Last winter, I reunited with my fifth-grade homeroom teacher. It had been thirty years since I last saw her. She ran the school’s literature club as well, so I’d been under her tutelage for three straight years. She was the one who first planted the dream of becoming a writer in the mind of this country boy who grew up without enough good books to read.
Back then, she used to loan me books and take me to writing contests. Her notes on my daily journal assignments were sometimes longer than my journal entries themselves. She was warm and caring to all of her students. She boiled homemade barley tea to share with us, and for the kids who were too poor to afford lunch, she even brought home-cooked meals. One of my friends had lost his parents and was being raised by his grandmother; she’d pestered our teacher, who was unmarried at the time, to adopt him.
Now my teacher was standing on the threshold of old age. But she still looked as pretty and serene as she had when I’d first seen her through young eyes. She remembered my hometown in far more detail than I did. There was a particular reason for that. She had spent two years as a volunteer on Sorok Island, an infamous leper colony, before getting her first full-time teaching post nearby, at my school. In all, she spent a good ten years in Goheung County. The physical passage of time hadn’t dulled or numbed her memories of those years one bit. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of things had happened on Sorok Island.
She told me how lost she’d felt all through her twenties. Of course, some afflictions of the heart are rooted in historical wounds. Before volunteering on Sorok Island and becoming a schoolteacher, she’d been a college student in Gwangju—right when the Gwangju Massacre took place. As she told me about her experiences, I recalled the way she used to stand sometimes with her back turned to us, as if we’d best not approach her.
You could say this was a new discovery from among my memories of her. But then, doesn’t a certain devotedness sometimes come from the shadows? I realized anew that her passion for teaching bore the mark of an ascetic pushing him- or herself to greater feats of discipline. Back then I was too young to understand that kind of sorrow.
Then she mentioned Deoksansa, a Buddhist temple near the school. Being familiar with the temple myself, I straightened up at her words. Back when she was first posted to our school, she went out wandering near the campus to try to ease her weary, gloomy heart; her steps led her to the temple, where a young nun was living. My teacher said she always felt better after visiting the temple and bowing before the altar. Seasons passed, and yet she and the nun never once spoke. The nun seemed as deeply withdrawn as she was.
One afternoon, they had a heavy snow. My teacher heard a knock at her door and opened it to see the nun standing there, half-frozen. The two women sat down across from each other and just started weeping spontaneously, for no apparent reason.
“Strange, isn’t it? To cry so hard without any idea of what the other person has been through.”
I stayed at the same temple for just over a month during the winter break of my second year in high school. That was about five years after my teacher’s trips to the temple. I had moved out of my parents’ house in order to board closer to my high school in Suncheon.
Between feeling lost as a teenager and suffocating under the pressure of preparing for the college entrance exam, I opted to board at Deoksan Temple instead of going back home or staying behind at the school to take supplemental classes. I headed straight there without really thinking the plan through, and was met by a nun who spoke with a heavy Gyeongsang Province accent and the kitchen helper, a woman with a young daughter who volunteered in the temple kitchen. They told me the temple wasn’t well suited to hosting boarders. I pleaded with them to let me stay anyway. The nun reluctantly agreed, but added that they would keep me fed but I would have to supply my own firewood for the separate quarters where I would be sleeping.
As soon as I unpacked, the kitchen helper handed me a scythe and a firewood carrier. She added that I would have an easier time with it if I used the brushwood from the acacia trees some loggers had discarded next to the temple. Every few days I carried back as much as I could.
My days in the mountain temple started out dull and uncomfortable. It was hard to wake in time for breakfast, which was ready at exactly six in the morning every day, and I couldn’t get used to the temple food. The rice smelled strongly of incense, and the greens were bland. Besides, back home I was more used to eating seaweeds—fried miyeokgwi, seasoned parae, and totnamul, to name a few—than mountain greens. I asked the kitchen helper to go easy on my servings.
When the discarded acacia ran out, I had no choice but to hike into the mountains to chop wood. I spent the whole morning gathering firewood and the afternoon crouched in front of the furnace. The fire entranced me; I felt like a child playing with matches. Before I knew it, evening fell and dinner was being served. The moment I sat down to eat, I was overcome with exhaustion and fell asleep immediately afterward.
The days grew even more monotonous, but to my surprise, each time I sat in front of the furnace, my heart grew calm. The temple food grew on me, and at last I was asking the kitchen helper to heap my bowl higher. The nun was busy performing a hundred-day prayer ritual, so I mainly saw her at meals. I’d been expecting to receive some words of wisdom or comfort from her, but she had nothing to say to me.
On sunny days, the three of us ate lunch side by side at three small portable tables set up on a narrow side porch. Meals in the temple were quiet. It felt less like eating with others and more like confronting the act of eating itself. It gave me a taste of a solitude that was lonesome and yet fulfilling. I had never before paid so much attention to the act of eating. But I guess that’s what temples are about. Maybe they’re not where you go to listen to lofty thoughts, but rather where you go to face your own soul, which stands taller, grows more distinct, amid the stillness. There, my mind kept returning to the question of the essence of all phenomena.
After I’d been at the temple a couple of weeks, the nun finally glanced over at me and said, “You’ve filled out. Keep eating!” Then she told the kitchen helper to give me some dried toasted rice to snack on. I got very little studying done while I was there.
On my last day, the nun walked me all the way down to the village. I felt like I was walking with an older sister. I said good-bye to her there, the bulk of my journey still ahead of me.
“Hurry off now,” she said. “You’d be surprised how time flies.”
I don’t know if she was the same nun my teacher met, but it was the same place where we both found respite for our restless, troubled hearts. And though I can’t approach all of my meals the same way as I did on that narrow porch, I still sometimes miss those solitary meals.
© Jeon Sungtae. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.