In December 2019, I was in Phuket, Thailand completing my teacher’s training in mindfulness and decided to do a ten day meditation in Bangkok. I have never done a meditation retreat near Bangkok. I have been to Khao Yai and Rayong for meditation retreats. Bangkok was never an option for me as I did not want to be near the city. Besides, I did not know of any teachers in Bangkok as I have always followed the teachers of the Thai forest meditation tradition started by the legendary Ajahn Mun.
I was not feeling physically fit then and felt I could not follow the rigours of practice in the Thai forest meditation. I wanted a long retreat in the forest, but at the time, I thought of doing a short retreat near the city, before heading home to complete my certification and return again to Thailand.
I had not expected the Covid-19 pandemic to put an end to international air travel and my aspirations.
At that short retreat, I met Mae Chee Brigitte (also known as MC Brigitte) who lives and teaches at Wat Prayong. MC Brigitte teaches introductory Buddhism to mostly Western travellers at Wat Prayong monthly. She also runs retreats in Europe and has regular students. I sought a quiet place to practice at Wat Prayong. The comings and goings of the many Thai visitors as well as some of the newbie Western meditators was not what I had in mind.
Nevertheless, I managed to practice with help from MC Brigitte and I began to be curious about how a Westerner like her from faraway Austria became a Mae Chee in Thailand.
First of all, Theravada Buddhism does not recognise fully ordained nuns. There were ordained nuns in this tradition found only in Sri Lanka and possibly in Myanmar. The Buddhist order died out in Sri Lanka due to war, drought and famine in the 11th century. The bhikkhus (ordained monks) in Thailand and Cambodia helped revive the monk’s order in Sri Lanka. But there were no bhikkhunis (ordained nuns) in these countries that could revive the women’s Buddhist order.
Thus, women could only practise as an eight precept or ten precept nun in these Theravadin Buddhist countries. It was not until 1996 that the ordination of women was revived in Sri Lanka. It is highly helpful to be fully ordained in Theravada Buddhism because this tradition relies heavily on support from the lay community for food, medicine, robes and lodging. Monastics in the Theravada tradition, unlike other traditions, do not handle money.
In Thailand, women could only practice as eight precept nuns. Thus, many do not receive the respect or help usually given to ordained monastics. Thus, it is admirable in my opinion for MC Brigitte to have stayed in Thailand to practice for such a long time.
The following is an interview with her. ..
When and where were you born? What religion did you grow up with?
I was born in the City of Salzburg in Austria as Brigitte Schrottenbacher in December 1962. My family is Roman Catholic. When I was young, I loved listening to stories of God and Jesus and wanted to be a good human being.
What caused you to start practising Buddhism?
I felt there is something really disturbing in life. I have to die, my loved ones have to die.
I had this fear of death after the birth of my second child. I feared the death of my loved ones. Although the feelings went away, I again felt it at the death of my partner’s grandmother. This uncertainty about life led to a kind of depression and that led me to practising yoga and later Buddhism.
Did you learn Buddhism in Austria? How did you end up practising in Thailand?
I went for a yoga course with a best friend. I experienced samadhi in the first yoga session I did. That was overwhelming, I never felt this way before. I got my first Vipassana instructions in Austria. My yoga teacher in Salzburg, seeing that I was getting serious about meditation practice, gave me the address of a meditation centre in Chachoengsao province in Thailand.
I went there in march 1989 and stayed for a 50 days intensive silent retreat under the guidance of Phra Acharn Thawee, an excellent Vipassana master of Thai Nationality and Phra Manfred, a German monk.
Can you tell us about your first Buddhist teacher?
Phra Acharn Thawee was the eldest son of a Thai-Chinese family. He never married and as the eldest son, he had to take over the family business with many ships that were fishing in the Andaman sea. One day he was out on one of those boats and they had caught a dolphin. He saw the dolphin having tears in his eyes. That day he stopped that job, passed the business to his nephews and became a recluse, practising alone in the forests of Thailand. After years in the forests he became a monk and studied with many teachers, also with Mahasai Sayadaw where he adopted his Vipassana practice. He taught for many years until he passed away in 1996.
What prompted you to stay in Thailand and to ordain as a Mae Chee?
After my 50 days retreat I was very happy and a hundred percent sure this is the way I want to live from now on.
