Second-year students teach first-year students how to prepare summer cabbages.
Summer, 2011. First-year students take a nap on a day off.
Setting up for the morning formal meal, Un Mun Sa.
Changsam and the daily schedule, Vajra Hall, Un Mun Sa
It’s been a long time since I posted here.
I’ve done a mediocre job of keeping up with posts at (thus) but have basically ignored fts for a long while. Writing is something I can do while confined within a room or compound; photographs happen less when I’m physically constrained. Now I’m in the U.S. for the summer, at UVA in Virginia for the summer Tibetan intensive course. And it is intense, leaving as little time for photographs and writing as my busy spring season at my home temple. Daily practices of all kinds are being juggled. While I’ve been able to keep up with things in a general sense, on any given day only a few balls are actually in my hands. Sometimes one’s a camera, sometimes a computer, sometimes a blog; but always (these days) a textbook and a vocab list.
I have a backlog of edited photos, thanks to the prep work I did for a talk at the Korea Society in New York City. I’ll focus on getting some of those up, a few at a time, throughout the summer. For pictures (and really good ones!) of the summer of Tibetan, see classmate and Actual Photographer Matt Richter’s tumblr site.
April 3, 2012, 3:40 a.m.
After a week-long training in the precepts, including lectures covering each section of the Pratimoksha precepts for bhikkuni, or fully-ordained female monastics, one hundred and eight women entered the Hall of Ten Thousand Virtues at Jikji Temple in South Korea and received the 348 precepts of a bhikkuni and re-affirmed her commitment to the eight “heavy precepts,” in accordance with the Dharmagupta (四分律) Vinaya lineage, from the community of elder nuns. Three acharya and seven “pure witnesses” formed the bhikkuni platform for transmission of the precepts.
When we were finished, we left the hall, ate breakfast in the formal style (a four-bowl meal, or “bal-ru gong-yang”), and then waited while the sami monks received their bhikku precepts. We then re-entered the Hall around 9 a.m. for our second ordination in front of the assembly of bhikkus. Our platform of ten senior nuns spoke on our behalf to the assembly of ten senior bhikkus, and the ordination ceremony was repeated in front of the monks. In this way, we received our ordination according to the “double platform” stipulated in the monastic regulations.
I almost don’t know what to say about our ordination. Almost; but I’m rarely someone at a loss for words for very long. I scoff at my own religiosity sometimes, mocking my love of pomp and ceremony while at the same time yearning for the glimpse of the sublime that I get from it, peeking out from under the skirts of priests and reflected, wavering, in the brass of candlesticks and offering bowls. I sniff at my own inclinations because they insinuate several things, one of which being that I am a sentimentalist, somehow cliche, and another of which being that I am unable to get past form and attain substance. It’s not that I am necessarily either of these, but the fear that I might be lurks around my love of midnight Christmas masses and my satisfaction in a well-timed rice-offering like a whisper overheard in a crowded room.
Ordination is a terribly religious business. If there is pomp, it will be on parade at an ordination. If there is form and attachment to form, it will be out menacing the community in full regalia. There are precepts and procedures and formulas and scripts. There are expectations to be met and traditions to be preserved. There is much at stake at an ordination ceremony, most of which can and will be committed to memory and later immortalized in the commentary of senior officials. If anything goes wrong, if anything goes extraordinarily well: either way, ceremonies are part of a religion’s public record and in this regard can raise the ire of those who think that function should take precedence over form. Does it really matter if the lines of the cushions are perfectly straight? Or the colors of the flower arrangements harmonious? Or whether we bowed in perfect unison or not?
I loved the training. The lectures, the group chanting of the Pratimoksha, the bowing, the repentance, the easy way a group of 108 women who received similar training at institutions across the country fell into the familiar rhythm of work and community life together. Camaraderie, and something more. A mutual respect for the difficulties we each overcame to arrive at this place, at this time, together. Shared karma and individual karma braided together like the rope of a ladder, leading us further on.
Jikji Temple, where I also received novice precepts six years ago, is beautiful. At that time, as a postulant I only looked at the ground (as befits a good postulant). I wore a track between the hall the female novices lived in for the three-week training and the bathroom and memorized the cracks in the concrete and the slope of the stairs, never once looking up to see the mountains or the the sky or the trees that grace the temple’s mandala. I was full of unresolved questions but an equally stubborn will to ordain, and the two shared space in my heart like a pair of bristling animals, granting each her territory but not allowing any trespass. I was in turmoil the entire postulant training, and I cried, overwhelmed, after our morning precepts ceremony on the last day. It would take me years to begin to shape a peace between my challenges to the system and institution I had entered into, and the practice—but not always the religion—to which I wanted to commit my life. Form and function, vessel and substance: endlessly, endlessly, I have struggled with the relationship between the two.
People ask me why I came to Korea, why I chose to ordain, why I chose to ordain in Korea. I am not singularly a Zen practitioner. I freely describe my practice as a hybrid between Korean and Tibetan practices. I also feel the Tibetan canon has much to offer that the Chinese canon (the one which is authoritative in Korea) cannot. I am more of a Madhyamakan than a Tathagatagharban; big trouble in East Asia. Given all that, Korea is not the logical choice for me. It was a choice among others, and I made it partly because I was told I could study the sutras and sit Zen if I wanted, but even more so, because I could receive precepts from the double platform. As a woman and an American, I cannot tell you all how important this was to me. From the day I met the Buddha-Dharma, I also met the sangha; and from the moment I met nuns (Tibetan-tradtion nuns, in Nepal), I wanted to be a part of their community, in the widest sense of “female monastics.” I also felt that ordination in America would be very difficult. I did not have a strong relationship with any one Tibetan teacher, and didn’t know how to forge one to seek ordination. I didn’t find any large communities of bhikkunis in the West at that time. I did not have a connection with Thich Nhat Hanh’s community, even though the Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery communities are among the most stable and structured large-scale monastic communities in the West. Other than going East, I just did not know what to do. Something just didn’t feel right for me in the States.
Being the nerd that I am, I researched monastic precepts after I left Nepal eleven years ago. I knew more about bhikkuni precepts, platforms, Vinaya lineages, and controversies than I did about basic Buddhist teachings for a couple of years. What I learned left me convinced that not only would I be satisfied with nothing less than full ordination, meaning the full precepts of a bhikkuni in addition to the ten “novice” or sramenerika precepts that constitutes the first-stage of ordination, but that it had to be done “legally.” That meant a community of nuns to transmit the training and the precepts, and another assembly of monks to affirm the ordination. This is the “double platform.” In practice, there are many nuns, including a large number in the Tibetan tradition, who don’t receive bhikkuni ordination. (In the case of Tibetan nuns, this is partly because the bhikkuni lineage died out. The ten precepts can be given to a woman by a bhikku, or male monastic, but strictly speaking, bhikkuni are required to ordain other bhikkuni; bhikku alone cannot transmit the bhikkuni precepts, nor can bhikkuni ordination by the nuns community alone without a second ordination by the bhikku community be considered a “legal” bhikkuni ordination.) Even in Korea, the double-platform wasn’t revived until the early 1980s, after a lapse of how many years I don’t know. Prior to that, bhikku only gave the bhikkuni precepts if a nun received them at all. Many monks and nuns held the ten novice precepts their whole lives, satisfied with that training and receiving all the respect and honor due to a monastic, with no one much bothering with the distinction between novice and fully-ordained. There is a lot more that could be said about monastic traditions and full ordination, but I’ll leave it at this.
