One Woman’s Choice to Pursue Enlightenment
[A long-form article]
By Solaire Hauser
HONG KONG – Jian Jue Sik, 31, kneels before a table in a small room, her face illuminated by the sunlight streaming in through the dark wooden bars of a window in front of her. She is wrapped in a gray robe, her hands folded in prayer. A statue of a man with a long black beard towers over her. The light changes, falling on the woman’s head. Her hair is shaved, only a few millimeters of stubby wisps remain.
Jian Jue is a Buddhist nun living in the Chi Lin nunnery in Hong Kong, a recent and controversial addition to the UNESCO World Heritage site short list. Since the age of 12, Jian Jue has been trying to find her path. Now, more than a decade later, she is following in the footsteps of her mother and devoting her life to Buddhism.
The story of how she came to Chi Lin is connected to two things: one of her Buddhist masters, and a tree full of money.
A Buddhist nun walking along the streets of Hong Kong. (Photo credit: Evita Li)
Before Jian Jue became a nun, everyone knew her as Yee Lai Heng. At that time, she was searching for the answer to a question that had haunted her since childhood.
One day when Jian Jue was 12, her mother asked her to pluck out her gray hair.
“Mum, why do people get gray hair?” Jian Jue remembers asking.
“When people get older, they get gray hair,” her mother said.
Then they get sick, and then they die.
“I felt very sad,” says Jian Jue. And that’s when she asked the question that would change the course of her life.
So Yee Lai Heng became Jian Jue Sik, a Buddhist nun on a spiritual journey towards enlightenment and a quest to find the answer to that one simple question:
How can I find a path that doesn’t lead to eventual sickness and death?
Jian Jue’s search lasted years.
Born in Malaysia, her first job was working as a secondary school teacher in her home country in 2005. She also taught 3- to 12-year-old primary school kids math using an abacus.
“I have always liked calculating,” she says with a laugh.
She took the teaching job after quitting college, where she had studied Accounting for one year.
But even then, she felt life held something else for her. Still, her efforts to find out what it was had so far been fruitless.
Jian Jue was accompanied in her search by her mother. They went to Christian church together, in case they would find their calling there. When that didn’t work, they turned to other religions.
For Jian Jue, Buddhist temples had always contained a certain fascination. While working as a teacher, she was also volunteering at a temple.
Jian Jue still remembers the first time she went to a temple as a girl. Upon entering through the gates, the first thing she heard was the chanting of the monks.
“For some reason, I started to cry,” she remembers. “It was a feeling like going home. I felt ‘touched inside’.”
Then she smelled the incense.
“I always thought it looked easy. But it’s actually quite complicated.”
Jian Jue realized that incense burning requires determination to the task. Usually, a number of sticks are used, which have to be burnt more or less equally.
Jian Jue went to temples regularly after her first visit. She also started chanting at home almost every day.
Her decision to eventually become a volunteer was sparked by her trip to a temple for Buddhist monks.
“I felt that the temple was very dirty,” she recalls. “All the books were so dusty.”
So she offered to help keep the place clean.
Even though she went to the temple three to four times a week after school, Jian Jue hadn’t yet considered becoming a nun herself.
In 2006, her mother got in ahead of her: she told her family she wanted to become a Buddhist nun. For most of them, this choice was unexpected. Jian Jue was 24 at the time.
“I think maybe she didn’t make her thoughts about Buddhism too obvious because she didn’t want to leave her husband,” she says.
That may also be the reason her mother didn’t ask to become a nun right away. Instead, she asked her husband’s permission to live in a nunnery in Malaysia. About two months later, she told him she wanted to be ordained as a Buddhist nun.
Jian Jue’s father agreed, only demanding that she go to a temple only for women.
“I was in Indonesia at that time, in a temple,” Jian Jue recalls.
But she came home to see her mother’s ordination ceremony, as did most of her other family members. Together, they watched as a Buddhist master, also called a shifu, shaved her mother’s head and presented her with her Buddhist robes.
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