Jennifer Lee

The Dosa

The Dosa has covered the windows with a plastic film to invite light and warmth but conceal the crossed and tangled electrical wires that fill Seoul’s skyline. Following the training regimen developed by Grand Master Handang, the Dosa leads his followers through the eleven poses of Buk-Seon-Beop (北仙法國), beginning with Wa-Shik (臥式), the supine position. As his practitioners lay on the floor, legs apart, arms relaxed, he circulates his own Ki (氣) energy through the room to clear it of anxiety and impatience. Some of this is generated when Ki is not able to find its proper place in the body of his practitioners. But much of it intrudes from the outside world, along with the clanging of bells and eruptions of shouts from the street.

Meditation begins with the breath but it is not about the breath. This is the message the Dosa must remind his followers, day after day. He weaves around them as they lay, eyes closed, each clad in a loose, gray, cotton dobok which obscures differences in status, age, and physical condition. Focus on the breath in order to still the mind, he tells them. It is the mind they must train.

Afterwards the practitioners, glowing and calm, change their clothes and join him in his small office to sit cross-legged on the floor and drink tea. They bring him gifts of nuts, herbs, or fruit. Today one of the older men has brought him a bag of persimmons. This man is diligent in his attendance but does not understood the principle of not comparing oneself to others (不比他人). He innocently asks the group, Did you know that there is no word in English for tteolpda? With that one question, some of the warmth leaves the room. The old man cannot resist reminding them all that he was once a professor. The others bow politely and excuse themselves, one by one.

The Dosa simply answers, No, I didn’t know. I am a man of discipline and obedience, not education.

The old man enjoys challenging him with theoretical questions. You say that a Dosa of level five or higher can enter other dimensions — places where history has unravelled differently, where alternate decisions have been made. Would it be possible to leave this dimension and move to another one? Permanently? What is to stop someone from finding the world in which all their past sins have never taken place?

The Dosa is merely a 3rd level Dosa and has not yet been able to project his spiritual body into the Heavenly World (道界). You refer to Yang-Shin (昜神), the Dosa comments. To master this stage you must observe the environment without attachment or intention. A strong desire to control the world results in the scattering of one’s Heavenly Mind (道心).

The Dosa speaks from experience. He has tried for twenty years.

They sit quietly and sip the tea.

You have learned Seon-in-beop (仙人法) and Pung-su-beop (風水法), the Dosa adds. In theory you can read the emotions of others, even a man’s past or future emotions. But you would not practice this for personal gain. To do so would damage both yourself and the other person. Breathing meditation brings us many skills, but it does not give us permission to use them.

As dusk falls, the Dosa locks the door and walks, taking the bag of persimmons with him. His modest studio is near Nambu Bus Terminal. The streets here are always full of movement. People leave their offices but they avoid their homes, pouring into the streets to exhaust themselves before bed. Having mastered the generation and circulation of his Jin-Ki (眞氣), the Dosa needs little sleep. Today he will go to Gangnam. He is drawn there for some reason.

The persimmons are shiny and hard and the exact color of the jacket of a boy in front of him on the street. The Dosa brings the fruit to his mouth and takes a bite. The tannins immediately coat his mouth and tongue: thick, heavy, and chalky. The Dosa wonders about a language which has no word for this feeling. He feels the astringency even in his bowels, and breaks out in a sweat as he forces himself to take another bite. Such is the strength of the body’s desire to protect itself. He circulates his Ki through the twelve meridians and the eight special channels, clearing the blockage, healing himself.

The boy steps off the sidewalk and into the street, walking along the marks there, as cars honk and swerve. The Dosa wishes to scold the boy but something holds him back. The Dosa reads the remnants of some forgotten accident with the eyes of a stranger. An uneven line and the label Head. A bit farther down is an ellipse, marked Scooter. On the side of a bus, Increase your TEOFL score in 100 hours with Dr. Park’s Award-Winning System! On the flashing road sign, The Cultivated Citizen Obeys the Traffic Rules. The boy steps back onto the sidewalk and is admonished by the ajuma steaming corn in a plastic tent. The boy bows his head and accepts her reprimand. The boy’s school uniform has become too short. His ankles will be cold.

