Alive and . . . well . . .
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Returning from a long journey, it’s customary that your loved ones will politely inquire into your travels. "How was it?" perhaps, or, maybe "What’s it like there?" Narrowing a whole other world into a succinct answer is quite impossible, of course, and so I reply with an equally all-encompassing, "Great!" or "Very interesting." Sometimes, the best I can offer is, “Raw.” We’ve fulfilled our social duties but Korea always remains distant. Then, a more inquisitive friend suddenly asks a great question, "I know that Korea has a lot of both Christians and Buddhists. Can you tell, just by meeting someone, who is Christian and who is Buddhist?" Yes! No! Maybe! Sometimes! I could have replied simultaneously. Instead I just laughed. And so began a discussion with my friend on what Korean Buddhists, and Korean Buddhism, looks like.
Of course, the answer depends entirely on who is looking. As for me, some 12 years ago, when I first began wandering around Korea, it was shock and exhilaration fueling my trips across the country, awed by the mere existence of a long-established Buddhist culture on such a grand and vital scale. Venturing through the many temples, some I had searched out and many more that I had simply stumbled upon, I saw Buddhism for the first time as a living tradition – a network of communities, buildings, institutions, and histories. Just to sit in the presence of a nun or monk, just to touch a moktak with my own hands, just to bow for the first time on the gnarled wooden floor in the ancient main Buddha hall, the scent of incense mixing with the calls of the bbeoggugi (cuckoo). Mine was the uniquely pure ecstasy of a foreign convert coming "home."
Yet there were a few wrinkles in that ecstasy. I wasn’t a convert to Korean Buddhism, per se, I was a convert to "Buddhism," or, what it was that I was figuring Buddhism to be at that time (which, quite literally, was more or less the four truths as presented by Walpola Rahula in What the Buddha Taught). So, for me, this was only a partial pilgrimage. I still barely knew Buddhism at that point, and I knew its Korean form even less. More than a decade later, I hesitate to say I know Buddhism well, but I’m certainly much better acquainted with its Korean form. Some aspects of it, I’ve grown comfortable with, some other aspects, less so. Experiences that were once foreign and exotic have become familiar. Other things I had never noticed before suddenly became unavoidable, particularly, the opposed images of agui “hungry ghosts” and geungnak “paradise.”
What’s been most comfortable and consistent in my relationship with Korean Buddhism is the general openness that welcomes my presence as a foreign layperson at temples across the country. The achim yebul (morning service) in particular was once a frightening cacophony. The complex chants and choreographed group prostrations were a nerve-wracking 4:00 am test, one I knew I’d fail – stumbling, sweating, mumbling through the chants and bows. Yet, nobody ever scolded, mocked, or otherwise made me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Maybe most importantly, nobody forced themselves upon me to make me learn the “right way” immediately. So I “failed,” indeed mumbling the chants and stumbling through the bows, and life went on. I was given wide berth to wobble towards a steady grasp of temple life. I also remember noticing the haengja right away in their brown garb, and watching them tip over in the front row of the Main Buddha Hall, as they failed too, suffering like this daily, far worse than I. Watching them press on through their practice nudged my anxieties away, so on I bowed and chanted, and it was here in the temples, more than anywhere else, that they became places where I felt at home. Now many years later, it is at temples in genera that I feel more at home than anywhere else in Korea, especially during the mandatory achim yebul. This ritual is one of the best ways for me to escape, if but for an hour, my sense of foreignness in social spaces. I become one sentient being among many, committing our thoughts and deeds of that day to the benefit of all sentient beings. We all bow, we all sweat, and were all going the same direction, yet by ourselves.
Of course, I realize that the “openness” I’ve been granted is not entirely a product of positive acceptance. I’ve sensed both fear and general dismay as a result of my presence; leaving some to simply ignore me as best they can, which is fine. And I know that by “following the rules,” I’ve assured myself some comfortable space to be left alone. Such was not that case with a non-Buddhist friend who stayed with me at one temple this year. She attended the achim yebul only to be scolded harshly by an over-excited bosalnim who demanded that all attendees must, MUST, bow in sequence with the rest of the assembly. Not knowing how to stamp out the flames of this little conflagration, we simply smiled and nodded, but my friend’s experience seemed a bit ruined after that. It made me realize once again how my experience in Korea is very much only mine, and that the mileage of others certainly varies.
I suddenly began to worry about the experiences of other non-Buddhists who come here, maybe wanting to dip their toes in the water, but not ready to jump in all the way. Prostrations, I wanted to explain, may not be a big deal for the Korean non-Buddhist, but for non-Koreans, bowing is a big deal, and some people aren’t ready for it, and may never be. Does “non-performance” have to be an obstacle for them being exposed to the beauty of the achim yebul? Feeling protective of my friend who was being targeted, I wanted to fight back: “Mind your own yebul! The Buddha wasn’t bothered, why were you?” I thought it, but didn’t say it. Excitable Bosalnim was but one voice out of numerous others, the bulk of them who evoked our immediate respect and warmth, not only at that temple itself, but throughout Korea, who have either kept silent, or offered encouragement and praise for mine, my friend’s and family’s awkward attempts at public practice.
