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An American Encounter with Korean Nuns

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An American Encounter with Korean Nuns

Sumi London
submission for Mok Tak Quarterly
and Eastern Horizon
February 2002




  Step onto the grounds of Un Mun Sah--the largest and most prestigious Buddhist training monastery for women in --and you step into a world utterly distinct from the hustle of Seoul ’s shops and sidewalks. Nestled in the eastern mountains, Un Mun Sah feels like an army boot camp crossed with a university and a monastery. Like the military, every minute is scheduled and individuality set aside. Like a university, the nuns study Buddhist sutras and philosophy intensively. Like a monastery, the day is anchored by chanting, ritual and meditation. Two hundred and seventy nuns, ranging in age from eighteen to over sixty, train rigorously for four or more years. From the crucible of Un Mun Sah, nuns graduate with full preparation in temple rites, a deep knowledge of their own minds, and a comprehensive education in the complexities of Buddhist thought.  

             My translator-friend Hee-joo and I arrived on a sweltering summer afternoon. The temple was divided into a tourist area for laypeople and the private quarters of the nuns. We wandered around with the camera-clicking visitors before mustering the courage to cross the blockades warning Do Not Enter: Private. As we stepped over the ropes, some passing nuns in long gray robes immediately surrounded us, looking a little irritated but also curious. Hardly any Caucasians visit this remote temple. Fortunately, we had a password: Hee-joo quickly explained that Hyon-gak Sunim, a prominent American monk living in , made arrangements for us to meet Chong-go Sunim, one of the senior students at Un Mun Sah. The nuns smiled upon hearing the names, and we were ushered into the administration building. 

             As if rural, mountain temple weren’t different enough from the secular city, the nuns’ sector was even more otherworldly to the public access area. The grounds were impeccably clean—no cigarette butts by the stairways—and incredibly quiet. The nuns’ attention to detail, their great care with everything from the placement of rocks to dusting the Buddha’s shoulders, created sacredness. Hee-joo and I sat down exhaustedly on the couches, trying not to let our dust and sweat infect the pristine office.

Some of the senior administrators came in to have a look at us in our dilapidated condition. We were offered watermelon, the favorite fruit of by which no meal is complete without. The administrators were reserved, seemingly annoyed that we were disrupting the schedule. I felt awkward. A few junior nuns came in, giggly and shy, curious about the miguk saram (American). We began chatting, with Hee-joo doing her best to keep up with translating. The atmosphere warmed when the nuns learned I was a long-time Buddhist. As we talked about why Americans like Buddhism, I munched on the watermelon, places the rinds on the plate before me. Just as I was beginning to feel more at ease, suddenly a senior nun pushed her voice into the conversation, rebuking, “It’s rude to place those rinds with the bite marks showing.” She came over and turned them green-side-up for me. It was a lesson that attention to detail includes personal conduct, out of respect for one’s effect on others.

Chong-go Sunim arrived shortly, happy to see whom Hyon-gak Sunim would send to her. She was a short woman but her presence was large. Her face was shining with youthfulness and her eyes were piercing, like diamonds. As she was in her senior year at the monastery, her schedule was more flexible than the regimen for freshman. She took us, with one of her friends, to the newly built teahouse at the edge of the woods to relax. We walked through the monastery’s orchards and fields, over the river’s bridge and onwards through fallow fields until we reached a postcard vision of Oriental monastic society: a lily pond, replete with ribbetting frogs, and several small buildings with traditional sweeping roofs and open, rice-paper windows. Despite the classic look, a modern lighting system revealed rows of recently installed tables, each with outlets for heating water in electric teapots. Sunim broke out a beautiful china set and we relaxed into a Korean-style social hour. Unmunsa-temple

Chong-go Sunim and the other nun asked us to guess their ages. We said, twenty-five, maybe thirty, tops. The nuns began laughing. I’m forty-two, she said, and my friend is thirty-five. Hee-joo and I gasped. It’s true that monastics generally look about twenty years younger than they are, which makes those in their early twenties seem like teenagers. They have a natural beauty no matter what the arrangement of features.

I asked Chong-go Sunim what she would do after graduating from nuns college. She passionately explained that she wants to help the mentally ill by creating fascilities within temples for them to live. I was surprised by her progressive thinking, since is considered to be years behind the States in mental health care. A few temples, she told me, have welcomed the mentally ill, where these guests are allowed a flexible schedule. In her view, our systems are made of earth, air, fire and water forces that modernity knocks out of alignment. Nature and the dharma, both found in temple environments, bring these four elements back to proper proportions. She said she had seen many people recover their sanity by living in the temple. Whereas Koreans typically think of Buddhists as world-rejecting, Chong-go Sunim is just one of many monastics who is engaging herself in this kind of active ministry and social engagement.


After a long conversation with much laughter, I began to feel more relaxed in this new environment. The sun had gone down and it was time to retire. Hee-joo and I were shown to our room, a dormitory-style room set between a long row of rooms with wide doors opening to the summer night. The floor was hard, despite a piling of blankets, and I was unaccustomed to the roll-type traditional Korean pillow. I had yet to fall asleep in the midnight heat, though Hee-joo passed out easily. I watched through the screen door a nearly full moon over the mountain peaks and listened for the absence of cars. Only water washing the stones in the river below and the music of insects. Though I was worn out, I felt peaceful, and I didn’t want to let one minute of this precious opportunity pass by sleeping. 

