Except for the shaved head and the flowing robes, Rhonda Barr could be any other well-travelled, opinionated woman at mid-life. She and her carpenter husband live in a small, funky River Heights house filled with the scent of incense. The book shelves overflow and the CD stack marries hits of the eighties with a collection of Leonard Cohen's best tunes.
She talks passionately about her beliefs and the path that led her from a non-religious home in Brandon to her eventual ordination as a monk.
"If there was a fire, the lay person would run in and save their family," she says by way of explaining her faith. "The monk would save the first person they came to."
Barr struggled to find her place in the world the way so many people do in their late teens and early twenties. At 19, she read Zen Mind, Zen Beginner, a book that would determine the course of her life. Inspired, she moved to the San Francisco Zen Center and began studying.
"I was basically looking for a way of life that had integrity," she says.
She spent her twenties devoted to her studies, working at the monastery and committed to a monastic lifestyle. In the United States on a student visa, she worked in the office at the Zen Center, in a bakery and in a restaurant.
"You don't get much reinforcement for your ego in a monastery," she laughs. "Cooking is an area when people say 'yum' and they appreciate you."
By the time she was 30 it was time to head home. She hooked up with Wayne McLellan, an old friend, and they married. He is not a Buddhist.
"He's not interested in Zen. He's interested in me," she says.
After five years living in Thompson and working in the social services field, Barr and her husband ran an organic farm outside of Brandon. When she turned 40, though, she wanted more of a sense of community. Her search led her to a monastery in Colorado. She would spend the next several years dividing her time between Winnipeg and the spiritual centre.
About four years ago she decided to become ordained, a process that requires an on-going relationship with a teacher, a certain level of maturity and, oddly, the ability to sew.
"You make your own robe," she says. "There are about 15,000 stitches in the formal robe. It's good practice. You really learn a lot while you're sewing them. When they're done and you wear them they're like wearing water."
The ordination process involves what Barr calls "a big party." She and her husband (Zen monks are allowed to marry) travelled to the Colorado monastery for a ceremony that involved the formal shaving of her head and the recitation of vows.
"You vow to wake up. You vow to follow the precepts, which are sort of like the Ten Commandments, to become the sort of person you want to become."
About half of all Zen monks are women.
In Winnipeg, Barr's faith is practised simply by "sitting" or meditating facing a wall for 40 minutes every day. She has no formal congregation nor is there an expectation she will gather with other Buddhists.
"I wear my robes every morning when I sit. I don't wear them when I go to Safeway," she says. "I just basically try to be friendly to other people. Buddhism is very new to our culture."
Barr is excited that Winnipeg will be hosting nine Tibetan monks from Nov. 12-16 as part of a North American fundraising tour. The men will be building a medicine Buddha sand mandala, a symbolic circular figure, at Site Gallery. Donations to help build a prayer hall in India will be accepted. She feels these monks are leading exemplary lives.
"I'm a very bad monk, a very lazy monk," she laughs. "I'm not completely disciplined. I just try to live my life in the best way possible."