From the moment the rusty razor first scraped across my scalp, the experience of nunhood was surprising. I hadn’t expected to look good bald, but I thought I did. Once I learned how to keep its skirt from slipping off, the carnation-pink nun’s robe made me feel as glamorous as a ballerina.
My teacher gave me the name Khemanandi (pronounced K-hay-mah-nahn-dee), meaning “Bliss without Fear.” In my fabulous pink robes, with my beautiful new name,
I believed that I would sink deeper and deeper into quietude and purity. Before being ordained, I’d thought of nunhood essentially as a personal commitment, almost a secret event—the ceremonial change of status mere window dressing for a profound change of heart within.
This was not to be. I lost all privacy immediately. For in a Burmese monastery, as I quickly learned, a nun’s (or a monk’s) special garb instantly converts a person into public property. As a Western nun, moreover, I was a sensation. Overnight, hordes (it seemed) of young women began appearing at the dormitory, eager to perform obeisances, feed and inspect me, beg for gifts and blessings and deluge me with questions. They stood at the windows of the meditation hall and stared in at us. I’d crack open my eyes and peek halfway through a sitting, and there they were, still staring.
If anyone understood how entertaining, how exhilarating the robes were, would they think I hadn’t been serious? Yet from my gaggle of giggling devotees I learned to bear the responsibility for my role, to mirror everybody’s (including my own) deepest aspirations toward freedom, truth, and all those other big ideas. I became more dignified and gentle. Even my posture improved. As people bowed to me, I felt I couldn’t slump. I’d never believed in outward forms before; but even though I could see that this one wasn’t perfect, I felt proud that I could live up to it.
This was the second great paradox of nunhood—and its most liberating surprise. Form was service. The superficial, public, distracting aspects of the robes turned out to go the deepest.
I wish my own culture had a form like this, some visible apparatus to remind us all to respect and cultivate our inner lives. I imagine lots of people would be interested, if they knew they could be ordained for a short time—and then return to their ordinary lives and families. I love to imagine what benefits this could bring to our culture, how by serving others we might help ourselves. If only all of us understood that meditation is not selfish, and that inwardness goes outward. Perhaps the robes, the demands on us as nuns, only made it more obvious to me that what we cultivated in ourselves directly benefited other people. Where a form exists, this can even happen at a distance, just as knowing that nuns are still meditating in Rangoon supports me now.
From “Taking Vows” © 2004 by Kate Wheeler. Excerpted from Face to Face, edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson, Northpoint Press. Reprinted with permission of the author.