Mindful of where this story truly began, I prostrate
In July of 2013, I began offering English lessons/language exchange to a North Korean refugee now living in Seoul. The story of how I met this refugee (I’ll call her Julie) will be included in a longer essay, but this is what you need to know for now.
Last August Julie and I were sitting together after one of our lessons, trying to schedule our next meeting. Looking over her calendar, she suggested a weekend in September.
“But that’s Chuseok,” I said.
Chuseok (pronounced “chew-sock”) is one of Korea’s most important holidays. Though it has no direct parallel in North America, it is frequently compared to Thanksgiving. And, like Thanksgiving, it’s a time for families to come together and celebrate certain time-honored traditions. Every year my school devotes an entire day to Chuseok festivities and then lets the students out for a 4 or 5-day weekend. I never ask my Korean friends to make plans during this time.
Knowing all of these things, Julie simply nodded and said, “I know.”
If you’re familiar with the plight of the North Korean people, you know there’s a lot of tragedy contained in those two words. For many refugees who’ve had to leave their families behind in the North, Chuseok is just another day.
Mindful that feeling sympathy for someone is useless if you do nothing to help them, I prostrate
In the year since Julie and I scheduled a language exchange during Chuseok, I’ve continued educating myself about the North Korean cause, attending lectures and fundraisers whenever I can. And then just two weeks ago, I was happy to find out about a temple stay in Yeoju where several North Korean students would be spending their Chuseok holidays. Remembering what Julie said last year, I signed up right away.
A temple stay, for those who aren’t sure, is a retreat at a Buddhist temple. For many foreigners living in Asia, it’s considered a rite of passage. You drink soju. You go to the DMZ. You attend a temple stay.
The instructions for this particular temple stay were very straightforward. “Do your best to get there by 3:30,” said one update. “If you arrive late, then you will be disrupting the program.” For a person whose whole life has been one long pattern of arriving late and disrupting the program, this was nothing short of terrifying. So, just to be safe, I got on a 10:20 bus and arrived in Yeoju more than 3 hours early.
As the hours went by, other foreigners and participants began trickling into the bus terminal. Among many others, there were two cool German girls and a friendly Canadian whom I shared lunch with; a tall Frenchman who shared my love for Quentin Tarantino movies and dialogue; a Swedish couple who were making a documentary about North Korean refugees; an American businessman who divides his time between Korea and Japan; a Norwegian girl who was kind enough to indulge me when I asked her about black metal; and two Belgians. And then, just a short bus ride later, there were the children:
You might think I’m about to say that meeting these North Korean children led me to a grand, “Heal the World“-style epiphany that changed my heart and soul forever. No. It didn’t. And that’s the point. If there’s anything I want you to take away from these ramblings, dear readers, it’s that these children are just like any others. They do not look, act, or feel any differently than my kindergarten and elementary students.
They like to play. (Here are some of the girls using the tall Frenchman I mentioned as a piece of playground equipment):
They like to draw. (This student and I sat together on the ride back to Seoul, sharing funny videos on YouTube):
They like to eat. (This one is enjoying the songpyeon we made during our first activity):
They like to be cuddled.
And of course they love modern electronics. (I sent this picture to several friends with the caption “10 out of 10 North Korean kids would rather play iPhone games than praise the Great Leader” 🙂 ):
The only thing that sets them apart is that many of them had to be carried through a river into China on their mothers’ backs to avoid starvation. That, and I can’t tell you any of their names, because it might lead to trouble (even imprisonment) for their family members left behind in North Korea. As always, government is the problem. The people, however, are just like you and me.
Mindful that I still have a long way to go before I reach my weight loss goals, I prostrate
On a lighter note – though “lighter” is definitely not the right word here – I thought I’d mention something funny from my temple stay experience. As some of you may know, I had several health issues at the beginning of this year and actually went home for a few months to relax and get them taken care of. During that time, it was hard to move around and exercise, so I ended up gaining a considerable amount of weight. (Bold truth: I hit my highest weight ever when I was home in the States last May.) Since coming back to Korea I’ve made a tiny bit of progress, down about 12 pounds, but I still have a very long way to go before I look good in pictures again.
This point was made very clear to me when the staff at the Yeoju temple was unable to find a robe that would fit me properly. While everyone else went about their business dressed as Buddhist pilgrims, I had to leave my vest unbuttoned in the front like a ’70s folk singer. I suppose a normal person would have been embarrassed, but more than anything I just felt confused. How can a group of people follow the teachings of a guy who looks like this –
and NOT have robes in larger sizes? The mind boggles.
Mindful of the fact that I will never make a good Buddhist, I prostrate
I experienced a second, even funnier Buddhism fail on the final day of my temple stay. This was when everyone was asked to bow 108 times while meditating on the teachings of the Buddha. If we’d only been asked to bow at the waist I would have been fine, but that’s not how it worked. Instead, we were each given a mat and asked to do the following: (1) fall down on our knees; (2) bow forward, catching ourselves on our hands; (3) crouch down, placing our foreheads on the floor; (4) lift our hands, palms facing upwards, so they were level with our ears; (5) bring our hands back together in a praying position; (6) stand up and repeat. To reiterate: we were supposed to do this 108 times. Here’s a video to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
As an added bonus, we were each given a piece of string and 108 tiny beads. Each time we bowed down, we were supposed to thread another bead onto the string. This way, we’d all end up with a necklace that represented our 108 prostrations. Having grown up Catholic, I understood the basic idea. Like the rosary, these prostrations were intended to produce a state of calm and focus through a series of repetitive prayers and motions. But as I looked around and saw everyone else with 15 or 20 beads on their strings while I had only 7 or 8 on mine, I didn’t feel anything even remotely resembling calm or focus. I imagined everyone else being finished with their necklaces while I still had 40 more prostrations to go. Then panic started to set in, and my mat was soon soaked with sweat.
Across the top of all this, there was a recording of a soothing female voice saying things like, “Mindful of the times when I have hurt others through my selfishness, I prostrate,” and “Mindful of the times when I have hurt others by placing myself first, I prostrate.” I remember looking at the guy next to me and telling him that I was pretty sure she was repeating herself. Finally, just after the soothing voice said, “Mindful of the times when I have rationalized improper action, I prostrate,” I rationalized that it would be impolite of me to keep everyone waiting for me to finish. I bowed down one last time and started threading my beads 20 or 30 at a time. Mindful of the fact that cheaters get their necklaces finished just like everybody else, I prostrate.
Mindful of beautiful moments, I prostrate
I hope these two stories haven’t given you the impression that my temple stay was a negative experience, dear readers. On the contrary, I met some great people and had a very nice time. I especially enjoyed the lantern ceremony we celebrated on our final night. During this ceremony, we were asked to write “whatever wishes or prayers are in our hearts” on paper lanterns that were then filled with hot air and released into the night sky.
I also enjoyed watching the monks chant and pray during a candlelit temple service:
It was during this service that I took the most beautiful pictures I have ever taken:
I can’t say for certain what this little North Korean girl was praying for, obviously. Because she’s just a normal kid, it was probably something simple like toys, money, or a cellphone upgrade. But a part of me can’t help but hope that she was meditating on the people she knew in North Korea, hoping they’re okay and imagining a time one day soon when Chuseok will no longer be just another day.