A week after meeting JaeAhn Sunim I went to his office for a visit. We chatted a bit and then went down to the lunch room. The monks have a separate room of their own, so he showed me the room for laypeople and he went into his side. When eating in a temple, you are expected to eat every peice you put on you plate. I was careful to take an amount I knew I could eat, but the line of people was so long that I only sat down and took one bite before JaeAhn was at the door telling me to hurry up and follow him. I was hungry and it looked delicious, but he wasn’t giving me a moment. I tossed the food in the compost basket and ran before anyone saw me. The worst part was how, on the way up the stairs he asked me how I enjoyed my lunch. I was already thinking about how hungry I’d be at work that evening.
Buddha’s birthday was coming soon and JaeAhn Sunim was going to a temple a couple hours outside the city to perform rituals in a death ceremony. Every week for seven weeks they would do a special ceremony for the departed until on the forty-ninth day they would be reborn. The temple was GwonChokSa and I had been there a couple times to visit the thousand year old Future Buddha on their complex. The Buddha is over 18 meters tall but over half of its height is only the head and crown. Somehow it holds together well as a beautiful statue. The face is painted in the style of the time it was made, faded now but nicely.
On the day of Buddha’s celebration, my friend Josette came up from Daegu to join us and JaeAhn’s friend drove us all to the temple. When we arrived, the ceremony was performed then the head monk invited us into his room for tea and ddeok. He had a little tea-cup terrier that was fifteen years old, and he slept with it in his bed every night. The poor dog was blind, looked like part of its lower jaw was missing, its tongue hung way out of its mouth, and apparently it peed whenever JaeAhn was around.
That night, I took part in ‘Ye Bul’ (the evening ceremony) for the first time since I’d been visiting temples. I didn’t understand the sutras but there was still a warm feeling being a part of the small, intimate ceremony. It was also the first time I attempted the usual one-hundred and eight bows, and though I lost count, I think I surpassed them. The temple was mostly full of grandmothers, and they congratulated Josette and me on our participation afterwards. They enjoyed having us there and it may have been the first time foreigners had shared Ye Bul with them.
I began accompanying JaeAhn on many of his weekend trips around the country. He enjoyed the company and the chance to practice his English, and I enjoyed seeing deeper into the goings on of temples. I was also becoming very interested in tea, an important part of any good monk’s meeting. We went to visit a hermitage in Jirisan as they were beginning their one-hundred day Summer meditation retreat and bring gifts of fruit to the monks. Jirisan is famous for it’s quality green tea and the head monk gave me two beautiful ceramic tea bowls. He showed me me his potted ginseng plant that he found growing wild in the hills. We had tea as they talked, then JaeAhn told me they were going to do more serious talking so I left them alone and wandered through the small bamboo patch, down to the shrine and sat in peace, a peacefulness that, unfortunately, wasn’t to last long.
It was time to go. We had to make it to another hermitage a few miles away in the country side. The summer haze blotted out most of Jirisan but it was still beautiful; countryside the way it should be. We made our way through the hills, up a long narrow road that wound through gardens, to a rundown old shrine and a large wooden shingled shack where the monk stayed.
A couple weeks before we visited a temple and there was a bit of a dilemma when it came time for lunch. A local woman had donated some chickens to the temple, and they had prepared chicken soup. JaeAhn told me that before meditation retreats it’s normal for people to donate meat because the monks need the energy for the extended meditation time. He was reluctant to join the meal but maybe it was manners that made him stay. Usually samgyetang (chicken soup) is a small chicken but when we were served these were giant chickens, limbs hanging over the edge of the bowls. When you depend on others for food, you should eat what’s offered to you, and though they would prefer not to eat it, sometime meat is what is offered. This is true to the Buddha’s teachings, as long as the animal was not killed specifically for you.
Korean summers are lush with vines and flowers and leaves sprouting everywhere. This was a perfect Korean summer day, insects buzzing as though the heat had a sound, the blue sky reduced to nearly white. When we pulled into the hermitage there was already a large group sitting outside in the sunshine talking and smiling. They set up a couple large makeshift table, there were about eight of us in all, and then they brought the meal out from the shack. I think I gasped when I saw all the ducks they had in the pans, roasted with garlic, onions, and abalone. They said as long as the ducks weren’t killed on the temple grounds it was ok. The part I’ll never forget was when the monk sitting across from me leaned over, sun glistening off his grinning face, and came up with a bottle of 18 year old scotch and a stack of little paper shot cups. I’d never felt more ridiculous than telling a group of monks that I don’t drink, but given that they were monks, if they said it was ok, no excuse was going to cut it. Besides, how many people do I know who have drunk 18 year old scotch with monks? Maybe more than I suspect! They told me as long as they aren’t getting drunk, and all are drinking together, than just enjoy it. I had my shot and most of them had two.