It was a very difficult year of leaving behind not just my life and belongings in Austria but also my two children. I had to return to Thailand. So, I took them with me to Thailand but realised that staying in the temple as a nun with two small children was impossible. After a year, I had to bring them back to their father and to separate from them.
What was the most memorable experience for you practising under your Buddhist teacher in Thailand?
There are so many, but one of the first that I can’t forget is when I came to my first teacher one day with tears in my eyes and told him that I was thinking of my children. He listened and then turned his head to the right looking around and then to the left and then he asked, “What children?” It made it clear that all suffering is in the mind.
What did you learn the most in your time in Thailand?
My second teacher Phra Acharn Sangwahn taught mainly “know and let go”. Knowing the present moment, the present object and letting it go, don’t hold on to it, don’t get involved.
Not being careless, knowing (sati) and understanding (sampajanna) is important. Understanding the true nature of the object – it is impermanent (anicca), not satisfying (dukkha) or suffering and not under our control (anatta) or empty of a self.
What is the attitude of the monasteries and community towards Mae Chees in Thailand?
Well, to be honest Thai nuns are usually not that very much supported and respected. Many Thais think they became nuns because they had no other place to go. In the past it was the only refuge for women who had been rejected by their husbands. I have met so many buddhist nuns with high spiritual realizations. But usually they are quiet and humble.
I have done social projects to support buddhist nuns since 2001. As I have seen and experienced, it can be pretty hard to practice without much support.
You were ordained as a nun in Bhutan. How did that happen?
I met my third teacher, His Eminence Tsugla Lopen Samten Dorje Rinpoche in 2013 in Thailand through Khenpo Ugyen from Bhutan. He invited me to visit Bhutan and I was so impressed by this wonderful country and Vajrayana Buddhism. So I returned to Bhutan to do a one month retreat in 2014 under the guidance of Tsugla Lopen and after that retreat he gave me my second ordination into the Drukpa Kagyu lineage.
What is the status of nuns in Bhutan? Are they recognised?
There are only a few nuns in Bhutan. I have visited two nunneries, one was supported by private donors and one was supported by the queen mother of Bhutan.
It is just beginning to sort out facilities for nuns to study Buddhism. A lot of effort to support this was done by the Je Khenpo, the queen and my teacher Tsugla Lopen. I also have a project to support this project of my teacher.
Are there any differences between Buddhist meditation in Thailand and Bhutan?
Well, they are of different lineages, Theravada and Vajrayana. But I think they go the same way. It’s building up. I am very happy I could learn a lot in the Theravada practice. I saw some people who have started straight away with Vajrayana but had no insight in the basics like the four noble truths, trilaksana, and the noble eightfold path.
It is in my opinion not possible to go into a deeper understanding of the dhamma without those insights.
So my practice always starts with concentration, vipassana contemplation and continues with loving kindness, sharing the accumulated merit, and practising for the benefit of all beings.
Any advice for women interested in practising Buddhism full time?
Be where you are in the present moment. Know it’s true nature – impermanence, non-self and suffering, and let it be. No matter where you are, what you do. Even if you become a nun, it’s always the same.
Wisdom is not just found by sitting in meditation for many hours a day or studying Buddhism many hours a day. Wisdom is there every moment, just open your eyes and your heart.
Sure, listen to the dhamma, reflect on it and sit still to realize it. But it is there wherever you are and in whatever that happens!
Ghost Month Series: This series explores different angles of the 7th Lunar Month, also known as the Ghost Month. Festivals, Cultures, and Religions often mix together in one place, offering space for different interpretations. We, like you, are keen to explore more. Discern what is helpful to your practice and discard whatever is not.
TLDR: The encounters with an unseen being leads to a reflection on human nature and how we relate to other beings in Buddhist cosmology.
One Fateful Night
At barely 6.30pm, the women’s compound of Wat Boonyawad was almost pitch dark within the forest. I hastened my footsteps after finishing walking meditation near the main gate – tempo accelerando. There was no one else. In that solitude, I wished someone was with me — just not the unseen sort, whatever it wanted with me.
My torch was barely strong enough to see beyond one metre from my feet. Leaves crunched beneath me, like in The Slender Man.
Near my kuti (small practitioner’s hut) after I had washed my feet, leaves rustled and a breezy presence weaved through the surrounding forest. Yet, my skin pricked with heat. Panicking, I ran up the steps to the door.
