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회자정리 – 會者定離 – hoi-ja jeong-ni

August 26, 2006

“those who meet, must part”

It’s often said, some say, I’m now making it up that Korean people act Confucian, pray Christian, and think Buddhist. I don’t have time to unravel that too much right now, as I’m saving a longer primer on the fascinating religious culture of Korea for later, but for the purposes of this post I needed to at least introduce a basic explication on the fundamental religious influences laying at the heart of Korean culture.

The phrase I quote here as a means of saying goodbye to Ann Arbor, the United States, and all my loved ones here, is one of a million or so “four character phrases” that make Korean (and Chinese, obviously) such a poetic language (i’ll have a post on language later – but for now, i’ll just say that Korean is made up of both Korean script and Chinese characters). The power of these poetic sentiments are more often than not, and especially in this case, very much influenced by Buddhist thought. As such, they are always trying to explicate suffering, its roots, and the means to transcend it.

The gist of “hoi-ja jungni” is this… if you don’t want to feel the pain of separation, there is only one surefire way to avoid it – don’t meet anyone ever. Save that, the eventual sting that comes in parting is inevitable, intertwined with the very first joyful moments of a first meeting. This doesn’t apply only to friendships of course, but also the grander scale of life itself. So, for instance, “meeting guarantees separation” could be translated into “birth necessitates eventual death.” Such seemingly morbid wisdom is what lies behind the somewhat odd (at least to Western notions) take that Buddhists have on the occasion of a child being born. To the Buddhist, this seemingly joyous occasion has within it the seeds of guaranteed suffering and eventual death. This isn’t to deny the many joys that the newborn will certainly encounter on the way, but it is a rather sober vision of the reality that, as my dear Grandpappy told me the other day, “This life is a very hard thing. Very hard indeed.”

That said, every somber truth in Buddhism always contains its liberatory opposite. So, while meeting may be separation, separation is itself the seeds of a new meeting. Saying goodbye to one life is saying hello to another one. Separating from one group of friends (click on the link to check out photos of the going away festivities) means meeting a whole crew of new ones. Life is very hard, yes, but one thing is guaranteed, it keeps on keepin’ on, so, as long as we keep on rolling with its changes, everything is gonna be allllllllllllllright.

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