On 29 October, at around 10:00 p.m. local time, South Korea suffered a national tragedy when a crowd of tens of thousands—some say up to 100,000 people—converged on the hip area of Itaewon in Seoul. The celebration was for Halloween and partygoers dressed in masks and costumes massed in a narrow alley.
As groups of people starting moving along divergent routes, the earliest recorded call to the police at 6:34 p.m. indicated that something was very wrong. An unidentified caller warned: “That alley is really dangerous right now, people going up and down, so people can’t come down, but people keep coming up, it’s gonna be crushed. I barely made it to get out but it’s too crowded. I think you should control it.” (BBC News) The clashing flows of people made the alley an effective death trap: “People kept pushing down into a downhill club alley, resulting in other people screaming and falling down like dominos,” Yonhap News Agency quoted an unidentified witness as saying. “I thought I would be crushed to death too as people kept pushing without realizing there were people falling down at the start of the stampede.” (Al Jazeera)
The scene was corroborated by a Chinese partygoer surnamed Li, who told Jiupai News: “The crowd lost control when people who were moving downward started to retreat but found it too hard to move in the opposite direction.” The revelry turned into a panicked “vortex” wherein the more people struggled to get away, the more their bodies became an “avalanche” sucked in. (South China Morning Post) This, coupled with an inadequate number of police officers on duty, has led to 156 deaths so far.
The South Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has declared a period of mourning. Three major thoughts that continue to haunt the aftermath of this catastrophe: how agonizing the pain surely was for those who died in the crush, how deep the trauma of the survivors must be, and how painful this has been even for those unconnected with the tragedy. As Reuters reports, Ulsan University Hospital professor of psychiatry Jun Jin-yong has noted that the crush was extraordinary in a macabre way—how mobile devices and social media made the disaster an unfolding catastrophe that could be followed in real time by mass audiences. Vivid language describing the physical distress of the casualties proliferated from the people at the scene: “People were layered on top of others like a tomb. Some were gradually losing their consciousness while some looked dead by that point,” a witness told Yonhap News Agency. (Al Jazeera)
In the disaster’s first few hours, an onslaught of disturbing images and video footage streamed onto Korean and global social media, leaving, as noted by Prof. Jun, “people directly and indirectly affected, and even those who aren’t affected may feel distressed and frustrated, pretty much casting a sense of dread over the entire society.” (Reuters) Circumstances are complicated by the fact that there were no immediate culprits that could be held accountable. Prof. Jun emphasized a particularly difficult conundrum of this tragedy: “What makes it harder for most people is that it was nobody’s fault that they happened to be there, and when you keep asking why were they there in the first place . . . that’s a recipe for social conflict.” (Reuters) The South Korean authorities have launched an inquiry into the disaster, reconstructing the chain of events and trying to identify if anyone was directly responsible. However, there is no guarantee that anyone can be decisively blamed for the disaster, even though the mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, has apologized and many have suggested that that the police failed to enforce crowd control measures.
With so many deaths for no good reason, and with not even a culprit at whom to direct anger and grief, survivors and those who have lost friends and family members, a sense of closure might be even harder to find. Certain losses, even those inflicted by violence, make some kind of sense, even when the pain is just as acute. Last weekend’s crush, however, was so abrupt and random that it resembles a freak accident—something that simply should not have happened.
In such circumstances, where even the grieving process struggles with the logic of loss, how can we even begin to cope?
