Under the Eye of the Buddha


Night falls over the city. I’m alone in my apartment, wondering how to kill an hour. The humidity seems to have finally broken in the last few days, with the sweltering, sticky days giving way to warm but drier days. This makes the evenings rather comfortable. I decide to go for a walk.

Down the street from my apartment there is a Buddhist temple. Over the sea of rooftops I’ve seen the decorative roofing seemingly reserved for such structures. The long, arcing spines of horizontal support beams, plated like snake scales, arcing from the apex of the roof outward. They dip down and then curve back upward like four ancient fingers reaching for the sky.

The Inescapable Gaze (CC)

In the darkness I slip from my apartment into the narrow streets, along unpopulated alleyways housing scooters and recycling bins. Now and then a scrawny stray cat slips from under a car and dashes to another place of hiding. As I walk briskly in the direction of the temple I pass the occasional Korean man out front of his building, smoking a cigarette, eating noodles with perfect chopstick form, drinking beer. Their faces are generally stoic, statued. Most of their gazes are lost in some other world, thoughts drifting freely through their mind. Occasionally, I will lock eyes with them. A slight nod of the head and dropping of the shoulders and they reciprocate my hasty bow. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the greeting annyong haseyo in the last month and a half, the phrase now blurs out of my mouth like I’ve uttered the phrase my entire life.

As I finally approach the temple I am filled with a sense of ominous, foreboding nervousness. The solemnity of these temples shocks me, even after twenty years of churches, basilicas and cathedrals. There is something more ancient, more alien about these buildings. The absolute silence observed within is remarkable, save for the periodic chanting, the resonance of hummed syllables. It is, of course, late. I have no intentions of breeching the unlocked doors, not tonight. I just want to see what’s down the road.

Out front of the temple there are glass booths of lit candles. A practice mirrored in traditional Catholicism to which I am more familiar. I can feel the heat from their flame almost five feet away. The statues of the Buddha outside are large and almost comical; that omnipresent, gentle smirk, crossed legs and knowing eyes. A smaller, separate structure houses a large, hanging drum under yet another ornate roof. It is the Ho-ko, the Darmha drum. A symbol of the commanding voice of Buddha. Seemingly, no percussive beat would ever need be played for the drum to be a forceful presence among the flowers and statues. It’s simple presence on such a carefully crafted structure draws enough of an effect.

I head back to my apartment satisfied. I have snuck another tiny peek into the incomprehensibly complex world that I now call my home.

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