When the Abbot of my Zen center in Connecticut told me Korea had a double-ordination platform for women and that I could receive not only monastic training, but scriptural training in Korea, I decided to come here and test my karma with this country. I had enough good karma to find a community and a teacher (Unsa Sunim) to take me. That was seven years ago. Although there were many, many other factors contributing to my decision to seek ordination in Korea, being able to receive bhikkuni precepts from the double-platform has always been the kernel and the core of that decision.
Whether I had “correct” or “clear” motives is not so important anymore; I am convinced that no one knows what they really want or feel until they’re in the thick of community and ordained life. Only when the pressure is on and the questions are sharp, sharper than they ever were before and sharper than you dreamed they could be, only then do you begin to understand why you’re willing to stick with the commitment you made. At least, that’s how ordained life as been for me. Not one decision, not one commitment, but a ceaseless recommitment and ever-deepening understanding of how and why I came here, and how and why I will continue to practice as a monastic.
I’m not sure how much I can talk about the details of the ordination ceremony. Sometimes ordination ceremonies are public, sometimes they aren’t; in Korea, outsiders are not permitted in, and certainly no non-monastics or monastics who are not of the correct monastic age (a novice nun who hadn’t received her intermediate precepts would not be allowed to even observe the ceremony, for example). But it was beautiful to me. The liturgy, a mixture of classical Chinese and formal high Korean, was intelligible to me for the first time ever; I understood only the Korean of my novice ordination and only bits of my intermediate/probationary ordination two years ago. The call-and-response, the swell of voices, the ritual of requesting everything three times; calling all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to witness us and be our teachers and guides; the array of senior nuns on the platform, their severity, their grace; the sear of the precepts’ burn, the piney smell of the mugwort and incense as they smoldered; the hummingbird-beat of the moktak while we chanted the great dharani; the weight of the seven-patch robe of a dae kasa, the kasa of a fully ordained bhikkuni, the stiffness of the new material, the way I couldn’t untangle mine enough to give me space to properly fold my feet under it while we knelt, and so I kept tugging and tugging at while tucking my feet into a small ball so they wouldn’t peep out from under my robes; the nuns intoning in the dark and then the monks several hours later, “You will now receive your precepts-body;” the injunction to only use our Dharma names. Hearing that the Buddhas of the ten directions, the protectors, and all beings rejoice when someone receives precepts. Being told that our practice, as bhikkuni, is to “cease all wrong-doing, cultivate all good actions, and benefit all beings.” Hearing and feeling, truly and deeply and with incredible gratitude and joy, that as of this moment, I have a new life.
I guess that makes me a born-again monastic. There are worse things to be.
After the ceremony, a small group of us went to bow to the grand-teacher of one of our classmates. Seo Ju Sunim and I met seven and a half years ago as lay-women during the three-month winter retreat at Mu Sang Sa. We met again as a monastics at Unmun-sa, where were in the same class. Her grand-teacher, Hye Hae Sunim (honorifically called “elder,” or “Noh Sunim”), is one of the most respected nuns in the Zen community in Korea. Seo Ju Sunim suggested we go bow to her; I only had my phone to take pictures with, so the quality (I’m afraid) is less than what I would have hoped for as a photographer. Unless I told you, I’m not sure you’d know what to look for in the picture that indicates we’re full bhikkuni, other than (in my case) the way I can’t stop smiling. Our changsam, the gray butterfly robe we wear under our kasa, has no brown stripe at the collar; we also wear plain gray regular robes (jackets, etc.), without the brown stripe at the collar and on the sleeves. Our kasa is also paneled, or patched; the man-ui kasa we wore as novices and probationary nuns had no patches, but was a single contiguous piece of cloth. I regret somewhat to see, looking at the first picture in this post, that receiving new life as a bhikkuni has not helped me arrange my kasa any better. I am perpetually unable to get my folds to fall properly.
Hye Hae Noh Sunim, whose name means “Ocean of Wisdom,” gave us a few words on hwadu practice. Then she exclaimed over the cake we’d brought her, laughed, congratulated us, and urged us to eat slices of orange. She was barefoot on a blustery spring day. She has few teeth left but very sharp hearing. She is one of the strengths of the bhikkuni community here in Korea. It is because of practitioners like her, elders who found their way to the marrow of the bone of their vocation and their practice and then built communities to help other women practice, that we were able to receive precepts at all yesterday morning. In the past lies the future, like the braids of a rope ladder, anchoring us in the moment while taking us onward at the same time.
I’ve always been aware that even though we say, “I took precepts,” this is not precise or accurate language. We don’t take precepts, they cannot be lifted like a stereo or claimed like a prize. We receive them; they are given. We don’t keep precepts, either, like a casserole in the freezer or cash in an account. We hold them, like a living thing, and we care for them, and they care for us. We may break precepts, like a heart, or a bone; but they don’t break like something inanimate. They break like we break, because they live as we live, and they die as we fail to respect and love them, to see them as that which will shape us into beings capable of helping other beings and guide us toward wisdom and skillfulness, for the greatest benefit and joy of all.
I am so grateful to everyone who has supported my sisters and me on the path. Near and far, across continents and oceans, many different lives have interwoven with mine to make this vocation possible. May I repay this debt in full, and fulfill my vows, world after world, life after life, until every being is free.
Fruit and flower offerings on the main altar
The little new year is ending. When it began, I was a seminary student on her last winter solstice vacation, heading from school outside of Daegu to my home temple in North Jeolla Province. Now I am a graduate, at home in North Jeolla, settling with difficulty into the rhythm of a temple that has, in the four years I was away at school, become unfamiliar.
Sunday, we spent the day preparing for the lunar new year’s ceremonies: first, on Sunday afternoon (the 29th day of the 12 lunar month), we made offerings to the Jo Wang Shin, more commonly known as “the Kitchen god,” in our kitchen. On Monday, the first of the new lunar year, immediately following the dawn service, we performed the rice-offering we usually perform at mid-morning, and then made offerings to the ancestors at our memorial altar.
The Jo-wang, or Kitchen God, altar
The memorial altar, with offerings for the ancestors. On the wall are memorial plaques with the names of specific individuals.
One of the first things I had to come to terms with in Korean temples was the presence of the ancestors. Not only the regular performance of memorials for both the recently deceased and ancient forebears, but also the standard inclusion of rituals and ceremonies for the ancestors in every Buddhist ceremony. The Confucian culture and values intertwined with Buddhism in Korea are the reason for this hybrid ceremony and dual metaphysics: A common question non-Koreans often ask is, “If the consciousness leaves the body, enters the bardo, and receives a new body in a new realm of existence after 49 days, what or who on earth is left to be an ancestor in this sense?” It’s not an unfair question, since what happens ritualistically in many of these ceremonies is the appeasement of the family spirits through offerings of both food and Dharma. But who or what needs appeasement and comes to partake, if orthodox Buddhist teaching would suggest this is radically impossible?
Biscuits stacked in the traditional way for offering to the ancestors
No one has offered a suitable answer to this question, at least in the context of those Koreans who are both dedicated Confucianists and devout Buddhists. The silence regarding this question seems akin to Pascal’s wager, except that it wants to have its cake and eat too (just to confuse matters) by wagering on two different metaphysical systems.
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the few Buddhist teachers to make practices from one culture available to not only a new generation in the same culture, but even accessible for those outside the original culture. This is what he said about ancestors in a public Dharma talk at Pagoda Phat Hue:
In Plum Village, every year, we celebrate one Ancestors’ Day. And during that day we practice looking deeply in order to recognize the presence of our ancestors in us, in every cell of us. We know that our ancestors are our roots. It’s like the plant of corn has a seed of corn as a root, and when you are well rooted, then you are strong. But if you are uprooted, then you are not strong enough to confront life.
