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The Ordination of Monks and Novices (Korea)

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The essay in this chapter was taken from Robert E. Buswell, The Zen Monastic Experience: Buddhist Practice in Contemporary Korea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 81.90. Copyright c 1992 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.

The Ordination of Monks and Novices (Korea)

Many Buddhist texts and traditions.some the earliestknown expressions of Buddhist culture.depict the ideal Buddhist community as intrinsically constituted by an order of monks (bhiksus), an order of nuns (bhiksunis), and a laity composed of laymen (upasakas) and laywomen (upasikas). In the next five chapters, we will focus on the Buddhist monastic orders and those who participate in them. We begin with an excerpt that concerns the order of monks.specifically with the ritual processes through which novices and full-fledged members are ordained. The ordinations of novices and monks are crucially important events in the life of the Buddhist community, since they both confirm and restrict certain degrees of religious legitimacy and authority. They function as crucial and highly self-reflective moments that establish monastic commitment, perpetuation, propagation, organization, and hierarchy. They also maintain distinctions among different Buddhist sects, schools, and traditions. Thus, like much ritual activity, they involve considerable preparation, formality, and structure. So, too, these ordinations are often associated with a great deal of public performance and display.

In various Buddhist traditions, novice ordinations play quite different roles. In Myanmar, for example, novice ordinations followed by a short stay in the monastery have become regular features of life for boys and young men and have developed into elaborate life-cycle ceremonies lasting several days. These ordinations hold particular importance and status because people consider them to be extremely meritorious for the initiate and also for the immediate and extended family. Similar differences can be observed in the ordinations of monks. In most cases these ordinations involve vows of celibacy and are considered to imply a lifetime commitment. However, there are important exceptions. In Japan, for example, most Buddhist sects have come to assert the appropriateness of clerical marriage. In Thailand, where many monk ordinations serve as a rite of passage from male adolescence into adulthood, traditionally it has been common for men to move in and out of the monastic order as they pass through various stages in the life cycle. The excerpt that follows describes novice and monastic ordinations as they are performed among Son (Zen) monastics in Korea. More specifically, it explores novice and monastic ordinations among members of the Chogye Order, the bearer of a rather conservative tradition.

Robert E. Buswell

After their six-month postulancies are over and they have mastered all the chants and books of monastic regulations, the postulants are finally ready to ordain as novice monks (Skt. sramanera). During my years in Korea, I observed that many large monasteries still held their own ordination platforms. At Songgwang-sa (a monastery), a complete ordination platform was held only once a year, during the third lunar month (usually in April), during the spring vacation period. The entire ceremony lasted three days. On the first day, the sramanera ordination was held in the early morning before breakfast, followed in the late morning and afternoon by the full ordination for monks. (The final two days were devoted to bodhisattva ordinations given to members of the laity.) Novice Ordination
The novice, or sramanera, ordination is held around four in the morning after the service in the main buddha hall. If the weather is warm, the ceremony will be held in the larger Solbop-chon (Speaking the Dharma Basilica), the main lecture hall; if heating is necessary, the ceremony will be transferred to the great room in the kitchen compound. Songgwangsa held two novice ordinations each year, one in conjunction with the large ordination platform in the spring, the other in the early winter, to accommodate the next matriculating group of postulants. All postulants of the monastery who have completed a full six months of training at the monastery are invited, though not required, to participate. Disciples of the abbots or senior monks of the monasteryfs branch temples will also join the ceremony. The Son master (a master of a particular form of meditation and teaching) may have nuns in other parts of the country who are his disciples; they too may send their own disciples to the main temple for the novice ordination, since the Vinaya requires that nuns be ordained by both the monk (bhiksu) and nun (bhiksuni) samghas. The Son master may conduct the novice ordination himself, but during the spring ordination platform the specialist in ordination procedure may instead be in charge.

