VTC: You’re Becoming a What? The Story of An American Buddhist Nun

by Ven. Thubten Chodron
When people ask me to talk about my life, I usually start with “once upon a time….” Why? Because this life is like a dream bubble, a temporary thing – it is here and then gone, happening once upon a time.

I grew up in America, in a suburb of Los Angeles, doing everything ordinary middle-class children do: going to school and on family vacations, playing with my friends and taking music lessons. My teen-age years coincided with the Vietnam War and the protests against racial and sexual discrimination that were widespread in America at that time. These events had a profound effect on an inquisitive and thoughtful child, and I began to question “Why do people fight wars? Why can’t people get along with each other? Why do people judge others merely on the shape and color of their bodies, not on what they are inside? Why do people die? Why are people in the richest country on earth unhappy when they have money and possessions? Why do people who love each other later get divorced? If there is God, why did he make us? Why did he create suffering? What is the meaning of life if all we do is die at the end? What can I do to help others? Is there a perfect society?”

Like every child who wants to learn, I started asking other people — teachers, parents, rabbis, priests. My family was Jewish, though not very religious. The community I grew up in was Christian, so I knew the best and worst of both religions. My Sunday school teachers and the rabbi were not able to answer my questions because they could not give a good reason why God created us and what the purpose of our life was. My boyfriend was Catholic, so I asked the priests too. But I could not understand why a compassionate God would punish people, and why, if he were omnipotent, didn’t he do something to stop the suffering in the world? My Christian friends said not to question, just have faith and then I would be saved. However, that contradicted my scientific education in which investigation and understanding were emphasized as the way to wisdom.

Both Judaism and Christianity instruct “Love thy neighbor,” which certainly makes sense. But no one said how to, and I didn’t see much brotherly love in practice. Rather, Christian history is littered with the corpses of thousands of people who have been killed in the name of Christ. Some of my schoolteachers were open to discussing these issues, but they too had no answers. In the end, some people with kind intentions told me, “Just don’t think so much. Go out with your friends and enjoy life.” Still, it seemed to me that there must be more to life than having fun, working, making money, having a family, growing old and dying. For lack of a sensible and comprehensive philosophy or religion to guide my life, I became a devout atheist.

I went to university, graduating from U.C.L.A. in history in 1971. The university years were full, because in addition to studies, boyfriends, peace demonstrations, and volunteer work in the ghetto, I had to work as a laboratory assistant in research projects in order to support myself. Although I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, I was disillusioned with an educational system that emphasized rote learning over creativity, career training for making money over thinking how to correct social injustice, poverty and human problems. Still, I appreciate very much all that my parents and teachers did for me, for their kindness was great.

After graduation, I travelled around the U.S. in a big yellow bakery van, going camping in national parks with my friends. That was the hippy era and also a happy time. One important thing I learned during this period was that if I am not happy with myself, I cannot be happy with others.

I have always felt a wish and a responsibility to help others and to make the world a better place. Education is critical in this process. That is why, upon going back to Los Angeles, I got a job in a school. A year later, I married a young lawyer whom I had met at university. Wanting to look beyond our sheltered upbringings and learn more about the human experience, we stored away our wedding presents and went overseas. For a year and a half we travelled in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and went overland to India and Nepal. We lived simply, and so had much contact with the people in each country we visited. This was quite an eye-opening experience and a time of much internal exploration as well.

Our funds depleted, we returned to the States. My husband got a job working as a lawyer for poor people, while I went to graduate school at the University of Southern California and taught in the Los Angeles City School System. From my heart, I wanted to help the children, but so often I did not know how to, or could not because I was angry at them. My questions were still there, and although I occaisonally discussed them with friends, I was also getting more and more into enjoying life and all the sense pleasures it has to offer.

During summer vacation in 1975, I saw a poster at a bookstore about a meditation course to be taught by two Tibetan Buddhist Lamas. Having nothing else to do and not expecting much, I went. I was quite surprised when the teachings by Ven. Lama Yeshe and Ven. Zopa Rinpoche started answering the questions that had been with me since childhood. Reincarnation and karma explain how we got here. The fact that attachment, anger and ignorance are the source of all our problems explains why people do not get along and why we are dissatisfied. The importance of having a pure motivation shows that there is an alternative to hypocrisy. The fact that it is possible for us to abandon completely our faults and develop our talents and good qualities limitlessly gives purpose to life and shows how we can become a person who is really able to be of service to others.

The more I checked what the Buddha said, the more I found that it corresponded to my life experiences. We were taught practical techniques for dealing with anger and attachment, jealousy and pride, and when I tried them, I found that they helped my daily life go better. Buddhism respects our intelligence and does not demand blind faith – we are encouraged to reflect and examine. Also, it emphasizes changing our attitudes, not just giving a religious appearance on the outside. All this appealed to me.

