Skinheads and Swastikas
As for the movie, "Die Another Day", well I must admit I haven't actually been to see it. But this is through a deliberate decision not to go and see it at all. I love James Bond movies, and have watched them since I was a little boy - the nifty new gadgets, cheesy cliches, cool cars and hot women, with exceedingly unlikely names - it's all part of what I love about 007. So much so, that the plot of any given film is more or less irrelevant. I'm going to watch it at least once, simply because it's James Bond. Maybe that makes me a victim of advertising, and maybe it's people like me who ensure that Hollywood would rather churn out endless clones and sequels, rather than trying fresh material, but I don't care. I've no objections to subtitles, or art-house movies, but I still want to see my fair quotient of action flicks, and Bond will always be a must see.
So why didn't I go see "Die Another Day"? Well, the Koreans are organising something of a boycott on this movie. Sometimes here it seems like just another day, just another protest, but I stopped to think about this one, and much as I hate to criticise 007, I think they've got a point on this one. What are they objecting to? Well, three things mainly:
- The depiction of South Korea as a backwards society. Apparently there's a scene where our hero lands somewhere in South Korea, plopping his parachute down in the middle of a rice paddie, complete with an aged weather-weary farmer, plowing a furrow with his cow. A cow? I haven't seen a cow since I left home. This is high-tech high-spec South Korea - Asian Tiger Economy, not the Vietnam of the 1960s! Maybe it's more evocative of "Asia" for the money-spending American and European audiences, but it's not exactly a nice way to have your country depicted, and the Koreans are nothing if not proud of their homeland. This point I'll acknowledge, and side with the local protestors.
- The next thing the've decided to take offence at, is that at one point in the movie, an American Army officer seems to order the Korean troops into combat. Imagine another movie depicting the Korean President telling US GIs where to go spill their blood? Also, given the lingering anti-Americanism following the aquittal of the US soldiers by a US court in the small matter of the squashing of schoolgirls, I think it's understandable that the Koreans would be a little touchy about how the authority of the United States over Koreans and Korea is shown on the silver screen. Still, I'm with the movie makers on this one - it's James Bond, not a DMZ Documentary, and it sounds like acceptable artistic licence.
- The killer point though revolves around the standard Bond romance scenes. Apparently, at one point, James has Halle Berry shaken and stirred in a Buddhist Temple, and has his wicked way with her while Buddha watches in wonder. Setting a sex scene inside a Buddhist temple? Were they actually trying to offend the locals? Well, of course not, but it is pretty crass insensitivity and I see no reason I should help fund it. Maybe it's not that bad, but can you imagine how long Pierce Brosnan would live if he tried the same thing in a Mosque? ;-)
Not that I'd personally object to the smell of incense and who could blame a man for getting carried away with Ms. Berry, but blazes, for heaven's sake, 007! Do try to behave!
I've been to a large number of Buddhist temples here, and although the talented Ms. Berry is yet to show her face at any of them, nevertheless, I have to confess to being quite enchanted with these places.
The first thing to realise is that unlike Catholic architecture, none of it is grand or imposing. Christian cathedrals often make me think about how the ancient population of Christendom was largely illiterate, and how the edifice of an imposing Cathedral was as much an instrument of communication as a place to worship. They were big, they were solemn and solid, they were there to stay, for a long, long time. Or maybe God told the Christians that he liked Gothic Architecture, I can't confess to knowing His thoughts on this matter, but in any case, there the churches are, their tall spires sending a silent message to any heathens foolish enough to still be lurking in the vicinity.
The Buddhist Temples seem to send rather a different message, and I'm not sure what it is, unless maybe it's that their message is that they aren't sending a message. (so sayeth your humble narrator whose trying to get the hang of these Buddhist riddles!) It's extremely rare to find any of the temple buildigs more than a single story high, and all the buildings seem to nestle into the most obscure and secluded locations available. They're not sending out any message since no passer-by would even know of their existence. If you want to know what the temple can tell you, you'll have to come and seek the messages and meaings for yourself.
