Thoughts on Buddha’s Birthday

To be high from living, drunken whilst sober, yet still so anxious to leave the swallowing depths of my inner world. Existing between the crevice of waking life and lucid dreams has brought me back into a womb of new knowing; breathing, contracting, arriving to grotesque contortions before accepting life as it is. I met a few souls along the way. Their presence is the continuation of memory, the silent strength of bearing witness, a gift, a blessing. Actively constructing new truths that ground conscious life, but slithering cautiously through the marsh and tending its weeds. Humility, grace, but also play. Patience, foresight, but also hunger. Cynicism can never reach a point that proves the sheer strength of renewal. There is no shame in living. Oh, to think the ideas have been flowing in one continuous stream all along.

It was late summer when I first arrived to Korea, and I took the fall for granted. It sends a chill down your spine to realize you were seconds too late, vibrant leaves already flattened beneath your feet. I felt nothing when the bliss of cherry blossoms was so soon washed out by a flood of rain, but was at mercy to the new sprigs of green, finally, finally here to stay. What my body remembers most, however, is the winter, punctuated by only moments of joy that faded as soon as it really had ever begun.

Living in Korea meant first acknowledging the solemn overtone weighing over everyday, public life, the dystopia of QR codes, hazmat suits, and biochemistry never quite leaving its space. Lightness of heart does not escape death, but it does make living more bearable. Here, though, as if walking through a ghost town, all I had was to imagine the closed store fronts with the lives its once lived, to envision my wiltering half-relationships with the vigor I once traveled with. Masks and social distancing were not only external safety measures to prevent sickness, but also a mirror into the collective condition. Two years of the pandemic had internalized precaution into the very way people approached the unfamiliar. As a foreigner with ambiguous cultural identity, I navigated through these terrains of hybridity – Korean, but barely, with us but not fully. That abrasive courage to take risk that once enabled my survival mutated into an offense, an Americanness coming in direct conflict with a cultural fabric of collectivism and mutual grounding. And so there I lingered, unable to surpass this threshold and surrender to an inner truth my soul was hungry for. Can the Enlightenment be rewired, and if so, into what? Unfathomable, it remains.

I was overwhelmed by the extent to which language brought me back to an infantile stage, lacking words and instead resorting to gestures, expressions, and motley assemblages of discontent. I went through girlhood, adolescence, and my early 20s all over again in the span of eight months, sometimes within the span of two days, a week, or hysteria arrested for a season. The politics of the utterance, the depth within speaking, as written by Theresa Ha Kyung Cha, was understood only through sisterhood in Korea, my sisters in spirit feeding and nourishing my words with love, finding a home in the way I speak. As one of them, Cha helped me reclaim a pace to life through ancestral connection spanning from revolutionary women in Korea to Greek goddesses. Being unable to emerge from this liminal space has sprung acceptance within it, and finding solace in literature, old stories, myself.

The mask dance would often be performed on Buddha’s birthday. What drew me to the mask dance play (talchum or more accurately talnori, or gamyeongeuk) is its philosophical import. Imagine a history of heirarchical Confucian systems that has drilled shame deep into your cultural psyche. Whether from gender-based trauma or the humiliation of abject poverty, the harsh realities of everyday life made self-worth a luxury afforded only to the virtuous few. In this social context, a brash performance ridden with cow testicles, cross-dressing, urination, and explicit mockery of the very social structures oppressing the human condition offered a rare glimpse into the interior world, perhaps even the existential position, of everyday people at the time, churning in its proximity to flames. At once humorous yet dark, a release but more so a symptom of hopelessness, talnori is no different than dancing with the devil and calling it play. Perhaps that is why the masks used to be burned at the end of the performance, externalizing then turning to ashes the experiences that one perhaps rather would not have had to live through, that one would not wish upon others in the future? By dissolving shame through embodying it, in essence, talnori as an art form opens up space for emergence, bringing to the surface the ugliest of expressions, pulling from roots grown of spite a latent dignity that never yet found its light.

But the weight of self-mutation and a spoiled youth suffocated me. Ansan, a city of complex histories, diasporic ghosts and souls lost long before their time was due. Seoul, dissected, demolated, concrete blocks built to erase, incise, forget. With my sink piled to the brim with dishes and trash scattered in every surface of my apartment, I decided to leave the city.

The early morning of Hahoe Village at the brink of spring is clouded with mist, crooked branches howling with the chatter of magpies. I felt submerged, not in a dream of my choosing, but a quiet one nonetheless. By mid-day, the sun began to creep out, perhaps the earliest heat of the spring season, and I was again reminded of my skin, and the simple pleasure of taking a walk. Exploring narrow, cobblestone alleyways and conversing with a dog along the way. For weeks, I had been mentally sick. My host, an elderly man raised in the village, attended to my every needs. At the mercy of simple acts of kindness from a stranger, I was grateful yet still would padlock my door at night. Totems would sit perched in front of our home, guardian spirits protecting inside, externalizing the demons in my own mind. Cultural masks: an archetype for persona, a character, some one or thing beyond human, a metaphor, a feeling, bold at first impression. From Greek theatre to Harley Quinn, masks evoke medieval comedy and carnivalesque stupor as much as it does sacra or the divine. The aesthetic and tone of performance is defined by the mask, the most immediate interface and perhaps exaggerated limitation. A mask is at once material and metaphysical, a dialogue between the two. Maltuggi teases the yangban’s loss of touch with the real. A thin, crooked beak pecks at its master’s feet. Psychoanalysis might describe it through the lens of the unconscious, but embodied and in play you see dreams take form. Oh, the workings of interior space. Only through sitting with my memories was I able to descend into a zone for creative wisdom.

Riding the subway back into Seoul, I was holding four plastic bags, a half-eaten, frozen fish, with liquor in my water bottle and my hair roped back in a bandana, but felt at home in the odors of my body from traveling all morning. All that it takes to set yourself apart from others and find the boundaries of your own flesh is a certainty of having lived. I missed her dearly, and alas, we met again. Soon, however, the regular stressors of city life would begin to infiltrate the mind, and layers upon layers would find itself back on my skin. Perfume, make up, but to be a young woman, with her core in place, brings about new joys I was ready now to enjoy.

Yesterday was Buddha’s birthday, and I went back to my temple, to be blessed by the presence of bhikkhuni, sisters working, praying, loving, and caring for one another, feeding me with food and wisdom. How much and little has changed in four years, but for now, I’m content.