Here in the nunnery the afternoon is for sleep, study, contemplation. The night before, Ayya Khema suggested that we imagine we are going to die shortly and then see what we cling to. I find I am sad to lose my possibilities—for achievement, and, yes, for liberation. Why am I here, after all, if I do not believe in my capacity to be enlightened?—though we are made so uneasy by this idea that we make jokes. Sydney, a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar from Florida, says that should sudden illumination awaken her, she will telegraph her family: “Bingo!”

Seven of us have come to study with German-born nun Ayya Khema on Parappuduwa, or Nuns’ Island, in Sri Lanka: one Sri Lankan woman, two Germans, one German-American from Hawaii, and three Americans. We are here not as nuns but as anagarikas, that is, women who wear white robes and agree to abide by eight precepts: (1) not to kill any living creature, (2) not to take what is not given, (3) to refrain from all sexual actions, (4) to refrain from false speech, (5) not to use alcohol or drugs, (6) not to eat after noon, (7) not to wear jewelry or use cosmetics or seek out entertainment, (8) not to sleep in a soft or large bed.

Pondering my death, I know I will miss my senses: eating (of course, I would think of that first); feeling the light breeze off the lake; the sight of plume ria blossoms so waxy and white, spider orchids like spotted scorpions; the sound of that kinky train that hoots along between the lake and the ocean; imagination, learning, discovery. All this I would hate to lose. And love, surprises, effort. The making of things.

My body I would miss. Old friend who’s been with me half a century. (“Remember, the body is the seat of the soul,” says Sidney, who has taken up weightlifting here, hefting bottles filled with sand.)

Ayya Khema asks, “Do you really want to be born again? Imagine learning to walk, to feed yourself, to use the toilet. Imagine going through adolescence again!” I think, “Oh Goddess, no, not that.” And I am ready to renounce my desires. But looking at my own death I see how securely I am bound, like Gulliver, with a hundred little threads, to sensations, things, thoughts, to my need to become again, each moment, this stable entity that I imagine myself to be.

I set off to pace the paths of this jungle island, opening my faded umbrella to ward off the brutal tropical sun. I love the paths, which wind between thick glossy foliage, then open to a view of the lake.

At moments I stand locked in surprise that I am here on an island in a lake on the larger island of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. I think of my existence back in Oakland, where as a writer, teacher, and longtime member of a community I live a complicated daily round of work and relationships. The telephone, the computer, the automobile are stalwart friends. How odd this seems, here where there is no electricity, not even a road to drive on. The island is so tiny that I can walk its length in less than ten minutes, past the nuns’ dwellings, little cottages of white stucco with red clay tile roofs set on high ground.

With meditative concentration we can become aware of the movement of the skin and under the skin. Then we have a different outlook on ourselves and the rest of the world, because now we know with direct knowledge that there is nothing solid or static, least of all this body. —Ayya Khema

There are no real nuns on the island now. Those who have been here, it is said, quarreled with Ayya Khema, who some find to be a harsh taskmistress, or they simply wanted to try another monastery or to practice alone. Sometimes we speculate on the reasons why they left. The extreme heat and humidity together with the civil unrest that wracks Sri Lanka make living here difficult and sometimes dangerous. Where Western nuns are concerned, a woman must be very independent and strong-willed to become a Theravada Buddhist nun, an extreme path not supported by our culture, and she may not be able to manage the obedience required of her in a monastic setting. It is also true that women sometimes find it hard to take direction from a female teacher, programmed as we are to take orders from men and to resist women’s authority. And Ayya Khema, as we anagarikas well know, is a person of definite views and opinions, as well as utter self-confidence. Where the dhamma (Theravada Buddhism uses the Pali dhamma rather than the Sanskrit dharma) is concerned she brooks no objections. Then there is the stress of being in a culture so different from our own. But all this is only speculation. We cannot know what transpired here with the women who once took the brown robes and shaved their heads and lived as nuns. Their cottages stand blank-windowed, empty.


Ayya Khema comes from a background that could have mired her in negativity. Of German-Jewish birth, she was imprisoned with her parents during World War II in a concentration camp, where her father died. Later she was rescued by the United States army, was nurtured by the San Francisco Jewish community, became a U.S. citizen, and raised a family in Australia. She told me that she made a conscious decision as a young woman not to harbor bitterness against the Germans. Now she travels to teach for some months each year in Germany.

