The Journey to the Nunnery

By Sophia Tsang

From the ease with which Venerable Chiang Lin speaks of her community, one would never guess that just 16 months ago, she was living in Taiwan. After completing her monastic training at the Dharma Drum Sangha University in China, Lin was selected to serve at the Chan Meditation Center in Elmhurst, Queens, where she fulfills her life’s calling as a Buddhist nun.

“I always thought I wanted to be a businesswoman,” Lin says reflecting on her journey toward monasticism. “I had always imagined myself being an architect and working for a big company abroad.”

At the age of 18, she did exactly that. Lin left her hometown in Kedah, Malaysia, to study in Australia, almost 5,000 miles away. She had strong ambitions, yet when she realized her dream, working in the architecture field, she felt unhappy, “lonely in my heart and my mind.”

In 2003, Lin decided to return to China, which was undergoing social unrest. At the same time, Lin felt turmoil within herself.

“I didn’t understand why I was not happy,” she says with angst, “but I learned to find comfort in the readings of Buddha. The experiences connected to my life and my suffering.” She adds, ”I started to teach myself the words of Zen.”

For the next four years, she enrolled and trained intensely at the Sanga monastic university, in Sanjie Village, Jinshan, committing herself to the highest form of Buddhist spirituality—becoming a fully ordained nun, or bhikkhunis.

Now, more than a year later, Lin has been running the Chan Meditation Center with the same fervor and dedication. Her role is vital to the large Buddhist community not only in the Elmhurst area, but throughout New York City. Although there are 18 branches in the United States and Canada, the Chan center is one of the two highly sacred temples housing monastic residents. The monks and nuns reside in small dormitories on the third floor, closed off to visitors, but with “everything we need,” Lin says.

Lin serves as a model of how to live an ethical life. Monastic monks and nuns must follow the strict disciplines of Vinaya, or a strict human detachment from indulgence in personal, social or political interest. The five basic precepts are no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying or taking of intoxicants.

Lin must also refrain from taking food at inappropriate times, singing, dancing, playing music, wearing cosmetics or fragrances, accepting money or even sleeping on soft beds. The gray robe and shaven head specific to Zen Buddhist reflect this minimalism.

Lin’s presence is as a physical reminder of the Buddhist path— withdrawal from worldly matters and material possession in order to focus on spiritual growth toward Nirvana. As Lin bows to greet Sam Uddin, a member for over 11 years, three little shaven dots aligned at the top of her head can be seen clearly, three Jewels of Buddhism, symbolizing the relationship among Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

“Lin, to me, is an example of societal reform,” says Uddin. In India, where a caste system has a deep hold on the culture, women were seen as inferior to men, but Buddhism defies that. “She stands for everything Buddhism represents– that all people are created equal,” Uddin says.

According to the virtues, a person’s nobility is earned rather than assumed at birth. Women, therefore, were allowed to rise to the ranks of men, he explains.

As a longstanding member, Uddin has witnessed the changes at the Chan Meditation Center. After working shortly in California, Uddin move back to New York four years ago. “This was one of the first places I visited when I got back,” he says.

The center had grown to over 300 members, but only about half are active. The community is predominantly Chinese, but diversity is increasing. “I was one of the only Indian people when I first came here,” he says, but now people come from all five boroughs andWestchester. Because of this, Lin’s role has become even greater in the last few years because she is only one of two monastic residents who speak English fluently.

The sangha, or group of monks and nuns, play an active, hands-on role in the community. Lin is the main instructor for the chanting service, available every Sunday at the center’s open house. She begins the procession by taking her position on stage, in a profile to the audience.

Without a word, Lin pounds the drums once to indicate the start. As the beat echoes in the hall, the devotional chanting of Guanyin’s name (bodhisattva Avalokitesvara) is repeated. The words eventually begin to meld into one endless sentence drowned out by the steady beating of the drum. Gradually, all of you senses become numb.

Meditation and religious orders of the morning are usually offset by mundane administrative work. Donation receipts are written, paperwork for the new annex is entered and regular household chores must be completed by the day’s end. Lin spends the rest of her day planning retreats, events, classes and lectures for the public, while laypeople and volunteers help with tasks.

Every Sunday, for example, Rita and John Ching buy and cook vegetarian meals for the lunch offering service. “It’s important that we give back to the center, especially because they [monks and nuns] have given so much to us…I have a lot more time now that I’m retired,” says Rita Ching. Laypeople look upon monks and nuns for guidance, while monks and nuns look to their community for support in food and money.

Buddhist monks and nuns cannot work or make a living and rely on donations. This codependency between laypeople and the sangha create a special dynamic.

“Lin is a mentor and community figure, having worked under her presence is really humbling … it gives me greater respect for the art,” says Dr. Richard Asher, a dharma lecturer in training. “Her influence is not only felt at CMC, her presence wherever she goes is symbolic,” including appearances at other branches.”

“In my past lifetime I know I was a Buddhist, in this lifetime, I’ve become a nun,” Lin says, speaking of her reincarnation. With no change in tone or volume, but a discernible nod, she adds:
“It is my duty to spread Buddha Dharma. “This is what I should be doing.”