Passion and Compassion

sixteen years ago, as a young lay woman, I left home and entered the monastic Sangha, and sixteen years later, as a middle-age Buddhist nun, I left the nunnery and entered another world; comparing those two scenes, I see that they are the same journey of “leaving home”


After living as a Buddhist nun in a nunnery in Taiwan for fifteen years, I came to the United States to study Buddhism at Naropa University. I found that the most difficult adaptations for me to make while living the U.S. have been the different life styles of temple and campus and the different cultures of East and West. Stepping out of Asian Buddhist society, which is based on maintaining a sense of community, and has distinctive roles for monastic and lay people, I walked into the open Western world which has more of a focus on individuality and is a new field for Buddhist society. I felt I was stumbling as I unconsciously tried to hold onto my monastic identity. During the first month, when I missed my homeland and my life in the nunnery, I would listen to a CD of the morning chants of my nunnery every day so I could experience practicing with my teacher and all my Dharma sisters.
This experience of attachment to my former life gave me an opportunity to contemplate again the questions, “Why am I ordained?” and “How do I transmute passion into compassion?”
In the U.S., the phenomenon of monastics that disrobe and return to lay status is common. One year ago at a workshop, I had a talk with a Tibetan monk who served as an attendant to the Rinpoche who was leading the workshop. He mentioned that there are many Tibetan monastics who have disrobed in the West, including his teacher and Dharma brother. Directly, I asked him, “Do you think about disrobing, too?” “I am not as knowledgeable as my teacher and not as talented as my Dharma brother. If I disrobe, I will fall to nothing.”
Unwillingly to submit to the idea that maintaining the monastic status is just a way to get support, I kept asking impertinently “How do you feel about serving a lay teacher while you are wearing a monastic robe?” Without any irritation, he gently said, “I have served my teacher for more than ten years. When my teacher decided to disrobe, he asked me whether I wanted to continue to be his attendant. I told him that I cherished this opportunity.” The certainty sparkled on his face as he continued, “My teacher’s wisdom, so vast and profound, is something I need; his compassionate aspiration to spread the Dharma is something I can help him with. Taking off an outer garment never would change my faith in my teacher.”
His answers surprised me initially, but soon I felt extremely embarrassed about my proud attitude, which derived from clinging to the outer form of the monastic robe. Although I still insist that monastics play indispensable roles, his strong faith in his teacher, his patience and humility as he follows the path of Dharma, and his down- to- earth attitude toward his own limitations were so admirable. The selfless aspiration, exemplified by both the monk and his teacher, dissolved my dualistic distinction between being a monastic and being a lay person.
The conversation also brought me back to an important dialogue between my teacher and me. When I turned in my ordination aspiration papers to Wu Shi Fu, she seriously asked me, “Ordination is easy to take, but difficult to keep. If all your Dharma sisters disrobe and I disrobe, do you still want to be a Buddhist nun?” “YES” I answered firmly. This dialogue occurred in 1990, my last day of teaching at Pao Chung Junior High School in Yunlin and my first day on the journey of “leaving home”
After the graduation ceremony, I washed out the light layer of cosmetics on my face, cut short my long hair, took off my elegant clothes and packed all my belongings to send to my eldest sister, who knew that for three years I had been planning to become a nun . Carrying a simple backpack and reciting Amitabha’s name, I rode a 90 cc motorcycle toward Luminary Temple in Chai-Yi. Unexpectedly, after one hour of driving, dark clouds covered the sky, and it started to rain. I pulled off the road, put on a short raincoat, carefully put my aspiration papers, which I was going to turn in to my teacher, into a waterproof compartment, and then continued chanting while driving. Half an hour later, as the rain became heavier and heavier accompanied by fierce thunder, I reached a remote and wild place. The downpour quickly created a flood, and the engine of my motorcycle stopped. After exerting
much effort to drag the motorcycle aside, I sat on a stone at the side of the road and kept reciting the Great Compassion Mantra. My clothes were totally soaked from the rain. Without noticing how much time had passed, I became aware that the feeling of cold and hunger was getting stronger. Then, I had the urge to urinate, but there was no toilet any where. Finally when the need was overpowering, I just allowed the urine to freely flow. When I saw the yellow urine emerge with the flood, my tears couldn’t be stopped from participating in the torrent of water. They were actually tears of devotion mixed with both joy and sorrow, tears caused by my renewing my strong aspiration. My firm faith in the Triple Jewels granted me incredible courage and strength.
Nobody could stop my determination to take this journey which was going against the current of birth and death. About one hour later, the torrential rain stopped. The dark clouds parted, and the sun shone out.
Magically, a beautiful rainbow formed ahead of me, hanging in the direction of my way to the temple. With appreciation, I received it as Buddha’s blessing. .
So, sixteen years ago, as a young lay woman, I left home and entered the monastic Sangha, and sixteen years later, as a middle-age
Buddhist nun, I left the nunnery and entered another world; comparing those two scenes, I see that they are the same journey of “leaving home”. But what I need to let go of now is not the beautiful hair and decorations, but my strong attachment to my nunnery and my familiar culture. “Letting go” doesn’t mean “giving up” or “cutting down”, but transmuting the passionate attachment to a specific object into devotional compassion for all beings, for all states of existence.
John Welwood (John Welwood. Toward a Psychology of Awakening. (Boston& London: Shambhala, 2002). P265. )explained clearly the unbreakable relationship between passion and compassion “As you learn to distinguish between grasping and devotion, you begin to understand the deeper nature of passion- as a doorway into the experience of surrender⋯And the only way to do that is by devoting ourselves to that greater life, and to removing our inner barriers to greater openness, awareness, and genuineness.
1” As I wrote in my ordination aspiration papers: “May I follow the path of Bodhisattva from one life to the next. May I attainenlightenment for the sake of liberating all beings”.