The pilgrimage around the world has led me to many sacred places. A few of them hold a special place in my heart. Those are the communities that I wish to return to again and again, knowing that I will be welcomed home even if I don't know anyone there. Sathira Dhammasathan is one of them.
Sathira Dhammasathan (SDS) is much more than a thriving nunnery in the middle of Bangkok. It is an urban oasis, a Dhamma park, a second home for all, located "in seven acres of trees, with lotus ponds, winding paths and meditative nooks. It is a tiny drop of water, radiating peace and serenity amidst the oceanic mega-city of Bangkok."
A Dhamma Oasis
SDS is an active nunnery that also holds jazz concerts under a Bodhi Tree to raise fund for a holistic care hospital. It is a meditation center that also teaches mindfulness to pregnant moms and soon-to-be dads. It is a retreat facility that also provide shelter for unwed mothers and orphaned children. It is a tranquil urban garden that also has playgrounds for children, weekly street food fair cooked by nuns, and a vegetarian restaurant open to all.
On any given day, you would hear nuns chant Pali sutras at 5am, see them file out onto the streets for daily alms round at 6am, find retreat participants doing yoga at 7am, bump into children giggling and running around by 8am, have school-age "spiritual volunteers" come serve at 9am, and encounter families walking in to enjoy veggie pad thai (cooked with mushrooms grown on the premise) at noon. On weekends, the places is abuzz with activities: new parents bring their infants to have a hair-cutting ceremony, hundreds of staff from corporations participate in weekend mindfulness retreats, international visitors popping in and out. The other half of the center is like a big construction site, with nuns and volunteers building a straw-house and a mud-house on top of the holistic care hospital. The whole place is largely run on donation basis, and supported by volunteers of all ages, mostly women.
The nuns at SDS are often young, and usually here for only a few months, as a rite of passage and inner journey. Some hold advanced degrees from Thailand and abroad. Some are teachers, government officers and talented artists. One of them had the clear conviction to become a nun for life at the age of ten. And she is not even the youngest. The nuns are always working: sweeping, sowing, gardening, leading retreats, cooking food… They do it all with a smile, and would occasionally stun us out of our daydream with a casual and caring question, "Are you happy today?
There is no easy way to describe "what SDS is", because everything here is emerging organically, without a five-year-plan. Each "project" is a response to a need of the community, growing out of the nuns' wish to serve. If there's an underlying thread beneath all the activities, it might be best symbolize by the ubiquitous Green Tara (a "goddess" in Tibetan Buddhism) statues at SDS: divine feminine wisdom and compassion fully ablaze.
From Top Ten Model to Pioneering Nun
The 30-year experiment of SDS was started -- and continue to be led -- by Ven. Maechee Sansanee, affectionately called Khun Mae (mother) by her students. Before she became a nun at age 26, she was a top ten fashion model in Thailand, and a famous media personality. One day, she left it all behind. Her former husband and spiritual companion, one of the richest men in Thailand, supported Ven. Sansanee's spiritual path, as well as the construction of SDS over the years. The man recently passed away at the ripened age of 90, and Ven. Sansanee tenderly scattered his ash into the ocean.
Ven. Sansanee has been a nun for over 39 years, and leads many organizations both home and abroad. But you could never guess her age or seniority thanks to her endless energy, radiant spirit, and child-like openness. Her field of love and joy envelops everyone around her. Upon meeting her for the first time, she looked so familiar and endearing to me that I wanted to bow down to her and hug her at the same time. She allowed both :) .
Ven. Sansanee's life of service is legendary. She goes into female prisons, and takes home unwed mothers. She travels the world for inter-religious harmony, and brings together the various Buddhist lineages within SDS. She opens her door to the least privileged, and also maintains good relationship with the mainstream. Prominent artists and urban elites come to her for counsel -- even the Thai royal family are her fans. Her weekly Dhamma talks are broadcasted live on Facebook to thousands of viewers.
In high level Buddhist forums, Ven. Sansanee is often one of the few (if not the only) women present, but her deeds speak louder than words to illustrate women's equal place in the spiritual and worldly life. She has done so much for Dhamma and for the community that no monks have done. Her work has also uplifted the position of nuns in society's eyes. Before her initiatives, nuns were not allowed to go on alms rounds. Now, the SDS nuns on daily alms rounds (with 5 different routes into surrounding neighborhoods) has become a beloved part of community life. Ordinary Thai people wait in line to offer alms to the nuns, and adore the sight of white robes filing through the streets.
Ven. Sansanee has achieve the uplifting of women practitioners without antagonizing the men. Actually, the monks hold her in high regard. In her skillfulness, she has left aside the thorny theological issues such as nun's full ordination (not that it is unimportant), and has instead focused on doing community work that widely benefits society, men or women alike. It is remarkable how she has carved out a flourishing space for women practitioners in a patriarchal Asian society. I am especially impressed to notice how she and her nuns observe the social/religious norm of deference to monks (such as bowing to them), yet do so with dignity and ease.
