I never expected my search for peace would lead me to a bowling alley. Nor did I expect my first experience with a Buddhist monk to involve putting on tacky shoes and comparing ball sizes. No—I expected we’d spend the afternoon watching monks chanting and doing prostrations to the steady beat of a moktak, a wooden percussion instrument used in Korean Buddhist ceremonies. Or maybe we’d attend a tea ceremony, sitting for hours on our knees in silence. Or maybe I’d even finally learn how to meditate.
Yet here we were, following Su Nim through the narrow streets downtown to the bowling alley. Along the way, I started worrying. Is there a certain etiquette I should follow when bowling with a monk? I wondered. No, that’s ridiculous. How could there be an etiquette? Who goes bowling with a monk, anyway?
After our bowling adventure, Su Nim suggested we visit a teahouse downtown. Finally, I thought. I was worried that my only experience out with a monk would begin and end in a bowling alley. On our way there, we learned that Su Nim lived in a temple above the teahouse in a room adjacent to a meditation hall. People from town would gather in the hall in the early morning for meditation sessions guided by Su Nim. As it turned out, the teahouse he was taking us to was not just a teahouse, but his house and place of work. Things were looking up.
When we arrived, I was overcome by an immediate sense of calm. Su Nim invited us to sit on wooden stools around a wooden table. Traditional music wafted through the air as we sipped from tiny porcelain cups of green tea. This is more like it, I thought. After many rounds of tea, Su Nim realized he’d left his book at the bowling alley. Since it was near my place, I volunteered to retrieve it. To my surprise, it wasn’t a sacred text of Buddhism as I imagined it would be. It was The Discipline of Transcendence, by Osho.
Osho? I thought. Wasn’t he the same guy as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru who had the fleet of Rolls Royces? Who talked about “free love”? Who started a commune in Oregon?
I couldn’t believe that a monk would be reading a book by such a controversial figure, but the more I thought about it, I realized there was little that was traditional about Su Nim. Clearly, this monk moved to the beat of his own moktak.
I reviewed my day with the monk and found I had more questions now than answers. I tried to believe I wouldn’t let my curiosity get the better of me, that I wouldn’t pry, that I wouldn’t open the book when I got home, that I’d just leave it in my handbag until the next day. But that was not going to happen. I wanted to know more.
I unlocked the door to my room, took off my shoes, and sat down on the edge of the bed, my bag in my lap, waiting for some divine intervention to give me an answer as to what I should do.
I grabbed the book out of my bag and held it in my hands. And then I opened it. The first thing I saw was a yellow piece of paper Su Nim must have tucked inside the pages, with some English words written on it.
Take it easy, everything is okay.
The next thing I noticed was that he’d underlined some passages.
The way can only be known if you deeply participate with existence. It cannot be known from the outside, you have to become a participant. . . . Meditation is something that is happening in [your] very being, deep inside. You cannot observe it, there cannot be any objective knowledge about it.
The passages ignited an understanding of something I was attempting to figure out. I had spent so much of my past being concerned about what people thought of me, and trying to conform to those expectations. By setting out on this journey to Korea, I realized, I was hoping to find out who I was, apart from the societal roles I’d been playing.
But even in this new environment, far from my family members and peers, I was still a victim of my own expectations—expectations of others and of myself. I still governed my life by what I deemed important from an outward view. An inside perspective of who I was did not exist for me yet, nor did I know how to view my life from that vantage point.
I was both confused and fascinated by Su Nim—confused because he didn’t live up to my expectations of how a monk should be, and fascinated because he apparently understood enough about himself not to care what others thought of him.
It was clear that in my quest to learn about myself, I still had a long way to go. But it was also clear that my afternoon out with this intriguing monk was step in the right direction.
Excerpted from Lessons from the Monk I Married by Katherine Jenkins. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.