Monday, August 19, 2013

The Life of a Korean Seon Buddhist Nun

by Martine Batchelor

Songgwangsa Temple in Songil, Korea, 1976

I was a Seon Buddhist nun in Korea between 1975 and 1985 because I wanted to meditate. I felt the need to transform my mind and my emotions. Reading a Buddhist book I realized that meditation could help me to do that.

Master Kusan
In Korea, there are temples for studying Buddhist books—sutras—others for chanting and serving the laypeople, and others that put more emphasis on meditation practice. Songgwangsa Temple was one of the major monasteries in the country. At that time it offered many Buddhist activities, but was most renowned for meditation. A great Seon master, Master Kusan, was living there and he encouraged me to become a nun.

Before becoming a nun, one is a postulant for six months, working in the fields and in the kitchen, learning the chants and the ceremonies, the Buddhist way of life in a monastery, and how to meditate.

Throughout the day we followed the signals of various bells. Getting up at three o’clock in the morning was sometimes a little difficult. At that time we went to the temple to chant, to greet the day. I loved the special morning chant which was about well-wishing. It said:
May the ocean of goodness from our practice return to the world to fulfill their purpose.
May the world rest in peace and the wheel of the Buddhist Law revolve.
May each being that is born rest in wisdom and never fall back.
May this wisdom be as fierce and courageous as a Buddha’s.
May we attain the fruit of great awakening . . .
The meditation started soon after. We were sitting for fifty minutes and walking for ten minutes more than ten or twelve times throughout the day. The point of the meditation was to focus the mind and ask the question: “What is this?” as deeply as we could. We were not supposed to analyze or look for an answer, but just to ask unconditionally. To concentrate on the question would help me to become more calm and still. To inquire would help my mind to become clearer and sharper.

One of the effects of the meditation that I noticed very quickly is that I started to become more aware of myself and others and became more caring. Suddenly, I could not kill mosquitoes or flies anymore because I realized that they had as much the wish and the right to live as I had, so I contrived a device. Every evening I would catch them with a glass and a postcard and take them out of the meditation room.

Every fifteen days, as we followed the lunar calendar, we would have a hot bath and shave our head. The following day we would recite the nuns’ precepts or the Bodhisattva’s precepts. The monastic precepts encourage us to live a pure and clean life, very simple and non-harming to ourselves or others. They require the monks and the nuns to be celibate and to abstain from killing, stealing, lying, and taking alcohol.

Songgwangsa Temple
The Bodhisattva’s precepts emphasized the caring and the giving of life. They inspired us to be generous, disciplined, and compassionate. They also helped us to reflect, to look into the causes and effects of our actions. Why do we do what we do? Is it for our own selfish reasons? Is it for the well-being of others? Can it be for both? A Bodhisattva in Seon Buddhism is someone who makes the vow to help everyone. It requires of someone not to cause suffering to oneself nor to others.

After the precept ceremony, the Seon master would give a talk. He would tell us to practice hard, to continue to develop wisdom and compassion. Most importantly he would urge us to awaken to our true nature, which was exactly the same as the Buddha. Afterwards we would go to the master’s room and I would translate the talk for the other Westerners. He always gave us some nice tea and cakes. Sometimes he asked us questions like, “ Do you like the tea?” “Yes, we love the tea, it is very good,” we would reply. Then he would say, “What is it that tastes the tea?” Every time we could not answer to his satisfaction and he would encourage us to concentrate more intensely on the question, “What is this?”

At the end of the master’s talk, the whole assembly of monks, nuns, and laypeople would recite the Four Vows, which are very important for Seon Buddhists:
Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
Confusions are countless, I vow to dissolve them all.
The Buddha’s teachings are limitless, I vow to penetrate them all.
The Buddha’s way is the highest, I vow to achieve it.
These vows are to inspire us to practice for the sake of all beings. They remind us that there is a lot of work to do as we have a lot of confusion to clear up. They point out that there are many different methods to help us on the way. And finally, although the Buddha’s way is great and sometimes difficult, we must be determined and have the confidence that we can realize it. We can develop more and more wisdom and compassion so that we can be of benefit to ourselves and the whole world.

Martine Batchelor: Author & Teacher

Martine Batchelor lived in Korea as a Zen nun under the guidance of Master Kusan for ten years. She is the author of Meditation for Life, The Path of Compassion, Women in Korean Zen and Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits. She is a member of the Gaia House Teacher Council and teaches meditation retreats worldwide. Her latest work is the The Spirit of the Buddha. She speaks French, English, Korean and can read Chinese characters. Martine has written various articles for magazines on the Korean way of tea, Buddhism and women, Buddhism and ecology, and Zen cooking. She is interested in meditation in daily life, Buddhism and social action, religion and women's issues, Zen and its history, factual and legendary. For more information, visit www.martinebatchelor.org. She is also on Facebook and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MartineBatch.

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