The abbott, 1973. Photo courtesy of Wayne Kelly

Riding buses and walking for most of a day, we are headed toward a small hermitage inhabited by sympathetic monks. We arrive late in the evening, wilted with hunger and fatigue.

My companion rushes through the gate to explain our presence and we are welcomed with kindness. Unusually, there is a total lack of interest in my nationality, my race or my story. I’m just one more ill-starred student whose life has notched up from sketchy to dicey. A person who needs shelter – a place to hide.

Daunted by what lies ahead, I sigh deeply. Sometimes a life must be turned upside down to be righted again.

I structure my days by taking part in temple life. There is no pressure from the monks for me to do so. I sense, for the first time, that a genuine smile is a blessing that can heal a troubled soul.

Deciding to float with the tide, I soon find myself engaged in a potent cerebral workout. Unlike the case with other similar disciplines, there is no need to discard my emotions. I am intrigued.

The abbot has an easy smile. I never see him upset. He looks at me with such focus that I wonder if he is watching the thoughts form inside my brain.

Other times, he is serenely unfocused, internal, looking off at some distant point that nobody else can see. I often see him sitting on the stoop, eyes closed, face turned up to the sun. Then he transforms into the archetypal raconteur, unleashing a smile and letting fly with the perfect quip or story.

The exuberance of his laughter resembles a volcanic eruption. To me, he is living proof that the Buddhist path is profound and advanced. Maybe even fun.

Marooned, fearful, I remain at the temple until my student visa is close to expiring. I must take a chance. I have no choice but to leave the temple and board the ferry from Busan to Shimonoseki for a new entry permit.

One of the monks gives me some parting words of inspiration: “No matter what happens, remember to practice. If you forget – and you will – just return to your practice when you remember. That’s all.”

Bowing goodbye, I turn to leave. Taking only a few steps, I turn back to pester him with one final question. “Should I come back here if I get an entry permit in Japan?” I ask dopily.

Looking at me, he states the obvious. His words are as clear as the temple bell: “If you are able to get back into Korea, you have no reason to return here. If you don’t get back in, then you cannot come back here.”

Wayne Kelly’s academic plan to be the first white foreigner to receive a PhD in Korean Literature from a Korean University was permanently derailed in 1975 when he was deported by the Park Chung-hee regime for “political activity.” He was permitted to return to Korea in 1981, more than a year after Park’s assassination. For the next 18 years, he had careers in Seoul as a recording artist; radio and TV personality; interpreter and translator for the US Army Corps of Engineers; editor of Korea’s first non-government-sponsored English language monthly magazine; and copy editor, letter writer, and language instructor for the head of the Korean National Assembly. He now lives in Ashland, Oregon, where he is retired and in the final stages of publishing a memoir of his exploits in Korea. The above is a fragment of that story.

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