Living with Buddhist Nuns

For two weeks in February 2020, I lived alongside Theravada Buddhist nuns in the Thai countryside. This is a summary of what life was like at the nunnery and what I learned about mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhism while there. Any errors in interpretation of Buddhism or Thai culture are my own.

How It All Began

I had decided to upend my life in Toronto, leaving behind the city where I’d grown up, fallen in love, and found my tribes, and I knew I needed to strengthen my spirit to be able to do it gracefully.

I’d planned to travel Southeast Asia for two months after leaving my job, so I browsed Workaway to find a nearby volunteer opportunity that would offer the chance to reflect, contribute honest labour, and learn from wiser minds. That’s how I found the Vijjaram Dhamma Centre, a Buddhist community of Theravada nuns (a rarity!) where the head nun (Luangmae) was a former architect from Chicago who had tired of conventional modern living.

The entry to the main building at the Vijjaram Dhamma Centre.

It was one of the top-rated Workaway opportunities Thailand and felt like the perfect place for me to become part of a new community whilst having the mentorship and mental space to work on myself.

Buddhist Monastic Tradition & the Nun Controversy in Thailand

A.K.A. Why have foreign volunteers at a remote Thai Buddhist nunnery?

One question that rose to mind early on was why a nunnery in such a remote part of Thailand (inaccessible by public transport) needed foreign volunteers — especially given the language barrier here. The reason for this is complicated and requires a bit of introduction to Buddhist monastic tradition.

A Buddhist monastic community is called a sangha. In Buddhist monastic tradition, there are four groups (referred to as the Fourfold of Sangha): bhikkhu (monk), bhikkhuni (female monk), upasaka (lay man), and upasika (lay women). Since bhikkhus and bhikkhunis were not permitted to work for money or even cook their own food, they relied on the lay community to help them. In return, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis teach lay people about the Dhamma, act as role models, and serve as a “field of merit” for lay followers, providing laypeople an opportunity to earn merit by donating alms to the monks and nuns.

Photo of Thai Bhikkhunis sourced from a Kyoto Review article on Buddhist women as agents of change.

A community of fully-ordained Buddhist nuns is called a bhikkhuni sangha. Some thousand years ago, the lineage of Theravada bhikkhuni sanga went extinct. Since then, there has been much controversy around re-establishing the order of theravada nuns , so much so that the first ordination of a Thai Theravada nun only occurred in 2003, after the Theravada bhikkhuni sanga was revived in Sri Lanka. In fact, Thailand still doesn’t legally recognize Buddhist nuns.

As a result, there are only 250 bhikkhunis in all of Thailand while there are 100,000+ monks. Devoted female monastics continue to practise their faith in spite of the religion’s male monopoly — and the nunnery where I stayed was the result of such modern-day rebels-with-a-cause.

Partly due to how new bhikkhuni ordination was in Thailand and partly due to how small the local community is, foreign volunteers supplement the lay staff here at the Vijjaram Dhamma Centre.

Life at the Vijjaram Dhamma Centre

The Vijjaram Dhamma Centre was established around 10 years ago and is about the size of a small farm field: a large grassy area with a pond in the centre, filled with trees and gardens.

The Vijjaram Dhamma Centre had a beautifully well-kept grounds. You can spot the head nun, Luangmae's cat, Jedi in this photo!
Sitting by the pond is one of the nicest places to meditate.

The building where we spent most of our time was the multipurpose hall. This contains the kitchen, an office, general meeting and living spaces, five washrooms, and upstairs prayer area, storage rooms, and five rooms for retreatants or volunteers to live in. I lived in this building.

The main building, our Multipurpose Hall
With Thailand's temperate weather, the whole first floor was open to the outside.

The other building we often used is the Ordination Hall, a large one-room, white-tiled building that was our designated meditation area as well as the setting for ceremonies like ordaining new Buddhist novices.

The Ordination Hall was nestled beside a hill with a white Buddha facing the main gates of the nunnery compound.

The remaining buildings include houses where the nuns lived (each independently), as well as houses for other laypeople living on premises and other volunteers.

The two cottages here each house one bathroom and two sleeping quarters. Three of the other volunteers stayed in these cottages, and partway through my stay, a newly-ordained nun also slept in one of them.

I was one of five volunteers and we were all female. In many ways, this made working together and getting to know one another much easier! (For the bulk of my stay, however, one of the other volunteers underwent a silent retreat, opting to live separately from the rest of us and pursue study of the Dhamma.)

