Explicit, tacit; explicitly

As some of you who also follow me on Twitter or Instagram may have gathered, I’ve moved from New Haven to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The biggest, and most materially relevant reason, is for graduate school. I also am beginning to think it was simply time for me to move on. Other transitions and changes were happening in my life, and a physical move of location and the reorganization which inevitably accompanies that packing/unpacking dyad has ended up corresponding very closely to, and complementing quite precisely, those transitions and changes.

First and foremost, I returned my precepts. In other words, I returned to laylife. The decision was slow in its gestation, although the timing of the actual return of my kasa to my Zen Master was influenced heavily by the start of summer classes this June. As one friend put it, “Do you want to start off graduate school in one mode, then switch partway through and have to explain that to everyone? Wouldn’t it be easier if you simply started graduate school, beginning with the summer class, as a layperson?” Since I was settled in my decision to return my monastic precepts, it didn’t feel premature to return my kasa this May, when I was in Korea.

Despite the superficially public nature of a decision like this, superficial in that the effects of the decision are immediately visible in my dress and behavior, and anyone who knows me would recognize right away that something had shifted even if I didn’t tell her, I’ve been reluctant to write about this decision here. Reluctant for so many reasons, and reluctant for reasons that have no rationale, but simply because it felt (feels) so intensely private at times. This sense of privacy is strong, even though I literally wear the decision publically every day, much as I publically wore the decision to ordain every day, in the form of monastic robes. I’m not sure that private is the opposite of public, though, not in this sense. It’s been a month since I formally returned my kasa, and for this month I’ve been content to be both public and private about the decision. Not everything needs to be live-Tweeted. Not every moment or event is Instagramed. Nor should it be. This perhaps is the new privacy: the things we simply do, without attempting to record it on a social-media outlet. This was not something I was ready to announce beyond the people who either know me quite well in real life, or who see me every day.

And yet: I have always included not just my religiousity, but also my religious/monastic identity, in my writing here. If I haven’t written much (or at all) for the past year or so, I know that much of that silence came from the real tensions and unbearably private difficulties I felt surrounding both my personal religiousity and my monastic identity and life. To write anything honest would have required admitting to not only myself but to you, dear readers who find this blog from all over and some of whom I know and some of whom I do not, that I was struggling at a fundamental level with the entire foundation and edifice of my life.

Admitting difficulty is not something monastics really do. We do it, but in retrospect. “One time, when I was struggling with my practice…” “Once, when I was a young nun, my understanding of faith totally fell apart…” “Oh, I hear you, when I have dark times like that…” But rarely do we put it in the present tense even if it’s a current challenge, this very moment, even with each other, outside all but a close circle of friends and mentors. We do not disclose our real-time struggles, but wait until the moment passes so we can use it as a distal reference point. Too proximate, and it can’t be discussed. It’s as if these moments themselves exert a force preventing easy communication.

(Even in that paragraph, I slipped into “we.” There is slippage, a sloppy middle sphere; transitional, liminal.)

To write here that I had returned my precepts was to tacitly admit that I had had difficulties, and difficulties that wouldn’t be relegated to retrospection, “That time when I had a crisis of faith…” Unlike other difficulties in my monastic life which could be embraced by the robes and their effects hidden in some way, I had (have) unreconciliable, irrevocable difficulties. Difficulties that ruptured some fundamental tie to a monastic vocation. Difficulties that pushed the robes away. I wasn’t ready for that tacit admittance, until I felt like I was comfortable saying explicitly: I struggled with my monastic vocation greatly over the past three years or so, and the end I decided that to live authentically and as wholly as possible, I needed to leave. I couldn’t explicitly say it until I was able to own the tacit confession involved, too.

Maybe these difficulties will find new places to hide, like in the pages of textbooks, or in the pockets of my now-colorful wardrobe. For now, however, there is something very bare and open about them, and it was that bareness that had me shying away from writing anything here. Too bare, too open; not a state in which to make an announcement like this, I felt. I have not yet “had difficulties”; I am still having them, still walking through new landscapes of living and feeling both assured and bewildered by turns. I thrill at new freedoms, and I grieve deeply for the loss of old ones.

