It’s been more than five years since my husband and I met as graduate students at Harvard University. We first noticed each other during a class entitled “Buddhism in America.” After a collegial friendship that semester, we fell in love through a flurry of thoughtful emails during final exams. It was clear to us both that this was not a simple crush: the same evening we confessed our feelings, we talked about getting married.
We had one small obstacle to marriage, however. At the time, Ilmee was an ordained monk. And he had been celibate for thirteen years.
I naively assumed that a transition from monastic to married life was a matter of personal choice, that disrobing was simply a decision you made, like deciding to become vegetarian. I had known Ilmee only as a quiet, studious fellow classmate. What I didn’t understand was the larger context of his life, the role he played among his family, monastic friends, lay supporters, and his Buddhist community in Korea. As our relationship deepened over the course of our graduate program, I watched Ilmee navigate a complex web of relationships in an attempt to receive general consent for our marriage. The most important of these relationships was with his master.
Three years after we first met, we took a trip to the master’s temple, which rests in the clementine groves of Cheju Island, off the south of South Korea. Several months prior, Ilmee had sent a long, handwritten letter to his master, requesting permission to marry. Weeks passed without an answer. We were getting anxious. Then we received a phone call from the temple secretary inviting Ilmee, and his American girlfriend, to visit the temple.
We arrived on the island on Christmas Day. It was a strange day, with snow falling on the palm trees and blooming rhododendron bushes. As we drove around the central volcano to the temple on the south side of the island, Ilmee looked sentimental. He hadn’t been there in years. Then he said, quietly, “My master is more my real father than my own father. My dad’s alcoholism destroyed the family and we lived in poverty. I dropped out of school at fourteen. The future looked pretty bad for me, so I decided to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills. Thank goodness my uncle noticed something was wrong with me. He asked me to visit his good friend, the abbot of a temple on the island of Cheju. I thought, ‘Why not?’”
“What happened after you met your master? Did you immediately decide to become a monk?” I asked.
“No. Actually, when I first met him I was simply impressed by how dignified and stable he was, compared to my father. I remember thinking, ‘This is a man I can follow.’ He had me do simple things around the temple, like cleaning. I had intended to only stay a week but I liked how quiet and peaceful the temple was—anything was better than being at home. Then my master had me begin a regimen of bowing and chanting. I prayed so hard for my whole family. Sometimes I would just begin weeping in the middle of bowing. It was a kind of therapy, I think. When my weeping went away, my master began showing me how to copy Chinese characters out of old Buddhist texts. He was sneaky, because before I knew it, he was teaching me what those Chinese characters said about Buddhist doctrines. Less than a year later, I decided to ordain as a novice monk with him.”
We got off the highway and drove through a small village. The streets were empty because of the holiday, even though the island is more Buddhist than the rest of Korea. As we neared the temple, Ilmee became anxious. “Sumi, we should expect the worst from my master.”
“Baby, why would your master invite both of us here only to tell us he rejected our marriage? That doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s more complicated than just us. My master is well respected in the Chogye order. If I get married, then we are disgracing him. He could lose his standing. The thing is, the Korean government just designated my master’s temple as a historic site. Both the government and the Chogye order are sending grant money to rebuild on the foundations, which are over a thousand years old. If my master loses his standing, that could jeopardize the grants. We’re almost there, by the way.”
“Still,” I replied, “if your master is the decent person you say he is, then I don’t think he would also invite me only to tell me to abandon you. He would have talked just to you. This anxiety sounds like something from your childhood and your dad’s alcoholism.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he murmured as we pulled into the gravel lot. The temple was empty, except for a few monks resting in their quarters. At the door of the master’s quarters, we slipped off our shoes and stepped inside a room like a professor’s office. The master wasn’t there. We sat down and I looked around. Like all traditional Korean buildings, the floor was heated but the walls and paper doors weren’t insulated. A strong wind snapped the paper in the panes. On the master’s large wooden table were bottles of ink, brushes, and calligraphy paper. A tea set rested on another table. The large leather Western chair, clearly well-worn, seemed out of place. Ilmee, in his long gray robes and clean-shaven head, fit into the picture more naturally than in the classrooms at Harvard among lay people.
