I Failed at Being a Monk in Taiwan

I was a monk in Taiwan, and I learned I had orientalized Buddhism.

2 years ago

Latest Podcast The Politics of the Korean American Left (ft. Shin) (Escape From Plan A, Ep. 164)
by Five Alive

I was a monk in Taiwan, and I learned I had orientalized Buddhism.

Raised by creationist parents at an evangelical mega-church in Korea, I saw in Buddhism antidotes for Christianity: rationality and authenticity. Einstein heralded Buddhism as the religion of the future, and the Dalai Lama loves to hobnob with scientists. As most Buddhist monks renounce meat, booze, and sex, they seemed as pure as green tea.

So when I heard about a free month-long monastic retreat in Taiwan through my grad school listserv in California, I applied in a heartbeat. I had gained calmness and clarity from two unplugged silent retreats in India and America when I was 18 and 22. I had been a diligent Epicurean since then, and was ready for another getaway as I aged to the funeral year of rock stars (27).

My journey to the western pure land was painful. In preparation for my privation, I spent the eve of departure swigging blood of Christ in Seoul with a Tinder date till wee hours of the morning. I had to wake up shortly after, and the hangover morning flight deformed me into a hungry ghost. The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is that life is suffering, and it was true.

Image of aspiring monks

I hopped in a cab to a mountain the monastery is perched on when I landed. Trudging my oversized backpack through the ornate orange gates, I broke into sweat in torrid Taiwanese summer. A gigantic golden Buddha gave an air hi-five from a hill on the right, and the bodhisattva of compassion smiled from a pond on the left. A gangly doppelganger of George Harrison checked me in, and a bald German guy offered a shave. Watching wefts of my hair fall, I felt like a sheep about to turn into lamb. I wouldn’t have agreed had I known my hair wouldn’t regenerate in time for my release.

The next day opened with a 5:25am wake-up bell, and we arose like roosters for the rest of the month even on the weekly “free” day of rest. By 5:45am, fifty of us from five continents lined up in our beige robes at the courtyard to amble over to the hilltop garden for the sunrise meditation. In addition to the five precepts of Buddhism (no killing, lying, stealing, and rock and roll of sex and intoxicants), myriad monastic etiquettes governed every behavior from greeting to eating.

Chowing was considered a meditation, and we chanted liturgy before every meal in silence. The cavernous 3,500-seater dining hall resembled assembly lines Taiwan is renowned for, and we sat on long rows facing the center where the abbot occasionally joined us on his elevated mahogany throne. Servers shuttled in front of the table dolloping rice, soup, and a few vegetarian side dishes. We got an exotic veggie hotdog on the first day, but the menu turned routine and eating for pleasure was discouraged anyways.

The first two weeks consisted of dharma talks and Buddhism classes. While some lessons were enlightening, others were a tad dull so I smuggled my own books to read in class. Fortunately, my compassionate masters did not whack me for my misdemeanor as many zen masters have done to enlightentheir tutees. I had little patience for the Buddhist cosmology of ten spiritual realms, and the karmic wheel of reincarnation seemed elegant but as escapist as heaven and hell.

During breaks from nebulous metaphysics, I roamed the Edenic monastery. The Portuguese sailors christened Taiwan the “beautiful island” (Formosa) in the 16th century, and the monastery was home to some of the finest flora and fauna on this blessed island. Founded in 1967 by a Chinese émigré monk who supposedly penned 365 books, Taiwan’s largest monastery of some 500 monks was the “mother ship” to 200 branch temples around the globe.

The monastery felt like a deep-pocketed university in its expansiveness and opulence. The Qing dynasty style amber architecture of pagodas and promenades overlooked the shabby adjourning village. We were housed at an eight-story building called Jade Buddha, and almost every window had a jade statue of Buddha dispelling evil spirits. I’ve been to the largest church in the world in Seoul, but that was a peanut compared to this Goliath monastery. The towering 108m Buddha was grandiose and ritzy, and ubiquitous donation boxes smelled like the prosperity gospel.

The crowning jewel of the retreat was the week of silent meditation, which required surrendering our electronics. I pride myself in my agile mind that can bounce ideas the way FC Barcelona moves the ball, and I was born in the year of horses so my mind was destined to gallop. Hence my mind scampered from Taiwan to America and from the past to multiple futures. ADIDAS (All Day I Dream About Sports) was my mantra, as my mind delighted in drifting to soccer and sex.

After some fruitless sessions of sitting and walking meditations, I began to tame my monkey mind. As if traveling on a train, I could ride my breathing at the tip of my nostril and observe thoughts, emotions, and images flow by. Although I was a wayward meditator, I felt a few glissandos of bliss. With cultivated stillness, my mind meandered more lithely and blithely.

Photo of monastery

Buddhist mediation teaches us the vicissitudes of conditioned phenomena, and my feelings for the monastery waxed and waned. As I neared my disrobing, however, my attachment to fellow novice monks and the monastery deepened. Although Buddha preached coolly stripping desires, I realized I prefer the passionate cycle of sin and repentance through indulgence and confession. When I couldn’t meditate anymore, I prayed. After flirting with Buddha, I was ready to return home.

So I left the monastery prematurely after a week of noble silence, and headed to Taipei. One of our meditative exercises was contemplation on mortality, and I wanted tattoos on my body if my soul were to crack its vase tomorrow. I meditated that two Chinese characters for “beauty” and “justice” captured my essence, and got two tramp stamps above my butt. I believe Jesus and Buddha would approve of my tattoos.

After dropping off my bags at the hostel in Taipei, I made a beeline for a tattoo parlor. I returned to Tinder while waiting for my tattoo, and matched with a former devotee of the Montreal branch of the monastery I had escaped. She got a Hindu “om” needled on her ankle, and held my hand while I suffered from my virgin tattoos. We watched a bloody Hollywood blockbuster, dined and wined atop Taipei 101, and lived at her hotel. I had failed my enlightenment project, but I felt reborn and life felt light and right.


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J.Y. Lee

Published 2 years ago