This nuns’ world, I realized, was literally on the opposite side of the globe from my home in Cambridge, Massachusetts . I reflected on why I felt so awkward and self-aware when I first arrived: a Westerner among Asians, a layperson among monastics. Even within Korean society, this temple, so removed from the cities and employing traditional practices and costumes from hundreds of years ago, seemed foreign to its own . And even arriving at the temple itself, crossing the line from the tourist area to the nuns’ training area felt like crossing into a whole culture of monastic practice that was distant from the camera clicking and soda vending a few yards away. Yet, despite being so far removed from the world I know, Un Mun Sah felt profoundly connected to the world, in a way that people on Seoul’s busses or Boston ’s trains would not even connect to each other. 

Just as I was floating off on this reflection, the wake-up nun began striking her bell as she slowly walked the grounds. It was three in the morning. The nuns began stirring and within minutes the courtyard was buzzing with women washing their faces in the central fountain. One nun came by our door and told us to hurry up. We followed her to an open-frame tower that looked over the whole grounds. Four instruments, larger than the nuns standing in the tower, hung. The first was an enormous drum. A nun began rhythmically tapping the edges slowly with one of her two sticks. Her motions became quicker and stronger until she was heaving her entire body to strike the center of the tam in a blur of arm motion, her robes swishing all around her. The nun beside me and Hee-joo explained that the drum is beaten to wake the beings in the middle realm up, the realm of humans and land animals. As the beat slowed to an ending, a second nun began whacking a large, wooden sculpture of a hollow fish that was swimming in the air. The clacking of her sticks is meant to wake all the beings from the waters. As she finished, a third nun began striking a bronze, metal instrument in the shape of a cloud with a small stick. This is meant to awaken, and to console, the beings in the air. I heard the birds responded with their chirping and flapping in the dark hour of the morning. Finally, the fourth nun began rocking a large, swinging log back and forth until it gained momentum to hit a gigantic bronze bell. The sonorous boom echoed off the mountainsides, filling the morning with a deep and powerful sound. This bell is struck to wake up all beings on earth. While the bell is sounding, beings from hell also have the opportunity to be released from their suffering. I thought about the expression of compassion in this powerful ritual--a recognition of the nuns’ obligation to more than just their temple, an obligation to all beings, even the ones we can’t see. 

While these rituals were ringing across the temple, the nuns were dressing in their long, gray robes with a ceremonial mahogany cloak draped over one shoulder. They walked quickly and quietly in their light blue, pointy-tipped slippers across the sandy courtyard and into the open doors of the main hall. The light from the candles, reflecting off golden inlay, radiated from the hall, spilling over the steps and into the night. We scurried over to the hall to join the last of the nuns hastily pulling their cloaks into place. Everyone was standing at their brown mat facing the altar, palms together, just as the huge bell finished tolling. The silence was profound.

 Then the most transcendental moment of my entire time in : from that silence, the first strains of the nuns slowly chanting in unison. Their high voices coming together as one were so powerful that I practically left my body.  I felt tears rise uncontrollably, as this chorus filled the Buddha hall. It was so beautiful, timeless and pure that I could not fully allow it to the deepest parts of my being. I felt myself block it out: no, nothing can be this wonderful, this sacred. In the next moments, I held it at an intellectual distance.

My struggle between the sacred and profane quickly faded with the beginning of our morning calisthenics: one hundred and eight bows.  Around number fifty, sweaty and miserable, my legs began trembling enough that I stopped and sat in respectful meditation. I began observing the difference in each nun’s bowing. The freshman in front of me kept having to pull up her mahogany shoulder robe as it insisted on slipping down during bowing. Bowing in long, heavy robes requires skill. For one, as you come up, the heels tend to pin down the end of the robe that settled while you were all the way down, hence upon full standing the cloak gets yanked down. Experienced nuns know how to come up on the toes first, fully straight, and then let the heels down after the robe has lifted to its proper height. It’s also hard to keep chanting without getting out of breath, but even the aged nuns had this down pat.

Finally, the bowing and chanting ended around 4:30, while it was still dark. Hee-joo and I scrambled out the side door ahead of the nuns. We watched the nuns flow out of the hall in rows of two, like the doors were giving birth. The nuns settled into their desks in the study hall to begin sutra reading before breakfast. 

Meanwhile, Hee-joo and I visited the bathroom. It was amusing to see that despite the androgynous appearance of the nuns—the baggy clothes hide and figure and shaved heads remove gender further—the bathrooms were like the women’s at my university. Various perfumed facial scrubs, lotions, special sponges, bottles of every kind lined the shower shelves. I noticed later in the day that, even though every effort is made to homogenize the community through the same clothes, schedule, food, and activities, the quirky personalities of each nun comes through in some subtle way. Some nuns have not one thread of their uniform out of place while others don’t mind a little dirt on the sleeve. Some nuns like their black hair to be a centimeter long while others prefer a very clean shave. 

