The structure reveals itself in its failings as well is what it aims to accomplish, though the aim is certainly under question. For instance, what are we doing?
I came to Korea to ordain as a Zen monk, but there are things that need to be mastered first, namely, learning the Korean language. All of the foreign monks are sent to Dong Guk University, where they must pass the first two courses before the ordination ceremony. The classes are tough, a steady diet of humiliation under a powerful tide of young Chinese students. Unexpectedly this has given me a strange kind of peace, a long view that will take some time to establish. Do you have a minute?
I’ve never learned another language. High school for me was a schoolpocalypse: nearly all survival skills, homemade nunchuck skills and, well, humiliation. After 35 years of forgetting what I knew, I was thrust into the Korean language course. The classes are filled with Chinese students, from high school mostly. All of them have different stories, but it’s largely a tide from China’s backlog of university entrance exam flunkies waiting it out for the next round. The language classes are intense, with 12 to 15 exam crushers crammed together four-hours deep, an ever-escalating torrent of grammar, scenarios, puzzles, strange words that sound like dying frogs… nearly every day I’m up in front of the class with one of the bright elites struggling to recall the bizarre mix of words and particles that form the neural pattern of this alien race. I always fail.
I watch them all the way through, struggling at first to pronounce the strange characters — to their knitting together all that we learn. The pieces I’ve never been able to sort out for them flow naturally, as they should. Every day I’m humiliated. They help me. It goes by, but the language remains elusive. I’m now weathering my third time through a level one course, and my test scores are too low, again.
The life is only study and training at the monastery, which these days is dominated by a schedule of cleaning and preparing for the formal meals, which we serve to the resident monks. A few days ago I spilled soup down the front of my jacket in front of everyone, and it was… nothing. It didn’t spark any emotion worth recording. I realized then that the year I’d spent with the über Chinese had made me nearly impervious to humiliation, but it was deeper than that.
Zola Jesus has a new album coming out. Taiga. It was written in isolation on Vashon, the same island where I did my first 100-day solo. It’s a good place to deconstruct. I was thinking the other day how my favorite works — like Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire or the seminal game Half Life 2 — have abandoned places in them that allow you to lose yourself. It’s very important, for us. This resonated through my morning rounds, as I searched in vain for the forgotten phrase, again. Pacing the monastery grounds, I plugged in to the same abandoned feeling. It was there in the centuries-old courtyard, in the heavy robe of the Zen master who half-listened from a precipice — that I let my mistakes tumble freely. They belonged in that forgotten place, grating in the ears, in the rusted metal and weeds and old statues groaning with wind and time. It possessed my soul. It liberated me, continues to do so. I’m sure you can hear it in my voice, a glint of gold at the bottom of the grimy hole of my language studies. It isn’t hope, it isn’t the end of hope. It’s finer than these.
As for music, there’s been a resurgence, a collaboration of devils and outsiders that speak, in broken pieces, broken songs held together with static and moaning, what I take to be the natural sound of society melting under itself, something we’ve paid dearly for. I use their careful recordings to buffer the mental anguish, just as they intended.
My brain was formed on the noise of blown out amps buzzing and squealing tone, howling frequencies too dirty to be defined. Dripping from me, these songs, this sentiment, I have some difficulty listening to the Korean talk radio that I need to ingest, to learn the language, as it’s bathed in music that… it’s strictly confined to the A major safe zone; Milli Vanilli and Zamfir play Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. It requires listening in the third person, as one would watch a Steven Seagal film, for example.
I tell the new haengjas struggling with the scale of the drum we are to attack every morning, with some precision:
“To play the drum you have to lose yourself.”
This, too, is a product of the abandoned place in me.