Today, one of my classmates asked me, “Do you have a word for summer like this? I mean, this kind of really, really hot summer weather?”
I thought a moment, trying to do a quick calculation of the balance between idiomatic and literal components in translation, and answered, “Yes. We call it dog summer.”
(What I was trying to convey was “the dog days of summer,” but that in literal Korean sounds ridiculous. Although “dog summer” sounds equally funny in English, coming back the other way.)
It is dog summer here. The monsoon seems to be winding down and the next typhoon isn’t scheduled to make landfall until sometime next week, so we’re reveling in glorious sunshine and wallowing in brutal humidity. It’s the kind of weather that makes you sweat even sitting still and saps the energy right out a body: dog summer anyway you say it. The sky is a Technicolor riot every day. I’ve never shot slide film, Kodachrome, or Velvia, but those would be the only films I’ve heard of that might be adequate to the intense natural saturation of color in the sky, clouds, and trees, and I wish I had the luxury to spend some leisurely time with those colors.
Homework, however, which is not merely the bane of school-kids’ weekends but also the wrench in the otherwise fun-loving, picture-taking works of certain members of our class, has kept the majority of us inside. One of our several assignments this summer was to copy out the brief (four-page) introduction to the Avatamsaka Sutra by Cheng-kuan. Except, we had to copy it thirty times each within the four-day limit imposed by our Head Lecturer. I begged off to a mere 20 repetitions, a task which still kept me up past ten three nights running and required every spare moment during the day.
Above is one of those repetitions, a later one judging from the quality of my handwriting. Note the correction tape freely layered here and there; what malformations it hides, I don’t want to recall. I’ve posted about hand-copying sutras, or sa-gyeong, before, although this assignment differed from those acts of transcription done out of faith. Initially, we were expected to memorize the introduction, a standard expectation and accomplishment in traditional sutra halls and Korean education, monastic or otherwise; my class was a little slow with the memorization bit, so the compromise offered by our lecturer was to have us copy it out.
The horizon within our main hall has been largely filled with looming characters and layers of paper for the summer. It’s with relief, then, that we turn to the wider horizon outside, even in the heat. The sky, which is usually quite beautiful, seems particularly so this year–and I will remember this summer as the summer of intense heavens. The thumbnails I’ve included here, shot on the sly when no was looking, do not do it justice.
Morning about two weeks ago, looking over the Admantine Hall to the hills beyond, during the monsoon when the sky dropped low and gray every day, if it didn’t outright pour.
Dawn, about a week ago, looking over the Vairocaina Hall, on a day that turned very rainy around midmorning.
Shoes and Paddy, South Chung-jeong Province, Seocheon.
In the Hua-yen universe, where everything interpenetrates in identity and interdependence, where everything needs everything else, what is there which is not valuable? To throw away even a single chopstick as worthless is to set up a hierarchy of values which in the end will kill us in a way which no bullet can. In the Hua-yen universe, everything counts.
Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most be his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
To everyone who has left comments here during the past couple months, thank you: I’ve read them all but haven’t had time to reply. Housekeeping matters here, especially concerning resizing the photos in old entries to accommodate the new template (which is also begging the question, to keep or not?, at present) are in a woeful, neglected state.
In about a week or so, my class will finish Cheng-kuan’s lengthy introductory commentary to the Avatamsaka Sutra and finally enter the Sutra proper itself. Hua-yen, or in the Korean pronunciation, Hwa-eom Buddhism is a specific aspect of Chinese Buddhist thought and history that I’ve had to approach in Western literature mostly from side-paths. With the exception of three books on Hua-yen Buddhism in English–one by CC Chang, one by T. Cleary, and the last by Francis Cook–it’s easier to find extensive resources on the various components that are drawn together in the great network of Hua-yen though: Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, Chinese influences on Buddhist thought, Ch’an. In between the main thrusts of these movements and histories, Hua-yen runs like an underground stream, surfacing here and there but rarely studied in its full. I gave up on CC Chang’s book quickly. He was an notable scholar but too in awe of the Buddhist religion to reign in his prose or some of his judgements in his scholarly work. Cleary’s book I will read as I study the sutra itself (and his translation of it), since mostly focuses on translations of various treatises on the sutra by the patriarchs of the tradition. Cook’s book, however, is both accessible and well-informed, written from a perspective that both deeply esteems the Hua-yen Sutra and has spent time considering the text’s relevance to the world of cast-off shoes and human relations, the environment and society.