So, all the packing and unpacking has been good, helpful; it’s shown me that the boxes I store my life in literally and figuratively erupt into an interspliced melange when I unpack. I may use the words “irrevocable” and “rupture,” but it’s clear from where I sit (on a broken chair) in my still-underfurnished and box-strewn apartment, that there is also a continuum in my life. My religiousity remains. My religious identity is still here, in the form of ministry and community building, and I’ll look for other ways to fulfill a clerical or priestly vocation, although not a monastic one. My old kasa from when I was a novice and two kasa from my grandteacher and teacher are a part of the altar. My texts from seminary are carefully shelved. I have all the pictures of the various monastic communities I was a part of, and I will find places to display some of them.

It’s been a little over a month since I formally returned my precepts and my robe to our Zen Master in Korea. It’s taken me this long to say anything in this sphere (no tweeting, no Facebook) because I care so deeply about not only how I’ve now chosen to live, but how I did choose to live, too, and out of respect for my brothers and sisters who still live a monastic life. I really believe that you can’t take your own choices lightly without becoming superficial with others’ choices, and I owe the sangha the weight and time of consideration as much as I owe myself. It took over a month to find words roughly equal to the task. The weight of years and the many relationships involved in my monastic life have held me mute; what could I say that could possibly convey both the debt and the relief of these shifting but never absent relationships?

Honestly, one thing I hope comes out of making this announcement here is that some of the stuckness and silence I’ve experience creatively will ease. Having made my situation clear to both myself and others, maybe I can begin to reground myself creatively, and write again. The fundamental connection between honesty with myself and the ability to write has rarely been clearer than the last several years. With both personal and public honesty, maybe I’ll be able to re-engage writing.

To all the readers, known and unknown, thank you.


11 comments on “Explicit, tacit; explicitly

  1. Bo Gak Sunim (Eduardo) says:


  2. Well, you are starting off well with words here! It will be interesting to see where and how you go! (I’m always thinking that my way forward is back through the tradition–time in some ways being a place we can journey through…)

  3. Kevin Kim says:

    Hugs, as always, as you move forward into the future. “Packing and unpacking,” indeed. I don’t think this ever stops—whether for ex-monastics or for us regular proles. Good luck with grad school!

  4. You have always been — and you remain — an inspiration to me, not only in your embrace of the religious life (whatever shifting forms that may take over the course of a lifetime) but also in your willingness to grapple with that life in words.

    I don’t know what it’s like to be where you are, but I can imagine some of the freedom and some of the grief.

    I wish you blessings as you continue to walk your path.

    (And I hope our paths cross in person again soon! I just finished Ruth Ozeki’s “For the Time Being” and it made me think of you; have you read it?)

  5. Lorianne says:

    Congratulations, and welcome to this next stage of the journey. The next step always appears, but it isn’t always where we thought it would be.

    I loved Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being. If you haven’t read it, do!

  6. seon joon says:

    Thanks, everyone.

    And yes, Rachel, I hope our paths cross soon, too! Let’s make Boston happen…

    No, I haven’t read Ozeki. I’ll put it on the TBR shelf, though. With recommendations from the two of you, how could I not? 😉

  7. John Melvin says:

    Best wishes for this new part of your life.

  8. bighominid says:

    In a weird little twist of synchronicity, I just stumbled across another Ozeki reference. This comes courtesy of a blogger who calls himself Tom Turdman; he runs a blog devoted to finding literary references to the scatological. He quotes from A Tale for the Time Being, a passage about thanking the toilet. See here. Hey, now I’m sold in Ozeki!

    • bighominid says:

      Sold ON Ozeki, even. That’s what happens when you type a comment with the predictive software on your cell phone. Seems I’m incapable of mistake-free comments on your blog.

      • seon joon says:

        Heh. Don’t worry; I’m routinely fouled by the combination of my auto-correct software, clumsy fingers on my phone’s keypad, and simple rushed inattention. Avici does not await those who make simple typos…I’ll have to look into Ozeki, it seems.

  9. Beth says:

    I’m embarrassed…for some reason I didn’t see this post until the other day, though I had read the subsequent ones. It’s what I figured might be happening, but I was glad to read your own words, so calm-seeming, once you found them and set them down, in spite of the fact that the path to that moment of writing must have been unbelievably complicated and difficult. I’m so glad to have “known” you for many years now, from before Korea to the present, and grateful for the journey you’ve shared so eloquently and honestly so far. Eventually, I hope, we’ll be able to talk about some of it in person. But for now, I just feel privileged to be able to listen in on the next stage of your journey, and wish you well. (Bookstores, as you’ve discovered, are essential and quite dangerous.)

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