Meeting the Ghost of my Mind
I fumbled for the key, with the torch gripped in between my teeth. Jaws tightened. The fear of being caught up by a menacing force crescendoed as each attempt to slot the key into the lock pad failed. Mosquitoes hummed impatiently beside my ears. Quick. Quick.
Finally, the lock turned and I slammed the door tightly behind me. All that hooting and howling from the forest grew claustrophobic; their sources unbeknownst to me. The forest has its ways to play tricks on the mind. This meditation retreat was my first ever to stay alone in a forest hut within a Thai monastery. So much unknown to fear for.
The relief of getting into the kuti (meditation hut) did not last, I hurried to the little altar to light up the candles, the heart-throbbing at my throat.
Buddha, help me. Bow. Dhamma, help me. Bow. Ajahns, help me. Bow. The candles flickered in the twilight.
I inched my way to unwind the huge windows for ventilation; my eyes averting the ominous world outside. What if a ghastly face stared back at me? At that thought, my hair stood on its ends as a chill ran down the spine. Spinning out of the sensation, I plunged to the floor into a half-lotus position for sitting meditation.
Buddho buddho buddho.
When hyperventilation evolved into a smoother and more refined breath, I saw clearly all that fear about ghosts was merely the sensitive mind misdirecting its alertness. I believed in ghosts’ presence within Buddhist cosmology.
At that time, I also assumed their nature to seek me out in avenging my past karmic misdeeds and sucking my energy dry with evil trances.
That such a hateful encounter was bound to happen kept my heart from sinking into the peace. It wasn’t the forest that was playing tricks. My defiled mind was the culprit puppeteer, pulling strings on a ghost puppet.
The First Encounter
No, I would not let that made-up ghost rob me of the peace that can develop from retreating thousands of miles away from home. The fear mis-manufactured from baseless perceptions and thoughts can stay.But I did not wish to indulge its willfulness, despite not understanding it fully.
With that determination to set aside fear, the heart finally found its resting spot in even more refined breaths: a clear quiet space opened up within my mind. The candles at the altar had gone out by then. The nocturne calls of animals were distant. This was one of the rare peaceful moments in the retreat, truly. A deep state of focus, tranquil, alert.
Soon, a face showed itself in my mind’s eyes. No vengeful entrance — gradual, weightless.
Just a head dripping in blood, rotten flesh, long hair; her round bloodshot eyes stared into me. The body trailed off. A very… sorry plight; nothing threatening.
I couldn’t explain how I knew this presence to be true but I did. The fear that I experienced earlier did not arise again. No goosebumps. No chills. I steadied the mind on the being, looking right back. I did not wish her away, neither did she seem to want to go away. Not yet.
Here, memories of reading Mae Chee Kaew’s biography where she communicated to ghosts using her heart surfaced within my mind. I was definitely not Mae Chee Kaew, but maybe I could try communicating to the ghost too.
What do you need from me? What is helpful for you?
Share merits. You have been practising the Dhamma.
I will wish you well. Hope you can receive them.
Eyes shut tight still. My heart turned inwards further and channel whatever wholesome bits it could find towards the being in front:
May you receive all the blessings from the goodness I had cultivated since the start of my life. May you have the merits you need for a fortunate rebirth. May you seek safety and refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. May you be free from all sorts of suffering in the future. May you be well and happy.
These phrases repeated in my mind like a playlist on loop, religiously as if my life–her life–depended on them. The sphere of goodwill (metta) radiated outwards to imbue her presence within it. Not long after a few cycles, the unseen being took her leave –gently, gradually, lightly–much like how she appeared but with more ease. The meditation came to an end too.
Do I know you? I wanted to ask but I didn’t. A sense of familiarity lingered, although I could not quite put a finger to it.
Moonlight shone through the canopy; their piercing beams reflected off the forest floor, lighting up the pitch dark from before. I took three candles outside, keen to place them along the earthen path for walking meditation. Finally, I was brave enough to venture out after nightfall. Before this night, moonlit walking meditation was completely unfathomable.
Affinity Knows no Boundaries
In my subsequent stays at various forest monasteries, trips to Kuala Lumpur, even at home, when I was alone in meditation and there were particular still moments of clarity at night, unseen beings of similar profiles would appear in my meditation. Each time, they asked for merits. Each time, I tried to maintain my compassion to share merits. Afterwards, they would leave quietly.
The restless mind was still afraid of the dark and jumpscares, but the fear was more manageable than the very first encounter.
These encounters were at least half a year apart so I thought that the beings were different individuals.
