8 Rules, 7 Days as a Buddhist Nun

1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

…Easier said than done when you’re in the middle of a swampy area outside of Bangkok. Mosquitoes seem to be more aggressive around Wat Prayong International Meditation Center, as if they know that the monks and Westerners living there have to morally abstain from swatting them dead.

2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

A.k.a. “thou shalt not steal”, but in a broader sense: Down to a cube of sugar for your tea, by following this precept you commit to asking permission for everything. Though this felt like going back to elementary school, the lesson was a good reminder of two things. 1) Life is slower when you have to wait for permission to have things you want. 2) You’re more grateful when you get what you want after waiting for it. 3) Within reason, I still prefer taking what I want and dealing with any consequences afterward.

3. I undertake the precept to refrain from any erotic behavior.

Surround yourself with spiritually-focused people, live alone in a hut, meditate for at least 4 hours a day and you’ll find that any carnal urges you may typically have in “normal” life will have suddenly disappeared. It’s just not the right atmosphere…though perhaps the fact that orange isn’t the sexiest color helped with the successful implementation of this precept, ahem.

4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

I took this to mean “no swearing, gossiping, or uttering any otherwise negative commentary”. Admittedly, the occasional expletive slipped out — mostly in conjunction with a bite of particularly spicy food — but really, once you’re conscious of it, it’s fairly easy to avoid cursing and/or complaining. (Added benefit: heightens awareness of Westerners’ tendency to complain about everything, even when nothing is seriously wrong).

5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating liquors and drugs which lead to carelessness.

Easy as pie, when you’re living on temple grounds and chillaxing with monks in your spare time. Not like you’re about to take a walk down to the corner store and pick up a handle of vodka for a party in the temple — again, it just wouldn’t fit. One interesting note: monks are allowed to smoke cigarettes, which though peculiar-looking, does comply with the part about drugs “leading to carelessness”.

6. I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at wrong times.

Here’s where it gets interesting. For 20 hours each day, I did not consume any solid food. It was my first time fasting (besides a one-day trial run a few months ago), and it was fantastic.

Eating at the “right time” means that you are allowed to eat once in the morning (typically at 8:00 a.m. after the monks had finished eating their fill) and once more around 11 (again after the monks, who took their portions in their alms bowls and ate elsewhere). That’s it. No bite of solid food is allowed to pass your lips after the clock strikes 12:00. What is allowed is anything liquid — juice, tea, coffee, soy milk, fresh coconut water, etc.

What makes it easier is that it’s so bloody hot and humid that you really only feel like over-hydrating yourself anyway. Besides, when your daily schedule consists of the following (below), the energy you expend isn’t enough to make you ravenous. I kept “active” by doing yoga twice a day and doing some basic dance stretches in many of the free periods.

Daily Schedule:

4.00h The bell rings
4.30h Morning chanting with the monks and meditation.
6.00h to 7.30h Working meditation (sweeping and keeping the area clean…)
7.30h Breakfast and washing your dishes after meal
After breakfast practice walking and sitting meditation on your own
11.00h mindfully taking the main meal
14.00h – 15.00h Meditation with the monks at the hall
15.00h – 16.00h Practice on your own
17.00h – 18.00h Evening chanting with the monks at the hall
20.00h – 21.00h Chanting and meditation with the monks at the hall

That being said, when we could eat, we ate really, really well. All the food is provided by community donations, collected by the monks on their morning alms rounds. It was very strange eating some of the food for breakfast (especially because your stomach wonders why after 20 hours of starving it, you suddenly are putting a smorgasbord of Thai food into it).

The fasting did help the meditation for the simple fact that it’s easier to concentrate when your body isn’t focusing on digestion. After a point, there is no feeling of hunger and you can relax into focusing your mind.

7. I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to shows, wearing garlands, and beautifying myself with perfumes and cosmetics.

I underestimated how blegh following this precept would make me feel. No, it’s not like I had to get my fix of garland-wearing (this is modernized to mean jewelry of any sort), but as a dancer, being a good Buddhist nun was extremely difficult. No music for 7 days?! Where is my internal rhythm!?! Chanting with the monks was one thing to lose yourself in, but it was no substitute for a body-rocking house beat or my beloved salsa. Let’s just say it was a practical Buddhism lesson in non-attachment to things one loves…

8. I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.

If you’ve ever been camping or Couchsurfing, this last precept should be a breeze. Take a thin mat, put it on the floor and sleep on it. Voilà, you’re following the eighth precept.

