nuns

The Culture of the Buddha

By Sister Ha Nghiem When I first became a nun I felt like a bird trying to live in the ocean. Under the water I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying. Everything I had learned of what was important, what was beautiful, was somehow different here. Sometimes I felt lonely and out of place. A few times I thought about leaving to go back to a community where I could easily engage myself in the life of the community and I could receive the nourishment I was used to. Luckily there was always something deeper which held me here.

I discovered that I was full of ideas about life and how to do things based on how I was raised. Being a rare bird who decided to try to live underwater, I found that how I learned to live was not the same as most of the Sisters. When we would sit down to have a meeting it was always such a collage as sisters from Vietnam, Germany, Ireland and America had all learned how to arrange a kitchen in a different way. It is so easy to be trapped in our ideas, thinking ours is the correct way. Our ideas about little things can create big barriers between us. When I hold on to my ideas I suffer. I needed to learn how to let go of all these little ideas and customs in life in order to touch something deeper. I discovered that the most important thing is not our ideas, but to be truly there for each other, to be open, to love our sisters and support each other in our path of practicing the Dharma.

The first new source of nourishment I found here under the sea was the present moment. Although I may not have understood what people were saying I was supported by their practice of mindfulness. I learned to come back to myself and open my eyes to the wonders of life around me. When I can stop my usual thinking and simply be present to what is around me I discover so much beauty. Slowly I learned how to enjoy my sisters even when I could not understand their words. I could understand the beauty of their suchness.

My sisters did not leave me alone for long. The other sisters who ordained around the same time as me found a way to bring us together. We called it novice gatherings. On lazy nights we would sit together and have tea and cookies (which our older sisters and Thay donated to show their support). We would bring some of our favorite things along; flowers, candles, incense, musical instruments, inspiring poetry and books to read to each other. On lazy days we would go for picnics outside. Before we began our walk one sister would take me to the garden. In the early morning light she would show me which herbs were good to pick for lunch. Meanwhile another sister would find some mats to bring to sit on, and another would boil some water to bring for tea and soup. These times were always filled with laughter and affection. That is how I learned to enjoy eating instant noodles - it was contagious, the noodles and the laughter. After lunch one of us would sing as we did total relaxation and enjoyed nature. We shared with each other how we were doing, what difficulties we were having. We took turns to tell stories about our childhood and why we had become a nun . We began to understand and feel close to each other. That is how I began to feel rooted in the Sangha.

If I didn't have my sister beside me I would be so unfortunate. Just her presence, so calm and peaceful, her mindfulness is teaching me and healing me. The Dharma is not only in the sutras, or in Thay's Dharma talk, it is in my sister here beside me, following her breathing as she washes the dishes.

Over time I have been able to open up to see the many beauties in Vietnamese culture. There is something very fine and spiritual naturally present in much Vietnamese culture. In a Dharma discussion with young Vietnamese who had grown up in the West I realized that by living in a Vietnamese community for all these years the Vietnamese culture had begun to enter me and I now felt like them, part Vietnamese and part Western. The stream of life entering me from Vietnam is very beautiful and deep. Every day I am discovering the treasures of both Western and Vietnamese cultures.

However, I love most of all the culture offered by the Buddha. I feel I am one of the richest people in the world . From the moment I open my eyes in the morning until I lie in bed to sleep at night I am nourished by the practices given by the Buddha. I am aware that I am surrounded by noble people, I admire and cherish each of my Dharma brothers and sisters. I used to have a dream that I would find a place where people lived in a noble way. Where people walked with peace. Where we could practice meditation every day and study the path of awakening. Where we could put our energy together to help transform our society so there would be less suffering and more beauty. I am so grateful that I have found such a place on earth and that it has become my home and family. Our life is so simple, yet in my eyes it seems we are learning a very high culture. A cu lture where we learn practices which help us to live our day in a very peaceful way, with freedom and deep happiness. Our food is our practice, our insight, our love, our brotherhood and our work to support life and happiness in the world.

This was taken from a writing assignment given to the Sangha by Thay during last winter retreat. The assignment was to write about our difficulties and transformations throughout our life in the Sangha.

Sister Ha Nghiem (Sister Fern) practices at Deer Park.

