Monday, September 3, 2012

Singing, laughter and practicing what one preaches

(Continued from previous posts...)

Well, here we are in the wild outdoors at the southern tip of Korea, trying to have a normal camping trip, but nothing is going according to plan, while everything has become weirdly funny and unpredictable.

After breakfast, a visitor comes to our campsite, not our young martial arts friend, but a police detective and a few uniformed cops march up our hill.  Nancy and Beth speak the language the best, and the detective squats down to chat with us and get all the important information about the guy robbed our campsite the day before.

It becomes apparent that the local police department is very worried about gaining a bad reputation.  They want to know all the names and nationalities of our fathers, their phone numbers and who they work for.  They even ask the impossible question of our dad's passport numbers - how are we supposed to know that?  I guess the fear that one of us is a daughter of some foreign ambassador or a high level businessman would cause them to feel compelled to do some damage control.  Even though most of us had missionary dads, I guess just the fact that we were Americans was enough to cause worry.

We are told that from now on until we return home, armed police guards will be posted to watch over our campsite day and night.  Though we appreciate the VIP treatment, we're not too thrilled with the idea of having strange men hovering around watching everything we do.  But when the detective leaves, the uniformed officers leave with him and we wonder if we had heard right.   Oh well, time to get back to business of camping.

We plan another excursion into the further mountains to get a close up look at our own Cair Paravel of Narnia, and then hear that we are officially invited to tea at the head monk's office in the monastery nearby.  Was he coerced into this by the police who were afraid of any negative fallout from our robbery, or was he just doing his charitable duty as a good Buddhist?  We had no idea, but it seemed that it would be wrong to deny ourselves the adventure of sipping tea with someone who was elevated to the position of an almost Buddha, no matter what his motives were.  Our police guard appears, and looks not too happy to be given the job of watching our stuff, so he squats in the grass behind our tents and lights up a cigarette.  Well at least we know our things will be safe and we can all leave for our tea time as a group.

We are incredibly unsanitary, our hair has been shampooed so infrequently and our legs are all unshaven, and our deodorant is having to work overtime.  We have climbed mountains and hills and sweated and slept under the stars for days now, and all our clothes have been smashed into backpacks that are now half full of dirty laundry. But we are having the time of our lives... thief or no thief.  No one notices how dirty each other is since we're all in the same boat, and when the time comes, we march down to the monastery to meet our host monk.

We are ushered into a room by a very humble looking maid. It's the head monk's office filled with books and scrolls and ancient paintings on the walls, part of the 300 year old structure of the temple and monastery.  Giant beams of old tree trunks hold up the ceiling, and instead of the traditional wax-papered floor that is heated by coal in the winter by underground channels, he has a more western style concrete floor with actual sofas and chairs.  He is sitting in his serene splendor, bald, double-chinned, chubby and silent.  It's a regular American style chair, but he is sitting on it cross-legged, meditation style in his grey robes.

We file in and take our seats on the sofas against the walls, looking at him.  Nancy and Beth and others who speak Korean well, greet him and he nods and says a few words.  Then, it's silent.  No one talks.  We have no idea what to say.  Coach Gustafson, our leader, feels the need to strike up small talk and asks a few polite questions that have to go through translation.  His answers are short and he asks us nothing back.  Coach realizes that in front of her is a leader in a religion that she feels is deceived, that leads people away to God, not to Him. She'd like to evangelize him, to engage in a discussion about faith and asks him what he believes.

His answers are vague and all about finding peace and harmony.  Do you believe that Jesus was God? she wants to know.  Everything has God in it, according to him, so yes, he doesn't mind saying that Jesus was God, just like you or I could someday become God.  Coach asks if it bothers him that we are Christians and don't believe in his religion.  Absolutely not, he says, all religions lead to God, so if we are happy as Christians, then he sees no problem with it.  He doesn't want to save us from our deceptions, he doesn't want to convert us, he doesn't seem to care about teaching us anything about his own faith at all.  Coach is frustrated.  She was hoping for a good debate about the Lordship of Jesus, but all she gets is a passive fellow who would rather meditate silently on harmony and inner peace.

So in a matter of ten minutes, there is absolutely nothing to say.  We stare at him, and he stares at nothing.  Eventually the maid brings in trays of hot herb tea that we sip and stare and wonder how long this is going to last, and why he even invited us to visit him in the first place.  Coach comes up with new questions to ask from time to time, but his answers are odd and he has no interest in talking.

