Monday, January 12, 2009

Pomosa Temple: A Day Among the Buddhists

Since the motorcycle accident, I owed Xi’an an adventure. I talked it up the following morning over breakfast, a spectacular full course feast of boiled zucchini slices, seasoned beef spare ribs, steamed rice, and simmering mugwort soup served on a low lacquer table at 7:00 a.m. to which my mother-in-law had been slaving for over two hours. It was our last day in South Korea, in this city of Pusan where we have been staying in an empty apartment suite overlooking the sea and the luxurious hotel complexes with their funny stories, like how the Westin Choson tore the walls out of their honeymoon suite to prepare for a one night only President George Bush visit last year but now the room costs $8,000 a night and no one can afford it so they had to put the walls back, or how the McDonalds and Duncan Doughnuts next to Ocean Sky mysteriously burned down last year after a stubborn landlord refused to sell and now there is a high rise apartment in its place. But that has always been Korea to me. A place where the opposite was normal, where the strange was real, where magic was possible, and even expecting the unexpected became a way of life.
So for today’s adventure, a trip to Pomosa Buddhist temple about a hour outside the city, I told Xi’an we would open the door and step outside, after that, all bets were off.
For fun I made three travel rules, I am an English teacher after all, and centered them around three literary figures: Robert Frost, Scarlet O’Hara, and Polonius from Hamlet. I know, just laugh at me. These words would be our guide, and we would come to depend upon them just as they would seem to exist just for us.
We headed out just after morning anime cartoons, when the sun was up and the bulk of the morning traffic surge was sparse and faint. Xi’an and I walking hand in hand though the towering multi-apartment complexes that are over 30 stories high and from the ground rise like ancient Titans but from the air appear like dominoes in a line that could fall over in heaps with a gentle nudge. Xi’an recited poems: the 23rd Psalm, Blake’s Tiger Tiger, and assorted nursery rhymes, before riding a harrowing city bus whose driver resembled a twitching Kim Jong-Il and took the subway to bustling So-Myun, where the crowds bumped and knocked into us without remorse. Xi’an tightly wrapping her legs around my waist and burying her face in my shoulder. On the platform I explained that rumbling subways runs underground.
“Like a big worm?” She asked, imagining the earth crawlers we’ve pulled from our tomato patch back in Beaverton.
“No, more like a train that…”
“You mean like a hungry snake?”
“Yes, honey.” I give in. “Like a giant snake with blinking eyes.
It is a quick thirteen stops to Pomosa Temple. We exit into daylight and cool mountain air, side restaurants and old women on street corners beneath umbrellas selling bowls of tangerines and persimmon. There are signs pointing upward with swastikas leading the way, the reverse symbol that the Nazi’s used in their war machine. I can’t help myself and give Xi’an a quick history lesson, Adolph Hitler was a failed art student and knew this ancient Buddhist image, the spokes in a wheel, as being symbolic of the engine of the universe rolling on. I’ve always liked that idea, that we’re just spokes, rolling. It is here I give her Robert Frost, as I hike the two kilometers up the mountain with my daughter hoisted above my shoulders. I say, “Two woods diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not be one traveler and travel both….” I pause at the end, “but knowing how way leads on to way. This is rule number one my daughter,” I huff and huff as we take a short cut through an abandoned rice field, “when in doubt, always take the road less traveled.”
“Road less traveled, daddy.” She repeats. “What does that mean?”
My steps are heavy as we pass the half way mark, a middle school with huge open dirt courtyard. “It means never take the easy way, choose the opposite of everyone else.”
“Oh…” then Xi’an begins singing a song, a Korean tune about a girl with a pretty nose and lips with the face of an apple.
The last half kilometer is almost straight up, and I continue to carry Xi’an on my shoulders up the
stone path past moon shaped bridges and marble monuments with Chinese inscriptions. The lanterns are the first sign we are close. The Lunar New Year lay just two weeks away and the colorful hanging lotus lights appear in all the spectrum of the rainbow. Past a lily pad pond and through a pine forest, we come to the front gate, a red and green pagoda guarded by demons and dragon statues. Xi’an is scared and asks their purpose.
