The Homeless Life
New Year’s Day, 2006. I have tried sixteen times to write about “Finding Home.” This is the seventeenth draft. Why it’s so hard to write this? It should be easy. First, introduce myself. I’m a postulant at a nuns’ temple in South Korea. I’ve been here since May, living with the nuns and preparing for my novice examination in February. Next, give the classic Buddhist term for a monastic, sramanerika, “she who has entered homelessness.” Now contrast “home” and “homeless,” making it clear I’m talking about spiritual homelessness and not financial destitution. Write about the “openness” the spiritual journey requires. Insert an anecdote or two, preferably humorous yet profound, and wrap it up around seven hundred words with a pithy paragraph about the freedom and joy of renunciation.
Last night, I scrapped draft fifteen and started draft sixteen. It being New Year’s Eve, I also wrote a New Year’s “writer’s resolution” on the back of my notebook in black permanent marker: “It is better to be plain and honest than fancy and vague.” It’s more an observation of the truth than a resolution, but it’s exactly how I want to write. Drafts one through fifteen were fancy and vague, full of nice images and witty puns about my life as a Buddhist postulant. They danced around the central experience I’ve had since coming to this temple to train to become a nun—aching loss. Some dharma teachers are emphatic that you “speak well of the temple” and not disclose the difficulties of your training. I tried to follow this advice, and what I got was fifteen essays full of pretty deceptions. The sixteenth was better, but I was still trying too hard to be happy and positive about an essentially heart-rending experience.
Here it is: I decided last winter I wanted to seek ordination in order to attain enlightenment and save all beings. I found a good teacher, a nun whose face carried the qualities I wanted to develop: calm, joy, strength, centeredness. I prepared for “homelessness” literally. I pared a lifetime of books, clothes, pictures, school things, junk, and letters down to two boxes I left at my parents’ house in the States. I brought a small box of Korean language texts and Buddhist scriptures with me to Korea, along with one pair of pants, several shirts, a sweater and a winter nun’s robe. Then I showed up at my teacher’s temple.
First my teacher and grand-teacher took my old name and gave me a dharma name. Next, they took my history. This was mostly because of the language barrier. My Korean is about as good as a two-year-old’s, but the accent is worse. I couldn’t communicate beyond basics. Forget explaining emotions or thoughts, or anything about my life and the ways and why of who I am. I suddenly became a momentary entity, completely unable to build relationships based on what I could say. See how many of your conversations begin with a recollection of something in the past, or a projection into the future. See how many of these past and present stories build your identity and make you feel solid and continuous. Take it all away. See how stripped from time and life you feel—how alienated from the person you were when you could speak about yourself. When it happened to me, I felt completely gutted of everything.
The alchemy of temple life does something too and probably would have led to the same loss of self as the virtual silence of the language barrier. Living in a community with little personal time and no personal space would shake anyone. What really tore into me, however, was my own aspiration to change. I wanted to let go of old habits. I wanted to live better, more compassionately and wisely. Ninety-nine days out of one hundred, I do the same damn things I’ve always done. I react with the same anger and defensiveness I always have, the same jealousy, the same anxiety to please. It’s what a friend of mine, a postulant at a different temple, calls “the inner four-year-old,” the selfish voice that says to nearly everything, “I don’t WANT to!” Living with others this closely and this constantly—all day, every day, all year—means I have nowhere to hide from the bad effects of bad actions. The mere aspiration to change has done something. I can no longer justify myself. At the end of every day, I know when during the day I was right and when I was wrong. I don’t have the refuge of delusion, and this reduces me to hopelessness and tears most days.
I’m not a novice yet. I still have a month of exams to pass in February and March, and it’s not certain I’ll pass. Postulants have to navigate a series of written and practical exams on basic Buddhist thought and temple ceremony as well simply make it through the month-long boot-camp style training and test period. I could, technically, still walk away without breaking any vows. But even if I did walk away—and I won’t, because one other thing I know at the end of each day is that I’m right where I’m supposed to be—I wouldn’t be the same. One taste of homelessness, and it’s in your bones. From here, my old life looks like a disaster of selfishness, anger, fear, and pride. I could hide from it all because I had built myriad distractions into my daily life. Most of the time I couldn’t see the basic problem. Coming to the temple was like razing everything to the ground, only to find the ground was rotten.
Now I have a choice: stay the way I am or move forward. I’m choosing to move, one day at a time. Some days I hate it. It’s exhausting. I’m rarely at peace. But things are shifting, slowly. I have moments when I can feel how far I am from where I started. What’s more, this life is real, grounded in the truth of cause and effect and human relationships. Every time I refuse to give in to old habits, when I act differently, I can see the difference in the way I live with others. Life is clearer, relationships stronger, and the world rests for one moment. Then it’s on to the next moment.
It is, in the end, the only way I can live. Naked, unprotected—homeless. I can’t tell you about joy or happiness. I can tell you about the satisfaction of living this way, and that it’s terrifying and difficult but worth it. It’s the first day of the New Year. I’m finishing draft seventeen and submitting it as is: plain and honest. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Written by Soen Joon Sunim