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.
Actually, it was an afternoon walk, but I’m loath to create another category for the sake of a temporal discrepancy on the same theme.
By the way, there are hyperlinks in the text below that don’t showing up until the mouse is over them; I’m trying to auto-adjust the hyperlink color so that it’ll stand out from the text next time.
To counter-balance the weight of stone, a feather found on a walk yesterday. Our purpose in wandering the paths alongside the temple yesterday was to look for the small purple and white flowers of some of spring’s first blooms: the Head of Lecturers (강주 스님) had left instructions with the current assistant-head-of-class (my successor to the post, by the way) to take me out in the field, camera in hand, to photograph the minuscule plants. Our Head of Lecturers loves flowers, and it was part of my early training to the senior photograph position that I should expect to be called out in all seasons to take shots of flora. The regularity of flower-potrait requests by senior nuns at the school has always made me wonder why we don’t invest in a good macro lens, but now that’s neither my problem nor concern, since I’m off the staff of the cultural bureau.
With these things in mind, I tried to explain two facts to our asst. class head: I had lost the position as camera-man, therefore making it somewhat ridiculous to send me specifically to photograph anything (send the other official camera-man!; this was bitterness speaking); and second, the school’s cameras, which had the resolution for the job, did not have the right lenses. “They’re enormous, those lenses,” said my classmate. “How can they not focus on a tiny flower? Just shove the lens up close. That ought to work.”
I tried to explain macro lenses. I tried to explain focal lengths. Bafflement resulted. Frustrated, I shoved the near-kilo weight of the Nikon D700 into my classmate’s hands. “This thing is on auto-focus. Point it at the flower, squeeze the shutter button half-way, and you try and bring it all into focus.” “It’s not working!” she complained after fiddling, zooming, squeezing, and moving nearer and farther from the two-centimeter wide face of the flower. “I rest my case,” I said, or something like that. I told her our best bet was to fake a macro shot by utilizing the high resolution of the D700 later in a digital blow-up.
“Whatever,” she shrugged. To her ears, I’d offered a solution to the Janus-faced problem of technical limitations and instructions from seniors.
All nuns have a hobby of some kind, most carried over from life “when we had hair” (머리 있었을 때). Piano, illustration, languages, tea-drinking–which is to nuns what wine-tasting is to others–cooking, even needlework or knitting in a few rare cases. Other hobbies are acquired in the temple, either by necessity, such as computer-related work and rudimentary graphic design, or the fill the space left by old activities that no longer fit into the monastic world. In my case, I’ve switched the time and energy I used to give to swimming, jogging, and martial arts to photography and design. Other interests have continued more or less uninterrupted through the transition from with-hair to without, such as the bibliothecula and my side-project of creating an English “shadow curriculum” for foreign monastics in the Korean seminary system.
Some of our activities and interests don’t fit neatly into the common perception of the monastic, even our self-perceptions. I was lambasted by some of my classmates for accepting The Baby (my Canon 500D) as a gift specifically given to let me explore, creatively and through pictures, this world we live in. When Deok An Sunim practices on the grand piano in the Dharma Hall, lay-women often stare amazed. It’s hard to tell if they approve or not, although one middle-aged woman commented with faint pleasure, “It’s so unusual to hear a piano at a temple!”
Still, approval and disapproval yapping in strange unison at our heels, most of us will continue pursuing our chosen activities. Otherwise, in trying to fit ourselves in the idealistic confines of an identity, we most likely will have to sacrifice the most living and vibrant aspects of our personalities, those very vibrancies that give us the depth and the compassion to respond to the world around us. Before we can be Buddha, we must be human.
Dawn was misted, subdued, so that the sky seemed to glow strangely in the dark; when the sun rose, it rose diffused into shades of gray, and the mist and fog defied an entire day to linger, then thicken. In the afternoon, the roof of the church below us, with its eternal line of forlorn pigeons, was barely visible. Only the trees directly along the temple’s wall were sharp and clear. The rest of the world beyond the gate existed indistinct, as if it were already beginning to fade as it emerged, receeding even as it came forth from the gray envelop on which the date was written.
