Why Buddhist nuns try to avoid 'awkward' handshakes

The Buddhist nuns on P.E.I. take their vow of celibacy so seriously they don’t have any physical contact whatsoever with men.

Part of nuns' vow of celibacy is to have no physical contact with men

From left, Joanna, Elena, Sabrina and Yvonne wave hello. (Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute/Facebook)

The Buddhist nuns on P.E.I. take their vow of celibacy so seriously they don't have any physical contact whatsoever with men.

No hugs, handshakes or high-fives. And that can create some awkward situations on an Island known for its friendliness.

The nuns say they mean no offence, and are sometimes unsure of how to react when a man reaches out for a handshake.

"This is something we're learning because we don't want to hurt their feelings," said Venerable Yvonne. 

It was something to keep in mind during the nuns' open house at the new dorm of the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute at 806 Brudenell Point Rd. on Saturday.

The dorm, which will house about 200 nuns, is the first phase of a new monastery in Brudenell, P.E.I. (Shane Ross/CBC)

It's the first part of a new multimillion-dollar monastery that will span more than 120 hectares in total on the north and south sides of Brudenell Point Road.

The whole project will take about 10 years to complete. It will have space for 1,400 nuns, with teaching facilities, lecture halls, worship areas and recreation facilities. It will also have gardens, a greenhouse and both private and public walking trails. 

Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute is sponsored through international donations, fundraising programs and parents of the nuns, though parents are not required to pay a tuition fee, said Venerable Sabrina. 

We're still human. So we get angry and we have temptations like an average person.— Venerable Joanna

There are currently about 450 Buddhist nuns on P.E.I. ranging in age from 12 to 75. They describe themselves as a "big family."

The average age is 29, which is younger than most orders and one reason they are "more careful" with their vows of celibacy, said Venerable Joanne. 

The new dorm was lit up at dusk on Saturday. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

"When you're a nun it doesn't mean that you're already like Buddha," she said.

 "We're still human. So we get angry and we have temptations like an average person. But we learn to try through like positive thinking and meditation and all that stuff we try to better our, I guess, like discipline our minds a little better. And so that's how these vows, they kind of also help us do that."

The monastery will be built on about 120 hectares in eastern P.E.I. (Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute)

The nuns generally do not avoid physical contact with women.

"But if I was attracted to women then I'd probably have to find preventative measures for myself," Joanna said.

The nuns generally greet people by waving or placing their palms together in prayer position. Sometimes they don't get a chance explain why they don't shake hands with men.

Islanders got a peek into the lives of the Buddhist nuns during the open house. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

For example, they once attended Catholic mass to experience another faith. They were caught off guard, they said, when it got to the point where you shake hands with your neighbour and say 'may peace be with you.'

"It was very awkward," Sabrina said. "We felt horrible and we explained afterwards like, 'Oh sorry, we couldn't shake your hand. It's not like we don't want to shake your hands. We think you're nice people but we can't.'"

Homemade made snacks were offered to visitors at the Buddhist nuns' open house Saturday. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)
Nuns and visitors listen to music by violinist Ed Wang during the open house. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

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