La Seine, Champs Elysee,Tour Eiffel

It is Sunday, and Claudie and I take the Metro from the outer reaches of Paris where we are staying with Simone.  In her area the streets are named after the Revolutionaries – Robespierre; Raspail; Marat.  Communiste, she calls them and it sounds sharper in French.  I can’t help wondering what Jean-Paul Marat would think to see his name up with Carrefour, the French answer to Pick ‘n Pay.

At the Seine, we take a boat tour.  Up front is our guide, a sweet young woman (are there any unattractive women in Paris?) who struts her stuff and there is a lot to say – a depth of history here.  But the tourists laugh and talk.  It becomes difficult to hear what she’s saying.  I feel like getting up and shouting “Tula Wena!” in Zulu.  But I don’t think they would understand, for a number of reasons. We move closer to the front.

And it’s wonderful.  Every bridge has a story that stretches back into that rich past – this one is oldest bridge across the Seine; that one was built in honour of Alexandre III; this one honours the arts.  And the buildings…  La Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette spent her last hours, a palace turned into a prison;  the building where the Legion d’Honneur is bestowed on deserving recipients and where those histories are stowed; the Louvre; the Eiffel Tower; Notre Dame; the headquarters of the Arabic nations, a rectangular glass block; the monument of the millennium change.  They float in a dream.

Then, with rain nudging us, I do something that I have thought about for many years.  In his book, Kenneth Clarke writes on the first page “I am standing on the Pont des Arts.  I cannot tell you what I am looking at, but I know it’s civilization.”  The Pont des Arts couldn’t be reached with encroaching rain, so I settled for the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge over the Seine.  I stand there; I can’t tell you what I’m looking at, but I know it’s civilization.
Two tourists in civilization

Then the rain came down and we hotfooted to a restaurant where we had crepes and coffee and a bill a little shy of R300…

In the evening having travelled all the way back, Simone brought us to the Champs Elysée to see the Christmas lights.  It’s an experience, with the traffic bumper-to-bumper and the pavements flooded with visitors poking through the long line of stalls selling all you can imagine.  The lights are hypnotic, blue spirals on every tree, swelling and shrinking.

We pass through Place de la Concorde where there is the Obelisque du Luxor, a gift of antiquity from the Egyptians, and the Big Wheel, a kaleidoscope of scattering and gathering light – two bewilderingly different worlds.
Place de la Concorde á Noël

It’s worth all the effort, as is everything on this continent.  We drive past Madeleine, a classic Greek temple that was a catholic church before the Revolution and then fell into disuse, later to be restored.   And then we approach the well-lit Arc de Triomphe, ponderous and striking.  The Unknown Soldier is buried under that arch.  Under that arch the Nazis marched singing Erika with triumphant voice… And it is so much more than those specifics.  This place breathes the kings of France, Napoleon; the piano accordion under spring poplars, street cafés, Piaf, Becaud and Aznavour;  it breathes endless romance;  it is the heart of Paris, probably the most loved city on earth.

Then Simone parks in a place where the traffic is less dense.  This is Trocadero, a lookout point over Paris.  Broad, shallow steps are flanked by modern buildings serving as a portal.  Huddled against the cold, Claudie and I walk up through the humming evening.

In front us is Paris, falling away down to the Seine, and filling the night about 700 metres from us, is the Eiffel Tower.  A vision of gold light, a luminous miracle, above the strangely dark city.  I can hardly believe what I am looking at.  Every crisscross steel beam is unusually bright against eyes.  The scene is overwhelming.  I take pictures, realising soon that they will never capture what I see.  Against the low scurry of clouds above the highest point of the Tower there is an unearthly glow.  I stand astounded.
A spectacle beyond words

This is the greatest thing I have ever seen.

Will van der Walt ©

Dimanche  11 Decembre 2011

Image Sources: Photographs by Will

Musee Maillol: Exhibition Pompei

Today I have to keep my wits with the Paris Metro.  From Santier (where our apartment is) I have to find ligne 3 {Direction Valloise}, but must remember to get off at Opéra to cross to ligne 8 {Direction Balard}.  And then, don’t miss Madeleine to get ligne 12 {Direction Mairie d’Issy} and then to count the stations to Rue de Bac.

