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Backheung-am: Cradle of Biguni Community

By Jang Eun-hwa, The Korea Times, May 22, 2008

Seoul, South Korea -- "Late at night at the deserted Sudeok Temple/A biguni is sobbing, casting her lone shadow/Not forsaking her lover left in the secular/Weeping alone under the candlelight in the temple hall/Ah, the bell of Sudeok Temple is ringing.''

<< Bohwaru is the main gate of Baekheung-am. / Photo by Jang Eun-hwa

This is part of a Korean popular song about a biguni (Pali: Bhikkhuni) distressed by her secular love affairs. Sung by singer Song Chun-hee a few decades ago, it is still favored by middle-aged citizens.

A biguni is a nun who has renounced secular life and entered a Buddhist order. Irrespective of their determination to choose an austere life as Buddhist nuns, the general public in Korea tends to feel sorry for them. Some women, in fact, chose to be nuns as a final resort after suffering harsh ordeals in their lives.

But apart from such a simple view of nuns, how they live and why they choose it are not well known. From a worldly point of view, bigunis' lives look strange. Why would anyone choose to spend years working without monetary gain or any other tangible benefits valued by most people?

I remember a biguni's response to that question: ``I thought about life. Is money important? No, I decided. Is fame important? Absolutely not. Then what is important? To understand life and death. The Buddha taught us a way to find an answer to this. We go to live in a community, practice hard and constantly, in order to understand things properly. Our ancient teachers said that this is the best way. So I decided to leave my family and go to the temple. I knew that I was free to leave the temple life at any time and I was free to stay as long as I wished.''

Feeling curious about the real life of female ascetics, we headed for Baekheung-am (Baekheung Hermitage), which is well known for its bigunis' community. It is a branch of Eunhae Temple, the head temple for the 10th district Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism in North Gyeongsang Province.

Accompanied by the head temple's officer, Kim Gi-nam, we drove from Eunhae Temple through a pine forest like a party of pioneers setting out for an unknown land. As it got deeper into spring, the vegetation grew more lush day by day.

I imagined what a wonderful experience it would be if I could sit in meditation even for a while at that hermitage. ``Would they allow it if I ask for a short meditation there?'' I asked Kim. ``Probably not,'' he responded, adding that the hermitage is vulnerable to theft. The nuns seemed to adopt selective entry for their self-preservation.

Baekheung-am has Korea's most famed Buddhist altar in its Geuknakjeon, or Sukhavati Hall. The Sukhavati symbolizes the idealized world that exists in the Western Quarter. Its altar, called "sumidan,'' and designated National Treasure No. 486, is decorated with abundant supernatural motifs. With Amitabha (the Lord of Paradise) at the center, the inside of the hall is as solemn as the Buddhist Pure Land.

Feeling silent pressure from the nun holding a heavy set of keys to the hall and ready to lock it, we came out of the hall quickly. One of our party members told us that she caught a glimpse of an ugly grate installed to protect against burglary. It was regretful that the nuns themselves should resort to such unsightly anti-theft devices.

Absolute silence, as a signboard on the wall indicates, seemed to envelope us. The silence, in some sense, felt natural and was already part of the serene and time-honored atmosphere of the hermitage. Then the ``moktak'' (wooden gong) rang clearly, breaking the silence, as if encouraging Seon (Zen) practitioners to awake.

The Sukhavati Hall has a Simgeomdang (sword-searching room) on the left, Josilbang (Seon master's room) on the right, and Bohwaru (lotus pedestal pavilion) at the front. The four major halls are laid out so closely but form fairly good harmony with one another, which offset stuffiness.

Simgeomdang, used as a meditation hall, is for intense searching for a sword to cut off impurities. It is where they struggle to solve the most urgent question of what or who they are. I couldn't but respect their undaunted challenge to find out their original nature, their true self.

We were eager to talk with the guide nun who looked in her middle to late 30s. ``As Buddhists, we have been curious about Baekheung-am and its nuns like you. We'd like to talk with you. Would you spare us a minute?'' ``Okay, then, let's go and have a cup of tea. We finished the spring `Sancheol gyeolje' season yesterday, so we can spare some time.'' She surprised us with her unexpected hospitality.

Gyeolje in Korean Seon Buddhism, literally meaning ``tightening Dharma,'' refers to the three-month retreat season each summer and winter, during which nuns concentrate on formal sitting practice for at least nine or 10 hours a day in the Seon Room. As in-between practice seasons, most temples including Baekheung-am also run the spring and autumn ``Sancheol gyeolje,'' meaning ``tightening in the scattering season'' for one and a half months each.

We were invited to her room to talk over cups of tea. ``Would you describe your routine during the `Sancheol gyeolje' season?'' I asked her. ``We get up at 3 a.m., sleep at 9 p.m. and do sitting meditation for about eight hours during the season,'' said the nun, who introduced herself as Ven. Jian in charge of the temple's general affairs. Though conducted as a supplementary practice, the Sancheol gyeolje, according to her, was never slack in its discipline.

Outside the Baekheung-am, a spacious vegetable garden was growing ripe. It meant the nuns had sown the field with devotion. The hermitage has strict rules for all residents.

One rule is never to engage in any money making activities to earn their living in order to dedicate themselves only to their practices. It is also said that they never tolerate any laziness.

In the hustle and bustle of a city, I brought the nun at Baekheung-am to my mind ? her unadorned, unpretentious face, speech, gestures and smiles. But behind her feeble hands serving us tea, I recognized her determination. Deviating from the boring routines of transient city life, I yearn for the freedom and fortitude of a nun in Baekheung-am. Perhaps her quest for the truth continues today, risking her whole life.

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