If there is one man who has succeeded in blowing away any preconceptions I had about monks it would be JaeAhn Sunim, a Jogye order monk for over 20 years.
I met JaeAhn Sunim on a Saturday morning in April but it all started on the night before’s attempt to catch a train south to visit TongDoSa while the cherry blossoms were in bloom. I left my house with a feeling that I would meet someone significant this weekend. The bus I caught after work, for reasons untranslatable into English, dropped everyone off at MyungDong, instead of the usual loop through downtown to the last stop at Seoul Station. I ran as fast I could through the neon, the bars, the business clubs, past City Hall, NamDaeMun, down the subway station, and finally up to the train station. I got there just in time to find the place empty and still have time to get back to the bus stop at NamDaeMun to catch the last bus back to Bundang. It was frustrating but I still felt the strings of fate pulling me, so I followed.
A man at the bus stop, assuming I wouldn’t know the bus system, asked where I was going and if I needed any help. It turned out he lived in Ori, the same small area of Bundang I was living in. We chatted on the bus and he told me his name was Joseph. “Huh?” I jumped a little because I thought he knew my name, then he repeated, “My name is Joseph.” I hadn’t met a Korean man named Joseph before, but then he went on, telling me he had lived in Oradel, New Jersey; the same place my father, also named Joseph, grew up. I started thinking to myself, “Is this who I was supposed to meet?” Despite the strange coincidences, talking with him was a little more draining then it was interesting, so I said goodbye when it was his stop and forged on.
I moved to Bundang, a suburb of Seoul, in October at the advice of my friend Joe. He had been my best friend in Daegu and I really missed him. At the same time, I thought Seoul would be a better place then Daegu had been to meet some Korean friends. Six months later, I still hadn’t met anyone. Joe told me I should stop going to temples if I wanted to meet people, and he was mostly right, but I thought, if I keep doing what I like, then I’ll meet the right people, even if it’ll take a lot longer.
I got home, repacked a little, checked my email, took a couple hours of sleep, and caught the first morning bus back to Seoul. It was still dark when I left, but the glow of dawn lit Seoul as I walked up the stairs of Seoul Station. I bought my ticket to Busan and waited for my gate to open. Even that early, Seoul Station was already busy so when the the red light came on, signaling my train had arrived, it was a mad dash to the gates. Anyone who’s spent a minimal amount of time in Korea knows the intense desire of the people to be first in, on, off, or anywhere. I try to be ahead the crowd more as a matter of survival than pride. If you can keep ahead of the mob, you’ll be spared the elbows, hooks, hip checks, and occasional jabs that make going through lines here something like finding yourself in a mix of the running of the bulls and Roller Derby.
As a deked towards the front and was nearly at the gate, I notice the man I was about to brush past was wearing grey robes and had a shaved head. Catching myself, I gave a quick bow and let him by. I was surprised when, in decent English, he asked me where I was going. I surprised him right back when I said I was going to a temple. We chatted a bit, he gave me a solid backhand to the abs for being in Korea for 2 years and not being able to speak more Korean, then we wished each other a nice journey and headed in opposite directions down the tracks. My car was the first door to my right. I boarded and turned down the aisle to see the same monk coming from the other end of the car. Our seats were right next to each other in a car that was nearly empty.
He introduced himself as JaeAhn Sunim and slipped a beautiful rosewood beaded bracelet with a jade Buddhist Swastika on my wrist. He told me he worked in the head office of Jogyesa in Seoul. His job was kind of like a public relations rep. for the JogyeTemples around Korea. He had lived in England for a couple years and had learned a fair amount of English. He was from the countryside to the west of JeonJu and I had been to the temple in SunUn Mt. that he grew up by a few times already. It’s still one of my favorite places in Korea. I was really drowsy but had a really good time with him. Whenever he would finish his point he would hold his fist up to knock firsts sort of hip-hop style. He brought to between the cars, made me sit lotus style but with my hands clenched behind my head then, with his knee against my spine, gave me a quick couple twists and a stretched and popped my entire spine. Then he put his two large, warm palms on my checks and quickly bobbed my head back and forth with a couple cracks. I felt almost two inches taller when I stood up again, and consideringmy bad posture, I probably was. He seemed obsessed with the white crescents under his nails, where they emerge from the flesh. He told me each finger represents a different organ and the bigger they are, the better your health. I only had them on my thumbs but his were prominent on all fingers.
The hour and fifty minutes to his stop in Daegu went by quickly, and we knocked first one more time as he rose to debark. Before he left, he left me his business card and told me to drop by his office sometime. I couldn’t wait to take him up on his offer.