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Fragrance of Tea Flowers

By Sister Dang Nghiem Before she became a nun, Sister Dang Nghiem was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple (Bat Nha) near Bao Loc since September and she wrote this letter to Thay on December 12, 2005.

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Beloved Thay,

I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.

I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The dharma is truly deep and lovely!”

The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sisters’ Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.

How Many Share a Room?

After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.

When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.

A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.

Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.

Stories About Food

We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for

170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.

In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.

Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.

Last week we had a meeting with the Venerable Abbot of Prajna Temple, and he said he felt much love for us coming from Plum Village, because we all become darker and thinner here. “Even brother Pháp Kham, who was fair and round when he first arrived, now also looks so dark and thin!” (“He’s looking more like a mountain person [a montagnard, mountain tribesman] now,” a sister whispered, and all of us giggled). “Well, we have given seventy, eighty percent of ourselves, so we can give up to ninety, one hundred percent of ourselves. We just continue to stretch our arms a little longer. So many people desperately need our practice. Centers like ours must be present everywhere in Vietnam in order to rebuild our country....” The Venerable spoke with such enthusiasm, and with such a charismatic smile, we looked at each other and laughed, admiring the Venerable for his talent for giving us effective spiritual boosters.

Letting Go of Attachments

Before I came to Prajna Temple, I heard Sister Thoai Nghiem say that the biggest problem here is attachment. I reacted strongly, believing that people with that tendency should be expelled from the community. However, living together with the sisters and listening to them, I understand better the causes of their tendency for attachment.

I practice Noble Silence each Lazy Monday for at least half a day, because I conduct an anatomy class for our sisters later in the afternoon. Last Sunday evening, it was past 10 p.m. already when one of my mentees came to my room, asking me to help her with her insomnia because, she said, “I know you’ll be practicing Noble Silence tomorrow.” I told her to return to her bed, lie down, and follow her breathing. If she could not sleep that night, it would be okay; she’s had this problem several years, and we were not going to solve it that night. She walked away angry, and her steps were heavy. A few days later, I asked her if she was still mad at me, and she said her anger resolved after she had been following her breathing for a while. I asked if she knew why I sent her back to her room that night. “Because you want me to practice taking refuge in myself,” she replied.

Because all of us, monastics as well as aspirants, live in one building, the sisters have the tendency to “stop by” your room anytime they want. Some also tend to “hang out” nearby or at a distance, looking at you with curious and affectionate eyes. Sometimes I return to my room late, feeling exhausted, and I see some young aspirants knocking on my window, waving and smiling!!! I have requested a couple of my mentees to memorize the sutra “Taking Refuge in the Island of Self.” They are to recite it to me by memory, to contemplate on this sutra, and to apply this teaching in their daily lives.

Having lived with the sisters and listened to their life stories, I understand more why some of them are prone to attachment. Many of them do not receive love or positive communication in their families and in their previous temples. Therefore, when they happen to meet a person who has some freshness and who spends time to take care of them, they want to attach themselves to that person. They want to attach their hearts, fragile and full of sadness, to a person they think they can trust. I see clearly that as older brothers and sisters, we must practice to nourish stability and space within ourselves, so that we can understand others more deeply with time, and so that our love entails no “hook” that others can “attach” to.

Background of Our Monastics

These past three weeks our dharma teachers have begun to interview the aspirants and visiting nuns who request to stay and practice with us. I also participate in these interviews to help assess their health condition. Each day, we use the working period, an afternoon activity, and the evening sitting session to conduct interviews. I have learned a great deal from these sessions.

There are sisters who are so innocent and pure; they want to become monastics because they have seen how beautiful the monastics can be in their fine manners, behavior, and speech. There are also those who come from unhappy families; their parents abuse and neglect each other, and the young people do not want to repeat this cycle of suffering. There is one girl who spent most of her tender years caring for a mother with mental illness, begging for food, working as a maid, and defending her mother and herself from perverse men. There are those who came to live in a temple when they were only three or four years old. Yet their faces are somber, their hearts closed off, because they have witnessed such division and abuse in their root temples.

