Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Temple Trip

Seoul is a huge metropolis. Its population is estimated at around 10 million, although (I am told) it more than doubles during the day with commuters coming in from the many satellite cities. The sheer density of people in the centre of Seoul create an atmosphere of relentless rush and bustle from which is difficult to detach oneself. I have had the same impression in London and New York during the peak times of travel and in the busiest places, but in Seoul the feeling is continual and nearly ubiquitous. The subway trains are crowded whatever the hour, and work for most starts early and finishes late. To stay there for long is tiring, even just sitting in a café and watching the mayhem outside.

Last weekend Jin's mother took us out to a couple of Buddhist temples in the outskirts of Seoul. It was a good opportunity to escape the hectic life of the city and seek out some peace. While Seoul is highly populated it is surrounded on all sides by mountains (the tallest of which, Bukhan-San stands at 837 metres), which provide refuges of relative tranquillity. It is on their slopes that the larger and quieter Buddhist temples are found.

We first visited Hwagye Sa, an old Zen temple where the famous Korean monk Soongsan Seunim stayed for a time. The public part of the Monastery contains a large central meditation hall surrounded by a number of smaller shrine buildings, set on several levels up the mountain side. It had a quiet, welcoming atmosphere and Jin and I had a short meditation in one of the smaller rooms. In the large central hall a lone monk was chanting some verses of scripture, although from outside his tones were drowned out by the noise of what sounded like a drum-bashing competition in the one of the rooms below, which rather spoiled the otherwise tranquil atmosphere.

After a quick not-really-vegetarian meal in a small local restaurant (the Koreans have the annoying habit of putting in small amounts of fish or meat into otherwise vegetarian dishes) we visited a second temple, Dosun Sa, which was rather weird (and sad). Suspicions were first raised by a life-size statue of the laughing 'Buddha', whose belly people were supposed to rub for good luck (and to ensure that their next child was a boy – Jin refused...). Then there was the interesting choice of title “Meditation Centre for the Protection of the Nation”. The really shocking part was in the first of the small shrine rooms, in which set upon the side walls were large portraits of the ex-military dictator General Park (who was in power 1961-79) and his wife. The prominent place given to this ex-dictator, whose actions contradicted many of the most basic Buddhist teachings, was quite unsettling. It may serve as some explanation, though not justification, to say that General Park is regarded favourably among the more Conservative Koreans for his role in the rapid economic development which made Korea one of the “four tigers” of the Asian economic miracle.

I came across another distasteful mix of religion and politics while searching for university posts. Many of the universities in Seoul were founded by Christian missionaries from the late 19th Century. While this can be seen as a charitable act, a less selfless aspect can be seen in the present day power-structures and university regulations. The posts I have seen advertised at these universities require applicants to give statements of religious affiliation, and emphasise that those employed are expected to uphold the 'Christian ideals' of the University. Some of them have mandatory Chapel attendance for students, and one of the smaller universities even explicitly states that only Christians will be considered for job appointments. It's almost like a kind of bribery to convert to Christianity...

As people have been asking me, I should mention that no, I don't have a job yet (any would-be employers reading this?). I'm still exploring possibilities but currently I remain an unemployed doctor. Jin has a part-time teaching job for next term but is looking for something more. The 'personal letter' to Jin's parents resulted in a rather uncomfortable chat about marriage. However they are still talking to us and they haven't mentioned it any more for a few days, so I won't either...

Jin and I are going to do a bit of travelling next week, which should help us to relax a bit and get some nice pictures for the blog.

Seoul Driving Lesson 1: Changing Lanes

Before attempting to change lanes it is important to remember the acronym MSM (manoeuvre, swerve (wildly), mirror). Signalling should only be attempted by advanced drivers. When wanting to move into a faster lane, first stick the nose of your car into the other lane just far enough to slow the traffic in that lane down to your speed, but not far enough to cause a collision (the difference is usually about 2-3cm). When this has been achieved spin the steering wheel as fast as possible to make the car lurch into the adjacent lane in the minimum possible time. You know you've done this properly if two of the wheels leave the ground (particularly if you are driving a bus/truck). Next, check the mirror to see if your carefully sculptured hair style is still in place. If it is, you may now complete the manoeuvre by accelerating towards the bumper of the car in front of you as quickly as you can.

Another procedure is necessary if you spot someone attempting to merge in to your lane. In this case, the correct response is to stick to the car in front like a limpet. If you do become separated then liberal use of the horn may deter the would-be intruder. Remember, letting a car merge in front of you is not only dangerous but will make you several valuable seconds late for your undoubtedly important appointment.

In the next lesson – How to ignore pedestrians in three easy steps (don't look, don't listen, don't care)

5 comments:

boris said...

Mark, your driving tutorial would be perfect fit for Moscow as well. I am glad you are enjoying yourself, and somewhat sad you have not got a job yet...

Ant said...

Ahhh, it is so much more pleasant to read your blog than to read my thesis! I cannot wait to practice my Korean driving skills on English roads. :) I am surprised that the universities are so pro-Christian over there... Perhaps if you just say that you are British then they will automatically assume that you are a devout member of the church. ;)

peachy said...

I know what you can do... write for Warwick Boar haha i know someone in there...

Just some latest updates from BuddSoc... An Irish farang who was a monk in a hard core temple in thailand(who speaks better Thai, have better hair and skin color than Ant, and more importantly, definitely much younger) has join buddsoc. Potential buddsoc president for next year! YOOHOO!!

peachy said...

which means i can retire next year and bumming in warwick (I'm doing 4 years MMORSE btw)

mark said...

But surely he can't be cuter than Ant as well?