Taking a step back – It has been something of a long week since my last entry. An academic conference, a three-day trip, and an ornery cold have meant no writing here for a week. But yesterday I had an experience about which I cannot help but write. I went to school to attend to various matters, but the one I was most looking forward to was a talk given by Soen Joon Sunim, a Buddhist nun with whom I’ve recently had the pleasure of corresponding via email. We had both heard of each other through the bloggerings of the indefatigable Big Hominid, and it was this same hominid who finally e-ntroduced (ouch) us to each other about two months ago. When she mentioned that she was going to be at Seoul National University to give a talk to an Eastern philosophies class, I marked the date on my calendar (or I would have, if I were the type of person capable of marking dates on calendars—as it is I just used a soldering iron to sear it into my brain).
I showed up a few minutes early, stopping by the Religious Studies Department office to take care of some business with a class I took last semester, and then took a seat in the very back of the classroom. Sunim (this is the gender-neutral Korean term for “Buddhist monastic,” and I’ll be using it to refer to Soen Joon Sunim for the rest of the entry) entered shortly thereafter wearing her gray robes with brown stripes (we later learned that these brown stripes mark her as a novice).
She had told me via email that she had spoken to the same class (not the same people, of course, but the same class) the previous semester, but I was still surprised at how at ease she appeared once she began her talk. Although I didn’t mention this to her in person, I was very impressed with her public speaking ability. Anyone who has spoken in front of a group of strangers will tell you that it’s no easy thing, but she pulled it off like a pro. I furiously took notes as she spoke, filling quite a few pages in my small notebook. I am and always have been a terrible note taker, as I have mentioned before (warning: the entry linked to here is mainly about cursive handwriting—my note-taking abilities are only mentioned in passing), but I think I did a pretty good job of capturing the gist of her talk.
After class four of us went out to lunch: Sunim, the TA for the class (who I believe is Canadian), a French girl who was also a friend of Sunim, and myself. The conversation ranged far and wide, and I got to see Sunim in a more informal setting. It was great to finally meet get a chance to talk to her, and the four of us had so much to talk about that I think we sat there for well over two hours.
What I want to write about today, though, is Sunim’s talk and my reaction to it. Before the class I decided to take notes with the intention of maybe giving a summary of the class, but as I listened I realized that I wouldn’t be doing that—not because her talk was hard to follow, but because producing a summary of it here would turn something very engaging and fascinating into something very dry and dull. Instead, I’d like to focus on certain things that she said that really spoke to me. Most of my notes are abbreviated scribbles, but there were times when I tried to transcribe verbatim what she said. Still, I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of my transcriptions, so any quotations should be considered close paraphrases.
Last semester, Sunim said that she spoke about why she decided to become a monastic. This semester, she decided to talk about why she wanted to remain a monastic. She began with a brief history of her journey so far and then talked about what life in a temple was like. At the end of her talk she answered questions from the class. There were six questions asked in total, and I think there would have been more if we hadn’t run out of time.
During the first part of her talk, when she spoke about her life before Buddhism and the road she traveled to becoming a monastic, she said something that stopped me dead in my tracks, so much so that I missed what she said next and there ended up being a gap in my notes (a gap I filled later at lunch). She was talking about how she had lived her life selfishly and in anger, and how the Buddha teachings spoke to her because of her life experience. In as close as I can come to her words, she said: “I know the truth of the Buddha teachings because of my mistakes, not because of some innate virtue.”
This spoke to me deeply because I think what makes the teachings of Christ most viscerally real to Christians is that these teachings speak to who we really are as human beings, not who we would like or pretend to be. At least, this is the way I have always felt. The righteousness spoken of in the Bible is a goal, not a starting point. The starting point is wherever I am at the moment, no matter how human I might be. And everything in between, the journey toward the goal, is the teachings of Christ. I don’t feel like I am explaining this well. Sunim’s words struck a chord very deep in my heart, but it doesn’t feel like I’m doing a good job putting what I felt into words. Hopefully the words will speak for themselves.
She next talked about the romantic notions she had of Buddhism before she actually sought ordination. I won’t go into all of them, but at one point she summed them up by saying, “I thought that I would become a different person when they shaved my head.” Of course, this did not happen, and she came to realize that she was still the same person with all of her strengths and weaknesses. Coming to terms with this reality was so difficult that she called it one of the most difficult aspects of monastic life for her: “to not be able to ignore the parts of me that I don’t like, and at the same time to fully accept my strengths and cultivate them with humility.”
I can still remember how I felt about life before I came to Korea. I had stayed on through the summer to make up for missing credits after all of my friends had graduated from university. I met a girl, had a brief relationship, and dealt with the attendant heartache when it ended. I was at the end of one stage in my life, standing at the edge of a precipice and looking down into the darkness. I wasn’t very happy with who I was, and I had no idea who I was going to become. I needed a new start.
