Mr. 31 ~ Happy Birthday and many more!
Here’s hoping this year’s version of July 22 is plenty enjoyable for the dongsaeng. As someone who associates “birthday” with “gray and rainy,” there’s certainly no small amount of jealousy that Chris can enjoy his birthday grilling by the pool and tossing back a coupla cold ones. Then again, the dog days of summer far better suit his sunny and warm personality than the gloom and doom of November. We’re looking forward to celebrating in person in only a few weeks. Congratulations!!
As for news in Korea, the past week of travel was most enjoyable, as nearly every chance to get out of Seoul has become. The stress of city, uh, supermegamonstercity life have truly started to take their toll on me. Irritable, exhausted, distracted – I can’t seem to calm down unless I have a beer these days. Just too much too fast too often. And the tiny apartment doesn’t offer much respite.
Fortunately, I have generous friends who offer solace at their sanctuaries. First, in Gwangju where we spent time with my dear friends Bob, Hwanchul and Vanya. At night, we chatted til the wee hours and watched silly youtube videos. During the day, we ventured to the Gwangju National Cemetery to learn about the 1980 Democracy Movement and subsequent massacre. Then, up to a valley deep in Mudeung-san to sit by a mountain stream and gorge ourselves on mountain vegetables and rice wine.
Oh, how can I forget? Before the day’s trip began, I had my own Korean version of Michael Moore’s Sicko. On the way down to Gwangju, as our bus stopped into a highway rest area, I indulged as I always do on some roasted new potatoes. Suddenly, my tongue notices a new topographical feature in the cracks and crevices of my dental plains – ack, a new canyon! Seems my tooth got brokened by the potatoes! Weird indeed. Granted, a smaller piece had broken off earlier that week, but still – potatoes? This second piece was significantly larger and demanded quick attention. Still, we wouldn’t be back to Seoul for a while and we wouldn’t be in Gwangju but for a few days – would I have time for a crown? Yikes.
Well, long story short – went to dentist without an appointment, didn’t need a crown, had a permanent porcelain filling to cover the hole, final price – $40 and 2 hours – 1.25 of which were waiting in the office. Not bad.
Okay, back to travel tales. The next day, we took leave of the boys and went to see my Gwangju gal pal, Elaine, and hunkered down in the air conditioned comfort of her swanky apartment. Of course, no week goes by without sweat and toil, so, I did have to include a running workout, this time on the nice new track at Cheonnam University. It was my first “speed” workout in a while. Using the discipline accorded by a track, I managed a decent 5 miler in rather ridiculous heat and humidity. Warm up mile, 3 fast miles each quicker than the previous, then a “cool” down. Made me very eager to get on a track more regularly. Though my mileage has improved this year, my speed has tanked, so, I need some more training of that sort. Plus, oddly, I love the monotony of laps, where all I have to worry about is pacing. Anyways, sorry to bore you with that.
The night proceeded with ssambap (rice and side dishes wrapped in greens – think, fajitas, but using lettuce instead of tortillias) and patbingsu (ice, sweet milk, red beans, strawberries, sweet rice cakes), not a bad combination. Then home for more chats and wishful thoughts that we’d see each other again in the not too distant future. Elaine was one of my best friends here this year. I can’t say enough about how comfortable she made me feel when I was stressed, or how generous she was as a host. We spent quite a few hours complaining, laughing, and teasing each other. It was sad to say goodbye.
But goodbye it had to be, and at a very early hour. The next day we had to catch early buses, well, I had to catch an early bus and the ladies decided to join the fun. I was off to Baengnyeon Hermitage and they were headed back up to Seoul. My mission was to meet up with one Ilman Seunim 일만(日卍)스님(Seunim is the appellation for Korean monks), a friend I’d made at a trip to a temple in May. His hermitage is part of the immense Haein-sa complex. Though the weather was less than ideal, with fog enshrouding the entire Gaya Mountain, it made for a very peaceful and contemplative mood.
My room was on the front face of the building on the far right. It looked straight out into a mountain valley, as you see in the second picture. Though the valley was mostly fog, it didn’t matter. Somehow in my mind, the beauty was all there intact. It made a great frame for my little cell, and I spent a good long while simply staring into that pleasant abyss.
What is a visit to a hermitage like? Quiet. Great vegetarian food. Lots of green tea with chatty monks who like to laugh a lot. Prostrations, hundreds of them. Booming chanting that echoes in the hills. 2.40 am wake-up! Visits to surrounding hermitages and “brother monks.” Baengnyeon-am is famous for being the final resting place of the most famous Korean monk of the modern age, Seongcheol Seunim. This meditation master was known by everybody, primarily for his incredibly strict regimen and his meditation prowess. His fame grew so wide, and seekers so many, that he instituted a rule stating that only after doing 3,000 prostrations can anyone get the chance to meet him. Even now that he’s passed on, people still come to the hermitage to do their 3,000. I didn’t manage that many, but a minor chunk at least. Seongcheol welcomed anyone, rich or poor, Buddhist or Christian, as long as they did their prostrations. When President/Dictator Park Chunghee came by, Seongcheol blew him off. “Did he do 3000? No. Sorry. Not interested.” To Christians, he did have one fairly major stipulation, however:
Just a few days ago, three Christians came and did their 3,000 prostrations. I always tell Christians that there is one condition that they must agree to concerning their prostrations. The condition is that when they prostrate, they must make a wish that all those who refute their God and who curse Jesus are the first to go to their heaven. And they think that is really nice. After all, isn’t such an attitude a truly religious one? The one thing I can’t fathom is how people who claim to be truly religious can go around saying that only followers of their religion will go to a wonderful place after death, and everyone else will go to some place terrible.
The Buddha always said that the greater a person curses and hurts you, the greater you should respect, help and serve that person.
In fact, despite the fame of this hermitage, I wasn’t really all that interested in the legacy of Seongcheol, I just wanted to visit my friend. He’s an incredible man, Ilman. He was previously a Korean Marine Recon soldier (basically, the Korean version of the Navy Seals), but had a conversion after seeing not a few deaths take place right at his side during training. He also took part in the brutality that is Korean military training, beating many a young recruit. He himself admitted to “shedding buckets of tears” during his own training, suffering from the pain of constant abuse. Interesting confession to hear from such a big, strong man. He shared his picture from his Marine days, and he was definitely a frightening sight. I said he looked terrifying. He said he was terrifying, and that’s why he became a monk. We were both glad for his change.
The visit was only one day, as Ilman Seunim had to get up to Seoul to prepare for his own trip to the States. He’ll be staying in New Jersey at a Korean temple there for three months. Looks like I may have an east coast trip to ponder.
Well, that’s it for now. I’ll leave you with an odd cartoon that kind of suits my state of mind about now….(click on it to see a bigger size if you can’t read it).