The nuns' life:
enlightenment without TV
Inside the new temple, the floors are covered by lush gray
carpet, the walls painted a vivid yellow, but the focal point, of
course, is the huge statue of Buddha at the head of the room,
surrounded by flowers, fruit offerings and a fluorescent halo
(behind the statue's head).
Each day begins here for the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery nuns, who
at 4 a.m. walk from the small buildings where they sleep, moving
through the darkness like apparitions in their gray robes. One of
them lights incense, another rings the large bell near the altar.
The nuns prostrate themselves toward the statue three times, then
move to their separate mats, facing outer walls. For the next two
hours (and again for 90 minutes in the evening), they sit with their
legs crossed beneath them, as still as the Buddha statue itself.
But they are not in trances as they sit, as many Westerners might
assume. Meditation is not a form of self-hypnosis, the nuns say, but
the practice of emptying the mind while remaining aware. For
beginning meditators in the Zen tradition, that typically means
sitting quietly and focusing on breathing, while calmly trying to
banish any intruding thoughts.
Such is the central practice of one of the world's oldest
religions, one handed down from Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince
born six centuries before Christ. As a young man, Gautama renounced
his wealth to become a wandering ascetic. After years of study and
suffering, Gautama is said to have attained enlightenment while
meditating beneath a ficus tree, henceforth becoming known to
history as the Buddha, or "awakened one."
Greatly distilled, Buddhist teaching comes to this: Life is an
unpleasant cycle of birth, death and rebirth that continues until a
person achieves enlightenment. The chief cause of the ubiquitous
suffering is the chaotic, ego-driven human mind, which hops
maniacally from thought to thought "like a monkey in a tree," as the
Zen nuns say. Meditation is the Buddhist antidote.
"You say to your mind, 'I am the boss,' " the nun named Cinnamon
said one day, smiling.
By calming the mind through meditation, a person's "Buddha
nature" (the Christian equivalent, perhaps, to the Holy Spirit) is
allowed to emerge. Enlightenment, the full and permanent
understanding of transcendence, is only rarely achieved, Buddhists
say. But recent research shows that even a few minutes of meditation
a day is beneficial to the meditator's physical and mental
At the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery, the nuns say they can sit for
hours, with thoughts only occasionally flitting by like wispy clouds
in an otherwise blue sky. But in Zen, they say, meditation is about
more than sitting. It also is about living in the moment. As such,
the nuns say they meditate while walking, while eating, while
watering the flowers.
"You think of only water and flowers," the abbess, Princess Snow,
explained one day, waving her hands across her face. "Nothing