Saturday, January 20, 2007

A note on death

The following was posted by Soen Joon Sunim in her blog One Robe, One Bowl on April 7, 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.

"A note on death" From One Robe, One Bowl by Soen Joon Sunim Friday, April 07, 2006

We found a dead bird when we went up to clean the Dharma Hall this morning. Actually, I saw it first and waited for my sister to come up behind me. It was beautiful and large, certainly larger than the average song-birds I'm used to seeing. Somewhere between a robin and a magpie in size, its back and wings were brown with black markings--a soft, worn brown, the color of an old kasa. Its breast, however, was a clean white, the kind my mother would call "matte eggshell" and has painted on the livingroom walls of every house we've lived in. More of the same black markings there, too, making the white even whiter. "What lovely contrast!" my mother would say.

My sister came up the stairs. I said, "We have to hold a kido for a deceased. A bird-spirit," and I stepped aside to show her the feathered weight on the stone walkway. Sae-yong-ga-nim. She came up, said a quick "Pal-bo-ri-shim," and went downstairs to get a dustbin to carry the bird away. We would bury it in the park behind the temple.

Cause of death was unclear. A smudge on one of the windows suggested a collison, but who knows? We climbed up a dirt side-trail in the park and found a loose patch of soil under a shrub. As we were digging with our garden trowels, she talked a bit.

"When I was a child, so many different things would die on the temple grounds. Birds. Stray cats. Even dogs. We had a temple dog once, Ta-hui. We held a 49-day ceremony for her." And she laughed a little. "We said, 'kae-yong-ga-nim!'"--kae being "dog" in Korean. Then she became sober. We had dug about six inches down. "You know, the Japanese did this during the Occupation. They would make Koreans dig trenches, and then push them in. Bury them alive."
"Why?" I asked naively. Jeez. I watch the news. I read A Problem from Hell. I should know better.

She shrugged. "Just because. The Koreans knew why they were digging. They knew it was their own grave."

Enough. We gently rolled the bird into the shallow hole. We didn't want to touch it, because my mother always told me not to touch dead animals--"Disease!" she warned--and Avian Bird Flu isn't so far away, as the crow flies, in China. We pushed the soft soil, only a shade darker than the bird's feathers, over the body. My sister patted it all down expertly. "Come back as a human next time!" I said. "No, go to the Pure Land!" she corrected me. "Fine, go to the Pure Land and then come back here and teach us!" I amended. We said Namu Amitabul and then chanted the Heart Sutra. A passing jogger didn't stop to look us, two small women perched on a slope chanting to an empty bush.

On the way back down to the temple, my sister said, "Ahh, that puts a strange feeling on the whole day, doesn't it. Not quite bad. Not quite sad," and I didn't have enough Korean to tell her I think it's because we spend so much time around the spirits that we get used to Death just a little, but not enough to know what to do when it comes for the living breath. The yong-ga-nim on our altar arrive after their last breath. We see their anthropomorphic pictures, deal with their grieving families, project them into a limbo and imagine we can help them to life again. But when Death drops a bird on the Dharma Hall porch, we get a little bit closer to the reality of death: stiff body. A smell of danger--infection? contagious?--and the small thorn of sadness that pushes up through the skin. Niether of us has been a mourner at a loved one's funeral yet, so there's also an aspect of rehearsal to these moments. Yes I will feel sad, oh I will, and I will say the right things, remember the Pure Land, oh Yes, I will.

Cleaning the Dharma Hall, she told me more stories of the Occupation. One of her high school teachers had related tales to his students: villages forced to watch the torture of one of their own, excruciating displays meant not to kill a body but to terrify the heart. People unable to trust one another because of informers strewn throughout the community. "Maybe your next-door neighbor," she said. "Maybe your own family. No one had money or food, and the Japanese paid for information. People would do anything." I remarked it sounded like Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, not a terribly original observation, and then said, "But no one seems to really pay attention to Korea's occupation like they do Nazi Germany." She said, "Well, yes..." indicating she understood the world's larger eyes for a different spot of history.

By the afternoon, I'd largely forgotten the morning's death. The magnolia out front is full bloom. The blossoms look like small lofted lotuses; perhaps the magnolia is a tree from the Pure Land. I can imagine the yong-ga-nim being reborn as tiny sparrow-like beings in the nest of a magnolia in front of Amitabul, instead of in boat-like lotuses on a vast lake. I like the image of a lotus-tree better than a lake, personally. That much closer to the sky.

Sister Sophia sent me another letter, as full of strange incidents and, oddly, the death of birds as the first part of my day. My college fiction professor called it the "plate of shrimp" phenomenon: for no apparent reason and without any prior discussion, everyone in a given seminar will submit a short story that includes a plate of shrimp in it, either as an incidental object or a piece of the plot. As it is, the birds are relatively incidental, but Death is the plot. As per our usual, too, Sophia sent me a quote from Merton:
The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life. He struggles with the fact of death in himself, trying to seek something deeper than death, and the office of the monk or the marginal person, the meditative person or the poet is to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and to be, therefore, a witness to life.
I put down the letter and sipped my coffee. Children ran screaming joyously across the courtyard of the elementary school below us. Forysthia cascaded along the retaining wall opposite the temple, and the cherry trees are on the verge of leafing, to be quickly followed by their clouds of blossoms. I came inside to type this. Even now when I look out the window next to the computer, I see a magpie streak over the old-man pines lining our drive, and can hear the single long falling note of a song-bird whose name I do not know.

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