new year’s resolutions: memento mori


Death is with us. The out-breath to our in-breath.
The hand twined in mine as I fall asleep, the arm over my shoulder when I wake.



Death: is she handsome? Is she ugly?
I examine my face in the mirror for years, unable to decide.



At the wake, I walked up to the casket. She was lovely but stiff, like bubbles held her limbs away from her chest, from each other. My hand, when I took it away from the still-soft white curls, burned with the chill of her skull. Only death could be so cold.

My father said, “That’s not my mother in there.”



I want to be like Oliver, and step through the door with curiosity. All I feel now is an accepting dread.

To be curious about life is to be curious about death, and to enter it as I enter each day, striving to be attentive and to attend. But will this entering be like the slow wade into the morning swimming pool, one inch at a time, the thread-thin line of sensation now above my ankles, over my knees, washing my belly button, grazing my collar-bones, before I plunge my head under and the spray of my first kicks and strokes bursts forth?

Or will it be like the sudden dive, the ones we practice by beginning on the rough concrete, pounding forward, bare feet slapping the deck and then the beautiful arc of a body fully possessed of itself, before it loosens into partnership with the water, momentum realized?


All pictures are from a public cemetery in Gimpo City. Interestingly, the cemetery seems to be Christian, since nearly all the memorial stelae, or headstones, had crosses. The entire hill was covered in the most amazing harmonization of traditional Korean burial practices and forms of ancestral worship combined with a relatively new religion, Christianity. Judging by the size of the Catholic cathedral just down the street from the cemetery, my guess is that it’s a Catholic cemetery. The Catholic Church in Korea has displayed greater tolerance for hybrid life-cycle ceremonies and practices, going so far as to hold “49-day Masses,” when the 49-day ceremony is the typical Buddhist memorial for sending a deceased individual on to their next birth after the bardo stage. The rounded graves and the stone stelae are both typical of Korean Confucian burial practices, as are the flat altars in front of the burial mounds for offering food and drink to the ancestors on memorial days. I saw paper cups with drink and both fruit and bread offerings in front of graves that had crosses on the stelae, indicating the interesting fusion of beliefs and forms happening here.

I walked through the cemetery after I finished taking my (all-day) exam for full precepts. The cemetery was quiet, peaceful, and situated to receive the last afternoon light. I didn’t bring my camera, so I took pictures with my iPhone using Instagram. Instagram is addictive, and something I’m already cautioning myself about over-using. I’ve always liked graveyards. The dead are ubiquitously unquarrelsome, at least in hearing of the living, and perhaps, having suffered judgement both real and imagined, less inclined to harsh opinions.


2 comments on “new year’s resolutions: memento mori

  1. Kevin Kim says:

    Hey, Sunim! Your Chinese is great, but you’ve got to work on the Latin: memento mori. You’ll need to change both the post title and the category tag.

    Just a superficial remark. As for the post itself: it brings up feelings of what it was like to stare death in the face for nine months. I understand your curiosity (“will I wade in slowly? will I dive in?”) and your “accepting dread,” but I can tell you this: when you love someone with all your heart, those questions disappear like mist and are replaced with the conviction that you would gladly accept death if it meant saving that person’s life. As I watched Mom suffer the ravages of her brain cancer, as I watched her dignity being stripped away layer by layer, I often found myself wishing for the power to take her cancer into myself and die in her place.

    It may be that, from a Buddhist point of view, I failed to learn some sort of lesson about nonattachment: my mother had an incurable form of cancer, after all, and our family knew from the beginning how this story was going to end. Clinging to the idea of saving Mom was, in that sense, both vain and inappropriate (and truth be told, I spent most of those nine months preaching realism to other people who were in denial: “She’s going to die; we have to do what we can to keep her happy and comfortable.”).

    My point, though, is to address whatever doubts, hesitations, and curiosities you may have about death. Master Shin at the Germantown, Maryland temple said, in response to a question about monks not marrying, that monks love the world so much they want to marry everyone, which is why monkhood is the only plausible path for such people. Whatever commitment I felt toward my mother — expand and multiply that sentiment outward to the whole world, and that’s the monastic worldview: to see the mortal suffering of even the littlest creature and to feel willing to trade places with it — without question, without hesitation. Gladly.

