What other words come to mind when you hear the word ‘monk’?
meditation… peace… enlightenment… compassion… kindness… mystical…
This would have been my answer a few years ago, and at least the first five of the list are still clinging, but they are now mingling with other words such as; cell phone, Mercedes Benz, demonstration, 18 year old Scotch…
I don’t know about the rest of us, but having not been exposed to monks until the latest phase of my life, I realize now that I had romanticized, exaggerated, and archetypal ideals of monks that only a handful of monks in the world could probably ever accomplish. The greatest thing I’ve learned about monks since moving to Korea is what we all have in common; they are human.
Of course the life style and teachings monks are deservedly privileged with are ideal for attaining higher consciousness (and the knowledge of there being nothing to attain), it’s still a long, trying path. Putting on robes and showing your scalp doesn’t place you very far along it. I must admit, the monks I’ve associated with have been most of the kindest people I’ve met, and I believe that is a testament to the teachings and diligent practice they follow. There also seems to be a social veil that has been refreshingly lifted when talking to monks. Yes, they have their own rules and social structures, and follow strict hierarchies, but things like shame and embarrassment, and other obstacles of the ego we bound ourselves with can be put down. I’m saying this because the rest of what I will say is not intended as negativity towards monks (until six months ago I was very close to becoming one), it is just to breakdown the dualistic illusion that I personally held and may have been sharing with others.
Unfortunately as I keep meeting, keep conversing, keep learning, I start to see a lot of the same things we all struggle through. The monk I previously wrote about in “What’s This?” probably spends as much time at city hall protesting as he does at his temple. The monk who runs the temple around the corner is of a Japanese sect, allowing him to have a family. They aren’t on speaking terms anymore because the other monk’s daughter is selling barbecued pork (along with a whole line of others ) right in front of his temple. He’s trying to stop it but it’s too big of a tourist attraction. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to move them down at least a hundred meters further from his grounds though.
When I lived in Daegu, I used to visit DongWhaSa at least monthly. In one of my earlier visits, I walked down to a heritage behind the car park to find a carved, white stone Buddha. A monk came out to greet me and I pointed to the picture in the pamphlet I had and he led me to the shrine and opened the doors for me. There was the beautiful carving before me and the first thing he did was grab a big shinny apple off the shrine and hand it to me. I pointed to the apple and back to the statue trying to suggest that this apple wasn’t meant for me. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed my hand up to my mouth so much to say, “Somebodies gotta eat it and it’s not going to be the statue!” I showed him my camera and he motioned me gestures of encouragement. When I ran out of angles, I came out and he invited me and three young Koreans into his room for tea. He didn’t speak English and I hardly knew a phrase of Korean but the only difficult part was sitting on the hard floor with my legs crossed. He spoke for about an hour to the Koreans and it seemed interesting enough and he would occasionally fill my tea cup with a large grin. At one point, one of the girls cell phones rang and she dashed her hand into her pocket and quickly turned it off with red cheeks and a big apology.I could tell he told he it was OK, then looked at me with a grin more full of mischief then tea. None of us could keep from laughing about five minutes later when another phone rang and he calmly pulled a white cell phone from the pocket of his grey robes. I used to find it amusing to see monks on cell phones when it was a novelty. From the reaction of the Koreans with me, it was just as funny for them, although it may have been the situation. Or it may be that it’s only been the last three years or so that it’s became more common for monks to have cell phones. I’ve hardly met a monk who doesn’t carry one now. I’ve also heard many foreigners in Korea asking why monks need cell phones, but why does anyone need a cell phone? People aren’t aware of the Buddha’s teaching’s on possession. If I’m not mistaken, the emphasis is on non-attachment, not rejection of possession. Buddha’s way was the middle path and rejection is just the opposite extreme of attachment.
So have a cell phone, just don’t get too upset when it falls into the river. It’s not entirely rare, either, to walk through the woods for a few kilometers to a temple and have the first building you see be a car garage with a couple luxury vehicles parked inside. In defence, I’ve been told that it’s the expectation of the laypeople to see the head monk of the temple in a nice, expensive car, so this is more an attribute of being Korean than an element of Buddhism.
None of these things would be particularly interesting, if it weren’t for my perception that monks should be a certain way, and even now most of these stories would be very interesting if they were to happen again. Even two weeks ago when I was offered a Korean specialty seaweed soup, I was only mildly surprised that it was full of beef, mostly because of all the times I’ve eaten it, this was the first time I’d seen it with meat added. I had already eaten various forms of flesh with monks about a dozen times. Once again, it’s just a reminder that we are all human, just some of us are perhaps a bit ahead in the game.