This is an interview with Mae Tiew and Vajjani.
An Uber ride in Los Angeles led me to an inspiring woman named Mae Tiew. Mae Tiew has been running a children's home in Thailand called Home Hug for 30 years. Home Hug cares for children who were born with HIV/AIDS, whose parents have passed and whose families refuse to care for them. Mae Tiew has even had to bury a few of the children herself. Words cannot adequately describe the woman she is. She spoke highly of her Buddhist teacher Vajjani, who is a highly ordained nun also known as a Bhikkuni. Vajjani has an interesting story as well, to say the least. I was fortunate to talk to her and stay the night in her temple with the other sisters. My conversations with both Mae Tiew and Vajjani on and off the record were insightful. Here's one on the record.
A: Mae Tiew, how long have you been a Buddhist nun?
MT: Nine months.
A: What made you want to become a Buddhist nun?
MT: I had a problem. One kid was raped at school by her teacher in the bathroom. I was very sad every time I looked the child in her face. I would cry. And she would cry. I couldn’t stop crying. And I thought to myself, “If I cannot be strong and I cry everyday, then the kids don’t have the support they need.“ I have to be strong for the kids. They don’t have mothers or fathers. I want to be strong and take care of them. So I became a nun to get strong and to train my mind. I also have stomach cancer. So meditation and prayer helps.
A: How has Buddhism helped you with Home Hug?
MT: Before I become a nun when there was no food for the children I would get really upset. My face would tense up. Now, no food? Okay. I stay calm. Before when things would not go right I would get very upset. Now I pray. I meditate. I deal with things much better now.
A: How did you meet your teacher?
MT: My teacher came to Yasothon to visit the kids at Home Hug. And she did activities with the kids. I looked at her and I thought, Wow, I started Home Hug 30 years ago and I don’t have people come and teach or visit the kids. Some people just come to look; to see what a kid with HIV looks like and leaves. But Vajjani, my teacher came to visit and help. I looked her in the eye and I saw kindness. I trust her.
A: Vajjani can you explain a little bit about the principles of Buddhism?
V: The core part of Buddhism is to teach everyone to look at things as they are. The reason people cannot look through the illusion is that it is caused by desires and those things, so it is not real anymore. In short, there are basic ways to get through that point, and you have to be mindful in everything concerning your own mind and body. You have to learn yourself. It’s not that you learn outside you anymore. The starting point to learn about yourself is to be mindful about how your mind works and how your body works. There are many methods to learn this. Some people for example, start chanting to help quiet the mind down. It’s at that point you can start to look into yourself. Chanting and meditation are also to help achieve tranquility. Once you have this tranquil mind, you’ll start to learn about your own mind much better because you can really see in detail how it works. Once you gain the knowledge of observing how your mind works, you’ll realize it’s just the reaction between the nature and the mind and it’s nothing that concerns the ‘self’ it’s just an interaction interdependent of the nature. And in that case, once you understand it, you let go of the “self” that you thought exist. Once the ‘self’ is abandoned, at that point you’ll see things as they really are. So this is the core concept of Buddhism. The methods vary a lot and depends on which way will suit each person. It starts with generosity, tranquility of the mind and then wisdom. Three major parts of Buddhism.
A: In regards to wisdom, what does that look like with children who are monks? I mean, most times age and wisdom are associated with one another. That the older you are the wiser you are, most of the time.
V: Well wisdom in the Buddhism sense is different from wisdom in the wordly sense. It doesn’t have anything to do with learning knowledge or graduating from college. Wisdom is something you gain from the knowledge of knowing how your mind works. So with the children, let’s say 8 or 9 years old if they look at themselves they can notice it’s an ability of everyone. It’s not the “grown-up” world looking into how their minds work much better than children. The children will actually be more accurate because they are not distracted by any previous knowledge. But, in Thailand nowadays I don’t see many novices anymore because they’re not interested in learning or having wisdom in that sense anymore, because the core part of Buddhism in Thailand is actually not taught and has been tilted.
A: Why did you become a nun?
V: Well, I’ve been a nun for 8 years. But before that, I was an architect, and I worked in many countries. I was very happy in my life.
Suddenly one day I thought that life is really boring.
V: Just like that!
