In the summer of 1994 things were bad in South Korea. Protests broke out on a weekly basis. The US has some massive military bases in Seoul. A ticker ran on the tv – AFKN (Armed Forces Korea Network) – warning Americans of the unrest. Advising them to register with the American Embassy in Seoul. Then, it was made even worse when an American fighter jet crashed on the wrong side of the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) in North Korea. And the pilot was captured. You could cut the tension with a knife.
As it happened that it was the summer I had to spend four months in Seoul. The embassy was developing evacuation plans to get all Americans civilians out of the country, if the situation warranted. Having been to worse places I wasn’t afraid. Walking through streets where children have automatic weapons or rocket launchers. Now, that will chill your blood on the hottest day. When you know bad things are going to happen. This situation in Seoul seemed more like a war of words and saber rattling. But wars have been started for less. And in the country where I was standing that had happened just decades before.
That summer, I was camped in the Intercontinental hotel near the Olympic stadium. Not far from the Gangnam area made so famous a few decades later by Psy. And across the river from Itaewon, the infamous shopping area where designer clothes, shoes and handbags that mysteriously fell off of trucks leaving factories were sold for pennies on the dollar. And where I learned about the good fortune to always sell to your first customer of the day. Even if it means taking a hit to your profit margin.
One Saturday, a colleague and I decided to head into the main shopping district in downtown Seoul. To the Hyundai department store to buy some shoes. At that time I wasn’t yet aware that a 5’6’’ American with a Size 9 (40 EU) foot would have a better chance of finding a polar bear in Seoul than shoes that would fit me. The experience of me attempting to try on shoes at a Korean department store is an hilarious story for another time. But looking for shoes that day put us very close to one of the largest Buddhist temples in Seoul. We had both been wanting to see it so we walked there after our unsuccessful shoe shopping.
The streets of downtown Seoul, a vast city of nearly 10 million people, was almost deserted. It was weird. Like the calm before a storm. We both remarked on it. I wondered if we had missed a bulletin for protests, or something even more ominous. The only people out on the sidewalks were street vendors selling these flower bucket things I had never seen before.
We got to the temple compound and decided to check out the shop. It wasn’t a gift shop, per se. More a place where items were sold to facilitate the followers of Buddhism in their practice. We were looking at the unfamiliar items when we were approached by a man who spoke very good english. It turned out he was an English professor at a university in Seoul. And he offered to show us the temple.
It was truly one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I have ever seen. Simple but intricate. Hand carved and hand painted in bright colors for centuries, over 1300 years, it was ringed with panels depicting the life of the Buddha. The professor gave us the history of the temple. And he spoke in detail about the carved panels, the life of Buddha, and what it means to followers of Buddhist teachings. Then, he offered to take us inside to pray. I immediately declined. I was never a very good Lutheran. I didn’t imagine embarrassing myself in a Buddhist temple would go any better. But the professor assured me I would be fine. ‘Just do what I do ‘. So Amy and I followed him inside.
This temple was filled with people in small groups, on their knees on the woven grass floor, touching their foreheads to the floor while facing an alter that lined one whole wall. The alter was made of dark mahogany wood polished to a high shine that rose in steps, and contained carved statues on each level. There was a young bald monk sweeping and cleaning it with a straw broom.
I did what the professor did and bowed, then kneeled, then touched my forehead to the mat. Then, I did it again. Then, again. Three times. Then, we sat and meditated and prayed for a bit. When I opened my eyes the young monk was up on the alter staring at me. He smiled, then came down and sat with us. Hai Yung’s face was open and welcoming. And he had striking blue eyes, much like my own, which he pointed out, smiling even bigger. The professor interpreted for us and when the young monk heard I was from California he became very excited. He wanted to know if I knew Mel Gibson as he was a big fan of the Lethal Weapon franchise. Seriously. You will rarely heard have heard me laugh as hard at such irony, sitting in this serene place discussing Lethal Weapon with a monk.
After a bit of a cultural exchange, Hai Yung arose and proceeded to herd the other temple patrons out the door we came in at the back of the temple. I made to leave with them but the monk directed us to remain after he locked the door. Then, he led us to the other side of the temple and opened these massive wooden doors. I didn’t realize it but it had gotten dark when we were inside. We followed Hai Yung outside to where a series of steep stone steps led down into the center of the temple complex. But from this vantage point at the top we could see out across Seoul. And what greeted us was something I had never imagined in my wildest dreams.
