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Buddhist Rites of Religious Initiation: The Sugye Ceremony

October 30, 2009

As some may know, I am a Buddhist. While many assume I became a Buddhist as a result of my time spent in Asia, in fact I became a Buddhist while staying at a monastery near San Diego, California. However, in my third year in Korea, I happened to befriend a monk who ran a very small temple near my workplace. We would have lunch after Sunday services.
After a month of this, he invited me to perform sugye (수계), the Korean Buddhist initiation ceremony. The ritual involves formally taking refuge in the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching), and the Sangha (community), and accepting the five precepts (enumerated below). During the ritual, the initiate is touched with a burning incense stick. The monk explained that this is to leave a permanent mark which serves to remind the initiate of his promise to uphold the five precepts. During (or right after) the ceremony, the initiate is given a Buddhist name.

I have translated both the Hangul and Hanja on the card. It reads:

Three Jewels
Buddha Dharma Sangha

Five Precepts
I will not kill.
I will not steal.
I will abstain from sexual misconduct.
I will not lie.
I will not drink excessively.

Name:
Buddhist Name:
Birthdate:
Initiation Date:

Buddhist College, Jogye Order Special Parish Chaplain
Chunggukseongbul Temple

Master/Monk:

This religious initiation ceremony is not entirely different from the Catholic sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, sharing some elements of each. In a baptism, a child is initiated into the faith. During confirmation, a person agrees to keep the precepts of the church and is given a new name.

My sugye ceremony was held at a temple on a Korean Air Force base. I was initiated along with about a dozen airmen. The monk asked me before the ceremony whether or not I wanted to be burned. I asked him what he meant. “Some of the airmen do not want to have a mark or scar, so I will touch them with the unlit end of the stick.” I told him I wanted the traditional ceremony. We were chanting as he came around with the incense. I noticed he tapped everyone three times. When he got to me, he jabbed the stick into my arm much harder than the others. After the ceremony I asked him why, and he smiled and said “Because you are my student.” Then he pulled up his sleeve to show me his sugye mark. It was three one-centimeter round burns, which were raised like moles or warts. This type of burn would be caused by temple incense, the kind you buy to make a temple offering. Each stick is as big around as a cigarette. Their commitment is obviously greater than mine!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2009 2:28 pm

    pardon the pun, but what an enlightening post. I would love to read more on your experiences.

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