I remember I was sitting at the side of the swimming pool thinking, “Oh, this so relaxing so good, well but then tomorrow I have to go to work again.” And it’s so boring it’s so tedious, in life. I tried to find a way, of how to get out of this tedious life. It’s like a circle. And I was afraid, what will happen. Will there be any next life? Will I become a human being or will I become a turtle! Haha! And then I was really scared of the future, I was never scared of my future before because it was always successful. But once I thought, “What’s going to happen in my next life?” And then I realized, ah! Buddha said that you can get out of this samsara.
V: It’s like once you’re born and then you die you’ll just be born again and again and again.
A: As the same person?
V: No, that’s not Buddhism. That’s Hinduism. We’re not talking about that sense, but rather birth and death and birth and death and during life you will experience tedious things, again and again and again. And this life is boring, because it’s like happy and sad and happy and sad. Birth, death, happy, sad -nothing more than that. So Buddhists believe you will be born again because you still have some craving left in your heart. Before you die, in fact, now you think that life is good, I don’t want to die because there are many good things in my life. So then it means that you attach to it. But you want to try to push away that part and then take in whatever you like always. There’s this energy of putting out and moving in and moving all the time in our life and this moving this energy works! And then once you die, this energy where is it?! It doesn’t disappear. So with this energy, it creates something, a new aggregate, combined with this leftover energy. And the new life starts again. I was afraid, and I remember that Buddha said there is a way out of this samsara. And I wanted to know how to get out of this samsara. About a few days later, someone handed me a leaflet, and it stated, ‘If you want to see things as they really are and get out of the samsara, please come out and learn Vipassana meditation.' And I thought, this is what I want to learn! And from that point on... I started learning Vipassana medititation as a lay person and still working as an architect.
A: You were still an architect?
V: Yes! For many years. And then I started to be bored. Once I learned more about my mind and about the philosophy of Buddhism. It’s like, you try to get out of the illusion to see the real thing. But as an architect you create an illusion all the time! And I was very good! I was very good at creating an illusion. I tried to make people believe in that illusion. It was so ridiculous to me. And I didn’t want to live my life like that anymore.
A: This notion, resonates with so many people in America.
A: Earlier you corrected me and said that you are not a monk, you are a nun. So the males are monks and the women are nuns?
V: Yes. I see this as the case sometimes in America, that a nun will be called a female monk. Maybe they use that term in America, I don’t know. It’s like when you hear the word nun you know that this is female, right?
V: For me it’s the same. Nun is all female and monk is a monk. To me when I hear female monk, I think women’s liberation, equal rights...
A: That’s what you associate it with?
V: Yes. That you want to be like a male. You don’t have to be called a monk in order to be the same. The technical term is Buddhist nun. 8 precept nun, 10 precept nun... A specific name of a high ordained nun is called Bhikkuni, (peek-ka-nee).
A: Can you talk a little bit about gender relations in Thai society?
V: It’s different than in the secular world. I don’t see inequality that much anymore in the regular world. If we talk about 80 years ago yes, women were still behind, you know required to work in the kitchen and stuff. There’s a saying in Thailand that women are the two back legs of the elephant. That’s the way it used to be. It changed not long ago. In Thailand the woman gets paid the same amount as a man for the same job unlike in the U.S. Actually in the company I worked, most of the executive managers were female. This of course is my experience. I don’t know about others.
A: How do people in Thai society perceive Buddhist monks and nuns?
V: If you’re an 8 precept nun, that’s fine. But once you become a Buddhist nun, a Bhikkuni that’s where you run into issues. The saffron robe is a critical issue right now. Well first you must know the background of the gender problem in Buddhism. It started about 90 years ago, at that time Thailand was about to become a democratic country. And a political leader at the time, who was a very engaged Buddhist had two daughters who were not yet 20 years old. And he thought that it’s very strange in Thailand that at the time there was no Bhikkuni. Must be monk, Bhikkuni, lay man and lay woman. It’s something that is just not stable anymore in Thailand. So he had his two daughters ordained. And people accepted them very well, and the went out for alms rounds in the morning and they got many offering but the newspaper and the news stated “Women Dare to Wear Monk Robe!” During that time, women were still looked down as something lower. The news spread and got to the assembly of the king. And the king said that it has to be managed. So the parliament at that time, checked out the law and found there was nothing they did against the law. They couldn’t do anything because he was not wrong. They checked into the code of the country’s law not Buddhist law. They couldn’t do anything but they didn’t want women wearing saffron robe in the society, they thought that it was something wrong. So they went through a loophole to try to do something about it. So the parliament concluded that the monks should set up a new law that any person who imitates a monk by wearing a saffron robe is against monk law. And once the monk law came out, the country would support this. So these girls were put into jail for a few days and fined. So it was considered law. And since then no female has been ordained in Thailand and now monks are forbidden to ordain any women to be Bhikkuni. So women who wish to be ordained and become Bhikkuni must go out of the country to Sri Lanka, India, Taiwan or something like that. So when the first Bhikkuni appeared in Thai society 14 years ago, we thought “Oh! We thought Bhikkunis were extinct!” And so she showed us no you can go other places and become Bhikkuni. Something monks tried concealing from us. So she opened the door.
