Printed on: July 24, 2013

Zenniversary for Twin Falls Buddhist pair

Twin Falls Times-News

TWIN FALLS -- Ten years ago, Ken and Kyi Kyi Whiting were married in Las Vegas.

While that may conjure images of the Little White Chapel and an Elvis impersonator officiating, the Whitings' ceremony was at the nearest Buddhist monastery to Idaho they could find.

They returned to the Chaiya Meditation Monastery on June 7 to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

American tradition calls for a gift of tin or aluminum to commemorate a 10th anniversary, but the Whitings didn't give each other material goods. Instead, they had their heads shaved and shared an experience that involves separation, meditation and few words.

For 10 days, the Whitings and family friend Htay Aung Zaw lived as Buddhist monks and nuns. It was the first time the Whitings had become a monk and nun. It was the third time Aung Zaw had become a monk; he also has lived as a monk in monasteries in Burma and Malaysia.

The Whitings and Aung Zaw's family reunited in Ken and Kyi Kyi's Twin Falls home June 26 to talk about their experiences.

Ken, 66, joked that he actually had to grow hair before it could be cut. But Kyi Kyi, 57, wasn't sure if her new hairstyle suited her.

The shaving of their heads was one of the first steps to becoming a monk and nun. It is a sign of simplicity.

"It's nice and cool. I feel like there is a fan on my head," Kyi Kyi said. "Usually, hair is a Burmese woman's life."

Despite having very short hair, the lifelong Buddhist had wanted this experience for some time.

"I want to feel good. I decide to do it," Kyi Kyi said. "My mother said she was very proud of me."

The Whitings are Buddhists of the Theravada Tradition, which is considered the oldest form of Buddhism. It stresses individual enlightenment.

"All good Buddhists should at least once in their lifetimes be monks and nuns," Ken said.

Idaho has no monasteries, so the couple attend the Magic Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Twin Falls.

The man who became Buddha originally came from a royal family but gave it all up to become enlightened.

"That's why before becoming a monk, people dress up like royalty to symbolize that," Ken said. "Buddha was not a god; he was an enlightened person. He is the messenger."

After shaving their heads and dressing like royalty, they had to ask permission from the head monk to become a monk and nun. The entire ceremony is done on the floor in the ordination hall.

During the Whitings and Zaw's stay, five other people became adult monks, five became nuns and, among those younger than 21, seven became monks or nuns.

Although Kyi Kyi has been a lifelong Buddhist, Ken came to the faith after meeting her.

"Just say you are (Buddhist), and you are," Ken said. "There is no baptism or initiation ceremony."

Specific steps must be taken to become a monk and nun, however.

After shaving their heads, dressing like royalty, participating in a parade and asking permission to become a novice monk or nun, the Twin Falls residents had to follow 10 precepts, or suggestions, such as no sleeping on a bed, no dancing, no eating after noon. Monks 21 and older have 227 precepts.

Men and women sleep in different areas of the monastery. The only interaction is in the main hall, but they still stay on gender-specific sides.

The Whitings also spent their anniversary not displaying their married status, as no jewelry is allowed.

Lifelong monks and nuns are not allowed to marry.

"You are not married. I had to take off my wedding ring," Kyi Kyi said

Ken and Kyi Kyi met on a kind of blind date.

Ken was in Burma with a childhood friend when they had dinner at the home of Kyi Kyi's sister. The sister told Ken about Kyi Kyi, who lived in Idaho. Ken was living in Ohio, and Kyi Kyi's sister thought Idaho and Ohio were the same place -- or near each other. Despite the distance, Ken ended up traveling to meet Kyi Kyi. Eventually, he moved to Idaho and they married. They said they only had to call the Chaiya Meditation Monastery, and it provided everything from the cake to the guests.

A typical day as a Buddhist monk or nun starts by waking at 3:30 a.m. to meditate from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. Morning chanting and breakfast is at 6 a.m. From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. is meditation. Lunch is at 11 a.m., followed by more chanting. Finally, the day ends with meditation from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

"You keep your mind purified. You can sit for one hour or walk for one hour," Kyi Kyi said.

While meditating, one focuses only on breathing.

"We are practicing the awareness of body," Kyi Kyi said. "I feel really relaxed, and even my back pain went away. Now I just meditate."

After the 10 days, or however long one stays, the monk or nun are released by getting permission to discard their robes, the Whitings said.

Aung Zaw welcomed the trip, as Idaho has no monasteries.

He; his wife, Ayemi; and their two young daughters have lived in Twin Falls for a year.

Aung Zaw fled Burma in 1996 and met his wife in Malaysia. Their daughters accompanied them to the Las Vegas monastery.

The Whitings and Aung Zaw and family all plan to go back, and Ayemi may become a nun and Nono a "little nun."