Model to Monk: A Woman’s Journey into Tibetan Buddhism (Aria Das)

Aria Das

New York, N.Y. Residing in New York while maintaining an opulent lifestyle is a dream many can only hope for, however, for this young woman it was a reality. The only issue was that it was a reality perceived by others and an illusion to her. Working in the fashion industry and receiving recognition as a New York fashion model, she quickly learned the truth of the industry and how everyone wanted to look like a magazine cover when in reality it was impossible because engineers photoshopped images to a certain standard of beauty they think will sell. This woman speaks up about her thoughts on the digital era noting that we spend more time engaging with machines than with one another. I believe deep down everyone already knows this but only few can muster the courage to travel down a different path. This is a story of how a woman, despite seemingly having it all in NYC, chose to go down a spiritual lane and this has made all the difference.

Spiritually disciplined from an early age due to her step father’s influence, it isn’t hard to understand why the flashy life of New York didn’t appeal to her. At a young age she read chapters out of the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. She was brought up in India and although her upbringing was strict, it was for the best as it all made sense for her later on in life. When her biological father left the family for his own spiritual righteousness, she was left miserable and confused. When her mother died suddenly at the age of 53 she fell into depression. The melancholy of life after paved a way for her, however. They say the fruits of hard work bring about glorious rewards and she worked hard fiercely questioning her morality and views of life on a day to day basis.

Her thoughts would eventually bring her to a Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Center in New York in 2008. This was around the time she stopped caring so much about external desires and her career in the fashion industry and met with the guru Lama Norlha Rinpoche. She would go on to learn about her innate wisdom. Volunteering by cooking and helping out in the monasteries and regularly attending meditation courses gave her immense joy and she was finally able to taste the good life and the best part was it was within her the whole time she had been searching for it.

TO BE RE-WRITTEN BY JIM LUCE FOR HUFFINGTON POST 

Poughkeepsie, N.Y.  I completed my three year and three month traditional Tibetan Buddhist Retreat in 2015, I can’t believe the years flew by so quickly, looking back it all seems like a dream. One minute I was living the New York City life and the next moment, I stepped out off my Zanotti boots, said goodbye to my glamour’s life style, donned the Buddhist robes, and traveled to India, for my ordination, and to receive empowerments (abhisekha) for the traditional Tibetan Buddhist retreat practices, from his H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche, who resides in India at Palpung Sherabling Monastery.

Why a Buddhist Nun? The Big Change?

I’m often asked, Why such extremes? Why would someone who seemed to have everything, living in New York City, a career in the fashion industry with an exciting life style, having lived in three continents with wonderful friends all over the world, just renounce everything to become a Buddhist nun and go off to do a traditional three year retreat . And the answer quite simply is, I was at life’s crossroads. I was searching for something more meaningful in life, everything that seemed exciting, was becoming overwhelmingly meaningless and senseless. My life goals that had been all consuming seemed uninteresting and unimportant and I was seeking answers, for the real life’s purpose? The city I loved so much was an illusion, with all the excitement and chaos, people had stopped thinking, the internet, advertising, TV, movies and news did all the thinking for you. We bought things what advertising said was the best, we all dressed in the same boring black and called it glamorous.

We all wanted to look like the cover of a Magazine, but even the most beautiful models did not look like themselves in the magazines, they were photo shopped to a standard of beauty which was unattainable and not the reality, but which most women desired and wanted to attain.. We were trying to live up to standards we could not attain.

We had stopped thinking and let the media think for us, “lets Google it” was the new Mantra.We needed Google’s opinion on everything. We were in era of talking to machines. Even in restaurants people were having deeper conversation with the gadgets then the person there were sitting with.

I was searching for something more meaningful in my life and I saw myself gravitating towards my lifelong deep spiritual yearning that began at an early age in India, where spirituality and religion are an integral part of our daily life setting the foundation for my own spiritual awakening. 

