Notes on a Buddhist path

To nun or not to nun…

March 3, 2013 By | 10 Comments

There is no pizza in nibbana; are you still interested in it?” ~ Munindra

This week I’ll be heading off for another meditation retreat. I can barely contain my enthusiasm. Although the practice is to stay in the moment, I can’t help but be on the precipice of giddy overlooking the quiet climes of my cosy mountain monastery.

It’s been a stressful time of late. Pressures at work, unexpected sorrows, and weeks of rocky sleep. I’ve been craving the solace and time to sit and just stop. Stop doing, stop planning,  stop worrying, stop trying so hard to make sense of this suffering world. It will be a sweet time for me to be a human being rather than a human doing. A place to watch my thoughts, my cravings, the birth and passing of each moment. My expectations around this retreat somehow feels more heightened; perhaps because with each extended time away from the world my tethers to it weaken.

Letting go of some of my material things this past December felt like a major unfolding for me. Sensing that so many of my possessions no longer held me in their charms was a sensory revelation that cravings, and therefore dukkha, suffering, could really disappear. Each week I survey my stuff (all my sticky, lovely, attachment-riddled stuff), and I check in to see if the gummy residue of desire still clings to each of their unique guises. Happily I find there is always something else to abandon, something else to sell, something else to give away.

Last month I felt the embrace of sexual longing loosen its filmy touch, and for the first time I felt the calm that comes with a celibate calling. I notice now when I smile at men there is still a remnant of curiosity, of flirtation, a faint itch wanting to scratch a phantom limb whose presence is no longer needed to move about in the world. For the briefest of moments I wonder “what if”, when in fact I don’t really want to know the answer, or even to pose the question. The cliff of sensual longing whispers its temptation to jump, yet turning away from its familiar abyss, I feel the cool breeze of a plain that stretches out before me in magnificent fields of gratitude.

I often contemplate a life of nekkhamma, renunciation. Of stepping from the safe confines of my regular paycheques, my full refrigerator, and my indulgent hot baths. I hunger for longer retreats, deeper meditations, profound wisdom and laser concentration. I can see a monastic life, one where the weighty issues of bills to be paid and what to wear each day are taken from my hands and in their place is a serenity of profound internal exploration. That’s not to say a renunciant life is without its demands. I checked out the Patimokkha code in the Theravada tradition: monks are asked  to uphold 227 rules;  for nuns it’s 311. Perhaps a bit beyond my reach right now, but who knows. In a few years it could be as easy to step into that role as it was to give away so many of my once precious things.

Ultimately renunciation isn’t about giving up on the world; it’s about seeing its epidemic impermanence (anicca), its shackles of cravings (dukkha), and its misguided notion that there is a “me” that can hold on to any of it (anatta). It’s feeling the joy of setting down all the attachments and feeling the ease of lasting peace and freedom coursing through this human, being. The Buddha once said,

If, by giving up a lesser happiness,
     One could experience greater happiness,
A wise person would renounce the lesser
     To behold the greater.
(Dhammapada, 290)

I long for the day my cravings vanish, when I can walk by a cafe without the slightest yearning for a latte or look forward to Friday night with the earnest exhaustion of a marathon runner crossing the finish line. In the meantime I’ll take my retreats and the silence that time fills with each mindful breath, each step, each instant that will never come again. The monastic life is still on the horizon, floating like a delicate ship of white, while I wait on this shore of now, hoping someday to touch its unfurling wings.

The Swan

by Mary Oliver

Across the wide waters
     something comes
          floating—a slim
             and delicate

ship, filled
     with white flowers—
          and it moves
             on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
     as though bringing such gifts
          to the dry shore
             was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
     And now it turns its dark eyes,
          it rearranges
             the clouds of its wings,

it trails
     an elaborate webbed foot,
          the color of charcoal.
             Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
     when that poppy-colored beak
          rests in my hand?
             Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
     he is so often
          in paradise.
             Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
     It’s in the imagination
          with which you perceive
             this world,

and the gestures
     with which you honor it.
          Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those
             white wings
           touch the shore?

“The Swan” by Mary Oliver, from Winter Hours. © Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Quote by Munindra from Living this Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra by Mirka Knaster. © Mirka Knaster 2010.

Image Credit:

Reading Nun via stock.xhng


  1. Oh I hope you have a wonderful retreat my friend. I am sorry to miss you in Victoria but hopefully we can connect in the ether of our imaginations. Thanks as ever for the inspiration. Namaste.

    • Thank you Mags. May your time on the big island bring you much joy and creative wonderment. I’ll send you lots of loving kindness from my cushion. ox

  2. Nancy Cestone says

    A very delicate post my friend. Enjoy your next steps. Nancy

  3. Lynn marttila says

    Oh dear friend I wish you much joy in your retreat of being. Safe journey to Birken and home. XO

  4. The ship will be there for you, whenever you decide to sail. Until then, your path unfolds before you, in every moment.


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