Two Kinds of Homesickness
One thousand or so years ago, a monk of the Silla dynasty named Hyecho made an amazing journey to what were then called the “Five Kingdoms of India.” Venturing west from China, Hyecho meandered on foot first through the pilgrimage sites of Buddhism and then beyond, reaching all the way to modern-day Tibet, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, before safely returning. We know all this because some one hundred years ago, a fragmentary manuscript of Hyecho’s travel journal, the Wang ocheon chukguk jeon (왕오천축국전), was discovered in the famed Dunhuang caves.
Hyecho’s observations and ruminations are alternately prosaic and fascinating, offering glimpses not only into the status of the various cultures he wrote about, but also about the state of his own consciousness. We see in his jottings some of the tedium of travel, even within an exotic locale, as his descriptions begin to become repetitive and sparse, offering but a word or two on the most readily apparent facts of life, such as clothing, food, and religion. A typical entry may state little more than, “They wear furs here. Their food is largely based on millet. They revere the Three Jewels.”
What’s more exciting, if only for the fact that we seldom get to see the “Great Monks” depicted as other than rock-hard stoic masters, are the glimpses into Hyecho’s psyche, finding out what surprises or pains him. Of the few things besides food, clothing and religion that really catch his attention, it was policies of non-violence, whether towards animals or criminals, that Hyecho was compelled to remark upon. I couldn’t help but note a sense of his surprise as I read him report on Madhyadesa: “Being kind and lighthearted, they disdain the killing animals. As a result, when you go to a market you will not find any butchers or meat sellers.”
Nor could I deny the astonishment I sensed in him as he recorded one of his longer entries:
“According to the custom of the five kingdoms, there is not utilization of beatings or the cangue for punishment, nor are there jails. Those found guilty of crimes are forced to pay fines in accordance with the offense. There are no punishments and there is no death penalty. From the king on down to the common folk, you will see nobody using falcons or dogs for stalking and hunting.”
Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder what his astonishment might tell us about the Silla he came from (and even, perhaps, about the Korea of today).
But most endearing, especially because I was reading it while I too was thousands of miles from home, were the two occasions in his journal where Hyecho broke into poetry. What was it that brought such fits of fancy? The majestic ambience of Vulture Peak, where the Buddha had given his sermons? The noble silence on the spot in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha was enlightened? Nope. What brought Hyecho to pen his verses was the simple homesickness:
Staring at the road home on this moonlit night
Only the wispy clouds can float back in that direction.
I want to send with them a letter home,
But the rough winds don't allow it.
My country is at the far northern end of the sky,
Their country here is at the far western end of the earth
Geese don't come to these warm southern climes,
Who can fly off home, to deliver my news?
Imagine, this great monk, a student of the eminent Vajrabodhi, and “homeless wanderer” par excellence, not only suffers the pangs of homesickness that normally plague only average mundane souls, but then dares to advertise the fact! Reading Hyecho made me feel a little bit better about my own homesickness when I was in Korea. I mean, the whole notion of becoming a monk is captured in the phrase, “to leave home,” (chulga) and monks are sometimes referred to as the “homeless ones” (chulgaja).
Knowing as I did that suffering from attachments to sensory desires was one of the most basic obstacles to overcome as a Buddhist, I felt like a failure whenever the gloomy days left me longing for the comforts of my American home. But if Hyecho could suffer from it now and then, perhaps I too was afforded a weak point here and there. (Of course, Hyecho was gone four years, had traveled by foot, didn’t know if he’d ever see home again, hadn’t spoken his own language for who knows how long, and didn’t use video chatting to converse with his loved ones. . . but, who’s going to quibble?)
Now that I’m home though, I wonder. . . did Hyecho suffer from the other homesickness?
What I mean is something like that general feeling that sinks in whenever you finally get what you longed for. But in the case of going home, it’s not just a simple sense of remorse, like when that piece of pie you just “had to eat” ended up not being that great after all. When you finally get home after longing for it for so long, you’re stuck, and it impacts every single facet of your life. You can work off the extra pound of that regrettable pie, but once you’re back home, you’re usually there for good. Suddenly it’s possible that you get sick of being “home” and you long for the days when everything was a bit less comfortable, less predictable, and less familiar.
Back some time now in the United States, it's clearer to me more than ever that the concerns of life in Korea and Wisconsin differ less in structure than in degree. Day by day, we’re surrounded with the same issues: duty, shame, obligation, elders, Mother, Father, children, work, bills, illnesses, gatherings . . . 등등등 (etc.). But the degrees certainly make a big difference when your mind is not at rest and the present is somehow, someway, always failing to match up with the imagined past.
I struggle a bit these days with the second homesickness. Even though we just moved into a brand new house, the culture of home is so perfectly familiar that is goads me into feeling as if I’ve never left, as if my Korea life was but a dream, that the world back there is not mine to be concerned with. I can’t stand that, so I rebel inside, and conjure the memories of all that I miss. What a stupid game I play with myself, I know.
So my new task is to get over my new homesickness, to be “homewell,” to recreate here as best I can the best feelings that Korea inspired in me and that I miss so much now, and to make myself comfortable with the reality that I’m back home, but that I still have the power to make home more of what I want it to be.
Recent events force me to add something off topic here, though it deserves a much more thoughtful response. Let me just say that as a ardent supporter of Korean Buddhism, it pains me to see the current juxtaposition between the publicity given to the monks of Burma and the monks of Korea. In Burma, we bear witness to the sangha confronting a brutal dictatorship, serving as a vanguard for their people. However, in Korea, we see the case of the Shin Jeong-ah affair, with monks once again being hounded by tales of corruption, graft and deceit. Even Woljeong-sa, a temple I raved about in my last column, has been implicated. While I blame the frailty of humans, and not the tradition itself, I couldn’t help but lament that Korean Buddhism, which so rarely makes its way into the news anyways, only seems to get press when something really bad happens.