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The Life of a Nun in Myanmar

By | 2/12/2023

The heart is filled with joy and celebration, cradled in the tranquility of equanimity. Nothing is too intense, nor even too happy. The sweetness calms our hearts and lets respect, gratitude and beauty blossom, a beauty straight from the heart of the Dhamma. Christine Joly

Each gate, each building, each stone reminds us that Dhamma has prevailed here for many hundreds of years, and that hearts remember it.

This is the heart of Myanmar, the heart of Dhamma, the heart of the Buddha that beats in each of us.

In the film Pilgrimage to the Sacred Land, Goenkaji tells us that it is here in the Sagaing Hills that the purity of the Buddha's practice has been maintained for generation after generation.

It is here that I feel I am living a dream, out of time, where every moment matters, where every heartbeat is unique, where every life shines. Here and now, fully present.


No longer a layperson

In December 2016, my husband and I had the brief experience—only five days (temporary ordinations usually last a minimum of one week)—of being a Buddhist monk and a Buddhist nun. We were ordained in a monastery in the town of Sagaing, where pagodas and stupas crisscross the hills as far as the eye can see, and where monks and nuns abound.

What I remember is that the ceremony was short but powerful, full of conflicting emotions, accompanied by a feeling of great sadness at having to renounce my husband, my hair, my clothes and my so-called freedom.

I was, at the same time, enraptured, embraced by something beyond me, something that for two days made me cry without knowing the reason.


Retaking the vows

In October 2019, my husband and I decided to be ordained a second time, at the same monastery. Our daily practice of Vipassana meditation, in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin as taught by S.N. Goenka, carried us through this second attempt. We are on a quest for Truth and Liberation.

We took the initial vows, but set no time, no duration for our ordinations. The feelings that we had the first time were absent.

My husband was initially ordained as a novice, and then two days later as a bhikkhu, a monk. I was ordained the next day as a novice nun, or thilashin. In the Theravada tradition, there is no, or almost no, possibility of a higher ordination for women because thilashins can only be fully ordained by bhikkhunis, and in Myanmar the female bhikkhuni lineage lapsed about 800 years ago.


The robes

Monks and nuns wear similar robes, with humility, to help diminish the craving for beautiful clothes, for individuality, the ego. They are renunciates, as was the Buddha in his time more than 2500 years before. Born a prince, he renounced his wealth, privileges, royal abode, and even his wife and son. We are sons and daughters of the Buddha and follow his Path. Our hair is shaved to minimize seductive distractions. Monks and nuns are benevolent brothers, benevolent sisters.

During my first ordination in 2016, I had difficulty with my lower robe—it kept slipping down. This time, having paused before the ordination, I was able to ask a young woman to sew some fabric onto it, to fashion a sort of belt to prevent it from drooping. And yes, I was overheating. Robes layered on top of one another can make one a lot warmer, but I didn't feel that so much this time. I became used to wearing those robes and didn't feel any discomfort. Maybe that's acceptance and equanimity, or maybe the air-conditioner in my room helped.


Eating to nourish the body

The food required a gradual adaptation. Most of our meals consisted of rice, beans, and a few vegetables, served with variations of fritters, noodles and fruit. Occasionally a dessert resembling something Western would pop up—a piece of cake or wafers. The key is not to develop craving for the new, familiar arrivals. I ate lightly, frugally. It is hard to generate greed for rice and a few beans when we come from countries where pastries and other gustatory pleasures are commonplace.

Under these conditions, eating solely to nourish the body was, therefore, not too difficult.

For the monks, breakfast was at 5:30 and lunch at 10:30. I made a habit of coming 30 minutes after the monks.


Solitude is my companion

The monastery is devoted to pariyatti, the theory elucidating the Buddha's teachings, but we prioritized paṭipatti, that is to say, the practice of the teachings by meditation. At the beginning, my husband and I met once or twice a day to meditate together for an hour or two in a magnificent meditation hall, a divine dimension, where the golden Buddhas and paintings representing the life of the Buddha were one more beautiful than the next.  Naturally, little by little, we lengthened the interval between meetings and began to meditate on our own.


A learning experience

To be entirely face to face with oneself, is it a luxury? A welcome calm and peacefulness embraced me. I had never felt this way. I took my time. Why hurry when I had no obligations and there was no rush to get anything done?

But then an enemy came to visit. From time to time a kind of slothfulness arrived to divert me from the Path. I decided to face it with strength, alternating sitting meditation with periods of walking, studying and cleaning, so as not to succumb to the temptation of torpor.

I had only myself for a teacher—no other teachers, no inspiring mentors, no social connections.

I did have the preceptor who ordained us, a learned monk who teaches abhidhamma and whose English diction is startlingly clear, but he left us free so to devote ourselves entirely to meditation.

Gratitude filled my heart at this invaluable opportunity under ideal conditions. In the monastery there was no need to go on outside alms rounds; volunteers prepared Burmese food every day. Every meal was a gift from the laity. Generosity is intrinsic to Burmese and Buddhist culture. One day during the meal a little girl offered me a towel.


The journey

From time to time, and more and more frequently, I switched off the air conditioner to learn to cope with the heat. When the temperature reached 29 degrees Celsius, I switched it back on.

During the day I sometimes drank tea or coffee, or ate a bit of jaggery (unrefined cane sugar). I wished I could stop, but eating unfamiliar food only twice a day meant that I relied on these simple permitted supplements.

The point is to train the mind, somewhat like an athlete training for a marathon. The goal is to free ourselves from suffering, to be able to face any situation—heat, cold, hunger, illness, death—and not suffer from it. Of course, we should not go to extremes. If we live in a cold country, it is prudent to cover ourselves appropriately. The Buddha taught a Middle Way: not to live too much in desire and greed, nor in aversion to what we dislike. This is part of the training that will lead us to our goal: not to suffer whatever the external situation, whatever our mental disposition, but to face it, to experience the wave without succumbing to it. It is possible, and we are on that Path.

2 Comments

Michelle
Date: 3/13/2023

Beautiful and inspiring Christine, thanks for sharing!

Christine Joly
Date: 4/5/2023

May we all have the opportunity to free our heart and mind 🙏🙏🙏

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