That is why in countries like Vietnam, every family has an ancestral alter in the house. Ancestral worship is what we practice. In China, also, we practice ancestor worship.
Even if you are not rich, but in your home there is in a central place, a table or a hallway, create an ancestral altar. You may have an incense bin. You may have a flower pot on the ancestral altar.
When we cry, our ancestors also cry with us. And when we listen to a Dhamma talk, our ancestors also listen to a Dhamma talk. This is really wonderful.
So, the practice is, every day, you go to the ancestral altar, and you remove the dust. You wipe the dust from the altar, you change the water in the flower pot, and you light a stick of incense and put it on the incense burner. That is the way we practice.
And why do we do that? We are getting in touch with our ancestors. It takes only one or two minutes to take care of the ancestral altar, but during the time that we clean the altar, during the time we light a stick of incense, we are really in touch with our ancestors. And we get rooted more deeply in our ancestors. We have the feeling that wherever we go, our ancestors are with us. We don’t feel alone. We don’t feel alienated. That is the goodness with the practice of ancestral worship.
Honoring the ongoing presence of family members in our lives, sidestepping the metaphysics and rituals, grounding the presence of our ancestors in our own flesh and feeling (rather than focusing on an external projection onto offerings, say), is something I can relate to. I’ve held 49-day ceremonies for my grandparents and memorials for our ancestors. I also imagine the day that I’ll finally be able to celebrate a memorial ceremony in an American way: coffee and bread, soup and salsa, cheese and crackers, casseroles and cookies, fruit and vegetables. The things my family likes to eat. If part of the purpose of ceremony is to bridge the unspeakable spaces between realms, we need to have a ceremony that reflects the realm we stand in, including the offerings. Even if you follow orthodox Buddhist teachings on the consciousness and reject the notion that the family spirits come to dine, I find little to argue with a kind of Buddhist wake, a celebration of the connection between generations which Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully emphasizes.
Orchids offered on the main Buddha altar
Despite my different perspective on remembering ancestors, and my yearning to modify the memorial ceremonies to reflect the culture I come from, I value the way that such constant interaction with the ancestors breaks the finality of death. If the ancestors can be invited to come and dine with us, then they haven’t finally departed. They abide, and, in the Korean world, interact with us. The metaphysics of such continuance and interaction may not hold for the nitpicky Buddhist, but the emotional impact of having ancestors always responsive to us and our lives is certain.
I’ve grown away from seeking definitive ends and beginnings to things over the years since I first entered the temple. About seven and a half years ago, I was convinced that simply by shaving my head, changing my daily schedule, and receiving precepts, a corresponding inner metamorphosis would happen with the same immediately visible or tangible shift as a haircut or a ceremony. My experience has been that those internal metamorphoses are, at best, slow and circular. They seem to proceed forward only to return to a point near where they began. They do not track with chronos, and seem to function at times in direct defiance of the forward-march of a timeline. There are times of deep disjoint, when the exterior symbols don’t match the interior state, and I feel like I’ve failed to be what I present as. The gap between sign and content encourages flexibility when approaching the world; after all, who knows what’s gestating in the unseen spaces of the heart? Who knows what might emerge to break with what we expected at first glance, and shock us into letting go of our ideas?
I’m drawn to “the little new year” between winter solstice and lunar new year because it diffuses the impact of a single day over a month, confusing the meaning of renewal we usually assign to “the new year.” If there’s no one “new year,” then maybe there is no one “new beginning.” These ceremonies for the ancestors diffuse death in a similar way. We are instructed to say goodbye, even given forty-nine days to do it, and allowed our grief; then told to let the departed leave. But then, with regularity, we are told to approach the departed, that they are returned to us and with us (however we chose to understand or experience that return), and we are encouraged to sit with them, remember them, honor them, and that most basic material expression of love, to feed them.
Whichever new year you celebrate (the Tibetan New Year, Losar, is coming up on the 22nd), may each day be filled with all the potential that new beginnings have, and may you and yours throughout the generations enjoy the blessings of health, contentment, peace, and joy this and every year.
The 48th class of Unmun Monastic College graduates today.
The pictures, as well as the stories, will continue to come out over the years.
But, for now: congratulations to all my sisters, and those at other seminaries around the country this winter.
Thank you to our original Teacher, the Blessed One, Sakyamuni Buddha, and to all those who have
carried the lamp through the ages that we too may receive the teachings and practice the path.
Thank you, deeply, to all our senior monastics, older and younger brothers and sisters in the Dharma,
our families, our donors and supporters.
May our precepts, study, and practice benefit all beings!
Despite the first snow of the year—which closed Unmun Pass, between Cheong-do and Ulsan—I made it “over the mountain” today to visit Tongdo-sa. Tongdo-sa is not only one the Three Jewel temples in Korea, known as the “Buddha Jewel Temple” because it houses Sakyamuni Buddha’s relics, it is not merely one of the largest temple complexes in the country, it is not simply a well-known full-training temple for monks: it also has four of our novice monks from the international sangha. I met up with two of them today before having tea with the Head of Lecturers of their seminary. Unfortunately, I could only talk Dok Sang Sunim, above, into a picture. His older brother, Dok Jang Sunim, firmly refused to have his portrait taken, alas.
Tongdo-sa is what’s known as a “full training monastery,” or cheong-lim. For those who read Chinese, the characters are below as inscribed on the stone pillar marking one of the boundaries of the temple complex. Chinese readers will also notice the formal name for the temple in its function as a training monastery, Yeong Chuk Full Training Monastery (yeong-chuk cheong-lim). Yeong-chuk is both the name of the mountain on which Tongdo-sa is located as well as the Sino-Korean for Vulture Peak Mountain (Rajgir). In order to qualify as a cheong-lim, a temple complex must have a seminary; a graduate seminary; and a seon bang or Zen hall associated with it. In addition to having all of these, Tongdo-sa is also a large, bustling complex with a labyrinthine layout of side-altars arranged around the temple’s central focus: the bell-shaped stupa housing the Buddha’s relics.
Tongdo-sa is one of my favorite temples in Korea. I first visited Tongdo-sa nearly 8 years ago, when I was a lay-woman and traveling around Korea visiting temples; I spent the night at Naewon-sa, a bhikkuni seon bang, and caught a ride to Tongdo-sa the next morning with two of the Naewon-sa nuns heading there on business. It was spring. The currently naked cherry blossom trees lining the long main avenue leading up from the lower entrance gate were then in their full glory. Today, sunlight filtering through the pines and glinting on the ice clinging to the edges of the stream flowing down from the mountain caught my attention. And instead of the anticipatory trepidation of entering an unknown temple complex, wondering what it might be like, feel like, today I felt the easy anticipation of walking toward a friend’s house.
I met all the international monks enrolled Tongdo-sa this past summer, when we gathered for the annual foreign monastics’ forum. I was amazed by their diversity: one Czech, one Nepali, one Chinese, one American. A Japanese monk graduated several years earlier. Of course, I always appreciate meeting other Western monastics, because I get to experience the rare feeling of blending in.
Compared to the chill winter landscape I slipped and slid over to get to Unmun-sa Bus Station (and it was due to slick roads that the buses weren’t going over the pass this morning, waiting for the thin sheen of ice to melt), the early afternoon was warm. Cups and cups of tea with Tongdo-sa’s Head of Lecturers along with what was, for me, great conversation about the process of seminary life and the education system for the sangha, followed by a little time with two doban before heading over the now-thawed mountain road: a good day.