The invisible yet boundless Ki energy presses against the eighty-four thousand pores of his skin. The Dosa feels the fears and desires of each person he passes. They all erect boundaries around themselves: clothes, bags, jewelry, scents, earphones, cars, cubicles, walls, sealed windows, air conditioning. They escape to the golf course or the gym or the fancy restaurant or the sauna. But they cannot outrun what lives inside them. He circulates some of the gold-hued Ki from his body into these simple cases. They will experience a moment of peace. They will feel the urge to talk, to touch someone, or to sit quietly by themselves. He attempts to dispel the coating in his mouth but his tongue moves like a stranger. Tteolpda. How else would one describe this punishment with no pain? Perhaps foreigners do not eat persimmons. Perhaps their bodies are stronger, immune to the effects. Perhaps they are patient enough to wait for the fruit to ripen. There is much he does not understand about this world.

The boy turns into an alley of restaurants and bars, and the Dosa follows. A butcher stands in the window chopping up fresh sides of flesh, the marble strips of fat visible as thin ribbons in the pink. The night is alive with the crackle of crisp skin, the clink of soju glasses. A woman tips her head back in laughter, her neck exposed, her cheeks flushed with temporary warmth. She turns and looks in the Dosa’s direction but she doesn’t seem to see him. He has made himself invisible, just another ajosshi somewhere past middle age, with forgettable brown loafers and cheap pleated slacks, the outfit of a man who is socially tolerated in reward for past economic utility. The jacket of bruised red darts in and out of the doorframes. The Dosa hears the boy’s thoughts without seeking them. No other way, no other way. The faces and sounds enter his mind and then flow out again, in and out like waves upon the shoreline. The Dosa’s breath moves with difficulty through his constricted nostrils and throat. I can’t take another day, not one more. The cultivated citizens will return home, their clothes thick with the scent of burned flesh, and their worries will find them, and their desires; they pull themselves from day to day like climbing a ladder, each rung a new watch or a new lover or a new face or the excitement of someone’s envy or lust. The boy, however, cannot get beyond the words in his head. Where’s your ambition? Do you know what I’ve sacrificed for you? Up one rung and one must invent another; up and up and up; there is no looking down. How could you throw it all away? What will become of us now? Look down and you fall, pitched into the deep, dark water; it fills you and pulls you down, you become leaden, confused, hopeless.

The Dosa takes another persimmon out of the bag and examines it. It too is underripe. He thinks of his conversation with the elderly man as he takes a bite. The Dosa is still attempting to advance to Yang-Shin stage. He has transformed his Ki into Yeo-ui-ju (如意珠), a small ball of light. He is told that once his Yeo-ui-ju radiates gold light, he will be able to look inside it and see a human shape sitting with crossed legs. The face will be his own face, but the body will be that of an infant. This is the shape of his true self, his spiritual self, which is still in its infancy. This is the Yang-Shin. Do not look too closely inside the Yeo-ui-ju, his own Master has scolded the Dosa. Some practitioners become obsessed with the changes to the Yeo-ui-ju and lose focus. The Dosa must observe the changes objectively, without attachment.

The boy’s thoughts have become louder and more anxious. All her fault. All her fault. No other choice. The Dosa notes that he has left Yangjae and moved into Dogok-dong, into the shade of Samsung’s luxury apartment complex Tower Palace. Before it was built this was a shanty town, and before that, it was the headquarters for the riot police. Thirty years ago it was an orchard. The Dosa can almost smell the pears, sense the heavy promise of the fruit before that first bite, when the skin is unbroken and dotted with tiny, rough pores. The Dosa acknowledges these energies humming under the surface but he does not access them.