Each of the postulants will be assigned a gbeneficent masterh (unsa), a senior monk who serves as the formal sponsor of the postulantfs candidacy for ordination, rather as does the gvocation fatherh in Catholic monasticism. No bhiksu with less than ten years of seniority is allowed to serve as an unsa. The prospective monkfs relationship with the unsa is one that will last for life and will be crucial for a successful vocation. The new monkfs identity will be defined by his home monastery and the reputation of his unsa, so it is essential that the unsa be carefully chosen. Competition is especially keen among the postulants to have the Son master as their unsa. The Son master is quite choosy in accepting new disciples and accedes to only a limited number of requests from postulants. Monastic gfamilies,h like their secular counterparts, maintain the earlier Chinese emphasis on the primacy of the senior line within the lineage. This superior status of the Son masterfs own line accounts for why the postulants are so intent on becoming his direct disciples. Unsuccessful candidates he assigns instead to the abbot and other senior monks in the monastery family. The unsa chooses a dharma name for the postulant, the unsafs dharma family usually being indicated by the use of the same Sino-Korean logograph in the names of all his disciples or generations of disciples. Many postulants are heartbroken when they learn they will not become the disciple of the Son master, and I knew of several cases where rejected candidates left the monastery without taking ordination to start their postulancy over again elsewhere. Before the novice ordination begins, each postulant has been given a set of formal robes by his unsa. If the postulants have done their preparation at the main monastery, robes will have been made by the monasteryfs own in-house seamstress, considered a bodhisattva. The novice ordination is quite simple. Unlike other ordinations, the novice ordination does not require the participation of official witnesses in order to validate it. Laypeople are allowed to attend if they desire, but this is uncommon; usually only senior monks from the main monastery and branch temples will be present, along with all the represented unsas.

Never once did I see the family of the ordinand attend the ceremony. For the ceremony, a dais has been placed in the middle of the room, where the master presides. A small table has been placed in front of the dais, on which are placed two candlesticks and the regular sacristal instruments. the water holder and censer. Wearing the changsams (a fulllength, formal robe with butterfly sleeves worn over a monkfs regular clothing), the ordinands file into the room one by one, prostrate three times before the master, and stay kneeling on their heels in what we in theWest knowas Japanese fashion, one of the few times Koreans adopt that style of sitting. As the candidates remain seated in line, the master goes into a lengthy explanation of the meaning of the ten precepts that novices must follow, and the importance of their new vocation. This lecture can often last an hour or more, during the whole of which the ordinands force themselves not to shift positions. I have seen many cases where the candidates could not rise afterwards, their legs having gone completely numb. The master repeats for them the ten precepts: (1) not to kill; (2) not to steal; (3) not to engage in sex; (4) not to lie; (5) not to drink alcohol; (6) not to sit or sleep on high or wide beds; (7) not to wear garlands, ornaments, or perfumes; (8) not to dance or sing to oneself or intentionally attend such performances; (9) not to handle gold or silver; and (10) not to eat in the afternoon or raise domestic animals. At the end of his recitation, he asks the ordinands, gCan you keep each and every one of these precepts without transgressing them?h The repetition of this simple formula three times constitutes the act of ordination. The candidates then vow to keep the precepts for as long as they remain monks. The Son masterfs attendant then places a miniature kasa (a square cloth that, when worn, hangs around the neck and covers the belly) over each ordinandfs head, and at that moment they have become novices.

At the conclusion of the sramanera ordination, a waxed wick, called the sambae, is placed on the inside forearm, lit with a match, and left to burn down to the skin. This ritual is called gburning of the arm.h While the burns are usually not severe, the novices are in obvious pain as the wick burns down, pain they try to bear stoically. Later, as the scab begins to heal, the novices sometimes pick at it so the resulting scar will grow larger and larger, another mark of monkish machismo. Iltfa sunim, the Vinaya master at Haein-sa (a monastery), who is one of the most popular catechists because of his genius for storytelling, explained to me that burning the armis done to symbolize the new novicefs nonattachment to the body and disentanglement from worldly affairs. According to Iltfa, the sutras mention three types of physical burns to which monks subject themselves: burning the arm, burning the fingers, and burning the body. The custom is therefore validated in the basic texts of Buddhism, he claimed. The Koreans do not go so far as the Chinese Buddhists, who light a grid of multiple wicks on the top of the ordinandsf heads at the time of their ordination. Iltfa denounced this Chinese practice as having no scriptural basis. He speculated that the idea of burning the top of the head came from Chinese medicine, in which applying heat to acupuncture points on the head was considered to be a powerful curative agent. But he did note that some elderly monks who came originally from north Korea had such burn marks on their heads. The novice ordination usually ends just before breakfast at six. In the few minutes before the meal is served, the audience of monks will congratulate the ordinands, often teasing them about being unable to stand after sitting through the masterfs interminable talk. After the monks have finished breakfast, they stay seated in the refectory and the new novices are led into the hall to be introduced formally to the samgha. The novices file into the hall and prostrate themselves three times before the buddha image.

