I came across a photo-journal article by Vivian Lee in Seoulist magazine (August 14, 2012) the other day. (http://seoulistmag.com/section/browse/places) The picture of a boy walking on the rocks in one of the Suyu streams brought back my childhood memories of living in what was then called Suyuri. Although I call Winnipeg my home now, that picture made me terribly homesick.
To my Caucasian wife, home is where your loved ones are. She was born and raised in Winnipeg, just a few minutes’ car ride from where we now live. Although she traveled to Europe extensively and lived in several different places in the States for some years, she came back here and calls Winnipeg home. She knows that I’m happy here with my loved ones. She tries to understand that Winnipeg doesn’t have the same meaning for me, but I don’t think she fully appreciates my home sickness for Korea. She is so used to this completely flat landscape that she felt claustrophobic when we drove around in New England, especially where the western edge of the Massachusetts Turnpike cuts through two mountains and in the mountainous areas of New Hampshire and Maine. I tried to explain to her that these scenes would be common in Korea and that just about every town and city in Korea is surrounded by mountains.
I miss the Korean landscape and scenery terribly. Based on my recollection, each place in Korea has its unique character. Each place is distinctly shaped by nearby mountains and valleys, streams, rivers and the sea, etc. Moreover, each landscape uniquely blends itself with the clouds floating by in the prevailing winds, the sun, the moon and the stars at night. I remember the aesthetics of the Korean landscape to be inspirational to the point where one could lose oneself in the beauty of the place. It’s as if all of Korea is one large open art gallery full of breathtaking scenes and one’s life unfolds in its midst. This reminds me of a Gypsy flamenco dancer who said that Seville is like an open museum and is an inspirational place highly conducive to his creative activities. Because I remembered Korea and the impressions Korea left in me, I knew exactly what the guy was saying.
Speaking of losing oneself in the beauty of the Korean landscape, something strange happened to me when I was visiting my grandmother in the countryside. I think it was during a spring (Easter) break when I was nine or ten. I believe the place is called Shinjang in Kyunggido. The village was surrounded by mountains with a little break on one side for a small dirt road. I went out for a walk on a cloudy day and walked by the empty rice paddies. It was drizzling a bit while I was standing on a narrow path between the paddies. As I was looking toward the mountain, I noticed the low-hanging clouds and a mist hovering near the mountain top. The clouds, the mountain mist and the mountain mingled in such a way that it was hard to tell where the cloud ended and the mountain mist began.
While I was standing there I lost myself in the beauty of the place. I know that might be hard for most Westerners and Westernized Koreans to relate to but bear with me. By losing myself, I mean that my visual field went completely gray and I wasn’t aware of myself for some time. I’m not sure how long this state lasted because clock time had evaporated. After coming out of this state, what I recall was an intense calm and peaceful feeling where it felt as though I was nowhere and everywhere simultaneously. There was no me vs. the external world distinction during the experience.
Although I didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t think it was important, I could never forget that event and its residual feelings. My mother is a devout Roman Catholic and my late father was a closet leftist who tolerated his children going to Sunday school. Because of this half-hearted Christian upbringing, I had no opportunity to make sense of my experience at Shinjang. It was only when I happened to come across Straightforward Explanation of the True Mind by ancient Korean Seon master Chinul (1158-1210) (Shambala Publications 1997, translated by Thomas Cleary) that I began to realize my Shinjang experience was one of the phases of approaching the True Mind. Seeing Vivian Lee’s picture of Suyu brought back my childhood memories of living in the midst of the breathtaking beauty of Korea. I once lost myself in the breathtaking beauty of the Korean landscape and my memories of living in the equally breathtaking beauty of Suyuri will continue to intoxicate me for the rest of my life.
I envy Koreans living in Korea, and I hope the Koreans there don’t take the breathtaking beauty of the Korean landscape for granted. No matter how life is treating you today, look around you and consider yourselves to be the object of my envy and consider yourselves the luckiest people in the world. Your life unfolds under the very same skies, surrounded by the very same mountains, valleys and streams and fields, rivers and seas that fed and spiritually nourished our ancestors since time immemorial. The breathtaking beauty of the Korean landscape is deeply entrenched in every fiber of your body and right down to the very core of your being. The Korean landscape and you are one: You are home!