Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Down to Business

After our R&R in Seoul, we finally began meeting with monks again. First we met Professor Bae who spoke broken English with a thick accent and had to ask us to repeat almost everything we said so he could understand. I was worried because he was to act as our translator, but when Gao Hong was noting the similarities in pronunciation of place names in Korean to their Chinese character counterparts, the professor immediately released some very fluent Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent! It turned out that he had lived in Taiwan for three years during graduate school and had actually written his dissertation on Gao Hong's hometown and its Buddhist practices. "It's a Small World" was stuck in my head the rest of the day.

Trilingual Translation
We visited the first of two students of Sang Juk Wonk Ong. Sang Juk Wonk Ong is the authority on Buddhist chanting in Korea, but his two students took very different paths. The first student thought that music needed to be preserved exactly as it was. Respect for tradition was easy to understand as we watched him read Chinese characters (with their Korean pronunciations) from a book of chants with crumbling, yellowed pages. We sipped our tea, sat cross-legged (except Ava who has mastered seiza) and listened attentively as the monk sang and discussed chant. He spoke in Korean and our translator repeated in Chinese and then Shao Min whispered the English translation into Ava's ear.

Transmission of chants is done without scores. The only part written down is the lyrics. When I asked him what he did when he forgot one of the hundreds of chants, he said that he prayed on it or listened to his teachers recordings. He then taught us, or at least began to teach us, a chant. In the brief tutorial I realized that there were some small, basic patterns of rising and falling that repeated in different orders. So what at first seemed like just random pitches became more. It was like a language with a small number of lexical items and these lexical items were arranged in different orders throughout the chant.

We left with a series of bows and a slight misunderstanding when Gao Hong tried to tell the monk that the book he gave us was too nice a gift but it was translated as too heavy. Before we left the monk commented on how monk-like Shao Min was. There was an ominous silence and then the conversation continued. On the way back Gao Hong marveled at his prowess as a singer, stating that he could have become a professional.

Riddles and Past Lives
The next day we saw a non-chanting monk who was adviser to the president of Korea. Professor Bae drove us outside of Seoul and hiked up a mountain to a picturesque spot that immediately put me into a meditative mood. We met the monk and all of us had strong reactions to him. Our translator was a Penn State grad who was staying at the temple to concentrate on studying for the LSATS. He had a very difficult time translating for us because the monk apparently only speaks in riddles.

The monk, whose Chinese name was 明骏性晓 (Ming Jun Xing Xiao) told us he could see many things about us. He asked us to write down our names and then he could "see" more about the kind of person who would use this name. For instance, us students were not musicians, as Gao Hong had introduced us, that much was obvious. Then he said that I was possibly the most musical and the smartest, but that my anger issues kept me from having many friends. Since Shao Min, one of the smartest and most musical people in the world, was sitting next to me, I immediately became skeptical of his so-called ability to "see." We took a brief break from the monk for a delicious lunch at the temple, all vegetarian, of course, and a climb to the top of the mountain. We drank from a sacred well and marveled at a large, heavy stone that earlier that day had "fallen from the sky," or more likely from further up the mountain a little ways. It landed next to a shrine and I was asked to help 4 Korean dudes move it, but it was too heavy. We couldn't even budge it and we were forced to give up and walk away, losing any swagger our steps had once held. I assume it is still there and now a nice seat to meditate on.

When we returned, the monk put down his book which was on Biotechnology or something equally as unlikely. This time our translator was a Stanford graduate who had decided to become a nun. The monk told us he was going to tell us about our past lives. Gao Hong was previously a monk in Mongolia and a very Asian soul. Shao Min had been a monk 4 or 5 times, every other life. He respected her a lot. He said that her stubbornness and solitary nature were perfect for being a monk. She was a Tibetan monk last and next would be born in Japan. Ava was last in Alaska and I was last from Madagascar or Southern Africa, he wasn't sure.

He asked us if we had any questions. I asked what role music should play in Buddhism. He said "The universe is already a noisy place. Listen to it and don't make more noise." I countered by asking, "Why then chant with melody? Why not just speak?" He replied with something that took 2 minutes and 3 Koreans to translate. "When art meets art, it knows art. When music meets music, it knows music." He elaborated less poetically that he was a calligrapher and painter. He was not creating so much as letting the universe move through him. If that is how "music" arises, then it is good music.

Shao Min asked about physics. She asked if the monk thought that the laws of physics are absolute. He replied, "From a physicist's perspective, yes. There are many perspectives." Shao Min and Ava, the scientists of the group, shifted uncomfortably at this squishy answer. They wanted something more concrete. Gao Hong and I, on the other hand, were eating it up. Looking back on this experience and describing it now, I feel like I should have been totally skeptical and rolling my eyes with the scientists, but something about the way he said it and the atmosphere of the room, with meditative music playing in the background and calligraphy on the walls and the solitude of the mountain affected me greatly. We asked for a photo but he was afraid it would steal his soul. The Stanford nun told us she couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but suggested we not press the matter.

While the others cleared out, I went back and asked the monk via the Penn state translator if I should change my name. He said "Yes, do you have another?" I wrote out "Ender" for him and he told me that this name was much better and much more reflective of who he thought I was. He explained the characteristics of someone named Ender, which I'll keep to myself, but those characteristics seemed much better than the angry know-it-all that Andrew apparently conveys.

That night Gao Hong, Shao Min, and I went shopping. More people asked if I was Gao Hong's son. Is there a close resemblance that I am unaware of? It's getting ridiculous! We saw more camera crews filming in the market because everyone in Seoul is on TV at some point in their lives. Upon seeing the camera, one food cart operator pulled a saxophone Mary Poppins style out of nowhere and began honking away on it, pulling off a decent version of Georgia On My Mind (If you are under 90 you should look that up!) The cameraman loved it. As a foreigner, I was likely to get filmed. As a sweaty person who had climbed a mountain earlier, I didn't want to get filmed, so I was out of there.

