The toilet paper wars, and reincarnation

Although a great deal of planning had gone into the preparations for the 23-day training session that preceded our ordination, apparently no one had thought of toilet paper. Existing supplies were quickly depleted and there were no provisions for providing more. The initial response was not encouraging:  “Just use less.”
“Umm, excuse me,” I wanted to say, “there is a certain, absolute minimum….”

Even eating just two meals a day, 150 men will go through a lot of toilet paper over the course of 23 days. 

The logic of this was hard to avoid, and before long the overseers relented. Of course, their idea of relenting amounted to a single roll in each bathroom. Its appearance on the window ledge would provoke a frenzy resembling a stock market panic, with everyone rushing to secure a couple of arm lengths of insurance. Latecomers were left with a choice between the empty cardboard tube or the shiny wrapping paper. 


For the next few days, everyone was walking around with at least one pocket stuffed full of toilet paper. Finally the overseers caved, and with a flood of heavenly whiteness, the nagging fear of being caught short was forever banished

    This video has been making the rounds , and I thought I’d post it here for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. The speaker is Wallace McRae, perhaps America’s greatest cowboy poet.

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)