But it’s worth it. At Musée Maillol (Aristide Maillol, sculptor, painter, died 1944) there is a rare exhibition from Pompei arranged by the National Galerie de Napoli.  The showrooms are not big, but jampacked and we are rivetted.  What we see is a kind of apocalypse, 79 A.D., the same year that the Romans sacked Jerusalem.

What strikes me (again) is the level of sophistication – the superb statues, slightly larger than life-size, with their peace and poise.  One, a figure of honour,  stretches a generous hand; the other hand carries a rolled document:  I give; I record – signs of civil society.  Then, to keep the balance, a three-times life-size phallic symbol with its three components.  That as well.

Deeply moving, as they were before, are the remains of two human beings clinging to each in their last moments as the horror descended.   In this, Pompei is different from other ruins.  It is surprising how small these people are, but the agony is no less.  Heart-rending.

But, strangely, more intense it is to see the remains of a dog.  Looking at his neck,  you see the sign of a collar that condemned him.  His head is twisted under his back, his legs are branches above his body. His jaw is slightly open in a final cry, before dust and ash buried him for eighteen centuries.

I’ve seen the dog before.  And over the years the memory of that grey gypsom carcass became larger for me. I see it again.  No artist could achieve this.  It is the eye of all suffering, all tragedy, all destruction.

The dog of Pompei

From Metro Rue te Bac I get ligne 12 {Direction Port de la Chapelle} ; at Madeleine I run up stairs, down stairs to catch the connection to Opéra {Direction Cretel}; from Opéra, I count the stations to Sentier {Direction Gallieni}.

In the late afternoon Claudie and I pack our bags and go rumbling along Rue Mulhouse, turn left at Rue de Clery, to be picked up by Simone, Claudie’s Parisian friend.

But the dog of Pompei… it is our brushes that set aside the dust and the ash from that twisted body.  It is our cry in the teeth of those silent jaws.  It is an instant in the apocalypse and it is the pain of humanity in the agony of that dog.

Will van der Walt ©

Samedi  10 Decembre 2011

Image Sources: People –, Dog – 

Jangseung – Grotesquerie at Hahoe Village

My fellow travellers were too lazy for an early morning jaunt from Andong to Hahoe Village.  So I went alone, through a dewed shadow-soft landscape to the ancient village of Hahoe (pr. Hawhere).  When you mention this place to Koreans, you are talking about the roots of the culture.  Quite unimposing, even primitive, it is a small cluster of dwellings, some of them mud and grass.  The information board tells you that it was constructed according to intricate geomantic principles, pungsu, and is associated with ancient clans.  Legend has it that Hahoe Village is where the design of yin-yang originated in the 8th-century c.e.  This symbol has only been found in China since the 11th-century c.e.
The river at Hahoe Village. Note the Yin-Yang formation.

On a previous visit I saw a performance of masked dance by a Japanese troupe and wandering around the streets was a peep into another time.  But it was really the jangseung that brought me back.  With a passion.
A throng of jangseung

The jangseung are carved logs, grotesque faces meant to scare off evil spirits or demarcate boundaries.  The gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris are tame by comparison, but, no doubt, coming from the same folk impulses.  Jangseung are a rough craft, overpowering and deeply loved, even with an irony, by modern Koreans.  Traditionally, they are found on the periphery of fields or at the entrances to villages.  At the International Mask Festival in Andong, I saw children in workshops carving their own jangseung.  With commitment and glee.  Chisels and hammers.  Chips flying.

At Hahoe village it seemed that the jangseung, a whole throng of them, had been dropped off in a small field along the road to the Village.  It was entirely un-touristy.  And I was the only person showing an interest.  One mother passing by with her little girl had to curb the child’s curiosity –  for a reason that will become clear.

Standing amongst them, surrounded by them, overpowered by them, I was transfixed.  A small forest of figures,  hypnotically gross and crude, the stuff of fairy tales, frightening and enchanting… it was a magical experience.

Amongst these preposterosities, there were the two iconic  figures, called Hahoetal that the Village is known for.  They are not grotesque;  they both radiate warmth and goodwill.  The male figure is called the yangban mask and the female, the bridal mask.

