Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Mind-Nature Sutra

Similar to my prior post ... The following was posted by Soen Joon Sunim in her blog One Robe, One Bowl on April 26, 2006. Unhappily for the world, Soen Joon Sunim took down her blog. A friend was able to provide text of this marvelous post which will be an awards nominee this year.
"The Mind-Nature Sutra" From One Robe, One Bowl by Soen Joon Sunim Saturday, April 26, 2006

“Did you know,” my youngest heung-nim tells me, “That science has found nearly 80% of people to be attracted to both sexes?” Except, of course, in Korean it didn’t come out that way. In Korean, she said something more like, “With science it’s been found that nearly 80% of people are both-sex-attractable.” I have a lot more sympathy for translators now.

The Korean word she used for “bisexual” begins with the Sino-Chinese character yang (兩), which means “both.” We had been discussing the phenomena of an Asian woman’s attractiveness to American men but white women’s lack of interest in Asian men. If I’ve got this wrong, please someone correct me, but really: I don’t think I do. My heung-nim kindly explained that it was because Asian men look too “feminine” compared to the average George Clooney, Brad Pitt, or even Tom Cruise (height or lack thereof not being as noticeable over here, I suppose) that regularly saunter their way across the Korean cable movie channels. I actually already knew this—that most non-Asian women in America think Asian men aren’t masculine enough—but it was interesting to hear my heung-nim pony up to the social critique and spit it out so succinctly and calmly. What followed was a brief discussion on sexuality and gender, including the uncorroborated statistic of 80% bisexuality among humans, begun with the observation that humans come in a variety of interpretable and relative genders and that our sexual response to the world is far more conditioned than we usually believe it to be.

I don’t have these kinds of conversations much any more. I’ve been out of the Yale Women’s Center for four years now—count ‘em, it’s May and graduation season—and I left a lot of social and gender theory behind with my bright college years. It’s usually a relief not to constantly pick at the not-yet-fully-healed scab of Being an American Woman with those kinds of conversations, actually. One thing I didn’t discover until I stopped talking s’darn much about the theory behind why it was so hard to fix my body image, fix my self-image, heal the hole in my heart and truly love somebody etc. was that talking theory and even experience rarely translates into a change of heart (and here I mean the Sino-Korean word for “heart,” “shim” 心 which means both mind and heart together), and therefore a change in the way we live our bodies.

But sometimes, it’s very instructive to suddenly find yourself talking old, old shop in a new context. What we didn’t have a chance to discuss (we were talking over dishes and when they were done, so was our conversation as we went upstairs to clean the Dharma Hall) was the place a Sunim occupies in this complex interplay of sexuality and fluidity and ambiguity—which was part of my heung-nim’s point, that there’s a lot more room for ambiguity in Korean sexual and gender culture than in western and especially American culture.

Despite the emphasis on roles and social hierarchy that characterizes the Confucian aspect of Korean culture, I’ll call any social critique that focuses only on this a vapid and shallow excuse for observation. Stick around this country long enough, and it’ll shock the pants off of your first, second, even third conclusions. What I’ve found is that Korean society relies heavily on appearances, not in a superficial way, but in a functional way. It’s part of the reason titles are more important than names in Korea. It keeps things structured and working. In the school I taught in my first year in Korea, about half the teachers knew each other’s names. The other half didn’t have a clue. It didn’t matter. You just called everyone “Teacher” and that was good enough. It was what you needed to know in order to make the school work. Names—a personal identity—were not a necessary component of the work-day. Call this crazy (and it is maddening for a Westerner), but it’s the way things work in Korea. Below this “skin,” however, of titles, ranks, positions, and functions in given situations, a person has an enormous amount of emotional and psychological freedom. I’m not going to get into a discussion of how “free” a Korean is in an “absolute” sense, i.e. by Western psychological standards. But I’m going to note that while Koreans are forever on my case about how I look, stand, sit, eat, and speak—in short, how I appear and function especially as a Sunim—they almost never mess with my thinking. Americans are almost the opposite. We’re obsessed with the inside’s of people’s heads, our own or others. Americans are forever asking, “What do you think? How do you feel?” Koreans? Almost never. I can count the times in the past year on one hand that my thoughts and feelings have been inquired after.