At 4:15 a.m. the digital clock that Barbara has brought from our house in Oakland beeps discreetly. From our beds against opposite walls we switch on flashlights to examine the floor for spiders. Ten minutes later, swathed in white sarongs, long-sleeved blouses, and white robes draped over the left shoulder, we walk to the meditation hall. Vasantha, who is the one Sri Lankan anagarika, walks ahead of us. The bhavana sala, or meditation hall, is set up high and open on three sides, commanding a view of the lake and the coconut grove as well as a small steep hillside bright with potted plants.

Meditation begins at 4:30 a.m. and lasts until 6:00. When we arrive, Ayya Khema is already there, seated at the front of the hall. We enter and arrange ourselves in order of age. Soon we are immobile white figures sitting cross-legged in the dim light of a hanging kerosene lantern. Beside each woman glows the red dot of a mosquito coil.

At first my mind occupies itself with logistics: are my legs securely crossed, the flat pillow situated squarely under my buttocks, my back straight and tilted at the exact angle that will allow me to sit without moving for at least forty-five minutes? Then my body settles down. I feel my weight pressing on the pillow, the touch of my hands one laid on top of the other. Now my mind leaps about—“monkey mind,” they call it. Predictably, I exist either in the past or in the future. As patiently as possible, I observe these gyrations and gently bring my attention to focus on my breathing. I follow the subtle stream of my breath, noting its pressure rhythmically lifting my belly. And then my mind goes off again.

In the trees massed near one open wall, the birds screech and chirp their excitement at the coming dawn. Today the time passes slowly, my mind skitters off into elaborate detours. I bring it back. Off it goes again, until I finally give up, as one must sometimes, and just let it think. I remember making the decision back in Oakland to come to the Nuns’ Island.

A month before Barbara and I were about to leave home, civil disturbance broke out in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindus had been committing acts of terrorism and repression against each other ever since the nationwide anti-Tamil violence of of 1983. This time Tamil terrorists stopped a bus full of Buddhist monks and massacred them. Our friends took to stopping us on the street to beseech us, “Don’t go to Sri Lanka!” We changed our minds every three days.

Now in the meditation hall, with the sun beginning to gild the coconuts on the palms across the lake, the water sloshing rhythmically against the shore, the possibility of violence seems a dream. Gradually my mind calms. Soon my legs ache, but my mind grows more still. It is this that I came for.

Breakfast is a roti (thick pancake), a slice of orange papaya, a cup of strong tea with milk, and a bowl of water for dipping one’s fingers. This last is important, since in Sri Lanka no utensils are used: food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand. To eat with the left hand is a serious impropriety, since Sri Lankans clean themselves in the bathroom with their left hands. (No toilet paper here, only a bucket of water and a ladle set beside the hole in the floor that is the commode.) Butter and jam or dahl (boiled chick peas) are passed down the line from Ayya at the head of the table to Sydney, our youngest. We eat in silence. Already it is so hot that as I drink the tea my whole upper body flushes and I feel the moisture coming out on my chest and forehead.

Then come the hours of “selfless service.” Elisabeth and Rosemarie dig in the earth, weeding the garden, planting flowers and herbs. Sydney, who is bursting with turbulent energy, scrubs floors and repairs anything broken. When she runs out of things to do, she invents more projects. She and Ricke, who room together, exhibit typical American irreverence (Ricke is a transplanted German), referring to Ayya Khema as “the coach” and our island as “Camp Convent.”

Vasantha, by far the most decorous of the anagarikas, is an architect in lay life. She has taken on the job of repairing the leaks in the shallow foot baths at the entrance to each building. When I visit Vasantha on her porch I always find her bent over a book of Buddhist thought. In her self-effacing way, she subtly reminds me that a person who grows up and is educated in a Buddhist culture comes to this practice differently than a Westerner.

At the same time, we both understand that mastering the language of the sacred documents or memorizing the rules counts for nothing if one is not strongly grounded in meditation and moral conduct. Vasantha, I imagine, is puzzled by us Western women, but she never corrects or chastises us.

