When I read on the syllabus that my Anthropology elective, “Myth, Magic, and Religion,” required students to do a field study at a local religious practice, I knew I wanted to visit the Won Buddhist Temple here in Glenside. In the past few years, I have had a growing interest in Buddhism, as I admire the philosophies of detachment from material desires and building a connection between one’s mind and body. And with the chaotic lifestyle I’ve been leading for the past few months, I thought that learning a thing or two about calming the mind would benefit me long after my project is finished.
The purpose of an anthropological field study is to visit a cultural site and do “participant observation,” meaning I’d partake in the cultural activities and record details for future academic purposes. The first step of my field study was to research what makes Won Buddhism different from other forms of the religion. Through my research, I read that Won Buddhism, or “Round Buddhism” in Korea, was founded in 1916 by Master Sotaesan. After reaching enlightenment at the age of 26, Sotaesan became concerned with the developing focus on materialism in society. Thus, he created a religious practice with the motto, “With this Great Unfolding of material civilization, let there be a Great Unfolding of spirituality.”
Today, Won Buddhism reframes traditional Buddhist teachings to be more applicable in contemporary society, so that followers can apply these lessons to their everyday lives. The symbol of Won Buddhism, “Il Won Sang”— directly translated as “one circle image”— represents the ultimate truth: the state of our awakened and enlightened mind. To Won Buddhists, reaching a state of enlightenment is possible for all human beings.
Once I felt comfortable with my understanding of Won Buddhist teachings, the next step was to partake in a cultural activity at the temple. My group mates and I decided to attend a Tuesday evening meditation session, which is open to everyone: from experts to beginners, devotees to guests. We sat on pillows placed on the floor in a circular pattern, reflecting the golden Il Won Sang on the center wall. We began with chanting meditation, sitting with legs criss-crossed, and read from a booklet that detailed Buddhist prayers and chants. I found the sound of the chants mixed with the peaceful atmosphere of the temple to be incredibly relaxing and beautiful.
After chanting meditation, we practiced walking meditation — moving slowly in a large circular pattern, while focusing on centering the mind and the body. Next was sitting meditation, which was arguably the hardest part for me. We sat completely still for roughly half an hour, guiding our mind to center on awareness with our bodies and looking past outside distractions. As someone who manages chronic pain, it was hard for me to sit still and focus on connecting with my physical form, as my body isn’t always the greatest friend of mine. The final element of the session was tai chi, a slow-moving and graceful martial art that requires a steady mind and form. After the session was over, we enjoyed tea, muffins, and mooncakes (a Chinese pastry served during the Mid-Autumn Festival).
The residual aching in my body the next day told me that practicing mindfulness isn’t effortless, mentally or physically. Coming into the session, I naively had hoped I would be able to fall into a meditative state with ease, and suddenly all of my worldly stressors would dissipate. But while Won Buddhism teaches that the practice of meditation and building oneself toward an enlightened state is possible for everyone, no one ever said it would be easy! Admittedly, it was difficult for me to stop my mind from straying during the meditation session, wondering if I would have enough time to finish my homework, or thinking about what essays were due or what I would do if I got a leg cramp while trying to sit serenely and silently for so long.
But there were brief moments when I could empty my mind and relax, which was a blessing amid the hectic state my mind has been in this semester. Once this semester is over, I think I would like to keep attending meditation sessions at the Won and strengthening my ability to reach a state of mindfulness. Like all forms of self-care, it takes time and effort. But the temple’s tranquility is a comfort I’d love to experience again and again.
Photos used with permission of the Glenside Won Buddhist Temple.