Jian Jue’s life as Yee Lai Heng officially ended when she was given her Buddhist name.
The name is traditionally chosen by a Buddhist master. However, it is not a random choice. Jian Jue explains that the third generation of shifus traditionally has the middle name “Chuen”. Their disciples, the fourth generation, would again share a common middle name.
Fa Ren Sik, teaching consultant at the Centre of Buddhist Studies at The University of Hong Kong, says that “most of the names are related to some good meaning of Buddhist teaching.”
After Jian Jue changed her name, it was time to change her appearance. At her ordination ceremony, only her mother was present as one of the masters shaved her hair. For the rest of the family, the trip to Hong Kong was too far.
The shaving of the hair is a sign of releasing all defilement, says Fa Ren, since “hair is the symbol of ignorance.” Usually, it is cut again every two months.
One of the final steps to becoming a nun was a more painful process.
In order to start a new life as a follower of Buddhism, each nun has to “experience the pain of the big world,” as Jian Jue describes it.
To feel the pain of everyone else and constantly be reminded of how they are suffering more than you are, incense is used to burn the skin on the head, leaving a small, circular spot as an eternal mark.
This is usually done two or four years after the hair has been cut. Jian Jue waited for three years before she was ready.
Three times the skin on her head was touched by the scalding joss stick. On top of her head, the remaining round, bald spots now bear witness of that procedure. About two inches apart, they form a line running parallel to her eyes.
“Some nuns have more than three circles,” she says. “Some up to ten or more.”
Two nuns in dark blue robes worn for work purposes are setting up offerings for the Buddha in one of the halls in the inner courtyard of Chi Lin. A statue of Kwun Yam, the goddess of mercy, looks down on them while they pile up red dates, melon seeds and pistachio nuts on silver plates atop a long wooden table.
Every day the nuns groom the flowers and plants. Young nuns like Jian Jue are also responsible for everyday tasks like sweeping the floor in the halls or cleaning the toilet.
In addition, each nun gets assigned for kitchen duty for one week.
When it is Jian Jue’s turn, she has to get up at 3.15 in the morning. After putting on her robe, she walks to the kitchen while it is still dark outside, sets a large pot on the stove and starts cooking. Usually, the nuns are served congee, a type of rice porridge eaten in many Asian countries.
Around 4 a.m., other inhabitants of the nunnery will awake and get ready for the traditional morning chanting session at 5 a.m. After that, they will gather for breakfast in one of the bigger temple halls. Before starting their meal, they have to offer some of it to the Buddha as a sign of respect.
When everyone has finished their meal and sets off to start their daily chores, Jian Jue is also free to begin her work.
Whenever time allows, between cleaning, cooking and other chores, she walks to the nunnery’s library nearby. The shelves filling part of the fifth floor of the complex contain books about a variety of topics, including Buddhism, as well as Philosophy or History.
In the library, Jian Jue can find material to prepare for evening school, where she learns about Buddhism and Philosophy.
In addition, she has enrolled in an Internet course at a school in Taiwan.
Education is very important to Jian Jue – not only because it was one of the reasons she decided to come to Hong Kong, but also because she feels that it might help her to get closer to her answer.
“I still have a lot to learn,” she says.
Looking back at her first days in Chi Lin, Jian Jue says that she changed a lot, both physically and mentally.
“Being a nun requires me to be hard-working,” she says.
Getting up every day around 4 a.m., sometimes even 3 a.m., was something she had to get used to.
“I can’t delay my religious cultivation and practice. I have to use time in the most efficient way for cultivation. Not only will it help others but also help myself.”
Another thing she had to adjust to was the Buddhist practice of not eating after noon.
“At the very beginning, I felt hungry,” she recalls. “But after one month, I got used to it.”
Having more time for her studies also helped her to focus more on thinking about her question. Now that she had found a way to escape the cycle of birth and death, she had to find out how to put it into practice.
Sometimes, however, she will have to delay her studies to prepare for certain Buddhist holidays or ceremonies.