The Daily Practice of a Modern Chinese Buddhist Nun: Learning Chan and Leaving Home
Often times, people like to ask me (and all other monastics as well) why I decided to leave my home to become a monastic. I didn’t come from a Buddhist family; none of my relatives was Buddhist at that time, and I was far from a spiritual or religious kind of person. After I was formally ordained at Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM) in Taiwan in 2004, a large group of my collegemates, with their spouses and children, came to visit to find out what had happened to lead me to make this decision. I don’t know what they expected, but I was pretty sure they felt happy for me on one hand, though on the other, when they found out that nothing had happened to me—no traumatic scenarios, no disaster in my career or relationships, and no death events among my family or good friends, they looked a little bit disappointed.
“Wouldn’t it be a big waste for society and my parents’ efforts for all the education I had received?” they asked. My elder brother warned me: “You can learn Buddhism, but don’t go insane!” My younger brother thought I was abandoning my family. My parents worried about who would take care of me when I grew old. My mother was specifically worried about my hair, because she could not imagine how would I look without it (as it happens, she was pretty satisfied with my bald head the first time she saw me after ordination). Only my best collegemate’s mother, a Buddhist for more than 30 years, felt truly happy for me, and she even managed to attend my ordination ceremony. Actually, I did not tell many people about my decision before the ordination. Why I chose this path was a big mystery for most of the people who knew me, including my academic advisors. Yet, honestly, I have nothing really to tell, because the answer is very simple—Chan. I found out that Chan is my path. That’s all.
So, what does Chan mean to me?
In 1998, I started to learn Huatou Chan (ref. Master Sheng Yen 2009) by participating in an intensive retreat led by Shifu at the newly purchased Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. I liked this method because it cut my wandering thoughts effectively and helped me concentrate easily. At the retreat in June the following year, Shifu told us during his morning Dharma talk that he had almost died in Taiwan earlier that year, and that his own Shifu (our grand master, Dong Chu) had once told him that he would die at about this age. I felt so anxious about the possibility of Shifu leaving us. After his Dharma talk, thinking that this might be my last chance to practice with Shifu, I started to investigate the Huatou wholeheartedly and intensively. I wanted to know the answer. Session after session, I kept asking my Huatou, during sitting, walking, working, and sleeping.
That afternoon, my perception of my body changed—it felt lighter and lighter, like cotton. When I listened to the Dharma talk, I found that I was not using my brain to understand the words. Usually, when we use our brain we can feel it working and operating, moving constantly, just like having wandering thoughts. But this was something else, because everything inside was not moving, while my external perception was on and clear. On the second day, while we were engaged in morning exercises at 4:30am, I found that my body had become so flexible it could bend to a degree beyond my normal limit. I now know that this is not an unusual Chan experience, but it was strange to me then.
“What is it?” “What is the mind?” “Why has my body sensation changed?”
I’ve never learned anything from academic textbooks that addresses these kinds of questions. I’ve spent so many years in school studying life sciences, trying to understand how life and cells function. We constantly refer to the brain and neurons, but no one ever talks about the MIND. What is it? How can we detect it? How can we measure and evaluate it? No answer. These became very important questions to me after that retreat.
I returned to normal life with this questioning. At the same time, the power of the retreat stayed with me for a few weeks, then everything went back to normal. I wondered why I couldn’t hold on to that state, so I went back for more retreats again and again. In 2000, the idea of becoming a professional, full-time practitioner—a monastic—started to formulate in my mind. And eventually, after overcoming many obvious and hidden obstacles, I joined the DDM sangha in 2003, with a strong intention to keep my practice all the time and, of course, to see the MIND. This intention has constantly brought me to encounter crossroads, challenges, and dilemmas, and at the same time given me the power to move forward. The key is not the meditation technique, but the right view. For this, I truly feel blessed to have had a great Shifu to follow as guiding teacher.
Master Sheng Yen. 2009. Shattering the Great Doubt: The Chan Practice of Huatou. Colorado: Shambhala Publications.
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