Buddhist nuns hope open house will dispel misconceptions

When you have a few hundred women living under one roof, even Buddhist nuns are bound to have a few issues that come up.

Are you still in the bathroom?

That's not how my mother made vegetable soup.

Who's snoring?

"We put the light sleepers with the light sleepers and [for] the people who snore … we have earplugs," said Joanna Ho, one of about 500 Buddhist nuns living in Prince Edward Island.

"We try to make sure everyone can be in the most comfortable environment for them."

Buddhist nuns, from left, Joanna Ho, Heather Chang and Sabrina Chiang will be welcoming the public inside the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute's new monastery in Brudenell this weekend.
Buddhist nuns, from left, Joanna Ho, Heather Chang and Sabrina Chiang will be welcoming the public inside the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute's new monastery in Brudenell this weekend. (Ken Linton/CBC)

That environment will be open to the public this weekend. The nuns are hosting an open house at their new monastery and dormitory in Brudenell.

They also want to answer any questions or concerns from Islanders.

Because, despite being on P.E.I. for 12 years now, the nuns remain a curiosity to some.

No, they say, they aren't communists, as they've been called. No, they aren't a cult and are not being held against their will. No, they aren't buying up all the land on P.E.I., though they do own more than 240 hectares.

No, they aren't up on all the latest pop culture news, but local high school students they've visited have told them Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift are popular right now.

Yes, they do look different than most with their shaved heads and brown robes. Yes, they have all taken a vow of celibacy and have no physical contact with men. Yes, of course they sometimes have minor conflicts with their roommates.

And yes, they are very committed to their religion and the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute. Many stay forever, but they can leave whenever they like.

We understand that maybe because we're new to the landscape of P.E.I., perhaps there are some fears or concerns. — Sabrina Chiang

"We understand that maybe because we're new to the landscape of P.E.I., perhaps there are some fears or concerns," said Sabrina Chiang.

One of those concerns was the very building they will open their doors to Saturday and Sunday. In 2020, their building permit was denied after opposition from some residents of Three Rivers. About six months later, they reapplied and their permit was accepted.

"We just went on what we like to call a listening tour and just anyone we knew who had some concerns we would just approach them if they were willing to have an open conversation," Chiang said.

"Maybe some people didn't have the opportunity to really get to know us and see our plans."

That plan is to eventually have a multimillion-dollar monastery complex that could accommodate up to 1,400 nuns. Recently, the P.E.I. monastery became one of the few in the world to offer the Geshema Buddhist curriculum, which for 900 years was only available to men.

"I'd like to see a vision where this is a Buddhist monastery, like an education centre, where all women who want to learn and study the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, they can in safety and freedom and peace," Chiang said.

The new building features a large prayer room.
The new building features a large prayer room. (Ken Linton/CBC)

The new monastery, which was designed by Nine Yards Studio in Charlottetown, features traditional Asian architecture that most people will recognize from the sloped roof. It was partially funded by donations from around the world.

It will house about 200 nuns. The other 300 will be split between the original monastery across the road and another property in Uigg.

The new building has a large prayer room, teaching and recreational facilities, and dormitories that will house eight nuns to a room sleeping in bunk beds.

Ho said it reminds her of her days at the University of California in San Diego.

"Sometimes when I walk around the monastery it's like I'm always a college student, which is kind of nice."