Before you enter the temple compound itself though, you'll have to pass through the entrance gate - a small pavillion with Buddhist guardians standing watch over the four cardinal points. These brightly painted beasts demand your attention and admonish you to leave the world and all the thoughts and worries of the world behind, as you enter the temple. Fortunately I've found you can fake this spiritual awakening by the simple device of a fifteen-degree bow to each icon, and off you go, into the complex.
These Gate Guardians are pretty run-of-the-mill figures in most places, but in the almost unknown shrine nestled into the hill behind my apartment, they've been given an unusual form. Four luridly-painted carvings of Buddhist animals, each created with a cheeky grin, playful pose, or just a little glint in the eye of each one. I've been in and out of too many Christian Churches in my time, and while many are fascinating, awesome, or even beautiful, I don't think I could describe any of them as playful. But enough with the gate, away, into the temple!
And don't worry about missing the Buddhist messages, there are plenty of contemporary Korean ones for anyone who'll read them. Most carry the obligatory rant about how the Japanese burnt the temple to the ground three times. First came the lawless pirates to harass the peace-loving Koreans, then the War of Naked Agression in 1545, not to mention the brutal occupation from 1910 to 1945. And so on and so forth. The upshot of it all is that almost nothing you see is original. You visit a country with a history of some four or five thousand years, yet the temples and pagodas were built in the seventies. Reconstructed or not, they're damn proud of what they've got though. Every sign gives you information, and an indication of how important this particular place or thing is to the Korean People. The highest rank is National Treasure - there's a list of these and each Treasure is numbered, and suitably venerated. You usually know you're in for a real treat when you come across one of these. There are a whole plethora of designations for the lesser works; Provincial Treasures, Regional Treasures, etc.... but my absolute favourite is the lowly rank of Local Cultural Intangible Property. If you can figure out what that category is supposed to encompas, then please drop me a line. There will be at least one of these Treasure signs at the Guardian Gate, and as many as you could wish to read once you get into the temple properly.
So off you go. Up a little path, and into the main complex. Normally this is four or five buildings laid out as a rectangle built around a central area, that contains a multi-storey pagoda, and maybe some trees. There are very open places, and you're free to meander in and out, but to be respectful I sometimes try to keep walking clockwise, rather than anti-clockwise around the central pagoda. It doesn't seem frightfully important, and I've seen Koreans disregard it, but since you can stroll in any direction, why not choose the nominally inoffensive one? You can admire the temple from either direction just the same, and I think that as a non-Buddhist, you're expected not to understand everything. Plus, as a non-Korean you're probably given more lattitude, but for that very reason I feel you should go out of your way to be the very soul of propriety when looking around.
The tiled roofs of the long low buildings slope steeply, something like you'd imagine a German country residence to appear, only with just one floor. In the Korean winter, this slope prevents the accumulation of snow. Many of the temples are up in the mountains, suitably seculded from secular life, but I guess it gets cold up on the heights too. On the other hand, the roofs continue out beyond the boundary walls of the temples - in Summer you've got an in-built sun shade for the faithful.
This is greatly practical I suppose, though I've yet to experience anything but the tail-end of an "asian" summer. What I really resent about the architectural style though is that the shade it creates makes it very difficult to take decent photos. You've just got a little pocket camera and whilst standing under blue skies in bright sunshine, you're supposed to take a photo of the roof-shadowed paintings on the wooden walls of the temple? Not the easiest task, but at least it's just technical difficulties, and not the moral dillema that arises when you gaze into the dimly-lit interiors of these buildings. One the one hand, these are living places of worship, and people in prayer don't especially love the idea of foreigners photographing them during their worship. So, fair enough, if there's anyone inside the building, then don't take snapshots of them.