Then – and this is what the mother kept her daughter from – there were figures with immense penises, indicative of the tradition of phallicism in Korea.  I find it interesting that, in a country where the one-child policy has been applied with uncommon discipline, that there has been a tradition of phallic imagery geared to fertility.

Jangseung and rocks

The jangseung are not everybody’s cup of green tea.  For me they show the vitality of a culture, a spirituality and a wild creativity.

Will van der Walt ©

March, 2008

Image Sources: Photographs by Will


Phallicism is interpreted as a cultural meaning of reproductive principles and male, female sexual activities aiming at good fortune, praying for the birth of a male baby, productiveness, and well-being.  Phallicism handed down in Korea, venerates natural stones or geographical features shaped like female-male sexual organs as objects of praying for the birth of a male boy, the protection of villages, productiveness, and complementary measures against geomantic problems.  Artificial sculptures of sexual organs made of stone, wood and earthen ware were also used to worship and enshrine the guardians of the village.  – Information Board, Folk Culture Museum, Seoul.    [Careful scrutiny of the second image in this post will illustrate what is being said here.]

Ten Buildings in Seoul

It is nothing less than remarkable that 30 years ago, the Korean language had to invent a term for ‘highrise’ which did not then exist.  Today 80% of the population live in highrise buildings.  The architectural revolution in South Korea is astounding.  These are some of the buildings I saw, always searchingly inventive, a beauty that strikes and all in powerful contrast to the tradition of the past millennia.
Entrance to shopping mall, Samseung
The IBK bank, Myung-dong, west Seoul


Hospital, Jongno-gu, central Seoul

IBK bank, Myung-dong, west Seoul
Hyundai building, Samseung. Note sword and shield motifs.

Cultural-History Museum, Icong, west Seoul. Based on line and circle motifs.
World Trade Centre, Samseung, South Seoul

The Asian Centre, Jongno-gu, central Seoul. Again, that adventurous line.

Unnamed building but one with muted beauty
The Post Office Building, City Hall area, central Seoul

Of all skyscrapers I’ve ever seen, this ranks as the pinnacle.  It is the Post Office Building in the City Hall area, central Seoul.  It is just so zany, so daring, so playful.  If it is a zip, what do you imagine he was doing the night before he did this design?

Will van der Walt ©

2007 – 2008

Image Sources: Photographsby Will

Hwaseong and the Music of Spheres

Hwaseong in Suwon, south Seoul, was declared a World Heritage site in the 1990s. It is a fortified Joseon city that has evolved over the centuries.  Its high point came in the late 18th century, as the French were reigning with terror. The city wall, low enough to look over, stretches for kilometers, above and through the cityscape of Suwon. Seoul itself, the thought struck me, is actually a small country.
Floodgate, Hwaseung, Suwon, south Seoul

One of the curled-roof buildings along the wall, is a floodgate post, presumably to make attacks difficult for the enemy.  And there are many variations of look-out posts.  Dozens of schoolchildren swarmed along the neat cement paths next to the walls.  There was a festive air.  But for various reasons I wasn’t up to energetic site-seeing – perhaps the intensive visits of the past six weeks were catching up on me.  At the floodgate I sat down to rest and then, as always with Seoul, the small miracle happened.

I heard music and sensed that it was live.  I moved through a  garden and came upon a small amphitheatre which would seat fifty people, if that, and on the low stage were three women in traditional Korean bell dresses each playing a kayageum.  This stringed instrument, often called the zither, produces the sounds of Eastern music as nothing else does.  It is a long panel of wood with 12 strings.  The note is played on the upper part above the bridge in the middle and the tone for that note is created on the strings below the bridge.
A traditional ensemble of musicians

 It was probably a rehearsal, but it sounded perfect to me. The strange halting rhythms, the sudden jabbing notes, the elongations and wavering, and moments of silence took me to another time and other minds.  Of course, they were beautiful too, the players, their black hair bunned, their poise and delicate movement turning them into a memorable cameo.

