Nun Sense

There are experiences that are difficult to describe to others. How often have you had a dream that profoundly affected you in some way? Perhaps you’ve had a nightmare that left you tight-chested and anxious long after you woke. Yet, when you describe the dream to another they can’t understand why the images you saw in your sleep were so distressing to you. Or, perhaps you’ve sat on a mountaintop or enjoyed an ocean view and had a moment of inspiration or profound calm and when you attempt to share your experience you cannot find the appropriate words to match your feelings. No matter how close you are to a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend… there are certain moments that you will never be able to adequately share with them. These are moments when the circumstances and emotions that you feel are simply unique to you and you alone. I had such a moment in Sri Lanka, and although it may be fruitless, I will attempt to describe it to you.

In addition to his duties of shepherding the students as the ISLE program administrator, my father spent much of his time on the island conducting research. He had received a Fulbright-Hays grant and was investigating the history and changing role of Buddhist nuns in the nation. The saffron-robed female renunciants could be seen across the country, but were not as common as Buddhist monks whose history and place in the culture was well established. Hundreds of years ago there were ordained Buddhist nuns on the island, but their order had died out and had only recently been reestablished. My father was exploring the latest history of these nuns, known as dassasilmattawa, and their connections to orders in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. He was exploring the movement from the late 19th century with a focus on its rapid growth in the 1950s and was investigating the influence of a few key individuals who had stimulated this resurgence.

One very interesting and key individual was Catherine deAlvis who was from a prominent wealthy, coastal Anglican Sri Lankan family. In the late 19th century, she converted from Christianity to Buddhism and traveled to Burma where she was ordained as a nun and became sister Sudharmamachari. She returned to Sri Lanka and continued to move in influential circles. In 1907, she opened a nunnery with the assistance of Lady Edith Blake, wife of the British governor. The nunnery bears Lady Edith’s name and is still in existence today.


Sister Sudharmamachari died in 1939, but over the years she ordained many women, and my father was searching for information about this fascinating figure who had essentially brought back to life an extinct order of nuns. There is a lot of interesting information about her to be found with a simple google search. Most Westerners in Kandy were involved in a large hydroelectric project, so when people discovered that my father was studying Buddhism rather than river currents, he became a topic of conversation. As such, he was often approached with tips about potential leads in his investigation into the history of the nuns. Most of the time when he went into the field to interview someone, he traveled with a Sri Lankan woman who was writing her dissertation on the dassasilmattwa and she would assist him as translator. However, on one particular day, she was not going to accompany my father, so he asked me to go with him to investigate a potential source of information. He had been told of an elderly nun who was living in a nearby village close to a Buddhist monastery.  She was not well and monks were supporting her and assisting with her care and alerted my father to her presence. The monks thought that she had studied with and possibly had been ordained by Sister Sudharmamachari.

So, Dad and I woke early one morning to take the trek to a small village. Our driver, Suamanasena asked for directions several times along the dusty road we were taking. It didn’t matter how remote we got, Suamanasena inevitably would come across an acquaintance or relative or at the very least an acquaintance of a relative. This day was no exception and a friend of a former army buddy Sumanasena happened upon helped us navigate to our destination. We arrived before lunchtime and although the sun was not yet at its peak, the day was stiflingly hot. The monk who had alerted my father to the presence of the nun greeted us. He had arranged that one of the monastery workers would take us where we needed to go. It hadn’t rained in some time and we walked through dry brush which scratched my legs and sometimes tugged at the skirt I was wearing. There was no breeze, and as we walked we breathed in the dust kicked up by the person in front of us. Clearly word of the western father-daughter duo coming to interview a frail old nun had spread through the area. Curious eyes could be seen peering from windows and children ran out to watch us pass. The heat was oppressive. We passed a mud hut with a thatch roof that was guarded by a skinny dog who lay in the dirt yard and barely lifted his head and gave a half-hearted bark before resting it back on his paws. At one home an old man sat shirtless in the shade of a tree and slowly chewed betel nut. The purple stained dirt around his chair suggested that he spent a lot of time at this pastime. The walk took probably 30 minutes and as we waded through high grasses and brush, our guide indicated to me that only two weeks before a young woman had been walking the same path and had been bitten by a snake and died. I turned to translate to Dad and simply said, “He says we need to keep an eye out for snakes.”

Finally we came upon a small hut and a young woman came out to greet us. The hem of her pale yellow flowered dress was worn and the fabric clung to her in the heat as she explained to us in concerned tones that we had likely wasted our time on our journey. No one knew for certain the age of the nun inside but they estimated that she was over 100 years old. She had suffered a broken hip, could no longer walk, was nearly blind and rarely spoke except to ask for water or for assistance. The nun’s caretaker apologized again and said we were welcome to speak with the elderly nun, but that she doubted we would get any coherent information.

