“May all sentient beings have happiness and the cause of happiness; May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the cause of suffering; May all sentient beings never be separated from the happiness which is free from suffering; May all sentient beings live in equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.”
And so it starts the motivation prayer of the Shamatha meditation I was recently practicing in a Buddhist nunnery. A beautiful and peaceful place hidden among the rice fields offering a stunning view of the Himalayas. Some of the nuns live here permanently and give shelter to a couple of dogs and to anyone who would like to experience the mindfulness meditation, learn Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy, or just experience peaceful monastic life. Here, everyone is welcome!
Nearby, there is the main temple of his holiness and the whole town is crowded by monks and nuns wearing maroon robes. People from the West come here to learn about the Buddhism. I have never been a fan of any religion or a specific philosophy but recently seeing his holiness Dalailama and his followers touching the ground as a holy land in his presence and feeling myself his incredible energy, I wanted to learn more.
So here I am, starting a three-day silent meditation retreat in Thosammling – a Buddhist nunnery. This silent thing has become very present in my life recently. I love it somehow! Smartphones along with social media are just taking too much of our time. And time is so precious! Anyway, the schedule is quite busy, filled with multiple meditation sessions throughout the day. We meditate sitting, standing or walking inside of the temple and outside near the Bodhi tree. Meditation sessions are very gentle starting with 8 minutes and progressively increasing up to 24 minutes. A western looking nun gives us an introduction to the Shamatha mindfulness meditation and the instructions on how to meditate.
Shamatha or mindfulness meditation is the practice of calming the mind and cultivating awareness. The starting point is defining an object of meditation. We usually focus on our breath as it is always available. You progress through different stages as illustrated in the picture. Monk is running after the elephant (the mind) and monkey (crazy thoughts). Along the way, there is lots of effort (the fire) put into concentration as you have to constantly bring your awareness back to the object. Slowly, you are getting from obscurity and gaining more clarity (the black color of animals is getting clearer along the way). The purpose is to control the mind thus meditate effortlessly.
I wish I could jump directly to the last step, pain-free meditation. Meditation is a damn hard practice. Some people think we come here to relax. Relaxation is a side effect of meditation but the practice itself is a hard job that requires a lot of patience and dedication. You sit, close your eyes and constantly work on breaking that crazy inner verbalization by bringing your awareness back to your breathing. It works for a few minutes than your mind is gone. So you do it again and again for hours!
Many people try to meditate and then let it go. They are busy with other things. Others patiently meditate every day and hope for a better tomorrow. And some even leave everything behind to dedicate themselves to the practice. They become monks and nuns. But that’s already another story…
The life in the nunnery is not at all what I thought. I expected a simple place with serious people and very little freedom. Everyone here is amazingly nice and warm. A big family where everyone takes care of each other. You obviously respect certain rules such as not killing (yep, not even those annoying mosquitos), maintaining silence in the residential quarter and doing your karma job (little help to the community). Other than that you are pretty free to do what you want. You just don’t want to miss those amazing meals made from organic veggies grown in the garden. Besides, there is an incredible respect for mother earth and the most advanced waste recycling I have ever seen!
Even though I loved the vibe of this place, I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life as a nun (just for the record!). All my respect for those who chose this path. Have you ever wondered what is it like to be a nun and lead a monastic life? Yeah, I was curious as well. Let’s hear the story of Tenzin Sangmo, a Buddhist nun, who happily shared her experience with us.
Tenzin Sangmo has been a Buddhist nun for the past 22 years. She actually founded Thosamling Nunnery as a refuge for western people interested in Buddhist practices.
-When I was 30, I set my mind to become a nun. I was already a Buddhist at that time but too busy with work. All I wanted was to focus on Buddhist teachings. It is a long process to become a nun and it is not for everyone. My teacher let me wait for 3 years until I finally became a nun. We follow a Tibetan tradition which I felt I had a close relationship with. Some other traditions are more strict. Probably I would not become a nun if the environment was too strict.
Sangmo used to work as a nurse in the Netherlands. Wasn’t it too difficult to leave everything behind?
-Not at all. You need a minimum of things to live in India. One room is enough. People have big houses but you can only live in one room at a time…You want to help others. It is the same as becoming a doctor. You want to help others so you become a doctor. In my case, I wanted more time to completely focus on dharma studies…My family has always been very open. There are way worse things that can happen to your child than becoming a nun… And we are a big family here. Some people think we are running from family life but that is not true. It is not so much different compared to life outside.
How is daily life in the nunnery?
-It is very pleasant for me. We start the day at 5:45am with morning meditation and prayer. There are courses and teachings going on later in the morning and in the afternoon. Right now, we are studying the Tibetan language…Then, you have your own practice. Actually, daily life is practice. Every action is practice. If you are alone, check your mind, If you are with people, check your behavior. I still have a monkey mind. It is a long journey. But I feel I am more relaxed and patient now. Studying is difficult as I set up this place. Running a nunnery is hard work. It is not so different from running a school or center.
People often get confused when they see monks and nuns with the latest smartphones. Shouldn’t you lead a simple and modest life?
-Of course, we can have phones. When we travel to visit our families or other teachers, the phone is very useful. All our prayers and texts are inside. Otherwise, you have to carry all your books with you. The problem is not the phone but people are being attached to their phones. That is the problem. And of course the problem of getting more and more into the social media. You have to be strong to stay out of that. For monks and nuns, it would be better if facebook and other media were out of the phones.
Why do you shave your head? (I can’t imagine voluntarily letting go of all my hair).
-In the ancient time of Buddha, his followers were wearing robes and shaving their heads. It is a form of differentiation from the outside world. Something like stepping out from daily life. As followers of other gurus and religions differentiate themselves with clothes, we shave our heads and wear maroon robes. For the outside world, it is also more clear that you are a monk or nun and need to live by your vows.
What about the food. I’ve heard monks and nuns are supposed to eat only the food they are being offered.
-People think that they are independent but that is not true. You are very much dependent on others and everything else. It is not about you. We depend on the other people. Both monks and nuns used to ask for food and eat only what they were offered. However, it was very difficult to go and ask for food in Tibet. The distances there are quite long and it took a few days just to reach some village. So they had to take care of their own food. As we do. We sustain our nunnery from various courses, retreats, donations and also nuns pay something for their food. And we have our own vegetable garden. Otherwise, it would not be possible to run such a place.
The life in the nunnery has lots of rules. Have you ever had a problem with any of them?
-Hmm, maybe. I was missing dance and music at the beginning. That was difficult for me. But I don’t miss sex. People often think you need it. That is not true. There are many people outside live without having it for a long time. The most important thing is food. We are still very much attached to the food. Even people coming here try to make their wishes clear to the kitchen.
And what is the most beautiful thing you’ve learned from Buddhism?
-Bodhicitta (it means compassion). Placing others higher than yourself and treating them with respect and higher than yourself.
Is there anything you would like to tell to people?
-Take care of everyone around you. Spread love and compassion. Take care of our planet for you and the children after us. If you want to live on this planet you have to take care of it and stop destroying it. So please take care of the people and our planet as much as possible.
Peaceful time in the monastery came to an end. Simple, yet very rich experience. Wherever I go next, I’ll take with me a precious gift Buddhism taught me – RESPECT! Respect for plants, animals and all other forms of life. Respects for other cultures, religions, and mentalities. Respect for everything that is different from us. Because differentiation is the biggest beauty of the universe!
Bye-bye Thosamling, I’ll miss you!