Turning toward the back of the room, they then bow three times to the Son master and the rest of the samgha. As the novices remain kneeling, the proctor introduces them individually to the assembly, informing the monks of the dharma names of the new novices, the names of their unsas, and their home monasteries. This same information will be repeated for the rest of their careers each time they are introduced at a new monastery. The Son master might then make a few further comments about how important and exciting it is to have new monks in the monastery. When the master indicates his remarks are finished, the novices prostrate themselves three more times and file out. There is no formal certificate presented to the novices during the ordination. Later, however, each new novice will be given a monkfs identification card and number. The card has a small picture of the monk and his identification number, dharma name, home monastery, and unsa teacher. The identification numbers are issued by the national Samgha headquarters in Seoul, with the supreme patriarch given the number 1, and the rest of the national hierarchy following in order. Each monastery has its own series of numbers, again with either the Son master or abbot being given the number 1, and the rest of the numbers given out in succession as people ordain. These numbers are not registered with the secular government, I was told, but are only on file with the Chogye Order. Wherever the monk travels, he will always carry this card with him. The back of the card is divided into spaces and the monk is supposed to have recorded in those spaces the temples where he spends his periods of retreat, and in which section of the monastery he resided (for example, meditation hall, seminary, etc.). When the monk later travels to other monasteries, this information will help the guest prefect assess the quality of the monkfs training and decide whether he should be admitted to the temple as a resident.

Koreans recognize a substantial difference in the degree of commitment made by the novice and the monk. The monastery would not view so negatively a novice who decides to return to lay life, whereas it would be a major embarrassment to the monastery, and especially the unsa, if one of its bhiksus should disrobe. Despite this difference in commitment, both classes nevertheless receive equal treatment in the monastery and are allowed to participate together in all temple functions. Virtually the only difference in treatment is in seating assignments, monks sitting according to seniority within each of the two groups.

Bhiksu Ordination

The bhiksu ordination is procedurally more complex than the novice ordination. In the 1970s there were only five monasteries in the country permitted to hold ordination platforms conferring the complete precepts (kujok-kye) of the bhiksu and bhiksuni. These occurred at various times throughout the spring and the novice had his choice of which ceremony to attend. gFamilyh connections and monastery ties came into play, as they always do, in making the decision. In 1981, the Chogye Order instituted new limitations on ordinations, restricting sramanera and bhiksu ordinations to Tfongdo-sa, the Buddha-jewel monastery, which was the traditional center of the Vinaya school (Yul-chong) in Korea. Other monasteries thereafter were allowed only to confer the bodhisattva precepts, the precepts taken by both lay and ordained Buddhists in Korea.

Three senior monks are officially in charge of a bhiksu ordination: the preceptor, usually the Son master of the monastery, who serves as the spiritual mentor to the ordinands; the confessor, who oversees the conduct of the ceremony and ensures that it is performed correctly; and the ordination catechist, who delivers extensive sermons on the 250 bhiksu precepts and the 348 bhiksuni precepts. For a valid ceremony, a number of witnesses, drawn from the ranks of the most senior monks in the monastery, were also required to attend the ordination as certifiers. These witnesses may number anywhere from six to nine monks, though most of the ordinations I observed used seven. None of these witnesses has any specific role to play; they are simply to be present throughout the entire ceremony. The three presiding monks and the various witnesses all sit in front of the hall on a long platform raised about four feet above the ground.hence the name gordination platform.h While the Koreans are not as strict as the Theravada orders of Southeast Asia in observing to the letter the ordination procedure detailed in the Vinaya, they do maintain considerable propriety during the ceremony.

The bhiksu ordinations I witnessed at Songgwang-sa were held in conjunction with the bodhisattva-precept ceremony, vastly expanding the size of the audience because of the large number of laypeople in attendance. On the first day of the ceremony, after the novice ordination is finished and breakfast eaten, all the monks and nuns who have come to receive the complete precepts sign the roster of participants. The ordinands are required to bring their changsams and bowls, though if they have forgotten their bowls the monastery supplies them with a temporary set. The monastery provides each ordinand with a large brown kasa (a dyed cloak which is draped around the changsam), which can be worn only by the fully ordained bhiksu and bhiksuni. I never knew of there being any restriction on the numbers of monks and nuns allowed to participate in the ordination; since such ceremonies occurred infrequently in Korea, however, it was not unusual for Songgwang-sa to have upwards of a hundred ordinands in attendance.

At eight in the morning, after breakfast and morning work, the ordinands gather in the lecture hall for a dress rehearsal. Although I had already received full ordination in Thailand, which the Koreans accepted without reservation, after two years in Korea I chose of my own accord to reordain as a bhiksu to mark to myself my commitment to the Korean church. At my reordination as a bhiksu, the ordination catechist, Iltfa sunim, explained in detail the steps in the ceremony and the four most important precepts. These are the parajikas (expulsion offenses), transgression of which are grounds for permanent expulsion from the order: engaging in sexual intercourse, murder, grand theft, and false claims of spiritual achievement.