I have a thing for the cast-off objects of the world. Not that I am a great conservator, an accomplished economist of the not-one-rice-grain-wasted school, not that I am immune to the lure of shiny new things. (I am particularly susceptible to new pens, new notebooks, new stationary pads, new books; less so to new shoes but not to new rosaries, somewhat skilled at deferring the hunger for new teacups but not above pestering a friend to give me one as a present or shamelessly admiring a handsome coffee mug. I am a consumer trying to undermine her own habits, and only partially successful.) But I am nonetheless concerned with what has been cast off, curious about their new existences after their initial and obvious function has been set aside. These shoes were waiting just thus on the embankment of a paddy in South Chung-jeong Province last August. Are they truly cast off? I don’t know. Perhaps they’re just resting, until the farmer returns to the paddy to work.
This curiosity, at first aesthetic, takes on a new importance in the light of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Although I didn’t chose to include Walden on my summer extracurricular reading list because I knew that Thoreau would speak so directly, from his own experience and view, to some of Hua-yen’s most central messages to us in the physical, mundane world, Thoreau is becoming an excellent companion. In a world where everything needs everything else, our modes of life are not individual choices without consequence, nor are our mistakes, made in ignorance or greed or even misguided goodheartedness, easily bartered away with an action of the opposite apparent value. The implication being, as I experience it in my own life, that we cannot pay the price of a cast-off pair of shoes by recycling several cola bottles. We cannot save the soul we lost in a moment of anger by loving the one we struck the next moment. Does this make our acts of contrition and repentance meaningless? No; but those acts don’t erase the past so much as guide the future. The first lesson of anger isn’t to love, it’s to not get angry. And the first lesson of casting off is not to recycle elsewhere, it is to understand that nothing is ever thrown away and forgotten, but remains, in a new form and function, continuing to affect us and be affected by us, in a world where everything needs everything else.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day; tomorrow is Buddha’s Birthday. From the fulcrum between the two, sending wishes for everyone’s happiness!
At the (hidden) central point where the three main ridges in this picture meet is our school. You’d hardly know it’s there; most folk don’t until they get out of their car and walk along the traditional retaining wall that outlines the temple’s courtyards through our front gate. If you climb any of these ridges, the temple’s obvious, of course: large, geometric, carving out a sand-and-slate-colored mandala from the otherwise verdant landscape. But our visibility is only from above. From the side, on approach, the temple gives off an air of reticence. Other than our courtyard’s wall, the familiar swooping double-curve of our tiled roofs reveal us; but slowly and quietly without fanfare.
The paddy in the foreground used to belong to the temple, until the nuns stopped cultivating rice and barely. Now the lands are rented out to area farmers. The mountain in the center of the picture is one part of the larger set of peaks and ridges known as “Crane Mountain.” From the interior of the mountains, looking at the peak from an opposite slope, it takes on the aspect of a crane about to lift its wings in flight.
In the left of the picture, two ridges reach down; they form the two arms of the bowl-shaped mountain known as “Reclining Tiger Mountain.” (You can see another view of that ridge here, looking directly between the outstretched arms.) The ridge on the right side of the picture leads up to General’s Rock, a prominent part of the landscape around here.
Between the tigers and the generals, the temple maintains its low profile. Even the color and buzz of Buddha’s Birthday hasn’t brought the temple out from the mountains. It remains, as it was intended to be, a place to be sought, discovered, and seen, and nothing more.
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.
Jong Ook Sunim, Community Secretary.
After yesterday’s rain, an absolutely beautiful, bright day.
The only thing potentially marring this day is the fact that our outhouse, yes, one of those old-fashioned pit-in-the-ground kind of outhouses, is scheduled to be cleared today. All that nightsoil shifted by a huge mobile vacuum-and-septic tank operation to the fields. (The temple will stink worst today, and less so but not “not at all” for about ten days or so.) I was thinking of doing a mountain of laundry, my own and some sisters’, today, to take advantage of all that sun to line-dry clothing, until I realized sun or no sun, anything hung out on the line today will come off stinking and reeking.
But still, a beautiful morning, and the nightsoil-removal operation isn’t scheduled to begin until later, so the three “Office Nuns” (fourth-years holding the positions of Community Accountant, Secretary, and General Manager) and I went out for a walk. The rain yesterday had brought down most of the cherry blossoms, but a pink umbra still hangs around the trees that looks lovely in the morning light.
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.
Actually, it was an afternoon walk, but I’m loath to create another category for the sake of a temporal discrepancy on the same theme.
By the way, there are hyperlinks in the text below that don’t showing up until the mouse is over them; I’m trying to auto-adjust the hyperlink color so that it’ll stand out from the text next time.
