Sunday, July 24, 2016

Haedam the Monk

Text me, we'll pray
My friend, Haedam the monk
Traditional Korean red bean-filled, walnut-shaped dumplings
Looks like a walnut...
...tastes like red bean paste.
Pocari Sweat: It's the Pocariest
  In February of 2012, I found myself on an overnight bus headed up Korea’s east coast in the name of one of Birds Korea’s many winter weekend pelagic trips.  Halfway up the coast, the bus pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant/general store that looked to be semi-abandoned. As the bus had pushed north, I noted with detached concern that indeed much of the west coast looked to be semi-abandoned - an uninterrupted funeral march of eerie ghost towns and neglected pirate ship-shaped restaurants (the rural counterpart to the pirate bar craze) rolled past. The driver announced that we had 20 minutes to stretch, so I ambled over to the nearby cliffs for a spot of coast-watching. I scanned the choppy bay for about ten minutes, but didn’t turn up much other than a few Arctic Loons and Temminck’s Cormorants bobbing in the surf. From the corner of my eye I noticed a smaller gentleman watching me with a smile. He was in his early thirties, and was dressed from head to toe in loose grey clothing that looked like it had been crudely crafted from a blanket. A monk! He was a Buddhist monk.
  He approached and asked me what I was looking at. I told him I watching the birds on the sea, and showed him my Birds of Korea book. He read the title, and asked in unsteady English: “You...LOVE...the Korea’s birds?”
  “Yes, I suppose I do!” I answered. At that, he bowed lightly and shuffled off.
  I used the last few minutes of rest-stop time to nose around in the bushes, then headed back to the bus. As I was about to board, there stood the monk by the front of the bus, like a Wal-mart greeter. He bowed deeply this time, and presented me with a bag using both hands (when giving or receiving something in Korea, be it a pen, beer, or money, two hands should always be used). Puzzled, I accepted the bag and peered inside. I pulled out a gift box of hodugwaja, traditional Korean dumpling cakes, shaped like walnuts and stuffed with red bean paste. Also in the bag was a bottle of Pocari Sweat, a bizarre Korean sports drink. I never liked the stuff, as it was salty and cloudy - and what the hell was a Pocari and why would I want to drink its sweat?
  He told me that his name was Haedam, and that he was heading back to his home monastery up on Gangwha Island, which lies within propaganda loudspeaker range of North Korea. He tried to explain something about how Buddhist monks aren’t allowed to accumulate much money, and are supposed to use most of what they do have to bestow gifts upon people they deem to be worthy. I think. I was blown away by this gesture. I’m worthy! We sat beside each other on the next leg of the bus trip, and chatted amiably for almost an hour in two broken languages about birds, Buddha himself, Korea, and a surprising range of other topics. Before we parted ways in Gangneung, he pulled out what I felt was a pretty flashy smart phone for a Buddhist monk, and we exchanged numbers. Text me, we’ll pray? Best monk ever.

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