We ordinands were also told where to get information on the seemingly myriad lesser precepts of the fully ordained monk, though the parajikas were the only precepts about which the ordination catechist showed real concern. In his discussion with us, Iltfa spiced his lecture with commonsense advice, including his own teacherfs counsel to him when he first became a monk. His teacher told him that of course he hoped he would have a successful vocation. But if the compulsion to transgress the precepts became strong, he warned, it would be better to disrobe and return to lay life than to break one of the parajika precepts and be expelled from the order, which would shame both himself and his dharma family.

He also discussed the basic etiquette and decorum of the monkfs life in greater detail than was done for the novices. His purpose was to impress upon the candidates how fortunate they were to have become monks in the first place and what an opportunity they now had to further their vocations by assuming the complete precepts of the bhiksu. He finally sought to instill in the ordinands a sensitivity for the greatness of the religious tradition we were now joining as full members. Iltfa was one of the first contemporary Korean monks to travel widely throughout Asia, and he described for the ordinands the Buddhist traditions he had experienced in other countries. He described Korean monastic life as offering a happy medium between the austerities of the Theravada monasteries of Southeast Asia and the laxity he had observed in Japanese monastic practice. He also stressed how fortunate we were to be ordained into a tradition where Son practice still flourished.

There is no immediate pressure placed on novices to become bhiksus or bhiksunis.Typically, a postulant remains a novice for at least three years before taking bhiksu ordination, to ensure his contentment with the celibacy demanded in Korean monastic life; he should also be at least twenty years old. There is, however, tacit understanding within the order that once a novice decides to take full ordination, thereby acknowledging his total commitment to the tradition, he should subsequently maintain his vocation for life; but there are no formal vows stating this commitment. In traditional Korea, monks might remain novices for most of their careers, feeling themselves unworthy of assuming the responsibility to the tradition that comes with full ordination. In recent years, there have been attempts to revive the original Indian Buddhist custom that any monk over the age of twenty was eligible to take the bhiksu ordination, even if he had not been a novice for at least three years. When this reform was first proposed at an ordination platform held at Songgwang-sa in 1976, there was much disagreement among the presiding senior monks over its wisdom.

Many felt that such relaxation of the eligibility requirements would encourage monks still relatively new to the order to make virtually a permanent commitment, placing undue pressure on them. Others ascribed this reform to political motivations from some of the larger monasteries, which have the greatest number of ordinands, to exert more control over ecclesiastical affairs by having more bhiksus from their temples in the order. No consensus has yet emerged within the Chogye Order on this issue. No one in Korea expects the new monks to observe all of the 250 bhiksu precepts or the 348 bhiksuni precepts found in the original Indian monastic codes followed by East Asian Buddhists. Many of the precepts are considered to be anachronistic in Korea, such as the restrictions against digging the soil or entering the harem of a king who is a member of the ksatriya (noble) class/caste. Others are so contrary to long-observed custom in East Asia that they are ignored, such as not eating in the afternoon. But the catechist encourages all the ordinands to keep all the precepts at least for that day so that they will have a sense of how monks in the Buddhist homeland of India would have lived. The dress rehearsal for the ordination continues until about ten in the morning. After the noon dinner, the formal ceremony begins. Only monks ordaining and those supervising the ceremony are allowed to attend, a throwback to the Indian custom that the sima, or boundary lines of the ceremony, should not be transgressed by outsiders for fear of polluting the ordination. The ceremony is officially administered by the catechist and witnessed by the other senior monks on the platform. In fact, however, the director of the meditation hall, or another senior meditation monk, has primary responsibility for ensuring that the ceremony runs smoothly and punctually.

The actual ordination begins with the ordination catechistfs giving a short explanation of the responsibilities that come with being a fully ordained monk. Monks respond in unison to all questions. When asked, for example, their names and the names of their teachers, they all answer in unison with the different information. In this regard, Korean ordinations are rather unlike those held in Theravada countries, where each person must answer individually to ensure that he has not been coerced into ordaining. In Theravada countries only three monks can ordain at once, but there is no such limit in Korea: virtually any number is allowed.

