Two nights, two mornings into this seven day monastic retreat and I can tell you there are some things about this monastic life that are a lot simpler: you sleep in the tunic and pants you wear all day so you don’t need to choose clothes or even get dressed in the morning – you already are. And you have nothing to do to get ready other than wash your face, brush your teeth, and pull your hair back…if you have any. (Real Buddhist monastics, women included, shave their heads. It symbolizes giving up worldly concerns.) All of this makes getting down to the stone courtyard to stand in motionless lines in front of the scary Discipline Master before 6am almost no problem.
That is, if you aren’t having menopausal hot flashes. During a triple-digit heat wave.
Our room had no air conditioning. And those silver tunic and pants? They had elastic at the wrists and ankles and were nice and polyester-smooth on the inside. So when the raw, searing heat raked up from the sides of my hips, up my neck, behind my ears, drenching my scalp in sweat at least once an hour - all night, all day - I felt like I was sealed in a microwave bag. During the day it was hell because you were not allowed to move at all once you were standing, kneeling or sitting. So I’d suddenly feel myself drip and not be able to do a thing about it. At night, once the lights were out and the three other women in the room seemed to be asleep, I stopped trying to “sleep like a bowl” and tried wet dish towel instead, even going so far as to unbutton one and even sometimes two of the buttons that kept the tunic closed up to my neck. It’s amazing how quickly a few restrictions can make previously insignificant things feel wanton.
In the courtyard at dawn this morning, though, there was a bit of a breeze along with the withering stare of the Discipline Master. It wasn’t just her drill sergeant demeanor that made her so frightening. In that long list of instructions we were given on our first day, we were told to start memorizing six different Buddhist and Hsi lai texts and that we must be ready whenever the Discipline Master asked, to recite any one of them. Recite or kneel in atonement if we couldn't recite on demand. On the stone. For at least ten minutes. (Well, that’s what they said would happen. I never saw anyone made to kneel in such a harsh manner.)
Some tracts were short, some were very long. They were: the Refuge and Transfer of Merits Verse; Humble Table, Wise Fare; the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra; the Great Compassion Dharani; Rebirth in Pure Land Dharani; and a Prayer for Those Entering the Monastery. (I’ll put some of the texts up in a later post.)
It was utterly unclear to me if I could be called on from day one to recite things I couldn’t possibly have memorized. We were encouraged to memorize them in the language in which they were written (there were Chinese characters, phonetic spellings and English translations for each) but I had to draw the line somewhere. And it wasn’t like we had a lot of time to study: we had our shower time and a short thirty-minute break in the middle of the day. Period. If I had a prayer of memorizing anything, it was gonna have to be in English so at least I’d know what I was saying.
Just two days in and I was standing on stone at dawn in rough cloth shoes that were starting to rub my feet raw in the weirdest of places terrified that the black-browed nun was going to demand that I recite something I hadn't memorized yet. All I’d gotten under my belt were the Refuge and the Transfer of Merits Verse:
I found myself wanting to clean up the grammar, to suggest a simpler way to say some of these lines. But I didn’t. I made a decision to jump into this fully so my focus was solely on doing what was asked, hoping that, at some point, I might have a clue about why.
Transfer of Merits
May kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity pervade all Dharma realms;
May all people and heavenly beings benefit from our blessings and friendship;
May we undertake the greatest vows with humility and gratitude.
9 July 2007