images of the crossing over

Boundaries

summer

Summer, 2011. First-year students take a nap on a day off.


Bhikkuni Ordination, April 3, 2012

After bhikkuni ordination, with Hye Hae Noh Sunim.
Left to right, Ji Mun Sunim, Hyeon Woo Sunim, Il Seok Sunim, Seon Myeong Sunim, Seon Joon Sunim

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.

Ji Mun Sunim, Hyeon Woo Sunim, Il Seok Sunim, Seon Myeong Sunim, and Seo Ju Sunim with Hye Hae Noh Sunim

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?

Hyeon Woo Sunim and Hye Hae Noh Sunim, folding Noh Sunim's kasa

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.

Walking the road to Heungryun-sa

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.

Seo Ju Sunim and Hye Hae Noh Sunim

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.


momento mori

Myo Eom Sunim's altar

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.

Namu Amitabul.

Korean language article from The Choson Ilbo here and from The Seoul Newspaper here.

*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.


in transit


Indira Gandhi International Airport, catching the flight to Lucknow. September, 2011


Hiatus

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.


Where everything needs everything else

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.


Morning walk, 5.7

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.


Playing the Goddess


Nikon D300
Summer, 2010

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.


Morning walk, 3.14.2011

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.


Iksan to Gyeryong

My travel this vacation, once from school to home, once from home to Seoul and back, and then once from home to Mu Sang Sa International Zen Center and back, has for the first time ever happened almost exclusively by train. For me, prone to car sickness and always nervous on Korea’s roads, this has been wonderful.

My short 24-hour trip to Mu Sang Sa began in a slight drizzle and ended in one. In the grey damp, I boarded an inter-city bus in my home city yesterday, miraculously catching the one that stopped not only at Iksan Bus Terminal but also continued on to the train station. Clambering onto the bus at 1:17, with a scheduled departure of 1:20, I asked the driver: “I have a 1:54 train to catch. Will I make it?” The driver grimaced the way older Korean men do when asked something improbable. Not impossible, but: “It’ll be tight,” he replied, mildly scornful. I shrugged. “Whatcha gonna do? I have to go to the station at any rate.”

At 1:47, the bus pulled into Iksan Terminal. At 1:50, it was waiting at the light to turn into the station parking lot. At 1:51 and some odd seconds, I rushed down the rain-slick steps of the bus and entered the station at 1:52 and some seconds. Racing down and then up the station’s platform stairs, I launched myself onto the train at 1:53, scrambling by chance into the snack-bar car. Good thing, too: I hadn’t had time to buy a ticket. I have never once travelled without a ticket. Never jumped a subway turnstile, never scammed a ride. Yet here I was, waiting for a conductor to approach me, asking to see my ticket; I would explain, pitiably, how if I didn’t take the 1:54 I was doomed to wait until the 3:35, I couldn’t buy a ticket at the counter and catch the train, surely I could buy a ticket on the train, catching the first possible bus, the rain, and so on. But no conductor approached me. I bought some crackers to go with the cheese I’d stuffed in my pocket as I ran out the door, and prepared for the interview I would be conducting while sipping orange juice to wash down the crackers.

Steady rain out of Iksan and as we wound up through the fields of the provinces. The rain, thick in Iksan, lessened as we moved north until, outside of Nonsan, it thinned from plump droplets to flecks on the windows. Mountains in the distance, blue like a blanket of rumpled sleep and tangled in low misty clouds; the glaring jumbles of tin-roofed villages and one-street towns between stretches of winter-brown barley stubble, rivers and bridges and dikes controlling water into the paddies: it all unfolded and then passed outside the windows. There’s a high-speed train in Korea, the KTX, and it’s fast and convenient, but I enjoyed the mid-speed Munggunghwa much more. The cheesy snack car, the old seats, the comforting rhythm of a train passing steadily through the countryside, the views of that countryside–the Korea I know and consider home.

There was a young student crouched on the floor at the end of the counter I stood at, going over interview questions. He buried himself in a book, and I took a chance on taking his picture. I honestly didn’t think he noticed; but then, a few minutes later, he approached me and asked in English, “May I take your picture?” The habitual refusal rose up, but he forestalled it: “You took mine.”

Caught red-handed. I laughed and said, “Sure! Take a picture!” The one he got shows me with my glasses perched on top of my head, and my head thrown back in both amusement and self-consciousness, smiling broadly.