During the ceremony, the monks have their bowls and kasas on the floor in front of them. Toward the end of the ordination, after the ordination catechist has asked whether they have their bowls and robes ready, the ordinands will begin walking in a sinuous, snaking line, tracing a figure eight around the hall, while chanting the Great Compassion Mantra three times. During the walk, the ordinands place their folded kasas on top of their heads and hold their bowls in front of them. After the third repetition of the mantra, they return to their places, put the bowls back on the floor, and drape the kasas around their changsams. At that point the ordination catechist has them repeat some of the more important of the Vinaya rules (the parajikas and perhaps a couple of the suspension offenses), and finally proclaims them bhiksus and bhiksunis. In the meantime, the office monks have used the roster of participants to prepare official ordination certificates for everyone. The ordination certificate is a large document giving the date of ordination and names of the monks who officiated over the ceremony.

One of the more controversial moves made by some Vinaya masters in Korea was to arrange a special ordination of Korean monks by Theravada bhikkhus from Thailand. These Vinaya masters were concerned about the potential aspersions that could be cast against the purity of the Korean Buddhist ordination lineage because marriage had been officially permitted during the Japanese colonial period. Organized by Chfaun sunim, the foremost Vinaya master in Korea, and Iltfa sunim, one of the most popular ordination catechists, the ordination was held at Tfongdosa on 22 February 1972. The abbots of Wat Benjamobopitr, Wat Sukkot, and the Thai temple in Bodhgaya presided over the ceremony, with five other Thai monks witnessing it. This ordination was conducted within the Thai Mahanikaya ordination lineage, the largest of the two main Thai Theravada sects. In a daylong ceremony, twenty-three Korean monks received reordination in Theravada fashion, accepting the saffron robes and large iron alms bowl that the Thai monks had brought along with them. Twenty-three other Korean monks received reordination with traditional Korean robes and bowls.

Controversy ensued immediately. Many opinion leaders within the ChogyeOrder viewed the ordination as a complete fiasco, because it implied that Korean Buddhism was corrupted and that the only orthodox ordination lineage remained in Thailand. Koreans also were aware that the Thai Mahanikaya tradition was in fact introduced to Thailand from Sri Lanka, which had in turn received it from Burma, so that Thailand could hardly be considered a bastion of purity in its own right. The affair grew into a full-fledged scandal when the Thais made claims, published in Korean newspapers, that they had come to Korea not to help the Korean Buddhists reestablish their Vinaya tradition but instead to convert them to the orthodox Thai tradition. Many of the monks who had participated in the ceremony subsequently renounced their reordinations in prominent public displays. To my knowledge, this was the last foreign ordination performed on Korean soil. Figure 6. Cambodian nuns clad in white attend a new robes ceremony for fully ordained Theravada monks. Photograph by Christian Jochim.

The essay in this chapter was taken from Hiroko Kawanami, gThe Religious Standing of Burmese Buddhist Nuns (thila-shin): The Ten Precepts and Religious Respect Words,h The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 13 (1990): 17.28.

Female Renunciants

The presence, legitimacy, and proper role of female renunciants have long been important issues within the Buddhist tradition. The earliest-known accounts concerning the order of nuns hold that the Buddha himself first rejected the requests of his aunt to institute female ordination. They also hold that the Buddha ultimately allowed women to be ordained as full nuns, but only after a request came from one of his leading disciples. The accounts further indicate that the Buddha declared that the formation of an order of nuns would accelerate by five hundred years the decline and disappearance of the religion he was founding. Presumably to prevent an even faster decline, he initiated additional rules for the conduct of nuns. These included rules that established a clear hierarchy of status in which the male order of bhiksus was superior to the female order of bhiksunis.

This having been said, it is important to recognize that in the early Buddhist tradition the bhiksuni order enjoyed a high level of prestige and played a significant role in Buddhist life. In the Mahayana and Esoteric traditions of Tibet and East Asia, the bhiksuni order has been maintained, though the prestige it has enjoyed and the role that it has played have varied from time to time and from place to place. In contrast, in the Theravada traditions of Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia, the continuity of the bhikkhuni (Pali for the Sanskrit bhiksuni) order has been lost. This loss of continuity has been crucial since it has, by strict Theravada standards, made the full ordination of bhikkhunis impossible. As a result, the female renunciants of Theravadin traditions no longer retain a status even roughly equivalent to that of ordained Theravada nuns. In recent years there have been efforts to reestablish the bhikkhuni communities in various Theravada contexts. Up to this point these efforts have had only limited success.
The excerpt that follows focuses on the situation of female renunciants in Myanmar. It highlights many different difficulties, ambiguities, and possibilities that confront women who, though adopting a life of renunciation, are prohibited from attaining the status of fully ordained nuns.