Monastic life fraught with challenges
Whilst his paintings show young monks who breeze through life, sometimes carefree but at times, forlorn, life in the monastery isn’t as easy as we think.
From Rev Won Sung’s account, monastic life is one fraught with challenges: high discipline, endurance and devotion to one’s religious faith. And if you’re wondering how monks are so wise, now you know they are a studious lot!
In his early days as a monk, Won would wake up as early as 3am. After prayer, he would bow 108 times in a self-cleansing ritual to rid himself of any impure thoughts. Next, he would meditate for 30 minutes before studying the sutras.
By 6am, he would normally take his breakfast before going about the daily chores. Duties would be rotated every three months. By 11am, it was time for prayer and study.
From noon to 1pm, the monks would have their time to rest. Most of them would take a nap as they had woken up very early. However, some monks might want to spend time in the library or enjoy their tea break.
They would study again from 1pm to 5pm. Dinner time is from 5pm to 6pm, followed by an hour of prayer and another hour of study before retiring to bed.
His small room was spartan except for a table and chair. There was no bed and Won slept on a mat on the floor.
A full-fledged monk now, Rev Won still observes some routines of monastic life though not as rigid. “I use my study time to paint and write these days,” he says.
In 1998, his mother too became a nun and assumed a new name, Rev Geumgang. Both mother and son are based in the same temple in Donam-dong. Although Rev Won has a cell in his mother’s temple, these days he is like a nomadic monk. He moves from temple to temple every three months.
As a visiting monk, he says: “One does not get greedy and yearn for material things or get too comfortable with familiar surroundings.” Being on the move appears to be a lesson in humility. A monk knows his place and is ever mindful that he does not own anything.
Rev Won is somewhat a celebrity with his fame as a painter and writer. He says that some people think that he is very rich. “I don’t own a car or a cell phone. I don’t have branded clothes; just monk’s robes.”
If he is accused of accumulating wealth, he explains that it is not for himself but for charity. “If you buy a mirror today, you buy yourself (as you can see your image in the mirror). But if you want to buy a house, you have to save enough money,” he says. Likewise, he is saving so that he can have enough funds to build an orphanage near his temple in Donam-dong. Already he has used some of the money earned from his art exhibitions to build a temple in South Korea.
He hopes to correct the misconception that some people might have about monks.
“They think monks should go away (from the cities) and live in the mountains or retreat into the forests. But if religion is about being close to the people, then how can monks move away from civilisation?
“If people need religion, then why must religion (monks) be deep in the mountain? Is it not so strange?”
Asked what he thought about the sufferings in the world today, especially the violence in Iraq, Rev Won paused for a minute (perhaps to say a prayer for world peace) and then replies: “There are three kinds of poison killing the people – greed, anger and foolishness. When people are greedy, they fight each other and create a lot of problems. If only they exercise self-control and look inwards. If only they think before they act and realise, ‘If I hit someone, I hurt him and I hurt myself too.’"
Gallery: Monk's eye view