About 6 a.m., December 20th, looking toward “The Hall of Blue Winds,” or 청풍료, and Reclining Tiger Mountain, 호거산
One of the major differences between the monks’ and nuns’ seminaries in Korea is that the monks organize their school-year, including vacations, around the schedule of the Zen Halls: when the winter or summer retreat ends—and all the Seon monks are traveling—student-monks also go on vacation. The nuns’ vacations, however, correspond to the major holidays that occur each season. Someone told me the reason for this difference in schedules is two-fold: one, by having different vacations, it’s hoped that the sami and samini sunims won’t mingle. Two, bhikkuni temples in Korea rely more on the home temple’s monastic community to host celebrations, and we’re needed at home to help out with preparations and ceremonies.
And so, two days shy of the solstice, we emptied out into the indigo-blue dawn and scattered across the country. Solstice not being as large an event as Lunar New Year’s, Buddha’s Birthday, or the end of the summer retreat (Ullambana), some nuns receive permission from their teachers to go elsewhere for the four-day break. I personally had visa paperwork to take care of, as well as some organizing to do ahead of our impending graduation, so I went to my home temple and forewent any other plans.
Ji Mun Sunim and Hye Oh Sunim at the ticket counter at the Unmun-sa Bus Station, which doubles as a small convenience store.
Although I used to travel mostly by bus between school and home, not only does that mean three different buses and take the entire day, I get carsick. It turns out that I can catch the train at Ulsan Station, which is just over Unmun Pass, and make it back to Gunsan in North Jeolla Province faster, with only one transfer in Daejeon (although I do have to switch train stations, moving from the Gyeongsan Line to the Honam Line) than if I go by bus. I like trains. Unlike buses in Korea, which seem to swerve even more than the proliferation of mountain roads requires, trains move in swooping curves or sail on straightaways, in motions vaguely epic instead of dizzyingly nervous. Something about them soothes me; I like watching the scenery; I love the little country train-stations; and I never get trainsick, a major bonus. Additionally, that day I had to get up to Seoul to take care of business before heading back down toward the provinces, and the only way to get to Seoul and onto anywhere else in a day is if you go by high-speed train.
Heading “over the hill” with me were a few of my classmates. It struck me that this was, for most of us, the last bus to Ulsan we would ever ride together as students. It wasn’t melancholy, but it was poignant. All things arise, they abide, change, and fall away. A week from today, I will no longer be a student-nun, but a graduate.
Hyeon Oh Sunim enjoys a last coffee at Ulsan Station.
Hyeon Oh Sunim and Hye Oh Sunim waited for the train going in the opposite direction, toward Busan, and we stood waving goodbye to each over the tracks.
Waiting: 9:14 am.
Our trains had the exact same departure time, 9:22 am, but my train came into the station first. I boarded and settled down. The trip to Seoul Station would take roughly two hours, and I would get off the train during the lunch hour. I had to go to Jogye Order headquarters, to pick up my visa extension paperwork and ask about the exam for full precepts that I and another foreign monk will sit in the spring. I would find out only once I’d visited Jogye Order that both reasons for my trip to Seoul would be to no purpose: I can now download my paperwork off the Jogye Order website, and no special accommodations will be made or given for foreign monastics sitting the exam.
Picture of Kim Jong-eun in the Choson Ilbo, with a family tree showing all the descendants of Kim Il-sung below. I was surprised to see that each generation has typically had two or three wives, with numerous children; many are missing, leaving, as desired, only one clear line of inheritance to Kim Jong-eun.
Before I understood my trip’s double unnecessity, though, I waited out the 30 minutes remaining to the lunch break in the Social Bureau, looking over the Choson Ilbo. Kim Jong-il’s death had been announced the day before, and the news was all about him, North Korea, and Kim Jong-eun, his son and successor. Everywhere, everywhere, Kim Jong-il stared out at us. Kim Jong-il’s blank paper eyes looked out in eerie multiplicity from the layers of newspapers lined up for sale at the subway station kiosks. The TV news stations on at the train stations reported redundantly on North Korea’s announcement, the viewing of Kim Jong-il’s body, Kim Jong-eun’s public appearances, in a way that reminded me of a less hysteric but no less obsessed CNN.
Václav Havel, the former president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, writer, poet, playwright, dissident, national hero and Nobel Peace Prize nominee,* died the same day North Korea announced Kim Jong-il’s death. I tried to talk about Havel with my classmates over coffee; they didn’t know who he was. East Europe, 1989, rung no bells, even though both nuns were in their late 40s and would, if anyone did, have reason to remember the events of 1989. But then again, the history I learned to hold close is the history of the West, the Cold War, eruptions of democracy; I learned to value history only as it related to the rhetoric and propaganda of my own country.
I waited in vain for something about Havel to appear on the TV. Even on the scrolling red news-strip at the bottom of the screen. Nothing. I saw nothing about him in the newspapers, either, and writing this now I feel vaguely Learian: Nothing, nothing, nothing.
After the nice young man in the Social Bureau printed out the extension forms for me, I went down a floor and tried to talk the Education Bureau into allowing some kind of lee-way for foreign monastics who take the bhikku/bhikkuni exam and failing to elicit anything more than a bored dismissal, I left Jogye Order. I wasn’t looking for the usual lower standards for us; I was wondering if we could do something like, possibly, take the test in English. Not this year, it’s too late; but maybe in the future? I was the only one with any enthusiasm for the idea. I walked out the doors and down the avenue, toward Gwanghwa-mun. I went to Kyobo Bookstore, hoping to find Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. They didn’t have it. I picked up a new translation of selected Tranströmer and The Best European Short Stories 2011 instead, in a mild pique. No Kundera! And nothing about Havel! Only dictators and military states and recalcitrant bureaucracies!
I went out for Indian food, hoping dal tarka and roti and masala tea might be good comfort food. It was. Then I went back to Seoul Station and got on a south-bound train, to go home for the solstice.
Preparing small dumplings of glutinous rice-flour, to go into the solstice porridge.
The next day we made ong-shim-i, the small round glutinous dumplings that go into the traditional red mung-bean porridge. Red, to drive away demons and evil energies. I’ve never heard anyone talk about winter solstice as a kind of All Hallow’s Eve, but why else would we be concerned about warding away evil spirits, if not because at the winter solstice the veil between the spirit world and the human world grew more traversable? Why not, unless it was because we humans, who are in the Korean world always available to the influences of spirits, are even more vulnerable at the solstice, the fulcrum of the balance between light and dark?
The ong-shim-i are made to represent the returning sun, the Abbess of our seminary told us before we went on vacation. She didn’t then equate the dark purple-red porridge with the night, and I also resist making that symbolic equivalence even though the image works nicely. No; red is for protection and blessing in East Asia, and that’s why we make solstice porridge out of red mung-beans.
Mun Bosalnim rolling ong-shim-i.
It’s not as easy as you’d think to roll nice round dumplings. Skilled hands can place up to three pinches of dough in the palm and roll them quickly to spherical sameness, without mashing any of the little lumps together. I tried three dumplings at a time, and couldn’t manage the task, so I kept it to two dumplings.
The bosalnims, our women congregants, took over the making of the actual porridge, a laborous process taking up to several days. The mung beans must be soaked, then boiled, then strained, then re-boiled. The thick paste sinks to the bottom of the enormous cast-iron cauldron we use and tends to burn if the fire’s too hot underneath it or it’s not stirred regularly enough. The basic porridge can be neither too salty nor too bland. People add either sugar or salt to their individual bowls later, at the table.
