Finding Friendship, Hope, and Action in Korea

19 August 2016

This summer I had the honor of joining a remarkably diverse group of young people from Korea and around the world in a cultural exploration of Seoul, South Korea. The 2016 URI South Korea Peace Camp gave rise, every day, to beautifully constructive interreligious dialogue.

The theme of this year’s camp was Religious Green Practice, and the framework and intention that ran throughout the week was the heart of the parent organization — the Preamble, Purposes, and Principles of the United Religions Initiative. As the URI North America representative, and the participant traveling furthest from home, this five-day experience was a complete whirlwind, and a few weeks later I am still overwhelmed by the friendship, love, and insights I found in South Korea.

Despite language barriers, cultural differences, and diverse religious beliefs, the camp was full of deep conversations, near-constant laughter, and a truly enhanced sense of the amazing possibilities that interfaith dialogue offers for peacebuilding in our world today. Coming from Kashi Ashram, a Cooperation Circle of URI and an intentional community containing members of many different generations, I am generally partial to learning experiences which are multigenerational in membership for everyone’s growth and further lifelong learning. This experience, however, has given me a new perspective on the transformative value of bringing a group of young people together. Through near-constant selfie taking, the creation of a group chat, and the ability to break the ice through discussion of academic theses, recent books read, and our favorite animes, we all became friends remarkably quickly.

The ages of participants ranged from 20 and 30, our nationalities included Korean Mormons, Korean Buddhists, a Korean practitioner of Chondogyo, Bangladeshi Muslims, a Tajik Muslim, a Dutch Muslim, agnostics: Korean and Australian alike, an Anglican from South Africa, two Vietnamese Buddhists, and myself, a Buddhist-Hindu hybrid from the US, representing Canada and the United States.

Going into this, I certainly saw myself as representing Kashi more than North America as a whole, after all, I can’t really claim to share the ideas and outlook of all of the U.S.,and Canada; my personal outlook and opinions tend to be on the fringe edge of things. But the horrors and abuses being perpetrated in the United States during my time in Korea gave rise to many conversations about the state of the U.S. today, and how we’ve gotten here. It was a great surprise to many of my new friends that the United States has dual racial genocides at the core of our foundation, but it’s a necessary conversation, and I felt honored to be able to draw attention to issues as close to my heart as Indigenous rights advocacy and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Parama, one of my camp roommates and now a dear friend, was talking through different options for her pursuing her PhD in North America, and with a heavy heart I had to tell her that unless some fundamental changes occur in the next few years, she, a dark-skinned Muslim girl, would likely be much more safe in Canada than in the US.

On the other hand, Sazzad, also a young Bangladeshi student attending University in Seoul and Parama’s close friend, asked me thoroughly about the community I was visiting from, Kashi. I was happy to tell him that at Kashi, and certainly in many other places in North America, people of all backgrounds and religions are welcome and celebrated.

These sorts of conversations happened late at night and on the bus, and during meals, but much of our time was occupied with a rich array of cultural tours, temple visits, and forums with guest speakers and discussion groups. Through these experiences we received a remarkable crash course in Korean history, culture, and religious diversity. We visited Buddhist temples, the Mormon temple, the central mosque of Seoul, the Chondogyo cathedral, and many other incredible cultural and religious centers.

We all shared together how difficult the current transitions our communities are needing to go through are, and there was great comfort in recognizing collectively that our problems are not our own, that the challenges we are facing are universal and that we can better imagine and implement solutions together, with radically open dialogue. Sefirazz said something then that I’ll always remember, and that has been very helpful in me reformatting the way I conceive of those who don’t see eye to eye with me.

He said, “I think stubbornness is just keeping something alive. It’s keeping something alive and waiting for the next commandment.” This was incredibly illuminating to me, and it drew me to notice where, in my own life, my stubbornness arises, and to view it with compassion, seeing what I am trying to keep alive. Sitting with that as a meditation has since allowed me to let go of many things, because I am now better able to see how things survive and thrive and take on a life of their own, and don’t really need as much the protection that I was so focused on.

This lesson was most impactfully driven home on the last day of the program, when we traveled to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a swath of land unoccupied by any humans between North and South Korea. I approached this outing with, I think, the solemnity and gravity that it deserves. As we drove nearer the DMZ, I was holding the image of this scar across the body of this nation close to my heart. I have been reading a lot of Joanna Macy’s work recently, and she teaches beautifully on honoring our pain for the world.

In anticipation of going to this place I knew to be wounded, I wanted to be as fully present as possible, so I reread some bits of Joanna Macy’s book, “Coming Back to Life” as the bus approached. This book is a guide to Joanna’s “Work that Reconnects,” which is a system for working with the horrors of our current reality, and helps people who seek to work to heal the world to do so most effectively, in a way that heals us as well.

A conceptual tool in The Work that Reconnects, is a spiral of mental steps that we can take, and never stop taking, that allow us to transform the world toward healing:

-          The spiral begins with gratitude, because it quiets the frantic mind and brings us back to source, stimulating our empathy and confidence. It helps us to be more fully present and opens psychic space for acknowledging the pain we carry for our world.

-          In owning and honoring our pain, and daring to experience it, we learn the true meaning of compassion: to “suffer with.” We begin to know the immensity of our heart-mind. What had isolated us in private anguish now opens outward and delivers us into the wider reaches of our inter-existence.

-          Experiencing the reality of our inter-existence helps us see with new eyes. We can sense how intimately and inextricably we are related to all that is. We can taste our own power to change, and feel the texture of our living connections with past and future generations, and with our brother/sister species.

-          Then, ever again, we go forth into the actions that call each of us, according to our situation, gifts, and limitations. With others whenever and wherever possible, we set a target, lay a plan, step out. We don’t wait for a blueprint or fail-proof scheme, for each step will be our teacher, bringing new perspectives and opportunities. Even when we don’t succeed in a given venture, we can be grateful for the chance we took and the lessons we learned.

-          And the spiral begins again. There are hard things to face in our world today, if we want to be of use. Gratitude, when it’s real, offers no blinders. On the contrary, in the face of devastation and tragedy it can ground us. Especially when we’re scared, gratitude can hold us steady for the work that must be done.

It was through this lens that I approached the Demilitarized Zone, and my focus was on gratitude for my own freedoms and privileges, and honoring the pain that myself and so many others feel at the horrors of war, of separation, and of authoritarian rule that the DMZ represents. I arrived there and I prayed, and I read the plaques, and I did what I could to honor this suffering.

I was not, however, anticipating the beauty that I would find there. The greenery of the land beyond the fence was striking after spending so many days in the grayness of Seoul, and recognizing the new life in this place of death was the first moment of my journey into the next part of the spiral — looking with new eyes. I then came across a wealth of information about the unique ecology of the DMZ, that it is actually a global heritage site, and an incredible natural haven for thousands of otherwise endangered species. Species of birds, deer, fish, plants, and insects thrive here in the beautiful wilderness of this land which has been untouched for decades now. There is remarkable environmental harmony in this land in the absence of human destruction.

Of course, in moments like this, it can be all too easy to jump to the conclusion that the world in general would be perhaps better off without humans, but I am of firm belief that humans have, and can still, coexist symbiotically with a thriving ecosystem.

Like URI North America on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and help put an end to religiously-motivated violence by supporting their work.