Always the Host
Our function in life is observation, according to Sister Bodhipala. To
observe how our minds react to the changing circumstances around us, and to
respond accordingly, not reactively.
The diminutive Cambodian-born nun has had 'great fun' over the past three
months, during the annual Rainy Season Retreat, observing how her mind
reacted as she did things which are not usually part of her daily routine
(reading the newspaper, for example).
Sitting with her at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the English
countryside, a month after the terrorist attacks on the US (for many years
her home), her warning seemed pertinent. 'The receivers [of the attack] do
not need to blame themselves-or anyone-but to try to work out what needs to
be done now.' And she sees herself as part of this doing. As a nun, she
helps create and run a refuge where anyone can come to gain peace and
wisdom, to learn better how to live-first with themselves and then with
others, as part of a community.
'Now' is another word that Bodhipala, as she calls herself, uses often.
'Right now, what the US needs is wisdom, not revenge.' There is no point
in looking back, she says; we need to take care of the present, so that the
future will be as good as it can be.
Bodhipala is absolutely with us for the time we are there. She has not
prepared for our interview in the traditional sense (by making some notes
on paper, perhaps), just as she no longer prepares before giving a speech.
But, unlike most of us, she is totally present, and so her wisdom is
unadulterated. If she made notes for a speech, she says, she would not be
totally with her audience, but caught up in the notes instead.
Her training (three years as a novice, in white robes, followed by two
years in brown, as above) has meant that she is able to trust her first
thought about anything-her wisdom arrives instantaneously, not via hours of
thought. If she goes over and over ideas in her mind, picking out the best
option, they lose their purity, she says. This is another reason why she
does not prepare for the speeches she is asked to give. Amaravati is
inhabited by many young professionals (doctors, architects...) who have
become enslaved by the type of intensely rational reasoning that Western
society contantly promotes, and who are yearning for a more direct, more
natural way of living.
Bodhipala believes that we need DIRECT EXPERIENCE before we gain wisdom.
It is easy to talk about something, but how do you do it? One of those
magical people whose age it is impossible to gauge by looking (she is a
grandmother) she has had plenty of direct experience. Born to a Cambodian-
French father and a Vietnamese mother, Renee (as she was then called)
married in 1960. Fourteen years later, after a stint in the US, and after
the birth of three children, her husband, Sothi, was appointed Deputy Prime
Minister of Cambodia. Less than a year later, he was a prisoner of the
Khmer Rouge and Renee had fled back to the US. She has not heard from him
since, and must assume that he is dead.
Renee brought up their three children on her own, alongside obtaining a
master's degree in statistics and computer science, earning an income as an
economic forecaster, helping other Southeast Asian refugees to settle in
the US, and working for freedom and democracy in Vietnam. Finally, she
became fed up. She yearned to help people, but didn't have the money that
society required or the will to corrupt the government to achieve what she
wanted. She compares her mind at the end of this time to a computer with
too many bytes in its memory-it becomes slow and inefficient. Space is
required before it can operate properly again. We need to engage in 'space
In particular, her hatred of the Khmer Rouge was using up precious space in
her mind. She 'determined' (another favourite word) to forgive them for
what they had done to her family and to her country, and to ask their
forgiveness for her thoughts. This decision did not come easily. During
sleepless nights, Renee wrote, 'Khmer Rouge, I forgive you', on bits of
paper, then screwed them up and threw them away. But, finally, it became
clear to her that she was ready. When she spoke to Khmer Rouge members and
forgave them-ten years after her husband had disappeared-she felt 'so calm,
so light, like an angel came and picked me up'. Her heart was free from
its heavy burden, and her mind able to think again. Now, whenever there is
a conflict within herself, Bodhipala knows that she must face it right
away, to let the prisoner (the hatred inside herself) out, and to escape
the suffering it provokes.
In the monastery, Bodhipala values every moment of her time. She feels her
life here is too precious to spend reading books about politics, for
example, even though she was once an energetic political activist.
Meditation enables us to transcend the emotions that clog our minds on a
daily basis, she says. Through the practice (sometimes she will sit for
hours at a time) she creates space that has enabled her to love her
children more than ever. They are not constantly in her mind as they
perhaps once were, but when she decides to bring them in, or to go to see
them, she is totally with them. Through meditation and getting to know
herself, she has come to know other people better, to really know that they
are human too. She has greater compassion-not only for her own children,
but for all of humanity. It is rare that people have the opportunity to
live the kind of life she is living, at Amaravati, and she feels it is the
best thing she can offer society now.
Often, she is asked what would happen if her husband were not in fact dead-
if he came looking for her and found her in a monastery (where she is
required to remain celibate). Bodhipala cannot answer this question, she
says, because it is not the way things are now. But, if it happened, she
would then know what to do.
During her recent retreat, she spent time contemplating a corpse, to help
rid her of the fear of death. After 11 days of viewing and contemplating
the degenerating body, her initial horror disappeared: 'This will be me'.
Beneath our outer coverings, we are all skeletons, and when we realise
this, we suffer less. 'Learn how to die', she says, for though life is
uncertain, death is certain for us all. She takes refuge in this-and in
the thought that through her life she is harming no one-rather than in the
worldly refuges that so many of us are tempted to seek. Bodhipala has
become disillusioned by politicians and others who lose the ability to
satisfy themselves and so try to fill the gap in other ways-power, money.
Clearly, she is a determined person; clearly also, she gains greater
determination through her faith. It doesn't matter what religion, she
says, but to have faith is the most important thing. One of the most
effective ways of reaching people is by caring for them, through our prayer
and thoughts. 'Our caring travels through the air, to reach others.'
However, prayers must come from your heart, to be effective; they are
useless if they are coming from your head. She feels it is her ability to
pray for others, from her heart, that makes her life in the monastery most
effective in changing society.
For herself, she uses her own determinations as 'police'-without them, she
would suffer greatly. They may be big (a determination not to criticise
others) or small (not to drink coffee!) but they keep her healthy in mind
and body. She sees herself as a constant host: 'The best home is the home
within. Always go back to your home.' Guests come and go, but if we can
remain hosts, we can enjoy the security of being ever present within
Her message to us, above all? In this throwaway society, where we want
results instantaneously, be patient. And practise the skill of
Interview: Nicci Long