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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.

Buddhist Name:
Initiation Date:

Buddhist College, Jogye Order Special Parish Chaplain
Chunggukseongbul Temple


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!

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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