VTC: A Buddhist Nun in High School

by Ven. Thubten Chodron

The high school students wrote and performed the play themselves. Their teacher had invited me to watch it and to give a talk at the school assembly. The plot goes thus: God is sitting in heaven, reading a newspaper while the angels peacefully play Chinese checkers. Devils sneak in, and mischievously incite the angels to quibble and accuse each other of cheating. Pandemonium breaks out in heaven.

“Stop this!!” shouts God. “I won’t have any of this business in heaven! This conflict must be the work of the earthlings. Angel Peace, go to Earth and see what’s going on. Find out why the humans there aren’t peaceful.”

Angel Peace flies to Earth where he organizes a World Peace Conference. The delegates, students from the U.K., Israel, India, Korea, U.S.A., Hong Kong and other countries, tell the woes of their nations – violence, poverty, human suffering.

“There must be something to do about this,” exclaims Angel Peace. “Today we have a guest speaker to talk about peace.”

The teacher nudges me and whispers, “That’s your cue.” Getting up from my seat in the audience, I go on the stage. “Hello students cum delegates at the World Peace Conference. When I was in my teens, I began to ask questions that perhaps you have too: Why do people fight if everyone wants peace? Why is there racial discrimination? Why do family members who love each other argue?

“We always blame our problems on someone or something external – another person, a group of people, the society, the govern-ment, the “system.” Other people and external situations may be a circumstance for our problems, but if we look closely, we can see that conflict really originates in the mind. It comes from anger, jealousy, selfishness, greed, pride, closed-mindedness and other disturbing attitudes. Our minds make the world unpeaceful, so if we want peace, we have to change our own attitudes, and dispel negative emotions such as anger, greed and so on. Governments can’t legislative peace. It only comes when each of us takes the responsibility to control his or her own mind, making it tolerant and peaceful.

“We can develop patience and respect for others by understand-ing that on a deep level we are all the same. Everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to have problems. We have to look beyond people’s superficial qualities – short, tall, handsome, ugly, black, white, rich, poor, educated, illiterate. When we do this, we recognize that in our hearts, we’re all the same in that each of us wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering, although different people find happiness in different ways. Thinking like this, we can develop respect for all living beings.

“Each of us feels ‘My happiness is more important than anyone else’s.’ But if we ask ourselves, ‘Why?’ we can’t find a good reason. Slowly, we can come to see that we aren’t the most important person in the world, that it is the selfish attitude which propels us to aggressively seek our own happiness at the expense of others’ well-being. If we develop the awareness that all beings are equal and therefore everyone’s happiness is important, then automatically, we won’t be so selfish. We’ll see that it’s not essential to always get our own way. We can happily give something up to make others happy, because their happiness is important. The happier others are, the less problems they’ll cause us. So by cherishing others, our own lives will be free from outwards disturbances. In addition, we’ll be happy knowing that others are happy.

“We say that we want peace in the world, in our families, but we often don’t want to relinquish having our own way in order to have peace, and instead we blame the other party for the problem. Peace won’t come that way. If will only come by genuinely wanting others to be happy and by respecting their points of view.

“This attitude of cherishing others is the root of world peace, and each of us has the ability and the responsibility to develop it within ourselves. This is part of our human potential; this is the beauty of being a human being. We can be wise and compassionate, but we must act to develop these qualities. First, we can try to be aware of what we say and do each day, and ask ourselves, ‘Why am I doing this? Is it beneficial for myself and others? Is a kind attitude or a selfish one motivating what I’m saying and doing?’ If we observe that our motivations or actions are destructive, then we can correct them.”

The students were listening intently. Afterwards, many came to thank me. Several teachers asked me to come back and talk to their classes.

Sometimes I spoke to over a thousand students in a school assembly. But when I visited classrooms of twenty-five to thirty students, the format was question-and-answer. In that way, the students told me that they wanted to know. Many of their questions centered around my lifestyle as a Buddhist nun, and how and why I came to make the decision to be ordained. From my side, no question is too personal, because it’s important that young people – and adults too – understand why a person chooses a life style dedicated to self-discovery and to helping others spiritually. Nor is any question stupid, for if a person sincerely wants to know something, that question is meaningful to him or her, and therefore is an important question.