Seed Planted Early in Me

It was school day and my mother dressed us up with our uniforms an everyday ritual, I was around eight years, and my sister around seven years , and as she dressed us up she gave us the usual motherly advice, to be good girls at school, to obey our teachers, to finish our lunch box and then she paused, and pulled us both together and knelt down to our eye level and she added something more sinister…..she said,…. choosing her words very carefully, if Dada (our father) or anyone else at any time ask us to go away to a faraway place without her, we were to say NO, because little children could not go there and only beggars lived there. It did not make much sense to my eight year old mind, why would anyone take us to a place where only beggars lived. But we nodded our heads in agreement and she hugged us goodbye and off we went to school with our maid holding our hands firmly, least one us slip off or wander away to the many Indian sweet shops that were on our way to school.

As we entered the school gates we saw our favorite teacher Miss Sundari and ran towards her while our maid yelled back not to leave the school gates until she comes to get us in the evening. I had some jasmine flowers my mother had put in my school bag, and I gave it to my teacher who was very fond of jasmine flowers and she gently tucked it into her long beautiful hair, she said she will come home soon to see my mother one these of days to have some tea, and we all headed to assembly hall and the school day started with head girl chanting a morning prayer, with the whole school the teachers and principal chanting with her. And then we went back to our respective class rooms.

School was usual, my math teacher was concerned about my poor math skills and wanted me take math tuitions and pay more attention in class and as day passed with more classes it was afternoon , time for lunch and play our favorite time at school. Lunch time went by very quickly and during late afternoon, while I was day dreaming in class, suddenly our principle stepped into our classroom with my little sister which was quite unusual and she whispered to the teacher and then they both looked towards me and teacher asked me to go out with the principle, I was very concerned and as I went out, the principle held our hands as she lead us to the playground she said my father was waiting for us.

We both ran towards our father and the principle exchanged a few greeting and she left and our father sat us down, he looked very sad as if he had been crying, he asked us how we liked school and we both shook our heads to say it was okay. Then he came and sat close to us and very gently said, he came to school to tell us that he was going away on a very long journey, where children could not go, and he did not know when he would come back. He also added that we were to be very good children and obey our Mother and teachers and he would be very sad if he heard otherwise. His was starting to tear up again and I instinctively ran up and sat on his lap and gave him a hug to console him, he was silent for a long time as tears flowed and my sister started to cry and finally he looked up at us and said “ if we wanted to go with him on this long journey”?. I hesitated and said No, mother had asked us not to go. He looked at us in silence for some time and gave us both a hug and said his car was waiting and he has to go away now. He got up and as walked away he looked back at us and waved good bye and I held my sisters hand and waved back and we went back to the classroom, not realizing that was the last time we would ever see him. We never saw him again and he had gone to become a Sadhu a renounceate, a seed was planted in me that day.

Not a day went by when I stopped thinking of him, every door bell, I would run to see if it was my dad coming home and I would cry inconsolably and my mother would say I had to be brave so my sister does not feel sad. We prayed for him daily before we went to bed for his good health and that he would be back. Every sadhu that went by I would look to see if he was my father, I longed to be with my father, I was his favorite little girl and I could not understand why he left us and never came back.We never saw him again, setting the seed of foundation for my own spiritual awakening.

As days went by we never heard from him and a year later, my mother put us both in a boarding school so we would have a good education and strict upbringing , we were schooled in an exclusive convent school run by Irish nuns 

My exploration into spirituality further progressed when I attended Catholic boarding school and started reading the bible and studying Christianity. I loved going to church and attending mass and chanting hymns.

Years passed and we still did not hear from our father and my mother’s family advised my mother to consider remarrying, so we children would have a father figure. My mother was very hesitant at first and always believed my father would return one day but as we saw no sign of hope she reluctantly agreed to remarry. My mother was exceptionally beautiful and there were quite a few suitors but she wanted a special person who would be a good father to us and as luck would be on our side she met that special person and married, who would become my stepfather and who was a major influence in my spiritual development. 

A devout Hindu Brahmin and patron of many temples he further enriched my spiritual growth when he invited Vedic philosophers and guru’s to conduct discourses in our home. I learned teachings from the Bhagavad Gita, Shiva Sutras and the Patangali Yoga Sutras, among others. I also learned transcendental meditation and started meditating. At same time he ensured I excelled academically and trained me to play sports in tennis and swimming and encouraged my pursuit in classical Indian dance. I was truly blessed to have a wonderful step father and a loving mother ,

Lesson in Impermance

The pivotal point in my spiritual awakening was when my mother passed away the pain of losing my mother was intolerable after losing my father as a child. I learnt most meaningful lesson of impermanence, she was only 53 years old when she suddenly died and I was in my twenties. She was the most important person in my life, we were very young when my father left home on his spiritual journey and she had played the role of both father and mother to us. During this period of inconsolable grief, I fiercely questioned my own mortality and the real meaning of our existence, in this transient life.  I had a deep realization about the Impermanence of life and recognized all things which are valuable to us, one has to leave behind when one dies. And only spiritual accomplishments may be of only value, worth achieving.

Some individuals in their lifetime leave a legacy and their contribution to society changes the world and benefits mankind, they are the extraordinary human beings, but most of us we just live ordinary lives and die, how futile. This life with so many struggles and tribulation and one day “poof” just like candle blown out by the wind, you just die and there no trace of you and nor have you contributed anything of significance to the world. I wanted to at least try and be that extraordinary person, to be of benefit to mankind, and this was my true quest. 

But how I could I benefit anyone? With all my flaws and craziness’, I did not have the DNA of the pious and holy, where do I even start? 

Meeting my Guru

It was during this time of soul searching, just by chance I stumbled upon a Tibetan Buddhist meditation Center in NYC, (The year 2008,) I was determined to make positive changes in my life. My exciting lifestyle and fashion career was becoming more and more meaningless and senseless. I made a firm new year’s resolution to start to meditate again and to enrich my life spiritually. Within a week of going to the mediation center I met my Guru Lama Norlha Rinpoche, who would play an important role in my life, and everything started to fall into place, I felt so ready to experience this path, and it just felt right.We are so conditioned into believing that there is always something external to be obtained, which leads us to fulfillment, we lose sight of our innate wisdom, which is far more enriching. And for me this worked, the Buddhist philosophy had all the answers, I seeked.

About my Guru

He is a living example of the compassionate wisdom he teaches. An extraordinaryperson, he was born in Nangchen District of Kham, eastern Tibet. He entered Korche Monastery at the age of five, receiving monastic ordination at fourteen. By the age of twenty-one, Lama Norlha Rinpoche had completed two three-year retreats. After the communist takeover of Tibet, he escaped on foot to India where he met Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpocheand became his close disciple.

Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche was one of the great meditation masters of the Buddhist tradition. His teachings were sought by lamas of all four schools of Buddhism in Tibet, and he was foremost in spreading the Dharma to the West and establishing Dharma centers for Westerners to undertake the traditional three-year retreat.In India, Lama Norlha rinpoche established several three-year retreat facilities where he trained monks in the complete cycle of transmissions and practices of the Kagyu Lineage.

In 1976, at the request of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa and Kalu Rinpoche, Lama Norlha rinpoche came to New York City where he taught Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices to a wide range of students.Two years later, to provide students with the means of studying and practicing at a more profound level, he founded Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery and Retreat Center.Lama Norlha rinpoche is one of the most experienced teachers of the traditional Kagyu three-year retreat alive today. I was blessed with a perfect realized teacher who had whole lineage transmission and had mastered the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. I had found the most valuable Jem.And everything just started to fall into place, I felt so ready to experience this path, and it just felt right. My aspirations were, to learn the wisdom of the TibetanBuddhistphilosophy and awaken the Buddha-nature, so I may genuinely be able to help sentient beings.

I started attending meditation classes regularly and going to monastery to attendteachings andreceive empowerments and I volunteered by cooking and helping in the monastery, which gave me immense joy.

Womens Role In Tibetan Buddhsim

Historically, like all major world religion, full ordination has not been available to women in the Tibetan tradition only men were allowed that privilege. In the Buddhist tradition the highest level of ordination for a man is Bhiksu and the highest level of ordination for women was Bhiksuni which meant basically women had the same right. But in Tibet the Bikshuni ordination lineage was somehow lost and so while the men could receive the full ordination the women could not. There has been a lot of debate over this issue and Dalai Lama urges Introduction of Bhikshuni Vows into Tibetan Tradition for women. And the head of Kagyu lineage H.H. Gyalwang Karmapa at the Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering for women led a special ritual that he himself had composed, making powerful aspirations in support of all female practitioners. In Praise of Bhikshunis: A Ritual for the Nuns’ Dharma to Flourish,

But here in America at Kagyu Thubten choling Monastrey it was immediately apparent that women played an important role, the whole administration, the audio/video technician and the head chopon (head lama who manages the shrine) were all women and lama Norlha had dedicated his life into empowering women. In order to improve opportunities for the Tibetan women to study and practice the dharma, he founded a convent and retreat center at Kala Rongo in Tibet, who houses around 200 nuns including a monastic college for women and appointed qualified teachers to teach the nuns. The women who were participating in the retreat received the whole linage transmission equal to men.

Moreover by their sheer will and perseverance they were many accomplished and spiritually realized women in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. Although Buddha had made no discrimination between male and female and essentially they both had equal opportunity for enlightenment, like all world religion women were was not fully supported in male dominated society. But in spite of it, there existed high female reincarnations lineage in the Tibetan tradition and Sanding Dorge Phagmo is an incarnation tradition which existed for about seven hundred years and that lineage was old as Karmapa’s.

To me a title did not mean much, I wanted the real deal to achieve an enlightened mind to benefit beings, and they were many women who had achieved high realization without the title of Biksuni. Vajrayana Buddhism recognizes many accomplished female yogini practitioners achieving full enlightenment of a Buddha. My inspirations were Princess Yeshe Tsogyal and Tara, who vowed to be enlightened in only a female form. According to the Tara Tantra, Tara was a king’s daughter and a spiritual and compassionate princess, she developed great merit and spiritual attainments from regularly giving offerings and prayers to the ordained monks and nuns. The monks praised her intention and diligence and said that they will pray she be reborn as a man which would be best suited to attain enlightenment in a male form. She responded that she did not agree to this idea and Buddha’s teaching was that all beings equally have the potential to attain enlightenment. Being confident, she made the aspiration and vowed to be reborn only in female incarnations until she attained enlightenment. She is the most beloved deity of Tibetan Buddhist traditions and Tara might thus be considered one of the earliest feminists

And most inspiring was the beloved Tibetan yogni Gelongma Palmo who was born to a royal family belived to be the daughter of the king of Oddiyana (an area which is now Afghanistan). She decided to give up her life as a princess and become a Buddhist Nun, She was very strict in her discipline and practice. However she contracted leprosy which was considered incurable disease and since it was contagious, society had outcast her and was forced to live in isolation. She subscuntly lost her limbs and suffered physically and mentally a great deal. But because of her unwavering faith and devotion she prayed intensely with great sincerity and one night she had a prophetic dream. And in her dream she was told that if she genuinely practiced and prayed to lord Chenrezig , she would achieve supreme Siddhi in on life time. With intense devotion she prayed to lord chenrezig and practiced fasting ritual and she overcame her illness and her limbs were also restored and after 12 years of her practice she achieved enlightment in one life time, it’s said.

Living in the west where I enjoyed the fruits of equal opportunity I did not perceive Tibetan Buddhism for men in robes only, women and men were equally capable of achieving awenking.

