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All of those who have experienced life as foreigners here in Korea have gotten used to a certain level of inquisitiveness from people on the street. Some of the most common questions asked are, of course, “Where are you from?”, or “Do you like Korean food?” or “How long have you been living in Korea?” And while these questions are well known to every foreigner in this country, unique to those who have “left home” and are living as monks and nuns in this country is the query “Why would you want to do that with your life? Why did you leave your comfortable situation in your country to come here to Korea and practice a path so difficult as monastic life?” In other words, “Why did you become a monk?” In this essay I shall look at some of the factors that inspire many of us to “leave home” and embark on the monastic way of life here in Korea.
First of all it should be noted that the expression “leaving home” is not some phrase I’ve just pulled out of thin air. Actually this phrase is a direct translation of the Korean verb 출가하다 “Chul-Ga Hada”, which literally means “to leave home”, or in other words, to become a monk or nun. In actuality, this word is originally Sino-Korean, based on Chinese characters, and probably came from Sanskrit before that, so the concept of “leaving home” dates back to the very origins of Buddhism itself. One should not imagine that “leaving home” is be taken only in its literal sense, of physically removing oneself from one’s native home or country. Indeed, this is a necessary step in becoming a monk or nun, leaving one’s parents and family behind and joining the greater body of the Sangha. But at the same time, there are many monks and nuns who have left home in this physical sense, while remaining attached to and involved in the ways of the world. Truly leaving home means that, while one may still function occasionally as a son or daughter and maintain some contact with one’s original parents and family members, in one’s mind all desire for personal, attachment-based relationships has been transformed into the wider direction of vowing to attain one’s True Self and save all beings from suffering. However, this does not necessarily mean that a monk or nun should completely reject their former family in a physical sense. This distinction is not clear for many people, even for those who have been monks and nuns for years.
For example, a few years ago I met one Korean monk who told me the story of how he had left home 30 years ago, and had never seen his “body family” again after that. At one point during his monastic career, he was practicing in a small temple in Cholla-Nam Do. This temple was located quite near his hometown, where his parents still resided, in fact it was in the next valley. One day he heard the news that his father was gravely ill and about to pass away. However, since he considered himself to be a true “home leaver”, he did not leave the temple to visit his family, instead he began a period of intensive chanting and personal practice. Another monk that I met related his story to me, how after leaving home more than 20 years before, he by chance met his sister one day at the temple. He had not had any contact at all with his parents or other family members since his ordination, and so at first his sister was not really sure it was him. But she came up to him and asked “Wasn’t your name so-and-so before?”, and he confirmed it was. And then she continued “I’m your younger sister! Don’t you remember me?” The monk took one look at her, said “That’s nice,” and walked away. That was all, nothing special for him.
Now it’s not the purpose of this essay to debate whether these aforementioned monks were correct or not, it’s actually not important, for any ideas of “correct” and “not correct” are a matter of opinion, and the result of discriminating thinking. But I will say that there are many ways of looking at “leaving home”, and for many monks these days, this means maintaining some level of contact with their original “body family”. In fact, in many monastic traditions outside of Korea, monks and nuns are strongly encouraged to write to their families and even visit them from time to time, perhaps once a year at the most. Our teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, always talked about keeping one’s “correct situation, function, and relationship”. Which means, when you’re in the temple with other monks, at that time you should only do your monk or nun job; i.e. you don’t think about your former family or friends. However, when you’re with your family, at that time you should keep a correct son or daughter’s mind, as this will make your parents and siblings very happy, and help them to understand your path as a monk or nun. If when you are with your family, you only think to yourself “I am a monk, I cannot spend time with these people”, then they will sense some distance from you and you will not be able to give them correct teaching, or even make them happy. However, if when you are with your family you are completely with them, and don’t hold this idea of being a monk or nun, or any idea at all, then they will naturally start to appreciate Buddhism and may even ask for teaching.
A good example would be that when a practitioner goes home to visit their family, they might offer to wash the dishes or do something useful around the house. Perhaps in the past this person never offered to wash the dishes, but then suddenly by offering, the parents will be given a big question: “What happened to my son or daughter? Perhaps this change they are exhibiting could be a result of the monastic life?” At that time they may begin to ask questions and even become interested in what you are doing. This is the true meaning of “leaving home”, for it implies that one is neither attached to one’s situation as a monk/nun, nor attached to one’s situation at home. In either situation, one is able to completely become one with wherever they are, whomever they are with, without rejecting anything or making anything special. This is true Buddhism, and also true monastic life, for if you make any idea about who you are or what you are doing, then you can not really call yourself a practitioner. This whole world is made up of complicated ideas based on discriminating thinking, and when these ideas come into conflict, for example “I am a man, so I can not understand women,” or “I am American, so I can not understand Koreans,” then everyone suffers. Being a monk or nun is also an idea, though this idea gives us direction and the potential for true understanding and clarity in our lives. However, one can also not be attached to this idea, for then even this great path has the potential to create suffering for others.