What this results in is a hemmed-in “outer world,” but an extraordinarily fluid inner world. What’s more, because Korean culture hasn’t been colored from the get-go with a fundamentalist reading of the Fall from Eden—with all the spiritual pain that accompanies such a literal interpretation of the myth—they don’t carry the same seemingly intrinsic guilt around about their bodies and their souls. Take it from me: I wasn’t Christian by faith, but gosh-darned-it, I was by culture. I reacted very, very poorly to the news that I was a) a sinner and b) inferior by biology and c) my biological sex somehow tied me to Eve and her primary role in the Fall, as it was preached unto me in my childhood of suburban Colorado yore. I spent most of my life trying to figure out why I was so wounded at the core of my heart if I didn’t “believe” in any intellectual or religious sense the story I grew up with.

I didn’t really get how not present the Original Sin Complex was in Korea until I watched “Blue Lagoon” with my teacher while we were doing some chores in the common room. I’m not a fan of such B-flicks. I watched it and thought, “Nice try at re-creating Eden, buddy. Whatevs.” But all my teacher could say was, “Look at how naturally they’re living! What a beautiful island! Oh my goodness, she doesn’t know she’ll get pregnant if they do that! She’ll have a hard time delivering…” And the like. I realized half-way through that my teacher simply didn’t and couldn’t view the movie as I did, an attempt to erase 2000 years of ingrained neurotic religious sexuality and imagine growing up without all that hoopla burned into your every interaction. She just saw two ignorant kids growing up wild and natural on an island.

Wow. Imagine not carrying the weight of mankind’s degradation on your heart. Seriously: all you feminists, post-feminists, liberal Christians, and recovering Catholics know what I mean. Imagine not constantly freaking out about your body as a perpetual source of Original Sin. When I look at the really horrible problems Americans have with their bodies, I sense the connection between this deep spiritual rift between body and soul and our daily battles with our hearts and bodies. Other people have and will explicate this further. I’m not going to.

I’m not saying Koreans have a perfect world. Far from it; but my point is that until I came here, I didn’t understand how unnecessary so much of my thinking was in relation to my body. All those rallies, teach-ins, papers, lectures, political actions groups, relationships, and even a go at therapy couldn’t help me the way that two and a half years outside the war-zone of my home culture did. To live outside of America first of all entailed a sudden slip off the marketing radar. A quick way to accomplish this if you’re still hide-bound in North America is to turn off your TV, stop reading the newspaper, and don’t listen to the radio. I’m serious: marketing is NOT GOOD FOR YOU. It comes from our culture, so it’s got the same conflicting and toxic messages about our hearts and bodies that we get from our parents, from our religion(s), from our music, from our schools. But we can control our intake of marketing right now, whereas we can’t do anything about what we’ve already consumed in childhood.

Second, I shut up. Not many of my expat friends wanted to discuss radical gender theory with me over kimchee chigae at the local bunshik-dang, so I basically had to quit talking, which is like turning off the TV in your head. Silence equals violence in some circles; in others, silence equals healing. Take my word for it—though I suggest you try it under the guidance of a spiritual teacher you trust, because sometimes we do need to talk. But believe me… we don’t need to talk nearly as much as we do.

Third, I entered the temple.