They wanted to know what I do as a nun. What happens every day? Why did I take vows instead of being a lay Buddhist? What did my family and friends say? How have I changed since becoming a nun? Have I ever regretted this decision? What happens if I break a vow? Some teenage girls asked me what I do when I see a handsome man, and one nine-year old innocently asked if nuns got pregnant!

Many questions concerned meditation. What is it? Why do it? How does it help in? In some classes, the students wanted to meditate, so we did a short, simple, breathing meditation. In one school, I led a weekly meditation class. The teachers commented that they never saw their students so quiet.

They wondered who is Buddha? Do I believe in God? One child asked if God ever spoke to me (she was disappointed when I said “No.”) They were very interested in rebirth and karma – how our present actions influence our future experiences.

We discussed selfishness and love. Is an action selfish if what a person does looks good on the outside but his motivation is to get something for himself? What if a person’s motivation was altruistic but her actions didn’t externally appear to be helping others at that very moment? Was my motivation for becoming a nun selfish?

Older students asked about the application of spiritual and ethical principles to politics and social injustice. If anger is to be avoided, what can the blacks in South Africa do to better their situation? What should be done with terrorists? What are the advantages of non-violence? They had to think when I said that sometimes we must act strongly, but with a mind free from anger. Being patient doesn’t mean being passive. Also, we have to develop compassion not only for the victims but also for the aggressors.

They were surprised to hear that I appreciate other religions more since I learned the Buddha’s teachings. They expected me to say that my religion is the best and everyone should be Buddhist. But I didn’t. Instead I told them it is good that many religions exist because people have different inclina-tions and dispositions. With a plurality of religions in the world, people can find an approach suitable for them. Any teaching that encourages people not to harm others and to help and be kind to others – no matter what religious or philosophical tradition it comes from – is a good teaching and we should follow that advice. I continually stressed the need to respect other religions, and to look at the meaning of a religious teachings, not just to get stuck in the words and think, “I am this and you are that. Therefore, we can’t get along.” Such an attitude leads to conflict and war.

It is invigorating to discuss things with teenagers because they are direct and honest. They are examining new ideas and at the same time clinging to old ones. But they’re open and inquisitive, and I was pleased just by the fact that my talks set them thinking. Inevitably, the bell rang and time was up before the students ran out of questions.

I was also impressed with the administrators and teachers of the English Schools Foundation, because they wanted the students to be exposed to people from various walks of life. They wanted people to talk to the students about world peace. This open-minded attitude in the school system was so refreshing, and of course, the students benefited from it.

How did the parents react to my visits to the schools? I met some parents and they were pleased. “Children learn so much information in school, but they aren’t taught how to deal with their emotions or how to get along with others. The schools don’t teach our children how to be kind human beings. They teach them how to make business and how to generate nuclear energy, but not how to use these things properly,” they said. “Your talks made them think about how their actions influence others.”

This raises a crucial question: what is important to learn in school? Personally, I have always felt (and I was a teacher before becoming a nun) that if children learn how to be good human beings and how to be happy and get along with others, they still will learn other subjects and will be happier to do so. After all, should we measure success in life by how much we know and how much money we have, or by how happy we are and how well we get along with others?

The nine-year olds wrote letters and drew pictures after my visit. Here are some excerpts:

“Dear Chodron, thank you for coming to talk about Buddhism. When you showed us how to meditate, my legs began to ache. You said that when you started to meditate your legs ached too. I thought you would be used to it because you do it most of the time. I really think you are a nice nun. Thank you very much.” “It was very interesting. It was the first time I ever saw a Buddhist nun. I thought you were the best nun I ever saw. I think it is best not to kill animals.” “The world of Buddhism is fascinating. I learned that if you are selfish and unkind, people will be unkind back to you. So it is best to be kind. I liked your robes. They are very colorful.” “You don’t grow your hair or wear make-up because you don’t have to look pretty on the outside, but you are nice on the inside.”


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