Where the morals get a little bit shadier, is when there's no one in there, just a few statues of Buddha, some Buddhist saints, and the most picturesque paper-lanterns you've ever seen. They're exceptionally pretty, and the smell of incense that always lingers in these places is totally evocative, especially when you can hear the sounds of meditative chanting coming from the next building over. You're not going to use a flash, of course, so you won't be doing any physical harm. Then there's no one there to see you, so you won't be doing any "moral" harm either. So it's the perfect victimless crime, right? Granted they've let it be known that they don't want you to photograph the interiors, but where's the harm? Still, you sorta feel it's not exactly right and you're always furtive and underhand about the whole business. What I've decided now though is that in any of the major tourist-trail temples, which charge for admittance, I feel like the fact that I've paid for the privilege means that I should be allowed to take photographs, discreetly. On the other hand, if it's a temple that's just generally open to the public, but you don't have to buy a ticket in, then I feel like they've treated me as a visitor. I'll behave as you'd expect any decent guest to conduct themselves.
Not that all the people there do behave ias you'd expect them to. Then again, when you meet skinheads with blood-red swastikas emblazoned across their backs.. how exactly would you expect them to behave? I'm willing to accept the possible presence of those nasty neo-nazis in many places, but in the temples of South Korea? It seemed just a tad unlikely, so of course the signals and symbols mean something different here. These skinheads aren't the next wave of Hitler Youth, but rather Buddhist monks who shave away their hair, since it's just another accessory of the material world, unneeded and unwanted in the reclusive, meditative, spiritual life. As for the swastika you may have seen - ah, but look closer! The hooks are facing the wrong way, and instead of national socalism, you've nothing more threatening than the worship of Buddha. I'm still not sure on the origins of either symbol, although I doubt that there's any common ground, so maybe it's just a neat little coincidence.
So once you've enjoyed the calm and restive buildings, the best thing about visiting these temples is the chance to meet some of the monks who reside there. Some live in the main complex, and others live as hermits up in the mountains behind the compound, but solitary as they may be, there's always a few hanging around. With a little Korean and a lot of luck, you can strike up a conversation with one of these people. The first time I tried this I made a few pleasant comments about who I was, where I was from and the usual tourist-native banter, but came away a little dissatisied from the encounter. The monk I'd accosted had his head completely shaven, and was wearing the traditional loose-fitting trousers and pjama-like cotton top, and walking barefoot. There I was in midst of the the mists of the mountains of Korea, talking to a man devoted to Enlightenment, and I couldn't help but expect him to impart some of his Ancient Wisdom (tm). I don't know what I expected him to say exactly, but it should have started with "Ah grasshopper, you are young, but some day you will understand the great mystery of the...." Sadly, it was not to be. Instead he made some banal comment about the cold - maybe the skinhead monks feel it more than most? Maybe they haven't overcome that aspect of the austere lifestyle. Indeed maybe that guy didn't even have any Ancient Wisdom to give me - afterall, I already know the sound of one-handed clapping.
So digesting all these thoughts, I wander around to the back of a minor building, looking for the loos, and just around the corner I spot another slap-headed monk chatting on a cell phone . I'm sorry. I really am, but surely the most advanced communication medium here should be nothing more than some ceremonial bells, and certainly not an endless variety of downloadable ringtones with which the mysterious monks can annoy each other. That's almost the best thing about talking to the monks though. Just seeing how utterly normal they are. OK, their distant cousins have inspired countless Kung Fu movies, and in cheesy TV shows they'll always come complete with ancient wisdom of the Orient, or at the very least they'll be able to levitate! When you talk to them in the flesh though and they just engage in idle chit-chat and complain about the cold - then you know you've found some real Buddhists, and blasted apart another set of pre-conceptions.
If you'd like to hear the ringtones for yourself, there's a neat little program here that had its heyday during the 2002 World Cup, but is still alive today. Temple Stay Korea is a residental / spiritual program designed for those looking for something more than the brief walk around the buddhist sanctuaries that I've had to settle for so far. The temples participating in the program will have some english speaker on hand to explain it all to you, although I guess you don't need to be bilingual to guess that the 5.30am bell means its time to rise and shine on Buddha's brand new day. :-)
Still, if skinheads and swastikas are your thing, I know you could do a lot worse. ;-)