9. Ok, there’s no 9th precept…

Within seven days, the grand total of the amount of time I was able to keep my mind completely thought-free was about 3 seconds. That’s it. Even after four hours or more of daily meditation, my ability to stop thinking just didn’t seem to get any better. What did improve, however, was the speed with which I was able to focus and center my awareness and calm my body. Long conversations with a few English-speaking monks enlightened me to the fact that they too are “just people”; many become ordained and practice for a few months during the rainy season before resuming their normal lives. The orange robes separated us only to the extent that I couldn’t hug them to express my gratitude for their teachings, otherwise the monks were completely approachable, even enthusiastic about the Westerners visiting to learn or practice Thai Buddhism and meditation.

I could easily write another 1,000 words about my week as a Buddhist nun, but it would quickly turn into a diary entry of my innermost personal developments. To keep these philosophical treasures inside of myself for a while longer (I’m mulling over them…letting them marinate…), I’ll stop here. Sharing such an experience in a single blog post is a Sisyphean task, so I’ll let the lessons I learned in Thailand and Cambodia influence my life in Frankfurt and get back to you on the results…


My Asian Mom

I squeezed past a middle-aged woman, making my way to my seat on my flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok. Som toh, Khmer for “sorry” or “excuse me”, I said, and she quickly informed me that she was Thai and not, in fact Cambodian.

Damn. Strike one for still not being able to tell the two apart.

Strike two came when she told me that in fact, she was an American citizen now and not even Thai anymore.

Lucky for me, there was no strike three. By the end of the hour-long plane ride, she had invited me to stay with her in the hotel room she had booked — free of charge. Mind you, this woman could have been my mother; for all intents and purposes over the next three days, she was.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m fairly Caucasian. I’ve never had an Asian mother (go figure), nor are any of my relatives from “The East”, unless we’re talking east coast USA. I had no idea what to expect from this small, fierce woman who had decided it was her personal mission to welcome me to Bangkok.

Through Ubon (for that was the name of my adoptive mother) I quickly learned the hierarchical state of things in Thailand. She would give stern orders to waiters and taxi drivers who scurried to carry out her every demand. Her 5-foot frame somehow commanded an astounding amount of respect from anyone behind a counter. And for some unfathomable reason, everyone in the tourism/hotel/service industry seemed to think she was actually my mother, despite the (obvious) discrepancies in appearance.

(Not the Emerald Buddha)

That’s not to say that I didn’t do my usual gingery thing and go wandering off on my own. I highly recommend the Grand Palace and its Emerald Buddha (which is disappointingly made of jade and not emerald). The optical assault of colors, patterns, mirrors, and the tinkling of bells made for a surreal atmosphere that almost made up for the fact that the palace grounds were overrun with large groups of Russian tourists. A 5-hour afternoon bike and boat excursion with Co van Kessel Bangkok Tours was also well worth the short flirtation with death by hellish traffic before reaching quieter, lush suburbs of Bangkok.

Solo-Ginger day was followed by a mother-daughter day of intense shopping in the city — where you can buy literally everything and that in 50 different colors, styles, shapes, with googly eyes or polka dots — you name it, Bangkok has it. I escaped without a huge dent in my wallet, but learned an uncomfortable bit of cultural information. You see, whether in a hotel, a shop, or a restaurant, the Thai employees gave me the distinct feeling that they were serving us. Not just waiting on us or helping us, but serving, as in “thou art higher than I on the social ladder, oh noble one”.

I have no problem accepting generosity from warmhearted givers, or even being spoiled by people who care about me (or in Ubon’s case, by a complete stranger). It was, however, unsettling to be treated as if I were somehow better than they were. After consulting my Asian mom about this cultural difference, I realized Ubon was used to it. It was simply a question of money, again the issue of ‘have’ vs. ‘have-not’.

The discomfort was temporary, however, as I was looking forward to the tranquil atmosphere of Wat Prayong…the temple where I spent a week as a Buddhist nun. Keep an eye out for the next post on meditation, monks and “My Asian Dad”, for yes,  I managed to be adopted again…

Backtracking to Angkor

Temple time!

2 days was enough time to explore the temples of Angkor, outside of Siem Reap (officially the most touristy place in Cambodia, urgh: the town only exists to provide tourists visiting Angkor a place to sleep/drink/eat and see some Apsara Dancing).

My best friend had flown in from Japan to do some adventuring with me and with our trusty tuktuk driver shuttling us about, Kara and I enjoyed the sunrise at Angkor Wat munching on banana bread, raided tombs (Lara Croft-style), and forded murky rivers to reach mystic temples. Here are some of the best snapshots, but do make the trip yourself — it’s completely worth it, rain or shine!