So as it goes with teenage girls, we start to just look around and find things to whisper to each other, and giggle, and eventually whispers turn into low murmurs, and more giggling, and in time we're just talking to each other as if he isn't even there, because he has zoned out into some zen-like state.  In fact, he's pretending to be in a zen-like state as I catch him smiling at times, enjoying just watching us interact with each other.  It seems that the poor guy who isn't allowed to watch movies or TV or have any worldly influence, but just spend his days in meditation to attain Buddha-hood, is finally getting some fun in his day to have his office packed with very worldly girls.  Dirty and disheveled ones, but something new and different to spice up his emotionless days.

He really seemed not to mind that we were ignoring him, so we started to discuss the odd paintings on his walls.  They must have been hundreds of years old, and I'm sure that now they'd be worth a fortune, but they were meant to be there, not in some fancy auction house or museum.  One very fierce looking warrior painting caught my eye.  He was wielding a sword and had a pot belly and all the hair on his chest was parted down the center.  The longer I looked at it, the more hilarious it was.  I pointed it out quietly to the other girls, and as each noticed, we started giggling, and then laughing to the point that we were crying and holding our stomachs.  The warrior was supposed to be deeply spiritual and fearsome, but he looked so ridiculous, we couldn't hold it back.

In the middle of our laughing frenzy I looked at our serene head monk, and low and behold, he was chuckling too.  He had no idea what we were  laughing at, but just the sound of laughter was contagious to him.  I began to wonder if he really believed all that he was taught by his religion that denying the pleasure of family, marriage, laughter, strong feelings or convictions, even modern amenities and having to live in a sparse austere way, leads to true spirituality.  I looked around his office more, and saw that he was wearing a watch that was quite expensive, and in the back room, I saw the antennas of a TV, a radio and a heater.  He obviously was not practicing the religion that he preached.  I wondered why he had chosen this way of life if he found he would have to secretly compromise, whether he was truly happy - but then of course, happiness is not something that a good Buddhist is supposed to want.  But this Buddhist, with his chuckles shaking his chubby frame as he sat cross-legged on his chair was really having a happy moment.  He may have had to pay penance for his unspirituality later with months of fasting and sleeping on the cold ground,  and we may set him back a couple of years in his pursuit to attain enlightenment, but he sure was having a good time and didn't seem to mind.

"Well, I guess we're about done here," said Coach, and we thanked our host, and filed back out of the monastery to head back to our campsite.

Evening came and we knew that the next day will be our last, heading back on the long journey north to Seoul.  Dinner over the campfire and the brilliant stars shine through the clearing of trees on our hill. We wondered about our num-chuck friend and how he did in his competition, and before we know it, three shiny bald heads appear in the moonlight.  More miscreant monks have snuck out of the monastery to get a closer look at the American girls.  Word must have secretly gotten around that we were friendly, and they saunter up all embarrassed and curious.

"Hello, how ah you?" They practice their English, and we invite them to have some Oreo cookies which they gladly accept.  We ask them their names and they eagerly strike up a conversation with us.  They ask us to give them English names, so based on their Korean names they are transformed into Joey, Wally, and another name I've forgotten like Petie or something like that.

"You came from America?"  Yes, we answer.

"You know Elton John?"  No, we've never met him, but we know his songs, we laugh and they ask us more.  Do we know John Travolta?  John Denver?  Olivia Newton John?  The Bee Gees?  (Remember, this is the late 70's when disco was king.)  Obviously these guys have been secretly listening to radios, and they want us to sing with them some "Stayin Alive" and "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road," which we all try to sing, but none of us know all the words.  We find out that the song they love the best is John Denver's, "Country Road Take Me Home."

So we all burst into song around the campfire.  Even the police guard joins us for some Oreos and we sing:

"Country road, take me home to the place I belong,
West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home country road..."

Hilarious Korean accents murder the lyrics, and they want to sing it again and again, along with as many other top 20 songs that we know.  In the ancient hills of Korea, not far from the East China Sea, among Buddhist black belt monks, accompanied by an armed officer, we sing songs of West Virginia at the top of our lungs into the moonlit night.  It was surreal to say the least.

Tomorrow, we finally head home, but the adventure is still not over...

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