Our Daily Schedule

Our days started before the sun rose and wound down shortly after it set. This natural rhythm helped prepare our minds for the forty-five minutes of sitting meditation that took place immediately after getting up and again shortly before going to bed. Our days were scheduled as follows:

4:30 am — Morning Bell. Each morning, Luangpi K, one of the theravada nuns, would ring a bell in the main multipurpose building. Shortly after, all the dogs in surrounding farmsteads would start barking and howling. Best alarm clock I’ve ever tried.

5:00 am — Morning Meditation. We would all meet the head nun (Luangmae) and another nun, Luangpi K, at the Ordination Hall for forty-five minutes of sitting meditation. We were encouraged to study mindfulness on our own and find out which techniques would work best for us individually.

We always meditated in the night: before sunrise and after sunset.

5:45 am — Collecting Alms & Cleaning. Volunteers would then split up: two people to take the nuns to the nearby town of Ban Rai where they would collect alms (food) from the townspeople, while the remaining volunteers cleaned the multipurpose hall and surrounding area.

One of the best introductions to Thai Buddhist culture was to volunteer as an alms helper. In following the nuns around town, you truly see how deeply embedded altruism is in Buddhism. There were many other monks in town too!

7:00 am — Breakfast & Clean-Up. After breakfast, volunteers and other lay staff would refill their food bowls with portions for lunch and dinner. Nuns would only take a portion for lunch, as their practise prohibited eating after noon. The volunteer who was undergoing training in the Dhamma would likewise miss dinner. Afterwards, all the leftover food would be packed up (in plastic baggies with a rubber band tied around it in the Thai way) and given out to local farmers.

A feast of local generosity! Every day's meal was unique and always delicious. Since monks and nuns cannot cook, locals donate prepared foods and fruits.
A typical breakfst! After this, we'd fill our plate and bowl again with rations for lunch and dinner.

8:30 am — Watering the Plants. If we didn’t have enough time to water the plants during our earlier cleaning period, then we would water them after breakfast. The grounds had several faucets and hoses, and we learned how to hold our thumb over the hose opening to control the water pressure and target plants across long distances.

Watering the Centre's many plants.

9:00 am — Walking Meditation. Optionally, we had thirty minutes set aside for a walking meditation. Choosing a length of eight to twelve paces, we meditate while walking back and forth. The goal is to be mindful of every step, every physical sensation, and every mental phenomenon as well. Simply being aware of things occurring, as they are, we meditate while pacing.

9:30 am — Volunteer Meeting (if Monday). On Mondays, we start a volunteer meeting and learning prep with Luangmae. The rest of the week, we have a half hour break.

10:00 am — Guided Meditation with Luangmae. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Luangmae would sit with us in the Ordination Hall and guide us through different approaches to meditation. The rest of the week, we had a break at this time, unless one of the nuns or staff asked us to help with a task.

One day, we went down to the river to help gather large stones for building new garden beds. Here's the team after collecting a mound of stones!

11:30 am — Lunch. Everyone took lunch at this time. We’d then have some more free time, good for napping as this was when the Thai sun soon became its hottest. We also had access to a library of Buddhist books, so many of us took to reading some of those during our free time.

1:30 pm — Household Tasks. This time was set aside to take care of whatever cleaning was still left over from the morning or any other caretaking tasks the nuns and other staff needed to be done. Otherwise, we had time to ourselves.

There's a lesson in mindfulness here: each day, strong winds would blow many more leaves over the garden but each afternoon we would continue to sweep them up... a cycle of patient, consistent, mindful action.

Wednesdays & Fridays: 3:00 pm or 1:30 pm— School Visit. Every Wednesday and Friday, we would drive to a nearby school and organize activities for the children to learn English and practise mindfulness. We taught two age groups of children: from 6-9 and 9-12. Our activities ranged from yoga poses and exercises that encouraged the children to be mindful of their body and learn to name body parts and poses, to charades and schoolyard clapping games that encouraged them to practise using English vocabulary in games. With younger children, we used mainly physical activity games. With older children, we also played hangman and other word guessing games.

Joking around with the younger kids as we wrapped up a lesson.
Playing Hangman to practise English vocabulary. In the background: another group is learning a clapping game.
In this community, Thai children were introduced to mindfulness meditation early on. Here, we round off an afternoon of activities with 10 minutes of meditation.

