Bulguksa

 

It’s a dream I revisit often, more these recent months. I am with strangers in a white minivan, winding its way through the rice-paddy green of a back road in South Korea. The road begins to ascend, and then we are in a low, undulating deciduous forest of birch and alder. We arrive somewhere and get out. A stone bridge blanketed in white paper lanterns leads over a small river, past an open-air wooden gate where giant, muscular guardian gods painted in red and green and turquoise suggest what lies within is special.

A campus of wooden buildings sits on manicured dirt courtyards. Tiled roofs, gently upturned; stone stairs leading to porticos where doors slide open, their latticework frames perfect and delicate. The group of strangers are paired off, and I am directed to a small room along with one other – a woman from Seoul.

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Outside the door, we take our shoes off and slide on plastic shower slippers. The room is plain and small: a fan, a bookshelf of Buddhist texts, two floor mats and pillows for sleeping. We are given matching, plain blue uniforms: simple cotton trousers and shirt.

****

We gather later in the dining room – a big echoing hall with a buffet and long, vinyl banquette tables reminiscent of a summer camp canteen. Across the corridor, shared shower rooms, each cubicle with windows opening out into the leafy beyond.

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I worry unnecessarily about my appetite. But we aren’t supposed to go hungry here. Eat as much as you like, a monk smiles, just make sure nothing is wasted. I take a plastic bowl and metal chopsticks from the pile at the end of the buffet, then scoop some rice, greens, wild mushrooms, courgette and tofu in, topped with kimchi. The bowl isn’t full. I eat everything, and wash it down with fresh water, then go again. Half a bowl, just enough, eat it all. Am I full? Maybe a little more. Every grain of rice gone? Yes. Okay, clean your bowl over there now.

After dinner, we pad sockfooted into a gathering hall where meditation pillows are arranged in a semi-circle, each fronted by a bamboo tray with green tea service and cakes. We sit, we wait. A monk enters swiftly; his head is shaved and the long, wide sleeves of his robes waft on some unfelt breeze.

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The monk sits, and speaks of cleansing the mind, of non-attachment, of letting go of desire. He asks if there are questions. The strangers are silent, and I am silent. A mosquito buzzes in my ear, the overhead lightbulbs are bare and seem harsh and bright for such soul-scratching conversation. Then, says the monk, we shall have cake.

****

Night falls. We feel our way past the soft curving walls of silent buildings, over settled dusty walkways, back to our rooms. The stream, somewhere out of sight, reminds us the world ticks on. The bulb in the bedroom is as bright as the one we sat under in the hall with the monk, and a few moths find their way past the screen door before it slides shut. I switch on the fan and lay on my bedroll, watching the moths circling wildly under the bulb. There is no internet, no connectivity, nothing but the dull ache of thoughts.

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9pm. A huge, antique bell is sounded somewhere outside. We rise, slip our shoes back on and crackle across the stone courtyard to the main temple hall. Shoes are left recklessly in pairs all over the steps.

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Inside, cushions are set in perfect rows on huge carpets; the walls lined with scrolls and silks worn by the energy of seekers and dripping with prayer. It is warm and smells of incense and socked feet and late evening dew. Outside a brain-rattling symphony of crickets. We sit cross-legged. A small, well-used paper booklet offers the chants in Korean script, with approximated pronunciations below in Roman letters. We start chanting and it feels awkward and stilted, until it doesn’t and then it begins to feel dizzying and I wonder if I am hypnotised. Some regulars at the temple are sitting in front of me and they know the ropes. They anticipate the monk’s words and they know when to bow. I follow. It’s physically exhausting.

Stand. Hands together at the heart. Lower into a kneel, lower forehead to the floor, palms to the floor, then palms lift, hands return to heart, head up, stand. Repeat. Again. Again. 108 agains.

****

Hours before dawn, the gong sounds once more and we get up, gathering half awake in hushed tones, shivering under our cotton uniforms in the main courtyard. The pale violet hint of a new day casts imperceptible shadows. A nun tells us not to speak, and leads us single-file into the forest. Clear your mind, she says, follow me.

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We walk. I do not know for how long. I can’t see, swimming in darkness but flooded by sound. The river gets closer, we get closer to it. It is close now, it is very loud. The splash of water over rocks like fireworks in my ears. My breath a soundtrack, each exhale puffing in a small, deafening white cloud. A gentle crunch underfoot loud as a thunderclap. Squirrels awakened early, rustling branches in such bright noise it could signal the end of the world. And it is also emphatically quiet. It is silent. Everything is still and moving. I am alive. I am. I am.