A young man, dashing in his traditional garb and black hair on his shoulders was taking pictures of them.  He later turned out to be a drummer of real competence, sounding quite African in style.
Solo performer

I sat for 10 minutes and then they packed up and left the stage, to be replaced by a single kayageum player, even more striking than they had been.  She played and she sang.  That I will never forget.  The music is mostly limited to a certain tonal range, breaking through it at times. There is no recurring motif as with Western music, but she could draw her listeners who had by now grown into a handful of people sitting there – the bass notes she achieved with her voice, the sad brave tone soaring, some words almost spoken with the delicacy of a bird and the strength of a warrior.  What she did was done with uncommon commitment, a pleasure and a pain weaving above deft movements of her fingers on those long strings.  You feel a deep speaking, an intimate word, a filling of the day, a song to mountains.

One of the women who had played previously asked me where I was from and then the three players returned.  Interestingly, they had a something of a Western repertoire then.  I smiled and knew it was time to leave.  They paused.  They looked at one another and then the first notes came. Of music that I feel the most, there is a handful of pieces.  There is Allegri’s Miserere, but next to it is Pachelbel’s Canon.

And it was the Canon they began to play, measured, sad and ritual.  It finished me.  Not since the solo dancer at the Insa-Dong festival have I been so moved. There is a soft marching in that music.  In the two minor chords that lie together in the heart of the sequence, there is a grieving that  rises into healing of the major chords that follow.  And it follows again.  And again, because it is a canon.  Like life and death, it keeps turning.

It came to me that eternity is not ‘a long time’.  It is three women playing the Canon on kayageum in a fortress city in Suwon.

I wandered around Hwaseong for some time and then trekked across to north Seoul by metro to Seoul University of Technology where I slipped into the fine arts department and photographed students’ work in the sculpture and ceramics section.

But the music still moves above that hot skyscraper day, the sudden and sweet notes, like shade and sun, and the voice that comes from ancient years, and it’s all held in the eight chords of the Canon that seek out the furthest hills of this beloved country.

Will van der Walt ©

15 June 2008

Image Sources: Photographs by Will

Public Baths in South Korea

{ Dear Reader, for this post, there are no images}

Five hundred years of puritan hesitation that affect Westerners in imperceptible ways, fall away in a half an hour.  For two or three weeks I had turned down the invitation by Korean friends to go to a public bath… I wasn’t too articulate in my self-analysis on the matter.  In South Korea, there are few public images of nudity, the opposite of what I recall in Hong Kong.  In Korea, a lady with cleavage would invite little sounds of disapproval.  And yet, there are the public baths…  Why do I feel that in my country, South Africa, such places are part of the pick-up industry?

When I agreed on Friday to go along to the baths, Cho Won-ihl and his wife In-Soo raised their eyebrows high.  But they were understanding. They know the places. This one, said In-Soo, is too big, with too many people and the waters are a little suspect.  But that one, smaller and more intimate, was their haunt, as part of their lives as brushing teeth.

A bath cost R28 ($4-5) and if you wanted to add a massage, rigorous, vigorous and slap-happy, it would set you back R100.  Exfoliation was another option.  There was too, a barber, a shaver, a shoe polisher in attendance with a TV screen where you could watch medieval melodramas.  Everything clean and appetising.

My shyness melted in the lukewarm water, the warm water, the hot bath, the sauna… In the bath of ice water there was no sign of my shyness left.  In Japan, I’m told, men and women share the public baths.  In Korea, not.

The place was almost empty, with steam hanging above the hot water surface, baths of green marble tiles and the changing-rooms with bamboo flooring.  The sauna had walls of mud and thick beams of wood like railway sleepers.

Won-ihl and I moved from extremes of temperature and ended up lying supine on jade slabs, icy and refreshing.  I was a little dizzy, but content:  this is health, the sensation, not the concept.

There were a few other men there, each in his own weather. One image remains – a young man, trim, tanned and wirey, helping his father, sagging, infirm and wrinkled, bent double with age, up the one, two steps, through the steam and into the hot water.

The pô-jji (that is, cherry) on top was the bottle of iced carrot juice as you leave the baths.

I would be back the next Friday.

