There’s no “I” in “K-o-r-e-a”



Something I like about Korea: It’s a common sight to see someone power walking, backwards, down the sidewalk to improve their balance.

Something I find annoying about Korea: It’s a common sight to see someone power walking, backwards, down the sidewalk to improve their balance.

What’s the difference? Pretty much what mood I’m in that day when I have to avoid being trampled by someone who isn’t paying attention to where they’re going. Sometimes, I think how nice it is that you can power walk, backwards, arms swinging wildly, and no one (except the random foreigner) will give you a second glance. Other times I might think of all the little things you can’t do without causing a public fuss. In the end, my opinions, positive or negative, have about as much result on Korea as my beliefs have consequence on the truth. The only thing I should be concerned with in Korea is my action, my mind.

When I left off before, I had begun bowing for the first time in months. My effort lasted an entire two consecutive days, and a third day later in the week, but it did have the desired effect of getting back on the mindfulness track that I’d been derailed from over the previous weeks.

A big part of my effort included returning to Saturday Sangha, with ChongGo Sunim, at the English Buddhist Library in Seoul. The dynamic of the talks were quite different without Joe and Marcus around, and the Korean faces had mostly changed, but I found it much more relaxing. It used to sometimes seem like a Dharma English lesson, but now it felt much more like a Dharma talk.

The book ChongGo has been discussing is Dream Conversations, written by Muso Kokushi (1275-1351). The class was about a third of the way through the book. The theme seemed to emphasise dealing with the “I” in your practice. Even when we are making progress, the moment thoughts of “I’m doing good” start to arise, it usually sets us back pretty quickly. ChongGo made the analogy that “I” is like a nail poking through a sewer pipe, a lot of debris is going to get caught on it along the way. He pointed out that people who “go green” (use low energy lightbulbs or something) end up being less charitable because they feel that, “I’ve already helped.”

The book starts off,

 Those who seek liberation for themselves alone cannot become fully enlightened. Though it may be said that one who is not already liberated cannot liberate others, the very process of forgetting oneself to help others is itself liberating.  Therefore those who seek to benefit themselves alone actually harm themselves by doing so, while those who help others also help themselves by doing so.

It’s a fundamental view of Mahayana and Zen, and a good one to stay mindful of. Outside of Saturday Sangha, I was reading the teachings of Bodhidharma. and found many parallels between the two books. One part that struck me about the Bodhidharma teachings is how they point out that much of our ceremony is bassed on metaphors that weren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. If one doesn’t do ceremony with pure intention than there is no use. Chanting to Amita ten times doesn’t promise you anything, but chant his name even once with pure intention, and you are already in his Pureland.

Being an ex-pat, it’s common to develope a “here v.s. there” mind, which is fine until it’s starts to get biased or lopsided. Of all the heres and theres, though, one obvious thing is how well taken care of public property is compared to North America. ChongGo said that when the man in charge of the New York subway system visited Korea, he couldn’t believe that they were able to have to seats they do in Seoul, without them being slashed to shreds. Although there is some graffiti in Korea, there’s very little, hardly noticeable at all. There are playgrounds and exorcise areas all of. Even hiking in the mountains, you’ll often come across an outdoor gym. I’ve never seen a single one they had any sign of vandalism. ChongGo told us (I don’t remember his exact words)  he thinks that because of the Korea sense of community, with less of an emphasis on individuality, people feel more a part of society and are less likely to vandalise or disrespect it. It’s a hard one for me to weigh. I’ve grown up thinking that individualism is wonderful. Thinking about it now, the only thing that comes to mind is, what would be the middle way?


5 responses »

  1. I’ve noticed the same thing. Most of my opinions about Korea are just that — opinions. It’s really a society you have to surrender to, let go. Maybe that’s why Daehaeng’s teaching is so popular!

    I’m not digging the stark individualism in the US. There’s no warm feeling or feeling of togetherness at all. Lots of really opinionated, uninformed people mouthing off all the time. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…” could very well sum up the US at this point and time.

    • Thanks Joe,
      My home town has a strong sense of community, and there are problems there, too (drinking/gambling), but people look out for each other.
      I think the younger Korean generation is loosening up, but we’ll see what happens as they get older…

    • RE: “Lots of really opinionated, uninformed people mouthing off all the time.”

      I was just re-reading your comment and realized that your description of America reminded me of a group of feminist friends I had in university.
      dunno why…. haha

  2. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to comment on American’s attachment to individuality and Korean’s attachment to community. He observed that any attachment comes with its share of bad news… What would be the middle way, indeed?

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