Folks who are interested in meditation will want to know that a new center for Vipassana meditation, as taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, has recently opened in Bakdal Village in the mountains south of Gyeongju. The center is scheduled to host monthly 10 day silent meditation retreats over the next year, and hopefully longer. Although based on the teachings of early Buddhism, these meditation courses are nonsectarian and open to anyone of any faith or belief system, or lack thereof. During the courses the students are instructed in three complementary meditation techniques: Anapana meditation focusing observing one’s breathing, Vispassana meditation which entails observing one’s bodily sensations, and Mettapana, or “loving-kindness” meditation. The center has already successfully run two 10 day silent meditation courses in December and January and is preparing to run two more, starting next Monday February 27th through March 9th and from March 13th through the 24th . There are still spaces available for men and women in both courses as well as in the monthly courses to follow. All courses are run entirely on a donation basis and the funding for each course has already been provided by previous donors and participants.
If you’re interested in finding out more information on Vipassana or the 10 day courses, you can visit the official dhamma.org website. A slight word of caution though: these 10 day meditation courses are not to be entered into lightly and first time new students are asked to commit to staying for the full 10 days. I have done two of these courses myself and can vouch for that, at times, the experience can seem quite intense and far from easy. However, easiness isn’t really the point. The meditation program is quite structured and the rules are fairly strict. Mediators are separated by gender and take a vow of “noble silence” on the first night of the course, which isn’t lifted until the final day. During the next ten days mediators wake up at 4:00 am and meditate for a total of 11 hours before returning to bed at 9:30 pm. Of course, the 11 hours of meditation are not done in one sitting, but rather broken up into blocks of one or two hours with breaks for meals, exercise and rest. They also include periods of pre-recorded meditation instructions given by S. N. Goenka and brief in-person meetings with the assistant teacher, in addition to a one hour pre-recorded “dhamma talk” video shown in the evenings before bedtime.
The reasons for all this structure and focus are explained along the way and become quite apparent as one’s meditation experience progresses. For one thing, the course is intended to give attendees enough experience with the technique so you can practice it regularly at home following the course. Likewise, the program is designed so that mediators get benefits from the meditation method that can only be gained through intense periods of meditation. What happens during meditation and how one benefits can be difficult to describe though. The experiences can be deeply personal, as were mine, and can vary greatly between individuals. In the course of meditation all manner of sensations, thoughts and emotions arise and, at times, they can be quite intense. In fact the main purpose of Vipassana is to train to observe these sensations, thoughts and emotions with equanimity and detachment. Attendees inevitably leave the 10 day course with some sort of deeper self knowledge, even if it’s how much they hate sitting on the floor.
Of course, there are typically a few folks on each retreat who decide it’s not what they’d expected and left early. Believe me, on my first course I had similar thoughts. I attended my first 10 day meditation retreat two years ago at the old Korean Goenka Vipassana center high in the mountains of Chungcheondo in the dead of winter. The old meditation center was basically the assistant teacher’s farm, which had been outfitted with a meditation hall and the barns converted into sleeping quarters and a dining hall. The farm sat high in a valley at the end of a mile and half of gravel road. As scenic and rustic as this old center was, we got 4 feet of snow the first night of the retreat that didn’t melt until the last day. Not to mention the hot water heater broke the second day and couldn’t be fixed for the remainder of the course. Needless to say I spent a lot of time that first course meditating on how cold, dirty and miserable I was rather than following meditation instructions. I probably would have left early myself except for the mile and half hike down through the snow to wait for a bus that only went twice a day. Still, I got enough out of that first course that I was able to keep up my meditation practice at home, at least until our son was born 4 months later. I attended another 10 day Vipassana retreat again the following winter, this time opting for the slightly warmer climate of Hong Kong, and hope to do another again soon.
After my first frigid 10 day course at the farm center, I was quite excited to hear that a new Goenka Vipassana center was opening in Korea; and doubly excited that it was opening nearby Gyeongju. I dropped by the new center for a bit the day before the opening course and helped out a little with setting up. The new Vipassana center is actually an old church retreat center, so it’s tailor made for the 10 day meditation courses. The dormitories are modern and warm with running hot / cold water, as are the kitchens and dining halls. Not to mention, the new center is also beautifully located in remote mountain valley next to a stream. In fact the center’s only neighbor is another meditation center practicing a different style of Vipassana. It was gorgeous sunny day and I got to take some photos of the center and its environs, which I’m sharing with you here. I also got to join the volunteer set up crew for lunch and help shuck enough spinach to last several retreats.
Anyhow, if you are at all interested in meditation, I’d definitely suggest looking into attending a 10 day Goenka Vipassana course. You can visit the international website for a schedule of the courses being offered at the new Bakdal Center in Gyeongju. Courses are in English and Korean, unless otherwise marked. You can also visit here for the official Dhamma Korea Vipassana Center website, again in English and Korean. The center itself is about a 20 minute drive south-west of Gyeongju city. However, for those arriving by way of the new Shin-Gyeongju KTX station, the center is only a 10 minute drive south of the station over the mountain via N.R. 904. The taxi fare should be reasonable, so long as the driver actually knows where he’s going. If the driver takes you into Gyeongju city, then he probably doesn’t. See below for a map to the center: