Religion Part 2 – Buddhism

Bulguksa, one of the most beautiful temples of Korea

Before I start, I want to make sure to stress that I have never been a Buddhist nor do I have any deep scholarly knowledge of Buddhism. I share with you what little I know that I have been exposed to and my perceptions of Buddhism that got from exploring many temples, both within and outside Korea.

Hallways of Bulguksa

So Buddhism in Korea…As I said in the religion part 1  post, Buddhism is one of the primary religions in Korea. If one has spent any amount of time in Korea, it is hard not to be exposed to Buddhism. As someone who has always loved temples (and I’m equally partial to cathedrals and mosques), I have been inside my share of many Buddhist temples around the world (all over southeast Asia, Butan, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, etc.) and I have to say that Korean temples are quite different from many others I visited, at least in one aspect — there are no god statues  inside the temples. 

Temple protectors

It sounds strange that you would find gods inside Buddhist temples as Buddhism isn’t really a religion, is it? It is a way of life, not belief in some supernatural. Well, the vast majority (I should say almost all) of the temples I have entered outside Korea have local gods inside the temple alongside Buddha. The only god-ish thing you will find in Korean temples are four protection figures (of north, south, east, west) as you enter the temple. I heard that Korean Buddhism is not like others in that those who adopted felt there was some kind of inconsistency and sought to correct it. I have no idea what they are nor how Korean Buddhism is specifically different, but it is. 

Temples are usually on top of the mountains

Historically speaking, Buddhism came to Korea through the northern kingdom of Goguryeo (~4th century) during the three kingdoms era (I keep thinking four in my head since there were four actually). This makes sense since most influences seem to propagate from the mainland through the peninsula then to the islands. Yet, there is another strange little story of Buddhism appearing in Korea even before then. 

Gaya iron horse armour

There is that fourth kingdom of Gaya (Geumguan Gaya so called), that was a formidable kingdom, but mysteriously unknown that had existed southwest of Korean peninsula. Gaya had more advanced iron weapons, and were known to be great seafarers. It is said that one of their great kings married a princess from India and she had brought Buddhism to Korea even before it came through from the north. Many point to some of the very faintly remaining historical texts and some interesting motifs in temples of the south to support this hypothesis; yet, there is no solid proof of this assertion.

Gaya mini crown

Personally, I would like to believe this story. A beautiful princess who crossed the sea to marry a king of strange land…could it have ended in a love story that also started Buddhism in Korea?

Matchmaking

Even up to my generation, the marriages in Korea were somewhat arranged. It is not that one has no choice in the partner. It is just that the choices offered were not usually through what one would consider the normal channels in the U.S. (e.g. meeting at work, clubs, bars, etc.).  I am sure much has changed within the last few years, but even until fifteen or so years ago, there were many matchmakers in Korea, some formal, some informal. What do I mean by formal matchmakers? Well, these are women whose actual job is to make matches. They investigate people of marriageable age, details such as the education level, salary, family roots, astrology, etc. Then they act like a dating service, almost like an online dating site nowadays, except no one can lie on the personal profile.

Then there are more “informal” matchmakers. These are women who introduce couples, but they don’t make money. They just happen to know a lot of people and are very good at matching them, like my mother for example. She used to be a teacher, so practically all of her students she taught were of marriageable age up to about fifteen years ago.

In the historical past, the matchmakers did a similar job. They would travel through many cities or towns to find out about marriageable men and women (usually this was for noble families) and would match up families together. The difference between history and more recent time is that the couples now have choices. Before, the parents made the match and that was pretty much it. Most couples did not even get to see their spouse prior to the actual marriage ceremony.

According to my mother, matchmaking nowadays is passing background information to both parties and the contact information. Then if both parties feel like trying each other out, they would meet on a first date. If the couples hit off, they would come and visit my mother with a small gift or drop by to say hello together.

My mother used to jokingly tell me that if I were in Korea, she would have three truck loads of men to match me with. Of course, that is complete nonsense since I am too independent, too educated, and too westernized for most Korean men.

Korean Proverbs

I spent most of my childhood hearing Korean proverbs from my grandparents and my parents, but I rarely paid much attention to them. I understood and knew many of them, but they were not something I actively thought of. The only time I actively paid attention to them was during one winter break while I was going to elementary school. Our homework was to collect at least fifty Korean proverbs and learn their meaning. Obviously as an elementary student, I promptly forgot most of the proverbs I collected after the assignment was over. Strangely, these proverbs have been appearing in my head more and more often of late. I am not sure why, but as I was describing them to my husband in English, I thought perhaps others might enjoy the wisdom of these Korean proverbs.

I mention three here to begin with, just to wet your appetite.