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Dawn breaks as we sit down on dewy grass, our bums instantly wet and cold and stained. Now, it is social time! the nun smiles. Please, talk warmly together! It is strange, so suddenly, to return into my body. To engage with another being. What should we say. We are alive. We are together. How can we even capture this feeling in words? Do you have children? What brings you here? Look how the sun creeps up over that peak.

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The grey mist of proper morning is cast over everything when we return to the temple. A monk shows us to an open-air porch enclosed by screens, below which runs another small creek trickling over stones. He indicates to sit, legs outstretched, on huge pillows. The pillows are warm and the air is so cool and wet and the stream sings its pebble song.

I close my eyes. This is not a dream.

I am alive. I am.

****

This story takes place at Bulguksa, an 8th century Buddhist temple on the slopes of Mt Toham in Gyeongsang-do, South Korea. Bulguksa is the head of the Jogye Buddhist order. It is a temple of exceptional significance in Korea and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. My stay was arranged through the incredible Templestay program, something I would encourage all seekers of themselves to do, if they are able.

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monsoon

what am i going to write
about this far-flung evening
not so quiet
not so normal
not so
anything
seated alone on a south-facing porch
rain dripping off every surface
patter of droplets
chirp of frogs
everything is
damp
three hundred twenty tree species thrive
in the high western ghats
which one’s in shadow
which one’s towering above
are there cobras
are there macaques
sheltering the
downpour
what comes next on this journey
switch off the lights now
wait in the dark
let your eyes adjust
chirp, plink, splatter
croak, plonk, splash
i’ll go
tomorrow

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roads

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exhale. what is there to say about the roads we drove in the middle of the world?

i remember the bumps less, it’s always the way with hindsight. the discomforts, the lack, the pain. these evaporate quickly, though they take up our whole field of vision at the time.

bumps, bumps, bumpy, i thought maybe there was whiplash coming, and then we stopped to wait for the other jeeps. we were a day and a half from mobile signal, and we didn’t have walkie talkies or a satellite phone. we should have had both, but we didn’t, and so we stopped, waited, looked back – west – for plumes of dust. were they behind? anywhere? no sign of tyres kicking up dirt miles back. where are they?

instead, we walked to the edge of zorkul, no wind, no sound, no eagles flying overhead. nothing, well except afghanistan is there, like a portrait in a frame, mountains heralding the pamir and the headwaters of the amu darya. we walk, leaving bootprints in the soft dusty mounds, down a hill and over forgotten phone lines. in this part of the world, they feel harmless and terrifying, like anything out here could be a mine. the lake is glassy and the blue of some sky not from here. how do rivers come rushing from nothing here?

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we walk, we are quiet. then, plumes of dust.

these are not roads, but we take them anyway.

3am, mount everest.

i wondered how the stars would be. belle and sebastian have been in my head for days. days of climbing, slowly. first gyantse, 4000 metres. shigatse after, where crimson-robed monks wander in and out of dusty shops selling saran-wrapped golden buddhas and rolls of prayer flags in primary colours. then shegar – a pitstop on the way to the top of the planet.

by 3am, the stove inside the base camp yak-hair tent has gone out. it’s a two-room tent; me, my guide, driver and one random chinese guy who says he works in the military are sleeping on beds along the edges. the tibetan family who run the tent are asleep in the next room. the stove’s in the middle, where we huddled last night before bed, drinking hot water out of giant thermoses and trying, basically, to breathe.

these days, i feel like i am always in search of the stars. even bright arcturus – one of the few visible under london’s blanket of light haze – is a comfort when it pops through the clouds. but a deep yearning to be utterly overwhelmed by the starmap overhead seems constant.

the stove has gone out and i am wrapped in three thick blankets, on a couch-style banquette layered with tibetan carpets. i can’t breathe or sleep very well. the bathroom is a grim proposition (everest’s toilets have a deserved reputation of being the worst in tibet, maybe on earth) and it’s easily -5C outside, maybe -10. i uncoil the blankets from my appendages and stick a hand into the cold in search of my head torch and flick it to a gentle red glow.

feet into frozen boots, barely tied, and then i unlatch the tent door and step out into the frigid air.

just dressing and standing up at this altitude – 5200 meters or 17,060 if you measure in shoes – is difficult. muscles ache from the cold and the lack of oxygen, lungs struggle to keep blood flowing. there is a constant gentle dizzy and every single step has to be taken at a careful pace.

