Just as evening chanting began, the storm rolled in. We could hear it outside – the wind barrelling through the trees, the thunder cracking in the distance, and the torrents of rain coming down over the roof. Somehow, we’d made it inside the main temple hall just as the height of the storm arrived. The sounds reverberated around the temple grounds outside and brought back memories of a similarly massive storm this time last year in Seoul (streets turned into rivers and trees torn from sidewalks, it must be a Chuseok thing). Even despite the violence outside, however, the clanging and booming, the monks didn’t miss a beat in their chants. We were standing in front of the main altar, three large golden statues of Buddha gazing calmly down before us, listening to the gentle tap-tap-tapping of one monk on a round wooden altar bell as the others began a long, low calling. Next to the chanting of the monks, their sound slowly building and moving around the hall, so practiced and perfect and routine, the storm suddenly seemed insignificant. It doesn’t matter how urgent or violent things outside are, I thought, here, this goes on. Here, this has precedence.
But the storm wasn’t ready to give up the attention. The eletricity cut suddenly and the hall was thrown into darkness.
The ceremony wouldn’t be tricked. Try though the storm might, the light from the altar candles alone was enough to keep the golden Buddhas glowing. The gods and guardians stared out from the painting behind the altar, turning more mysterious in the half-dark. The wooden ceiling, painted with faded and cracked lotus blossoms and cranes, seemed to receed into the blackened depths of the hall. I knew the building was at least 400 years old, but without the lights it appeared to grow so much older. And even in the darkness, the monks went on. Even in the shadows, the chanting continued. This has been going on for too long to stop for the thunder or lightning, I thought.
The tapping of the altar bell. The flickering of the candlelight. The chants spreading and seeping through the hall. This has always gone on. This has always had precendence.