Ricke, Barbara, and I are the office crew this morning, working with Ayya Khema. Her short, round body draped in layers of brown cloth, her shaven head showing only the faintest gray fuzz, Ayya goes methodically from one helper to the next. She is succinct in her directions and so matter-of-fact as she corrects mistakes that I never feel personally censured or criticized. It is this directness that has drawn me to Ayya, and her down-to-earth Western woman’s approach to Buddhism.

As a meditation teacher, Ayya emphasizes the goal of enlightenment and leads the student in the cultivation of deeply joyful and serene meditative states. To maintain oneself in a monastic discipline, which requires such extreme renunciation, Ayya asserts, one must experience deeply tranquil concentrated states that surpass and supplant worldly pleasures. She particularly stresses the impermanence of all things, including these pleasant states, and she affirms each student’s ability to experience deep concentration. With Westerners she sidesteps the more devotional forms of Theravada observance (when Sydney, meeting her for the first time in Kandy, prostrated herself before her, as one would before an Eastern teacher, Ayya said, “Don’t bother”), but she strongly maintains any practice that will protect and encourage the student. I appreciate Ayya Khema, also, because she honors the role of reason in Buddhist practice. She will suggest subjects for contemplation. She respects the student’s need to read and study as well as to meditate and practice mindfulness.

With greater concentration and deeper penetration we will notice constant movement in ourselves. The mind realizes that if there’s constant movement inside, it must be outside, too, so where can any solidity be found? The body is moving. There isn’t anything I can hang on to. The thoughts are moving, so where am I? Impermanence has to be experienced. —Ayya Khema

We are here for the Rains Retreat, a convention dating from the Buddha’s lifetime 2,500 years ago. The original monks and nuns had no fixed home; they wandered about the country receiving alms and meditating wherever they found themselves. During the rainy season, however, when the rice crop was planted and starting to grow, wandering mendicants were known to trample the new rice shoots, ruining the crop. So the farmers went to the Buddha and asked him to keep his monks and nuns confined during those months. To accommodate the farmers, the Buddha instituted the Rains Retreat, three months during which the monks stayed in one place for study and practice. At the Nuns’ Island, the Rains Retreat lasts from early July through early October, the hottest and wettest time of year in Sri Lanka.

At 10 a.m. we hurry back to the meditation hall where Ayya Khema reads the suttas, discourses of the Buddha. Each teaching from the Digha-nikaya (collection of long discourses) that she has chosen begins always with a description of the particular village or park or mountain in India where the Buddha stopped to talk to the assembled people. Then the text describes the situation that prompted the discourse before going to the Buddha’s actual words (memorized by his disciples and written down several hundred years after his death). She reads with great vigor, stopping to explain esoteric descriptions or to emphasize important doctrinal points. Her strong voice, erect body, and large eyes radiate enthusiasm.

At 11:15 the lunch bell clangs, and we proceed down to our last meal of the day. Arriving at the dana sala, or eating hall, we find that a group of people have come to bring our dinner. Usually this is prepared by Gunaseela, the cook, but on specified days people row across the lake from nearby towns to bring us food. In Asia one way in which dana, or generosity, is expressed is by feeding the monks and nuns. The people do this in order to build up good kamma (Sanskrit, karman), to gain merit—sometimes for themselves, sometimes for a relative who has died.

Six or eight people wait in a tight group, dressed in their very best clothes, beaming excitedly. They have brought bowls of special fish and vegetable curries; containers of rice, breadfruit, noodles, desserts of fruit and bowls of curd (yogurt) with jaggery (a coconut syrup) on top, sweets piled on small dishes; milk tea. It is a feast, the very best they can offer and reverentially served. The cheap cloth of the old women’s saris, the too-tight dresses of the young girls, missing buttons replaced by safety pins tell how poor these people are. I am humbled by the care with which they ladle each serving into our bowls. We have no comparable ritual in the West. It is the look of joy on their faces that most affects me. To watch the ritual from the outside is one thing; to be the object of this awakens something deep inside.