Tuesdays & Thursdays: 3:00 pm — Dhamma Talk with Luangmae. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Luangmae would sit down with us for an hour and answer any questions we had about the Dhamma, Buddhism, mindfulness, or living in Buddhist society. These provided insight into what we were experiencing each day as each of us tried to practise vipassana (insight/mindfulness) meditation and better understand how to apply the Dhamma in daily life.

4:00 pm (Mondays & Thursdays)— English Lessons. On Mondays and Thursdays, we sat down with one of the nuns, Luangpi K, and one of the lay women staff, Pi Noy, to have an informal conversational English lesson. Lucky for us, one of the volunteers in my cohort was half Thai and bilingual. She helped a lot to help the nuns and staff learn new vocabulary, typically everyday phrases like “can you help me please?” and “can you water the plants?”

The rest of our time was often left open to us. Sometimes, we’d be asked to help out with projects like planting new garden beds or raking leaves, but most of the time we could do what we wished.

Reading in a hammock... doesn't get much sweeter than this.

Living Alongside Nature

A unique part of living this far in the country in Southeast Asia meant that you were very much living alongside nature. Especially since the weather was so mild (ranging from 17°C to 37°C), the division between outdoors and indoors was minimal — the entire first floor of the multipurpose building was open to the outside.

This 5 cm gecko woke me up almost nightly with its calls... ah, well.

You get accustomed to having geckos (from 4 to 15 cm), ants, flies, mosquitoes, spiders, and other critters as housemates. Be wary of red Thai fire ants though! These large ones will bite you if you get near or happen to be touching a ledge or hose that they’re running along.

Thai fire ants bite! Definitely don't step on these fellows.

Jogging vs. Feral Dogs

Some of us go running and do yoga in our spare time — though we quickly learned that many half-feral dogs roam the farmsteads nearby and you’d need to carry a stick to fend them off if you wanted to jog by them!

Jedi & Ju

Yes, there is a cat named Jedi at this Buddhist centre; it turns out that the head nun, Luangmae, is a big Star Wars fan! Jedi is an adorable gray cat who’s lived here all her life. She’s very friendly and will follow you for pets and belly rubs.

Jedi, the Buddhist cat.

There is also a dog named Ju, owned by Luangmae’s sister, Ting, a former accountant from Bangkok who is now a resident lay staff member that helps do the accounting for the Dhamma Centre. Ju is shier and more standoffish than Jedi — if you catch him in a good mood he’ll also accept pets but his personality is surprisingly more cat-like than Jedi’s.

Ju, a really funny-looking dog.

Sleeping Quarters

Our rooms were simple but comfortable: a bare wood laminate floor, a simple bed and a thin mattress with a few blankets. A mosquito net hangs over the bed, allowing for peaceful, bite-free sleep. It was surprising to me how quickly my body adjusted to sleeping this way and at these hours (from 22:00–4:30), and I’m glad to be able to see sunset and sunrise nearly every day now.

Home sweet home for two weeks!

Sunday Funday

On Sundays, our schedules are completely open and we’re given the privilege of taking the nuns’ van (pictured below) out to explore the surrounding area. Uthai Thani, the province in which we’re based, has a lot of different temples and natural caves nearby so we took the chance to explore the area’s caves, forests, and temples.

A gorgeous Thai temple we found while driving around town last Sunday.
A beautiful market of local vendors, with live music and artisans, tucked away in a side street of Ban Rai.
A statue of a bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) meditating in a remote cave temple.

What I Learned About Mindfulness, Meditation & Buddhism

I am a complete beginner at mindfulness and know little about Buddhism, let alone Theravada Buddhism. Thanks to our schedule, the setting (including the Centre's excellent library), and the generosity of the nuns here, I was able to learn a lot in the two weeks I had.

Though there has been a lot, I’ll do my best to summarize some key takeaways.

Awareness of the Present Moment

One of the biggest lessons I’d learned from my time here is how to make better use of my time . I found myself spending less time on the news and social media, and more time reflecting, writing, reading, discovering new things about my mind and body. More importantly, I worked on getting better at paying attention to the present moment, noticing when feelings arise, and catching myself when I started fretting over the past or the future.

Meditation is Different for Everyone

One key point Luangmae taught us early on is to not be angry at ourselves if we find it difficult to get “into” meditation. There are many different ways to practise mindfulness meditation. I realized that training the mind was much like training the body — each person had certain exercises that were easier or more effective for them and ones that were less so.