A: So from then on women started going to other countries to get ordained?
V: Yes. That’s like challenging the monks, and the law of the monks of Thailand! Nowadays Thai society is more open. But yes, it was like a slap in the monks’ face! I think we also need to follow the international equality, or whatever too. Thailand should also follow that, so you cannot forbid this. I organized high ordination or Bhikkuni in my temple. But quietly, you know? Because I think we have the right. So that is the first time the Bhikkuni ordination occur in Thailand. And now there have been more people who have organized high ordination in Thailand.
A: I would think that the council of monks would want you to be ordained here.
V: Exactly. What’s ridiculous is that they don’t own Buddhism. And they can’t forbid any legal right to women. Right now what they’re trying to do, is if in the community of monks somewhere outside of Thailand think that ordination of women is legal then that might cause a conflict between all the Buddhists and they said that whoever accepts this, that they are trying to cause the conflict in the future in the Buddhist society. So therefore they are trying to say the nun is the reason for the conflict among the monks. And the Thai people who don’t read at all, they never check the canon or the Buddhist scholar writings they just believe in that 100%.
A: But the monks are well read?
V: No. They listen to the head monk. If the head monk says that then it’s right. Most of the scholar monks do not follow this. The council of the monks are old monks and they get a large amount of profit, they are very rich and in fact they have title ranking among them and they fight for the ranking. Sometimes they pay so much money to get the higher ranking. So in Thailand it’s really corrupt with the council. The monks are scared and think that in society there will be competition between monks and nuns in terms of profit. So the monks are afraid. This of course, has nothing to do with the principles of Buddhism and what we’ve been taught.
But in monk society, there is a tradition called forest monk and they don’t involve in money at all. They are good. They focus on practicing and they live life according to what Buddha taught. And they are not dealing with this high ranking among monks and the council.
A: That’s what I picture a monk to be, very simple.
V: Yes. Yes.
A: While I was at the bus terminal in Bangkok, I saw a monk smoking a cigarette and I thought, Oh I didn’t know they could smoke cigarettes!
V: In Thailand it seems to be normal, but in Sri Lanka, it’s like Oh! How dreadful! Monks there can smoke but they don't, well maybe secretly.
A: So monks can do what we do. You mentioned going on Facebook and ..
V: Yes that’s okay. The difference is we don’t get attached. But in old tradition they were forbidden to read the news or anything because it was a distraction. It depends. Some think, well as long as I know about the world and I still interact but I’m not attached.
A: What do you think about the situation with the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar and the Buddhist monks there who have them in internment camps? It doesn’t seem to make sense to me a religious community acting on violence and hate towards another people. I also read that those who have managed to escape are mostly in Bangkok.
V: Well I’ve heard the history of the people are that the lived in Myanmar but they were hired by the British to start a riot and to kill the monks. The conflict on the border on the Muslim side, they killed a lot of the Buddhist monks in Myanmar. So the Burmese people don’t want them. But that’s 100 years ago. It doesn’t make sense.
But you have to understand, because when you believe that strongly in something -in a faith. You say "we" and "them." And you begin to think you are better than them.
A: In Buddhism are you supposed to serve the community?
V: No. The core part of Buddhism is to study your mind and study about yourself. And in order to understand and to help others. There’s nothing about not helping others, you should help others. But at the same time you should have something that you know to tell them in order to help them.
Me: And that’s where all the mindful training comes in?
V: Yes. Yes.