I went today with a couple of friends to visit an old monk in difficult straights. He’s eighty-one-years-old, but he looks a hundred. He broke a hip about a year ago, but did not obtain proper care, or a replacement, because he was considered too old. Considered thusly by whom, I do not know (could be the order, an insurance company, the government authority, a hospital, who knows?). One way or the other, the poor geezer is in constant pain.
Somehow, my friends became aware of this guy, and they have kind of adopted him. He can’t make the alms rounds, can’t get around at all, and has no money, and neither his fellows, his temple, nor his order seem inclined to offer much help, so the poor dude was actually hungry and miserable. He’s skin and bones, and he’s in despair, as it turns out.
I’d never seen a monk’s cell before, and it’s pretty interesting. Half of the small space is taken up by an alter, with a lot of bronze figures of the Buddha, some of old monks, a few candlesticks covered in melted wax, some devotional basins of various sizes, and a plate of offerings that looks like it is replenished on a regular basis (a tray with small plates of rice, pieces of fruit and what looks like kimchee, plus a small glass of water). There’s a mat against one wall that has an unspeakable cover on it and a few small, unspeakable pillows. Against the wall with the door is a unit with shelves and drawers, which has some ancient books on it, and a antique, non-functioning TV. Next to the mat is a low shelf with prayer accoutrement and a small radio that has always been on when we got there (this was my second trip). Talk radio. There’s a fan aimed at the mat, that’s always been on too.
My friends stop by a couple of times a week with some food and personal items. Some relatively non-perishable items, plus a hot, take-out lunch, a package of candles and some incense sticks in case he wants to fire up his alter. The routine goes like this: we enter the ground floor of a building, where there is a narrow hall along the front wall and three doors on the opposite wall; we kick off our shoes and someone knocks on the monk’s door and then pokes her head in; we are invited in, and he pulls himself to a seated posture and makes himself decent (he’s been lying stripped to the waist, so he puts on more of a typical robe set up); we kneel facing the mat; he blesses the new candles, and one of my friend lights a few while the monk is dressing; there’s some conversation (he never addresses me, but I can hear that he asks questions about me and seems to tolerate my presence well); the monk leads us in some prayers; the monk accepts our gifts, which are placed on the corner of a blessed cloth and pushed forward by all of us simultaneously while he holds the cloth; the monk takes up his prayer screen and holds it in front of his face while he pronounces some blessings over us. Finally, there is some more serious conversation between the monk and the more adventurous of my friends. She’s a straight talker, suffering herself (breast cancer), and they have five minutes of a heart to heart. Then we go.
In the heart to heart today the monk told my friend that he was probably going to kill himself, so she shouldn’t be too surprised and don’t worry about it. Very matter-of-fact. This raised no eyebrows, upon the revelation or thereafter.
That’s life, I suppose.