images of the crossing over



Changsam and the daily schedule, Vajra Hall, Un Mun Sa


It’s been a long time since I posted here.

I’ve done a mediocre job of keeping up with posts at (thus) but have basically ignored fts for a long while. Writing is something I can do while confined within a room or compound; photographs happen less when I’m physically constrained. Now I’m in the U.S. for the summer, at UVA in Virginia for the summer Tibetan intensive course. And it is intense, leaving as little time for photographs and writing as my busy spring season at my home temple. Daily practices of all kinds are being juggled. While I’ve been able to keep up with things in a general sense, on any given day only a few balls are actually in my hands. Sometimes one’s a camera, sometimes a computer, sometimes a blog; but always (these days) a textbook and a vocab list.

I have a backlog of edited photos, thanks to the prep work I did for a talk at the Korea Society in New York City. I’ll focus on getting some of those up, a few at a time, throughout the summer. For pictures (and really good ones!) of the summer of Tibetan, see classmate and Actual Photographer Matt Richter’s tumblr site.


The sinew and muscle

Words form the sinew and muscle that hold societies upright, he [Abdel Kader Haidara, one of Timbuktu’s “preeminent historians”] argued…Thousands upon thousands of words infused with the full spectrum of emotions fill in the nooks and corner of human life.

National Geographic, January 2011, “The Telltale Scribes of Timbuktu,” by Peter Gwin

This is the small-but-ever-growing library in my room “at home”;  it began with a handful of Korean language text-books and a few sutras six years ago and has expanded to include not only a majority of Buddhist materials, but poetry, Korean literature, and Christian literature as well. Although my home temple has a number of personal libraries, notably the Abbess’ collection, I’m almost ashamed to say this one is the largest. And I haven’t even graduated seminary yet…

This shot was for exposure practice. Originally, I’d thought of trying to put myself in the frame–hence the deliberately long exposure–but nothing came out right. Eventually, this shot was the only one even usable; if it’s any token of my great affection for books, I wanted to try and take a portrait of the library. Part of my homework for vacation is to beginning learning Photoshop–there’s a textbook for the program in the lower left of the bookcase, just for reference–because the lack of sharp blacks and especially whites is really buggy. Not to mention I need to work on cropping.


Happy New Year’s; as we say twice in Korea–once for the solar, once for the lunar–새해 복 많이받으세요! (Lit., “May you receive many blessings in/for the new year!”)

Even temples party. Each class at the seminary played yut-nori in our respective halls last night. A traditional Korean game involving two-sided dice made of wooden dowels, a game board often drawn ad-hoc on whatever material is available at the moment, and much team rivalry, the only thing I understand about it is the louder the contest, the more fun the contestants seem to have. The specific rules of the game still elude me. I mentioned this to a sister this morning, and she said, “If you understood yut-nori, you would be Korean.” I’ll take this to mean there’s still hope for me, providing I can grasp the rudiments of this new year’s tradition.

Most folks reflect on the year past or the year to come during this highly symbolic season. There are ample opportunities, regardless of your religious, spiritual, or chronic orientation: beginning with Solstice, in Korea we then roll through Christmas (the nuns in my class sang carols in accented English and blew out candles on a store-bought chocolate cake), solar New Year’s, Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, and finally lunar New Year’s. Where we’ve been, where we’re going; more importantly, where we’re standing now.

The shoes above are our summer shoes, light blue rubber slippers poured into a mold made to resemble traditional Korean shoes. Mine are the ones to the far right, reading “amicus mundi,” a phrase found in an interview with Thomas Cleary and a standard of vocation and work that resonated with me. I’ve gotten in the habit of writing typically Latin phrases on my shoes, not merely to distinguish them from the over 200 other pairs but to remind me of something that struck me as particularly relevant at the beginning of the season. Before “amicus mundi” was “pax [sic] e bene,” the latter borrowed from the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal with a purposeful mis-spelling of “pax” for “pace” to make the lettering even on left and right. My current winter shoes, low-heeled black rubber with a plastic-fur ruff around the ankle, read “lux” and “fide.”

I look at my shoes each time I slip in or out of them countless times each day. It is surprising how what strikes a chord with you at the beginning of a season has a way of becoming, without intention or conscious construction, the very center of your life. Or, perhaps more precisely, what was an echo in your mind at one point is revealed a little bit at a time as having lain all the while at the core of things. “Amicus Mundi” became a moment-to-moment reminder of the struggle to be a “good friend” to the world immediate to me, my sisters and other members of this monastic community, and all those beyond these walls. The struggle to work well with and be considerate of others–the very basics of being a friend–had always been there. The words were the key to bring my awareness to it. “Pace e bene”: peace is good, better than pettiness or anger, and the highest peace of all worth working for daily. “Lux, fide”: in the coldest season, the darkest time, light and faith become one, and like all lights, it is one you must kindle and hold yourself.

Once during a special lecture series at school by the Korean artist Kim Ho Seok, he remarked that he kept a journal, I wrote in my own journal (now at my home temple and not available for reference) a short poem that went something like the following.

“Kim Ho Seok’s Journal”

We all leave tracks/ not knowing where we’re going/ only knowing where we’ve been,

Wherever we’re going, don’t know. Wherever we’ve been, already over: right now, happy holidays, all of them, and many blessings for the new year.