Even the nuns looked nervous. They’d spent three hours the day before trying to teach us everything we needed to do during the ritual and we’d given them good cause to be nervous.
Along with having no clue that the retreat was conducted exclusively in Mandarin, I didn’t fully understand that we were literally going to be temporarily ordained. The central purpose of the retreat was to give lay people the experience of a monastic life, if only for a week. The idea is that there might be people who long for this kind of commitment who can’t do it in this lifetime because of the commitments they already have to their parents, or spouses, or children. So the central ritual is a temporary ordination and we spent the first full day preparing for it. Part of the preparation was explaining just how serious, sacred, what we were doing was, even if it was only for a handful of days.
In the auditorium before the training and rehearsal, they went through a list of things that would disqualify us from going through the ceremony – which seemed like kind of an awkward time to be going through a list like this. People had rearranged their lives, some had come from all over the country and even Canada to be at this monastic retreat, so none of us were going to want to find out we might not be able to fully participate. I mean, I could give a list a mile long as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to be ordained even temporarily, the most obvious was I knew essentially nothing about Buddhism, but the Discipline Master said no one could go through the ceremony if we were “from another religion” and “intended to return” to that religion. Did that apply to me? Am I from “another religion?” I can’t say I’m Buddhist but does that mean I’m from another religion?
I feel like I’ve spent my life hearing that I don’t belong. My father was raised in a Jewish home but, according to Judaism I’m not Jewish because my mom is not. I think I’m not Jewish because I don’t know a thing about it, not because my mom isn’t, but I guess that just helps make the point. I went to a grade school with an Episcopalian tradition. I wasn’t Episcopalian. I’ve been asked quite often if I’m “born again” without anyone really taking the time to explain, precisely, what that actually means. I’m from a neighborhood and family filled with guys but the school I went to for twelve years was all girls. It gets even more petty: in third grade, my telephone number didn’t begin with CH7 the way everyone else’s did. Sitting in the coat closet before school one morning with Nanny and Wendy, Nina and Helen, I knew that, if my telephone number began with CH7, they would like me better. I just knew it.
So, you bet I was “from another religion” if that actually meant “not Buddhist” and I guess I could say there was a distinct possibility I will return to this nothing from which I came but I had laid everything, everything, out in my application and interview: I told them who I was, what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. Full disclosure. So, now what? We were about to get our final training to go through this ceremony that would make us actual monks in training for the rest of our time here and, well, should I go through it? Could I?
I found Venerable Miao Hsi sitting alone at her desk during the break before dinner. She assured me I was good to go. As I was. Okay. I was going to become a temporary Buddhist monastic or nun. It was kind of like becoming a judge without even knowing there were three branches of government. But if Miao Hsi didn’t think it was a problem, if she thought I might learn something worth learning from this, I set my own doubts aside and just tried to do what I was told to do.
And what were we taught? Everything. In some ways this was the best part for me in that they started from scratch without assuming anyone knew how to do even the most basic of acts correctly. Like bowing. Finally someone taught me how to do it and, the only way I could draw attention to myself was by not bowing.
First, you bend at the waist, then you reach forward with your left hand to the far corner of your brown cushion then, as you kneel down, you put your right hand down, too. Once your head is touching the cushion, you turn your hands over, unfurl your fingers so that your palm is flat open, ready to receive “the feet of the Buddha.” Then you gently lift them up above your bowed head before standing back up in a smooth, even motion. When you walk into the temple, you do this three times. When you leave the temple, you do this three times. And, at all sorts of points in the ordination service, you do anywhere from one to nine of these sorts of bows.
It was so much easier bowing in a crowd than alone. And being taught how to do it correctly – and when – was great, even if I was usually a beat behind because of the lag in translation. I think if religious institutions everywhere simply posted or handed out a “how to” guide in the back of every pew, “kneel here, sit here, bow here, etc.,” there’d be a lot more people willing to at least check out a new service or two. New people like me are always worried we’re going to be up when everyone is down or down when everyone is up and the fear of being mortified has kept me outside of more than one religious institution. Even Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, wrote about the trauma of the uninitiated in his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain.
“Another thing which Catholics do not realize about converts is the tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which they feel about praying publicly in a Catholic church, The effort it takes to overcome imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous amount of effort.”
He should know; he was writing about himself long before he became a monk, when he was beginning to think just about becoming a practicing Catholic. And I don’t think this feeling is confined to those wanting to learn about Catholicism. So I was incredibly grateful and relieved that nothing was taken for granted at the Hsi Lai retreat and tried to throw myself into doing whatever I was taught carefully and in synch with the rest of the room.
