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.
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…