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.
Me, spring 2011. Shortly after my 31st birthday.
Despite my best efforts to make brightness and contrast adjustments in Ps. look natural, nothing short of kind-of-scary brightness levels will bring my face out of shadow, which also blows the sky into an apocalyptic ashen white. This is what I get for leaning into the shadows while simultaneously trying to coach a camera rookie around the D700′s labrynthine modes and options. Still, to quote my older sister (사형님): “Wow, you came out well in this picture!” Well, you know…I try.
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.