limits, so I did exactly as she told us! But she seemed to have forgotten to mention one little but extremely important thing: that we should finish eating within 10 minutes. Moreover, all your actions should be synced with those of others, which means you should all start eating, bow, clean and finish eating simultaneously.
I was eating at my normal pace, enjoying every bite of the vegetarian food, but as I raised my eyes, they suddenly got bigger. I saw all monks, nuns and disciples just sitting and waiting patiently for me to finish my meal. I had half of the bowl of rice and half of another bowl of salads and snacks left.
I’m pretty sure everybody noticed how red my face turned, as I wasn’t sure whether to throw all the food away unnoticeably behind my back, or stuff my mouth with it and just swallow without chewing (then choke and die!). Finally, the chief nun came up to me and said, “You can put it aside for right now and finish it later as an exclusion for today.”
“Thank God, they are merciful towards newbies,” the voice inside me said.
My first two days at Musangsa Zen Buddhist temple felt like a complete disaster. I did regret my decision to go there. I hated waking up at 4 a.m., then voluntarily agreeing to destroy my knees while doing 108 prostrations. I hated meditating for eight hours a day, I hated the formal meals, and eating my meals while sitting in the same meditation pose.
My knees were killing me, my eyelids were heavy, and my back was making a cracking sound every five minutes, while I was trying to straighten it up. In addition, I felt like my imperfect self was really a bad fit in this perfect world, where all objects—from plates and pots in the dining room, to shared shoes in the bathroom—should be placed parallel or perpendicular to each other, in a geometrically perfect manner. At least, this is what my SMALL SELF was telling me, while my BIGGER SELF kept looking for a bigger meaning in that crazy house.
The turning point
On the third day, a new girl arrived who was supposed to be my roomie, and who was also a newbie to Korean Zen Buddhism. I definitely felt a connection with that girl, at first sight. I guess this is what you call a karmic relationship—we had probably met in previous lives and had built a close relationship; that’s why it felt as if we had known each other for ages.
I shared what my SMALL SELF was suffering from in that crazy house, and she asked me a rhetorical question that changed my view of everything that was going on. “Why do you feel ashamed? Don’t you know that Zen is all about being non-judgmental, and nobody here will judge you for not knowing something?” That question pretty much shut my SMALL SELF up and gave way for my BIGGER SELF to feel free.
From that point on, I started looking at things differently. Nobody except for me was responsible for judging my own self. So if I could stop that, then I could learn new things without any pain or shame. And I CHOSE to do that.
From that point, each small step of learning brought me happiness. I started loving waking up at 4 a.m. and doing 108 prostrations. I started loving the formal meals; the people to whom I never had a chance to speak; the ugly, lazy, fat cats that I was jealous of, since they had their own schedule and didn’t need to follow the crowd. I even started to enjoy placing the bathroom shoes perfectly parallel to each other.
I realized that everything that comes my way comes to teach me something, and that I should take difficulties as a challenge instead of beating myself up and cursing life for all the injustice. I started loving the communal work and washing dishes. I felt useful. I felt like I was living a real life, not a virtual life, and I finally felt HAPPY! I felt that each moment was precious, as it wouldn’t last forever.
How it all ended up
So did the silent retreat and the time spent at Musangsa Temple help me recover from my illness? No, it didn’t. However, the lessons I learned during my monastery life were absolutely worth my time and effort, as they were meant to help me develop the right attitude towards my condition.
Everything is impermanent in this life, and so is my condition. But I intend to enjoy every moment of it, because it came my way to teach me something important. It came to teach me to be a peaceful warrior and never give up, and to love each and every battle that you go through, because each of them is unique in its own way. And this is the Zen way.
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image 1 Dharma Room at Musanga by Arunas Kulikauskas via Wikimedia ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0); 2 All other images with written permission of Musanga Buddhist Temple.