Once the Dosa is able to receive the light of the Heavenly World, his Yang-Shin will push through the Crown Chakra. Its body will grow until it is the size of his physical body. Then the Dosa will be able to move his consciousness to it. He will be able to travel anywhere: to the sun, to another human body, to the smallest particles of dust, even to another dimension. This is the teaching to which the elderly practitioner was responding.

The boy leaves the chaos of the alleyway and enters the pathway along Yangjae stream. His red jacket glows under the lampposts. The gurgling stream sounds like the recording of water that the Dosa plays during Wa-Shik. But it does not relax the boy. The boy’s thoughts have become primal, non-verbal, thick like the dark silt, sitting cold and uneven at the bottom of the stream, the part of the water that only carp can hear. The Dosa stops and leans against a tree, gathering its strength. His own master has cautioned him not to relieve the past, nor tamper with the energies of the universe, which are too complex for his understanding and ability. Eyes closed, the Dosa takes the last persimmon from the bag and devours it. Tteolpda. It fills his throat and his nostrils; he cannot breathe. His feet jostle something at the base of the tree. It is an IV bag, the needle stuck deep into the bark. He knows what will happen. He looks down the long straight river path; every ten meters another tree appears with an identical bag and needle, diseased trees as far as he can see. His Ki is not strong enough; nor that of the tree. The boy will return home and he will smother his mother with a pillow. He will seal the room with her in it, free from her demands, free from her dreams, but never free from her ghost. She will continue to whisper to him in his dreams. The Dosa closes his eyes and searches with his mind for his Yang-Shin. It is not a means of escape, he tells himself. Let go of intention. But it eludes him. The feeling in his mouth is unbearable and familiar. Through the eighty-four thousand pores in his skin seep other voices, other pain, the cries of the living and the dead. He is unable to push away the memories which surround him like the skin of an onion: all the times he proclaimed, There is nothing to be done. Even if he were to move his Ki to this boy at this moment, what would it accomplish? A tragedy is not a moment in the making. Bridges fall, buildings collapse, ships sink, who is to blame? The government, the owners, the designers, the engineers, the employees, the workmen? The society whose yookshim is to be modern, Western, rich? The men and women whose eager footsteps sent widening cracks into the concrete below? The husbands, the fathers, the brothers and sons who sent them there?

The boy leaves the river. The Dosa hears the echo of past arguments, all the times his mother voiced her disappointment instead of her love. Could the Dosa, with his limited power, have intervened then? or then? or then? Like waves, each moment pulled the boy and his mother towards one conclusion.

There is nothing he can do for this boy. There is nothing to be done.

The Dosa focuses on his breath. It begins with the breath but it is not about the breath. It is dangerous to practice breathing meditation without first training the mind. The Dosa loses this control, still. Below him, below the asphalt upon which he stands, the tree spreads its roots deep and wide, tangled in detritus broken and buried. It sucks the leaden water from leaky pipes and reaches further into the universe underground. The Dosa forces thinning air past the tannins which clog his throat and mouth like dust. Families walk past him, chatty and unaware. Every moment, tiny particles of dead skin, heavy metal, and pollen settle on the earth, weighing upon it, pulling them all closer to the soil. He was born from that soil and he will return to it one day. He fears the smell of it. It remembers him as a child, remembers his ambitions, remembers his failures.

The Dosa imagines his Yang-Shin as it hovers above fluted branches stretching to sky. The Yang-Shin’s face is blissfully calm, its body unmarked. The Yang-Shin has no brothers nor sisters, no legacy to protect; it wants nothing; it wants for nothing. And yet it loves. It loves like a child loves its parents. Without judgment, and without scars.

Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee recently moved to California after eleven years in Seoul and Shanghai, and is still trying to learn the local dialect, which seems to involve wearing yoga pants. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and an MFA from City University of Hong Kong. Her fiction has appeared in Your Impossible Voice and the anthology Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia.