Zing Stories

Korea in the Year of the Mountain

  Korea in the Year of the Mountain: a short memoir about the writing process.

"Investigate mountains thoroughly," advised Japanese Zen Master, Dogen Zenji, "because mountains are beyond the scale of usual human thought. Their contemplation assists practice." This I found to be true during the spring I spent on a mountain in Korea.

I had accepted an engagement to teach English Conversation to teenagers for a term in a high school in an unknown land. A car collected me from the Jinju airport in southern Korea, and, from the moment it began to climb Duncheol, I felt awe. It was early spring, 2002, and wild azaleas were in flower. New rice shoots adorned the terraced paddies and unfurling leaves enchanted the trees into life. Suddenly I was pleased I'd forced myself out of my home-town Maleny, in south-east Queensland - a sub-tropical Shangri-la in its own Australian way. My adventurousness had unexpectedly delivered to me a beautiful and isolated mountain.

Within days, I had made the first of several journeys by foot to a Buddhist temple further up the mountain. After years of practicing insight meditation in a little alcove in my bedroom, it was pure joy to feast upon the stunning aesthetics of a Korean temple and its surrounds. On the exterior walls were bright paintings of the Buddha's life; inside a statue of the Buddha and a colourful abundance of decorative objects. In the sunny courtyard was a spring of pure water for travelers to refresh themselves, and in the forest, rock stupas covered with moss.

I wrote in my journal, intoxicated:

This temple... this mountain... where am I?
Has the world of suffering
forgotten me for once?

Korea is a country steeped in Buddhism but the teachers at the school which had hired me did not share my interest in Jungchiam (Silent Rock), so I discreetly went about my business, while they continued to work the long hours typical of Korean workers, relaxing with so-ju (rice wine).

Fortunately, my hours of work were few. I had plenty of time to explore my mind and the mountain.

When the teacher walks home after rain
who sees her
lick the water from the leaves?

Luckily, nobody took much notice of the quirks of the foreign teacher, except perhaps my twelve year old son who accompanied me to Korea. If anyone knew what I was up to - living in the present moment and following Aya Keema's advice to be nobody, and go nowhere - it was Declan. We'd been a miniature team of two for many years and he was used to me dawdling, reading, writing and meditating. Together and apart we roamed the mountain, two foreigners in a cocoon of English, each of us relaxing into the unexpected amounts of solitude we had. We found Koreans to be very kind although our encounters often completely baffled us. Why was it that, when we indicated our desire to drink milk like the others, the cook led us into a room off the cafeteria, a space packed with pillows and blankets, pushed us in, and closed the door? What choice was there but to giggle and loosen our habitual clinging to the expected? We obediently lay down and napped until she smilingly released us. Milk was never on the breakfast menu again and we were never any wiser on how to obtain it. My son's calm acceptance of whatever arose was a constant surprise to me. It was liberating to abandon any illusion of control. In Korea, I was clearly not Mother-in-Charge. I hadn't a clue what would happen next, and Declan knew it.

The school fed and sheltered us. We both showed up to teach, then we were free! This was as close to a monk's life as I'd ever gotten, except my possessions were slightly more numerous and instead of a begging bowl, I had a stainless steel dinner tray. Still, it was a monkish life, and I spent more and more time in contemplation, leaving my son to roam through conifers and oaks in search of squirrels. Separated by a language barrier from the laughing, joking teenagers whose parents had sent them to an alternative boarding school in traditional peasant surroundings - unconventional behaviour in a nation so influenced by the twins of Confucian conformity and Western consumerism - my son began the passage into manhood while happily wandering the forests.

I too walked the mountain's back, ate the wild strawberries of late spring, noted the suchness of the insects, birds, frogs and people around me. I sat on rocks near rice paddies or on giant boulders in the midst of rushing streams. Suffering released its hold on me. Impermanence and non-self became easier to relax into. I let the mountain do its work.

My meditation rock at dusk.
I open my eyes and there
is the moon!

Duality too, loosened its hold and I entered states of insight only stumbled across before:

The cloud
that hides the mountain
illuminates the cobweb.

When the azaleas flowered no more and the monsoons announced summer, it was time for me to go. For ninety days I'd written a poem, simply for the discipline of it. (The Japanese haiku master Basho once wrote ten a day for a hundred days.) Back in Australia, publication of the collection came together with remarkable ease. It was as if I'd had a premonition of it when I wrote one afternoon while sipping green tea and watching the movement of clouds around the summit of Duncheol:

How to write a poem -
do nothing
watch the clouds.

How to write a book-
do nothing
watch the clouds
drink tea go to bed early.

Without my grasping in any way - well! not too much! - Post Pressed, a poetry and educational specialist, offered publication. Dogen Zenji's "Mountains and Water Sutra" of 1240 inspired the title Mountains Belong to the People Who Love Them. The cover artwork came from a print by a Korean artist, a gift from the school. The book was launched by the school principal, a philosopher, when he happened to visit Maleny again about six months after my return. Happiest of all chances is my son's observation, "You were right to become more distant from me in Korea - it was time for me to grow up." I am glad I dedicated the collection to him.

I managed to visit the beautiful Jungchiam several more times before I left. It had been a holy place since the fifth century and was typical of the ancient temples hidden among the mountains forests of Korea. Its nearness filled me with peace and gratitude although I never managed to talk to the grey-robed monk in English or to receive advice on practice. To make the pilgrimage, to share the mountain where Buddhists had lived in harmony with nature and each other over the centuries, truly was enough...

 Dharma Vision published Korea in the Year of the Mountain in March 2004.


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