the moon is out, a half slice that at this altitude is bright like a fluorescent lantern. qomolangma sits a perfect white triangle at the top of a narrow, glacially-carved valley filled with boulders and rock scree. the moon has illuminated its north face so that it stands like a sentinel above base camp. between the glow off the mountain and the starshine, i don’t need my headlamp.

i wondered if this sky would beat kyrgyzstan’s epic remote stargazing session last year. it’s different, not comparable. there are fewer stars here, partly because of the moon, but the chilly glow of the mountain overseen by the big dipper and a million friends is tough to top. even with the stinky toilets.

it’s been a rollercoaster ride. but the trouble won’t keep me inside.

poem from a high hard sleeper

 

swirls of red dust
grey mountain line
non-descript
and, above,
some black clouds threaten.

an engineering marvel
they always say
utility poles, wires, disrupt dirt
and thousands of li
of green fence.

two ladies in the berth opposite
watching loud chinese soaps
on a mobile
while i drink an imported IPA
bought in xining.

more flat miles pass
trundling ever upward
but this does not feel

like the roof of the world, yet.

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guanyin and longshan temple

taipei. humid. a final day, and with no plans, where to go and what to do? it’s an easy choice. the city (and the island for that matter) is stocked with temples: buddhist, taoist, a mix of folk traditions. big colourful, scary-looking gods guarding doorways. and goddesses, lingering in shadowy halls. like guanyin.

guanyin is the bodhisattva of compassion. sometimes male, most times female. always gazing off with a wry simper, like she knows how it all turns out, and it’s fine, and your worries are ill-advised. guanyin is one of the most popular and beloved deities in the chinese pantheon.

it’s humid and even by 10am in early march, i am that sort of uncomfortable-warm in unmentionable places and relish every moment of metro air conditioning on the three-stop ride from my capsule hotel to longshan temple.

for reasons i still can’t really explain, i started really reading about guanyin last year, at the outset of what turned out to be the most difficult year of my life.

but i’ve encountered her numerous times before. first on putuoshan, an island off of shanghai dedicated to guanyin. there’s a 100-foot-tall golden statue of her gazing out to the east china sea here, and at the age of 24, seeing this had no effect on me, or so i thought. that trip, i was concerned about visceral things: winds that blew up and stopped the ferry crossings, so how would we get home (via a slow night ferry it turned out). but guanyin stuck, and looking back over myriad years visiting chinese temples, i am now sure she got in, somewhere, sometime.

a small park fronts longshan temple, and it is full of retirees playing chess, doing taichi and sitting around gossiping. there are signs everywhere bidding you not to smoke, and because this is taiwan, no one smokes.

the temple is heaving. i step over a raised wooden slat through the threshold. a group of domestic visitors pushes up to a window to buy bundles of incense sticks, candles and bags of oranges and packets of steamed zongzi rice dumplings to use as offerings.

the crowds are mainly taiwanese tourists, but they take temple-going seriously, lighting sticks of incense and starting at the bottom of the temple, moving clockwise, visiting each deity in a circumambulation.

i keep to the back. this isn’t a new drill to me, but i remain uncomfortable: maybe i am too foreign, too white, too uninitiated, too unlearned, too sweaty…to partake. i shouldn’t be here. i didn’t buy the incense or the oranges as offerings, i shouldn’t be here.

my heart says i should be here. i am not religious anymore, i keep telling myself. and why do i feel things in a buddhist temple that i cannot explain. put these thoughts away. move to the next deity. not sure what this one is either, and too embarrassed to try bowing or praying or whatever anyone else is doing with such ease of rote.

i go all the way around, pausing at each deity but nothing else. at the far northwest corner, students are making offerings to the god of literature – exam period is coming up and the statue of wenchang dijun with his long flowing beard is one of the few i can easily guess.

the whole east side of the temple seems to be taken up by windows where small queues have formed of people looking for guidance from fortune tellers, operating kind of like bank tellers. line up, pay your price, get some guidance. it is tempting.

but i have to get to guanyin.

it’s a tiny climb up a short set of wooden stairs painted dark red, and then you stand in front of the central hall of the temple. inside, behind a low wooden fence, is a tall seated statue of guanyin with her usual unaffected countenance – not really surveying the crowds lined up. they are bowing, waving incense up and down, and candles, and trying to say thank you to her or offer some word or prayer to her.

i am with them, and i still feel like a fraud, but whatever happens when you feel something spiritual that you can’t explain happens, and then tears run hot down my cheeks through closed eyes.