Now I shall examine some of my own personal reasons for having left home and become a monk. While many monks are reluctant to discuss such private matters, I do not mind to share my own personal experience, with the hope that people who are not monastics can have a chance to better understand those who ordain. I grew up in the USA in the state of Virginia, a relatively conservative state just south of the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. When I went away to university, I chose a rather large school known as Cornell University, located in the western half of New York state, about 5 hours away from New York City. I initially went to Cornell to study engineering, as math and science had been my forte during high school. However, I soon realized that I would much prefer to put my energy into other areas, in particular psychology and languages. I flirted with a number of different majors before eventually deciding to study classical languages, otherwise known as “dead languages”, with a particular emphasis on Ancient Greek, Latin and Anglo Saxon. I had studied Latin in high school, so I already had a foundation in that language, but Greek was new to me. Nevertheless, I recklessly plunged into this previously unknown area, and soon discovered that I was fascinated with these ancient tongues, and in particular, the scripts in which they were written. I began to focus on epigraphy, the study of writing, and how the Greek alphabet had evolved over time. After graduation in 1992, I worked for almost two years at the Cornell Center for the Computerization of Ancient Greek Inscriptions, an office whose sole purpose was to convert the entire corpus of recorded Ancient Greek tablets and inscriptions into a giant CD Rom computer database, which could be easily accessed by scholars around the world.
I later realized that my fascination with these ancient languages stemmed from my own personal quest to understand myself and the nature of human beings. In particular I found it fascinating to realize that, while reading ancient tombstones and tablets which had been inscribed more than 2000 years ago, human beings of that time and era had had basically the same emotional and psychological experience as human beings today. In particular I can remember reading one tombstone, on which a poem detailed a grieving father’s lament over the death of his young son. He so vividly described his suffering and agony, feeling that his life was over now that his son had died, I could have easily imagined that the same lament had been written only yesterday, by a modern father faced with a similar predicament. This experience of reading these texts over the years gave me a Big Question as to what has changed in human beings over all these years, for it seems we are almost exactly the same on the level of consciousness as our forefathers 2000 years ago. This also led to the question of “What is a human being?” or more importantly “What is a TRUE human being, and how can I become one?”
At the same time I was experiencing many of the realms that university students everywhere seem to go through, experimenting with different lifestyles, relationships, dreaming of my future, and simultaneously wondering why things were the way they were. “Why do people have to suffer?” I learned the most from relationships, and I began to see that I desperately wanted to be happy somehow, as all people do, but at the same time it seemed to be very difficult to find any kind of true happiness in life. For whenever I had a girlfriend I was happy for a while, but then the relationship would change and one or both of us would experience great suffering that outweighed the magnitude of the happiness that we had experienced while together. So I had this sincere question in my life “How is it really possible to ever be happy and truly satisfied in this life when everything keeps changing constantly?” For as soon as you get what you want, you lose it, or else you become afraid of losing it, which ruins the blissful moment anyway. And the truth of the matter is, most of us DON’T get what we want most of the time, which means we spend the majority of our lives blindly chasing some carrot on a stick that is always moving just a little bit faster than we are. This greatly disturbed me, I could not see the point of living any more.
Around this time I first became interested in practice, initially as a way to calm my mind and not feel so stressed all the time. I began to attend biweekly sessions at Cornell of a Zen meditation group organized and run by a longtime practitioner named David Radin. He was the student of a great Japanese Zen Master named Sasaki Roshi who was already quite old, yet still living and running retreats in Los Angeles. I enjoyed the meditation sessions very much, and even more so his Dharma Talks, which addressed many of the same issues I had been confronting in my life. The basic teaching was very simple, our minds make everything in the universe, so however we carry our mind in this moment determines what kind of life we lead. So the most important thing we can do as human beings is to learn to pay attention every moment and truly understand where this mind comes from. In other words, if this moment is complete, then your whole life is complete, and you neither lack anything nor need to reject anything, everything is perfect just as it is. In Zen meditation it is very important to experience this yourself, and digest what these words really mean. This practice of paying attention is initially taught using our breath, and in this particular Japanese tradition we were encouraged to count our breaths as a way to bring our ever-wandering minds back to this moment. In Korean Zen the emphasis is often on the Hwa-Du, which is the technique of using a Big Question to experience one’s mind BEFORE thinking arises, in other words, our True Nature.
To be continue…