Korean Seon master Ven. Pomnyun Sunim’s Jungto Society had just concluded co-organizing the 20th Biennial Conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists from 24–30 October. A recent article prepared by Jungto Society and shared by BDG* addressed the question of the best way to say goodbye to those we have lost. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim noted that “. . . the best farewell for those who pass away is to let them go from our hearts.” Far from forgetting them, this simply means that we should unburden ourselves of our self-imposed anguish, and live as the deceased would have wanted us to. We do justice to their memory by living fully, richly, and happily, with care for our own well-being and pro-active compassion for everyone in our lives. Ven. Pomnyun Sunim further urges us that rather than worrying about heaven and hell or a good or bad rebirth for ourselves or even for others, our futures are decided by how we live our lives now.*
It is tempting, when answers are lacking, to invoke karma. It is often done with good intentions, to inject some sense into a senseless situation. Resorting to karmic explanations can be a temptation in light of catastrophes with no single source to blame. It has been invoked as an explanation for many major accidents and natural disasters. However, this at best provides an illusory feeling of insight, as if we “know” why something happened, and at worst, can be even more destructive by putting the blame on the shoulders of the deceased or injured. Buddhists should not misunderstand the law of karma to project or assume potentially insensitive and incorrect things. Baseless or careless speculation on the ineffable ways of karma over endless lifetimes is not the sincere Buddhist’s prerogative or concern. Furthermore, karma is volition or intentionality, and it is more about what the sentient being does in their life rather than what happens to them. As Ven. Pomnyun Sunim notes, “If you are a Buddhist who believes in the law of cause and effect, and know that everything originates from the mind, you just need to cultivate your mind without worrying about what will happen tomorrow.”*
But what about the memory of our loved ones, which exists vividly and cannot be extinguished, even if we do our best to let go of the associated attachment? Thich Nhat Hanh, who died on 22 January, similarly urged a simple yet radical reorientation of how we see life and death, and existence itself. No Death, No Fear (Riverhead Books 2003) set out his core thoughts:
When you lose a loved one, you suffer. But if you know how to look deeply, you have a chance to realize that his or her nature is truly the nature of no birth, no death. There is manifestation and there is the manifestation in order to have another manifestation. . . . Pay attention to all the leaves, the flowers, the birds and dewdrops. If you can stop and look deeply, you will be able to recognize your beloved one manifesting again and again in many forms. (194)
In successive decades, Thich Nhat Hanh consistently compared his own being to that of a cloud, water, or grass or flowers. His fondness for such imagery led him to often say that: “The cloud is not lost; it is transformed into rain, and the rain is transformed into grass,” meaning that rather than speaking of birth and death, he preferred to speak of continuation, much as the rain is the continuation of the cloud.
People in South Korea, and around the world, are still in shock. The grief comes not only from the loss itself, but from trying to make sense of the way in which our loved ones left us. Buddhist wisdom does not seek to cover the trauma, nor to introduce toxic positivity when sadness and anger are the right emotions to feel, nor to gaslight the grieving about their karma or the karma of their loved ones. However, when the time is right, and with the language of insight, it can gently propose that, just as there are many colors in the world, there are also myriad perspectives. And perhaps one perspective, informed by meditation and peering into the workings of nature and the cosmos itself, suggests that our loved ones are never truly gone. A violent ripple may cause a lake to tremble, but the lake itself remains in its water, its dew, air, rain, and the waves.
Thich Nhat Hanh. 2003.No Death, No Fear. New York: Riverhead Books
South Korea: How the Halloween tragedy unfolded (BBC News)
S Korea in national mourning after deadly Halloween crowd crush (Al Jazeera)
‘Sucked into a vortex’: Chinese survivors recall ‘avalanche of bodies’ in Seoul Halloween crush carnage as death toll climbs to 154 (South China Morning Post)
Trauma of South Korea Halloween party tragedy is pervasive, expert says (Reuters)
Seoul mayor apologizes over Itaewon disaster (Yahoo News)
Related news from BDG
Engaged Buddhism: 20th Biennial INEB Conference Concludes in South Korea with a Commitment to Action, Peace, and Change
Engaged Buddhism: 20th Biennial INEB Conference Commences in South Korea
Ven. Pomnyun Sunim: Upon Hearing the News of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Passing
The Cloud Is Not Lost – In Honor of Thích Nhất Hạnh