In Myanmar, it is a custom for young Buddhist girls to enter temporary nunhood or get ordained as a novice monk for boys. My family being a Buddhist also meant that it was imminent that one day soon we will have to shave our heads and so we did one summer.
Turned out I was rather unsuitable as a nun in several ways. If you look at the picture you will see me seated front row fourth person from the left, looking seemingly innocent and calm but inside of me I was probably thinking of food. There are a lot of cultural beliefs behind all this but in a nutshell, being a nun or a monk is all about letting go of all worldly comforts and luxuries and for us at that time, it included sharing a mat and a pillow with another person if the monastery was overbooked especially during the lent season.
Shared mats: This was the time in my life when I realised I didn’t even need to be fully conscious to be bad. Case in point – after the first two nights, the lady who shared the mat with me told the head monk that she was leaving because I had kicked her so hard she thought she needed medical attention. I didn’t plan it but I kicked my way to an entire mat to myself. Score!
Early mediation sessions: Early means 4 a.m and every morning I had to pull the mosquito net off of my head because newly growing hair acts like velcro with the nets, grab my toiletries and go to a communal well and do a quick washing up before heading to the main building for a meditation session. During the meditation sessions, we sat under individual mosquito nets (mosquitoes are vicious in Burma). One time I was sitting under there trying NOT to fall asleep because it was 4 a.m and I heard a mosquito buzzing around under the net and clapped my hands to squash it and all hell broke lose in the meditation hall because we were not supposed to kill any living thing and doing so under the watchful eyes of the head nuns is as good as getting yourself a special place in hell way before you shuffle off this mortal coil! I didn’t breath for three whole minutes so the head nun wouldn’t think it was me because she was furious walking around and asking who killed the poor mosquito for ages. Ironically, you are also not supposed get angry as a nun.
The little inside out nun: Early mornings continued to be an issue during the nun days because one time, I wore the entire nun attire (as seen in the pic -I love pink) inside out and didn’t realise it until I was out of the dorm and well in the meditation hall. It did not phase me – I went through the whole day with inside out clothes despite my sister’s protest that I should dash back to change.
Self-reflection giggles: Every morning after our meditation sessions, we were supposed to talk to the head monk about our reflections on the meditation experience. One time, this lady talked extensively about how an itch started from her palm and how it moved to all of her body parts, neck and ears and elbow and when she got to her armpit, I lost it. I couldn’t control myself and started laughing and was told off by the monk and was sent to another monk who was supposed to be very strict to learn long sutras as a punishment.
If you can’t join them, make them join you: This is one of the biggest lessons I learned as a nun and it was probably a bad place to learn this: Get your way by manipulating others’ feelings. Two things were constant in the monastery – one, I was always hungry and two, I can’t for the love of sanity remember the prayers well. When my mum came to visit us at the monastery, I told her I was hungry and my mum – bless her – as a mother, of course, cannot let her dear gluttonous pig of a daughter go hungry so she brought crackers and tea packets for me to snack on but as a rule, we all fast after 12.00 except for water or green tea. One day, I told the head nun that I was really hungry and can I please have a cup of sweet tea and she took pity on me and asked me to come to her room and made tea for all the little nuns and myself. While we were drinking tea, I went to my room to take the crackers and I gave her the packet. I told her it was a gift from my mum to her for taking care of me and sister. (My poor sister who was meditating at that time upstairs who has no idea.) She gave me one look and she really thought I was being genuine and decided a cracker for each of us wouldn’t hurt anyone. Another time, I talked my way through was with the strict monk who was supposed to enforce the learning of the scriptures by heart and boy did I distract him. I told him funny stories so much so that every day during our allotted hours, we were in stitches instead of learning. When the summer was over and when our parents came to pick us up, the head monk told her that I was a character, and that I like to laugh a lot, fall asleep a lot. That’s me – a character who corrupts others and myself. I don’t need alcohol for that. I do this fully awake and with all my faculties working perfectly.
Looking back, most of the things I remember from the whole experience was how I was as a nun, as a person and how I love eating. I also remember distinctively how proud our parents were of us, and how much our grandmother missed us because she was so pleased when we arrived back home. I also remember feeling free of hair the whole summer and watched mesmerised at the pace of my hair growth. When school started again, most of my classmates had shaved heads like me because that was apparently the year most girls became nuns. I also saw the power of meditation – some girls came back with a newfound determination due to their power of daily meditation and they went onto get higher scores and better grades for the rest of the school year and for some, the rest of the high school. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t born Burmese because of all the trouble of getting visas and discriminations I face in getting jobs but I wouldn’t want that anyway because I treasure every little memory of my life as a Burmese/Myanmar citizen. How many of us can say we’ve been a nun after all?