At first, I thought that meditation involves sitting with the eyes closed, but I have since learned that there are many meditation techniques that involve movement and vision — for example, walking meditation, a Thai meditation technique with 14 hand movements (that we taught to local schoolchildren), Tai’Chi, mindfulness (sati) in everyday tasks, or simply sitting with the eyes open.

The Four Foundations of Right Mindfulness

A part of finding meditation techniques that worked best for you was to understand the Four Foundations of Right Mindfulness. These were “platforms” on which your techniques should help you land and in doing so would help you become more aware of your mind, body, and surroundings, priming you to be more mindful. The Four Foundations were:

  1. Body — e.g. noticing posture, following breath, contemplating the body, body scan
  2. Mental Actions — e.g. noting when you are “thinking”, seeing thought/dissecting the mind (see below)
  3. Feeling & Sensation — e.g. awareness and dissection of bodily sensations and mental feelings
  4. Dhamma — “reality as-it-is” and the interaction between mind and matter, techniques may include noticing these interactions (i.e. causes & consequences)

Luangmae taught us that you could even come up with a meditation technique on your own, as long as it helped you land on one of the four Foundations of Mindfulness.

Your Mind Won’t Be Quiet — But You Can Learn to Dissect Thought

Another common misunderstanding about meditation, we learned, was the belief that one’s mind ought to be quiet during it. It won’t be. In fact, if your mind is too calm or too quiet, you’ll lose focus and fall asleep or start clinging to the euphoric feeling of calmness — and clinging was counterproductive to mindfulness meditation’s ultimate goal of relinquishing one’s clinging to thoughts, feelings, expectations, and desires.

Instead, there is a method of mindfulness meditation that can help you “see thought” by dissecting the cognitive process that gives rise to it:

  1. Awareness: to cognize sense objects
  2. Feeling: to have pleasant or unpleasant affect in reaction to your senses
  3. Perception: to recognize (“re-cognize”) objects and concepts based on previous memory
  4. Mental Formation: to put all the ingredients together, mixing new sensory input and old memory into a new idea (a combination of applying existing mental schemas and learning from new sensory data)

By noticing your thoughts and pulling apart this process, you may notice how impermanent they are and thereby dissociate yourself from clinging to thoughts, from clinging to mental narratives that can make you feel unhappy or desirous or anxious.

Luangmae notes that in an untrained mind, you might be able to learn to sense the tail-end of thoughts and their impermanence, but it requires more training to be able to see the beginning of thought and perhaps even the “original mind” before thought forms.

One book that I read, To One That Feels, a renowned Thai Buddhist teacher named Luangpor Teeam describes this technique of seeing thought as something you can do in your everyday life — without sitting cross-legged with eyes shut. Seeing thought, he says, is akin to scooping dirt out of a well that constantly refills itself with water. The goal is not to empy the well of water (just as the goal of meditation is not to empty the mind of thought) — instead, it is to scoop out mud and dirt until the water itself is clear. Then, you will easily be able to notice whenever something falls into the clear water.

There Are Five Chief Obstacles to Meditation

In another book from Luangmae’s excellent library, Training the Monkey Mind, Ven.Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (formerly Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, who happens to be Thailand’s first ordained Theravada nun) describes the five “hindrances” (niravana) to mindfulness meditation in colloquial terms and offers methods for overcoming them.

  1. Love, Lust, and Sexual Desire (generally referred to as sensory pleasure/desire, or kamacchanda). One of the body’s fundamental natural urges, this instinct can pull the mind away from meditative focus. Dhammananda’s advice is to use the meditation technique of Asubhakammathan, where one observes the body in its natural form as composed of the four elements (earth, fire, water, air). This is a reminder of the body’s corporeality and baseness, and of the superficiality of physical desire.
  2. Anger and Hatred (ill will, vyapada). Unwholesome thoughts of anger and hatred cloud the mind. Dhammananda’s advice is to remember how fragile breath is — that one’s breathing, just like the breathing of one that you despise, can cease at any time. Remembering this fragility, and how clinging to anger/hatred is self-harmful as well, can help us let go of these unwholesome thoughts.
  3. Sleepiness (sloth-torpor, thina-middha). This is a challenge I personally face. Dhammananda offers many techniques including: moving one’s neck in half-circles, meditating with eyes open and a soft focus on a spot about a foot away from your seat, and even meditating at the edge of a precipice to sharpen awareness (a method used by meditation-intensive forest monks).
  4. Mind-Wandering (restlessness-worry, uddhacca-kukkucc). Dhammananda suggests focussing on the breath: counting breaths inwards and outwards to help steady your mind, and noticing when you’re thinking to dismiss those thoughts and return to the breath.
  5. Doubt (vicikicchā). The simplest way to overcome this obstacle is faith/self-belief and continued practise. Only quitters fail at mindfulness.

