by Monastic Sister Sinh Nghiem
Before I ordained, I loved to travel, as many young people like to do nowadays after they finish high school or graduate from university. I traveled for nine months in a program called Action For Life. It was within an interfaith network called Initiatives of Change. I met so many great and inspiring people from all over the world. As part of this Action for Life program, we traveled throughout India for the first three months, then the “outreach” component was where we split into two groups and traveled throughout Asian and South East Asian countries. We traveled and lived as a community with people of different ages, walks of life and faiths. We went around meeting fascinating “change-makers” who had themselves suffered a great deal, and was able to transform their suffering to, in-turn, help others who had suffered similarly. We met and shared with many young people and children, to inspire them to question and discover the meaning for their lives. It was such an experience that opened up the horizons for me, both personally and spiritually as I learnt to appreciate different cultures and traditions.
The question arose in me, “What will I do with such powers that I’ve been given?”
While on this trip, our group went to Cambodia and we were traveling on a bus in the remote villages. As I looked out the window, I saw a naked little boy running around in the village. It was a very simple and common sight of village life, nothing special. However, something was touched and moved deeply as I watched this scene. I realized how extraordinarily powerful and lucky I was that I could sit on this bus and to see this boy in his village. He may never, in his whole life, have the chance or the means to go beyond his village, his capital city, or even his country. And that the majority of the world’s population is like this! While little me, a spring chicken just discovering the world suddenly realises how much power she has given her fortunate background and upbringing! Living in a ‘developed’ country in the West, we are among the top ten percent of the world’s wealth, also consuming the majority of the world’s resources! Consequently, the question arose in me, “What will I do with such powers and resources that I’ve been given?” How do I make the most of what I have received, how to make it meaningful?
It was an experiential insight that determined the direction of my life. The power I felt was all the favourable conditions that I’d had in life – my parents gambled with death by being boat-people refugees so that I could have a bright future. I grew up in peaceful Australia with bountiful conditions of schooling, work in a secure and safe society, and had the opportunity to meet interesting and inspiring people to nurture my spiritual growth. I felt I couldn’t just live for myself and my little nuclear family anymore – house in the suburb with two kids, husband and two cars, a nice and easy job and weekend trips with the dog. It was not that this kind of life was undesirable or anything, but it did lose its shiny dream-like attraction, and it didn’t fit into my new direction in life.
I can learn to understand myself deeply and hence have more inner space and ability to embrace others with their differences and suffering.
Imagine if I was busy all day taking care of my child and family’s daily needs, work eight hours (even if part-time) to pay off the mortgage, to pay for the kids’ education, then have to bear heart-ache and headaches about all the foolish things they would get into and drag me along…. Where would I have the energy to think for or do anything else for others outside of my own family? I think that was when I saw the fire within that we call bodhicitta or the energy of love. It makes me want to share these fortunate conditions that I have had with so many people, and I was on a search for an alternative way that felt natural and effective. I tried a career in psychology and counselling, but felt limited by it all. So I decided to try out a monastic life of service. Now that I’ve been living in a monastery for some years, I find this lifestyle to be so much more natural, appropriate and responsive to the social needs of our time and the cries of Mother Earth in terms of climate change. I can learn to understand myself deeply and hence have more inner space and ability to embrace others with their differences and suffering. Living in community can save a lot of resources, and because we share a common practice of mindfulness we can practice to transform ourselves when conflicts come up.
When we generate the energy of peace and love together, others can benefit from a collective energy of harmony and healing when they come and practice with us. This is how the practice of “Peace in oneself, peace in the world” works.
When we have gratitude in our hearts, we have happiness, and together they are a wonderful energy motivating us to help others.
Another reason for my decision to ordain relates to the way we consume in society, particularly in a western developed country. I see how our consumption really hurts and destroys Mother Earth, not to mention our own body and mind. I saw how I was living in anticipation of one sense pleasure after another like a donkey going after a carrot held in front of it, and thought that having pleasant experiences was the goal of happiness that we all seek in life. After the fun and excitement was over, I was left with a sense of “Well, what was it all for? That was it?!” And the next time I would have to have a different or more intense experience in order to qualify it as worthwhile. Gradually, the simple things in life didn’t register as wonderful anymore, and my mind would wander again. Alternatively I was driven by aversion from unpleasant experiences without knowing that there might be some hidden inherent goodness or lesson to be learnt from it. I tried all sorts of wild things that young people in a big city would do growing up and discovering my society. In the end, I realized that the fun and excitement could not deal with the feeling of emptiness or disconnection within. That it could not provide answers to emerging questions, like “What is this all about?” or “What am I meant to do with my life?”
The mindfulness practices and living in a community without some of these short-lived “fun and games” has helped me to re-set my pleasure/pain criteria, and I learn to enjoy the most simple things in life. I discovered that listening to bird songs, feeling a gentle cool breeze on my face, drinking tea quietly in the early morning, even just breathing or walking without having to get anywhere can be so enjoyable! These things don’t cost money or time, they heal and sooth, and certainly doesn’t harm Mother Earth as much as some of the things I used to do! And I can do them every day, practicing to re-new and refresh my body and mind by being present, moment by moment.
I like the idea in the movie, “Pay It Forward.” All the good things that you have received, instead of paying it back to the person who has given to you, you can pay it forward. It means that you do a favour, a kind deed for two or three others, or help someone going through difficulty. By sharing or passing on to others the love and care that you have received, you keep it going and magnify it. When we have gratitude in our hearts, we have happiness, and together they are a wonderful energy motivating us to help others. I think this was what I recognized on that bus in Cambodia, that I am full of gratitude and happiness. I have met so many beautiful people who have loved and cared for me, and inspired me to do something meaningful with my life. Being a nun, I can give my time and energy fully to cultivating this gratitude and happiness in my daily life, and pass this love to so many other people. The monastic context allows me to multiply the kindness that I have received in so many different ways beyond my expectations and imagination. When I can think for others, I am not limited by my own little world of familiarity, sentimental comforts and personal conveniences, or the lack of these things either.
Click here to read Monastic Sister Sinh Nghiem’s journey to become a monastic.