Post-A-Day note: In U.S. time, Sunday and Monday will be spent traveling and Tuesday will be spent recovering from jetlag.  I’ll resume my daily posts on Wednesday.  As always, thank you for visiting!

Photo courtesy of xlordashx and Creative Commons licensing.

Today I spent my last few hours in Seoul, and to be honest I didn’t see a whole lot that I hadn’t seen before so I don’t have many pictures to share with you – but the day didn’t turn out to be about sightseeing at all, at least not for me.

Four of us gathered in a hotel lobby at the south end of the city this morning, to spend the day together and celebrate friendships gained during my time in South Korea.  Victoria had just arrived earlier in the week and has two months ahead of her; she and I met last spring when I replaced her on a work assignment, and we’ve stayed in touch throughout the year to compare notes on work and the world.  Bethany and Jeanette have been here for two months and have another “3 weeks and 6 days” to go, as we reminded each other throughout the day.  I met them halfway through my assignment and have been fortunate enough to share Seoul and Gyeong-ju with them so far.  They work together and seem like sisters from different misters, if you know what I mean.  Peas in a pod, they laugh all the time and quite contagiously so.

We set out into the city together, with a plan: Jeanette had her heart set on a visit to the Anguk Zen Center in Samcheong-dong, for their Saturday talk in English.  I wanted to visit the famous Namdaemun market and get a glimpse of the rumored city-block-sized basement filled with yarn and fabric.  We were also keen to sit in a traditional tea house in Insadong.

First, Namdaemun.  We strolled two-by-two through  the streets, chatting away about every subject you could imagine and switching partners naturally as sidewalks narrowed and twisted through the city.  We made it to the market, but found it to be much, much bigger than anticipated and couldn’t find the famed fiber-love basement; after wandering a bit we decided to bail on that operation, in favor of getting lunch before the talk at the zen center.  A wild cab ride later, we arrived in the first place where I got my first taste of Seoul two months earlier: Samcheong-dong.

Over lunch (excellent Indian food at Om) we shared our thoughts and experiences of South Korea, talked about home and what that meant for each of us, and the three of them marveled incredulously and with great (though unnecessary!) sympathy for my food intolerances and avoidances as I ducked and dodged my way through the menu.  (The Mutton Di Vaida was absolutely delicious.)

Finding places in Seoul is not easy, even with a map.  Street addresses are assigned according to when buildings are built, so 105 might sit next to 482 while 107 is two blocks up.  Still, with a lot of head-scratching and map-gazing we finally made our way to the Anguk Zen Center.  Bethany opted to do some solo wandering while Jeanette, Victoria and I were at the talk.

The Center’s Saturday talk is in English and offers the chance to meditate, discuss Korean Buddhism and engage in a bit of dharma talk as well.  Since work circumstances prevented me from going on an overnight templestay this weekend (a serious bummer – I shall learn not to plan important outings on my final weekend!) this was the best chance I would get in experiencing Korean Buddhism.

We arrived early and were kindly helped by a woman who was leaving the center but turned back around, slipped her shoes off again, and walked us up to the temple.  She showed us how to perform the proper three prostrations to the large three-dimensional Buddha diorama at the far end of the temple, and stayed with us for a few minutes until the docent arrived to start the talk.  The stunning pink-gold Buddha diorama:

 

 

By 2:30pm a dozen English-speakers from all over the world – U.S., Italy, Germany, Scotland and England – had gathered and because the center is under construction, our docent led us across the neighborhood to the center’s master’s house, a humble hanok with a serene courtyard where we sat on floor cushions and settled in.

After meditation, the talk naturally turned to Friday’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami in neighboring Japan.  The heartbreak was palpable in the room, even as the docent told an old story of the farmer who found a horse on his property one day.

“Aren’t you lucky?” all the neighbors asked with envy, “to get a horse for no money?”  The farmer simply said, “Nobody knows.”  Later that year, the farmer’s son fell off the horse and broke his leg; “Oh, that horse has brought you bad luck,” they cried.  “Nobody knows,” answered the farmer.  Years later the country went to war and all the young men fought and died, except the farmer’s son who had not been drafted due to his leg, which had never healed.  “Oh, don’t you have good luck!”  “Nobody knows.”

This story, a zen parable reminiscent of Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” I found to be such an interesting and Buddhist response to an almost unimaginable disaster unfolding next door.  We talked about being able to feel our deep sadness, but also to remember just how very long this earth has been turning, and how little we know of the truth of things.  “Who knows,” the docent wondered aloud, “what might come of this in the future?  It might be a turning point for Japan’s economy.  Nobody knows.”  I found it healing to share sadness and prayers with others the day after Japan’s heartbreaking events, and at the same time to view the events without assigning value (good or bad).  Simple and difficult.

We met up with Bethany after the talk, did some souvenir shopping, and found a traditional tea house where the three of them sampled the Double Harmony tea, lovely and bitter (but not too much) and I ordered the Five Taste tea which supposedly awakened all five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and pungent – but mostly tasted like a fruit tea.  It was lovely, but not as complex as I’d hoped.

 

The teahouse stands out as the highlight of the day; for almost two hours the four of us engaged in the ancient practice of Gathering.  Over tea and sweet ginger slices, we talked about marriage and motherhood, the plight of the public schools, birth control and the sexual revolution, the AIDS era and the sexual lashback, the alarming and ugly political divide at home, the vaccination controversy, homeschooling and unschooling, growing up on a farm versus growing up in the city, the world population that continues to boom even though we should know better, the burdens of being too busy, the tremendous gifts from parent to child of time and presence…the conversation flowed like a river and we rode the rapids as the sun went down.  I felt like a long-long-ago woman gathering water at the well, or washing clothes on the riverside, or pounding grains outside the tents.  I don’t know whether men have an equivalent to this ancient practice, but women have always gathered to share, process, and pass down wisdom, and I am always grateful for the chance to gather – formally or informally, in person or online, over knitting or tea.

After tea we caught some dinner where these beautiful women toasted my upcoming wedding and gave me a send-off that I’ll always treasure.  Thank you, Jeanette, Bethany and Victoria for a lovely day, and for reminding me of the many gatherings that have enriched my life tremendously over the years.

Women, share your stories of gathering!  Men, tell me how gathering shows up in your lives!  I’d love to hear it all.

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