For as far as the eye could see tens of thousands of people where coming towards us carrying lanterns. Like a sea of light flowing in one direction. And a huge white elephant was being carried on a dais. Another, further back, had an enormous gold Buddha lit from below. The monk said something while smiling and pointing.
‘Today is the Buddha’s birthday.’ The professor interpreted.
I stood there, speechless as a group of monks led the massive procession of over 100,000 people our way. As they approached the stairs the old monk climbed before all the others, carrying a lotus blossom lantern. He was surprisingly nimble, and when he reached the top he smiled and handed me his lantern. I smiled back and took it from him as I heard a collective ‘Aww.’
The professor leaned over and said ‘You have been given the lantern on Buddhas birthday. You will have good fortune for the rest of your life,’.
Hai Yung nodded.
‘Just in time.’ I smiled at the old monk ‘Thank you.’
At that moment, woman ran up and tried to steal the lamp from me but I held fast. Its not every day one is honored with a lifetime of good fortune by the head monk at a Buddhist temple on Buddha’s birthday. After all. But a swarm of monks coming up the steps engulfed us, and she let go.
Good Fortune Takes Many Forms
I hadn’t thought of that time in Korea, or receiving the lantern of good fortune from the monk, in a very long time. Perhaps it was the Lunar New Year on Sunday. And all the images of stunning post-Covid celebrations all over Asia. But, perhaps it was for another reason.
Yesterday, I drove into Santiago to help a friend who is moving. It was also the three year anniversary of my Dad’s death. I had intended to stop into one of the churches before heading home to light a candle for him. Santiago is riddled with churches – big and small. The candle would be lit, not at the big cathedral, but a smaller tiny church I discovered recently. It suits me a bit better.
I don’t really understand why, but driving into the city had me crying most of the way. I’m always taken by surprise by these emotions concerning my Dad. He wasn’t anyone’s candidate for Father of the Year. And I’ve been working with a professional over the past two years to help me process it all. It hasn’t been easy. Like a dental appointment every week where you can smell the burning of the drill. But Simon has helped to turn trauma on it’s head. And it’s made all the difference.
I am who I am, in ways big and small, because of my Dad. Because he was a bully I learned to stand up to bullies and defend those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Because he showed no empathy when I was growing up, I developed bags full of it myself. I can spot a hurting person a mile away. Like looking in a mirror.
When Jeff and I got together he told me that as I am falling asleep I say similar phrases over and over. None of which I would remember. ‘I hurt’ or ‘I’m sad’. Weird. Recently, I learned from Simon that these are very useful coping strategies that I somehow instinctively developed as a child. There was no one in the house to comfort me. I learned to speak out loud, in the simple words of a child, how I was feeling. Using my voice. Comforting myself. And it saved me.
But, I also learned good things from my Dad, too. A job worth doing is worth doing well. And my work ethic. My Dad was honest to a fault. He never tried to pretend he was perfect for the neighbors. He was himself. Like it, or not. And if you dropped a $100 on the sidewalk he would give it back. I learned honesty from my Dad. To live without pretense. And I am the writer I am because of it. He used to read this blog. ‘You write it like you see it.’ He told me proudly, chuckling the summer before he died. ‘You’re a good writer. You write the truth.’
It would be too simplistic to look back over my life and see it, and people, in black and white. Good or bad. It’s more nuanced than that. I think it’s more important to Look for the Lesson. What does this person; this experience, have to teach me?
Driving home from Santiago last evening in the dark, i realized I had been so caught up with my friends I hadn’t lit the candle. So I stopped at the church in Melide, but it was deserted and when I pushed, the door was shut tight. In that moment, I thought of the monk and his lantern of Good Fortune, lighting the way in the dark on that street with all those people decades ago. And I finally understood I have had an abundance if it. Both before he gifted it to me and afterwards. Good fortune isn’t about winning the lottery. It’s about seeing the light in every time of darkness, and choosing to follow it. I realized, standing outside that locked church door, that I didn’t need to light a candle for that. And I smiled through my tears, sending up a message to heaven ‘I Love you, Papa.’ Before nestling into my coat against the cold and heading for home.