The life of a Vajrayana Buddhist Nun
Section IV - The Emerald Garden Convent
We went to the convent, which was partway into the mountain. The rock cliff above could shelter it from storms and hail. It was not easy to reach - there were very narrow paths that no caravan or large group of people could travel down. We went carefully, one by one, on a trail not wide enough for a full footstep. It was hard, even just carrying the things we had.
There was a great and forbidding door to the convent, with heavy metal hinges. It looked strong - even if thieves or warriors got down that tiny trail, they could never batter the door down. They would need a great tree, which they could never carry.
The old monk knocked on the door, and chanted a mantra of strange words three times. He stood outside the door with his head bowed, and his hands together. We waited. After about fifteen minutes, the door opened slowly, only a little bit. A strong woman with a great stick stood there, and asked us what we wanted.
The monk said he wanted to speak with the abbess. He pointed to me, and said that I had had a call from the yoginis. After a while, another woman came to the door.
She was old and wrinkled, but also had bright eyes like the monk. She said, "Welcome, elder brother. I have not seen you for many years. Enter, and we shall talk."
We came into a large empty hall. The ceiling was high, and it was dark, but it smelled like incense, and it gave me the urge to breathe deeply. There were no other nuns there, except the strong woman with the staff.
The old monk told her a little about me, and asked me to tell her about my dreams. I did, and she looked very serious. She asked me to describe the bird-woman in detail. I told her as best I could remember. She asked me to wait, and came back carrying a scroll. She opened it, and asked if any of the figures looked like the bird woman.
There were many figures with animal and bird heads, but one in the corner looked just like her. I pointed her out, and she said, "This yogini is our protector, and messenger to the Buddhas. It is a sign that she has come to you. It means that you are to enter our convent. Welcome, daughter". We bowed to each other.
The abbess was kind to us, and it seems that she knew the old monk from elsewhere. She entertained him, and the other monks with food and drink, and they told stories together. Eventually, they left saying that they had other business in the area. I was left behind at the convent.
The abbess said, "Come let me show you around." I saw a great building, bigger inside than it looked outside, which was very dark. The worship room was large, with many mats and pillows for meditation. The entrance room was also dark, but edged with many lamps, and there were carpets on the floor. There were empty rooms for private meditation, and a dining hall with benches. The kitchen had fire-pits, and many shelves for pots and pans, and pantries with mostly dry food. There was a big pot just for tea, and that cooked all day. Towards the back were the rooms for the nuns, and the rooms with water pots for private things.
Most of the rooms looked out over the mountains, and had small windows through which one might see. The abbess said that I would meet the other nuns at dinner, and asked me about my life. I told here about my parents and my pets, and I asked if I could have a pet here. She smiled and said, "We will see. If an animal comes to our door for shelter, you may become its mistress." I agreed.
She said that nuns must follow many rules. I must eat and sleep sparingly, and must spend much time in meditation and prayer. I must be kind to other nuns and not criticize them and fight with them - they are all older than me, and I must respect my elders. I should not grow vain, and care about my looks, and I should not envy anything about others. I should not seek men to be lovers, or to marry. I must dedicate myself to the Buddha body and soul, and my life will be to please and serve him, and grow so close, it is like we are the same being. I shall not have money, or fine clothes, or jewels - I am to be humble. I must obey the abbess at all times. Did I have any questions?
I said there was one:I have always been taught that Lord Buddha was a man who became enlightened, and taught how we might attain this state, which was a very good one. Who are all these other Buddhas - are they his relatives? I told her what the monk said about one Buddha mind but many Buddha bodies, and that I did not understand how different Buddha bodies could share the same mind. Didn't we each have our own minds?She said,This is a very interesting question. Usually novices ask if they can bring gifts or special items, and want to know how often they can visit people they know. You ask a philosophical question which is very deep, and hard to answer. It shows that your inclination as a nun is knowledge, and that is rare. Most nuns emphasize compassion in our tradition, and building up merit for good deeds. You must start taking classes, and learn the beliefs and practices of our tradition.She showed me to my room, which was small and empty. She said that some convents had the nuns sleep together all in one big room, but we each stayed in separate rooms. There was a board for a bed, and a few boards along the walls. There was a mat for meditation. She said,We live simply here. You may put your blanket on the bed. We will give you a nun's robe to wear. You must cut your hair - our nuns do not wear long hair. Here is a mala, on which to count your prayers - a good nun does 100,000 prayers a day. But you will be instructed on how to pray and meditate. Rest here until dinner. You will hear a great bell, and then you must come to the dining room.She left, and I put my blanket on the bed, and I took off the clothes I was wearing. I put them under the blanket for bedding. I put on the nun robe, which was sort of like my old clothing. It was faded yellow, but soft and warm from much use. I rested on the bed, wondering at all this.
