George Balarezo | University Lecturer
The moonlight dazzled my eyes as I stumbled out into the fresh mountain air and zipped up my jacket. I felt like the night had just begun, but now I would start my day as Korean monks do, chanting mysterious mantras and bowing 108 times in front of a golden statue of the great teacher who roamed the Earth over 2,500 years ago. I was able to locate the 800-year-old hanok structure, the source of all the exotic noises, and slowly cracked open the side door. The sounds radiating from the monk’s mouth were exotic yet soothing as I took in the atmosphere—an intense sensory overload of incense and brightly colored paintings. My heart pounded in excitement. I never would have imagined that this moment at 3:30 in the morning would be the start of an endless journey of self-transformation. My legs finally warmed up and beads of sweat gradually accumulated on my forehead after touching my head to the floor from an upright position over and over for thirty minutes. My first Templestay in 2009 had left deep impressions, and I was curious to understand what exactly was going on that morning. Thus began my journey into Buddhism.
My passion for tour cycling has led me to experience the reality of the world in its rawest form. I have pedaled along the world’s highest elevated highways (Karakorum and Pamir Highways) and hiked through other-worldly jungles with the sounds of howling animals blasting in my ears. Conversely, the unforgiving deserts of Oman and Uzbekistan have scorched my skin to the point of near dehydration. I have inhaled the fumes of overpopulated cities as the black dust that accumulated around my tear ducts created a dirty, black eyeliner. I have seen, felt and tasted the beauty of Mother Nature and now deeply understand the importance of taking care of her.
The travel experiences described above resulted in a passion for discovering life philosophies centered on global citizenship. One of the most impressive things about my first Templestay experience was the Korean monks’ style of eating and their outlook on food. I decided to adopt this mentality right away. Viewing the food one eats everyday as medicine designed to nourish the body instead of a sensory pleasure experience is extremely admirable, as the consumption of meat and food waste are widely known contributors to climate change. Stopping to think about the blood, sweat and tears that go into bringing food from the garden to my plate keeps me grounded and humble. Baru gongyang (formal monastic meal) has become a daily ritual for me as well as trying not to waste even the most minuscule amount of food on my plate and rinsing my bowl with water and then drinking it. My experiences at temples in Korea have resulted in a gradual shift to vegetarianism as the food choices I make drastically impact my personal health and energy consumption footprint. Buddhism has taught me to become one with nature and respect all living beings on our planet.
My Korean temple experiences have also led to an intense personal interest in self-transformation. Throughout the years, I have enjoyed speaking with Korean monks about the various techniques and benefits of meditation. In 2014 I signed up for my first ten-day Vipassana meditation course in Bodh Gaya, India and struggled with the grueling schedule of sitting with my legs crossed on the floor for ten hours per day and fasting after 11:30 a.m. every day. Indeed the life of a monk is much more difficult than people imagine. I have always been a big eater and am never one to miss a meal. Therefore, the new eating schedule was one of the biggest challenges for me. I often found myself hungry by 4 p.m. and had a hard time believing I would have to wait another 14.5 hours until my next meal. Vipassana teaches that all cravings arise and pass, and hunger is no different. I found myself reasoning that nothing negative would occur as a result of restricted caloric intake. When 9:30 p.m. came around, I was too tired to think about food and would pass out for the night with no problems. Often, I was able to focus on meditation with greater intensity during the two hour morning session right before breakfast, or the last two hours of my fast. Recently, numerous scientific studies have been published reporting that fasting can lead to enhanced mental clarity. During the meditation retreat I witnessed this at the experiential level and have incorporated intermittent fasting into my everyday life.
(Left) Taking a break during a cycling trip at a temple on Jindo Island
(Right) Stopping at another temple during a winter hike on Mt. Taebaeksan
After completing ten-day Vipassana retreats on three separate occasions and meditating for one hour per day over the course of four years, I have experienced numerous benefits. Aside from the usual reports of increased concentration, self-awareness and decision-making, I now feel as though I am immune to negative external energy. Cranky or angry people that I come into contact with do not stand a chance of penetrating the shield I now carry. I now possess a secret weapon to combat all the negative energy in the world and refuse to accept any that comes my way.
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a three-day Chan meditation retreat which also made a very strong impact on my life. Chan first flourished in China and later was imported as “Seon” into Korea, and “Zen” into Japan. It has been practiced throughout East Asia for more than 2,000 years. Master Yonghua, a monk renowned for his enormous progress on the path of enlightenment, taught us this powerful meditation technique. Essentially, the Chan practitioner sits completely still in the lotus position until they reach their physical and mental capacity for pain. Even after practicing Vipassana for several years, I still have not been able to contort myself into anything that even resembles a half lotus position. Therefore, my simple task was to sit against the wall with my right leg extended and left foot resting on my right knee in order to slowly build the flexibility required to sit in the lotus posture one day. Although this sounds very simple, after several minutes of practice I found myself in excruciating pain and had no other choice but to release myself from the shackles of misery. Master Yonghua stated that in order to build a foundation for the path to enlightenment, one must train themselves to sit for extended periods of time in order to eliminate fear of pain and suffering. Over the course of the retreat I realized how intense my aversion to pain is and set a goal of increasing my peak sitting time by two minutes per day. My time learning Chan that weekend left me humbler and more physically and mentally exhausted than I could ever imagine. I am extremely grateful to Master Yonghua for teaching a tool essential for mastering the art of life and death.
Indeed the path to enlightenment is full of pain, humility, fear, bliss and many surprises along the way. I am ready to walk down that road one step at a time.
George Balarezo (Korean name Jo Chun-sam) is an engineer and university lecturer who is dedicated to becoming a better global citizen day by day. He has been educating himself and others on cultivating self-transformation through direct worldly experiences. He is dedicated to maximizing the capacity of the human mind to achieve its full potential. For more articles, visit intrepidglobalcitizen.com or blog.naver.com/chunsam33