Finding the Ox

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July 30, 2012 by travelinggrits

The orientation team and Fulbright staff had the wonderful foresight to schedule a relaxing beach weekend at Donghae after two weeks of non-stop learning since our arrival. A three-hour bus ride to the west coast brought us to the Mang Sang Grand Hotel, located a short walk across a bridge from the soothing sand and waves.

In the theme of peace and relaxation, we received a guest lecture during our first afternoon from an American who became a Buddhist monk approximately 25 years ago. About 23 percent of South Korea’s population identifies with the Buddhist faith, and traces of Confucian, Buddhist or Taoist influence are part of many societal interactions.

While living in Boston, the monk met a zen master and teacher who asked him a question that led him to devote his life to Buddhist practice and study. Study, the monk said, is an opportunity to learn from written text and contemplate one’s experiences to find out who you are.

The monk shared the traditional zen tale of finding the ox, often illustrated in temple paintings. The ox represents the awakened mind, one’s true potential that is held within. Reading about another person’s enlightenment or new experiences might reveal traces of this deeper wisdom – the footprints of the ox. Disciplined practice of meditation helps one catch and tame the ox. Eventually, the ox transcends and the seeker finds that the ox was always a part of himself.

My time in South Korea has already opened my mind, and I know it will continue to do so. Every day is so intellectually stimulating, from learning new words to conversing about international relations and Asian politics to observing an animated conversation between two Koreans. If new experiences shed light on our lives, the shafts of light now entering the crevices of my brain are bringing fresh air to the musty mindlessness I had developed from my routines in the States.

The monk described enlightenment as “the ordinary self doing ordinary things in the most extraordinary ways.” Each day in my Korean language class, I look down in amazement at my hand scribbling away in Hangeul, a set of symbols I barely knew several months ago; even during an event as simple as a purchase from the convenience store, I transcend myself, observing the simple interaction take place with fascination.

Following the monk’s presentation, Fulbright ETAs traveled to the Samhwa Temple, located at the base of Mt. Duta. After wandering the mountainous paths surrounding the temple, we drew close for a special presentation at the beomjonggak (bell house) of the four main Buddhist instruments: the beopgo (drum), beomjong (bell), mogeo (wooden fish) and unpan (a cloud-shaped iron board). Each instrument represents a category of beings, and when played the instruments are believed to bring a sense of calm and blessing to those who listen.

The drum head was struck in the shape of a Chinese character that resembled a heart, and its beat was intended to invigorate the mind of the listener. My favorite instrument was the bell, which was hit from the outside rather than a clapper on the inside. With the strike of a huge swinging mallet, the bell released a strong tone that reverberated through the group gathered. Feel the sound as it becomes part of you, the monk instructed.

The toll has sounded, and my fellow ETAs and I are echoing one sound of learning and motivation. Upon our return from the beach, we launched into Camp Fulbright, our practice ground for our teaching experience. About 100 students from across South Korea have come to participate in this special English immersion camp, and the Fulbright ETAs are observing classes and rotating lessons with experienced camp instructors. As I plan activities and interact with the students, I am finding the ox – not creating a new identity, but trying to draw forth the teaching persona I already have within.

 Listening to: "Fly Away" by Lenny Kravitz
Quote of the Day: What can you do that no one else can? - Jerry Garcia
See more pictures from Donghae, Samhwa Temple and Mt. Duta
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