To counter-balance the weight of stone, a feather found on a walk yesterday. Our purpose in wandering the paths alongside the temple yesterday was to look for the small purple and white flowers of some of spring’s first blooms: the Head of Lecturers (강주 스님) had left instructions with the current assistant-head-of-class (my successor to the post, by the way) to take me out in the field, camera in hand, to photograph the minuscule plants. Our Head of Lecturers loves flowers, and it was part of my early training to the senior photograph position that I should expect to be called out in all seasons to take shots of flora. The regularity of flower-potrait requests by senior nuns at the school has always made me wonder why we don’t invest in a good macro lens, but now that’s neither my problem nor concern, since I’m off the staff of the cultural bureau.
With these things in mind, I tried to explain two facts to our asst. class head: I had lost the position as camera-man, therefore making it somewhat ridiculous to send me specifically to photograph anything (send the other official camera-man!; this was bitterness speaking); and second, the school’s cameras, which had the resolution for the job, did not have the right lenses. “They’re enormous, those lenses,” said my classmate. “How can they not focus on a tiny flower? Just shove the lens up close. That ought to work.”
I tried to explain macro lenses. I tried to explain focal lengths. Bafflement resulted. Frustrated, I shoved the near-kilo weight of the Nikon D700 into my classmate’s hands. “This thing is on auto-focus. Point it at the flower, squeeze the shutter button half-way, and you try and bring it all into focus.” “It’s not working!” she complained after fiddling, zooming, squeezing, and moving nearer and farther from the two-centimeter wide face of the flower. “I rest my case,” I said, or something like that. I told her our best bet was to fake a macro shot by utilizing the high resolution of the D700 later in a digital blow-up.
“Whatever,” she shrugged. To her ears, I’d offered a solution to the Janus-faced problem of technical limitations and instructions from seniors.
All nuns have a hobby of some kind, most carried over from life “when we had hair” (머리 있었을 때). Piano, illustration, languages, tea-drinking–which is to nuns what wine-tasting is to others–cooking, even needlework or knitting in a few rare cases. Other hobbies are acquired in the temple, either by necessity, such as computer-related work and rudimentary graphic design, or the fill the space left by old activities that no longer fit into the monastic world. In my case, I’ve switched the time and energy I used to give to swimming, jogging, and martial arts to photography and design. Other interests have continued more or less uninterrupted through the transition from with-hair to without, such as the bibliothecula and my side-project of creating an English “shadow curriculum” for foreign monastics in the Korean seminary system.
Some of our activities and interests don’t fit neatly into the common perception of the monastic, even our self-perceptions. I was lambasted by some of my classmates for accepting The Baby (my Canon 500D) as a gift specifically given to let me explore, creatively and through pictures, this world we live in. When Deok An Sunim practices on the grand piano in the Dharma Hall, lay-women often stare amazed. It’s hard to tell if they approve or not, although one middle-aged woman commented with faint pleasure, “It’s so unusual to hear a piano at a temple!”
Still, approval and disapproval yapping in strange unison at our heels, most of us will continue pursuing our chosen activities. Otherwise, in trying to fit ourselves in the idealistic confines of an identity, we most likely will have to sacrifice the most living and vibrant aspects of our personalities, those very vibrancies that give us the depth and the compassion to respond to the world around us. Before we can be Buddha, we must be human.
My first walk in the park behind our temple in nearly a year. Last vacation we had–at the end of the summer–I distinctly recall lamenting not having the time for a walk through the park. I was about to finish this vacation with the same lament, and have narrowly avoided it.
There was a time when what was behind the temple wasn’t a park, but simply a single long, wooded, and largely uninhabited crest of land (we glorify it to a series of mountains and “peaks” when we talk about what barely qualifies as a couple of hills where I’m from). In front of our temple, which at that time wasn’t the modern, Korean-style building we have now, but a Japanese-style complex, grass and trees also stretched down to the street below us. Now the crest has been officially turned into a park, complete with sculpture gardens, paved paths, and a few motley concessions stands; and in front of our temple the street runs right up to and then through the front gate. The old, occupation-era Japanese buildings are gone, for the most part.
At the top of the park stairs, there’s a great view of the West Sea and the estuary of the Geum River, even the though the view is admittedly an industrial one. Both the stretch down the coast on the North Jeolla side of the river and up it on the South Chung-jeong side are dizzy with smoke and steam coming from various factories, plants, and in the case of North Jeolla, the international harbor just south of the city. But, as one of my sisters at school, an art major and the former site administrator (read: design and content director) for our school’s homepage, landscapes are a weakness for me. Sure enough, despite my best shot a few times over, nothing compelling. Ah, well, who goes to parks to look at industriascapes anyway?