Deciding to become a Nun

(By Brigitte Schrottenbacher)

 

Where should I start? The best will be the moment I decided to become a nun. I had done my first retreat and strong faith in Buddhism arose in me because I had seen and experienced so many things that I never knew or had experienced before. Coming back home to Austria, I saw that my life there went on the same old and unwholesome way, nothing had changed but I didn't want to go on like this.

 

The father of my children didn't understand what happened to me and because he had to take care of his mother he wasn't able and did not really want to come with me, leaving everything behind. We had a nice house on a beautiful lake in 'Salzkammergut' which is a famous beautiful lake area in Austria, about 20km distance from the City of Salzburg.

 

So I decided to go with my kids. At that time they where two and three years old and of course, I loved them and it was impossible for me to leave them “behind”. We left for Thailand on December 8th, 1989.

 

December 9th we arrived in Thailand, it was my 27th birthday and a new life should begin.

 

I thought it would be easier but in the beginning lots of things had to be solved. I couldn't speak Thai and my kids either and there where no other children in the Meditation Centre. I did not have the possibility just to sit and meditate cause the children where with me.

 

 My nuns-ordination was arranged for the 4th of January 1990. On the 3rd of January a nun came to shave my head. I must say that I was quite attached to my long hair – I let it grow to my hips. After she shaved my head, I was looking into the mirror and thought I look a little bit like a monster. When my daughter Melanie came she looked at me and started to cry - "you have been so beautiful and now you look very ugly". She was very angry with me. My son Patrick - only two years old, looked at me and hugged me – he did not want to let go of me as if he feared he is loosing me.

 

Then my teacher Acharn Thawee came and looked at me and he said why did you shave already - I need to talk to you. I came with him and he told me that the children can't stay with me in the Centre because it is just not a suitable place for them but he has a student, a Lady who lives in Bangkok and was studying Piano in Vienna for 7 years. She was not married and spoke German very well and she would be happy to take care of my kids.

 

First of course I said no. But slowly I understood that this was already decided - I could stay if the children where in Bangkok and otherwise I could only go back to Austria. I had made my decision and my head was shaved - so I didn't want to change my decision. I ordained as a nun and brought my kids to Bangkok. I was very sad and unhappy about separating from them and the only way to get over this was to meditate as much as I could.

 

I practiced intensively day and night trying to cut off every thought that came up about the children. I did all kind of things to overcome the arising hindrances I was fasting and did not sleep properly. For two years I did not lay down I just slept away while sitting - woke up and continued to "meditate". It was a time of great suffering and I could not really let go.

 

One day I went to see my teacher Acharn Thawee and I told him in tears that I was thinking of my children. He turned to the right and had a look then he turned left and looked and then he asked me with an astonished impression on his face "What children - I can't see any children." That was it - I understood that they are in my mind not anywhere else - the problem was in my mind. From that moment on it was easier to let go because it became clear to me that all my problems come from my own mind and from nowhere else.

 

Still I had to work hard on this because it was easier to understand it intellectually but the heart still had its attachments. The father of the children was working hard on getting them back to Austria, he contacted the youth government telling them that I do not take care of them what was in a way correct because they where not with me. So after nine months I decided to bring them back to him. For me the decision was clear I wanted to stay a nun for the rest of my life. So I thought I should be able to cut this strong attachment to ‘my’ children as well. I brought them back to their father and returned to Thailand dedicating my life to meditation and “being a nun”.

 

I was clear that now I could even die while practicing because I gave away all I had and everything that was important to me and therefore all responsibilities too.

 

But the feeling of being an ‘unnatural mother’ stayed with me and I kept having a hard time to overcome hindrances and phenomena arising. I thought to verify my decision I had to reach enlightenment quickly working hard on it. One day I was sitting under a tree on the temples walking path deciding that I won’t get up before I am enlightened – I sat there about eight hours. After about two hours I had pain arising in my back – it felt like needles piercing me. I just thought these are phenomena, which tried to avoid my progress. I was continuing but the pain did not go away - it got worse. But I went on doing my practice. After about eight hours I gave up – not because of the pain but because I couldn’t avoid it – I needed to go to toilet. I slowly brought my hand to the back and realized that I was bitten by ants they where all over my back. When I took off my clothes I could see that they bite me until I was bleeding. Telling my teacher about it he just said – “If you had more mindfulness then this phenomena wouldn’t have happened”. It was a quite painful phenomenon.

 

In short I had to go through a lot of phenomena like this for about two years, then it just got so much that I could not avoid letting go anymore. One day I came to the teacher and I told him that when I came here two years ago I thought I am already a Sotapanna (Streamwinner) but now after two years of hard practice I know I haven’t reached anything yet. He looked at me and smiled and told me – Ok, now you can start to teach the foreign students. I was shocked. I just told him I do not know anything anymore and he tells me I should teach. I thought he is making a joke with me. But he really wanted me to start teaching.

 

So I tried to do my best and realized that it seems as if the teacher was teaching through me. While giving instruction to the students I suddenly realized wisdom was coming out of my mouth that I didn’t really know I was “having” it. It was not mine. So I started learning a lot through instructing others. Of course my teacher always knew as well what was going on with the students. I would not say I was a teacher and I still can not say this from myself.

 

Then a time of working hard followed. I thought that if I am not a good meditator then I have to make myself useful in another way. My teacher allowed me to go for alms round in the early morning. It’s not so common that nuns are going for alms food. I did not have any support from home because my relatives all cut me off thinking I was going mad to leave home and children to be a ‘beggar’ (as my father once mentioned). After I have brought my children back to their father I returned to Thailand and offered all the money I had left to the temple. So I could not pay for food or anything else.

 

The first time I went for alms round I just stood in front of the houses of a small village about one hour walk from the Center. The people - not expecting me - where a bit astonished but some offered me a spoonful of rice and I remember I got a can of fish. I was still attached to be vegetarian that time so I had to eat plain rice or change my eating habit. I decided to do the second, starting to eat whatever I got – as a good disciple of the Buddha should do – at least if you are living from what the people offer to you. Sometimes when I had some nice food then I was happy to offer it to my teacher or if I got fruits I shared them to my students because they had to pay for their food in the Center and they almost never got fruits.

 

After I had my one meal per day I started with interviewing the meditation students. They had to come once a day to report their experiences. There where always about five to fifteen foreigners in the Center so the interviews took at least until midday and sometimes even until the late afternoon. Then I swept leaves, cut grass and bushes cleaned my teachers’ office and watered the gardens until dawn. Then I did my evening service and meditated until the morning. Half awake - half asleep.

 

One day a friend of mine took me to visit her grand teacher Luang Phor Sangwahn Khemmako in Supanburi Province. I was very much impressed by his appearance and he looked through me knowing what was going on in my mind. He did not say much but his blessing was so powerful that I felt happy many days after this. The strong wish to meditate more intensively arose in me. But I felt very grateful towards my teacher Acharn Thawee without whom I would have never been able to go through all the difficulties I met since I was ordained. I was really involved in the work at the Center and could not just drop it. But the wish stayed with me. So one day I told my teacher that I want to practice intensively again. He told me if I want to practice then I should go to the forest for seven days. So I went to my hut and took my alms bowl and some things and left for Suphanburi.

 

Arriving there Luang Phor Sangwahn told me to help myself. I got a room and started practicing intensively. After seven days I had so much rapture and happiness I did not want to go back to the Center. But I had to do so because I promised it. I went to Acharn Thawee and asked him for allowance to continue one more month. He allowed it. After that month I decided to stay in Suphanburi.

 

I have been there in intensive retreat for a bit more then a year then the message arrived that Acharn Thawee was very sick. I went to see him in hospital. He had cancer. There where no monks taking care of him so I decided to take care of my teacher. I was really lucky I was allowed to do this because usually a woman can not even touch a monk in our tradition. I stayed with him for seven months learning a lot about nursing the dying, giving injections, Oxygen, taking blood pressure etc. I took care of my teacher until he died on the 6th of June 1996. I was always sleeping underneath his hospital bed and the night he had passed away they did not take the body out of the room but left it there. After about 3 hours the whole room was filled with a beautiful strange scent. I thought, “Now he left”. After seven days of chanting and ceremonies for my teacher in the Meditation Center - I left for Suphanburi to continue my retreat.

 

My teacher Luang Phor Sangwahn did not want me to do teaching - he said, “You can help others, now you have to help yourself”. I was doing my best but I am not a great meditator and I always had the feeling I want to do something, I want to help others etc. So after a few years I again started to get involved with work. First I started to do translations of Dhamma tapes into English and German. I had to borrow a tape recorder and a microphone and made tapes. I could buy 10 tapes and started doing this. It was always a bit frustrating to see whatever effort I made to do things like that; I had to look myself where I got the money for it.

 

But by that time I got support from my mother. She came to visit me the first time in 1991 and I remember she was crying when she saw how I was living. She had always thought I had my good life in Thailand may be anywhere on the beach or so. But from that day on she got faith in me, my teachers and what I did and she was also recognizing that I changed a lot. So she sent me a little money every month until she passed away in 1998.

 

Later I started to teach children of poor families in English. I told the people when I went for alms round in the morning, that from the coming weekend on I would be teaching kids in English language for free. On the day I started teaching I expected there might be 30 children coming. I asked one of my old students from New Zealand Matthew and his wife Ant, who had a school in Bangkok, to come and help me the first day. I was shocked when the day came and 450 children where applying for the teachings. The second weekend 650 children came. We needed microphone and had to separate them into 6 groups. I did this for more than a year. The children slowly got less and in the end there were only a ‘handful’ of them left. I think I wasn’t a really good English teacher but I heard from many parents that their kids improved in school.

 

There where usually one hundred nuns in Wat Tungsammakeedhamm in Suphanburi and most of them where older than sixty years. Some of them more than ninety and as a matter of fact I had to take care of some of them when they became sick. One even died in my room – she had cancer. I visited two courses at the Sirirach Hospital in Bangkok to study about caring for sick and elder people. This became known and many Thai people came to the meditation courses and asked for medicines and treatment. I got lots of medicines from friends and relatives in Austria and distributed it among the poor people joining the retreats.

 

I haven’t been to Austria for seven years and then I had to go because my dear mother passed away. A Thai layman paid for my ticket. By that time ‘my children’ where eleven and twelve years old. They changed a lot of course still we where happy to see each other. I could also talk to their father, who was still living alone with them but when we came to speak about Buddhism he blocked.

 

In December 2000 a friend and student of mine - Zois - opened an email-address for me and so I was forced to visit the Internet Café in the City. Soon I learned to appreciate the Internet and I started to create a Web-site with a Thai friend for three temples. As a matter of fact I had to move to Wat Thamkrissana Dhammaram in Nakorn Ratchsima Province. This is a branch temple of our lineage and it is such a quiet and beautiful environment near the Khao Yai Nationalpark that many westerners got attracted to this Center. There was no teacher for the foreigners and so I had to help. At that place I stayed for 5 years and in 2006 left for Wat Pa Charoenratdhammaram in Pathumthani, to continue to instruct foreign meditators there.

 

Many times I am asked why the status of women and nuns are so much lower here in Thailand. I can only answer that it was necessary, in the time when the Buddha was teaching in this world, to make a hierarchy of the Sangha. Otherwise it wouldn’t have functioned. At that time women had no status at all in India. So it was quite revolutionary to accept women to enter the order. So Buddha gave them allowance only after due consideration and only after they agreed that they would accept more rules then the Bhikkhus have. One of these rules was that they had to pay respect to the monks and novices – even if a nun was an enlightened one and the novice was a boy of seven years, newly ordained. I did not have many problems with that. For me it is paying respect to the Buddha, his teaching and his Sangha. Only with my teachers it becomes a “personal” respect as well.

 

Nuns do usually not get much material or financial support by the Sangha. But however if you practice you will always have what you need. Thai nuns are mostly supported by their relatives I get support from students and sometimes from my brothers. But it is funny that especially those people who speak about how bad they find it is that nuns are treated so unequally – themselves also support monks more than nuns.

 

In 2005 After returning from my annual teaching tour through Europe I had some money left from the donations I received from my students. So I started to make a small fond to support all the ordained nuns in Wat Sanghathan. They receive a small monthly support since then and as long as I will be able to continue this annual teaching tour I want to continue doing this.

  

In 2002 I arranged the first teaching trip to Europe. I invited the head teacher of Wat Thamkrissana Dhammaram Acharn Tippakorn and one layman to accompany him and we where teaching in six European countries. The people were very interested and we repeated this for another three months in 2003. As a matter of fact I was invited to help teaching in the Netherlands, where a group of Buddhists is permanently coming together for practicing and studying the Dhamma.

 

Now every year I have to go to Europe to teach from April to June in many different countries. The rest of my time I spend in Thailand; trying to give my best to interested foreign meditators and supporting social projects (like: Tsunami Relief in Phuket and Kho Lhanta, the Aids temple in Lopburi and supporting nuns as much as I am able to do).

 

On March 6th 2009 I was honored with the award “Outstanding woman in Buddhism” by a distinguished committee of Buddhist scholars and practitioners in honor of the United Nations’ International Women’s Day.