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)