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Lions Roar : September 2005
master’s large wooden table were bottles of ink, brushes, and calligraphy paper. A tea set rested on another table. The large leather Western chair, clearly well-worn, seemed out of place. Ilmee, in his long gray robes and clean-shaven head, fit into the picture more naturally than in the classrooms at Harvard among lay people. Ilmee looked around at the walls lined with books. “I studied these old Chinese texts for years,” he said, with a note of nostalgia. “I left here when I was nineteen and went to Seoul to study at a Buddhist university. I joined the student Buddhist group—we had about a hundred and fifty monks and nuns. We were such naïve activists then, trying to bring down the corrupt senior administration in the Chogye order. As the vice-president of the group, I even risked my life to cause a revolution,” he said, shaking his head. “I became pret- ty well-known in the monastic community. When I got into Harvard, this made me even more prominent, since Harvard is practically revered by Koreans. My master’s prestige grew in part because of his promising disciple, me. Everyone expects me to rise through the ranks and become a big leader in the order.” He paused. “That’s why my getting mar- ried, more so than other monks, will be such a statement. And why it will be difficult for my master to accept it.” “Ilmee, you have to do what makes you happy. What good does it do any- one if you live your life according to expectations and duty but are unhappy the whole time?” I asked. Just then, the master arrived, along with the temple’s head secretary, a middle-aged woman with subtle pur- ple highlights in her black, short hair. We immediately stood up, waited for him to settle behind his desk, and bowed to the floor three times. Ilmee sat down in front of his master and arranged his robes. I sat off to the side, as far out of sight as possible, and the secretary sat on her knees, adjacent to the master. There was no chitchat, no “How are your studies going?”—just silence. Ilmee kept his eyes on the floor. I could feel the strong bond between them, how Ilmee was the mas- ter’s most beloved disciple. Finally, the master spoke in a sermon-like tone, looking off into the distance. “There are precedents and justifications for marriage in Buddhism,” he said. “A famous monk, Manhae, was known for his love poems, which many say could not have been written had he not loved a woman deeply. Then there is the seventh-century monk Wonhyo, the most famous monk in Korean Buddhism. It’s said that the king asked him to sleep with his daughter, the princess, to console her. SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2005 73 “What happened after you met your master? Did you immediately decide to become a monk?” I asked. “No. Actually, when I first met him I was simply impressed by how dignified and stable he was, compared to my father. I remember thinking, ‘This is a man I can follow.’ He had me do simple things around the temple, like cleaning. I had intended to only stay a week but I liked how quiet and peace- ful the temple was—anything was better than being at home. Then my master had me begin a regimen of bowing and chanting. I prayed so hard for my whole family. Sometimes I would just begin weeping in the middle of bowing. It was a kind of therapy, I think. When my weeping went away, my master began showing me how to copy Chinese characters out of old Buddhist texts. He was sneaky, because before I knew it, he was teaching me what those Chinese characters said about Buddhist doctrines. Less than a year later, I decid- ed to ordain as a novice monk with him.” We got off the highway and drove through a small village. The streets were empty because of the holiday, even though the island is more Buddhist than the rest of Korea. As we neared the temple, Ilmee became anxious. “Sumi, we should expect the worst from my master.” “Baby, why would your master invite both of us here only to tell us he rejected our marriage? That doesn’t make sense.” “It’s more complicated than just us. My master is well respected in the Chogye order. If I get married, then we are disgracing him. He could lose his standing. The thing is, the Korean gov- ernment just designated my master’s temple as a historic site. Both the gov- ernment and the Chogye order are sending grant money to rebuild on the foundations, which are over a thou- sand years old. If my master loses his standing, that could jeopardize the grants. We’re almost there, by the way.” “Still,” I replied, “if your master is the decent person you say he is, then I don’t think he would also invite me only to tell me to abandon you. He would have talked just to you. This anxiety sounds like something from your childhood and your dad’s alcoholism.” “Maybe you’re right,” he murmured as we pulled into the gravel lot. The temple was empty, except for a few monks resting in their quarters. At the door of the master’s quarters, we slipped off our shoes and stepped inside a room like a pro- fessor’s office. The master wasn’t there. We sat down and I looked around. Like all traditional Korean buildings, the floor was heated but the walls and paper doors weren’t insu- lated. A strong wind snapped the paper in the panes. On the Sumi and Ilmee