Posted on Sun, Aug. 15, 2004


The nuns' life: enlightenment without TV


Star-Telegram Staff Writer

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 health.

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 else."





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