On the actual day of the solstice, we filled two hundred square Tupperware containers with the porridge (re-heated and with the dumplings added in). These were offered at the main altar, all the side-altars, the ancestors’ altar. I couldn’t take any pictures because I was working—as per the reason for our vacation in the first place, to help out—and then helping conduct the ceremony. (I hit the moktak.) We then handed out the containers to all those who came to the midday service. The actual solstice was in the afternoon, about 2:20, and the Abbess of our temple instructed everyone to recite the Heart Sutra over the porridge before sharing it with family and friends at home. I made a quick run to my local immigration office and filled out stage-one visa extension paperwork, then made it back home in time to help with the quick afternoon solstice ceremony. (I hit the moktak again and read name-cards for the blessing.)
That evening, preparing to leave the next morning, I arranged my room, but less carefully than usual. It was December 22nd, and in another two weeks—a graduate—I would be back in this room anyway. Major organizing could wait.
I usually take the 6:05 am bus, which I can either ride all the way to Daegu or, as I planned to do this time, ride it only to Iksan and then get back on the railway. I thought I would go to Busan before heading back to school, to visit Gwangseong-sa, the Tibetan temple I attend. Maybe Geshe Sonam, the abbot, would be home; and even if not, I could do my practices and say hello to Geshe Lobsang.
Gunsan Intercity Bus Terminal, picture taken summer 2011
The older lady who runs the convenience store in the bus station was already open at 5:30 am. I bought motion-sickness medicine. Even the 40-minute ride on straight roads through the rice and barely fields of North Jeolla makes me queasy. Better safe than sorry. The store-owner has been watching me leave for school before the sun is up at the end of every vacation for four years. We exchange pleasantries. She’s Catholic, but I tell her to come to temple sometime. She smiles and laughs, yes, yes.
Iksan Station, with the Seoul-bound KTX pulling up to the platform.
I caught the train bound for Seoul, got off in Daejeon and switched back to the Gyeongsan Line and got on a train to Busan.
Gwangseong-sa, “Korea Tibet Center,” Busan.
Geshe Sonam wasn’t at Gwangseong-sa. He’s in India for the Kalachakra Initiation. Geshe Lobsang was home, though; as well as the gelong-la doing a 1000-day kido, reciting the entire Tibetan canon. “I’m reading Tsong-kha-pa now!” he told me, smiling. Originally from Ladakh, he’s read the entire canon twice before. I asked him how he learned English. “Oh, in Ladakh we have many tourists, European, Australian, some American. I learn from talking to them.” His hands are rough, chapped; he looks cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cold in the Dharma Hall was what caused the chapping. I remember how the monk who did the 100-day kido for Mu Sang Sa the winter I sat retreat there struggled to keep the skin on his knuckles from splitting in the sub-zero, bone-dry air of the Hall. Geshe Lobsang looked less miserable, dressed in only a single maroon sweatshirt over his lower robes. Gelong-la, on the other hand, had a hat askew on his head even during lunch and buried himself under a comforter while reciting in the Hall. I finished my prayers after lunch and then retraced my steps: street, subway, station, descent at Ulsan, taxi, bus station, bus over the pass, get off, walk up the road, enter the gates.
Afternoon, the path to Unmun-sa. Picture taken December 25th, 2011.
The period between the winter solstice and the lunar New Year’s, which is January 23, 2012, is typically referred to as “the little (new) year.” It’s one of those liminal periods, like a leap year, that emerges out of the overlap between two slightly different systems, in this case, the solar and the lunar. I like this “little year.” It lacks the pressure of a New Year or a Solstice, the once-a-year One Day that we typically take more seriously than we ought, relying too much on the concept of a significant singular moment. Resolutions, reviews, best-of’s, all congregate around this one day, New Year’s (and usually the solar new year, at that). But to spread out the significance over a month, to let it gestate, grow organically, to skip over the momentous moment and slip, slowly and smoothly, in the incrementally lessening dark, like swimming in the body of time, letting things go slow and easy, changing: it’s like entering a door. The whole body doesn’t enter, pass through, and exit a door all at once, and yet at the same time we can hardly pinpoint when, exactly, entrance became passage became exit. We just experience that we have, indeed, passed through.
(Happy solar New Year’s, which this time around is positioned nicely in the middle of the solstice-lunar new year period.)
*Correction: Havel did not receive the Nobel Prize; he was a nominee, not a recipient. Thank you to Tamarind Jordan Stowell for alerting me to the (regrettable; he ought to have received the prize) error. I’ve corrected the text.
For the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace, an image from the birthplace of the Torchbearer of Mankind.*
Merry Christmas, y’all.
May all beings have happiness and its causes!
May all beings be free from suffering and its causes!
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from the extremes
of aversion and attachment!
May all attain awakening, the sweetest bliss!
*Ukkadharo manussanam, an epithet of the Buddha
I saw persimmons for the first time in Korea, tasted them for the first time here. Even though we have persimmons in the States, I don’t recall seeing them in Denver as a kid and I wouldn’t have recognized them afterward in Connecticut. I knew the word, “persimmon,” and nothing more; the name reminded me of “cinammon,” and so for no better reason than association I always expect the fruit to be slightly spicy, as if it had been cold-mulling in its skin all autumn.
Persimmons in Korea are of two varieties, neither spiced, however. Dan-gam, the non-astringent variety, are sweet and crisp right off the branch, but hong-shi (also known as Hachiya in the West) are too astringent to eat when firm. We leave them to become a natural jelly in their skins over the course of the season and eat them then, when the tannins responsible for the astringency have broken down.
Harvesting the persimmon trees is the fourth-year students’ job at school. A “plush” task, in that we rarely spend more than several afternoons doing it and don’t need to break a sweat, the work requires a long gaff with a pronged end, either to twist off individual persimmons, or to grasp a main branch and shake it, causing all the persimmons dangling from the ends of the networked branches to fall. The majority of us stood below the trees with a large blanket to catch the falling fruit and keep it from bruising or breaking against the ground.
I like the etymology of the genus name, diospyros, which is glossed on a variety of sites as meaning both “fruit of the gods” and “fire of the gods.” The common name in English is derived from putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, all from Powhatan, an Algonquin language, and meaning simply “dried fruit.” It’s the genus name, with the suggestion of fire, that I like best. I like it best because every November, as the evenings creep further into gloom, the last fruits left on the bare black branches begin to gleam like small lanterns. They have lit many of my roads home, in North Jeolla and North Gyeongsang and to and from Seoul.
It’s the last fall and winter at school. Graduation is less than three weeks away. By the time we return from the short winter solstice vacation beginning tomorrow, we’ll have only two weeks until graduation. In our four years here, we’ve harvested everything from green plums (in the first year) to sweet potatoes and field greens (second year) and gingko berries (third year). That the last harvest should be both sweet and astringent is apt, I think, reflecting the nature of both community life and spiritual practice. Not sour, but tannic, that something that asks only time, until it too changes, and gives way.
Myo Eom Sunim (1931-2011), the founder and current Head of one of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism’s four traditional seminaries for nuns (called “gangwon,” literally “the lecture hall”) passed away December 12.
Myo Eom Sunim was one of the luminaries of the modern sangha. The daughter of Cheong Dam Sunim, a leader in the bhikku sangha,* she was also among the first bhikkunis to receive official transmission to teach the sutras and was the first nun to serve as a lecturer on the sutras, at Donghak Monastic College. She served as the first Head of Lecturers at Unmun Monastic college with Myeong Seong Sunim as the Head of the School before going on to found her own seminary, Bongnyeong Monastic College, in Suwon. She later established the Geumgang School of Vinaya, the first graduate seminary program in monastic regulations for bhikkunis. Indeed, both Myo Eom Sunim and Bongnyeong-sa are known for their adherence to the Vinaya, and part of Myo Eom Sunim’s unique legacy to our sangha was her emphasis on the monastic discipline as a necessary component of both sutra study and Seon practice. (She was also the student of the reknowned modern Seon master, Seong Cheol Sunim, and was learned in the three areas of Seon, sutra, and Vinaya.)