Will van der Walt ©

March 2008

Buddha’s birthday at Cheongju

My granny and Buddha were born on the same day.  But we can’t be certain whether Gotama Siddharta actually began his incarnation on that day.  Legend blurs things. What we can be certain of is that Buddhism as the traditional philosophy-religion of South Korea is alive and well, providing spiritual sustenance to many.

Mrs Kim, a colleague from the elementary school, invites me to the celebrations at the temple in Cheongju, a major city south of Daeso where I live.  She meets me at the busstop and we walk through the grounds of the University and up a broad stairway to where the temple is.
Going up to the two temples

When I’d been there previously it had been quiet, in direct contrast to the crowds now descending on the place – children with balloons, adults, parking attendants, people in traditional gear.  The 12th of May is a source of joy here.

There are two temples, one with space for about 200 people and the other with space for about 50.  Next to the smaller temple, higher up the terraces, there is a half-relief of the Buddha with a symbolic gesture – the long finger of the left hand folded. I’m not sure what this means.  Before him there are offerings of fruit.  The bow and genuflection of the people are called insa, with some people kneeling forehead-to-earth for some moments.
At the shrine

At the entrance of the larger temple there is an approach pathway to the main doors with a thick red carpet on it which, I am told, only the monks, the suneem, may walk.  Parallel to this is a long table with an exhibition of Buddhist art painted on terracotta tiles – cameos, symbols, lotus flowers.
Buddhist art

Mrs Kim points out a woman in traditional clothing amongst the people, telling me that she is the artist.  We meet, but, of course, can’t converse.
The artist (left) and Mrs Kim

The work is interesting, done on rough textures, images swirling ecstatically in primary colours and in pastels.

There is a service in the large temple and the place is packed.  Outside you step over a sea of shoes.  I don’t go in, but stand at an open side door.  A women choir sings over the heads of the sitting rapt audience, wistful music, moving and sacred.  A man preaches for a few moments and then comes a jolly song and everyone happy-claps, fitting for the birthday of the founder.  It is strange for me since I am probably caught in an image of Buddhism from way back.

When the train of suneem come out of the main entrance, the leader is an image of the Buddha himself – the shaven head, round face and engaging smile.  This religion has many images of happiness.  They advance to the smaller temple, probably an older edifice where they begin a chant as people queue to pour hand-scooped water ritually over a small figure of the Buddha, as well as over the flowers that surround him.  I am told that the chant and the ritual are the purification of the world by the newborn Sakyamuni, the Korean name for the Buddha.
A child drawing

Further down the terraces there are tents where children and adults of all ages draw, paint and making lotus flowers from paper.  Others queue outside the reception hall where there is a free meal.

At one o’clock Mrs Kim meets two friends and shortly after, her husband, a medical doctor, arrives.  They decide that it would be better to lunch elsewhere and we leave for the city.  At a Chinese restaurant I have spiced vegetables on spaghetti with sweet-sour pork and a drink that has 50% proof – a kind of Korean witblits.  Mazeltov, Gotama!

On the busride home, a woman with a little one on her lap, gives me a Korean vetkoek to munch.
Buddhist art

Will van der Walt ©

12 May 2008

Image Sources: Photogrpahs by Will 

Insa-Dong, Seoul

Each visit to Seoul yields so richly. Ten minutes will not go by before something memorable happens.

Insa-Dong, the shopping lane where I had been before, was different this time because it was summer now.  There was more green and were more people.  The shops were as fascinating as ever.  In one, I spent one of the most fascinating half hours I’ve ever had – an antique shop, not even very well-organized with much from Ming dynasty in China and carvings from Thailand.
Ming folk art

Many of the objects were rough and un-museumy, folk art figurines, equestrian figures, a Buddha head of great beauty lying on the floor with other bits and pieces, grotesque wooden masks iconic of Chinese culture, shaman masks and figures, un-arty, elemental and brooding as masks from the Congo.

Walking down the crowded mall, I peeped into an alley way where I saw a few figures seemingly discarded and going to investigate, I saw one of the most beautiful reclining female figures, probably Thai, I have ever seen.  My photograph of it leaves me breathless.
Thai reclining figure

There were so many other things, but as I left the street mall I heard traditional festival music – drums and flute – and saw a number of women in hanbok, colourful traditional dress, with flambouyant bonnets, marching.
Insa-dong festival

I was told by a bystander that it was the “Insa-Dong festival” and there was a low cherrywood table laden with fruit and attended to by several Korean men in white kaftans and black square fez-type headdress.  It was difficult getting good pics of the ritual, probably Buddhist, because of the jostling crowd.

