Written by Yoon-Chan Kim ETA’10-11
When it comes to religion, I am a frank dilettante. I grew up without attending church or abiding by a canon. What little familiarity I do have with formal religion is a compendium of childhood memories including Buddhist paraphernalia from my grandmother’s home, family friends who were temple regulars, and the incoherent chanting of Buddhist monks. My naïveté with other religions is also plain: my relationship with the Bible recalls an independent study course in college, and my conversance with the Koran refers to speeches by Malcolm X.
And yet, from the absence of religion grew an ironic fascination with it. Throughout my life, religion — in all its variegated forms — has never ceased to goad my curiosity. I have tried to delve into religious discourse, plunging past the pages of Plato and into those of Calvin and Augustine. I have tried to understand religion in its physical realm, visiting houses of worship, rituals, and votaries: monks, ministers, and priests alike. I have tried to live by the Millian dictum to confront the unfamiliar with inquiry not hubris, veracity not pretense. Fortunately, each experience has illuminated a part of the world in ways I could have never imagined.
Korea has proven no exception.
A little more than two weeks after arriving in Korea, fellow Fulbright ETAs and I journeyed to Haeinsa, a famed Buddhist temple hidden in the hills of central Korea. I did not know what to expect, but this haven proved to be more than just a quiet respite from language classes. Our walk to the temple — enveloped by the mountain mist and lush forest leaves — could alone have been a meditative journey, but I knew I would learn something new when I arrived at the temple gates.
The austerity of the temple soothed my soul. The scents and sounds of the scene summoned a youngster within me who once only knew the simple life: to just stand in awe of the golden figure’s filigrees; to observe and absorb, while eschewing obfuscation from concepts like morality or sin; to just live, unadulterated by worry or doubt. Supplanting this childish giddiness with a quieter mirth, I walked past the courtyards and found the chamber housing the central Buddha.
I entered, infringing on the quiescence. I waded through the laity, posturing myself among others and preparing to bow. After a deep breath, I began just as I had done many years ago. While prone, I let a few moments pass, then uncurled myself to standing again, taking a deep breath before repeating. I bowed maybe twenty times, less to appease a deity and more to conjure the life I had before.
But as I bowed and whispered to myself the two prayers I knew from childhood, I wondered what my ritual really amounted to. I wondered what exactly everyone there — from the monks to the laymen — was bowing for; the rather grandiose gesture seemed to violate the more introspective dimensions of Buddhist thought. I always believed that Buddhism lay a vast distance away from many other world religions in its espoused asceticism and simplicity, but seeing everyone bow so heavily to these figures hundreds of times a day made me question my assumptions. Nevertheless, I continued to bow, trusting that my continuous furling and unfurling would produce some infrangible good.
Three months later in Korea in early November, my high school minister invited me to help the Christian club run an evening service at an army reserve camp. I agreed to play a solo and three hymns with some of my students, looking forward to the chance to not only bond with them, but also further assay the value and meaning of religion. I viewed this opportunity as a chance to broaden my horizons and disabuse myself of old prejudices. Yet little did I know that the service would regale the audience with an extravaganza rivaling a royal reception.
The talents of these students stupefied me. The vitality abounding on stage enraptured me, and I sat there, stunned. The dance crew performed three choreographed routines to electric perfection a la the boy bands of the nineties; the harmonies of the choir resonated within the hall and hearts of the audience; skits sparked unfettered laughter, and testimonials moved with poignancy. The entire service exceeded two hours, but, as with any unforgettable performance, felt much too short. As students beleaguered me with broken colloquialisms and cultural queries on the bus ride back home, I half feigned exhaustion and reflected on the long evening.
What proved most striking was the austerity of faith these students evinced. The rites seemed to entrance everyone, as if the Holy Spirit had already subsumed them into His kingdom. The tenacity of the student performers pushed me to think about not just the cultivation of such fervor, but also the reward of such service: what did each student derive from investing so much into the production? What blessings motivated such unabashed devotion and celebration? To what end did they tout the probity of the Bible, the dereliction of sin, and the unconditional trust in a being beyond? Questions collided with questions, confounding a mind already dazed from sleep deprivation. I clamored to recall some of these questions on my ride to school the next morning.
Admittedly, Korea is one of the most religious countries in Asia. Hence, my trips to the temple and the church service were by no means my only encounters with religion here: I received numerous invitations to many churches; I befriended Buddhist monks on my travels; I met teachers here whose religiosity continues to humble me. I mention these two particular experiences only because of their revelatory scale.
Standing there in front of the Buddha, I tried to put aside burgeoning questions about faith and told myself to focus on bowing. I did not fight the meandering thoughts of home, grandfathers, friends or even the first two weeks of Orientation, but I also did not grapple with them. I acknowledged them as extant, but told myself to concentrate: to hone in on the inner peace that my bowing exacted.
Slowly but surely, I began to feel a serenity and calm wash over me like an ablution. At first I could not articulate how, but as I continued to pay my respects to the ethereal, the answer began to reveal itself. I began to realize that the source of my growing inner peace stemmed not from the aftermath of my bowing, but instead in the very act of it. It was the continuous furling and unfurling and whispering-to-self-old-chants-I-knew-from-childhood from which I derived a sense of renewal and clarity. My ritual was no means to an end; it was in fact, the end itself.
The epiphany proved no different under the cross. Watching their heads tilt up toward the stage lights as if they were seeing heaven’s light, I saw joy beam from the smiles of my students. They performed while embracing a haven beyond, seemingly untouched by the gravity that bound them to this earth. Yet as I witnessed their lucidity and passion, a familiar set of questions began to inflame me.
With each choreographed step, harmonic shift, and enunciation, I began to see something very fundamental to these exhibitions. I began to see these rites for what they really were: practice. In spite of the highfalutin concepts, these dances to Christian music, holy hymns and canticles, and personal testimonies were all forms of religious practice. They were not a means to inspire; they were themselves the end, the inspiration.
The connection had been present all along. The value of the bows is not simply what comes as a consequence of it, but also the thought and peace of mind that it demands. The significance of dance, song, and speech in celebration of the holy trinity is not simply what they produce, but also the acumen such performances require. These religious practices are themselves the objective, much more than strategic tools to attain some reward outside the method. The processes themselves — the very acts of doing and thinking — are what provide the space for reflection and introspection and, paradoxically, apprehension of profane humanity. Perhaps what religious practice does, then, is militate against the erosion of basic thoughtfulness and awareness that actually constitute human compassion, empathy, and warmth. In providing a regimented practice, religion provides an arena for introspection and humanism hard to find in the zeitgeist of modernization and technology.
Beneath the principles of religion that have always confounded me lay an impetus that compels us to reflect, act, and improve each and every day: practice. Though my discoveries came under a religious light, the essence seems ubiquitous; whether it is religious or profane, artistic or athletic, practice provides us not only mental acuity to strive on diligently, but also the discipline to persevere. Practice forges a fraternity from the fires of united struggle, allowing each of us to transcend our snow-globes of subjectivity and cultivate both greater self-awareness as well as greater compassion. Practice empowers us to face doubt with aplomb, misfortune with perseverance, and tragedy with faith, in, if nothing else, people.