A loud bell rang several times. I got up and went down to the dining room. There were many women, some of them perhaps in their twenties, and some of them very old like the abbess. Nobody was as young as I was. The abbess introduced me to them, and said that I was a new nun. She said that I had no name yet, and one of the first things that they must do is to give me a name.
The other nuns welcomed me - some of them simply nodded their heads, and some of the younger ones smiled. One asked the abbess if novices were getting younger these days. She smiled, and said my case was special.
The food was not appealing, but it was hot, and I was hungry. We ate silently, and afterwards the abbess said that I could speak with the others. Not too many wanted to speak with me. There were about thirty women, but only half a dozen came over to me - mostly the younger ones. I told them about the dreams and some were interested, and some looked like they didn't believe me. I asked why they came to the convent. Some said they were unhappy in their marriages, some were widows, and one had a poor family, and no money to marry, and felt this was her only other choice.
I went to bed, and the next day the abbess brought me to the worship room. She pointed out the different Buddhas, Dakinis, and Yoginis, and said that the universe was full of beings just like our land. They just looked different, and some could change their looks. Going to the world of the Buddhas was like going to another country - you have to learn their language and customs, and respect their way of life, and try to get along with them. They are happy if you know their names, and give them gifts.
She said that in these worlds, people can share minds. They can know each others thoughts and feelings, and even enter each other's bodies. People on earth can learn these skills but really they belong to the Buddha worlds. On earth, it is important to learn how to help other beings, to pray for them if you are a nun, and make things, and sell them, and work with other people, if you live outside the convent. In the Buddha worlds, it is important to feel love for the whole world so that you become love itself, and to help beings on the path to enlightenment. Other skills are much less important.
I asked her again about this sharing of minds among Buddhas. She said,Beneath the earth there are many lakes. Their water comes up to us through rivers. Each river has water from the same lake in this range of mountains. Can you imagine that? Each river has a different name, and some come up through rocks, and some flow from caves, but they share the same water. The Buddha-mind is like that - it enters into caves of individual minds, but the great mind is the same. The mind is like water, it can flow into many places. As water can carry leaves and sticks, so mind can carry ideas and images. It just carries more of them.I could see that. I said, "But why do they call it Buddha-mind if Lord Buddha died long ago."
She said,Because we know that his mind was part of the great lake. Many other people also share in this mind, but he was the most famous person to do so. So we named it after him.That made sense. It was not really his mind, but was some bigger lake of mind before him that he knew about. The idea of a lake of mind was peculiar, but I suppose it was possible.
The abbess said,I think that someday, you will know this lake. But for now, we must train you for the journey. Come and look at this mandala.She showed me a picture painted on cloth, of squares and circles, with Buddhas and Dakinis dancing, and said, "Close your eyes, and place your finger somewhere on this picture, lightly so as not to mess the paint." I closed my eyes, and moved my finger until it hit the painting. When I opened them, my finger was right in the center. She said,This is most unusual. Most people choose one of the four sections with colors. You have chosen the center, and its color is white. Your Buddha is the Buddha of the diamond wisdom, the great thunderbolt Buddha. In our tradition, he does not talk directly to people, but communicates through another being, a Bodhisattva. There are several Bodhisattvas he may choose. We shall find which one is best for you.All of the nuns gathered together, and chanted mantras, as one of the nuns first cut my braids, and then shaved my head. I felt bald and cold. The abbess said, "I name you daughter of light, shining rainbow of the old school. For short, we will call you Chen Ma. Welcome, Chen Ma, to your sisters.
Since you have chosen white light, your name must reflect white light. I will ask for a dream about it tonight. Meanwhile, you must learn to sit properly in meditation, and then we will cut your hair.
There was an official naming ceremony, where I was brought to the altar and named before the pictures of the Buddhas, and other beings. All of the other nuns together welcomed me to the convent. It was interesting to hear them all speak at once. Usually they were quiet. Then I heard them sing - or at least mumble. Every few days, we chanted long poems to different Buddhas and others. A few days later, we chanted to our founder.
The convent was begun by a woman renunciant, who lived a long time ago. She had been a princess, and came from a wealthy family, but she did not want to marry - she wanted to meditate. Her family insisted that she be married. So she pretended to be mad, and horrified everybody. Some people thought she might be pretending, but nobody would marry her, even for all of her parent's money. Then one night she left and never returned.
She wandered in rags until she met a Bodhisattva disguised in human form, as a male renunciant. They did many practices together, and she attained enlightenment. She left him to wander, and she sought people who would support the building of a convent.