It was not until my India pilgrimage that I realised a trend.
Final Encounter in Pilgrimage
The hotel we stayed in at Vesali was haunted. According to Thai Forest Venerable Luang Por Piak, tens of thousands of hungry ghosts hung around the hotel. At the worst of my cough, I felt nauseous on the first night, after returning from a day of breakdowns. A Thai female doctor with the tour suggested treating me with acupuncture, which I desperately accepted. Anything to get me out of that bodily hell.
Moments after the acupuncture began, I slipped into unconsciousness while I was trying very much to be mindful of the needles. Soon, I fainted on my bed.
That night, I woke to a persistent furious hammering on the windows. Calling out to my Thai roommate from my crippling fear of angry ghosts, I hid under the covers, still weak from earlier. She went up to check the curtains and found monkeys. Nothing to be afraid of. Go back to sleep. How? I could barely feel safe.
On the second evening in Vesali, a second acupuncture session occurred in another hotel room, in which its inhabitants complained of paranormal activities from the night before. Despite the crowd receiving treatment, I caught a waft of ‘off-energy’. While sitting in meditation at a dimly lit corner, the mind gathered into stillness.
Soon enough, a familiar image of a bloody head and wispy long black hair came into view – the same request ensued.
This time I finally recognised her although she was hovering at the corner. An insight struck: this was the very same unseen being who sought my attention at Wat Boonyawad and thereafter.
She had followed me to India! She had been following me all this while! In sharing merits, I recollected about the wholesomeness from visiting the key Buddhist holy sites thus far and wished her to rejoice in the rare occasions arising from that pilgrimage. That night, I slept soundly.
At the last stop of the pilgrimage – Varanasi, my tour group disclosed that my Thai roommate (gifted with supernatural vision) had seen a ghost sitting on my bed that very night in Vesali. That was definitely goosebumps-inducing. Rounding up the trip at a final chanting session in Deer’s Park, I made a determination to dedicate all the merits from the pilgrimage to the unseen being.
Since then, she has not visited me in meditation. I would like to think that she has gathered sufficient merits to be reborn in a better place.
How Can We Live Better in this Cosmic World?
My unseen encounters left a lasting effect on my practice. They taught me to face my fear of darkness and to respect the presence of unseen beings. Now, I make a point to share merits every morning chanting and when I offer meal dana to monks. Sharing merits help to cultivate generosity in the immaterial world.
I have not mentioned the unseen encounters to my spiritual friends openly, for fear of coming across as boastful. The intention of sharing my encounters here is to help readers reflect that there are deprived states, where unseen beings exist in our cosmic world.
They exist out of their attachments and/or hatred to this material world, which they were not able to relinquish upon their death as humans.
(While I have not met malicious beings, I have heard stories of where ghosts have party hangouts in rooms for extended periods.)
Reflecting on the deprived states of ghosts, can we then work on our attachments, anger and hatred in this human life?
Perhaps, as much as I have encountered the manifestations of an unseen being, the visualization mirrored the hatred contained within my heart. Using the same Dhammic approach of awareness and acceptance, I can introspect on what the heart needs and what is beneficial for it. Then, apply the balm of loving-kindness and compassion.
To the being and myself: wherever you may be, I wish you well and hope you benefit from the Buddha’s dispensation, always.
Casper the friendly ghost is not untrue — ghosts primarily want sharing of merits when they manifest to you.
If you encountered ghosts as malicious, share even more merits. Done from a mind of pure generosity, offering a Sangha Dana can generate merits for unseen beings who could receive them for long-term welfare and fortunate rebirth.
With compassion towards the deprivation ghosts exist in, we may contemplate our strong attachments and begin to let go of the hatred we experience within our hearts.
Handful of Leaves and Kusala Mag are in collaboration to share Inspiring stories sprinkled with Buddhist wisdom.Kusala Mag’s interview with Conor is reproduced in full here:
Kyle had the pleasure of chatting with Conor Beary, who has been actively involved with VWB, an NGO that is committed to creating opportunities for local economic development through the empowerment of community capability.
Cr: Conor Beary
How did Volunteer Without Borders (VWB) come about, and what does it mean to you?
VWB evolved from a collaboration between Track of The Tiger T.R.D (A provider of experiential education and registered tour company) a local community determined to protect their rights over their community forest, and local authorities that wished to preserve the forest from poachers and loggers.