The dwelling where the old nun resided was a two room structure with a kitchen in back and a small all purpose room in front. Two small windows provided the only light. There was no electricity. We followed the woman in yellow and stepped hesitantly and quietly into the home the way one does when visiting an infirm person. The room was fairly dark and temperature inside must have been at least 20 degrees cooler than outside and I felt an immediate chill.  Light filtered in from one of the side windows and dust could be seen dancing in the air. Following the shaft of light to the far side of the room, we could make out what appeared to be a pile of rags. A single sepia photograph hung on the wall; the rest of the chipping plastered walls were bare.

We had barely entered the room when the pile of rags in the corner began to stir. The old nun lay under a pile of blankets on a thin woven mat on the floor. She sat up as best she could and began to call out. “Amma! Amma! Aiyo mage mave! – Mama! Mama! Oh my mother!” The woman in yellow went to her side “E mama. – It’s me,” she said in calm tones and explained that we were the visitors she had told her about. The nun shook her head, struggled to prop herself up on one elbow and pointed past her caretaker directly at me. “No, no, but she is here. Mama!” And this is the part in the story where I fear I will not be able to adequately explain to you what happened or how I felt. As a child I had never felt particularly comfortable around elderly folks. I had paid the requisite visits to great-grandparents and distant relatives in nursing homes whose relationship to our family were not always clear to me. I endured the cheek pats and questions about school, and said thank you for the hard candies from the glass jars they offered, but I always felt somewhat uncomfortable. However, when the nun pointed to me, I felt completely at ease.

I went to the side of the old woman and knelt and took her hand. She relaxed back onto her mat. I could feel each bone and tendon through her paper thin skin. She drew my hand to her cheek and it was wet with tears which rolled down her deeply wrinkled cheeks. For a moment, she just lay there with her eyes closed holding me close. The light though the window heated my back as I sat there watching her. I felt a sense of warmth and calm wash over me as I knelt on the floor beside this frail woman. When she opened her eyes, the old nun began to speak again. This time she was calm and coherent. She explained that as soon as I walked through the door she recognized me as the reincarnation of her mother who had died many years ago. She told me how much she loved and missed me and that it was wonderful to see me again. “It is wonderful,” I said. Everything this old nun in a tiny hut in a remote village in Sri Lanka said to me, a ten year old girl from upstate New York, about how we were once mother and daughter made perfect sense to me. I could picture walking barefoot to the village well and sitting around a fire with her at my side. I felt completely connected to this woman who was born in the 1800s and had dedicated her life to Buddhism.

My father and the woman in the yellow dress just stood and watched the nun and I speak for some time. She told me that she hoped that she had been the kind of good person that I wanted her to be. She went back and forth between acting as teacher, explaining to me reincarnation and acting as daughter and expressing her love for me. Then, she started to speak about her life as a nun. Dad asked her questions through me and sometime with help from the woman in the yellow dress. She had been a student of Sister Sudharmamachari and she pointed to the picture hanging over her head. She insisted that we take the photo of her ordination class with us when we left. My father protested – it was literally the only thing adorning the walls of the simple home. But, she insisted.


After a time, the old nun grew tired and we realized it was time to go. I bent and gently kissed her cheek and we said goodbye. The woman in yellow told us she had not seen the old nun as animated or coherent in some months and thanked us for coming. She was planning to tell the monks at the monastery about my connection to the nun.

Several months later dad and I returned to see the old nun once again. This time, we were accompanied by Terry, a family friend who was visiting us in Sri Lanka. Dad had the photograph duplicated and we carried with us the freshly framed original to place back on her wall. We stopped at the monastery to check in with the monk. He told me he had sensed that I was an old soul from the moment he saw me.


He said at first he thought I was his reincarnated grandmother and that he was glad I had reconnected with my daughter. Before we took off to see the nun again, he spent some time showing us how ancient Buddhists had written their stories on palm leaves and showed us some very old books they had in their possession. This is when we learned why the Sinhalese script was rounded  – so as not to split the palm leaves along the veins.

palm scroll

Walking back on the path I was nervous that when we arrived we might discover that the old nun had died. Or, that she might not remember our encounter at all and that it would have simply been the delusions of an old woman. But, when we arrived she called to me once again and again she held my hand as I sat by her side. She was sitting up and looked much stronger than when we saw her the first time. The woman in yellow – now in blue – told us that the nun had talked about us many times over the months and seemed to have absorbed vitality from our initial visit.

When Terry talks about his visit with me to that remote village, he seems to understand the connection the old nun and I had. Perhaps he and my father are the only ones who really can understand. There would have really been no way for me to keep in touch with the nun after we left. I wondered how long she lived on that mat on the floor. I sometimes thought about her and the civil war that came to the country only months after that second visit. I hoped that she didn’t have to witness or hear of some of the horrible things that happened. It was 1983 when we last saw her, and the old sister was estimated to be more than 100 then. I am sure she died long ago. I think about her sometimes. I keep the photo she gave us in my room today and I wonder if our reincarnated souls will find each other again someday.

A link my father’s paper about the dassasilmattawa can be found here.


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

4 thoughts on “Nun Sense”

  1. Hi Johanna…I know I say this about each of your posts…but this one was outstanding! Your writing is so expressive, descriptive and always makes me want to read more! Can’t wait to hear about your return visit. Thanks for sharing this. Barbara


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