a lot of taipei, and taiwan in general, hearkens to its founding when hakka immigrants from fujian province in mainland china came to taiwan, and they brought religion with them, starting temples all over the island. longshan was one of them, founded in 1738, and it has been rebuilt a few times, surviving wars and earthquakes and typhoons and still remains a centrepiece of the capital’s religious (and touristic) life.

i stand here talking to guanyin, or to myself, for a short number of minutes. there are tears, and there are also beads of sweat inching down my spine. the year floods over me in a wave of emotion, but i don’t feel alone in this crowd. everyone loves guanyin. we are here together, we are all experiencing compassion somehow.

the tears burn less hot, then stop. against my sense of self-consciousness, i make a short bow, then move off into the crowd, darting between couples and groups of families, back out into the taipei heat. back out into the world.

a russian train, and peter the great

Around Moscow, the country rolls gently up from the rivers winding in silvery loops across the pleasant landscape. Small lakes and patches of woods are sprinkled among the meadowlands. Here and there, a village appears, topped by the onion dome of its church.

Peter the Great: His Life and World, Robert K. Massie

midafternoon, and the nevsky express is trundling through the countryside somewhere outside of saint petersburg. everything i’ve read about the bleak landscape of russia in winter is true: it is a great, flat expanse covered in snowy crust and blanketed by thick pines. sometimes this is broken up by a town of wet-stained grey houses painted over in anaemic shades of pink and blue.

though it’s barely past 2pm, the light wanes. a meek sun tries to push through menacing white snowclouds. the hour becomes pink; we cross a frozen river. it feels right being carried across this coldscape to close a year that, for me, has been fuelled by grief and heartbreak.

where do we get our desire to travel, and how do we decide to go where we go? cheap flights make things easier than they were generations ago, but that deep-seated wanderlust seems hard-wired into me in a way i’ve never fully been able to explain.

and the mystery of how we choose where we go. do the destinations, in fact, pick us at the times we are ready? i’ve wanted to go to russia since i was 22 and read robert k. massie’s peter the great. this led me to a temporary college major in russian history, quickly abandoned once i tried actually learning russian and took a moment to consider where a career in this arcane subject might take me. in fact, it probably would have been more useful than i thought back then.

why, then, after all these years, am i only here now?

i read peter the great and fell deeply in love with the early 18th century world i imagined peter the first lived in. a man larger than life (quite literally for he was 7ft tall!), an outsider to the murmuring, bearded world of old muscovy, it was peter’s inquisitive mind and search for things beyond where he lived that put him down in history books as an enduring world leader and the man who single-handedly built backward russia into an empire.

some might say peter was a visionary. to me, he merely followed his heart to the places it took him: lake pleschev outside moscow, where he first encountered a boat and learned to sail it. the city’s german suburb where he made his greatest friends from all over the world. travels in europe. an excursion in england, living in deptford, not far from where i do, and learning the naval arts from great british shipbuilders along the thames. and eventually the frozen marshy gulf of finland, where he built his own perfect city hundreds of miles from the dark, old capital.

rereading massie’s book over these few days in russia has led me to question what exactly it was about peter that captured my imagination, for he was also a deeply flawed man, prone to bouts of anger and overindulgence that led him to an early grave at the age of 52.

it seems to me peter lived with reckless abandon, an underrated quality and one we are taught will lead to our own destruction. for peter, it helped him build an empire and, it seems like, have fun while doing it. and so maybe it is possible to live our wildest, most improbable dreams, find our craziest moments of bliss and still be someone great and build something enduring, too.

the nevsky express slows upon entering an eerie patch of frozen fog. a dead forest of tree stumps closes in on the tracks from every side. the world goes charcoal-grey and suddenly the train compartment’s lights offer a warmth of contrast to all that, out there. another frozen river carves a snaking path of black ice below, and then there’s a small village of shanty wooden huts, roofs sagging. more fog, more pines, more snow.

and somewhere ahead, the steaming lights of old muscovy.

poem from the train to bukhara

dusty, dry, golden
the fan mountains silhouette
a line of white chevys,
blue soviet trucks

a level crossing
then dushanbe, and
afghanistan after.

vestiges of trade routes that criss-crossed
this land like vines
creeping up trellises, along shanty
warehouses, next to a
dwindling river
carving a ribbon of
jade through the
desert.

in some other universe

there is a caravan
packing your heart
next to mine.

7 september 2017