Voluntary prison sentence – a day in monastery

“Can you live without her for 3 days?” snorted senior monk pointing in my direction. We only just arrived and wanted to get our bearings around the monastery. We were taken to a senior monk who read out rules of conduct to us and made us pray to Buddha right away. We just got off a tuk tuk that brought us there from the bus station. It was 1 pm and we were tired, hot and disoriented. The journey was long and uncomfortable and we couldn’t wait until we get to the monastery. Once we got there though, we didn’t hear a word of welcome or interest about our well-being. A “how are you” or “how was your trip” would be nice, but instead we were told right away that we must say goodbye and not even attempt to communicate while we were there. All the time that the monk was talking to us, he was eying me like the biggest evil on earth. “You cannot talk to each other while you’re here, understood?” he fixed his gaze on me. Sure I understood, he already said it three times.

Instead of feeling relieved that we were there, I couldn’t help but feel angry. The tuk tuk driver ripped us off, we were welcomed with a mocking “let’s see how long these birds will last” kind of tone and we weren’t given any time to divide our things or blow a kiss. Are you kidding me? Kiss in a monastery?! Right, I didn’t expect a holiday resort, but I thought we would at least be allowed to exchange a few words during the three days that we were staying there. I’m not a nun. Do I have to live in desolation? It felt like a voluntary prison sentence.

But as time passed, so did frustration. I was introduced to chief lady-monk, given aluminum set of bowls and cutlery and then was showed my room. I liked it. It was actually nicer than many rooms we stayed in, all the more that it had a private bathroom. Ouuuuuu I had a party like a wild duck, splashing water all over the bathroom. It was over 40 degrees, my room was on the 4th floor and didn’t have a fan. The only way to cool down was to pour a bucket of cold water on my head.

I shared my room with a Vietnamese nun. She didn’t speak more than three words of English and I only spoke two in Vietnamese (and even those two I struggled to pronounce correctly). She was a funny little sister though and we managed to communicate using gestures and those few words that we had in common. Her part of the room was filled with pictures of Buddha and monk stars. Mine was only a wooden bed frame and a side table. The way to illumination excludes any pleasure and comfort, thus mattress and a pillow were seen as unnecessary luxury. For the first time that we travel I was happy I had a backpack overloaded with clothes. I made myself a comfortable nest out of my sleeping bag and jumpers. My roomie nun told me I should sleep on wood, but I kindly disregarded her advice.
Female quarters of the monastery were a little bit how I imagined prison. Nuns had shaved heads, they barely looked at each other, let alone talk and they always walked alone, fixing their gaze in the ground. Make-up was prohibited, so was music, dancing and any form of entertainment. Room doors were made of metal bars and they even had a small flap to pass things in and out of the room without having to open the door. Through such a flap I was given my room key from a caretaker nun. She made me promise I would find her and give it back to her before I leave. When I asked what was her name she looked at me as if I said something absurd. She just wanted to be called H1 – like the number of her room. Fair enough. At that point I realised that nobody asked me my name. Not even my roomie nun. Hope nobody called me H37 behind my back.

First hours after arrival I was allowed to settle in and familiarise myself with the grounds. I had a few hours of free time before evening meditation session and the chief lady-monk showed me around, allocated a spot in meditation hall for me and explained how to queue for meals. When she was done and gone, I checked the premises for potential food smugglers. There were only two meals allowed – breakfast at 5am and lunch at 10am. Even though I haven’t had anything since breakfast, it was too hot to feel hungry. Still I needed to know my options in case of hunger attack. I saw that my roomie nun had biscuits and fruit stocked under her bed. I thought I’d better do the same.
When evening came the temperature dropped to 38 degrees. Dressed in long trousers and a t-shirt I headed to the meditation hall. On the way I bumped into chief nun though and she looked at me disapprovingly. My t-shirt was too revealing, I had to cover my arms. “But it’s hot,” I pleaded with her. She didn’t say anything. While I was turning around to go back to my room, she stopped me once again, looked at my bag and sighed. It was a cloth-bag Ale was given on a Thai massage course. It had a drawing of a male body and a few massage postures. Nothing provoking, just basic line drawings. “Cover it up,” she whispered and walked away.

The meditation room looked like a doll house. It was a big hall with high ceiling, white columns and wooden floors. It was filled with white bells from one end to another, all facing a golden Buddha in the middle. At first I couldn’t see what they were, but then I realised they were mosquito nets. When I arrived there were already women sitting under them, motionless like little dolls. They were nuns and lay women from Burma and other Asian countries. I took my place previously indicated by chief-nun and sat comfortably. My spot was awesome. Under the bell I found two soft mats, little cushions to sit on and even a folding fan. I was especially happy about the fan. I was sitting there in a jumper and long trousers, drops of sweat rolling down my neck and spine, and for one and a half hours my thoughts were continually getting stuck on heat and sweat. At least that little fan brought me a little relief.
Being there felt so surreal I had an impression of walking in a movie. All the hiccups that happened to me made me smile. The monastery reality was so absurd, I wasn’t able to treat it seriously. Instead of submitting myself, I grew rebellious and I had to keep reminding myself that I was there only because I wanted to.