Eventually a local ruler was willing to gain merit by doing this after she had shown him some miracles. She promised him at least a temporary birth in a pleasure world. His men built the convent into the mountainside, and made sure that thieves and rapists could not enter. They hacked off the part of the mountain that they had used for travel, and left only the narrowest of trails when they were done. They made escape routes into the mountain too, which are secret. They are known only to the abbess, and handed down to be used in case of emergency.
She found other women who sought to enter the convent, to seek Buddha, or to escape the world. They came together and swore vows that they would practice meditation, follow the traditional Buddhist rules for monasteries and convents, and never leave. People have come after that, but never in large numbers. The convent was something of a secret place, and little known. Women came who were desperate, or who were called.
The foundress was a woman who became a Bodhisattva, almost a Buddha. She was our Emerald Princess of the Thunderbolt, and our convent was the Emerald Garden.
The convent was not really emerald, though some of the pictures had dark green edges. The biggest picture in the convent was of the Bodhisattva Tara, and the women here believe that our foundress was really Tara in human form. She only pretended to seek enlightenment as a model for us - really she was already enlightened.
There were also Dakinis that could help us. They came in different colors to represent the kinds of work they could do. The Green Dakini could do miracles, and action in the world. She was most like Tara, and also Lord Buddha who lived in the world. The Yellow Dakini brought peace, harmony, and love, and also good health. People who were sick prayed to her. The Blue Dakini helped to get rid of obstacles in meditation, and helped one to get clear focus and concentration. People who had trouble meditating could call on her. The Red Dakini brought enthusiasm for meditation, and love of the Buddhas, abbess, and companions. If a person felt unhappy at the convent, or restless or depressed, it was advised that she meditate on the Red Dakini before leaving. The White Dakini had a rainbow body, and she was for those souls that had a natural love of the Buddha-mind, and the Buddha worlds that one visits on the way to attaining the Buddha-mind.
I must meditate and learn about the rules before they assign me a Bodhisattva, or a Dakini.
I wear faded yellow cloth, and I do not speak much with the other nuns. I am lonesome. No animals have come here for shelter, and I have no pets. At least nobody yells at me, or harms me, and the work that I do here is much less than the work at my parent's house.
I ask the abbess how long it will be before I get beings to pray to who will be my friends. She said that that was not the right way to look at it. The Bodhisattvas and Dakinis are not friends. They are spiritual guides. They are great teachers, and noble beings - they must always be respected, and not treated like ordinary people. I said that was fine - when will I get my guides? She smiled and said that I was young, and must learn discipline. I must learn to focus my mind, and grow mature, in order to be initiated. Now I was just learning their ways of living.
I said, "Abbess, I cannot practice meditation with no instruction at all. How will I know when I have focused my mind?"
She said,Very well, you must do practice. Concentrate on Tara, and meditate only on her name, and ask her to come down and help you. You could also meditate on some other being - simply chanting the name over and over again in your mind will still its tremors. You will see discipline when you can think only about that name, and nothing else, for an hour.
That seemed very strict, but if I was to be a good nun, I must do it. I sat before the picture of Tara when nobody else was in the room, and I thought about it at night when I was in bed. That's when I used to think about my pets. But I thought of her name over, and over, and over again, and nothing happened.
One day when I sat before her picture, I turned, and I saw the white Dakini. She was smiling at me in the picture, where she had a blue circle around her head and blue clothes, and she was dancing in a beautiful world, with a turquoise lake, and great white mountains. The trees all had flowers and fruit. She was very lively, and had a cup, and a small sword in her hand.
I smiled back at her. I heard her in my mind. She said, "Do you like to play games?" I said,Yes, but I don't know many. My sisters taught me to make dolls, and jump over rocks, and tree stumps, and to race, and my brothers wanted me to hunt animals but I wouldn't do that because I liked animals. I don't know any others.She said, "I have a game for you. Let's talk to each other without telling anybody, even the abbess. I like you, and it will take her a long time to initiate you. You want to be friends - well, so do I."
I thought this was wonderful - I could have a Dakini just like the older nuns. I told her that I could keep a secret and would not tell the abbess. I said, "Was keeping the secret the game?"
She said,That is part of it. I will take you places, and you can tell me what you think of them. Or, I do half a dance, and you figure out the other half. Or I can show you funny creatures, and you can make up other funny creatures.I said,That is much more interesting than saying the same word over and over again. I have been doing that as the abbess said to do, but it seems pointless. I have thought of dances in my mind (though I could only dance a few times with other girls). I think I could make good dances, and I would like to travel.She smiles, saying, "It will be our secret."
To continue with the life of Chen Ma, click on the link below :
Introduction | The Bhairava or Spiritual Guide | Lives of Spiritual Weakness | Lives of Spiritual Awakening | Conclusion
This Web Site © Copyright 2001, J. Denosky, All Rights Reserved