  • 수박 겉 핥기: In literal translation, this means “licking watermelon surface”. The older generation usually say this to the younger generation when they are doing something with no depth. Essentially, if you are reading headlines of news without really delving in to what’s going on, you have done this. It is telling you to put more effort in as your understanding is shallow.
  • 도토리 키재기: In literal translation, this means “measuring height of acorns”. Usually people say this when you are trying to make distinction in things that really make no difference. This is often said when people are arguing about something that really makes no difference.
  • 그림의 떡: In literal translation, this means “rice cake (Korean kind) in a picture”. This is said when you have something you can see and perhaps even touch, but you can’t really have it. Essentially envision that you really want that bar of chocolate, but if you can’t have it than it becomes just a thing in a picture.

Un-belonging

Perhaps it is time to speak a little more about myself. Obviously, I can talk endlessly about the Korean culture, family history, food, etc., but ultimately and eventually some presence of myself has to be left on these pages. Many labels can be made to a person like me: a Korean transplant living in America, an immigrant, a Korean American, a first generation Korean living in America…whatever label happens to fit at any given moment, there is always one persistent feeling inside me.

That is…the sense of un-belonging.

I have no place I really call home. I am a Korean who has lost the country she knew as that country is forever etched in the imprint of history. The Korea I know, learned, and admired no longer exists. That Korea only exists in my memory. The Korea I visit often to see my parents is not a place I belong anymore. I am a Korean who is a foreigner in her own land. Yet in America, I am an immigrant. No one who sees me will ever consider me just an American. I am first and foremost, a Korean in everyone’s eyes and that is confirmed with my accent, which is not even really a Korean accent. 

So where do immigrants like me belong? Not the country I am from certainly as they do not consider me part of that society any longer. Yet not this country either as I don’t really belong here as I come from somewhere else. Hence, I become like many other immigrants. I live here and I am successful here. Yet where I belong is perhaps in those past etchings of the Korea of the past.

삼국지 (Three Kingdoms)

A small digression that is not technically about Korea. 삼국지 or three kingdoms story is a well known historical text in Korea that many people read. The three main characters in the story who are mythical as well as very humanistic at the same time teach many life’s lessons (sort of like the more familiar Art of War from Japan). As it is a historical text, some of the Korean representatives can be seen in this story as well, during the time of Korea’s three kingdoms (actually 4 since there are four kingdoms that settled into 3). My mother’s ancestors hail from this fourth kingdom so more to come about the three (four) kingdoms era in the posts to come.

The three kingdoms story is famous enough that it is known outside the Asian sphere so if you are interested, you should easily be able to find materials onine.

뒷간 (Room in the Back)

뒷간 literally means a room in the back. Of course, it is not literally just another room it the back. This is an old way of saying toilet. When I was growing up, the older generations still used this word, but younger generation would never use it as it was considered somewhat uneducated/uncultured. This word also has a double meaning. A room in the back makes sense of course, but the back also implies “behind” or “hidden”. So essentially it double means as room in the back, but also means your behind so to speak.

If you look up what is toilet or restroom in Korean, you’d most likely encounter the word 화장실 (this is the proper word by the way). If you ever ask someone where 뒷간 is, someone my age would be able to tell you where it is (pointing to the restroom of course), but would also laugh at you (well, not to your face, but definitely when you are far enough away). I don’t think anyone who is younger than me would generally know what this word means unless they’ve watched historical drama.

So why the talk of toilets?

Well, let’s say the house I grew up in, which was properly inside the city limit of Seoul in a decent part of the city, had this so called 뒷간 until my teenage years. Needless to say, that experience left a lasting impression on me. It is the worst thing to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, especially when it is below -10 degree Celsius in the winter. You have to not only bundle up, but also need to carry a light, then shuffle your way across the small courtyard to go to this literal hole in the ground. The hole is thankfully disguised minimally with attached porcelain squat toilet super structure, but you can still see the hole and if you are a child, you really have this giant fear of falling inside!

For those of you who wish to experience “authentic” old Korean, never fear, there are still places you can experience this for yourself.

척 (Length measurement)

척, what the heck is it?

It is a length measurement like cm and ft and I’ve heard this often enough when I was young, from my parents, grandparents and also read in folktales. Yet I had no idea what it really meant in realistic terms so I looked it up. Going down the rabbit hole so to speak.

There were various interpretations of what 척 means. According to current Google (yes, seriously, Google seems to track everything!), 1척 = 33 cm so 6척= 200 cm which would be approximately 6.56 ft. That seemed a little overblown. This was very different from a blog written by someone who analyzed height measurement written in 삼국지 (three kingdoms). According to that blog, 1척 = 23 cm, which means 6척 = 138 cm. This was way off the mark. 삼국지 after all is from hundreds of years in the past and not even in Korea. After more searching, I found another blog that analyzed what 척 meant during 조선period in Korea, which is the time period my great great grandfather lived. That page indicated 1척 = 31 cm, so 6척 = 186 cm. If you can read and understand Korean, click here to read more.