    When Mom died, Hyeon Gak Sunim visited my Kevin’s Walk blog (did you send him there?) and told me to pay attention to the lesson my mother was teaching me. I don’t know whether I learned whatever lesson he was hoping I would learn, but the lesson I did learn was that true love, including the love of a son for his mother, is indeed an abandoning of self. “Memento mori” can be a coldly metaphysical pronouncement about the nature of being and becoming, but the moment you pair it up with love, it takes on a much fuller meaning.

    My two cents, anyway.

    • seon joon says:

      I’ve talked with enough people about death, co-passion, love, and grieving to believe that if the “Buddhist lesson” about death is that we’re to accept it without any emotion at all, then I may not be a Buddhist in that regard. I’m much more in line with you, in that to consider death, you have to consider life, and all that life is, which includes the people and the loves we have.

      (For the record, my maternal grandfather died of Alzheimer’s, and although I’ve not written as much about his death as my grandmother’s, that was a very painful emotional process, especially for my mother who his prime caregiver. Watching someone die from Alzheimer’s or its complications means having to say goodbye to the spirit of a person while not being able to relieve them of their physical or mental anguish; it was terrible. My paternal grandmother died suddenly, peacefully; she was in full control of her senses and her body, and then something gave overnight. The two deaths were very different, as was the grieving process for both, since my grandfather suffered such a long and difficult process of decline and, as you also experienced with your mother, a loss of dignity; whereas my grandmother leapt, almost in full, from life to death, and was spiritually and emotionally prepared for her death, something few of us are.)

      I write a lot of the posts here from a deliberately “removed” perspective; this right now is primarily a writing blog, and I take on a persona and a voice when I write. I say that because as an individual, monastic or otherwise, I’m not one to make cold metaphysical pronouncements about death; in fact, from the Korean monastic standpoint, for me to even admit I feel dread would be tantamount to a betrayal of my monastic identity. How can a monastic who feels mortal dread preach detachment in the face of death? The assumption being that detachment about death equals lack of emotion, an assumption I personally don’t make.

      I’ve watched the nuns deal with grieving families in a stoic manner, and while I can’t comment on the cultural appropriateness of counseling widows, children, and parents to not cry or openly express grief, for me that’s always felt wrong. I don’t believe over-indulging emotions of any kind is healthy, but neither is ignoring or repressing how we emotionally respond to and interact with our world and lives. Someone who doesn’t or can’t admit emotion is often someone who doesn’t or can’t connect to others; and yet, the bodhisattva ideal is one of extreme connection, connection so strong that we move beyond empathy to absolute identity: the distinction between “my” pain and “your” pain dissolves to become “our” pain.

      My teachers, who are Western and Asian, Korean Zen and not, male and female, monastic and lay, have all said the same thing about emotions: it’s not feeling that’s a problem, it’s attaching. When you grieve, it’s 100%. When you love, it should be 100%. Less than that, and you’ve fallen into the trap of not engaging and repressing. Too much, and you’re attached. I think it was you who posted one time, years ago, about Christ’s “broken heartedness,” and that has been an image that has resonated with me ever since. We should be broken-hearted and in love with the world. Non-attachment doesn’t make us into robots, or it shouldn’t, at least. The reason I feel the need to consider death is because I feel so strongly about it, not because I have a lack of attachment or emotion in any way. I am materially curious about the experience of death, because I’m afraid of pain and loss. The pain of losing my loved ones, the pain of my own dying. We all need to consider this, because we can’t escape death.

      I don’t know what lesson Hyeon Gak Sunim had in mind when he commented on your blog. And no, I didn’t send him; I’m not sure he even knows who I am, although I believe he read some of my older blogs and may have gotten connected with you through them, since I did link a lot. Anyway, it’s not the lesson that someone else had in mind for you to learn that matters. It’s the lessons you did learn, in love, in grief, in life and death, that matter. And only you know them, and only you can share them. …Which is my way of saying thank you, for sharing so much about your Mom and your experiences with her.

      (And I’ve also been meaning to email you “when I have the time to focus.” *snort* Which will never happen if I don’t make time…)

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