“The church below us” is, in the dark and fog, only a neon-red cross hanging in the dark; warning or guide, it’s hard to tell. I’ve re-arranged the text, taking it from yesterday’s post and (re)placing is here.
Night-scene from the home temple’s third-floor Dharma Hall.
“[When the Buddha took the offering of rice-pudding from Sujata, he made] a decision toward life.”
-Jane Hirschfield, from the PBS documentary “The Buddha.”
* * * addendum 02.04.2011
I was unpacking my boxes from school–it’s vacation and I’m back at my home temple–when I came across a scrap of paper covered on one side with my half of a written conversation held with one of my do-ban during a “special lecture” at school our first year. I don’t remember what prompted our debate over monasticism and participation (or non-) in social/political issues; I do remember that we stood on opposite sides, I for involvement of some kind, and she against involvement of any kind. I wrote, for my part, the following:
One of the blessings of a fortunate human rebirth is to be born in a country where you have freedom to hear and practice the Dharma…don’t tell me Sunims should ignore politics. Love or hate the reality, politics matter to us. In the U.S., if religious people don’t defend freedom of religion, who will?
I’m not saying go out and campaign. I am saying vote, be aware, and if the cause is great enough–war, for example–be public about where you stand and how your spiritual life is asking you to act. A religious/spiritual life that doesn’t have the confidence to be public, to expose itself to criticism and scorn, to put peace and patience into action when necessary–that’s just a show. False. Quietism without relationship to the real situation.
At this point, my do-ban must’ve told me I was being overly American, to which I retorted by bringing up all the complaining the Buddhist community does about the anti-Buddhist president, Lee Myeong-bak (이명박):
What’s all this 이명박 noise then?!! MY POINT EXACTLY!!!
I underscored the last line. In red. Twice. Obviously, I felt the pot was calling the kettle black. But I found it funny, both comic and coincidental, that just when I’m having another reaction to what I accusatorially called “quietism,” I find evidence of past dissatisfaction with the cold shoulder.
Deok An Sunim playing the piano in the “Jewel Hall of Great Heros,” our main Dharma Hall, autumn, 2010.
삭발날: on the 9th day(s) of the lunar month–9, 19, 29–we shave our heads. A special meal is served during the day, consisting of glutinous rice with various energizing additions (gingko berries, jujubes, and chestnuts, peanuts, etc.), seasoned roasted laver, and seaweed soup. The two nuns here are preparing to slice the long strands of soaked and rinsed seaweed before sauteing it and adding the broth.
As an aside, this photo reminds me that I tend to underexpose my shots. I was just beginning to wean myself off of automized settings, including my favorite “aperture priority” setting, around the time I took this picture in the summer. When I switched to all-manual on the digital cameras or played with the Nikkormat, the results surprised me with more dramatic light, typically because of slight over-exposure.
Trays for the formal meal (bal-u gong-yang, 발우공양).
Called “side-dish tables” in Sino-Korean (chan-sang, 찬상), the empty trays arrive first in a stack. The head of the hall sets lays them out in the middle of the room and places the side dishes–pickled cabbage, one fresh dish, and one salted preserve–on the trays before then moving each tray to its position on the rows where the nuns sit for formal meal.
These trays contain only the preserved dish, in this case a cucumber pickle, and the shared chopsticks and spoon used to place side dishes in a nun’s personal bowls.
Summer dawn, around 5:30 a.m. The ridge is “Lying Tiger Ridge” (허고산) and the roof belongs to Vajra Hall, the oldest residential building on our temple’s campus. Faintly visible in the left foreground is the double-gabled roof of our bookstore.
The inside of our “outer wall,” the wall that divides the public portion of the temple from the iner courtyard, the space where the nuns live and primarily work.
Any discussion of boundaries begins with definitions, primarily of physical space. Most visitors to the temple only ever see the finished exterior of this wall: the “public view.” Although the wall is as critical to the nuns’ understanding of the temple space as a first-time visitor, we see it from the inside out.
Now, so do you.