At 3.30 am the following morning I woke up with the sound of a wood hitting on wood. It was our alarm clock. I heard my roomie nun jump out of bed right away. I took my time. I slept quite well on that block of wood even though my tail bone felt misplaced. I got dressed and went to the meditation hall. It was the first of five 1,5h long meditation sessions in a day. I hoped it would be cooler in the morning, but it was still as hot and sticky as the night before. Once again I sat comfortably in my spot and closed my eyes. After a short while I heard somebody stop next to me. It was a lady in her 60s, dressed like all the Burmese lay women, in brown skirt and white top. She pointed to me, to the floor and to herself. I didn’t understand. She kept pointing at me, but I watched her confused. Then she pointed to me and to the spot to the right and then I started to understand what she was trying to tell me. I was sitting on her spot! Now it started to make sense why it was so cozy. The spot on the right was just a plain mat. No mosquito bell, cushions and folding fan. Then I realised that I saw that woman last night. She arrived late and sat on the empty place on the right. Meditation already started and I guess she didn’t want to disturb me. Oh dear, what she had to think when she saw me sitting on her cushions, waving her fan at my face! I apologised and moved to the blank spot embarrassed.

After meditation it was time for my first meal in 24 hours. I thought I would be starving by that time, but I didn’t even feel hungry. Skipping breakfast was out of question though and I queued in line to the kitchen. There was a special system of queuing. First in line were foreign lady-monks, then Burmese lady-monks, then foreign lay women and lastly Burmese lay women (I was one of three non-Asian foreigners in the line). It took good half an hour by the time I got to the kitchen. There were hundreds of women in the monastery and that queue showed just how many of us there were. With my aluminum dish set in hand I took my portion of food and went back to my room. I imagined that we would all eat together, but everyone before me took their food and went off to their rooms, so I did the same.

Pleasure is suffering, according to Buddhism, and that includes pleasure from food too. Breakfast, in fact, was awful. We had noddles with some gooie mushroom soup and tasteless rice porridge. One girl in the kitchen handed out spoonfuls of something brown to put in the porridge. I saw her from far away and for a split second I thought it was chocolate! No, it was not chocolate, but black beans. How could I even come up with such an outrageous thought. To cheer me up my roomie nun shared two of her mangoes with me. One of them had a huge worm in it, but I gobbled it up nevertheless.

After second meditation of the day I paid a visit to the chief nun. I had to change money for some bananas that I wanted to buy from the stall at the gate. I walked into her office dressed in a jumper and asked her if it was good enough. She nodded and then added that I should also put a scarf on. My t-shirt had a small cut on the front and according to her it was too revealing. Never mind that other ladies wore half-transparent tops with short sleeves and bigger cuts than mine. I bit my lip and said nothing. I was already imagining myself sitting at 1 o’clock session steaming like a jacket potato.

With small change I bought bananas and papaya and shared them with my roomie nun. On my eyes she gobbled all 5 bananas, one after another. She had appetite! With the last banana still in her mouth she dived into her side table and pulled out a bag of medicines. I was still cuughing badly, but I had my dose of antibiotics to finish. I tried to tell her that, but she waved her hand and continued to pile up pills of all colours and sizes on my side table. I appreciated her care, but I couldn’t take them. I had no idea what she was giving me and whether I could take them with antibiotics. I tried to explain it to her, but she wouldn’t take it. At some point she tried to open my mouth and force me the pills! “Ok, ok, I’ll take them, just let me have lunch first!” I told her and she calmed down.

We went to lunch and as I was trying to figure out how to dispose of the pills I saw Ale sitting next to the kitchen. At first I thought he was there on some monk-related business, but when I asked him if he was ok, he came over to me and said that he had a horrible time and couldn’t do it any more. He wanted to leave. I couldn’t believe my ears. Really? Allelujah! He too was hot and couldn’t concentrate. But unlike me he couldn’t breathe and sleep. He looked tired. I didn’t want to stay there on my own. I was there because of him in the first place. I skipped lunch and run to pack my bags. My roomine nun was already back in the room and was upset to see me leave. She helped me pack and made me instant Vietnamese coffee that I drunk burning my tongue. Hot coffee was the last thing on my mind right then, but I didn’t want to refuse. Good enough that she forgot about the pills. She seemed so hungry of company that in the little time that I spent there she wanted to give me anything she could. I felt a little bad that I was leaving so soon. I was actually a little disappointed too. Just a tiny little bit. I somehow liked the challenge of the monastery. I felt like living somebody else’s life and was curious what would happen next. I waved her goodbye, took the key back to Miss H1 and together with Ale left the monastery on the back of a taxi that miraculously happened to be going to town.

In the taxi we shared our short but intense experiences. It turned out that the chief monk we talked to on arrival was very unhelpful when Ale told him that he didn’t feel well and wanted to leave. He didn’t allow Ale to contact me. The only option he got was walking 40 mins with full backpack in the sun from male to female quarters to talk to me in person. “If you want to go, just go,” he told Ale. And he kept teasing Ale that he couldn’t live without his woman, that one night was enough to break him etc. His tone was mocking and unpleasant. I was right not to like him right from the beginning.

Ale had a good time there though. The only reason he wanted to leave was the heat. It was destroying him too, and he didn’t have to wear a jumper and a scarf. The night he spent in male quarters was rather special. His experience was richer and more atmospheric than mine. After all its monks who are the core of a monastery. Ale listened to their chants, ate with them and meditated. The chants in female meditation hall sounded like squeaking of old ladies on a 6 am mass. We didn’t eat together either. Just these two little things made life there less charming for me.

All in all, it was the most weird, absurd, interesting and surreal 24 hours in Myanmar. I learned a lot about myself. Meditating is a powerful tool that I want to master, but there are many ways and places to do it. The discipline and rigour of monastery is not my cup of tea. It’s not the early mornings, food, clothes and heat that disturbed me most, but detachment from Ale. In that far corner of the world Ale was the only person I had, the only link to my reality. It was hard to accept that we couldn’t see each other for the duration of our stay. It’s the price I wasn’t ready to pay.

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