Although I never had any personal interaction with her, I owe her a debt of gratitude on behalf of my sisters. Bongnyeong-sa was one of the first two seminaries to admit foreign nuns. Three of my sisters in the Dharma, from Europe and America, graduated from Bongnyeong-sa; a fourth is a second-year student there now. By opening the doors of her college to foreign nuns, she made our education in the sutras, monastic regulation, and community life possible. When one family of foreign nuns was in difficulty, needing an overseer and a guardian for their temple, Myo Eom Sunim stepped in to offer her support and backing. This alone speaks to her concern and care for her students in general, and our international sangha in particular.
The Sino-Korean word used for someone who has passed away isn’t “death,” but “entered into stillness” or “entered into extinction.” As participant, officiant, and observer at memorial ceremonies, I’ve often reflected that much of the ceremony and ritual we perform on behalf of the departed is just as intended for us, who have life and time remaining, as for those who have died. To say someone has “entered into stillness” becomes a reminder that the most important dialectic isn’t the one of material life and death but the one of entanglement and liberation (“stillness” and “extinction” being synonyms for release or awakening, as characteristics of “suchness”). To go and bow to the memorial altar, as the senior nuns and fourth-year class of my seminary did, is to honor the mutual relationship between teachers and students. We do not passively learn: we must digest and actualize what she taught to fully honor the relationship and pay back in part the debt of gratitude we owe to our teachers. The teaching-poems that form much of the beautiful liturgy of the cremation and memorial ceremonies are ostensibly spoken directly to the departed; but the living listen too, and there is just as much, if not more, for us to receive and put into practice, we who have not yet entered into stillness.
After bowing to Myo Eom Sunim’s picture on the memorial altar, we bowed to her gathered students, who were standing without kasa to the left of the altar. After a brief tea break, we then returned to recite as a group the Diamond Sutra. Myo Eom Sunim is the first of her generation of pioneering bhikkunis—the generation that established an independent line of sutra transmission for nuns, promoted the study of the bhikkuni Vinaya and the re-establishment of the “double-platform” for bhikkuni ordination, who became participants in the global Buddhist dialogue on women in the Dharma—to pass away. Our senior-most nuns openly wept in front of her altar, directly addressing the nun who was both teacher and friend, both leader and partner, in the work of their lives; it is impossible not to see myself in either position, as the picture on the altar (already gone), or the one standing before it, proving with sorrow the blessing that our teachers and friends are. The image unsettled me then and unsettles me now as I write this, the necessary reminder that death is certain and that it is only what we have done, as of now, that stands us good when we go.
*A number of prominent monks of the 20th century entered the monastic order after marriage and children. The children of these monks, especially the daughters, who followed them into the order often became leaders in their own right.
It’s time for a hiatus.
This blog was the outgrowth of two things: one, pursuing photography as a hobby, and two, my position as campus photographer at school. I wanted to be able to show from a respectful yet intimate perspective the often un-witnessed aspects of monastic life, and the camera and photography became the medium through which to do that. That is the stated purpose of this blog, after all: “to document and express the lives of Buddhist nuns.”
Two major difficulties arose not long after FTS got up and running. One, every time I left school and came back to my home temple for vacation, I lost the leisure to stand beside the life of the community and observe it in the way that photography requires. It’s a beautiful and subtle relationship, how it is through observation that you’re able to express what it is you observed–and through that expression, participate. Any meditator or documentary photographer will tell you, observation is not passive, it’s active; but not active in the way that I’m required to be at home. At home, where I conduct the ceremonies, serve as attendant, answer the phone, sit in the office, I began to think that FTS may not have much viability beyond school.
Then, last year, the photographer position was cut. This was very disappointing, because this blog had been up and running only half a year before I lost the time and resources required to bring integrity to a project like FTS. I soon found myself in the same position I was at home–a part of the action, rather than observing it–and this, combined with the lack of permission to shoot even during free time, meant that I could no longer photographically witness the community. Sure, I can take pictures, but I find myself reverting to the pictures I took before I went to school: inanimate objects, still-lifes, studies of light. Photographs, sure: but not the project I want to work on, and not suited to the purpose of FTS.
I never intended this blog to become a personal blog, a running commentary on my own life, vocation, and practice. I wanted to show the greater picture of the sangha, from an insider’s perspective. Not being able to do this has been difficult, because this, this witnessing of our lives, is something I believe is necessary and skillful. Additionally, I don’t feel it’s appropriate or helpful to have a personal blog at this point. And yet, in the absence of being able to work as I wished and originally intended to at school and in the continued presence of a blog, I’ve found myself veering more and more in that direction.
Taking a break, then, seems the most appropriate thing. If I can’t keep working on the FTS project for the foreseeable future, there are other projects I have in mind that don’t require the unique position that photography does in order for me to actualize them. Also, I graduate school in about five months, and I was uncertain what I would be able to do with FTS after graduation anyway. Lastly, as the over-exposed picture taken over a year ago above proves (I’m having technical problems and can’t upload anything recent right now) I need to work on my technique and skills, both with the camera and in processing, before I can begin to feel confident that I’ve done justice to the community I hope to photograph.
I’m going to let this project rest for awhile. It’s not like I don’t ever get the chance to take pictures, but I would feel more comfortable thinking that I had communicated both what I had hoped for this project, and why I feel that, in light of the severe restrictions on time and activity that have come up, setting it aside indefinitely is appropriate.
What I will continue to do is make formatting and style changes to FTS. I have yet to find a template I like; there are other housekeeping things I’ve continuously put off. Other projects I’m considering will probably also use WordPress as a foundation, and so from a strictly utilitarian point of view I can mess around with the nuts and bolts of this blog with an eye to other projects. And, who knows when, but some day I do hope to resume the photographs and project that formed FTS in the first place.
There’s a small but dedicated group of readers of this blog: thank you.
Today, one of my classmates asked me, “Do you have a word for summer like this? I mean, this kind of really, really hot summer weather?”
I thought a moment, trying to do a quick calculation of the balance between idiomatic and literal components in translation, and answered, “Yes. We call it dog summer.”
(What I was trying to convey was “the dog days of summer,” but that in literal Korean sounds ridiculous. Although “dog summer” sounds equally funny in English, coming back the other way.)
It is dog summer here. The monsoon seems to be winding down and the next typhoon isn’t scheduled to make landfall until sometime next week, so we’re reveling in glorious sunshine and wallowing in brutal humidity. It’s the kind of weather that makes you sweat even sitting still and saps the energy right out a body: dog summer anyway you say it. The sky is a Technicolor riot every day. I’ve never shot slide film, Kodachrome, or Velvia, but those would be the only films I’ve heard of that might be adequate to the intense natural saturation of color in the sky, clouds, and trees, and I wish I had the luxury to spend some leisurely time with those colors.
Homework, however, which is not merely the bane of school-kids’ weekends but also the wrench in the otherwise fun-loving, picture-taking works of certain members of our class, has kept the majority of us inside. One of our several assignments this summer was to copy out the brief (four-page) introduction to the Avatamsaka Sutra by Cheng-kuan. Except, we had to copy it thirty times each within the four-day limit imposed by our Head Lecturer. I begged off to a mere 20 repetitions, a task which still kept me up past ten three nights running and required every spare moment during the day.
Above is one of those repetitions, a later one judging from the quality of my handwriting. Note the correction tape freely layered here and there; what malformations it hides, I don’t want to recall. I’ve posted about hand-copying sutras, or sa-gyeong, before, although this assignment differed from those acts of transcription done out of faith. Initially, we were expected to memorize the introduction, a standard expectation and accomplishment in traditional sutra halls and Korean education, monastic or otherwise; my class was a little slow with the memorization bit, so the compromise offered by our lecturer was to have us copy it out.
