Hannah in Bodh Gaya: The Lowell Cut

    Instead of TV we have haircuts. Ram, the Vihar barber, sits outside the library building after lunch and everyone stands around and watches while he cuts someone’s hair or shaves it with a straight razor. Ram is older, he has big, smiley yellow teeth and a stoop in his back. He speaks very little English but it’s obvious that he thinks it’s pretty hilarious how we oggle him when he’s just doing his job.

    In the evening, Lowell provides the entertainment. Lowell is one of us students, and he’s only done girls’ hair so far. He works at night so that Ram won’t see, and he wears a cave diver’s headlamp that does nothing to surpress his own curls. His method is simple: he ties the hair in a single braid, cuts the braid off at the top, then hands it to the owner. The result is a charmingly uneven, short but feminine European style, which we call “The Lowell Cut” (it almost rhymes with bowl cut.)

    As a group, we’ve had less and less hair over the last week. This is partly because hair is hot and annoying, but it’s also because we’ll have the chance to temporarily ordain as monks or nuns in a few days, and if we do that we’ll get our heads shaved anyway.

    I do not know if I want to ordain or not, even though I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.

    When I’m in a very cynical or independent mood, I like to question the value of ceremonies. Weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies, whatever. It’s funny how easily I forget the times when I’ve found these meaningful. On Sunday there was a ceremony for our initiation into Buddhist meditation practice.

    The abbot of the Burmese Vihar lead the chanting. Our class sourcebooks had the translations and transliterations of the Burmese texts we were saying, but the ceiling fan in the Buddha hall blew my book open to the wrong page, so I had to listen and repeat. The abbot said the different chants many times, so it was OK. Singing is not allowed for monastics, but these chants sounded like songs to me. We were reciting the five Buddhist precepts and taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Robert, the program director and mediation traditions teacher, said that we could remain silent during the taking refuge part, and I thought about doing that. Since I didn’t have the translations in front of me, I did take refuge without knowing what I was saying. When I realized that I was chanting the word “Sangha,” it didn’t bother me at all.

    After the Abbot left, Ulah Myinth, our meditation teacher for the next few weeks, explained the five precepts in a way that didn’t really allow for moral relativism.

    “Nobody in the universe want to be killed,” he said.

    The ceremony made me feel and good and I didn’t really understand why. I thought maybe I would become a nun for a week. There were two sisters there during the ceremony, and they looked quite still and severe. When I talked to them in their room the other night, they were sweet and funny. Sister Molini told us why she became a nun.

    “I had so many trouble, so many struggle in my life,” she said. “I think, for who I have all these storm? For me only.”

    She said that she realized that her struggles all came from herself and not other people, and that, as a nun, she doesn’t have to think about herself so she doesn’t have to struggle. Nuns are always helping people. People can get merit just from giving nuns a little money or food.

    The other sister said that if we had hard times later in life, we would remember how we’d been nuns for a week and that memory would be a friend for us.

    I just don’t know if wearing the robes and following the rules for seven days will give me the happy nun experience that the sisters have. I’m most uncomforatable with being segregated from other students in the group. (If we’re ordained, we eat separately and we’re supposed to avoid idle conversation and undignified behavior, like loud laughing.) Normally, if you become a monastic, you get separated from people far from the monastery, not the people you’re hanging out with every day. Students from past years say that the separation can be quite awkward.

    I think maybe it’s enough for me to be here in India, in a monastery, living simply. It’s been good so far. I have about an hour to decide if I’ll ordain or not. After my shower last night, I went into my room with a pair of scissors, closed my eyes and cut off most of my hair. So that’s not really the issue anymore.

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