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)

Protein supplements in my dinner: or, The unhappy fate of rice bugs

Technically, those gray specks in my rice weren’t supposed to be there. Perhaps if they’d been millet, added to give the rice a nice multi-grain taste. Or maybe a little wild sesame. Alas, they were neither.

Tongdo Temple, where we were undertaking our ordination training, is beautiful.  Ancient and sprawling, it is one of the few large temples to survive the destruction of the Korean War. 
    Situated in a green valley with a soaring mountain range behind, Tongdo Temple is truly a treasure of Korean Buddhism.  It also has the worst food of any large temple in Korea!

    Normally, Korean housewives will soak and wash rice before boiling it.  This ensures the rice is clean and also rinses away any rice weevils that may have been enjoying a meal before they were interrupted. With an extra 300 mouths to feed for our training session, it appeared the kitchen monk had skipped this step.

    Picking the steamed weevils out of the rice wasn’t even an option: every last morsel had to be consumed, down to a single flake of red pepper or sesame seed. We would wash our bowls afterwards, and if even the tiniest bit of food was found in the bucket that collected the water, the twenty postulants in my row would have to drink the entire bucket of wash water.

    “Well,” I thought, as I looked at the gray specks in my rice, “eating these won’t kill me. And actually, it won’t even kill them.”

    With that I began to eat, letting go, as best I could, of my fixed ideas of right and wrong, which are more often than not manifestations of ego.

    Daehaeng Kun Sunim had once gently confronted my vegetarian moral superiority, saying about the beings whose cooked flesh was sometimes served to me, “Don’t hate them because they are poor and unfortunate. Become one with them and let them experience the human level of consciousness.”


Bugs in my rice! (at the Dharma Folk blog)