The day I’d arrived at Donghwasa, I’d started a list. Flipping to a blank patch in my journal, I’d scrawled the words, “Things I’ve Learned about Monks.” The list began as an amusing souvenir of my time at Donghwasa, a remote Buddhist temple in the mountains of South Korea. Initially I had written little musings such as “Monks drive like teenagers” and “Monks take seconds.” However, the list quickly became a warm account of a truly transformative experience. Buddhist monks, it turned out, had a lot to teach me.
Crashing the Party
I came to Donghwasa on the weekend of Buddha’s birthday – a time of massive celebrations across the country, specifically in the nation’s temples. In honor of the event entire cities were shut down, streets were taken over by parade floats, ornate lanterns drifted through the skies, songs were sung, revelers danced and the entire country saluted their Bodhisattva.
When an English-speaking monk at Donghwasa’s head office quickly assured me I could be accommodated, I booked the next train from Seoul. Arriving, travel-weary, stiff and glistening with midday sweat I was met by the same patient, yet, harried monk. Our first order of business was to lug my awkward knapsack up a steep incline to the women’s area of the temple compound.
On the journey upward, the same monk casually mentioned that the female monks – the same ones intended to host me for the next four days – hadn’t actually been told to expect a guest. Hopefully, he said, there would be room. At those words my stomach lurched. In the West, guests are rarely unexpected – especially not guests requiring a bed, meals, and extensive translation. The thought of being an unwelcome, unexpected guest in a group of solemn, prayerful women who likely valued order and discipline above all else formed a cold pit in my gut.
The Right Place at the Right Time
Novice monk Irye met us at the door, surprised but with gracious enthusiasm. She was young with smooth, radiant skin, modern eyeglasses, and a sharp grey and burgundy robe. Her English, too, was impeccable. Together we walked the stairs to my room; a small, square space with a low table, a thin mattress, a tea kettle and a bowl of fresh fruit. It suddenly occurred to me that, though they hadn’t been waiting for me specifically, they had intentionally prepared themselves for hospitality. They were waiting for anyone who might have need of them.
After quickly being introduced to a bevy of grey-robed, bare-scalped women who smiled and bowed and bustled around excitedly, I met Jisu Sunim – head of the Donghwasa female monks. Moments later I was joining her for an impromptu afternoon tea.
As Jisu Sunim washed the fragrant leaves, swirled warm water around the palm-sized cups and sliced pears and apples, Irye provided much needed translation. Through her, we learned about each other. Jisu Sunim asked what brought me to Donghwasa, why I wasn’t staying longer, if I needed more to eat, what I was looking for and was I certain I didn’t need more to eat? She gave me her robes to wear, wrapped a string of prayer beads around my wrist, stuffed me with sweet rice cakes and erased every preconception I’d ever had about Buddhist monks.
Together we laughed, joked, teased, ate and drank with enthusiasm. I would later write “Monks laugh more than anyone I’ve ever met” and “Monks have many possessions, but find joy in giving them away.” These unfamiliar women were warm, loving, patient and generous to a fault. Somehow, they made me feel as though my very presence in their home was a great gift, though I had seemingly done nothing to deserve their unbridled hospitality. It began to stir something in me, the very thing I’d traveled there to find.
Returning to Myself
I had uprooted my life in the United States to move to South Korea four months earlier. Knowing few people and still unsure of how to navigate Korean society, my life had shifted abruptly inward. In Korea, I was not the thoughtful, generous, open and loving person I knew myself to be. Rather, I had become guarded, insular, pensive, and self-absorbed. Being so physically and emotionally separated from the people and places that held the best parts of me, I changed. I had the opportunity to change for the better, to meet these challenges, to reach out, to humble myself. However, increasingly I found myself opting for the worse. Inspired by the book Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life, by Venerable Master Hsing Yun, I had come to Donghwasa to be reminded of my goodness.
Our first meditation was a step. In a small temple that even in the low afternoon light gleamed gold, I began to breathe again. The comforting repetition of kneeling, bowing and chanting – interspersed by restful silence – dealt the first decisive blow to my armor. With my thoughts suspended and my entire being focused on the series of fluid movements, there was no time or space for anything else. Under the steady, serene gaze of the brightly painted Buddha, I murmured the unfamiliar chants until they flowed forth in one continuous stream of release. Afterward, my body felt electrified. It was physically impossible to stop smiling. I reveled in the dizzy, heightened sensation of stepping outside myself and into something sacred.
A Different Kind of Enlightenment
The next night I woke to the rhythmic thud of the prayer call. It was a few minutes before 3:00 AM and the orchestra of insects provided a dreamy accompaniment. Tonight we were to perform the 108 bows, an intense, full-bodied meditation. Buddhists bow to allow their minds and bodies to become one, and to let go of the importance of the self. It is a humbling gesture, but also one that reflects great liberation. One Buddhist master described it as a show of gratitude and respect for the ground that supports us, the walls that protects us and all the life-giving elements of nature. I am not a Buddhist, but that hardly mattered to me or to the monks. In that time and space, I simply needed to be humbled, poured out, refilled and reassured that I, too, was good.
The 108 bows are a true physical, mental, and emotional test that even inspired the entry “Monks have legs of steel.” As my knees and thighs strained against the unrelenting pain, my voice shook and breathe faltered, I pressed on. Enlightenment was not the goal. Rather, I wanted to earn something. I wanted to earn the love, kindness, generosity, and patience given to me so freely by the women of Donghwasa. I wanted to be worthy of their radical hospitality. I wanted to humble myself as a sign of my deep and genuine gratitude. These thoughts did not push aside the pain or send me to a state of Nirvana; they simply gave the pain purpose.
In the morning my body was still shaky, but their pride and encouragement filled my limbs. While we walked together to the great Buddha statue, festooned in celebratory lanterns, my strength found me. My personal enlightenment came in the simple realization that somehow these people, who were so supremely good and just, had recognized and celebrated the goodness in me. In their open acceptance and seemingly boundless grace, they made it possible for me to find my own. The revelation was powerful, and I suddenly recognized just how far I’d traveled from myself in those few short months.
The following summer I returned to Donghwasa, again unexpected, with the man I loved. It was extremely important to me that he experience the place and the people that helped reintroduce me to myself. I had even shared my list with him, and he’d laughed to see entries like, “Monks have cell phones” and “Monks keep ice cream in the freezer.”
On the walk up that same winding mountain road, my heart began to pound. Donghwasa will forever be a reminder of a time I was both lost and found. It will always stand out in my mind as the place that taught me grace. Irye, Jisu Sunim, and the other women I met will always be my models for generosity, hospitality, and humility.
Just as I’d hoped, we were greeted joyously, as though it truly was a homecoming.