The Ultimate Goal of Buddhism is to Understand Reality As-It-Is (Dhamma)

As a beginner to Buddhism, this interpretation is likely a gross simplification, but it is a summary of the understanding I have arrived at thus far in my learning.

Luangmae describes the ultimate goal of Buddhism as understanding reality as-it-is (Dhamma). By practising Buddhism through meditation and studying the Dhamma, one can do so and thus attain enlightenment. Along the way, you begin to see and understand that the inevitable suffering (dukkha) that all living things experience is caused delusions (i.e. clinging to the “self” as real and all the associated thoughts, feelings, expectations, desires, etc.). This awareness develops through mindfulness of each present-moment, until one becomes mindful at all times.

Once one sees and understands reality as-it-is, one can undo these delusions and end the cycle of suffering. Along the way, such knowledge of suffering also leads one to develop compassion (karuna) for others who are suffering, causing enlightened ones to experience loving-kindness (metta)— a desire to ease the suffering of others by teaching them how to practise Buddhism as well.

Such teachers include Luangmae, Luangpi K, and Luangpi May, the three Theravada Buddhist nuns who so graciously took me into their home as a lay member of their bhikkhuni sangha, and gave their time to teaching us foreigners about their culture and philosophy.

Journeying Onwards

In the past two weeks, I’ve learned so much about Buddhism, mindfulness, minimalism, and myself.

I’m not sure if I’d call myself Buddhist, but out of all the religions I have so far encountered the practises and philosophies of Buddhism seem most aligned with my personal values and struggles. The focus on education, self-awareness, and mental wellbeing especially speak to me.

While I’m not sure about my spiritual label, this experience has certainly helped me take things a little less seriously, strengthen my self-belief, and uncover a new source of spiritual wholeness.

As I wrap up this round of travel in Southeast Asia (I’m certain I’ll be back!) and think about my upcoming move, I feel more stable in my sense of self than I’ve felt in years, and energized for the next adventure.

February 22, 2020. Vijjaram Dhamma Centre, Ban Rai, Uthai Thani, Thailand.

Links & Resources

For people who are interested in learning more about this Workaway experience or about Theravada Buddhism in general, here are some helpful links:

Workaway Listing for this Theravada Nunnery

The Workaway listing provides a details about volunteering at the nunnery. It also has tons of great reviews from other past volunteers. Definitely check it out!

Books on Theravada Buddhism & Meditation

The following are a few books I found in the Vijjaram Dhamma Centre’s library that helped me to better understand Buddhism and mindfulness meditation. Most are quick reads but will leave you contemplating their teachings for days.

Without and Within: Questions and Answers on the Teachings of Theravada Buddhism by Ajahn Jayasaro. This book aims to provide foreigners an introduction to Theravada Buddhism in Thailand. Laid out as a logical FAQ, I found this an easy-to-grasp and broad introduction to Buddhism. Available for free online.

Training the Monkey Mind by Ven.Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh). Mentioned in this blog post, this book is a collection of dharma talks given by Ven.Bhikkhuni Dhammananda from 2002-2006. Many of them are down-to-earth talks delivered at meditation retreats or courses, and are very accessible for Westerners and beginners to meditation. (I couldn’t find a provider online, but it is listed on this webpage with the rest of Ven.Dhammananda’s teachings.)

To One That Feels: The Teaching of Luangpor Teean by Luangpor Teean. This is a collection of talks given by Luangpor Teean, a well-known Thai Buddhist teacher, also mentioned in this blog article. This brief read provides an excellent introduction to Buddhist concepts and practical techniques for both meditation and everyday mindfulness. Luangpor Teean’s key message is that anyone may become more enlightened, no matter their background, education, occupation, income, religion, ethnicity, culture, etc. Available for free online.

The Four Noble Truths by Ajahn Sumedho. This brief book dives into the Four Nobel Truths (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), a core of the Buddha’s teachings. Each chapter breaks down one of the Noble Truths, inviting your curiosity and deeper contemplation of these pillars of Buddhism. Available for free online.

Other Websites for Learning About Buddhism

These are sites listed in Without and Within (a book mentioned above) that offers free books and reosurces: