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
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
December 9th we arrived in
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
First of course I said no. But slowly I understood that this
was already decided - I could stay if the children where in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I haven’t been to
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
Many times I am asked why the status of women and nuns are
so much lower here in
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
In 2002 I arranged the first teaching trip to
Now every year I have to go to
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.