“They are testing us.” I explain, to see if our hearts are noble.
She laughs nervously. “They look cranky.”
From here we climb stairs up through a series of gates until we reach the top, an open square covered in dirt and afternoon sunlight. There are five main temples and many smaller shrines adjacent, all colorfully painted red and green, with elaborately designed ceilings and hanging eaves. Murals of ancient lore adorn each temple side. I remember the first time I visited these Asian temples which in a strange way confirmed my Christian upbringing. One mural was an old warrior stranded on a mountainside awaiting rescue from a soaring eagle. In another, a bearded man sat cross-legged beneath a lonesome pine beside a slow moving river watching a body float by. It was then I realized that I would never truly know or understand these stories. That whenever I strolled a western museum, and I have seen the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Louvre in Paris, the Met of New York, that I move from painting to painting with great ease: Samson and Delilah, Jacob and Easu, Saul’s conversion on the road to Tarsus, I know these Biblical allusions as if marks on my own body. Yet here, no matter how much I read and study and meditate, I may never find a level of understanding I am looking for. I just don’t know the mythology.
While I snap roll after roll of film, trying to capture hanging lanterns in the fading afternoon light, Xi’an is more than content to mix her fingers in the soft dirt and stack pebbles atop one another. A monk stops, a gray clad woman with shaved head, “Oh yep-poy-yo!” She hums, calling my daughter pretty and touching her cheek. This is something I was not prepared for as I entered the country of my wife’s birth. The attraction Koreans feel toward my daughters is overwhelming at times. Everywhere we go, Korean people comment on my daughters. They look at SungJoo and I and see our mixed children and want to touch their skin and stroke their hair. They stand to the sides and call them beautiful and striking and look at how the races mix. It is strange and unsettling, and I’m not sure I would become accustomed to this if we stayed.
This time the woman monk is gentle. She reaches down and shows Xi’an how to stack the pebbles until she has a good little tower, which my daughter looks up in the sunlight and smiles. She is wearing a Boston Red Sox cap and her hair hangs down on the sides over her shoulders and her face is almost hidden. I snap a picture that later looks like she is sixteen and I have to blink a few times to keep my eyes from watering. The moment is good.
We spend about an hour wandering in and out of the temples. I explain to Xi’an that the golden man sitting inside and smiling is Buddha. He was once a young prince named Siddhartha who thought that the world was very sad and strange and decided to sit beneath a tree and not move for a very long time until he understood why the world was this way.
“What are the people doing?”
“They’re praying.”
“Do we pray here?”
“No, we’re just passing through.”
Xi’an laughs, “I don’t like to sit still.”
“I know, squirt. That’s why I’m telling you this story.’
Xi’an turns and sprints away in a circle. “Who are you calling squirt? You’re poopy!”
And so I chase her around the side of the temple beside a rack of forsaken shoes until a cloud of dust appears and we are chased away by an angry monk. Smiling, I snap a picture overlooking the whole courtyard. Funny, being scolded led to me shooting the best picture of the day.
The walk down from the temple gates proved entertaining as we were surrounded by a group of talkative mountain hikers, each dressed in identical red Swiss Alps woolen socks, red hunter’s vests, and red team hats. It’s a common sight in the Korean countryside, pouring out of the trees and stones like kidney beans spilled from an overturned market bin. Past the front gage we stop for snacks at a market and I buy a wooden Buddhist drum for Xi’an the size of a large caterpillar. She laughs excitedly as we cross the street and hitch our way back down the mountain. It is here I give her Scarlet O’Hara, and today’s travel rule number two: “When in doubt, always depend upon the kindness of strangers.” But this rule doesn’t always ring true. In a country where white skin often meant mistrust and an outward thumb meant a beggar too poor to afford his own car, I wasn’t holding out hope. Xi’an and I stand on the roadside for half an hour trying every trick in the book. Thumbs out. Big Smiles. Arms waving. Peace Sign. Eventually Xi’an attempts leaping up and down and banging her drum while I rain dance in a circle. Wouldn’t you know, it