But then, the marching women stopped next to a small platform and through large speakers came traditional Korean kayagheum music, eerie, hesitant, ethereal and with fragile majesty.
The dancer

Onto the platform came a young woman, the black hair in a traditional bun.  She was wearing a long-sleeved white dress with a black sash from her neck.  The movement was slow, held, in muted transport; her face, a mask of rapt sadness.  Her eyes saw worlds beyond that crowded afternoon pavement and the swirling noise of the city.
The dancer

Her hands, the fingers, the wrists and forearms, her face, sang the grace of the East.

The dancer

Her arms reached through the echoes of millennia, from before history. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life.

I stood there with brimming eyes.

Will van der Walt ©

May, 20 08

 Image Sources: Photographs by Will

Puppet Theatre at Anseong and a Factory

I had an invitation from an acquaintance, a Mrs Lee (are there other names in Korea?) to see puppet theatre at Anseong, a town due north of Eumseong, due north of Daeso where I was staying.

Anseong has much greenery, vineyards and orchards, and seems to have many places dedicated to the arts, especially the Namsadang Baudeogi Pungmul, a development that includes a smallish amphitheatre, galleries, an eatery, a rather beautiful restaurant and an informal garden.  This place promotes the puppet theatre and mask theatre that come from the 14th century (Joseon dynasty). It started as an itinerant all-male group, which reminds me of the European Commedia d’ell arte, and flourished until the mid-20th century when politicians decided that war was more important.


The compere

The performance was a little over an hour, made to an audience of about 250 people, families with children.  Five musicians in costumes of white, indigo, green, wearing a turban-like headdress, entered with two drums, a fife (it’s a small “wry-nosed” trumpet) and cymbals.  They sat in a row below the black velvet puppet stage.  Four of them were young men and the young woman was the mistress of ceremonies.


Puppet and musicians

I didn’t understand a word throughout, but was engrossed.  Her performance was superb:  she engaged the crowd, elicited responses and singing, introduced the puppets, haggled them, laughing off their accusations of her, and crying when she was insulted. The story as I heard afterward from Mrs Lee was of two wives in a traditional family who can’t stop fighting with each other.  [Apparently the Chinese pictogram of discontent shows two women under one roof! This is an old, old story…]      The acting was appropriately over-the-top and marvellously done – from the old patriarch of the family, the languid dragon-cum-crocodile to the rather dark-skinned guy who enters with no clothes and a semi erection.  How this last character fitted into the story, amongst the rest of the troupe, will remain a mystery to me.  Suddenly he turns his member on the audience and wees copiously!  The audience roared with laughter. The technology of that puppet feat would be interesting to know. Maybe it’s another one of Samsung’s achievements – they’re a versatile company.


Anseong puppets

The dialogue was spoken, spoken-sung and sung, and it was punctuated with snippets of music and singing from the quintet below the stage, in true Eastern theatre fashion. The music is structured by a powerful drum beat, syncopated by a cymbal, all seamed together by the thin sound of the little trumpet.


The musicians perform

After the performance I suggested that we have a bite to eat at the Korean eating tressles.  Tufu, pork, green-purple lettuce leaves, bean paste, gimchi, meat-and-veg soup, savoury rice – ah, how can I descibe what a mere R14 can buy?  Only one who has lived in this country will grasp this.

On the way back I spotted a granite carving and engraving factory and asked Mrs Lee to stop.  Here I saw the most wonderful juxtapositions:  in the hangar-like building was a three-metre high Buddha prosperously presiding next to a Christ-the-Redeemer figure, almost back to back!  Both were really well wrought.


The busy workman

A man was busy carving out the face of a Christ figure perhaps two metres tall, as it lay on his work bench.  Outside amongst the pagodas and some Western garden kitsch, was a giant two-metre granite penis.  Unmistakable.  It’s probably part of the tradition of phallicism which is much more veiled in Western culture. In Korea it is probably vaguely associated with shamanism. Three faiths in one ambit –  can this happen in the country of my birth?

