No Master Criminals Here

Tongdo Temple, one of the three treasures of Korean Buddhism

The Jogye Order had arranged for a professional nurse to be present during our 23-day ordination training session. A Buddhist nun herself, she had already probably saved the life of a male postulant. He had such a terrible cough I half wondered if he wasn’t there for some spiritual benefit that might come from dying as an ordained monk. Hearing him cough as she passed by, the nurse read the riot act to the overseers and had the trainee brought to her office, where she immediately started injections of antibiotics. By the time the training was over, his cough had almost completely disappeared.

           As time went on, she became concerned that some postulants weren’t getting enough calories. With over 1,000 full bows a day, and only two moderate meals, we were certainly going through the calories. On top of this, many of the men were already quite skinny when they arrived; I would have guessed that some had less than five percent body fat. Seeing this, the nurse began to surreptitiously give out food, usually pastries, chocolate, or bars of sweet, red bean-paste.  A trip to the nurse’s office became more and more popular!  Disappointingly, whenever I went, I was always escorted by one of the overseers. The result: no food for me. For which I was soon to be grateful.

             Sunims, I’ve noticed, are not particularly good at deception!

The hall where we had lectures, and did most of our bowing (photo by Jung Yeon)

Part of me, the one that spent my last year in high school trying to buy beer, shook my head in disapproval at seeing chocolate and bean-paste wrappers just sitting on top of the toilet wastebasket. “You have to hide the evidence better than that,” I wanted to tutor the unknown snacker.   The inevitable soon happened: A postulant was walking by the front doors, in front of everyone, eating a bean-paste snack. He walked right past an overseer, who twisted around so fast that he must have sprained something.             

        Within the hour, all 150 men were lined up with their grey backpacks in front of them. The overseers started with first person, thoroughly searching all of his belongings. We didn’t know what would happen to those caught with food, but we all knew it would be serious. Expulsion was a real possibility. But for all of the postulants’ incompetence at deception, the overseers had no better understanding of the sport. As four of them focused on the first few people, nobody was looking down the lines at the other postulants. At least a dozen of them were slipping pastries and other food out of their bag and down their pants legs where the material bugled out over their leggings. Further, while the overseers diligently checked the contents of pockets, it never occurred to them to actually frisk anyone.

             Disgraceful, I thought, as I stood there, with a rumbling stomach. I couldn’t help smiling though:  I suppose it speaks well of those choosing a spiritual path that they were so unpracticed in the ways of deception.

Dawn at Tongdo Temple. The pudo with the relics of Shakyamuni Buddha (photo by Jung Yeon)

5 thoughts on “No Master Criminals Here”

  1. Dear Chong Go Sunim,

    I found this tale as delightful as talking to you, and very happily surprised you speak so casually in a public forum as in pleasant conversation over the phone or at tea.

    What year was this?



  2. why the guy with cough did not go to doctor, and why others did not send him to get help right away, is it indifference or what, most likely he had some asthma on top of infection, even reading about someone coughing badly makes me sick on my stomach, litterally, unfortunately I am too familiar with bad cough, even occasional witnessing of terrible cough makes me dread existance. I wish all suffering to disapear, especially physical one, it is my everyday wish!!! (That was also a wish of Medicine Buddha, before he became buddha). And as for eating, why torture body on purpose, I personally don’t even like eating, I do it only because I have to, so maybe some of those ones who were hiding food could’ve just felt weakness due to low levels of blood sugar. However there are sunims that should not be sunims, who only bear a name sunim and wear grey clothing, and then confuse people with their “dharma talks” and lay way of life, (just somebody I know and NO, it is nobody from Hanmaum Seon Won). I think those, who have some religious authority over others (in any religion), have more responsibilities to conduct themselves proper, otherwise they can harm people, which is very sad, because breaking (religious) trust of someone is the worse offence, I think.

  3. Hi Carl, good to see you! This was in 1993, and just a bit of a story I put up for a smile. All true though!

    Hi Tanya, the junior sunims in charge of the day-to-day stuff just didn’t have any idea of the meaning of a cough like that. Which is why the nurse gave them all a very stern talking to. Basically she chewed them up one side and down the other, so that by the time she was done, they all knew that a cough like that meant someone needed to go to the doctor. I was an EMT for four years, and I’d never heard a cough like that, and didn’t know what it meant, although it was clear in retrospect.

    Overall, things were set up pretty well. You were required to send proof of a hospitial physical beforehand, and anytime you needed to go see the nurse, you just told one of the supervisors, and they took you during a break.

  4. Laughing here. Laughing loudly.

    And remembering those dang monks who would scoop out all the tofu from the soup before the bowl made its way down the line to us lay folks!

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