There was a nun leading the meditations at this course, and it impressed me that she was happy, friendly, and natural, not stiff and “holy” like many Christian nuns I had met as a child. But still I thought that being a nun was strange – I liked my husband far too much to even consider it!

Being very moved by Buddha’s teachings, I encouraged my husband to go to a meditation course in Indiana while I did a meditation retreat. He agreed, and touched by the teachings, he also took refuge. For me, this short retreat was a time to look inside myself, to check life’s meaning, and to view life from a broader perspective. I thought deeply about our human potential, especially the fact that we can become Buddhas. I considered also the fact that death is certain, the time of death is uncertain, and that at death, our possessions, friends, relatives and body – everything that ordinary people spend their entire life living for – do not and cannot come with us. Knowing that the Dharma is something extremely important and not wanting to miss the opportunity to learn it, after the retreat I suggested to my husband that we go to Nepal where Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche have a monastery. My husband did not want to go, but I was insistent, and in the end he agreed.

In October, l975, we went to Kopan Monastery, near Kathmandu, Nepal, and attended another meditation course. Now I was taking a good look at my life, from the perspective of the Dharma. At deathtime, what do I want to have to show for my life? It was clear that my mind was overwhelmed by attachment, anger and ignorance. Everything I did was grossly or subtly under the influence of a selfish attitude. Due to the karmic imprints being collected on my mind stream through such actions and thoughts, it was clear that a good rebirth was extremely unlikely. And if I really wanted to help others, it was impossible to do if I were selfish, ignorant and unskilful.

I wanted to change, the question was “How?” Although many people can live a lay life and practice the Dharma, I saw that for me it would be impossible, simply because my afflictive emotions were too strong and my lack of self-discipline too great. Ordination seemed to be the best thing for my type of personality. I spoke with Lama Yeshe about this, and he told me to wait a while. As circumstances worked out, my husband had to go back to the U.S. in January, l977, and I decided to go too to see my parents who had been upset by my letter saying that I wanted to become a nun.

My family did not understand why I wanted to take ordination: they knew little about Buddhism and were not very spiritually-inclined themselves. They did not comprehend how I could leave a promising career, marriage, friends, family, financial security and so forth in order to be a nun. It was a difficult time for everyone. I listened and considered all of their objections. But when I reflect upon their objections in terms of the Dharma, my decision to become a nun only became firmer. It became more and more clear to me that happiness does not come from having material possessions, good reputation, loved ones, physical beauty. Having these while young does not guarantee a happy old age, a peaceful death, and certainly not a good rebirth. If my mind remained continually attached to these things, how could I develop my potential and help others? It saddened me that my parents could not accept my decision, but I remained firm, with the thought to be of benefit to more people for a longer period of time. Ordination does not mean rejecting one’s family. Rather, I wanted to enlarge my family and develop impartial love and compassion for all beings. With the passage of time, my parents have come to accept my being Buddhist and being a nun, for they see that not only am I happier, but also that what I am doing is beneficial to others.

My husband had ambivalent feelings: as he was a Buddhist, the wisdom side of him supported my decision, while the attachment side bemoaned it. It was difficult for him, but he took it as an opportunity to practice the Dharma. Now he is a successful lawyer in Los Angeles, and a devoted member of the Buddhist center there. Remarried, he has two children, and all of us get along well together.

Zopa Rinpoche gave permission for me to be ordained now. I returned to India, and in the spring of l977, with much gratitude and respect for the Triple Gem and my Gurus, took ordination from Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

People ask if I have ever regretted this. No, not at all. I earnestly pray to the Triple Gem to keep my ordination purely and be able to be ordained in future lives as well. Having vows is not restricting. Rather, it is liberating, for we become more determined not to do actions that, deep in our hearts, we do not want to do anyway. Although life is not always smooth – not because the Dharma is difficult, but because the afflictive emotions are sneaky and tenacious – with effort, there is progress and happiness.

The early years of ordination were spent studying and meditating in Nepal and India. As Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche have a network of international Buddhist centers, they began sending the western sangha to help and to continue our studies and practice there. Thus, I have spent nearly two years at the center in Italy and three years at the monastery in France. When people asked the English-speaking sangha to teach, and our Gurus encouraged us to do so. Although I have no experience of the Dharma and extremely little knowledge, when asked to, I try to repeat what my teachers so kindly imparted. This has led me to various countries in Europe, Hong Kong, India and now Singapore. However, the essence of the Dharma remains the same everywhere, and for this reason, I try as much as possible to develop the compassion which cherishes others more than oneself and the wisdom which knows the ultimate nature of existence.