The night before I left for Burma to ordain as a Buddhist nun, I held a goodbye gathering with a group of my friends in San Francisco. Moving around the room, I asked everyone in the circle to offer me blessings for my trip. The replies ran a loving but predictable gamut from wishes for health and adventure to a safe return. When I got to my friend Maura, she paused for a moment and then said, “My blessing for you is menstruation.” Huh? The room was stilled by a confused silence. “Well,” she continued, “when you are there, if you lose touch with yourself, if you become overwhelmed by an ascetic, male-dominated tradition, when you bleed you can remember your connection to the earth and yourself as a woman.”
At fourteen I had been one of the only girls in my class not yet to have gotten her period. This was a tremendous source of pain and embarrassment to me. My father attributed it to my mother’s insistence on a vegetarian diet for me since the age of seven. Whatever the reason, as a fourteen-year-old I had a short, scrawny ten-year-old’s body without the slightest hint of the woman to come. So while the pretty girls with developed breasts and pubic hair dated, I studied. I was way ahead academically but a million years behind socially. And so was my blood, which at some unforeseen moment (please, oh please, soon) would flow from between my legs and mark my entry into true womanhood.
The wait was excruciating. I pleaded, prayed and bargained with God: “If it comes soon, I promise never to hit my brother again.” I wondered, like a woman fearing an unwanted pregnancy, how it could be induced. I endlessly compared myself to all my friends who talked with secret smirks about pads and cramps and the trauma of buying the necessary paraphernalia at the local drugstore. I covered my face with my long red hair and tried to pretend I wasn’t different.
It did come of course. One day I went to the toilet and found brown stains on my underpants. The mixture of sheer relief together with a feeling of revulsion brought stinging tears to my eyes. I was normal. I, too, now had my badge. And in that tender state of exultation, I also became aware on a deeper level of a truth about my life. You can’t make things happen; they will come in their own time. My job was simply to be patient and to stop the mental flurry of anxiety and worry. It may have been my first lesson in trusting things as they are.
Seventeen years later, on the day I ordained as a nun, my period stopped. I jokingly attributed its absence to “having given myself to God” (and its reemergence a few months later to an unstoppable biological process that wouldn’t take no for an answer). Was my ordination an act deliberately to defeminize myself? Unquestionably. For a year I was choosing to enter the ranks of the thousands of women who had come before me, the nuns who had followed the Buddha’s injunction to abandon their lives as wives and mothers, to become celibate, committed only to dharma. By shaving my head, taking the Eight Precepts, donning the salmon-colored robes (I wouldn’t be caught dead in pink, the other alternative), I was saying good-bye both to my possessions and to my identity as a woman.
As I first had my head shaved with a new Schick Injector razor, waves of fear and excitement coursed through my body. Thirty years of pride, sexuality, and personal history fell off in clumps, landing in my yellow plastic bucket. My new robes covered up my curves, their four layers preventing anyone from seeing what was underneath. I chose to look in the mirror only on the days of my weekly head-shaving (an event that rapidly grew easier until after seven months, I could, all by myself, reach a smooth skull in twenty minutes flat).
I put my female self on hold. For a year. As a nun I chose to observe the workings of my mind around my identity as a woman. It was an experiment I willingly undertook, not out of some internalized puritanism, misogyny or hatred of my body, but as a deliberate attempt to see what else might arise when I looked beyond how I had always defined myself. It was much like my decision to watch my mind around food cravings, having also committed myself to no longer eating after noon.
After the first few months of nunhood, despite the occasional faux pas such as “scandalously” (and unintentionally) revealing my underskirt, or allowing the stubble on my scalp to reach the “indecent” length of half an inch, I was mostly able to adjust. Through these acts of renunciation, I gradually stopped focusing on myself as a woman. With that, I could then turn my attention to what becoming a nun was really all about: getting enlightened.
After six months of intensive monastic practice—and on the heels of years of ongoing meditation, study and devotion—I presumed it was finally time I reached nibbana. My practice was good, or so I thought. Everybody else had “gotten” it, or so it seemed. I had worked hard, I was ready, and I deserved it. I fantasized about a mind free from egoic grasping, a mind that was pure and wise. I wanted enlightenment, and I was here in Burma in hopes of inducing it.
But when it didn’t seem to be happening for me, I began to pray, to plead, to cry. I started the bargaining process. “If it comes soon, I promise to use my wisdom only for the benefit of all beings.” I strategized, “If I sit for just one more hour. . .” Then I began the ghastly game of comparing myself with everyone I saw: “That monk is easily a stream-enterer, and he’s younger than I am! And what about all those people at the time of the Buddha? Just one word from him and they were liberated on the spot. It’s not fair, why wasn’t I born then? What about me?” It was nonstop self-hatred, comparing mind, anxiety, the works.
