Sometimes I wonder how the Buddha would have survived without his female lay devotees. Over his forty years wandering in the forest, countless women cooked and offered food to him and his disciples. Without them, the daily meal would have been roots and berries. These devotees kept up a steady stream of goodness, developing qualities of generosity and selflessness, and many of them became highly realized through their acts of kindness. Two thousand years later, my mother fits nicely into the lay supporter category. Without her, I could never have survived my year as a Buddhist nun in Burma.
When I first announced my intention to practice there, she told me I was crazy. “Practice in a country with a military dictatorship? What about their human rights record? They’re killing their own people, you’ll get killed!” She knew no amount of reasoning, arguing, or wailing of the “well then it will kill me!” variety would make me change my mind. Hard facts fell on deaf ears: “It’s a dangerous place! I know, I saw Beyond Rangoon.”
Supposedly, the Buddha-to-be, still Prince Siddhartha, after having seen the heaven-sent signs of old age, sickness, and death to remind him this life wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, planned to escape his palace to renounce worldly life. On his way out the gate he was stopped by his father, who said, “You know, this will kill your mother. She really wanted you to be a great king.” The prince replied, “Sorry Dad, gotta go, destiny beckons,” or some version thereof.
I too could not be stopped.
In spite of her genetic predisposition to worry, my mother grudgingly gave me her blessings, on the condition that she could telephone every six weeks, and that I wouldn’t stay a nun forever. Someday, she begged, would I at least attempt to marry a Jewish doctor or lawyer?
By my fourth or fifth month in the monastery, she shifted from grudgingly bearing to lovingly supporting “my daughter the nun,” and that’s when the gifts started coming. When I was twelve, she sent me care-packages at sleep-away camp. At 30 I received the most expensive box of pretzels ever sent around the world. $90 UPS to Burma; I couldn’t believe UPS delivered to Burma. This was motherly love. She sent me packages of the food I was craving the most in the midst of the jungle: pretzels, potato chips, honey-covered almonds. Chocolate never made it through customs. She also sent me face cream, my favorite. Each gift lovingly wrapped with a little note:
“To keep a nun’s face smooth for when she disrobes and tries to get a husband, hint, hint.”
“Not to be eaten after noon.”
And the one that made me cry every time I read it: “I love and miss you like crazy.”
In a miraculous display of ingenuity, she had found an MCI discount: the phone bill went down from $6 to $2.80 per minute, an incredible savings. As my practice over the months grew harder and harder, her phone calls every six weeks or so became my life-support system. At seven months:
“Mom, thank God you called. I can’t do it anymore, I can’t get enlightened.”
“Honey, shhh, stop crying, I’m here with you.”
“No, you’re in America, I’m here in this God-forsaken jungle in a million degree heat trying so hard not to give up. Mom I know enlightenment is around the corner but I just can’t I can’t do it anymore. I’m so tired. My mindfulness, it isn’t working so well. I hate this.”
“Shhh, baby. It’s fine. Who knows what this enlightenment thing is, anyway?”
“The Sayadaws (teachers) do. They’ve been saying I could get enlightened from the moment I arrived. They think my practice is good. I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t want to disappoint you.”
“Disappoint me? What do you mean disappoint me?”
“You expect me to get enlightened. You think I’m going to do it. Everybody’s expecting it. If I don’t, I’ll let everyone down. I won’t cut through my clinging to self. I will have failed.”
“Where did you get this idea? I never cared if you got enlightened or not. I don’t even know what enlightenment is.”
“You said it once, ‘We’re counting on Diana to get enlightened for all of us.'”
“Honey, I don’t remember saying it, and if I did, it was a joke. I couldn’t care less if you were enlightened, I just want you to be safe and happy.”
“I’m such a failure, I’m letting everyone down. I hate myself!” I was nearly hysterical at this point.
“Honey, you have to relax and listen to me. I don’t care if you never reach enlightenment. Do you hear me? You don’t need to reach enlightenment for me. You don’t even need to reach it at all. What you are doing is courageous and profound and working on you on deep levels you know nothing about. There’s no one else I know who could possibly have done what you’ve done. I’m incredibly proud of you.”
At this point the wailing may have died off some and I began to hear her.
“You mean (sniff), you don’t care if I never reach eternal peace, I never commit an unkind act again, and my wisdom never gets strong enough to help all (sniff) suffering beings on this planet?”
“Honey. You already are wise. You already are kind. I don’t need you to be anything different than you are.”
“No, I’m horrible.”
“I love you so much.”
“Well, I guess I feel better. Anything happening in the news?”
“Yeah, President Clinton’s in trouble because he had sex with some young girl named Monica. Wait till I tell you about the cigar.”
As my months at the monastery extended, the political climate in Burma heated up, and my mother began to call at times other than our agreed upon six week intervals.
“Di, Di, have you heard the news?”
“No, of course not, Mom. I’m in silent retreat.”
“Well, they’ve started arresting Westerners. One of my clients called me today and said, ‘You’re going to die, but watch the news,’ and there on the news was Burma — top story. A bunch of international activists went in to promote solidarity with the 1988 student uprising (it’s the ten year anniversary). They smuggled flyers in Ovaltine jars and threw them from taxis on the streets of downtown Rangoon. They were arrested. Di, they’re arresting Westerners! One of the women is from Connecticut! Her mother was on McNeil-Lehrer last night begging for her daughter to come home alive.”
“Mom, I’m in the monastery. I’m completely isolated from these events. I’m fine.”
“It’s gonna blow in Burma, I know it. Promise you’ll leave soon.”
“Mom, you know I can’t.”
“Di, Di, have you heard the news?”
“Mom, I told you not to call me here.”
“Yes but MCI is having a special and I’m getting frequent flyer mileage and Aung San Suu Kyi has been blockaded in her car all weekend.”
“Mom, I’m sure it’s okay, it’s the Western media making a big deal out of everything. It’s completely quiet around here.”
“Promise you’ll leave.”
“I can’t, not yet.”
“Di, Di, have you heard the news?”
“Mom this is getting embarrassing. You can’t call me like this.”
“Aung San Suu Kyi, she’s been locked in her car again.”
“Look, I’ve talked to the sayadaws, they say to tell you to please not worry. I’m fine, I’m leaving in a month. But U Pandita is visiting today. I’ll ask HIM about it.”
Sayadaw U Pandita is one of Burma’s most esteemed meditation masters. I walked into the dining hall to see him in my best slo-mo walking meditation form, then kneeled down for three prostrations in front of his hulking form and wrinkled brow.
“Sayadaw-ji, my mother is very worried. She thinks the political situation in Burma is getting worse and I am unsafe.”
U Pandita sat up on the dais finishing his breakfast. He looked at me out of the corner of his eyes and thoughtfully chewed his mango slice. Very slowly, he put down his fork, sighed loudly, looked up, and said through the translator:
“It is completely safe here in the monastery. Tell your mother not to worry.”
“Yes, Sayadaw-ji, that’s what I think, but you don’t know my mother. I mean, she worries about everything. I mean everything. Once I said, ‘Mom, if I was finally married to a doctor, had two kids, and lived down the street from you, would you stop worrying?’ Without thinking she said, ‘No, then I’d worry he’d leave you.'”
“Enough! You are safe here. Your mother must not worry so much, it is not good for her.”
He paused. Then asked, “Is she Jewish?”
Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, and a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She is the author of Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens. This piece will also appear in Shambhala Sun. Go to www.mindfulmom for her blog.