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Two Buddhist nuns also live here. They use the title "ani," the Tibetan word for "aunt," as a prefix to their Buddhist names due to the belief that the Buddha's aunt, or ani, was Buddhism's first nun.
Ani Drolma moved to Arkansas from Eureka, Calif., where she worked for a clinic as a medical transcriptionist. She still holds the same job, with the same clinic, working now via the Internet. Drolma lives and works in a single room in the sangha house, but she also oversees the center, especially its commodious kitchen.
Recent rains, which recently flooded the creek, blocking access to the house, have also driven ants into it, a bit to Drolma's dismay. As she is Buddhist, and therefore strives to cause no intentional harm to any being, bug spray is out of the question. So Drolma has posted notes around the sink asking those who use the kitchen to store all food and dry all dishes and counters as part of her effort to "Help relocate our ant guests."
Drolma wears the maroon robes and close-cropped hair expected of Buddhist nuns. Each element of her robe is symbolic. Her shorn head symbolizes renunciation. Drolma explains, "It means that you have no more attachment to your looks." She says that her transition to Buddhist nun was profound enough that, after being ordained she "went through a half-year of psychological reorientation as to who I was."
Her family had some re-orienting to do too, after they first saw her in her robes and with shaven head. "My mother pretended there was nothing different," Drolma says. "Then she told our relatives, 'That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen.' " After a pause and in a softer tone, she adds: "My brother said it warmed his heart."
Around Jasper, the presence of Ani Drolma and the area's other nun, Ani Tendron, has prompted some reorientation, as well. Drolma recalls her first visit to Miller Hardware, where, she says, "Everyone froze. I think they were in a state of shock." A quiet, professional woman, Drolma took in the situation and told a clerk, "Now, I'd like to look at your routers."
Nevertheless, Drolma says, "Everyone's very polite, maybe just a little disengaged. They tend to look askance. The kids are a lot more oblivious to me, especially the teen-agers."
Tendron and Drolma wear the robes in part, they say, "so that others will see the possibility of being a Buddhist monastic in the West." Yet there are times when it's just not practical to adhere absolutely to Buddhist traditions. One of those is when you want to get from here to there on foot in the Ozarks — when you want to go hiking. On such occasions a nun can opt to change out of the robes.
"I don't think we're legal when we take them off," Tendron laughs. "We're just Westerners trying to get through the woods."
Tendron's house is a few twisting miles from the center. She drives a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that says, "My other vehicle is the Mahayana."
Mayahana represents one of the two major traditions of Buddhism today; it's usually translated as "the great vehicle." But when local people ask a friend of Tendron's what her sticker means, he sometimes says, "Big truck!"
Drolma hopes that the fledgling retreat center "is the beginning of a Buddhist university, with many qualified, authentic Tibetan teachers." Already, the center holds a shedra, an intense educational program, for two weeks of the year. Drolma hopes the center will evolve into "a quiet little place where people do three-year retreats, and shorter retreats, and where there are teachings — and someday a year-long shedra, with lots of monks teaching."
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