Dear Thay, it is very painful to hear all of these stories and more. In his last minutes before the Buddha died, he was so compassionate as to ordain Subhadda as his last disciple and to advise the new monk to practice diligently towards liberation. Suddenly, I touch the immense love in your heart, and I understand why it pains you when we have to turn someone away from our practice center here—though our facilities are stretched beyond limit. Our environment of practice has the capacity to nourish and enliven the faith and aspiration in people. I sincerely hope that my brothers and sisters, monastic as well as lay, will come and help build true practicing communities in Vietnam.

Beloved Teacher, you are here in every second and every minute. You are the tea flowers emitting fragrance throughout the mountains and valleys. You are the stream that flows through all paths. Even though our center is newly established, with your wisdom of Sangha building, the support of the Buddha and the patriarchs, the wholehearted care of lay friends, and the diligent practice of our brothers and sisters, Prajna is growing quickly and tremendously  strong.

Every late afternoon during the exercise period, some of us practice martial arts, some weed the tea hillsides, and some jog along the creeks. Our sisters’ clear laughter intertwines with the luscious green of the mountains. A chanting voice is heard nearby:

Now that I have entered this holy place I must use the sacred medicine to enlighten my spirit before I go out again.

mb42-Fragrance2To you our deepest gratitude. Brothers and sisters at Prajna Temple,

Dang Nghiem

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The New Gurudharmas for Monks

   

By Sister Annabel, Chan Duc

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Before the Sangha traveled to Vietnam, Thay wrote a code of conduct for monks with regards to nuns, to update the ancient code of conduct for nuns with regards to monks. Sister Annabel graciously wrote this commentary for the Mindfulness Bell.

The Sangha of the Buddha is known as the Fourfold Sangha. It comprises bhikshus (fully-ordained monks), bhikshunis (fullyordained nuns), laymen, and laywomen. The bhikshuni component of the Sangha was added last of all.

Tradition has it that it was not an easy matter for women to be accepted as monastic members of the Sangha. If the tradition, which says that the Buddha hesitated in receiving women as monastic disciples, is true, it is not something difficult to understand.

Surely the Buddha must have been taken by surprise when his dear aunt and a large number of Sakyan ladies arrived in Vaishali with swollen and bleeding feet after walking hundreds of miles barefoot to prove that women too could lead the life of wandering monks? No doubt he was also moved. His aunt Mahagotami had previously asked permission to ordain as a nun when the Buddha was in Kapilavastu and had been told that the time was not yet right for women to ordain.

It was not that the Buddha saw women as of inferior intellectual or spiritual properties that he hesitated to allow them to follow the monastic vocation. The reservations of the Buddha had to do with the cultural and social situation in which the Sangha of his time found itself.

Concerns of the Buddha

First of all the Buddha wanted his disciples to have the best conditions to realise the practice. His monk disciples spent the night at the foot of trees and begged for alms in the towns and villages. This could have been very dangerous for women to do. According to the Indian custom of that time women were always to stay in a house where they were under the protection of their father, husband, elder brother, or son. The only women who did not have that protection were courtesans and loose women. The Buddha feared that his nun disciples would be branded as such and in fact this often happened. It also happened that on a couple of occasions when nuns unusually stepped out of the monastery alone they were sexually assaulted.

The second question the Buddha must have asked himself was how the monks he had already ordained would accept nuns as fellow members of the same spiritual family. Were the monks sufficiently free of their cultural and social prejudice to offer protection to nuns and support them in their practice?

The third question for the Buddha concerned the relationship of the nun Sangha to the monk Sangha. The Buddha taught that the recognition of seniority was essential for harmony in the Sangha (Culavagga VI, 6). Westerners should remember that seniority is not hierarchy. Seniority is a matter of protocol and mutual respect but the ways juniors have of showing respect to seniors differ from the ways seniors have of showing respect to juniors. The Buddha made it clear that the nuns were juniors. The nuns after all had had no education. They joined the Sangha after the monks had already been practicing for many years. The monks had already memorized the precepts and discourses of the Buddha. Many had become teachers in their own right. It was only natural that the nuns should show respect to the monks as their seniors.