The horizon within our main hall has been largely filled with looming characters and layers of paper for the summer. It’s with relief, then, that we turn to the wider horizon outside, even in the heat. The sky, which is usually quite beautiful, seems particularly so this year–and I will remember this summer as the summer of intense heavens. The thumbnails I’ve included here, shot on the sly when no was looking, do not do it justice.
Morning about two weeks ago, looking over the Admantine Hall to the hills beyond, during the monsoon when the sky dropped low and gray every day, if it didn’t outright pour.
Dawn, about a week ago, looking over the Vairocaina Hall, on a day that turned very rainy around midmorning.
Just a recommendation, from one chronically unorganized individual to the anticipated mass of other unorganized individuals:
Do not ever wait to organize your photographs.
I’m cleaning up my old memory cards now: four different cameras with two different memory card formats over 12 months, and a total of seven memory cards and counting. I was almost on top of my game for a few weeks here and there toward the middle of last fall, but when I lost my official job as photographer I also lost my official photographer time and semi-exclusive computer in the lab. Goodbye, reviewing and downloading memory cards in a timely fashion.
Organization is a tertiary concern right now. First, getting all the photographs off the memory cards so I can re-format them and begin new projects is the primary concern; backing all those pictures up is the secondary concern. Organization? Right now I’m just glad I have them in chronological folders. I’d say I have roughly 1500 images at present that aren’t organized: that’s a mere fraction of the total, meaning that the vast majority of the pictures I’ve taken over the past seven years are, in fact, generally organized.
This is me trying to find the silver lining in potentially hours of work.
Two things sparked this push to overcome my own inertia. One, I need to be be able to use the memory cards I have, and they’re all half-full with old projects. Two, I’m trying to learn my first photo-editing software program, and the lesson being drilled into me from the beginning is organization is everything to successful work flow. So: I may not be able to much about the piles of photos lying on my drive, but I can make sure that the photos I drag into this program are organized. Sweet. But in order to do that, I naturally must first know what pictures are there, and chose which ones to pull into the program, and the only way to do that is to clear all my memory cards so I can work with their contents.
In case my mother and father are reading this, I just wanted to tell you something I know you’ve always wanted to hear me say: You were right. I should have just cleaned my room every day instead of letting things accumulate until the mess was too big to handle.
A question for those who like these sorts of things: is it unorganized or disorganized? As a matter of fact, I’m both, but in this case, unorganized was more precise than disorganized, which seems to imply I’ve actually made an effort to get things in order. Which, having not yet even attempted, I can’t say is strictly true.
And, as an aside, I hope to get a few recent photos up over the next couple of weeks. The summer has been busy–or, to quote two of the greatest Zen friends since Big Stick and Pickup, “The days are just packed!”
Shoes and Paddy, South Chung-jeong Province, Seocheon.
In the Hua-yen universe, where everything interpenetrates in identity and interdependence, where everything needs everything else, what is there which is not valuable? To throw away even a single chopstick as worthless is to set up a hierarchy of values which in the end will kill us in a way which no bullet can. In the Hua-yen universe, everything counts.
Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most be his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
To everyone who has left comments here during the past couple months, thank you: I’ve read them all but haven’t had time to reply. Housekeeping matters here, especially concerning resizing the photos in old entries to accommodate the new template (which is also begging the question, to keep or not?, at present) are in a woeful, neglected state.
In about a week or so, my class will finish Cheng-kuan’s lengthy introductory commentary to the Avatamsaka Sutra and finally enter the Sutra proper itself. Hua-yen, or in the Korean pronunciation, Hwa-eom Buddhism is a specific aspect of Chinese Buddhist thought and history that I’ve had to approach in Western literature mostly from side-paths. With the exception of three books on Hua-yen Buddhism in English–one by CC Chang, one by T. Cleary, and the last by Francis Cook–it’s easier to find extensive resources on the various components that are drawn together in the great network of Hua-yen though: Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, Chinese influences on Buddhist thought, Ch’an. In between the main thrusts of these movements and histories, Hua-yen runs like an underground stream, surfacing here and there but rarely studied in its full. I gave up on CC Chang’s book quickly. He was an notable scholar but too in awe of the Buddhist religion to reign in his prose or some of his judgements in his scholarly work. Cleary’s book I will read as I study the sutra itself (and his translation of it), since mostly focuses on translations of various treatises on the sutra by the patriarchs of the tradition. Cook’s book, however, is both accessible and well-informed, written from a perspective that both deeply esteems the Hua-yen Sutra and has spent time considering the text’s relevance to the world of cast-off shoes and human relations, the environment and society.
I have a thing for the cast-off objects of the world. Not that I am a great conservator, an accomplished economist of the not-one-rice-grain-wasted school, not that I am immune to the lure of shiny new things. (I am particularly susceptible to new pens, new notebooks, new stationary pads, new books; less so to new shoes but not to new rosaries, somewhat skilled at deferring the hunger for new teacups but not above pestering a friend to give me one as a present or shamelessly admiring a handsome coffee mug. I am a consumer trying to undermine her own habits, and only partially successful.) But I am nonetheless concerned with what has been cast off, curious about their new existences after their initial and obvious function has been set aside. These shoes were waiting just thus on the embankment of a paddy in South Chung-jeong Province last August. Are they truly cast off? I don’t know. Perhaps they’re just resting, until the farmer returns to the paddy to work.
This curiosity, at first aesthetic, takes on a new importance in the light of the Avatamsaka Sutra. Although I didn’t chose to include Walden on my summer extracurricular reading list because I knew that Thoreau would speak so directly, from his own experience and view, to some of Hua-yen’s most central messages to us in the physical, mundane world, Thoreau is becoming an excellent companion. In a world where everything needs everything else, our modes of life are not individual choices without consequence, nor are our mistakes, made in ignorance or greed or even misguided goodheartedness, easily bartered away with an action of the opposite apparent value. The implication being, as I experience it in my own life, that we cannot pay the price of a cast-off pair of shoes by recycling several cola bottles. We cannot save the soul we lost in a moment of anger by loving the one we struck the next moment. Does this make our acts of contrition and repentance meaningless? No; but those acts don’t erase the past so much as guide the future. The first lesson of anger isn’t to love, it’s to not get angry. And the first lesson of casting off is not to recycle elsewhere, it is to understand that nothing is ever thrown away and forgotten, but remains, in a new form and function, continuing to affect us and be affected by us, in a world where everything needs everything else.
Yesterday was Mother’s Day; tomorrow is Buddha’s Birthday. From the fulcrum between the two, sending wishes for everyone’s happiness!
At the (hidden) central point where the three main ridges in this picture meet is our school. You’d hardly know it’s there; most folk don’t until they get out of their car and walk along the traditional retaining wall that outlines the temple’s courtyards through our front gate. If you climb any of these ridges, the temple’s obvious, of course: large, geometric, carving out a sand-and-slate-colored mandala from the otherwise verdant landscape. But our visibility is only from above. From the side, on approach, the temple gives off an air of reticence. Other than our courtyard’s wall, the familiar swooping double-curve of our tiled roofs reveal us; but slowly and quietly without fanfare.
The paddy in the foreground used to belong to the temple, until the nuns stopped cultivating rice and barely. Now the lands are rented out to area farmers. The mountain in the center of the picture is one part of the larger set of peaks and ridges known as “Crane Mountain.” From the interior of the mountains, looking at the peak from an opposite slope, it takes on the aspect of a crane about to lift its wings in flight.