In the past two years, Ven. Sansanee has also miraculously healed herself completely from serious cancer. Her secret remedy? Love. She gave love to all the cancer cells, and they readily disappeared.
Meeting Tara: Divine Feminine in Action
During the two weeks living inside a nunnery, I am most grateful for experiencing Tara in action, the embodiment of divine feminine.
Of the many spiritual centers I've visited around the world, the vast majority are very masculine. The Vipassana meditation centers (established by Goenka-ji) perhaps epitomize the pure-masculine energy: blank walls, linear and bare interior design, strict discipline, austere practice, not much room for negotiation or creativity, and with male teachers in higher roles of authority. (And it works well for its purposes.) Perhaps because the male dominance is so pervasive in society, I have never noticed it until coming into powerful vortex of feminine energy. And it both thrills and intimidates me to be in it.
For one, I was not expecting to see so many bare-chested female forms upon arrival at a nunnery. There are perhaps hundreds of Tara statues sprinkled around SDS campus, each sitting in her full ease and confidence, serene yet engaged, all-loving yet powerful -- but without a shirt. Seeing a fully confident divine feminine in her natural state somehow really intimidated me. Over the next few days, I tried to look within, and realized it was the wounded masculine within me that was feeling threatened.
The wounded masculine is accustomed to decided when a women should and should not be clothed; he is shocked to have that unconscious control taken away from him. The wounded masculine is accustomed to being around wounded feminine: shy, submissive, inactive; he could not easily adjust to a healthy feminine, equal yet different, in her full force and beauty. The wounded masculine is deep in the illusion that he is masculine only; he is thus both thrilled and confused to remember that he, too, has access to the divine feminine force.
Examples of Tara in action abound in SDS. It is hard to find a straight line in the architecture and garden. The paths are winding. The windows are curved. The concrete building bends -- and has holes in the middle -- to make way for old trees. All the physical infrastructure looks as if it has grown out of moist earth, going with the flow. On one floor, the open terrace tends to accumulate water when it rains. So the nuns have put in a long wavy tank along the edge, so that it becomes a pool after rain. The iconic, twisted trees in SDS are mostly "orphaned" trees. Nearby villagers dump these trees at SDS because they have an unlucky name in Thai ("sad tree"). The nuns have taken in these trees, renamed them into something auspicious, and have grown a flourishing mini-forest out of them.
Turning from "hardware" to "software", the Tara presence is even more breathtaking. One day, a group of hundred of us were having a conference session on "climate change" at the UN headquarter in Bangkok. Men in suits with high titles read their printed speeches. When it was Ven. Sansanee's turn, she came down from the podium, and got everyone to stand in a big circle, forming a train of shoulder rubs while singing cute songs about love and kindness. Mind you, there were monks and nuns in the circle, too. She did it without asking for anyone's permission, as if it were the most natural thing to do inside the United Nations hall. The men in suits were stunned, but eventually broke into sheepish smiles and appeared to be enjoying the ticklish shoulder rub offered by the kids behind him.
For our five-day conference (hosted by SDS) on "Inner Dimensions of Climate Change" (organized by the Global Peace Initiative of Women), the organizers were so willing to toss their carefully planned agenda out the window (there was no window, either, as we were sitting in open-air meditation hall with mosquitos and all) to allow for spontaneous offerings and deeper connections not otherwise possible.
At no point was the "divine feminine" explicitly mentioned or imposed, but we witnessed Tara's presence and feminine organizing principles around every corner. The experience inspired me to quietly make a promise to myself to befriend and serve the Tara within and without.
Just as the seated Tara has one leg outstretched, ready to leap into action at any time, so are the nuns ever active, always working and serving. They do not take dinner themselves, but stood by the dinner line to serve us with smiles. The aforementioned 11-year-old nun even walked around us offering mosquito spray with her limited English, while us adult delegates sat relaxed enjoying dinner and conversation. We were deeply humbled to be served by the nuns and young volunteers around the clock. They were my greatest teachers.
Alms Rounds: Giving and Receiving
Hands down, my favorite part of living in a nunnery is to go on alms round every morning at 6am with the nuns. It is a most sacred and joyful ceremony, a seamless dance of giving and receiving.
I've never been in a Buddhist country where the 2,600-year-old tradition of alms round is still so alive and part of the daily life. Everyone knows their part. The nuns walk in single file with lowered gaze and mindful steps. Ordinary people bring portions of rice, vegetable, soy milk, fruits, foods-I-cannot-identify and sometimes money, out onto the street, and wait patiently for the nuns to arrive. The nuns would receive the food in their metal bowl, before offering a prayer of well wishes. The chanting makes time stand till, and transports us to another realm. The donor takes in the blessing with palms joined, shoes off, kneeling on the ground. They would then exchange a few words, asking about health and family, and perhaps offer some console. Then life moves on, just like the morning traffic of Bangkok. Yet, every time, at the end of an offering, the donors always have an irrepressible big smile on their faces that doesn't fade.
