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.
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.
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.
Another season at seminary begins. Now in the fourth year, my class has officially become “the class of the Great Teaching (대교반),” a reference to the single sutra which comprises our curriculum for this last year at school: the Avatamsaka, or Flower Garland, Sutra. This engraved monolith at Seokjeong-sa bears the long title of the Sutra in the calligraphy of Hye Guk (“Wisdom-land”) Kun Sunim.
“Chinese cabbages”–although we call them plain cabbages, and those huge, round things they eat in Europe and the States “Western cabbages.” A late summer harvest from our fields, 2010.
The largest snowfall we’ve had in years left the temple courtyards covered in late December. In America, I’ve never seen anyone use an umbrella in snowy weather, but in Korea they’re par for the course.
Woodblock print edition of the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.
For more on woodblock printing (which uses a technique known as a relief matrix), see Wikipedia.
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.
Seo Ju Sunim, in autumn.