The Nun's Island

Sandy Boucher's account of a retreat in Sri Lanka with seven dharma sistersSandy Boucher

Anagarikas and Ayya Khema under the Bodhi Tree; Sandy Boucher kneeling

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 reading the suttas

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. "

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