Will van der Walt ©

May, 2008

 Image Sources: Photographs by Will

Mitasa Temple

In Korea, mistakes might even turn into little miracle events.  Certainly it felt like that today when, at the (wrong) advice of others I boarded a ‘bus in search of a local temple and ended up in a strange town (sporting the name of Muguk) and with people frowning strangely when I showed them the name of the temple written in Korean.  But, to my rescue, came an elderly man who took me in his car all the way to Mitasa, the temple itself.  Turns out he’s a retired bank manager with a daughter in Tennessee.

And Mitasa is the temple we didn’t see when we went to Bisan-Ri earlier this year.

I walked up the winding road through the forest, now brilliantly green and verdant, in contrast to the wintery grey of early February.  Past the stone Buddha (1200 years old) under an elaborate and characteristically decorated shelter, until the curved rooves of the temple buildings could be seen through the forest.


An eighth-century Buddha on the way to Mitasa Temple

I took a few pics and then my attention was caught by a woman and her son.  The woman beckoned and offered me tea.  I accepted and we entered a subsidiary building where I was also met by a su-nyo, a nun.  We sat down crosslegged at a low table and I partook again of a tradition thousands of years coming. They asked where I was from. The su-nyo, I gleaned, is 31 years old and decided on a monastic life at 24.  She told me that Mitasa was run by ten su-nyo.  I have since heard that this is the case for about 30% of the temples in Korea.


Mitasa Temple

Her English was limited and we did a dance with the computer where the 11-year-old boy would research via some online dictionary what was being asked or said.

Above us on the wall was a large portrait of a monk, a su-neem, who, the su-nyo said, died two years ago.  This, she indicated, had been her mentor.  What struck me about this woman with her smooth shaven head and regulation green and white smock was her radiance. I think I can spot a mask, but the being of this woman simply shone, through the skin, through the eyes.  I have met very few people like this.


Su-nyo, a person of radiance with her mentor

To add joy to joy, I was invited to go into the refectory and have lunch with them.  If 11:30 was early, I realized that these people get up at 3:30 in the morning.  The place seats about 120 but there was only one other su-nyo there.  At first I thought it was a man, but came to see that it wasn’t.  As always, the offering was the tastiest Korean food, all vegetarian, and the best mandu I’ve had.  In the background there was a speaker and through it came a soft chanting carried by a texture of bells.  I paused.  Is this a defining moment in the experience of a culture? I wondered.

When we returned to the office, they showered me with gifts, the mother giving me a wrist trinket and the boy put together a little bracelet for me.  The su-nyo gave me a keyholder and a Mitasa calender.

I went into the main temple which might accommodate 50 people and saw that there had been a funeral.  Bisan-Ri, much further down the hill, is an upmarket graveyard. The plain unsmiling woman in the photo near the altar was wreathed in incense.  There was another su-nyo sweeping and she cheerfully asked me where I was from. I don’t think she understood when I told her. With a wistful smile she said No photos.

Having taken a number more pics of the buildings from the outside, I walked down the hill, totally elated.  I passed Bisan-Ri where the standing Buddha figure in shimmering gold must be at least five storeys tall.  In the right hand there is an orb which, I was told, indicates salvation for human kind.


The Buddha of Busan-ri

 Beyond the immense graveyard itself is the Bell shelter with a large Silla-type bell.  On it, I learnt, are the words Let the sounds of this bell be heard at the ends of the earth.    


The Silla bell of Busan-ri

I saw a little shop and as I approached, a woman came out and asked where I was from.  I ended up drinking tea with her and her friend for the next hour at a table that must rank as the Most Interesting Table in the World.  It was a solid piece of oak tree, spanning a little over two metres.  Beautifully planed and varnished, it had chasms of hollows, like the deep weathering of rocks, a landscape in itself. It hardly looked like a table at all.  I thought, How can a day like this end at an ordinary table?


A most fascinating table

Will van derWalt ©

6 June 2008

Image Sources: Photographs by Will 

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