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Lions Roar : September 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 71 IT’S BEEN MORE than five years since my husband and I met as graduate students at Harvard University. We first noticed each other during a class entitled “Buddhism in America.” After a collegial friendship that semester, we fell in love through a flurry of thoughtful emails during final exams. It was clear to us both that this was not a simple crush: the same evening we confessed our feelings, we talked about getting married. We had one small obstacle to marriage, however. At the time, Ilmee was an ordained monk. And he had been celibate for thir- teen years. I naively assumed that a transi- tion from monastic to married life was a matter of personal choice, that disrobing was simply a deci- sion you made, like deciding to become vegetarian. I had known Ilmee only as a quiet, studious fellow classmate. What I didn’t understand was the larger context of his life, the role he played among his family, monastic friends, lay supporters, and his Buddhist community in Korea. As our relationship deepened over the course of our graduate program, I watched Ilmee navigate a complex web of relationships in an attempt to receive general consent for our marriage. The most impor- tant of these relationships was with his master. Three years after we first met, we took a trip to the mas- ter’s temple, which rests in the clementine groves of Cheju Island, off the south of South Korea. Several months prior, Ilmee had sent a long, handwritten letter to his master, requesting permission to marry. Weeks passed without an answer. We were getting anxious. Then we received a phone I Married a Monk SUMI LOUNDON expects the worst when she and her Korean boyfriend ask his Zen master for permission to marry. But a personal bodhisattva has already intervened on their behalf. call from the temple secretary inviting Ilmee, and his American girlfriend, to visit the temple. We arrived on the island on Christmas Day. It was a strange day, with snow falling on the palm trees and blooming rhodo- dendron bushes. As we drove around the central volcano to the temple on the south side of the island, Ilmee looked senti- mental. He hadn’t been there in years. Then he said, quietly, “My master is more my real father than my own father. My dad’s alcoholism destroyed the family and we lived in poverty. I dropped out of school at fourteen. The future looked pretty bad for me, so I decided to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills. Thank goodness my uncle noticed something was wrong with me. He asked me to visit his good friend, the abbot of a temple on the island of Cheju. I thought, ‘Why not?’” Ilmee Sunim's Zen master, Simong Sunim, traveled from Korea to join Ilmee and Sumi for their wedding in Massachusetts.