Breakin’ It Down

Small buddha statues at the Oeosa temple, Pohang, South Korea.

Small buddha statues at the Oeosa temple, Pohang, South Korea.

The woman two rows ahead of me is shaking her ass.

This is no subtle, I-hear-a-beat-and-I’m-moving-unconsciously ass-shake. This is an, Oh! They are playing my favorite song on the radio and I am alone in my bedroom so I am breakin’ it dooowwwwwwwn! kind of ass-shake. One that involves some shoulder shrugs. A little neck action. A toss of the head. She leans back and—oh yes, it’s happening—starts softly clapping her hands together, clicking her dark red fingernails to the beat.

I stand there, frozen. It is 4:38 in the morning, and this woman is dancing. On her cushion. In the middle of morning chanting.

We are chanting the Heart Sutra, the Essence of Wisdom, the famous Buddhist teaching that is at once simple and impossible to understand. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. This is the way to enlightenment! The rhythm of the wooden mallet that the monk is hitting is a simple one-one-one-one beat, easy and energetic. I’ve caught myself bobbing my head to it before and stopped, embarrassed, hoping no one saw me lose concentration during such a solemn ceremony.

But this woman is standing there, with her tousled, middle-of-the-night hair, and her yoga pants, and her—did she not listen during the orientation?!—bare feet, and enjoying herself with abandon.

Does she know how rude she’s being? I think. Does she not realize that this is a time for silent, still reflection? Here she is, this American tourist breezing through the temple like it’s Disneyland, taking away from My Authentic Korean Buddhist Chanting Experience.

I stare at her through narrowed eyes, shocked out of my usual a.m. grogginess. The shrine is so full of tourists today that I’m standing on a blue yoga mat after corralling them to the front of the room, where the cushions are; the temple regulars squish together in the back, elbow to elbow. The light of the lamps gleams off of the golden Buddha, paper lanterns bob in a slight breeze. The monks chant the sutra in clipped syllables. I press my hands together in prayer position, feeling the air, my breath on my lips. My scalp prickles. The wooden mallet clicks, loud and urgent. I join in on the chorus. Ajae Ajae Bala Ajae Bala Sung Ajae Moji Sa Ba Ha! Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond. Fully awakened. So be it!

And it hits me that I am, today, at 4:38 in the morning, awake. I am here. In the shrine. On this blue yoga mat, breathing deeply, observing every detail of this place, this woman, these monks, this temple. Unlike so many other mornings at 4:38 a.m. when I am thinking of anything but the moment at hand.

Ass-shaking woman gave me the gift of being present.


You can lead a woman to a meditation cushion but you cannot make her meditate. In my months living at this temple, I have only had a handful of moments of chanting or silent breath where my mind was not darting around like a moth, too frenzied to perch anywhere for more than a few seconds. I’m too addicted to my thoughts; too scared to jump in all the way, frightened of what, or who, I might leave behind.

I hate admitting this. When I say I live in a Buddhist temple, people assume that I’m Zen, man, Zen. But I’m not. I’m a basketcase. That’s what attracts me to the martial arts we practice here. One of the only ways I’m able to clear my mind is concentrating on a kick or a spin so difficult that if I move my mind even one millimeter from the task at hand I will fall on my ass. Writing is another.

My shoulders do not sag from relief after this realization; there are too many tourists here, running wild in my temple, for me to do that. They are talking in the dining room, padding around barefoot in the shrine, slinking in late to the tea ceremony, hogging the bathroom. All today and yesterday I am running after them and telling them Please don’t go in the head monk’s house! and Actually, you’re not supposed to touch the 1,500-year-old stone carving of Buddha! and No, I don’t know if this monk is enlightened but it would probably be rude to ask him directly! Days like this make me feel bitter and crotchety, the harried guardian of a treasure she does not want to share. Sacred spaces should be sacred. Quiet places should be quiet. Get out of my house, Mr. or Ms. Come-Lately.

But I, too, am a short-timer; I came with my backpack and soggy bag of books in February and will leave in September, which in the history of this temple is less than the blink of an eye. I have no claim on this place, whether in times of silence or in times of cacophony. The flowers I so gloriously welcomed this March will bloom again next year without me; the sun will creep up over the mountains at dawn; martial arts students will begin their training, sitting cross-legged, taking deep breaths before the warm-up begins.

“It is your curiosity, not your will, which keeps you in the moment,” writes playwright Robyn Lee. “It is your need to see what’s happening now. What is happening now?”

I don’t want to see what’s happening now; what if the sight is too painful, or too vast, or too beautiful? What if I lose myself in the sight? Or get so exhausted that I keel over from too much stimulation? It’s easier to evade wakefulness and fall into comfortable routine. Even at a temple, I can sit drowsily on a cushion with an eye on the clock, singing the sutras, mind far away. Asleep. Safe from the discomfort of being alive.

And then some lady starts doing a booty dance in the middle of sitting meditation and pissing me off. I’m ripped away from my daydreams and plopped down into the present. Pissed. Ungraceful. But present. As the next sutra begins, the wooden mallet resumes and ass-shaking lady, in the middle of this crowded, silent shrine, juts out one hip and starts dancing again. And you know what? I don’t even mind.

Carol Scott was born in Long Beach, Calif. She is currently studying Buddhism and martial arts at a temple in South Korea.