Sunday, February 8, 2009

Out and About the Region

A rocky spring flowing down Naeyeon-san mountain

My first week of teaching was richly rewarded with a trip to a mountain near Pohang called Naeyeon-san and the Bogyeong-sa temple that sits in its shadow. Several students joined me and the three other English instructors on a 1.5-kilometer hike up to the first of many waterfalls that grace the upper reaches of the mountain. Most of the Korean hikers we met on the trail were in their 40s, 50s and older, and we passed two parties who were picnicing between the boulders on the stream bank. The delicate stands of trees dotting adjacent mountains in the distance reminded me of the mountain landscapes portrayed in some of the Asian art I've seen over the years. I had always assumed that the spacious elegance of those landscapes was simply a stylistic characteristic of artists in this part of the world, but seeing the mountains first hand revealed that those portrayals are highly realistic! What an illumination. It reminds me of the shift in my perception when I learned that Monet's increasingly blurry paintings were likely the product of his cataract-infested vision rather than his expanded take on impressionism.

Picnic among the boulders on Naeyeon-san.

Many hikers made the trek to at least the first waterfall, and the vast majority appeared to be over age 40. Some of them came prepared for the eye-blearing gusts of wind by sporting dark green visors over their faces. I saw many vigorous, 50-something couples and small groups strolling up the mountain, all in great shape and dressed in attractive sportswear. For them, a Saturday outing involved breaking a sweat. Younger members of their families were nowhere to be found, and my students told me that young people aren't into hiking. It's a pity, because Naeyeon-san is one of the most serene and awe-inspiring places I've ever been. It's hard to imagine a more romantic spot.

Wind rushing around the slopes makes its mark on the water.

The Buddhist temple Bogyeong-sa has been active since the 11th century. I committed my first Korean faux pas taking this picture:

Someone later told me that you shouldn't take a photo of the inside of a temple (nor should you enter through the front, only the side), but I'll continue to play the dumb American and post it because I want to share it. People have been honoring the Buddha mind here for one thousand years: look.

One of four temple guardians

Four guardians glare down at you as you enter the temple grounds. They're huge, fiery red and imposing, ready to destroy any devil or other enemy that tries to come through. As a westerner, I perceived them as threshhold guardians, the people or situations that come our way on an early stage of the Hero's Journey, or monomyth, as Joseph Campbell explains it. Once you establish a goal, there is always someone or something to test your commitment--a college entrance exam, an audition or the miles of paperwork required for applying for your first mortgage.

To me, the four giants seemed to be asking if I was ready to leave my all-important life behind and contemplate whatever lies beyond. I know there are volumes of much more sophisticated explanations about the role of these figures, but my psyche is wired for the monomyth. Or maybe they represent the guardians of my purest state, always working overtime to protect it from my ignorance.

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