Written by Ginger Whitesell
Five. In one year. Five people taken from my life after I removed myself from theirs on a temporary excursion across the Pacific. Five bodies, whose shared blood no longer flows through warm veins. Five familiar embraces I won’t hold when I get home — or ever — again. Five people whose smiles I counted on at holidays and in between, replaced forevermore by the bittersweet recounts of favorite memories.
Losing a family member is hard. And when I left for Korea in July of 2012, I never fathomed it would happen five times over. In the course of a little over a year, I would be torn apart, with bits of my heart floating across the large pond separating me from my loved ones. The news of each death weighed down on me, disturbing my balanced buoyancy. Eventually I was drowning in turbid waters with no light guiding me to resurface. Would I escape this anguish? Or would I continue to sink, inundated by my muck of despair?
Long before Korea and the heart-wrenching news from back home, I found myself drawn to Buddhist philosophy. Though I was Catholic-born and later turned agnostic, the serenity I felt from Buddhism always appealed to me. As a dedicated yogi in college, I experienced my first sensations of oneness, feeling no distinction between my self and the environment. Through mindful practice and meditation, I learned to escape the boundaries of my freckled body, long limbs made longer as my mind stretched them to infinity. I had my first comprehensions of the expanse of the universe and how I could fill it with my mind and self. Later, in Korea, in a passionate discussion with my weekly philosophy group we drew scientific parallels with reincarnation. For the first time, I considered the idea of rebirth seriously. Buddhist philosophy had begun to take root in my mind, but like a lotus seed[1. Lotus flowers grow in muddy water. In Buddhism, a lotus flower symbolizes a transcendence from attachment and human experience to a state of purity and enlightenment.], it remained hidden beneath murky waters, not yet ready to blossom from the mud.
When I first came to Korea, temples were a novelty. Seeing a new one often reminded me that I was far from home. But as time passed and Korea became more familiar, the Buddhist temples that sprinkle the Korean landscape went from being a source of reticent wonder to one of comfort. Their steep-sloped roofs, curving up into small peaks at each corner, became gentle smiles visible from a distance. The carved undersides of the wooden rooftops blanketed in complex green-hued patterns interlaced with bright blue and red, a vivid testament to the effort put forth in upkeep. Even the most ancient past thrives through time. Awesome dragons encircle pillars with the duty of enlightened protectors of the temple, safeguarding ideas of peace. The temples were exquisitely decorated yet harmonious with the surrounding landscape. My desire to explore the religion and philosophy they served intensified.
A close friend told me about an English-speaking Buddhist nun at a temple she had come across one afternoon, modestly tucked between tangerine farms off a dirt road in a rural area of Jeju City. I began attending an evening ceremony and meditation practice at the temple each week. As time passed, the rituals became more familiar, and my relationship with the nun grew more intimate. I found myself wanting more, my mind seeking to deeply understand Buddhism and its idyllic teachings.
Then I got an email from my mom that made me sink. My great uncle was dying. My godfather, the humble, gentle man who spent his life showering others with unconditional love and generosity, wouldn’t live through the night. And, like the other deaths in my family that had already occurred while I was overseas, I wouldn’t be there for a last goodbye.
The Wednesday after the death of my great uncle, I went to the temple as usual. I felt heavy with emotion. I was desperate for the dharma hall[2. A room for Buddhist worship and religious services], to seek solace in the evening ceremony. I slipped my shoes off outside and entered, intensely aware of how my misery filled the room. I went through the bowing motions and evening chant, struggling to contain my grief and focus on the service. Once it ended, I quickly sat cross-legged, anticipating the nun’s three signifying claps for the meditation to begin.
Immediately, my awareness left my body and the room I occupied. My mind flooded with questions welling up from my frustration and sadness of this most recent death.
Where was my uncle?
Why did he have to die while I was away?
Was my family okay?
Why didn’t I spend more time with him
while I was home?
What would become of his body, his
state, his mind?
Would we ever meet again? Where?
Why was I here?
Why was I so alone?
I grew frantic for answers. I knew my mind should be calm. Meditative. One. But overwrought and distressed, these questions reverberated throughout my mind.
The dharma hall and others in it were forgotten. My senses lost significance. I didn’t feel the cushion beneath me on the polished wood floor, I drew nothing from the intricately carved wooden shrine before me and I didn’t hear the birds outside begin their evening tune. I don’t even know if I breathed. Then suddenly, a glorious vision filled my dark mind.
With a gentle glow, I saw my uncle and me in a wonderful whirling: a yin yang of our souls, our minds, our spirits, holding one another. We had always been together and forever would be. There was no distinct separation between him and me, or anything. Just as he held my heart, and just as I grasped his, I grabbed hold of every thing in this universe.
Outside observers might have noted a slight change in my facial expression. Perhaps I sat up straighter than the others in the temple. In that moment, I reached a profound spiritual homeostasis, a true feeling of oneness. I burst with my connection to the universe — my being outstretched, blanketing my surroundings like the warm rays of the sun. Illuminated with this great faith, I understood that death is not a final stage, but rather a brief stop in a continual process of growth that all experience. With the nun’s three concluding claps, I returned to the dharma hall. I eased out of my meditation and into my body and surroundings, realizing that an acceptance of my current circumstances would lead to strength, serenity and fulfillment.
Buddhism continues to be a source of comfort and great learning, and I refer to its teachings in times of happiness, sadness and stress. I live presently. I live. I remind myself that life is a mutually shared experience. When loneliness begins to press close, I remember that distance between myself and others is irrelevant. There are ways to hug someone across an ocean. I feel no absence of my uncle or other loved ones who have passed; their essence fills this earth and its people just as I do. While I cannot alter the hardships I’ve endured over this last year, I can be more fulfilled by my connectedness with others through space and time.
My lotus, risen unsullied from muddy waters, unfolds gingerly in the sun.
Ginger Whitesell is a 2012-2014 ETA at Jeju Jungang Girls’ High School in Jeju City, Jeju-do.