In the left of the picture, two ridges reach down; they form the two arms of the bowl-shaped mountain known as “Reclining Tiger Mountain.” (You can see another view of that ridge here, looking directly between the outstretched arms.) The ridge on the right side of the picture leads up to General’s Rock, a prominent part of the landscape around here.
Between the tigers and the generals, the temple maintains its low profile. Even the color and buzz of Buddha’s Birthday hasn’t brought the temple out from the mountains. It remains, as it was intended to be, a place to be sought, discovered, and seen, and nothing more.
Our lecturer for a year and a half, from the first season second year to the end of the summer our third year, was a huge proponent of dramatizing the texts in order to get their point. As first years, we had listened, confused, to the second years who shared our hall reading what sounded like the scripts to hokey Buddhist cartoons during evening study hall: the characters were all figures from the second year texts, Dahui and the Sixth Patriarch and various emperors and a few Zen Masters plus witless students of said masters. Then we inherited that lecturer and began our own odyssey into creative approaches to the sutras.
The highlight, though, in terms of preparation, props, script, and execution, was a dramatization of the chapter on “Perceiver of the Cries of the World” (aka Kwan Seum Bosal) from the Surangama Sutra our third year. The cast was chosen from those students who paid insufficient attention during class. (Our lecturer figured if you were already paying attention, you probably didn’t need additional study aids; whereas if you attention was the wandering type, she’d give you something new to focus on.)
Bo Seong Sunim played the Goddess of Mercy herself, even digging up that lovely bit of silver scarf from the props box in the Children’s Outreach Program office. The rest of our classmates played various groups of earthly and celestial beings: gandharvas and kinnaras, nagas and rakshas, Wheel-Turning Monarchs, spiritual adepts, etc. Most of the crew laughed too hard during the performance to be taken seriously, but Bo Seong Sunim? …never broke character once.
I forgot Easter. Not just the holiday; the entire season. I was more aware of Passover than Easter (friends discussed family seders in emails or on blogs in advance; the Christian influences in my life wished me a Happy Easter after the fact).
How’ve I spent the first five days of vacation, since I’m manifestly not keeping up with the world religious calendar?
Napping. Reading. Doing some laundry–but nothing that interferes with the other two main activities mentioned. Going to the Dharma Hall as required. I’m alone in the room I usually share with the Assistant Chant Master, who took her week’s leave first, and for the first time in literally years I have a space more or less private, closed to others, and un-intruded upon by near anything else. Phones. Intercoms. Sisters. Guests. I have no responsibilities beyond the three daily services and showing up for formal meal in the morning.
At my home temple, a Canadian man used to come visit me. His wife was Korean and they had lived here in Korea for several years. Whenever he came to see me, he’d preface anything else he said with, “I hope I wasn’t interrupting your meditation or anything.” I never knew what to say in response, other than, “Oh, no, you’ve interrupted nothing”: he never interrupted my meditation, because I hadn’t been meditating. I’d been working, or attending to something, or in the midst of the eternal wait (for phones, for guests, for orders or requests from senior nuns, for work, for anything) that typifies temple life for young nuns. Maybe it typifies it for senior nuns, too; but young or old, we’re rarely found in an attitude of formal meditation if we live in an average temple. We’re usually found in a state of mild anxiety, trying to anticipate what might happen or need to happen next. Do we cultivate patience? Yes. Generosity? Yes. Attention to the moment? Yes: but not by sitting on cushions, not by scheduling in practice, not by having “space,” not by having “down time.” Would I like to see practice more formally structured and addressed among the young monastic community? Yes, but that’s not the present situation we have to live with.
So it is weird, in a wonderful, much-needed way, to have leisure. Unstructured spans of time. Quiet. Privacy. In this, the last spring of my last year at school, I’ve received an unexpected gift: the chance to really slow down and do only as much as I can in a day. For the past few days, that hasn’t amounted to much more than letting a book slip from my hands as I fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon. I had plans, at first, to do homework and read x number of books and exercise and take pictures; but what would be the point of all that if the gift of this moment is the chance to not do?
I’ve often looked at the fields adjacent to the school, the ones we cultivate each year, rotating crops but rarely letting lie fallow, and thought about the earth unturned and unploughed; what would a field let go fallow yield, in the next year? We’re a partly-organic operation at school; among other compromises, we use chemical fertilizers at the start of each growing season, trying to provoke the ground into producing for us. I’m a classic type-A personality, over-achieving and capable of generating enough stress to require no additional input from parents, teachers, coaches, or seniors; a personality like mine self-combusts in the atmosphere of Korean temples, which rely on a certain basic level of systemic stress to overcome a community’s inherent inertia. When the problem isn’t inherent inertia, but inherent momentum, it’s learning to stop, not go, that becomes the challenge. Some folks don’t cultivate enough. Others never learn to lie fallow.
I forgot Easter. Barely remembered Passover. Buddha’s Birthday still seems like Someone Else’s Holiday, in my head. But maybe even the religious need to forget religion, if we’re going to stay grounded in the universal rhythms of body and season and learn not only what to do, but also what we do not need to do, and learn to let be, be quiet, lie fallow.
Bo Seong Sunim, whose name means “Universal Nature,” during last fall’s pepper-leaf-picking bonanza.
Jong Ook Sunim, Community Secretary.
After yesterday’s rain, an absolutely beautiful, bright day.
The only thing potentially marring this day is the fact that our outhouse, yes, one of those old-fashioned pit-in-the-ground kind of outhouses, is scheduled to be cleared today. All that nightsoil shifted by a huge mobile vacuum-and-septic tank operation to the fields. (The temple will stink worst today, and less so but not “not at all” for about ten days or so.) I was thinking of doing a mountain of laundry, my own and some sisters’, today, to take advantage of all that sun to line-dry clothing, until I realized sun or no sun, anything hung out on the line today will come off stinking and reeking.
But still, a beautiful morning, and the nightsoil-removal operation isn’t scheduled to begin until later, so the three “Office Nuns” (fourth-years holding the positions of Community Accountant, Secretary, and General Manager) and I went out for a walk. The rain yesterday had brought down most of the cherry blossoms, but a pink umbra still hangs around the trees that looks lovely in the morning light.
In a soaking, chill April rain, the community assembled in their long traveling robes at 6:30 a.m. outside the office to formally bow to the senior nuns and then take off for spring vacation, which begins today. Along with a few other nuns, I’ll be staying at school this vacation to continue to fill my responsibilities and duties as the Head Chant Master in the main Dharma Hall.
For those who can’t read the hangul–Korean alphabet–of the title, “da-nyeo-o-gettsumnida” means, literally, “I’ll be back.” Minus Austrian accent, pop-culture reference, and irony. I can’t ever translate that literally for guests without laughing. But Koreans do not literally say “Goodbye” to elders, although we use the equivalent among friends. If you will, in fact, “be back,” then you say so to your elders. If you won’t be back, because you don’t live with said elders, you would say something like “I’ll be going now,” but it doesn’t sound as casual in Korean (가보겠습니다).
Right now, nestled in a warm, well-lit corner room, a box of books beside my desk (everything from e.e. cummings to T. Cleary), coffee having been brewed and shared among a few sisters taking a later bus, a small bun of good bread rustled up and cheese and apples procured for a snack, nothing to do but the morning offering service at ten, and tomorrow–weather permitting–some work in the Dharma Hall, it is vacation indeed.
Fall, 2010, during a massive community work period stripping the leaves from our pepper plants.
In lieu of new material–of which I have nada from this season, for a variety of reasons–I’m sifting through last year’s photos, finding the ones I’d meant to post and not had time to. Starting with portraits.