Life as a Nun
This entry is in response to the many inquiries that readers have made regarding the time that I spent as an ordained Buddhist nun, age 25-30. Typically ordained nuns and monks wear their hair completely shaved. However, in these flashback photos, my hair was a bit grown out, as they were taken during the fall/winter months. Back then, smart phones weren’t photo capable, hence the poor image quality of a disposable camera. (In the pic above I'm with a friend who was preparing for ordination.)
By the time I was in my early 20s, I had already been seeking a spiritual practice. I had tried several different paths: Christianity, Native American Shamanism, Zen Buddhism and several different lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. I was seeking a philosophy that would actually help transform or resolve everyday challenges. At age 24, I discovered a Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It deeply resonated with me. I found it logical, methodical, and realistically attainable. Even as an adolescent, my heroines and heroes were always the profound, spiritual teachers of the world, as well as Wonder Woman. However, since becoming Wonder Woman was unattainable, it was more practical for me to choose a monastic life.
In our lineage, the ordained females are nuns and the males are monks. When one ordains, the spiritual master of the lineage gives each nun and monk a new name. It is given to reflect a quality one already possesses, or as something to aspire to. As well, it helps to release attachment to the old life. My ordained name was Kelsang Yangdzom. Kelsang is given to everyone in our lineage who ordains. It means Fortuante. Yangdzom was my individual name. Yang means supreme glory and dzom means gatherer –- Gatherer of Supreme Glory. This name has a few different meanings. It can mean to gather people together to engage in meaningful activities and practices, or it can mean gathering spiritual realizations in the mind, or both. Students and fellow practitioners address nuns and monks by their individual names.
When we ordain, we commit for life. That said, some may choose to break that commitment for various reasons. We take many vows, such as vows of celibacy, renouncing worldly possessions, practicing contentment, and refraining from intoxicants. We also take vows of moral discipline. We vow not to engage in lying, divisive speech, hurtful speech, idle gossip, covetousness, malice, cheating, stealing, killing and holding wrong views. We also promise to live a life in service to others. When we take these vows, it does not mean that we are able to perfect them from the moment we take them. We work towards perfecting these set of intentions throughout our life by practicing and studying Buddhist teachings. Every day, we engage in practices to train our mind in compassion, love and wisdom in order to overcome the poisons of hatred, anger, attachment and ignorance.
At 26 years old, I was moved from the San Francisco center to Montana, where I was appointed the head teacher at two Buddhist centers, one in Kalispell and one in Missoula. Within a few months, both centers drew hundreds of students. I was teaching seven days a week and sometimes twice a day. Additionally, I was counseling students, trying to help them use the philosophies to overcome everyday challenges in their personal and professional lives.
Unfortunately, I was not skillful in balancing my time and energy. I ran myself into the ground and became very ill. I began to feel anxious when counseling students in matters that I had never personally dealt with, like parenting, marriage and depression. I was also far from perfecting the practices myself and felt uneasy about being put on a pedestal by students.
At the age of 30, I decided to leave the monastic life for a more conventional one. Yet I still wanted to apply the philosophies to daily life and understand how to use them to transform adversities and resolve conflict. I also wanted to get away from the attention I got from being an ordained head teacher. I no longer wanted to live in a fishbowl with expectations of perfection projected onto me. I knew I had my own traumas and pain to work through and I wanted to do that in private. So, I returned to the life of a layperson.
Even though I left the outer life of an ordained nun, I remained committed to the vows that I took in my 20s. And I continued to study and practice Buddha’s teachings. In my heart, I knew the teachings would pave the path to leading a more fulfilled life. To this day, I continue to use the Dharma to overcome inner and outer challenges, and strengthen and deepen my compassion, love and wisdom.
The vow that has the strongest pull in my heart is to live a life of service. This vow gives me clarity with every decision I need to make in every area of my life, worldly and spiritual. It’s easier for me to find clarity about a decision when I focus on whether or not my choices will support or hinder my ability to be of service. As well, I ask in prayer to be blocked if a decision I make conflicts with and creates obstacles to being of service. Since I’m not omniscient, I cannot see the bigger picture of some decisions, which is why I rely heavily on divine intervention to steer me in the right direction.
One thing I want to emphasize is that for a Vajrayana Buddhist, whether ordained or not, a life of service doesn’t only mean engaging in helpful outer activities. It also means engaging in a lot of inner work that moves you to become a psychologically and emotionally healthy person. When we are strong on the inside –– meaning healthy in our psyche and strong in our compassion, love and wisdom –– then we can be the person who others can rely on, the person who others can feel safe with. We spend so much time in meditation and prayer, not to avoid others, but to be as stable and centered as possible so that others will be emotionally, psychologically and physically safe in our presence.
I’m deeply grateful to my 25-year-old self for taking these vows and commitments. She was deeply traumatized and pretty messed up, but she also had the wherewithal to set me on the path of a meaningful life.