In return for the meal, Ayya Khema offers a short talk on the dhamma. When Ayya speaks the Pali words for “May you be enlightened in this lifetime,” our visitors bow in gratitude, placing their hands on the floor and touching their foreheads to the straw mats. I am overcome with the strangeness of my being here. Once in my room, I let the tears come.



It is early morning. Dressed in white robes, we sit in the meditation hall. The rain has stopped. Silence deepens the darkness. I rearrange my legs under the folds of cloth, wrinkle my nose against the bitter smoke of the mosquito coil. Opening my eyes a tiny bit, I see Ayya Khema seated like a rock before us, and I settle to attend to the movements of my breath, the stillness inside me.

Gunshots echo across the water. I tense, my mind jumping to ask what they mean. Rosemarie had seen a bombed building in Colombo. She had tried to return to Germany when she learned that her son-in-law was being operated on for a brain tumor. Now there are no planes. A curfew has shut down all transportation. Telegraph and telephone lines have been cut; post offices have been bombed. Rosemarie can neither leave Sri Lanka nor communicate to her daughter what is happening here.

When Ayya Khema rings the bell, I get up quickly, looking around at the other women, seeing Rosemarie’s worried face, wondering what the others are thinking. Barbara seems tired. We walk silently down the wet dirt of the path, our sandals snapping against our heels.

The physical and mental are bound up with each other very closely. In order to meditate, for instance, we’ve got to sit and that’s a physical thing. Mindfulness brings the physical and mental into one spot. If one thinks, “Well, what I am doing here I really don’t like, I’d rather do something else,” that’s only another mind aberration. What does it matter what one is doing? Mind and body are engaged in everything we’re doing. There’s nothing else except mind and body (nama-rupa). That’s all there is. —Ayya Khema

Ayya Khema seats herself, and after we say the lines that recall the purpose of this food (not for pleasure, not for beautification, etc.), she begins to speak, telling us that even though we may be afraid, we must simply go about the activities of our day as usual. She looks down the long table at us, her face grave, and a little annoyed. I remember that she has direct experience of war, of privation, of life as a prisoner.

“There is absolutely nothing we can do, for the moment,” she says. “We will maintain our schedule. If information arrives that affects us, I’ll tell you immediately. ”

We wait, hoping she will say more. But she looks down, her eyes calm. Lifting her bowl, she scoops up some of the yellow dahl and begins to eat.

Today I am struck by the incongruities of this situation. While people in the villages around this lake suffer; while some of them attack their institutions, destroy their shared property, and kill each other, all because there is not enough—food, medicine, opportunity, respect—while all this rages about us, we sit well-nourished, physically safe from harm, possessing the leisure to pursue a meditation practice. Shouldn’t we be doing something else? Helping to rebuild bombed buildings? Donating money for medicine?

I feel utterly helpless, defeated by what I have been reading in the nunnery library about Third World economics and by what I am observing. I experience a gnawing discomfort that it is I who walk about in this white-skinned, privileged body. Why am I here instead of being one of the women who looks out of a hut on the beach, a baby balanced on her hip? Why is my suffering less, or different? How do these things get alloted?

Distracted as I am now by events on the shore, still I have achieved sufficient composure to recognize the purpose of the many persistent thoughts that yammer at me. Worry, planning, discussing, inventing—all the continuous uncontrolled activity of the mind—the content doesn’t matter. It arises only to solidify the “I,” to convince me that I really do exist.

But sometimes in meditation the thoughts fall away like a chorus of voices sinking off to the left, and I amalone with my breath. I find myself suddenly in a different universe. So still here. . . so spacious.

Then when my legs hurt, I am able to penetrate the pain so that I experience it as pulsation only. Not legs, just movement, just vibration. Fascinated, I attend to this with no desire to change position. And then I know that it is the “I” that tortures me, for if they were my legs hurting, I would be suffering. For minutes, I experience the commotion of cells and synapses fluttering there under my robe. I watch this in perfect comfort and equanimity. Then I “own” the legs again, saying these are my legs, and the sensations harden, coalesce into a nagging pain that sears down my thigh into my knee. When I am able to shift again, I plunge down deep inside the tissues where there is only motion, the unending movement of all that is. Here I stay in a precious balance, wondering, light.

When Ayya Khema rings the bell, I touch my head to the floor in gratitude.

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