worked. A Blue Daewoo bongo truck stops. He’s been hauling oodong noodles up for a lunch at the monastery and a ride back down the mountain with a Me Gook (American) and his little daughter was too much to pass up. We pile into the front of the warm cab and head back down the winding road and he gives me his whole life story in a ten minute drive. He’s been hauling a delivery truck for twenty years. His children are grown and in college. He never was able to give them anything, but he tried as a father to put meat in their bellies. He remembers the first Me Gook he ever saw, a soldier coming up over the hilltop in a jeep when he was a little boy. The man had a nose the length of a banana and he smiled so wide. The driver said he never forgot, especially since he gave away his first bite of chocolate. We come to the end and the driver pinched Xi’an’s cheeks. We bowed low and Xi’an’s Korean ‘kamsamnida- thank you’ made the man smile. We were all smiling. “He’s nice. Koreans are nice, huh Daddy.”
The high didn’t last long. During the ride back on the subway things took a strange turn. Xi’an was sleepy and laid in my lap as the rush hour car began packing with people. Again, a crowd of onlookers started commenting on my daughter’s shade of skin and the round quality of her eyes. One woman in particular took notice. She looked like an escaped mentally retarded patient. Her eyes were wild and drunken and she stood over us pointing. “People look at this little girl. She must be mixed Korean and Me Gook.” The woman’s voice carried through the entire train. “Her skin is so soft and she is so pretty. Look at her people. She is so much prettier than our Korean babies. Look.”
Across from us a row of saner, elderly women made faces like somebody had just broken wind. Their eyes passing back and forth as to “you know who” was the culprit. Why am I always such a magnet for the crazy people? Xi’an nestled hard against my leg, burrowing into my side. “Make her stop, Daddy. She’s scaring me.”
It was then I gave Xi’an our third travel rule: “When in doubt, remember Hamlet’s Polonius, who said, ‘to thine own self be true.” No sooner than I thought of this I took action. Standing up, I explained to the passengers that we had just returned from Pomosa Temple and that my daughter was indeed mixed, with a Korean mother, but that she was tired, and that this woman needed to stop pestering us. That was all it took. We stepped off the train at the next stop and headed out the exit and up the ramp toward a waiting taxi. It cost twenty dollars to drive home but it was worth it. Xi’an curled up beside me in the slow moving traffic as I replayed the pictures on the camera for her. Then she fell asleep on my leg in the back seat. The same way I used to ride in my parent’s Pontiac when I was that age. It was then something struck me, how we are all connected. The years pass but the moments stay the same. There is such a timelessness to even the most mundane parts of our lives. Riding in a traffic jam, watching the meter click away, the last minutes of my promised adventure slowly dwindling, I think of Siddhartha whiling away his time. What did enlightenment feel like? Was there a ringing bell that would indicate it, like supper? Was it a light passing from red to green? Was it a series of rules that are followed through events that lead us to some kind of understanding? Most likely it’s just a bunch of random stuff thrown in that ties together in the end, right?
I don’t know. Sitting there brushing my daughter’s hair out of her eyes in the sunlight of the backseat, I didn’t care. Just make the impossible possible. Just take us back to the empty room, let us reach full circle, so that we can leave tomorrow for Taiwan, and call today, just one day, in our own private father and daughter mythology, a good day among the Buddhists.

1 comment:

  1. Hartenstein, I am amazed at your faith and courage to hitchhike in a foreign country. Maybe it's because my parents have raised me to be cautious and fearful of the dark and strangers, but I long to be as free-wheeling as you and Xi'an, to let go of my parents' warnings and rules and to live by your travel rule #2 and depend on the kindness of strangers. I wish that someday I can forget my father's advice to "always be alert" and to "not make myself a target" by flaunting my femininity or American-ness or anything that could make me seem vulnerable, and if just for a moment, take a chance and enjoy the adventure. H, even from across the Pacific Ocean, you're an inspiration.


    PS. I think your daughters will receive that attention everywhere, especially if you're in any part of Asia. Just take it in stride :)