Seon Joon on training to be a Buddhist nun in Korea

Vimeo link.

Regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with Seon Joon as a photoblogger and poet to whom both Luisa and I regularly link. Actually, I’ve been reading her since about 2004, I think, though she wasn’t online for several years while she studied at seminary. She graduated in January and received full ordination in April. Now she’s in Virginia taking a summer intensive language class in Tibetan, but she stopped at the Korea Society in New York on June 6 to give this talk about — as the society’s webpage puts it — “the essential elements of Korean Buddhism and the daily life of women training to become monastics in modern Korea through her personal experience and photos.”

Seon Joon is an entertaining speaker, and the video does an excellent job of showing both the speaker and the photos she shared, with only the minor annoyance of some microphone crackle in the beginning portion. I highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in Buddhism, Korea or communal living. But if you can’t spare the full two hours, I’ve transcribed a few favorite quotes along with their start times.

7:00 The monastic life is first and foremost not an ideal, but something that regular people are trying to live. […] People think we don’t nap. We nap! Believe me. When I was planning this talk, one of the foreign monastics said, “You should show nuns using money, because nobody believes that we do!”

25:23 If I had to say that there’s one thing about the monastic community in Korea that defines it, it is its emphasis on harmony. That learning to get on with others and work with them in a way that is conflict-free is probably more important than any other single ideal. A good monastic is someone who creates no friction in the community.

46:37 We typically pickled about 7,000 heads of cabbage [at Un Mon Monastic College]. And that was considered a small amount! […] Even when I was a postulant in my home temple, I asked, “Why is everyone so stressed about this [kimchee making]?” It was really tense. And they looked at me in astonishment and said, “If this doesn’t go right, we have nothing to eat.”

1:20:48 For us, spoken words are an action. They have the ability to affect reality. So blessing is not just a good feeling because I like you or I hope you feel better, we actually believe and have the aspiration that if done with a pure enough heart and a strong enough intent, you can affect change in this world.

1:43:18 Most of us ordained because we had some desire to live a more clear life. “Enlightenment” is a really big word. Personally, I avoid it because it carries too many ideas with it, and it’s really hard to connect with enlightenment on a daily level, whereas if you say I’m trying to live more clearly, most of us can understand that. “I’m trying to have a little more clarity in my life.”

For me, living in an environment, working in an environment this intensely, taught me a lot about what mental and emotional habits I have — especially surrounding conflict. […] If you aren’t living in a community like this and you have a fight with somebody at work, you fight, 5:00 o’clock happens and you go home. You let it sit for a day. You may not even try and solve it. The next day you might even be able to avoid this person. And so your conflict and whatever you think about it can actually last a lot longer. But in a community like this, you fight. Then you gotta sleep next to this person, shower next to this person, work next to this person, study next to this person, day in, day out, for months on end. You have a choice, and it gets clear real fast: are you gonna hold on to whatever you think is right, or are you going to do what it takes to create harmony?

1:49:12 Something that I never fail to point out to any monk who will give me five minutes is that when men ordain they do not lose their masculinity. Socially. They are still recognized as men societally. When women ordain, we lose our femininity. And we become a kind of neuter. And this brings some other powers, because you’re no longer in the feminine paradigm, or the female paradigm, but then you also lose what power women do have. And in Korea, you know that women have their own power. It’s not obvious and it operates in sort of back channels, but it’s there.

5 Comments


  1. Thanks for these snippets, Dave. I’m looking forward to watching the whole thing. Seon Joon is a wonderful speaker, so I’m thrilled that the Korea Society recorded her talk for those of us who couldn’t be there in person.

    The excerpted bits about living in community ring true with my experience living in a Zen Center, and also my experience being married. You make harmony for your own sake as much as anyone else’s.

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  2. Oh, thank you so much for transcribing these quotes, Dave! I’m psyched to watch this, but I’m guessing Drew will not be as captivated as I expect to be, so I may not get to it for a bit…

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    1. You are indeed (as Lorianne said) a wonderful speaker. So good to see/hear you in action.

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    2. My pleasure, SJ. I’m grateful to the Korea Society for filming you so well (and uploading a two-hour video in HD is something I can only dream about!).

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