This episode with my friend was on my mind as I tried to evaluate the fact that Korean Buddhism was now being promoted quite heavily by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The world is, at least somewhat, taking notice. The blossoming “Temple Stay” program has garnered attention from the New York Times, and within Korea, most every ex-pat has certainly heard of the program, if not taken part, or known of someone who has. More important than this popularity, though, is to listen to the detailed feedback about the foreigners’ experiences. The advertisements all feature glowing testimonials, as we’d expect. But I sometimes worry about what I might hear in the complaints, the testimonials we don’t see. I can’t deny some concern about pitfalls that may be unnecessarily turning people away from Buddhism in general, experiences similar to what I experienced with my friend.
But there was more to this past year than worries. The drive to promote Buddhism has not only been an institutional campaign, but I’ve seen it first hand in the smart and talented people in and around the Jogye Order, from both lay and monastic communities, in official capacities and among the daejung (masses), who embody a drive to make Korean Buddhism flourish again. Meeting these people made me realize that Buddhism as a spiritual practice, a philosophy, and an aesthetic, is an enduringly attractive tradition in Korea. It commands respect and receives it, rightfully so.
Yet, for foreigners at least, this drive seems to run parallel with something else. That would be the nationalist passion that many can sense in the reinvigorated propagation of Korean Buddhism, the idea that more stress is placed on emphasizing the ‘Korean’ than the ‘Buddhism.’ Suffice to say, the needs of the nation and of Buddhism need not always be in conflict, but when they are, it’s a sure bet that most foreigners will notice and, in more cases than not, be turned off to Korean Buddhism for sure, and maybe Buddhism in general. But that’s a story much too large to satisfy than we have space to discuss here and I don’t really want this focus on some areas of friction to take away from what I see as an extremely vibrant world.
I can’t speak of spiritual health, because my view is far too limited to make such claims, but in terms of infrastructure, cultural production, and lay and monastic practice, the tradition is flowering into the 21st century. Yes, problems exist. The presence of much older haengja at some monasteries is a clue to a decrease in the number of young men deciding to chulga (“leave home,” enter the monastic life). But this may be countered by the health of the bigguni (nun) community, a strong point for not only Korean Buddhism, but Buddhism and the world of religion in general. More frightening to me is not the size of the community, but the purity therein. The latest scandals raging in the community are a testament to something wrong somewhere, but whether the sangha is in a state of crisis, as some have gone so far to say, I don’t know.
I know what I’ve seen, taking part in the world of Korean Buddhism as I have this past year, witness to many different projects, devoted not only to “getting the word out” about Korean Buddhism, but to “being Buddhist” within their own community. From Buddhist chorale singers to Buddhist fashion designers, Buddhist intellectuals to Buddhist psychological consultation services, social welfare services to book publishing companies - the Korean Buddhist world, whatever its faults, is alive.
One such example will serve as my conclusion for my present installment and as an introduction to someone I will certainly speak more of in the future. The site was Odae-san’s Weoljeong-sa, a special training temple where lay people can take on the regimen of a one-month temporary ordination. Lovely as it is with soft, nestling mountains and pine-lined entrance, the temple is the site of some serious pain, as the newcomers adapt to early wake-ups, constant behavior correction, forced memorization, and sitting still for long periods of time. Among the less enthusiastic, one participant, sent against his wishes by his mother, opined: “This sucks!” Leading the co-ed group were two seunim, a woman and a man, both in charge of their respective genders, but serving as team trainers for the entire cohort. If these two trainers can be the face of Korean Buddhism’s future, I’m excited to see what’s ahead. The nun, whose name I didn’t learn, due to the fact that I was cowered silent by her perfectly commanding presence, packed more charisma and punch into her four and a half foot frame than the entire class of temporary haengja. And the monk? He was stately and imposing as well, though a bit more outgoing, a bit more congenial to the uncontrolled over-talkative type such as myself. Quick with a laugh, and pure in his commitment to the dharma, Ilman Seunim made an immediate impression and became a fast friend.
Ilman Seunim is like me now, back in the USA, he in Teaneck, NJ, and myself in Appleton, Wisconsin, trying the bridge the gap between memories of Korea and the Buddhism I lived there, and the reality of life back here. With a little time and distance, I’ll give more thought to the year just past and what I’ve learned about Korean Buddhism and also where I think Korean Buddhism might be headed. I’ll talk a bit more about Ilman Seunim, the former Recon Marine turned monastic training guru/teddy bear. And I’ll also try to talk a bit about the “Korean Buddhism” I see here hidden within the relatively un-Buddhist Wisconsin, U.S.A. Might there be some seunim here in disguise? Who are the secret bosalnim? Who is up and awake at 4 a.m. here, and what loud sounds do they emit to the heavens?
Until next time, I need to pause and breathe for a bit, regaining my senses as I reintegrate into my old home. Over the past ten years, I’ve been in Korea more than I’ve been in my home of Wisconsin. Now that I’m back, the reverse culture shock is taking its time to work through my system.