Since its establishment in 2011, Volunteers Without Borders has partnered with Track of The Tiger and various communities in northern Thailand to provide volunteers and tourists with opportunities to improve the standard of living for many in less fortunate circumstances.
On a personal level, VWB has shown me the value of communication, teamwork, empathy and problem-solving in addressing the real complex issues which communities around us face. Through VWB I can make positive contributions to causes I hold dear and further develop as an individual. I see VWB as an organisation that acts as a catalyst for change, both internally and externally.
How many trees have been planted since the beginning?
The agroforestry project in Mae Wang has benefitted from the planting of over 6,000 NTFPs (Non- Timber Forest Products) over the last twelve months. Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed our progress considerably, but aim to get back on track again soon.
How do you think growing up in Northern Thailand has affected your view of nature and your efforts to preserving the environment?
Growing up around Track of The Tiger T.R.D my brother and I was exposed to outdoor excursions and environmental conservation activities since young. Subsequently, it didn’t take long for me to develop a preference for the outdoors! Growing up in such an environment provided me with opportunities to develop physical skills essential to the development of a child.
The various environmental conservation activities taught me to apply empathy not only to other individuals but also to the environment.
The list of benefits derived from being around nature is extensive, and seemingly, everyone draws different positives. From my perspective, the outdoors and nature has always been a great source of entertainment. Mountains, rivers, forests, caves and seas all have their unique intrigue. Over the last couple of years, I’ve found that spending time to run activities at these sites, particularly environmental conservation activities have been eminently fulfilling.
As a result of our love for nature, one of our goals at VWB is to use our actions, whatever they may be, to make positive contributions to the environment or communities we are involved with.
Do you think Buddhist teachings can be a part of the solution to environmental issues? If yes, how can we relate that to it?
I certainly believe that Buddhist values and teachings can be applied as part of the solution for the environmental concerns which we face. Buddhism teaches us to love the world around us, and perform good deeds for the environment in which we live, just as we would for ourselves. However, to truly address the complex problems posed by environmental degradation over the past few centuries we must work with an open mind, utilising empathy and communication to integrate the teachings which are familiar to us with foreign ideas and values that may help us solve our dilemma.
Cr: Conor Beary
Can compassion be applied to nature?
Compassion can be applied to everything in life. If you’re willing to consider being compassionate to the people, animals and matters around you then compassion may become a part of your unique mindset, and may gradually alter your perspective of a multitude of subjects.
The Dalai Lama once said “ Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, non-harming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect towards others.”
After analysing compassion from this point of view we can see that compassion can, and in my opinion, should be applied to others and nature.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered, and are perhaps still encountering while setting up and running VWB?
Running a non-profit organisation can prove extremely challenging. I am only a piece of the puzzle here and am fortunate enough to benefit from the help of everyone involved with us. As a volunteer organisation, we’re always looking for funding and volunteers who can help us achieve our objectives. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this task even more difficult.
In what ways can people actively get involved in your organisation?
We want to use WVB as a platform for driving change in our local communities. Eventually, I hope that VWB will be able to fund education for those less fortunate, provide economic incentives for locals to preserve their local forests and help educate student groups through volunteering activities. We want to act as a catalyst for the change we wish to see in our communities.
Any act of kindness you’ve ever experienced during your VWB activities?
I’ve been on the receiving end of kindness during VWB activities several times. It is difficult to single out any one moment as my favourite, but kindness from the members of the community in which you are trying to assist often leaves a lasting imprint in your memories.
During our first tree-planting event at the agroforestry project in Mae Wang, locals hustled and bustled all day to ensure that we would be able to perform our duties to the best of our abilities. Their genuine smiles and words of encouragement serve as ample motivation.
If there is a message for the world, what would it be?
To practice empathy extensively. To actualise the changes you want to see in your community you must first understand those within them.
Volunteers Without Borders (VWB) is a non-profit foundation established as a vehicle to provide volunteer funding and hands-on support for communities and schools, under its unique approach to Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) development. We are convinced that the solution to establishing viability for CBET lies in establishing a private sector driven pilot project that is successful in delivering: financial, social and environmental benefits on a scale that will force governments and the private sector to reconsider ecotourism and biodiversity conservation over the non-sustainable, but purportedly more profitable (short term) options of forest encroachment for agriculture, mining, logging and exploitation of the forest product.
Alternatively, hop over to Kusala Mag for more of such amazing stories!