June 4, 2016 - single portrait
My recent trip to South Korea was one flood of impressions. Of biblical scale, pardon the controversy. While I still have to digest my discoveries, to sort out my photographs and thoughts, a few characters I met stand out. They, in their own way, represent and form a complex face of Korean Buddhism I went to learn about. I will not bore you with my thoughts on this rather complicated matter. In zen fashion to approach things as they are, the simple facts of life, I will tell you about Cha Won Bosalnim.
Cha Won lived in a tiny village (population three) on the top of a mountain in Bonghwa region. It took my son and me a four-hour trip from Seoul to get there, and urban civilization was fading away by every minute of our journey. Later that warm April night, standing outside my hut, listening to the frogs chorus, to the temple chimes and sounds of the forest, I felt I was alone in the world. I felt how the wilderness stretched for hundred miles around me in the dark. Which was true, the wilderness and hundred miles …
But there was Bosalnim somewhere out there, in one of those weird fairy-tale / movie-set-like houses with so many various size rooms, misplaced doors and frightening number of bathrooms, as if they were built by an insane child. Cha Won Bosalnim was what they call a linchpin of the whole business in Bonghwa temple. She was the counterweight to the irrationality, weirdness and overwhelming feeling of loneliness I could not help but noticing in that place. The Bosalnim watched over the household, cooked, served, cleaned, made beds, changed sheets, listened to dharma talks, made tea and coffee, drove a 4×4 up and down the serpentine roads, sang, prayed, did laundry with the help of state-of-the-art washing machines one would never expect to find in a place like that, took pictures with her iPhone, prepared snacks, picnic baskets, and never forgot about anything at all. Or anybody.
She was invisible, quiet, and absolutely necessary. To the monks, novices and laymen, who came to stay in the temple for a while, to recharge before going back to the big world, Cha Won was like everybody’s mother, only without an inhibitory side. I had my grandmother’s sister like her. Always quiet, always dressed very neat, always smelled of dried cherries, always covering her beautiful gray hair with a shawl. The difference was that Cha Won practiced Buddhism, had an odor of sesame leaves and pine needles around her, and her hair was covered with a traditional Korean cap. I was told she had children, now grown-up and living somewhere in a big city. I was told she had a husband once. That she once had the longest hair ever, before she cut it very short.
I was told many stories on the top of that mountain. I also knew that I would forget some of them, as I would forget names and faces, but not of that woman. When she hugged me goodbye, she said something in Korean, and gave me a plastic bag full of oranges. My son translated for me what she said. Come back again, that was. Maybe I will.
Maybe I will.
* bosalnim (Korean): in Korea, a lay woman who helps at a temple