Monk And Supermonk

I was just listening to the thirtieth rendition of a low-level conversation between two young students on the subject of pet skunks and meerkats when the monk burst in. He lunged over to me out of the nothingness concealed beneath the illusion of reality with an enormous smile that was somehow larger than his entire head, and asked me to edit his paper for him. For two hours I had been critiquing this conversation, this amusing exercise in perfecting and memorizing the most basic smalltalk, and so I bid the two young students adieu and sequestered myself in an empty classroom with the grinning monk in question.

Other papers are ridiculous. Last week I had to edit a paper that glorified a senseless murderer because he was a Korean patriot; two days ago I assisted a pair of students who had fed their Korean thoughts into an internet translator, which reduced them to senseless gobbledygook written in the Roman alphabet. And while I have met perhaps a dozen monks in the months I have spent at this university, only three of them had reached fluency—one of these was now sitting beside me in the cold empty classroom, a monk who turned out to be a SuperMonk.

As a result of this background experience I did not expect much from the twenty pages in my hand, and suspected that I would have to struggle through a few sentences of Googlese before asking him to write his paper by himself. His abstract in particular was a textbook case of how Koreans are not fond of pronouns or synonyms (an example of this phenomenon from a tour bus I once rode: “Gyeongju Bomoon Area Is Best Bomoon Area In Gyeongju Bomoon Area!”), but after slogging through it and getting to the meat of the thing I either became lazier or the paper became clearer. I think I averaged about one page every seven minutes, spending most of that time on English articles, which cannot be mastered by non-native speakers (even the amazing Ask A Korean makes several such mistakes in every post he writes). Ultimately I believe I worked on his paper for three hours.

The paper said that if everyone acted more like monks the world would be a better place. And here the Spartans say: If.

His paper cited the traditions of Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism as an example for the rest of the world, running through brief biographies of several medieval monks who ate very little, didn’t own anything, and wore the same clothes all the time. Then the paper explored the Temple Stay program in this country as well as similar modern initiatives to get corrupt city folk back into the fields and the forests. His thinking is that if everyone could take a little time to think inside nature, everyone would stop caring so much about the materialism that is destroying it.

I was so befuddled and surprised and exhausted and intimidated that I couldn’t mount much of a critical assault on these ideas at the time. We had to walk across the campus to his office, and while we were pacing very rapidly through the parking lot he gave me his card and essentially revealed (with not a little unmonkly pride) that he was a Big Shot, with a Ph.D from Berkeley to back it up, as well as a business card with the words “UN Decade Coalition Steering Committee Member” at the very bottom of a lengthy list of impressive credentials. His office was also the only place in Korea that gave off quite an air of intellectuality, as it was packed with hundreds of old musty history and philosophy books in English, Korean, and Chinese. He told me that he was leaving for California in two days. After that I felt like this.

But with a few hours between then and now I realize that the idea is not really so profound and that I should have relaxed. Although I’ve been a professor for a few months, I’ve never been in the position of editing a real professor’s paper—after he told me about his Berkelyship, he asked me (with sensible embarrassment, because he already knew the answer) if I had a Ph.D, and after bumbling over a few senseless inanities I manage to produce two syllables from my flapping lips: “Not yet.” I was playing with the production of a man who had worked insanely hard to achieve a great deal of things while I have achieved nothing while also not really working at all.

At the same time, beyond the paper’s grammatical issues, there were numerous epistemological problems (and once the paper is published, I’ll post a link so you can read the final product for yourself). But although he was a very nice guy, it was obvious that he didn’t really care too much about what a B.A had to say about a Ph.D’s work. Still. It is absurd to expect everyone to act like monks, a weekend in the forest isn’t going to get doenjangnyeo (a rough Korean equivalent to the materialistic valley girl) to stop blowing her parents’ or boyfriends’ money on Louis Vuitton, and the rich Christian men who are raping every last penny out of the natural world aren’t going to be turned into smiling dalai lamas after reading a slim volume of koans.

My own (Stalinesque) opinion is that human beings are the problem. If we have fewer human beings, we have fewer problems. Speaking hypocritically, if everyone stopped having babies now, everywhere, everything would get better.

He also started his paper with a number of assertions about global warming and climate change, all of which were made without a single citation. I completely agreed with him, but you still have to back up every statement you make; when I addressed the issue he said that everyone knows global warming is a reality. Okay.

The paper was a complete waste of time. Why, then, did I bother with it? Because it was my job to bother with it, because he was a Big Shot, and because I want to be a Big Shot, too.

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