I forgot Easter. Not just the holiday; the entire season. I was more aware of Passover than Easter (friends discussed family seders in emails or on blogs in advance; the Christian influences in my life wished me a Happy Easter after the fact).
How’ve I spent the first five days of vacation, since I’m manifestly not keeping up with the world religious calendar?
Napping. Reading. Doing some laundry–but nothing that interferes with the other two main activities mentioned. Going to the Dharma Hall as required. I’m alone in the room I usually share with the Assistant Chant Master, who took her week’s leave first, and for the first time in literally years I have a space more or less private, closed to others, and un-intruded upon by near anything else. Phones. Intercoms. Sisters. Guests. I have no responsibilities beyond the three daily services and showing up for formal meal in the morning.
At my home temple, a Canadian man used to come visit me. His wife was Korean and they had lived here in Korea for several years. Whenever he came to see me, he’d preface anything else he said with, “I hope I wasn’t interrupting your meditation or anything.” I never knew what to say in response, other than, “Oh, no, you’ve interrupted nothing”: he never interrupted my meditation, because I hadn’t been meditating. I’d been working, or attending to something, or in the midst of the eternal wait (for phones, for guests, for orders or requests from senior nuns, for work, for anything) that typifies temple life for young nuns. Maybe it typifies it for senior nuns, too; but young or old, we’re rarely found in an attitude of formal meditation if we live in an average temple. We’re usually found in a state of mild anxiety, trying to anticipate what might happen or need to happen next. Do we cultivate patience? Yes. Generosity? Yes. Attention to the moment? Yes: but not by sitting on cushions, not by scheduling in practice, not by having “space,” not by having “down time.” Would I like to see practice more formally structured and addressed among the young monastic community? Yes, but that’s not the present situation we have to live with.
So it is weird, in a wonderful, much-needed way, to have leisure. Unstructured spans of time. Quiet. Privacy. In this, the last spring of my last year at school, I’ve received an unexpected gift: the chance to really slow down and do only as much as I can in a day. For the past few days, that hasn’t amounted to much more than letting a book slip from my hands as I fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon. I had plans, at first, to do homework and read x number of books and exercise and take pictures; but what would be the point of all that if the gift of this moment is the chance to not do?
I’ve often looked at the fields adjacent to the school, the ones we cultivate each year, rotating crops but rarely letting lie fallow, and thought about the earth unturned and unploughed; what would a field let go fallow yield, in the next year? We’re a partly-organic operation at school; among other compromises, we use chemical fertilizers at the start of each growing season, trying to provoke the ground into producing for us. I’m a classic type-A personality, over-achieving and capable of generating enough stress to require no additional input from parents, teachers, coaches, or seniors; a personality like mine self-combusts in the atmosphere of Korean temples, which rely on a certain basic level of systemic stress to overcome a community’s inherent inertia. When the problem isn’t inherent inertia, but inherent momentum, it’s learning to stop, not go, that becomes the challenge. Some folks don’t cultivate enough. Others never learn to lie fallow.
I forgot Easter. Barely remembered Passover. Buddha’s Birthday still seems like Someone Else’s Holiday, in my head. But maybe even the religious need to forget religion, if we’re going to stay grounded in the universal rhythms of body and season and learn not only what to do, but also what we do not need to do, and learn to let be, be quiet, lie fallow.
White birds over the gray river.
Scarlet flowers on the green hills.
I watch the spring go by and wonder
If I shall ever return home.
(trns. Kenneth Rexroth)
It’s National Poetry Month in the US!
Over the next month, likely on Tuesdays (our “rest day” here at school), I’m going to try and get pictures and poems up. The goal is four posts; the poetry in question, translated Korean poems, mostly modern at this point. The pictures are proving somewhat elusive, since technically I’m not the camera-sunim any more and getting the shots of folks doing their regular old business around the temple is hard when you’re not supposed to have a camera.
The plum tree has blossomed, and although there are plenty of odes to the plum in Asian poetry, Tu Fu’s plaintive response to the effervescence of the season is echoed in my own feelings as this season comes forth in a far land. I never saw a plum blossom before coming to seminary, and I still remember how, our first year, it bloomed slowly in a bitter cold and occasional spring rains, white sprays on black branches.
“Chinese cabbages”–although we call them plain cabbages, and those huge, round things they eat in Europe and the States “Western cabbages.” A late summer harvest from our fields, 2010.