Saturday, April 26, 2014
Lessons from the Buddha and the Sewol Disaster about Living in the Moment
One thing that makes this whole disaster possibly even more upsetting is the number of young people who were the victims of it, mostly high school students.
The tragic death of a student at my school a couple of months ago got me thinking how much of his short life seems to have been based on studying very hard for a future he will now sadly never experience. Now, with the horrors of the Sewol disaster as well, this has hit me with even sharper focus. I wonder whether the young survivors of the disaster will now look at their lives rather differently and strive for a richer life in the present and not simply search for their (or their parents) ideal future.
I am often saddened by the amount of times I ask the question, "What did you do this weekend?", to my students (of a range of ages across all the jobs I've had in Korea, but most recently my high school students) and their answer, even in the school holidays, is "Study". I used to have a private student, of 13 years old, who spent 12 hours every Sunday in the library, and the vast majority of his waking hours on every other day of the week studying as well - not by choice I might add - and his situation was not unique.
In recent history, many people in the West have looked to the East for answers about how to live the good life and be happy, and specifically they have often looked to Buddhism to show the way (my own cousin can be named among these people). The West's focus on material possessions, money and building for a better future are all called into question by a belief system that focuses on relinquishing the material and an inner peace in the here and now, rather than dwelling on the past or putting too much emphasis on a dream of a better future. Right here and now is all we really have, yet most people's attention is firmly rooted in the past or the future, never really appreciating the present moment. I, like many people perhaps, often find myself looking forward too much and not enjoying the present enough.
I am no expert on, or a follower of, Buddhism, and I believe most of its claims to be bogus, but one thing I am not sceptical about is the value of practices like meditation to enlighten ourselves about the here and now and the importance of it and taking time to try and rid ourselves of the plethora of thoughts and worries buzzing around in our heads.
Despite Korea being a country with strong Buddhist traditions and a great deal of temples dotted around its mountainous landscape, Korean society appears to have totally lost touch with some of the principles of Buddhism that could really do it a lot of good.
Ironically, I have heard a number of Korean people criticising Western culture for being overly materialistic, but Korea is a place that values material wealth more than any other place I have ever visited. It is also a culture obsessed with the future. People are always searching for a perfect tomorrow; to go to a good university, to get a good job, to get married, to have children, to help pay for their parents retirement, etc. Now we all do this to a degree, but many Koreans take this to the extreme and pressurise young people into thinking about their futures all the time in a very inflexible and expectant way, hence the crazy education culture, the general lack of sleep, and all those hours of hard work and study.
From my viewpoint, my hope is that the Sewol disaster might just serve to give Korea as a nation a wake up call (although I'm not terribly optimistic); not just about practices regarding safety, but as a reminder that all of us are just one second away to our ends, one step away from walking in front of a bus, one diagnosis away from falling terminally ill, and one journey away from never returning. If this happens to us at any age, could we look back on our lives and say it was all worthwhile, that we lived as good a life as possible, or even simply that we enjoyed life while we had it?
We all need to plan for the future to some extent, but when I think of the all the high school students on that ferry my thoughts turn to just what the last few years of their lives would have been like. If they are anything like the students I have come to know in Korea, most of their time will have been spent with their heads in books, night and day, and being pressured by parents and teachers to prepare for a tomorrow that might never actually come. Korea is now an economically wealthy, well-developed country, isn't it about time it used this fact to make the people happier and aid them in living more fulfilling lives? It feels like this aspect of the disaster has been somewhat ignored, so far at least. With any luck at some point in the near future, the next time a young person dies, their short time on this earth won't seem to be as poorly spent when much greater happiness and life experiences were possible.