When I left for college in 1985, a great aunt gave me a set of “worry beads” she had picked up at a Greek festival in Columbus. I wasn’t a worrier by nature, but I found that holding and twisting the cobalt beads was soothing in a very primal way. I still have them hanging on a leather strand in my office today, easily within reach.
There’s a comfort that comes in twisting and handling beads that has its roots, for me, in the rosary. It’s a way of occupying my hands, which always seem to need something to do, while allowing my mind to explore deeper thoughts — prayer, contemplation, dreams and even nightmares. I carry my rosary whenever I travel. If I’m feeling uneasy or simply thankful, I say a few Hail Mary’s, a Glory Be and recite my special travel prayer.
Korea brought out a different spirituality in me, a realization of just how connected and how similar we humans are. If I were to describe what I seek in terms of spirituality it would be a calmness of mind and spirit, even as I’m unsure if that is possible for me. My nature is more like a comet hurling through life, hoping to gather everyone along in my light. Though I wish to calm myself, I wonder if extinguishing that ball of fire would alter me unrecognizable or worse — extinct.
Nevertheless that doesn’t stop me from envying those who are of a quieter mind. Perhaps I feel they possess something I cannot — the meaning of life, the secret to happiness, the wisdom of knowing what's to come. I don't know if that's true, but it's what my hyperactive imagination believes. My Korean friends possessed that quietness and grace that eludes me.
While I am a born-and-raised Catholic, I find aspects of other faiths very appealing, particularly as I get to know more about them. The Jewish Day of Atonement and the peacefulness of Buddhism I find quite akin to my spiritual sensibilities.
Peace, calm and quiet were found at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju Province, even amid throngs of tourists. Originally built by Kim Dae-seong in 751 in honor of his earthly parents, it was restored to its present beauty in 1971. It symbolizes Buddha’s land on earth. As we entered the site, my new Korean friend, Mr. Park (himself a Buddhist), explained that we were walking along the path of enlightenment.
As we walked across the Haetalgyo Bridge, I stopped for a moment to take it all in. The day was glorious and the mountain view spectacular. To the right was a small trickling waterfall, to the left a reflecting pool with a tiny island in the middle.
We walked toward the main worshipping hall and up 33 very steep steps. Mr. Park explained that there are many steps to enlightenment, but that we cannot hope to find it in this world. We can get close but, ultimately, enlightenment is found in another world.
Mr. Park later wrote that his heart was opened by his newfound friendships. It seemed to me as if his heart already was open since he was so willing to share his country’s culture and history with us. He seemed to anticipate my questions. In the front courtyard of the main hall were two pagodas. “They are quite beautiful, aren’t they?” he said, walking up from behind me. Dabotap represents elaborate splendor of the mundane (or seen) world and Seokgatap represents the beauty of the inner spirit. It was hard not to feel the balanced elegance standing between the two.
Greeting us inside the courtyard was the monk with the friendly face whose chosen name was “One Who Swallows Stars.” If ever I could figure out how to post photos on my blog, I’d share a beautiful one of him.
I chose to explore the vast temple on my own, walking in and out of many conversations. Occasionally one of my Korean friends would find me and explain another point of Buddhism. A group of us(from Korea, Taiwan, Cambodia and Indonesia) even offered a prayer to Buddha for peace.
I slipped off my shoes and quietly walked inside a temple where the golden images of Buddha sat at the altar and the subtle smell of incense burned. We were not permitted to take photos once inside the worship hall and two highly efficient Korean women made sure we didn’t. There really was no need. It was a place you commit to memory more than capture on film. As we marveled at the centuries-old place of worship, a monk came in, unrolled his prayer mat and began his prostrations. I couldn’t help feeling a little as if I were intruding on something sacred, so I quietly slipped out and back into the courtyard.
I found Robert Leger (one of the many Catholics on the trip) carefully stacking rocks in a prayer garden situated in a shady side courtyard. These mini sculptures were each crafted in prayer and the hope is that the one whose sculpture stands will have his or her prayers answered. Similar to my beads it was occupying the hands with a task, while offering up a prayer.
Robert and I wandered over to the gift shop and perused the Buddhist artifacts. I can still see a painting of a beautiful Buddhist woman. I don’t know who she was or what relevance she had to the faith, if any, but her countenance was stunning. And then I found display after display of the wooden Buddhist prayer beads. I picked them up and rolled them through my fingers. They were larger than my worry beads and my rosary, but the effect was the same. I’m kicking myself now for not having bought them. Someone called my name for a group photo, the spell was broken and I never made my way back to that part of the temple.
Guess I’ll just have to return to get my beads.