Monday, May 01, 2006


Yesterday I finally left this city for the first time since I came here at the end of February. I got invited along with a group of people - all Korean - making a visit to Musangsa temple in Chungcheongnamdo - South Chungcheong Province - with food and hiking included.

Musangsa is known as a place where foreign monks come to study Korean Buddhism, and at the temple I listened to an American monk give a sermon in near-perfect Korean that I understood maybe 50 percent of. Something about the progress of science, and figures like Einstein and Newton, and I could understand quite a bit on a sentence to sentence level - like my friend told me afterwards, the monk used perhaps more simple Korean than a native Korean speaker would have, and the bulk of the words he used I had no trouble understanding - but my brain was way too sluggish in putting his sentences together into a coherent whole. Anyone who speaks a language at an intermediate-but-not-fluent level probably understands what I mean.

After the sermon came lunch - vegetarian Korean food that I could only wish I could find in downtown Seoul. Bibimbap, seaweed soup, and some interesting veggie side dishes. I was assured that everything was made at the temple and was all totally natural.

After lunch was meditation instruction. I have never been very good at meditation - I tend to fall asleep or get distracted - and the posture somehow causes half of my left foot to fall alseep while the other half stays wide awake. After listening to the American monk speak some more in perfect Korean, we had a British monk who confessed his Korean was not very good speak to us through an interpreter about proper body posture and how to clear your mind (eg, thinking, "What am I?"). Our 15 minutes of meditation was indeed pretty relaxing for us despite the two little kids right in front of me who insisted on making faces at each other.

After meditation we went hiking (this was the Gyeryongsan, or 계룡산, area, which rates a mention in Lonely Planet even though Musangsa itself, as well as the town of Gyeryong nearby, are not deemed worthy enough). The weather was not clear but still it was a beautiful day, and the hike was pleasant enough. Apparently the hills have some special meaning to those who believe in geomancy, and we saw some people praying (to what, exactly, I'm not enough of a theologician to say). We passed a couple of shacks surrounding a medicinal spring, where the people offered travelers makkeoli - made from the spring water? I guess.

On the road back we stopped for a non-vegetarian dinner in Daejeon, the biggest city in the province, which Lonely Planet Korea seems to feel is a very boring place. Just from driving around the city, Daejeon looks like a less crowded, less dense version of Seoul. We stopped at my favorite kind of Korean restaurant - the kind housed in a building that looks like it could be completely dismantled in under half an hour, decorates the walls with news clippings that talk favorably about the place, and where people generally eat in groups of 10 to 20 and individuals get no say as to what they want to eat. These are not good places for picky eaters, and the dongdongju - alcohol served out of Pepsi bottles - might just freak some foreigners out. Great fun.

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