Ilmee looked around at the walls lined with books. “I studied these old Chinese texts for years,” he said, with a note of nostalgia. “I left here when I was nineteen and went to Seoul to study at a Buddhist university. I joined the student Buddhist group—we had about a hundred and fifty monks and nuns. We were such naïve activists then, trying to bring down the corrupt senior administration in the Chogye order. As the vice-president of the group, I even risked my life to cause a revolution,” he said, shaking his head. “I became pretty well-known in the monastic community. When I got into Harvard, this made me even more prominent, since Harvard is practically revered by Koreans. My master’s prestige grew in part because of his promising disciple, me. Everyone expects me to rise through the ranks and become a big leader in the order.” He paused. “That’s why my getting married, more so than other monks, will be such a statement. And why it will be difficult for my master to accept it.”
“Ilmee, you have to do what makes you happy. What good does it do anyone if you live your life according to expectations and duty but are unhappy the whole time?” I asked.
Just then, the master arrived, along with the temple’s head secretary, a middle-aged woman with subtle purple highlights in her black, short hair. We immediately stood up, waited for him to settle behind his desk, and bowed to the floor three times. Ilmee sat down in front of his master and arranged his robes. I sat off to the side, as far out of sight as possible, and the secretary sat on her knees, adjacent to the master.
There was no chitchat, no “How are your studies going?”—just silence. Ilmee kept his eyes on the floor. I could feel the strong bond between them, how Ilmee was the master’s most beloved disciple.
Finally, the master spoke in a sermon-like tone, looking off into the distance. “There are precedents and justifications for marriage in Buddhism,” he said. “A famous monk, Manhae, was known for his love poems, which many say could not have been written had he not loved a woman deeply. Then there is the seventh-century monk Wonhyo, the most famous monk in Korean Buddhism. It’s said that the king asked him to sleep with his daughter, the princess, to console her. Wonhyo saw this as skillful means. In the Tripitaka, there are examples of the Buddha in dialogue with householders. He teaches how householders can live a pious life.”
There was another long silence, the master continuing to look off into the distance.
Finally, the master looked at each of us and addressed Ilmee directly. “It’s good that you are marrying a longtime, committed Buddhist who has also studied Buddhism at Harvard and published a book. Your marriage will be a bridge that connects Korean and Western Buddhism. You can be a good team for spreading the Buddha’s teachings around the world and to the new generation.”
He continued, “Maybe you have heard that our island has recently been designated as an international zone, which is why the government built the World Cup soccer stadium here. Since meditation is becoming popular with laypeople, I want to build a new, international meditation center. I would like to invite you to be an integral part of it and I hope you will come here frequently to teach. Please build a branch center in America.”
Ilmee and I looked at each other and smiled with relief. Not only did we have permission to marry, but the master wished to deepen the connection among us. It was a compelling vision for the future. The secretary began peeling a persimmon and preparing tea. The conversation became less formal, with Ilmee speaking mostly in Korean. After many cups of tea, our legs getting stiff, the master recommended that the secretary show us around the island. The three of us bowed three times to the master and left.
As soon as we got in the SUV, the secretary burst out in rapid-fire Korean, “Oh my Buddha, Ilmee Sunim, you can’t imagine what’s really been going on! A few months ago, I noticed that the master had suddenly become silent and seemed really distressed. I couldn’t figure it out. One day, while I was straightening out his papers, I found your letter on his desk.”
Ilmee looked calm and listened carefully. She continued, “Personally, when I read the letter, I thought it was wonderful that you wanted to get married. Some monks these days are so self-centered, immature, and arrogant. They’re indifferent to the needs of laypeople like myself. When I go to them trying to ask advice about my marriage, they don’t have a clue about how to help me.”
She continued, as we wove around the ocean cliffs. “This is why the Christian missionaries are so successful. Their ministers are married and have families, so they know the difficulties we have. Buddhism is going to lose out to Christianity if we keep going like this. I went to your master and told him my thoughts. At first he just turned away from me. But I felt really strongly about this. So I just kept going to him with my arguments. I would say to him, ‘You should welcome Ilmee’s marriage, because we need more warmhearted monks like him. He is the wave of the future. You are really lucky to have him as a disciple. He is going to help you propagate Buddhism.’ Finally, he began to come around to my view. And after a few days, he even began to get excited about this way of thinking!”
Ilmee turned around and looked at me in the back seat. He said in English, “Sumi, this secretary is our personal bodhisattva. This blessing from my master would not have happened without her. These laywomen wield such unseen power!” We pulled up to a cliff. The three of us leaned on a railing, looking at the Yellow Sea crashing over the rocks, reflecting on the strange, new adventure that was about to begin.
We got married in October of last year, in the dharma hall of a Buddhist center in Massachusetts, fall leaves glowing with color. In the end, the master decided to attend. We stood before monks, lay dharma teachers, professors, classmates, and family in the sunny dharma hall. And, for the first time in public, we kissed.