Some of Buddha’s students laugh in North Korea’s Songbul Buddhist Temple. A few cast inquisitive glances; some look troubled; others just stare blankly. Our guides drove us here this morning, partially to get us out of Pyongyang - and partially to make a point about the DPRK’s tolerance for difference.
And freedom of religion too!
|Songbul Buddhist Temple|
As the monk lit incense and chanted the incantation, I closed my eyes and repeated a mantra. Breathing slowly, I rolled each syllable words like a log on water. I could hear cicadas outside, screeching from the pines, and I could feel sweat drip down my back. Over and over I repeated a tight loop of words. Then David and I stopped and returned to our feet. The monk radiated calm as we left offerings in the tip jar.
We said our goodbyes and started down the mountain. During one of our conversations, a guide said that the North Korean people revere Kim Il Sung as God. This confused me, as Juche philosophy is explicitly atheistic. “How could that be so?” I asked, trying my best to be courteous. “No, we don’t believe in God,” the guide clarified. “We respect him as you Christians respect God.”
Our guides were surprised to learn that David and I don’t consider ourselves to be Christians, at least not in the organized sense of the word. We took turns sharing our individual stories of departure from formal modes of faith. David was once an evangelical; I was once a Mormon. One of the guides couldn’t believe that we abandon our collectives so easily.
“Did you have to fill out forms?”
|Sariwon Folk Village|
The sun glared overhead as our guides marched us along an array of mosaics. “He was a famous general... This is how families would make kimchi... Here is another famous general.” We covered about 4,000 years in roughly a half hour and then ducked into a tiny restaurant to sip bowls of Makgeolli.
I peered into the milky concoction and thought back to that first night’s encounter with Soju. I remembered that next morning and wasn’t sure I wanted to try any rice wine today. And then there’s the smell. Served at a precise moment of fermentation, Makgeolli stinks like stale cheese. The children sitting nearby were barely suppressing giggles. I took a small sip. And then another.
As we left the restaurant, I slurred something like, “We’ve got to get some more of this stuff!”
|Sariwon AK-47 monument|
Our next stop was a model farm, more evidence that North Koreans have marshalled Juche wisdom to solve their hunger problem. Mostly our visit involved waiting for the docent to arrive. One of my guides surveyed the empty parking lot and smiled at me.
“Feel free to take pictures.”
I ambled here and there, photographing stalks of corn and wondering if any other tourists would show up. I hoped there’d be air-conditioning inside. Eventually the docent arrived, and we commenced our tour.
|Bas-relief sculpture at farm (click for better view, and check out the TV!)|
I flashed back to that snarky website Kim Jong Il Looking at Things, and I began to understand something about those images. In nearly each one, the workers and managers standing nearby are awestruck, perhaps a little terrified, that the Dear Leader is staring at all their stuff. In the DPRK, that kind of focused attention is a big, big deal.
“Many people drink Soju here.”
We turned a corner and heard music. An extended group of people were gathered under the trees for a midday party. They were eating and drinking, and dancing to pop versions of Korean folk and patriotic songs that blared from a speaker. I remembered something one of our guides said hours ago, “... and at the park, maybe we’ll dance with the locals!” And there they were. Two or three of them were waving us over. Of course we danced.
|Dancing in Moranbong Park|
|Andy tries to make a friend|
|David at the fun fair|