When the meal was finished we went down to the garden below the shrine and bought a couple sacks of potatoes from the elderly couple digging in the soft dry soil. I loaded them into the truck of JaeAhn’s shiny silver car and we were off.
It’s a long drive back to Seoul from Jirisan. I had brought my favorite Korean folk CD, thinking JaeAhn would like it. I don’t think it got a quarter way into the first song before he popped it out. He asked if I thought he would like it just because he’s a monk, and I guess he was right that I did, but he hardly believed me that I actually liked it and regularly listen to it in my house. he put in his friend’s Hip Hop CD and rapped for a while. I dozed off for a bit, but woke with a start when JaeAhn started shouting, “Ee bek! Ee bek!” I realized he was speaking numbers, “Two hundred! Two hundred!”
I looked at the speedometer to see pass the 200 click mark and continue rising. 210, 220, 230, 240… JaeAhn counting all the way. At two forty, either the speedometer or the engine maxed out and firmly clenched whatever I had my hands on, now sweaty and chilled. We flew by all the other cars, jumping from one lane to the next. It was when we came to a wall of cars that he decided to pass by using the shoulder of the road that I let out, “Jae Ahn!!!” He only laughed, “Do you think I’m crazy? Don’t worry, it’s Korea style and I’m a good driver!” Yes, I was worried. Koreans have the worst driving record in the world, and it’s been reconfirmed by an American monk friend of mine who endured a similar ride, that monks are among the top.
Two million people leave Seoul on Saturday, and Sunday night two million people return. This figure is even higher in the summer. It was only a matter of time before we ran into the rush back to the city. Jae Ahn had slowed down for a while and I had fallen back to sleep for a bit until I heard him again. But this time it was along the lines of, “Fucker! Mother Fucker!” We were getting closer to the traffic jam and whenever we’d be stuck behind someone, he would curse, “Mother fucker!” I said, “JaeAhn Sunim, you shouldn’t say that.” “Why? My friend in England taught me that. She said it’s OK.” I hauled out of phone and looked up ‘mother fucker’ in the translator. I handed my phone to him and he glanced through it and suddenly flung it back to me pulling his hand back as though he had just touched something filthy and slimy. He looked at me matter of factually and asked, “Do you masturbate?” I should have expected anything at this point but he still caught me off guard. I felt my face go through all the hues of red one goes through when confronted with this sort of question. “What?!” “Do you masturbate?” I didn’t want to talk about hat with him, but he kept pressing, “Do you masturbate? Come on, I’m a monk, you can tell me, it doesn’t matter!” I hadn’t had a girlfriend for nearly a year at this point, so I supposed I didn’t have anything to hide. I answered, “YES!” I thought that would be enough, but then he just had to ask, “How much?” “WHAT!” I couldn’t control my laughter anymore. “How many times? Once a month? How many times a week?” I looked at him squarely and shot back, “MANY!” This time he had to laugh too, and he just told me I shouldn’t do that too much, but sometimes is OK.
We made it through the traffic and he dropped me off at a gas stop that I could follow a path behind and around to my apartment and he kept going back to Seoul. I decide not to take anymore trips with him, but still kept in touch, visiting him in his office and laughing together at what ever situation. I haven’t visited him now in a few months, but writing these stories give me an urge to pay him another visit. The last time I saw him was to tell him I was going to get married and asked if he would marry us. He was a little upset and wanted to talk to EunBong. I got her on the phone and in Korean, said he wanted her to leave me alone. He send I had a good mind and he wanted to make me monk, maybe getting married would ruin my good mind. In the weeks that have passed, he’s had time to get over it. He also told me his duties and stresses in the head office and taking care of the head monks will soon be finished and he will have his own temple in the countryside somewhere. I have to say, I’m eager to have a temple stay at a temple run by JaeAhn Sunim and see what sort of trouble he gets me in!