IT’S BEEN TWO YEARS since I left Pingyan Monastery, but every time my head itches I still think it’s that ringworm. It was the blind cat’s fault, or mine for getting distracted and feeding her and having a special feeling about her, as if her eyes full of blank green fire could see something beyond what there was—white stucco walls stained with the mud from the monsoon, beautiful brown people walking slowly up and down, meditating. Dust, mud, garbage, jasmine. Every single thing, different from here.
She first showed up at the end of the hot season, gray and black tiger, like a cat I used to have in California. I couldn’t tell where she’d come from; she was obviously from outside the orange-and-white gene pool of the monastery cats. Maybe she’d wandered in from the Muslim slum next door. She was so weak she fell down the steps into the basement that was given to us foreign women as a meditation hall, down under the dorm for Burmese lay women over fifty. There was a special building for older women, mostly devout widows who came to meditate after their familial duties were accomplished. We six Foreigner Women, all younger than that, had to walk through their quarters to get to the toilet. In the long oven of the hallway, there was mutual inspection. I’d peek sidelong into their rooms and see the grandmothers oiling their long hair or resting after lunch, always lying on their right sides because this was the posture in which the Buddha slept. They lay very still, often with their eyes open. Were they thinking of anything? Maybe not. They frequently offered me bananas or a little dish of fermented tea leaves fried with garlic and peanuts. They felt sorry for the foreigners, I think, because we had no families to come and visit us and bring us nice things to eat.
I was a nun, with a shaven head and four layers of pink, vaguely Grecian robes. I’d gone to Burma on recommendation from travelers I’d met in India. They said that Burma was a fragment of an older world, that in isolation it had worked out the world’s strictest, most effective technique for spiritual enlightenment. I waited a year and a half for a special visa, and when it finally arrived I was ready, primed: I told Pingyan’s abbot that I wanted nothing but complete freedom of the heart and mind. Because I’d meditated quite a lot in the past, he offered me the robes, a nun’s ten rules of conduct, and the name Sumana, meaning “Open Mind” or “Open Heart” (Burmese don’t make a distinction), and also “Queen of Jasmine.”
The monastery covered forty acres in a suburb near the British consulate, and had enough buildings to accommodate the entire bourgeoisie of Rangoon as well as devotees from places like Mandalay, Sagaing, and the Shan and Karen states. There were usually a thousand people meditating, both ordained and lay; four thousand during the Water Festival. As in any religion, females predominated in number, but there was a good minority of monks who were the authorities, as well as a dozen foreigners. We Foreign Women lived and meditated by ourselves and saw the men only at meals. After a while my eyes turned Asian, and Western males began to look like the barbarians on a Chinese plate, hairy and coarse, their naked pink skin like boiled shrimp.
Breakfast was at five and lunch at ten-fifteen. There was no solid food, then, until the next breakfast. The monks said eating at night causes lust. We woke at three to the clanking of an iron pipe. Each day there were seven one-hour sittings, interspersed with six or seven hours of formal walking meditation, pacing slowly up and down. At eight P.M. the abbot discoursed to the foreigners; Burmese got sermons only on Saturday. Every other day we had an interview, a completely formalized affair in which we described our meditation and the abbot instructed us about how to proceed. Bed was at eleven.
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