One important event in the Chinese and Buddhist calendar are the Chinese New Year celebrations. One day, a few weeks before the start of the 2013 New Year festivities, Jian Jue sits in the Chi Lin library next to the nunnery. Sunlight is coming in through the windows at the back of the room facing the adjacent Nan Lian Garden.
Jian Jue is talking about the annual festivities for the New Year, contemplating when they will be taking place. After a few seconds of brooding, she suddenly reaches into a pocket of her dark blue robe and pulls out a cellphone. A few clicks on the touch-pad later, her lips widen into a smile as she confirms the date on her electronic calendar.
The so-called “outside world” is not completely foreign. Technology sometimes finds its way into the walls of these sacred places, resulting in most nuns and monks being just as connected as other people. Nevertheless, the Buddhist masters usually prefer for their nuns not to be distracted by too many outside influences.
Since one goal of Buddhism is to detach oneself from passions and emotions in order to purify the mind, some shifus forbid the nuns to talk to outsiders. And just like Buddhist monks should usually avoid direct contact with females, the nuns in Chi Lin are not allowed to talk to men.
“The only exception is for work purposes,” says Jian Jue, for instance when male volunteers are helping out with the organization of ceremonies or assisting the nuns in caring for the plants.
This is the main restriction concerning human contact, as shifus in Chi Lin don’t forbid their nuns to talk to other people.
However, most of the other, older nuns in Chi Lin are not as talkative as Jian Jue.
“I feel good sharing my experiences,” she says.
She thinks that some of the other nuns might not be as willing to talk about their decision to become ordained because they had some bad experiences.
Some of them came from mainland China during the Cultural Revolution to seek refuge in the temple. During the 10-year-long political campaign that started in China in 1966, Buddhists were openly persecuted and their temples attacked.
“We escaped from all that chaos in the mainland and came to Hong Kong,” said Master Wang Fun during her Chinese New Year’s speech 2013.
Others, like Jian Jue, came of their own free will, looking for another kind of refuge. One that will allow them to escape the outside world and its distractions in order to focus on the Buddha’s teachings. And try to understand how they can use them as a guiding light through their own lives.
As for the prospect of never getting married, Jian Jue doesn’t really mind.
“I’ve never been in love with a guy before,” she says.
She also thinks that she should cherish the opportunity she got to live as a nun, because if she ever decided to go back to her former life, she would not be able to return.
Women are only allowed to become nuns once in their life.
Fa Ren Sik says this rule exists “because women were very petty.” Once they withdrew from the Sangha, the community of ordained Buddhist monks and nuns, the villagers in their hometown would not accept them anymore.
Jian Jue walks from one of the prayer rooms through the inner courtyard of the nunnery. The bottom of her gray robes wafts behind her as she marches over the gray stone floor, directing her steps once more towards the Chi Lin library.
Even though she has studied many books about Buddhism already, she still wants to find an area she can dig into deeper.
“Buddhism is such a vast topic,” she says. “I want to find something I can focus on.”
In order to find that focus, she intends to take a gap year after finishing the four years of evening school in Chi Lin. During that year, she will continue to be a nun and do her usual work.
“Being a nun,” she says, “means to adjust our habits acquired after being born and purify our body and mind through daily walking, living, sitting and sleeping. Thus no matter where we are, we are in our religious home.”
But she will take a break from evening school and focus on her personal studies of certain Buddhist topics instead.
When she has found a part of Buddhism that she can study more deeply and that will help her to eventually understand the philosophy behind it better, she plans on continuing her education by enrolling in a Master program.
Even though she doubts that she knows every aspect of Buddhism already, Jian Jue says that she has found the answer to the question that initially led her to become a nun.
She explains that she now knows that all things in the world have their own causal relationships. It is essential not to pay too much attention to emotions and let them distract your mind. Instead, she wants to concentrate on the here and now and avoid worrying too much about the past or the future.
“For now I know my way,” Jian Jue says.
Her ultimate goal is to become the Buddha herself. Then she won’t have the pain of getting old or sick and will be freed from the circle of birth and death.
“If you can let go of everything, you can be truly free. We are born naked and we will die without taking one thing. We cannot take anything with us when we die. But at least we can free our mind from material.”
According to her, being a nun is just a foundation to reaching that goal, but not a necessity.
“Everyone can do it,” she says with a smile.