This leaning forward created a tremendous cycle of suffering for me. Each moment of anything other than enlightenment (which seemed to be every moment) was a huge disappointment. I would stuff the disappointment deeper inside me and longingly view a future that the sayadaws so readily assured me was at my fingertips. I was convinced that at some point my mind would open to the moment when delusion would be uprooted forever. I was on a mission and would not settle for anything less. Any beautiful mind state, any peace or equanimity or joy, any insight into anicca, dukkha, or anatta were nothing compared to what was undoubtedly to come (please, oh please, soon): my nibbana.
As the craving for enlightenment grew more intense, my “strong” and “competent” practice began to spiral downward. My mindfulness grew murky, imprecise. I started having crying fits. I began to doubt myself more and more. As deeper and deeper levels of self-hatred pounded me like crashing waves, I dutifully tried to “note” them away. This went on for many weeks, and the pain became unbearable. I finally announced to the sayadaws that I hated everything, and I threatened to leave. There would be nothing they could do to stop me.
In the agonizing days that followed, my mind alternated between an overwhelming sense of failure and elaborate fantasies of escaping to the beaches of southern Thailand. Then one morning while attending to my menstrual ablutions, I looked down at the blood on my fingertips. Suddenly the memory of being a teenager resurfaced. All this wanting, I realized, was just like my fourteen-year-old self trying to speed up a process that’s natural and has a logic of its own. It can’t be sped up. My approach to reaching enlightenment was strangely aligned with my fourteen-year-old experience of reaching womanhood.
The memory sank into me. How ironic. I laughed and cried. I had been applying little-girl logic to a process that may take eons. I told myself to relax, to stop trying. I realized that I had to learn to sit with the suffering of wanting things to be different—a challenge, if nothing else, I had no choice but to rise to. All the leaning forward of my mind had clearly been preventing me from accepting whatever was present. Subtle and not so subtle craving for things to be different seemed a hallmark of my practice.
This realization was the beginning of my letting go of enlightenment as a goal. I saw that planning for my liberation had been underlying my practice for nearly ten years. At its core lay the belief that in some future moment I would be cured of all my dreadful imperfections—my anger and rudeness, my sometimes cruel and hurtful sarcasm, my lust and uncaringness. Not only would my personality by transformed so that I’d never hurt another being, but I would undergo such a life-transforming experience that when I came out the other side I would have the sage-like wisdom to know exactly how to help this suffering planet in its time of crisis. Just plain Diana, as I was, simply was not good enough. I had never wanted to be me.
Taking a deep breath, I decided to stay on at the monastery. My practice began to shift from being about something specific to being about nothing in particular. In that shift was a different kind of freedom that I had never before experienced. The following months were ripe with a joy and brilliance that I can barely begin to describe. Enlightenment for me came to rest squarely on freedom in the moment. At the same time, I recognized the enormous mystery of enlightenment’s unfolding, involving many moments of freedom both large and small. From that point in my practice, I could no longer view it as a goal outside of myself. That craving had caused me too much pain and suffering. No matter what I got or didn’t get, I had to simply continue practicing.
Later in the year, many months into my retreat, a German woman about my age stopped me on the path by the lake. A fellow practitioner, she looked at me cautiously and asked, “Would you like to have tea in my room?” My look of surprise told her she had trespassed a bit, but in a welcome way. It was the first contact I’d had with a Westerner in months.
I gratefully followed her, and for the next three hours we sipped too-sweet Nescafe from packets and talked nonstop, eyes glowing, about the snakes and scorpions at the center, future plans (she was leaving Burma in a week), and monastery politics. We laughed about the time I had gotten in trouble for complaining about the size of the lunch table. We discussed which translator was best, whether Burmese Pali pronunciation was even remotely accurate, and whether we’d ever have children.
Even though we had never talked until that day, at the end of the morning we were hard and fast friends, bonded in that way that comes only from months of silent practice together and a mutual love of the dharma. As I got up to go she suddenly said, “Wait. My mom sent me hundreds of tampons, and I want to offer them to you as dana. I can get plenty in Europe. Could you use some?”
I had read that nuns at the time of the Buddha were allowed only four worldly possessions. Like monks, they had two sets of robes, a bowl and a razor. Unlike monks, they were given a string for menstruation. “Well, of course,” I smiled in reply. “What girl couldn’t?” I was running low on tampons, having originally planned for only six months at the monastery.
There it was. A female to female transmission. You take care of me. I take care of the dharma. The dharma takes care of the world. Amid the confines of the ascetic and male-dominated monastic system, our feminine hygiene exchange felt intimate and delightfully subversive. My friend Maura’s words of blessing echoed in my head as I mindfully almost-skipped back to my kuti.