No worries

Suddenly it was the end of three and a half weeks in Cambodia.

And I still hadn’t posted about countless revelations and happenings. (For instance, that my new best friend is actually an elephant named Sambo).

And I didn’t really care. Why? I guess now, for me, Cambodia = no worries.

“No worries”, the phrase that I found myself using every day, sometimes excessively. This may have been due to the prevalence of Kiwis and citizens of Oz throwing their version of Hakuna Matata around like the rugby balls they so dearly cherish, but “no worries” seemed to be the theme of the trip. Let me be specific: Cambodian way of life is, from my limited observation, more worry- and complaint-free than any society I’ve experienced thus far. Despite incredibly low standards of living, a highly corrupt government (*cough* – did I say that? I meant, long live the king!)…yeah, they’re just happy people.

Call me cliché, but I’ve been brushing up on my Buddhism and we’re getting deep into the part about compassion. Seems like that’s really all there is to it; the Khmer people have that concept down, hardcore. Disregarding the aversion I felt when people jumped out of bushes, hotels, restaurants, garbage cans (well, not really) to try to sell me things, I appreciated that they were doing it with a genuine smile. Can we please import some of those not-necessarily-so-pearly-white grins to Deutschland? Ideally with a dollop of natural friendliness on the side? Mmmm, lecker.

Compassion helps weather storms. Which means no worries at the end of the day. And for me, that meant a whole lot of happy days in Cambodia.

Capital Senses

Using five senses when experiencing something new: the best way to dive into Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.

It’s hard to miss the stark contrast, PP is 3rd world with obvious touches of development gone wrong. Malls and coffee shops stand empty, no customers to keep them from going bankrupt. Markets, on the other hand, thrive. 1.5 million people, more than half of whom are under the age of 21; young people dominate the streets with their motos. Traffic insanity, colorful houses with shabby paint, decline and new construction projects are neighbors wherever you look.

Driving through the grid of streets, savory scents of countless food stands hit you as you zoom past. Turn a corner and you get the unpleasant stench of a black river of sewer water for blocks. Market stands of pungent dried fish, grilled squid, durian fruit and exotic spices simultaneously compete for olfactory attention.

Khmer cuisine uses fresh, tasty ingredients that combine into easy meals. Green mango salads, caramel-mango sticky rice, taro root spring rolls, “lake of fire fish”…every single taste bud activated and craving more…

Sticky, humid skin, a small burn from the hot moto pipe, refreshing blasts of aircon, the pressure of a blind woman’s shiatsu massage. Folding palm leaves to hold amok, hands pressed together in prayer position to thank someone. Dust from a minor sandstorm irritating your eyes. Rain.

Friendly voices: You need moto, madam? Tuktuk? A woman collecting plastic bottles incessantly squeezing  a squeaky rubber horn. Water pounding on roofs, trickling down to spatter pavement. Prerecorded sounds played by food vendors to entice your patronage. A chorus of Hello! Hello!…Small children practicing the only word they know with the blonde barang walking by. Market chatter and moto horns, more rain.

Phnom Penh: first impressions

Within the first 24 hours I’ve learned the “rules of the road” (see below), felt the awkwardness of being a “have” amongst so many have-nots, wound my way through the “Russian market”, haggled for new clothing and enjoyed the combined excellence of Cambodian cuisine (think amok and lok lac) and the company of my good friend Ramon.

Fresh off the plane from Bangkok, Thailand to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

This ride was considerably less hectic than ones I didn’t record. Figures.

The expat bubble in Phnom Penh is a tangible sphere made more obvious by the perspective I get from behind secure gates of Ramon’s movie house, The Flicks. I look through windows and over balconies into another layer of society, we interact with the Khmer locals whenever we leave the house, but the society doesn’t afford the opportunity of penetrating the bubble as a visitor. Perhaps not even as a child born in Cambodia to expat parents. It makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I haven’t completely wrapped my head around it yet…my thoughts need more time to develop.

For now, I’m looking forward to more $5 yoga classes, $5 45-minute foot massages, $1 meal options that blow your taste buds away, etc. Life inside the bubble is really nice…

Revisiting the City of Lights

Paris. There really is nothing like it…something new every time you experience it…

and with that, I’ll leave you with a lazy Friday evening picture post. If you like them and want to see the rest, all you have to do is click here. Enjoy!

Sacre Coeur close-up
Ossuary in the catacombs
Catacombs city carving
Garden near Notre Dame
Louvre by sunset
Tree wisdom at Jim Morrison's grave