Martine & Stephen

Batchelor

Recently I was moved and impressed by a Korean film called “The Old Garden”.    It was about the brutal repression and massacre that happened in 1980 in Gwangju, a large town situated in South West Korea, not far from the temple where I was living at the time.  The film told the story of a young man who took part in the student revolt.

This film consists of four different types of scenes, set in: (a) the present time, (b) the repression 17 years earlier, (c) the time hiding from the authorities in the old garden of the title, and (d) prison. To escape the massacre the hero went to hide in the old garden and fell in love with the young art teacher who was helping him.  But he could not remain in the old garden, although he was happy in his love for the young woman, because his feelings of shame were too strong.  So to resolve those feelings he went to the capital, Seoul, to rejoin the struggle.  However he was quickly caught, sent to jail, tortured and suffered greatly until he was released 17 years later.

In 1997 he is shown emerging into a new world, without repression or dictatorship, but very changed and materialistically inclined, and without his young love who had since died of cancer and had been forbidden to visit him in jail.    I wondered:  was his decision to go back to Seoul worth it?  This film made me ponder the fact that often we make choices to escape certain painful feelings and end up in a worse place.  We often think that something cannot get any worse but often it does indeed.  So what to do?  Change oneself or change the world?  Think of oneself or think of the world?  What was striking in this case was that Korea changed anyway.  But would it have changed if all these people, who suffered repression, house-arrest and torture under the dictatorship for trying to change things, had not done so?

I knew a few Buddhists monks and laypeople who had been involved in opposing the dictatorship, but their practice of the dharma seemed to have helped them to survive better than the young man in the film.  When I was young I was interested in politics and social movements, but decided at one point that it would be better for me to meditate rather than to agitate.  Jan Willis recounts a similar experience in her book Dreaming Me: An African-American Baptist-Buddhist Journey.  In these deeply political times, how can an individual put politics and spirituality together?  How can a group of people change society for the better non-violently?  And would their “better” be considered better by everyone, and specially by those in power?

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