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Conversations With a Monk
By Rick Ruffin

I can feel his index finger nibbling my hand, like a squirrel. I am holding hands with a holy man in Korea.
 

The way to the Temple passes through a forest of bright colors in the Fall, of starburst beauty of azalea and cherry blossoms in the Spring. The trail switchbacks up steep earth, passing under a huge face of vertical rock, at which point it becomes iron, and we noisily clomp up a series of hard, green, steps, welded together with the heat of modern, industrial fire.

Soon, the trail levels out, then begins a slight downhill trajectory, and we come to a clearing: the Temple. It is set in a valley surrounded by towering forest and rock. There is a house next to it, some sort of lodging for those who come to pray and spend the night. There is a mound of neatly trimmed earth--someone's remains--and a piece of hose sticking out from the side of the mountain, dripping into a U-shaped piece of bark, which in turn empties clear spring water into a hollowed log. We stop to drink. I take of picture of Hae il standing over the tub with the plastic ladle held to her lips. After all, we are tourists--she Korean, me American.

The temple itself is old with paint peeling off the sides. The roof is a pile of dull-grey tile slabs, and the eaves are the usual assortment of intricate wood carvings painted in what once would have been bright blues, reds, greens and oranges. On the walls, strange deities one would expect to breathe fire merely regard us fiercely. It is not enough to make us turn back. Instead, we choose a large flat rock for our lunch of cold glass noodles ("chap jae"), chunks of fruit soaked in mayonnaise, and rice cakes. We eat.

After lunch I stretch out like a seal on the warm rock to take a nap. I try meditating, concentrating on my breathing and nothing else, but my mind keeps drifting to sex. I am awakened by the sounds of pebbles landing closeby. I sit up and see our friend Kyung churl, who we didn't hike in with but promised to meet later, sitting on the side of the mountain above us. He joins us.

Kyung churl, a high school English teacher, has been here before. He suggests we go inside the temple for a tea ceremony with the resident monk. I agree. He approaches the temple, politely inquires, and soon we are sitting inside the monk's home. The latter consists of two small rooms, one empty, the other quite full. There is a desk on one side of the square piece of linoleum that serves as the floor. Opposite, flush against the wall, a towering bookshelf crammed with books covers the wall. At the top of the bookshelf are two huge speakers, capable of broadcasting to China, and halfway down, wedged among the literature, is the CD player. On the desk sits the computer. The phone is on a small shelf running the length of the third wall. We sit with our backs to the fourth wall, facing the monk. He starts water boiling in the electric kettle. The menu is dried persimmon leaves mixed with green tea.

I ask him, in broken Korean and English, if monks aren't supposed to live simple lives--whatever that is, I think--pointing at the computer, pointing at the CD player. My attempt at verbal communication fails miserably. "Huh?" the monk says. Kyung churl translates. The monk ponders the question a moment, looks at me, and responds. "Do not judge Bhuddism by looking at me," he says. That's good enough for me, I think. This guy should have been on O.J.'s defense team. He puts a CD in the CD player and we are instantly transported to some smoky, uptown, NYC jazz venue. It is the best music I have heard in a long time.

I ask another question, this one in English the monk understands. "Why did Dharma go to the East?" I inquire, feeling terribly redundant, but this question has been burning in my mind, at least since the beginning of the tea ceremony. "For whatever reasons you wish to think," he answers. Talk about a tolerant religion.

He pours the tea and we sip away. "Mashitah," Hae il exclaims, in typical Korean fashion. The monk starts to speak.

He tells us that he went to a local English Institute for lessons, but he only lasted 3 days. For whatever reasons, his trip to America lasted quite a bit longer--3 months. He visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. In Colorado he went to Boulder and Colorado Springs. He liked Colorado a lot. His favorite place in all of America, however, was Disneyland.

"What did you do in Disneyland?" I ask. He makes a waving motion with his hands to indicate he rode the roller coaster.

"They had to call the ambulance," Kyung churl says to me.

"Oh, he must have really gotten sick," I say.

"No," Kyung churls says, translating for the monk. "He passed out from sheer adrenaline and joy." That was one happy Buddha, I am thinking.

The monk tells a funny story about a woman he saw in the Denver airport. She was so intriguing looking, so fascinating, that he followed her around the airport until she went inside a bathroom. He took up a vigil outside knowing she would soon have to appear and he could follow her around some more, but she never materialized. She vanished right into the bathroom tiles. Such was his experience with western women.

I ask our peaceful friend "Who is the supreme Bhudda?"

"Living?" he inquires. I nod affirmatively. He hands me an audio tape. Thich Nhat Hhan, a Vietnamese scholar. "It's all in English," he says. "So it doesn't mean that much to me."

I want to know about Las Vegas. I ask him how he liked the tinsel town. He was there only one day, but that was long enough to win $100 yanking the one-armed bandit. Of course, it cost him $150 for the pleasure to do so. Coming into Las Vegas he had spotted dual rainbows over the city. He took it as a sign of good luck, but his immediate thought was what if I win a million dollars? All the reporters will write an article, and print it in the world's newspapers, and I will be notorious. "Extra, extra, Korean Bhuddist hits Las Vegas Jackpot--Becomes Millionaire Monk!" That was his immediate thought.

It is time to go. We get up to leave, but first I ask him for his phone number. He hesitates, as if no one had ever asked him this before--at least not someone from Seattle with a camera hanging around his neck--then scribbles it down on a piece of paper. It is a formality. I won't phone him. If you ask my why I asked a monk living on the side of a mountain in Korea for his phone number I will just say, "Because he has one to ask for."

We step outside the temple. The rocks across the canyon are burning bright orange these last hours of the day. As if to press my luck, I ask him for a picture. He hesitates again, then nods approval. I focus the camera on his bright smiling face, then hand it to Kim Kyung churl to take a photo of us both. I move next to our colleague of the grey robes. We stand on the ledge, with our backs to the abyss. He puts his arm around me then changes his mind and grabs my hand. I can feel his index finger nibbling my hand, like a squirrel. I am holding hands with a holy man in Korea.

 

June 21, 2004