On our way back to the nunnery, the nuns would prepare bags of assorted items, and pass it out to street cleaners or guards, who gratefully receive their breakfast from the nuns. Upon return, the nuns would put all the food on the table, arranging it into a buffet line. And that would be their breakfast and lunch. No dinner for monastics, according to Buddhist precepts.
Some of the offerings come from families who offers every day. Some are ad hoc donations, as people see us walking by. Ordinary Thais would see the nuns coming from afar, run into the closest convenient store, and come out with a few packs of soy milk to offer. The people making offerings come from all walks of life. A grandma in her wheelchair offers every day in front of her house. A father watches smilingly on the side as his young son clumsily makes perhaps his first offering. A young woman with tired face and heavy make-up waiting in long line at the bus station runs to catch up with the nuns to make a small offering. Once, when I was standing with the nuns, waiting for green light to cross a busy junction. Random people kept coming up to make offerings that we never managed to catch a green light until quite some time later. Whatever the situations, the nuns does the same thing: bowing gently, receiving gratefully, chanting faithfully, inquire kindly, and moving on quietly.
In addition to the daily morning alms round, the nuns also go once a week to a night vegetable market. I shared in an online post,
"It is an unusual sight: nuns in pure white robes walking single file through a humongous and bustling midnight vegetable market in Bangkok. They are on their weekly grocery shopping trip, returning home with a truckload full of vegetables past midnight. If the vendors choose to sell their produce, the nuns would pay with cash. If the vendors choose to donate their vegetables, the nuns will offer blessings the same way they do on their alms round. "Multiple forms of capital" in action! Vast majority of vendors would choose to make an offering, making up 70% of the monastery's grocery needs.
"During the one-minute ritual of bestowing blessings, a corner of the noisy market is transformed into a sacred, timeless space. The tired vendors put down their smartphones and calculators, kneel down with bare feet, and close their eyes. The nuns line up with folded hands, and chant a Pali verse of blessings of loving kindness. You can feel a drop of cooling tranquility rippling out into the air around us. The vendors always open their eyes with a most content smile on their faces. It all happens most naturally, without fanfare or attachment. Then, the nuns moves on, so do the vendors."
It was clear that the nuns do not go on alms rounds out of survival necessity. They have enough resources to buy and cook their own food, often much healthier than what they get from the offerings. But they do so to uphold a sacred tradition, to build community, to bring Dharma and blessings to people, for people to grow in generosity and cultivate their field of merits. Ultimately, there is no giver, no receiver, no "I", no "You". Not even "merits" to be gained or "cultivation" to be developed. It is just a flow of life. And it moves me close to tears every time.
For two weeks in Bangkok, a city with as much traffic as any Indian or Chinese metropolis, I've never heard a single car honking. It's so "Thai" :) . Everyone seems quite relaxed to sit through the two hour traffic jam. The universal kindness of the Thai people is heartwarming. One volunteer at the nunnery gifted me a hand-sewn laundry bag. Others kept gifting me food items from their store. From the idiosyncratic taxi driver to the courteous restaurant chef, everyone is smiling and never tried to rip me off.
In the dozen countries I've visited so far, people have all been nice. The Britishers are aloof and nice. The Iranians are passionate and nice. The Indians are festive and nice. The Chinese are nosy and nice. The Thais are, well, nice and nice :) .
Also had the blessing to spend half a day with the little ones at a kindergarten run by the nunnery. The school is run on a combination of Buddha Dharma and Waldorf education. The kids sing and pray through the day, and play their way to learning. Each morning, they sit in a circle, pass around a candle to make an intention to do one kind act: taking care of the younger kids, cleaning their dishes with some extra love... The six-year-olds have been running a "restaurant" for the past few days, serving delicious breakfast to nearly a hundred guests while learning practical skills: maths (cashier), art (decoration), home economy (cooking), social (serving tables), team work, community building, and many more. The tuition is less than a dollar a day, and waived for families with less means.
I later learned that the travel expenses for the conference delegates coming to Thailand were paid for by Master Sheng Yen, founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, who had passed away a few years ago. Master Sheng Yen has deep affinity with Master Hua, dating back to the 1970s when the two Chan masters first met in San Francisco. Even years after the Masters have passed on, their merits and metta continue to reach us.
Ever grateful for the affinities and generosity that have brought my pilgrimage to Thailand for a final boost of love and faith before returning home to China. May our cultivation be worthy of their trust, and our journeys ahead an untiring effort of paying forward!
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.