At six, the nuns began flowing into the dining hall, leaving their blue slippers along the long rock steps outside. Everyone eats the same thing at the same time—there’s little room for individuality in meals. The kitchen nuns begin fluttering around bringing in large pots of steaming rice, soup and vegetables. Before eating, the nuns chant together in gratitude for what they are about to receive. Hee-joo and I were shown to the small dining room by the kitchen where laypeople can eat. Korean food can be spicy, and the nuns eat very fast, two qualities being hard to adjust to for an American. We peeked into the kitchen afterwards where I saw tens of nuns working quietly and rapidly, with complete single-mindedness.

Later in the morning, Chong-go Sunim and another nun gave Heejoo and me and a private tour to places where regular visitors aren’t allowed. For example, we walked under the enormous bonsai tree which is usually gated off. This bonsai, about five hundred years old, is so huge that large beams hold up the branches. The tree roots are watered with drinking alcohol to keep it sterile enough to endure the centuries. As a result, it’s a very large, drunk tree! We also looked at the murals on the outside walls of the temples. Chong-go Sunim explained that they were illustrations of Buddhist stories that relate ethical principles, much as Christian murals did in medieval times.

The murals depicted mostly men, so I became curious as to whether any form of feminism would necessarily run through an all-female community. I asked our accompanying nun about this but translation caused a miscommunication. However, something she said gave me some indication. She boasted that the nuns do everything for themselves, including the cooking. Many monks, especially those in the smaller temples, on the other hand, will get the help of laywomen to cook for them out of convenience. The astonishing thing to me was that this nun, and others, don’t consider hiring a man to do the job. Cooking simply is the province of women—lay or monastic. The nun was beaming with pride that the nunnery is entirely self-sufficient with no dependency on laypeople or outsiders. 

To prove this, we then walked through the temple’s organic gardens, cultivated entirely by the nuns’ back-breaking labor alone, and ate peaches and raspberries right off their branches. (I think the American hippies of yore would be proud to see this back-to-the-land attitude!) Thus, I learned that a large group of only women would not necessarily imply a feminist reflection. I am not especially bothered by this, but it was interesting to me. Korean nuns generally have it better off than Buddhist nuns in other countries, some of whom are not even allowed to fully ordain or where even an aged, venerable nun must bow deeply to a boy monk
(though among conservative monks in Korea, this Theravadin precept persists.)
One testament to the fairness nuns enjoy more in is that sunim, which means reverend monastic, refers to either a monk or a nun. Likewise, the title Chuji applies to both abbots and abbesses. 

Unmunsa-templeAt the same time, Korean nuns seem to be aware that they do not yet enjoy holding as many of the highest offices as they want in the Chogye Order, the primary monastic order in . One monk confided that nuns are not as respected by both monks and laypeople, and even more shocking, by the nuns themselves. The situation has improved tremendously in the modern period as have women’s rights overall but there is still a tangible hierarchy. He told me to notice how hard the nuns work to prove that they are more perfect than the monks. They are especially concerned about proper form and are sticklers when it comes to ethics. I got a sense of this at Un Mun Sah, where I felt that the nuns, on the whole and at a subtle level, were more conservative and unapproachable than the monks—and this, despite my being female.

Our garden conversation was interrupted by a young nun delivering a message that the abbess of the temple wanted to meet with me and Hee-joo. Earlier in the day we had bumped into the abbess, surrounded by young assistants, along a path. At that time, she looked us up and down with a grim and disapproving expression. The young nuns around her seemed like newborns, wobbly on their feet and doe-eyed with wonder. Older nuns have an aura of dignity and poise that frankly scared the daylights out of me. I had several times before encountered abbesses, and they had a way of looking at me such that I felt about a significant as sock lint. But, I knew that if one can survive this initial chill, the next thing you know you’re having tea and walking away with a bag of temple souveniers .

Her house, like the president’s house of a college, sat on a hill overlooking the grounds, and was well-appointed with fineries of china, paintings, and beautiful furniture. After doing three bows to her out of respect for her position, we were offered wonderful tea and asked numerous questions. She gave me a wooden mala with the Sanskrit ‘om’ carved on each bead. I thought about how jealous power-bead buyers would be when I got back home! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay long, as the bus for Seoul was about to arrive. We hastily sped off, with many bows and kam-sa-ham-ni-da’s (highest thanks).

Leaving the temple, I felt I had visited for a year but in truth it was less than a day. We walked down the dusty, butt-littered road in the roasting heat to the bus stop. The sacred landscape turned into one filled with shacks selling gawdy goods and sweets for the tourists. I was exhausted, which gave me a sense of just how hard the training is for four years. These women come out as dharma warriors, very strong from the rigorous discipline. Most do not quit. Many have to figure out how to reintegrate into the real world, where orchards are supplanted by sidewalks, smiling faces for ones full of suffering, silence for the din of laypeople making their lives.  Yet these nuns, together with their monastic brothers, are today working hard to fulfill their bodhisattva vows by ministering to the laypeople. They bring the best of the military, university, and temple with them: endurance and selflessness, erudition and wisdom, compassion and the dharma. 

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