At least, that’s what I thought. Imagine my surprise and horror upon arriving in Korea and discovering that my problems had followed me halfway around the world. Those first few months in Korea were a rough time for me, but one thing I realized was that my problems were going to follow me wherever I went for the simple reason that they were inside of me. My problems didn’t follow me, I took them with me. Running away wasn’t going to solve anything—I had to face my problems and deal with them. This is not to say that I have no problems now, but coming to this realization has been a big help in dealing with them. It’s easy to focus on your strengths, but, as Sunim said, you can’t ignore your weaknesses.
She went on to talk in more detail about monastic life, and toward the end of her talk she said what was for me probably the most important thing I heard all day, if not all week. She received her monastic precepts once in March of 2006, but she has been renewing her precepts in her heart every single day: “You don’t decide to become a monastic once. You decide to do it every day, every moment.” Most Christians believe that accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior is what inducts you into the body of Christ. Unfortunately, I get the feeling that a lot of people (myself included) often think of this as a one-time thing. You say the oath and you’re in the club, end of story. But that’s not how it works. You have to renew your promise each and every day, or it will quickly grow old and fade. I know this from personal experience.
As I mentioned above, Sunim’s talk was followed by a brief question-and-answer period, and there were two questions (and answers) in particular that stood out to me. The first question was, essentially, isn’t Buddhism escapist and selfish? Sunim’s initial answer was: “Go on a retreat and then ask me that question again.” The questioner replied that this was “a clever answer.” No more than the question deserved, I thought to myself. But it’s not a new or completely unfair question. From my studies I have learned that Korean Buddhism has had to struggle against these (sometimes not unfounded) accusations throughout history, coming especially from Confucians who sought to discredit and suppress the religion (if not wipe it out).
Sunim of course did not leave it at that, but gave a very honest answer. I can’t recreate all of it, but the gist of it is this: there are people who call themselves Buddhists who are self-absorbed, but they are not practicing true Buddhism. Once you realize that everything is interdependent, you will realize that how you keep your mind affects everyone around you and the world at large. Sitting in meditation may seem self-involved, but it is practice for “watching the mind,” allowing you to prepare yourself for living a life of compassion and caring. This is a defense not only of Buddhism but of all monastic traditions, and I think it is valid.
Sunim touched on meditation again in response to another question. This question was asked by a student who had read that everyone has the Buddha nature within them, but found that this didn’t seem to jive with what he experienced in his daily life—anger, hatred, and other negative emotions. Sunim’s response was that everyone does indeed have the Buddha nature within them, but environment is important. Life often knocks us off balance, and in order to regain balance we need to be in an environment that makes this possible. As Sunim said, “You have to give yourself time to step back.”
This time to step back is found in meditation, where we watch the mind and develop the tools to deal with these difficult situations as they arise in our lives. Sunim often used the word “retreat,” and this is a word that is not exclusive to Buddhism. As a teenager I often went on church retreats. At the time I was puzzled by the term. Wasn’t retreating a bad thing? Why do we sing “onward Christian soldiers” and then go to retreats? Many years later, the reason is now obvious to me: because we need time to step back and examine ourselves.
This is only a fraction of what Sunim talked about, but it is a distillation of the parts of her talk that touched me the most. I apologize to those who may feel that I have twisted her words or her intent by interpreting them through my own Christian mindset. Personally, I feel that to do anything but that would be intellectually and spiritually dishonest. And I can also take comfort in the fact that Sunim herself would probably not object. At one point in her talk she brought up the topic of missionary work, and she mentioned that she had no desire to be a Buddhist missionary. Instead, she was only interested in getting people to be good whatever they might happen to be (i.e., Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc.).
But this entry is just words. Words come easy; practice (praxis) is hard. This is why when I woke up this morning, I determined that I was going to follow up my words with practice. Every Sunday I go to church and I listen to the pastor preach. He is a very wise man, and he opens the Word of God to me in a way that really speaks to my heart. I say to myself that I am going to regain my balance, but a week passes and nothing has changed. Why? I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the familiarity of it all. Maybe I’ve been lulled into a routine of being challenged and then doing nothing about it. So I suppose it’s not too odd that it took a Buddhist nun to get me to take the first steps toward reaffirming my faith on a daily basis. That is what I did this morning. I spent a few minutes reading from the book of Proverbs, followed by a brief session of meditation. In Christian parlance we call this “quiet time,” or simply “QT” (I have no idea if this is just a Korean Christian thing or not).
I don’t expect to suddenly become a radically different person just because I spent a few minutes in prayer and meditation this morning. I am still the same person, with the same strengths and weaknesses. But taking time today to step back has subtly changed me. It has made me more aware of myself, of my speech, thoughts, and actions. It is a step in the right direction, a step toward finding that balance that I have been searching for.
In closing, I want to thank Sunim again for her talk, and for the conversation we shared over lunch. I hope I have done justice to your words and ideas, and if they have come out twisted after passing through the filter of my consciousness, at least take comfort in the fact that I took them to heart and am trying to put them into practice in my own way.