The temple is the ultimate sphere of ambiguity, and as such, it is about as opposite the polarized world I knew in America as can be. Ambiguity is what Americans spend a lot of time running from. We are not comfortable with internal ambiguity, far less so than external ambiguity. That’s why, in my humble opine, we’re so hungry to know someone’s thoughts. We want to know where the world stands so we can know where we stand. And when we don’t know, we feel lost. Even the “gender rebels” I knew and even tried to be in college were always placing ourselves in a relative position. We were or were not masculine or feminine compared to the prevailing American stereotypes. If you took away the cultural bounds on the scale, there was nothing left to rebel against in an absolute sense, except for the Demon Within who insisted, or did for me, that I was somehow essentially female and essentially sinful. That was the ultimate scale of my existence as a body and as a being.

This—this--ancient, painful spiritual wound can’t be healed in a continually polarized world. I take that back: maybe it can for some people, but not for me. It’s significant to me that I studied Buddhism in Nepal, another country where I slid off the cultural radar and entered a space of public ambiguity. It’s not that I don’t look female—I do, even bald—it’s that the old way of being female was gone. I didn’t understand and often couldn’t “see” the new paradigm of Nepal and later Korea, and so it didn’t exist for me—and since I had no stake in fitting in to either society, the paradigm couldn’t be imposed on me. I was off the radar, ambiguous, and treading the first steps of freedom.

The old spiritual wound, that constantly played itself out in and on my body and how I lived, was and is healing in ambiguity. A Sunim is outside nearly all the social conventions of gender and sexuality in Korea. Unlike Catholic orders, the robes of Korean Sunims are not differentiated by gender, though I’ve noticed some slight tailoring differences. Although female Sunims (who I call nuns fairly often, even though this is an unresolved question of address) do have a different code of conduct than male Sunims, this derives not from some fundamental understanding of a “woman’s nature,” but from a pretty blunt and honest look at the reality of being a woman in the world, however bald or renounced. The vows of a fully ordained Bhikkuni also differ from those of a Bhikku, but again this reflects nothing intrinsic to women. Basically, we’re not differentiated from the male half of the Buddhist clergy by any argument for a fundamental difference. Moreover, we’re visibly similar enough that I’ve heard people say they often can’t tell the difference between monks and nuns at first glance (in Korea). Ambiguity compounded by un-differentiation at the source of being: Gilead’s balm is right here, folks. Free for the tasting, free for the healing. Free.

It’ll be interesting to look back at this when I return to the West, for a trip or for longer, at some point in the future. I could of course stay up all night writing on this subject, but I’ll let the comments thread point out where further clarification is needed or further interest lies. It's not all roses here for women, for female Sunims, for me; but it's fertile, fertile ground for long-needed growth and change.

I still have my body. Yes, it's still a woman's body. A change of heart does not change the DNA. But the place where that awful canker of gender and sexuality used to be, constantly irritated by and irritating the world with its fears and insecurities and nightmares and even hopes, is just...well, just space. Space to breath. Space to be somehow more fully human because I'm not always thinking about how I should be more fully woman, but not knowing how.

No: chastity, celibacy, and meditation in a foreign country is not the recommended course for everyone. If someone had told me six years ago, while I was a sophmore in college and cerebellum-deep in anger, pain, protest, and self-hatred, that I'd wake up nearly every morning on the floor of a Korean temple increasingly free from that burden, I'd have laughed them out of my gender-queer dorm room. I didn't think it was possible to be free and I certainly wouldn't have foreseen that freedom in this obviously unusual path. The gifts that I can offer from the far side of the ocean and most American women's lives are the promises that no, it's doesn't have to be the way it is. Yes, we can let go of those old pains. And if you give yourself some space to be quiet and away from your own thinking, and give yourself the space to be ambiguous, you can heal. You will heal.

There's no sutra in the canon on gender and sexuality. Maybe we should write one. We can call it the "Yang-seong-shim-gyeong (兩性心經)", the "Both-natures-mind-sutra," by which I do not mean to imply a continued polarity, but instead to suggest that polarity is only in the mind. Heck, let's drop that 兩 and just make it the 心性經, "Mind-nature-sutra." Healing begins and ends here, inside us. It's our nature to heal and be healed. I promise.

posted by Soen Joon Sunim at 8:05 PM

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