Monastic robe. They were going to hand them to us in the ceremony and we were going to have to know how to put them on correctly. Not so simple. The robes hang from one shoulder and then close underneath the opposite arm with a small cloth loop around a fabric knob. It’s pretty easy, at least for me, to put the robe on the wrong shoulder or inside out and, when you sit down or kneel or stand up, you can pull the knob out of the loop without knowing it. I cannot tell you how many times someone pointed out that I was walking along, unaware that my robe was flapping in the breeze...until I figured out that I could wrap the loop around the knob twice.
Sitting mats. We were given a sitting mat that was actually beautiful, orange and red geometric shapes, bordered in black. It came already folded like an accordion in four longitudinal pleats with the corners together on one side. We were told to walk with the folded mat draped through our fingers, open edges to one side. I still can’t tell you which but I can tell you that the nuns think which side matters a lot but for a good reason: if you hold it right, you can easily unfurl it in one effortless motion and then drape it on the cushion you kneel on. To make the mat fit on the smaller cushion, you have to make a horizontal fold in the middle of the sitting mat as you lay it down, kind of like a Mad Magazine rear cover. And, like the Mad Magazine cover, when it’s folded right, it makes a picture; in this case a properly folded mat makes the shape of a square cross. When it’s not in use, you either carry it in front of you like this --->>>
…or hang it over one arm, underneath your robes.
The hard part of opening it up is making sure it’s flush with the far edge of the cushion and then neatly draped with that fold, in synch with your neighbors - which is a heck of a lot easier to do if you can figure out when to begin. And getting it elegantly folded back up with the edges open on the correct side and on one arm (where it stays during the service) while politely turned away from the front altar? Hah.
Begging bowls. All Buddhist monastics have one and only one bowl from which they are supposed to eat and drink everything. Different sects vary in how rigidly they treat this practice. During the Hsi Lai ordination ceremony, we were going to be given a ceramic bowl during the formal ritual and required to carry it with us the rest of the week in a bag slung over the shoulder opposite from the brown robe shoulder. We learned how to receive it during the ritual, bow, and then put the bowl into the tight, zippered pouch without dropping it on the marble floor. The bag was orange, round, made out of parachute-like material with a long strap so the bowl end up carried on one hip underneath the robe. All fine, but the straps, which had to lie neat and flat across one shoulder, were wrinkled and hard to smooth down. I often felt the person behind me straightening out my strap and I did the same for the person in front of me.
Oh, yeah, and the ceremony was dozens of pages long with chants and call and response sections in a booklet where everything was in Chinese characters, phonetic syllables, and English translations. The only way I could keep up with the chants was to stick with the phonetics so I rarely got a chance to truly understand what I was chanting. When I asked Miao Hsi about this later, I found out that the meaning doesn’t matter so much as the sound we were making together. It's all about the sound more than the words. It’s funny what a big difference just knowing that makes. I kept getting frustrated that I wasn’t intellectually engaging with the content of the texts and so missing most of what was meaningful but, in fact, had I just let go of my intellect and gone with just what was happening there at that moment, I would have gotten more of what that ritual experience was designed to offer.
There was a lot of kneeling as well as bowing all the way down, sometimes once, sometimes three times, sometimes more and the number of times didn’t always match what the manual said. And there was no question, the small group of us English-only speakers up in the front row were by far the worst in the room of over two hundred “preceptees.” I could feel the shrine full of gray, brown, and black waiting for us so many, many times.
I got stuck most often on getting the sitting mat refolded. It was possible to kind of shake it back into order if you held it right but I rarely got it right. (Until the second to last day, one nun or the other would come by and just grab the mat out of my hands and turn it around so the edges were facing the right way.) And kneeling down and touching your head to the cushion without the ceramic bowl flying around and smashing on the floor was an art in itself. I never broke the bowl – a MAJOR faux pas, I mean, monks are supposed to go without eating if they break their bowl – but mine certainly clattered against the floor and a dining room chair once or twice.
Given all of this, it’s no wonder the nuns seemed particularly on guard when it came time for the actual ordination.
I was so intent on doing what we were supposed to do, when we were supposed to do it, all I felt during the ceremony was panic about messing up, the challenge of standing still for so long on marble floors in the incredible heat and raw, cracking feet, and relief when it was finally over. I was, for the moment, a Buddhist nun. I was, most certainly, an empty suit.
9 July 2007