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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Smile

The chapter that is my first semester teaching here in Korea is nearly written. It has been four months filled with countless surprises, smiles, magic, deep reflection and amazing lessons.

Last evening I was told this story by a dear Korean friend:

"The Buddha was to speak before an audience of 1200 monks who were awaiting his wisdom. He entered the venue, stood before his audience and gazed into the eyes of each monk. It was still. He cut one chrysanthemum and held it for all the monks to see. He looked out. One monk smiled. The 'speech' was complete."

Watermelon and dojang (name stamps)

Saturday, June 16, 2012


I am often a victim of my own naivety. Paraphrasing director and actor, Woody Allen, who long ago realized he had lost any objectivity he may have once held for New York City,

“Chapter 1. He adored New York City. He romanticized it all out of proportion…”
from the opening of the movie, Manhattan

- - - - -

It was a day like any other here. The daylight expanded in its way, gradually filling the corners and spaces in the apartment complex. The community stirred with its morning routines, mothers conveying children to schools, retired older men making themselves busy, others plying their routines in the streets and offices.

My morning too was leaning into its familiar path.  Then, serendipity quietly interrupted. A few hours later I found myself walking inside the city’s art museum. My Korean teacher, Kwak Mee Rah, whose invitation ignited this magical escape from routine, and I, had the place to ourselves. The Daegu Art Museum (DAM), gallery by gallery, humbly but knowingly, revealed its many personalities to us.

“Art speaks the soul of its culture.”
Abby Willowroot

Ms. Kim, a young museum employee, felt us creating ripples in the still pond of her early afternoon. Putting her book down, she left her isolated seat and came over to excitedly offer her insights coming, as they were, from under a restrained veneer of black and whiteness.  Her hair was styled in a communist Chinese-like pageboy cut.  She had a baggy white shirt, black skirt, tights and shoes.  Speaking Korean, she opened the door to our afternoon of colors, textures, and surprises. She made bare part of the soul of Korean culture.

We felt the raw emotion of artist Sa Yung Sun:

We saw the range of Park Seng Kwang:

And the amazing textured art of Park Seo Bo, which can't be fairly appreciated here:

Finally, the magical colors of Kim Jong Hak:

Which brings me to my closing confession...

“Chapter 2. He adored Korea. He romanticized it all out of proportion.”

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Buddha's Birthday

                                       "Material wealth is not life's ultimate goal."
                                                              From Buddha's teachings

It's a national holiday here, the birthday of Buddha. Buddhist temples are like ubiquitous jewels. They are found everywhere one goes in Korea. Siddhartha Gautama Buddha...Nepal is said to have been his birthplace, India his final resting place.

Though it is hard to be definitive, approximately 23% of Koreans practice Buddhism-the single largest religious following in Korea. Many more Koreans visit buddhist temples and respectfully partake in rituals.

I visited Bulguksa (불국사) Temple in Gyeongju (경주) on the occasion of the birthday of Buddha (563 BCE - 483 BCE). Waves of people filled the thousand year-old complex. Parking spots were hard to come by and public buses were packed. Vendors sold food and trinkets, from sunglasses to tantalizing paper umbrellas.

An old woman was selling fresh berries in paper cups.

Middle-aged women were dressed proudly in their finest traditional clothes. I couldn't help but stare at one woman who, with quiet dignity, wore a light grey, 2-piece outfit with tiny, finely sewn patches of pink and blue pastels.

The air was filled with a rainbow of colors as far as the eye could see. An important ritual I observed was the pouring of water over a small golden statue of the buddha. Followers would take turns pouring and bowing.

                                       "Nothing which comes to be is ultimately satisfying."
                                                                   From Buddha's teachings

My memories replay the mental films of buddhist monks selflessly leading resistance to military thuggery in Burma, to Chinese authoritarianism in Tibet and in countless other places in Asia and throughout the world. As I depart the temple grounds I hear an enchanting sound--a simple knocking on hollow wood--a monk's call for alms.

                                              "All things that come to be have an end."
                                                                    From Buddha's teachings