The Original Gurudharmas

These facts are the basis for the eight original gurudharmas (practices of respect) to be practiced by nuns. They were as follows:

  1. A bhikshuni should always greet a bhikshu with respect even though she is senior in years of ordination to the bhikshu.
  2. Bhikshunis should practice the annual three-month Rains’ Retreat in a place where there is a bhikshu Sangha for them to take refuge in and learn from.
  3. Twice a month the nuns should send a nun (with a second body) to invite the monk Sangha to let them know on what day they should recite the precepts1 and to send them a monk to give them teachings and exhortations concerning their practice.
  4. At the end of the Rains’ Retreat the nuns have to request shining light from the monks as well as from the other nuns. (This meant that if the monks had seen, heard, and suspected anything untoward in the nuns’ practice they could let the nuns know and give suggestions for the nuns’ practice.)
  5. If a bhikshuni breaks a Sanghavasesa precept, she has to confess the offense to and be purified of the offense by the bhikshu as well as the bhikshuni Sangha.
  6. A nun can only receive the full ordination from monks as well as nuns.
  7. A nun cannot malign or criticize a monk.
  8. A nun cannot admonish a monk for improper conduct.2

These eight practices of respect have sometimes led people to think that Buddhism discriminates against women. Although there is no small number of individual monks, nuns, and laypeople who believe that to be a woman is a disadvantage for progress on the spiritual path, this is certainly not what the Buddha taught. After the Buddha’s parinirvana, some monks took the opportunity to promulgate their culturally ingrained prejudices. The Buddha said clearly that the fruits of the practice that can be realised by women are no less than those realised by men. In accepting women as nuns the Buddha has opened up a way for hundreds of thousands of women to realise the fruits of the monastic path.

What is needed now is to continue the career of the Buddha by making it clear to Buddhists and non-Buddhists that the bhikshuni Sangha is an equal partner of the bhikshu Sangha in the Buddhist community. The eight gurudharmas for monks that Thay has given us have already been practiced in many Buddhist communities for years. We only need to acknowledge that this is our practice and will continue to be so, so that people no longer have doubts about the status of Buddhist nuns.

Interpreting the New Practices

The first gurudharma for bhikshus is equivalent to that for bhikshunis. Thay has added the fact that each bhikshuni is a representative of the whole bhikshuni Sangha. In bowing to her one is bowing to the whole bhikshuni Sangha. The concept of partnership is also mentioned. It means a spirit of cooperation between monks and nuns in continuing the career of the Buddha.

The second gurudharma for bhikshus is to clarify that it is not a handicap to be a woman. This is an illusion to which women as well as men are subject. Women themselves sometimes also believe that they have been born women because they have not laid down sufficient wholesome roots in past lives.

The third gurudharma for bhikshus is a re-wording of a teaching given by the Buddha (SN IV,3,127). It means that our practice community needs to be a family. Here Thay makes it clear how we can support the members of our spiritual family. Just as the monk practices to see the nun as his mother and so on, so the nun practices to see the monk as her father, brother, or son depending on his age.

The fourth gurudharma for monks is equivalent to the seventh gurudharma for nuns. Thay has added the practice of looking at oneself and at the nun as a bodhisattva. This helps us to recognize the enlightened nature in each other and support wholeheartedly each other’s practice.

The fifth is equivalent to the second gurudharma for nuns. There are mutual advantages for both the bhikshu and bhikshuni Sangha when they practice in proximity to each other.

The sixth is perhaps the most revolutionary. Many monks still hesitate to listen to a nun teaching, let alone invite her to teach them.

The seventh is a continuation of what the Buddha wanted. In the pratimoksha3 there are already precepts forbidding nuns to act as servants to monks. Here we see that in physical work as well as in spiritual practice, the monks are to give the nuns a hand.

The eighth new gurudharma reiterates the need for mutual care and concern if the Sangha is to function as a family.

Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, was abbess of  Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. She is currently assisting Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

1 The precepts had to be recited at the full and new moon. There were no calendars and the educated monks knew how to calculate when the full and new moon days fell.

2 We should know that lay women who were strong in their practice did sometimes admonish monks with the concurrence of the Buddha who also made some precepts for monks at the suggestion of the lady Visakha. This gurudharma is to keep harmony between monks and nuns.

3 The pratimoksha is the disciplinary code of fully-ordained monks and nuns.

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