The Nuns Who Say Kimchee
We concluded our third day of temple visits with everyone's favorite. This nun was also the student of the same teacher that the first monk was. (If you followed that sentence, you deserve a pat on the back.) The monk had warned us earlier of her evil derivations from tradition, but upon meeting her, it became impossible to feel anything but warmth. She was amazing. She chanted beautifully and puts on shows all the time to introduce new people to chanting. She'd performed with Gregorian chanters and even discovered that the tune, or I guess one of the tunes, for "Ave Maria" exists in Buddhist chant as well, though she was unsure who borrowed from whom or if perhaps the tunes are the same because they are both based on Truth.

I asked her several questions about what music meant to her and to Buddhism and even before I heard the translation into Chinese courtesy of Professor Bae, I felt like I could understand what she was saying. She came alive when she talked about her music and a light glowed around her. It was moving to see someone so passionate. Somehow, despite her elderly frame, she appeared young and full of energy when she described music and it's place in her heart. Her passion for the music, her conception that it was something that lived in you, and her desire to share it with as many people as possible was completely unique and inspiring.

We watched a DVD of their performances. They dance to their music and the melodies are more elaborate than the nuns' male counterparts. The dancing is similar to Tibetan monks' movements. The nun told us that these movements were not choreographed. When watching the tape, Ava, always the scientists, said, "Now wait just one cotton-picking minute! How can all these nuns be dancing in unison if there was no choreography?!" Okay, maybe I'm paraphrasing there a little, but that was the gist of her. . . accusation. It was a total Hermione attacking Professor Trelawney moment, except I was Lavender Brown and totally gulping down the Kool-Aid. That's when we learned that to say there was no choreography meant that the movements originally came from a higher power but then were taught to other nuns by a "recipient." Good thing Ava asked!

The exact history of the chant and how old their traditions were remained a secret because neither the nun nor the first-day monk would acknowledge the other. We also found out that the nun, who is credited with being the best chanter in Korea, invented a musical notation for chants because she would always forget them otherwise and she thought it was a waste of time for students to have to ask their teachers to resing a chant when they forgot it, especially since teachers are apparently also human and prone to forgetting. Her teacher was apparently furious about the notation but she uses it to pass on the chants now.

When we had finished off our watermelon and drunk our lotus tea, we bid the nun a fond farewell. We took a picture and burst out laughing when the nun told us to smile and say, "Kimchee!" The nun gave us all beaded bracelets to wear that were used for praying but would also protect us. Most unfortunately mine has the symbol that is the reverse of the Swastika. I'll continue to wear it in Asia, but I don't think I dare in the West. I really don't want to have to explain to people that I'm not a Neo-Nazi.

The head nun continued the Korean tradition of recognizing that Shao Min's soul was very monk-y right before another nun offered to drive us to the subway station. We all piled into the car. When we got out of the station we were gawked at as we, a Korean professor, a Chinese musician, an American and two Singaporeans burst from a tiny car driven by a Korean nun. Imagine an international clown car.

We completed our amazing evening with special Korean food that the professor located for us. We had two amazing noodle soups, spicy seafood omelets, and Korean rice wine which looked like milk tea but tasted like chardonnay. The professor kept pouring me more and more ladles of rice wine and I left the table stuffed and rosy cheeked.

Shao Min and I Climb a Mountain!
The next day in Korea, Shao Min and I decided to climb a mountain. We didn't have any directions so we just stared at the mountain with Seoul Tower on top and kept walking. This forced us to push our way through an apartment building and up some weird private staircase. Finally we got to concrete steps and were passed by a team of Korean Schwarzenegger impersonators jogging passed us looking angry, presumably from all those steroid injections.
We hiked up further and discovered old people working out in a park. Shao Min was just photographing a lady doing push ups when we heard music off in the distance. We wandered off the path a little following music we heard and discovered pop sensation 2NE1 filming their new music video, dancing and lip syncing in front of a scenic fountain. (The music video comes out this October, so you can check to see if Shao Min and I are in it!)

Finally we made it to the top and discovered that most people took a gondola and didn't walk. So once again I was the sweaty, gross foreigner representing America. (Go Team USA!) We paid for an elevator to the top of Seoul Tower. They had distances to cities of the world written on the 360 degrees of glass you could look out of. The city of Seoul lay stretched out beneath us and the view was well worth the price of the elevator ride. Shao Min stared off toward the city of her birth, Auckland. And I looked out towards home, posing for this emo picture, thinking about how it will be over a year before I go back.

Descending the summit, the strange sights just wouldn't end. We saw Christmas trees with padlocks hung all over them, strange metal-framed sculptures of people flying and boyfriend after boyfriend picking up his weary girlfriend to carry her down the mountain.

After we partly walked and partly (read: mostly) slid down a very sketchy path that looked like it had gone untraversed for a score or more, Shao Min and I discovered what we first thought was a mausoleum but turned out to be the Seoul time capsule which is set to be opened in 2394.

That night I reflected on Korea. It's been just as great as Japan and filled with as many adventures. I was thinking about the feud between the monk and the nun when I noticed that there was a decorative guitar hanging in the Yellow Submarine that has the following message inscribed on it: Each note ever played is derived from the flawless song that is nature. Somehow it seems like this knickknack's message is something that the monk and the nun and even the riddle-speaking monk could agree on. I wish I could take the guitar off the wall and go have a mediating session with those guys.

At six in the morning we left the Submarine with four tickets to Beijing tucked in our pockets. . .

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