In practicing the Buddha’s teachings, one’s form man or woman is irrelevant. It is one’s determination to be free from the cycle of conditioned existence and one’s compassionate concern for the welfare of others that is of most important.

Three Years and Three Months in Retreat

I started visiting the monastery often and took great pleasure cooking and doing volunteer jobs in the monastery, every week 1000 butter lamps were offered with saffron water , flowers and incense as was the tradition and there was a lot of work , putting them up and taking them down .. I felt a lot of joy being a part of monastic community practicing mindfulness and being around my teacher.

During one of my visit’s one of the monk casually mentioned that the 7th retrearnts will be soon coming out and perhaps I should consider joining the 8th retreat. What he said next was very important in making my descions, he said that considering “Impermance” all of us born have to die and our teacher was no exception, and if I don’t make use of this opportunity now, I will always regret it considering how rare it was to meet an authentic teacher, not only that my lama’s teachers were some of most accomplished and realized teachers namely H.H. the 16th Karmapa and Kalu rinpoche. I decided I could not miss this opportunity I will do the next retreat without any doubt.

It’s also very rare to have a traditional Tibetan Buddhist retreat offered here in the west. The 3-year and 3 months retreat is an advanced, fully enclosed intensive Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice’s focused on Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu linages. Living as a nun for the duration of the retreat, we remain in solitude, engaging in the contemplations and meditation practices for the whole part of the retreat. Doing a Retreat gives extraordinary meaning to ones human life and spending 3 years and 3 months and using your energy in a positive way is an extraordinary achievement

In Three year and Three month Retreat one completes from beginning to end the whole transmission of the tradition. Doing a retreat gives you the time to develop a very solid basis for Dharma practice. In one year one does about 4000 hours of practice. In Retreat you are committed; you just have to concentrate on the practice. And as the retreat progresses, each succeeding practice depends on experiential understanding gradually gained in the practices that came before. The practice also involves actively taking the perspective of a Bodhisattva– one whose very being is dedicated to the liberation of all beings. As the insight into the nature of mind deepens the understanding of compassion also goes to deeper levels naturally. You understand the sheer futility of this life and a strong will to make this life more meaningful

Although the I found the retreat extremely challenging even daunting to think of sitting for hours meditating, one cannot control the retreat process, you simply have to surrender yourself and let the retreat take its course and trust in the wisdom of the tradition and blessings of the lineage. In terms of personal evolution, the most important step in retreat is gaining the wisdom of meditation and to experience the nature of one’s mind. Although you may have momentary experiences and glimpses of insight can arise, which can give can give increased confidence in the potential of the path, the main point is to deepen the practice. As is often said, the three-year retreat is an on-going practice that does not stop when retreat is over, the retreat is the foundation.

The three-year retreat was formally instituted in the nineteenth century by the great master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Taye. The three year and three month timeframe derives from teachings in the Kalachakra Tantra regarding the time required to transform karmic energy into wisdom energy when engaged in undistracted meditation with proper view.

The retreat teachings are given by Lama Norlha Rinpoche, who completed two three-year retreats in Tibet by the age of 21 and is renowned for his mastery of the Six Yogas of Naropa. He is one of the most experienced teachers of the traditional Kagyu three-year retreat alive today.

Participants in the three-year retreat read and chant from the original Tibetan texts, learning and practicing the same progressive stages of meditation taught in traditional three-year retreats in Tibet. English translations of teachings and texts are provided.

At the heart of the retreat are the practices of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa . The related curriculum includes the main preliminary practices, guru yogas, deity mandalas and mind instructions of the Karma Kagyu tradition, as well as practices from the Shangpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.

The retreat structure follows the tradition established by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye, which includes four meditation sessions a day and group chanting in the morning and evening.  The retreat environment is designed to facilitate devoting all the energies of body, speech and mind to the transformative practices of the Vajrayana.

In a long retreat through study, meditation and various practises one is able to recognize the true nature of mind. You clearly experience the way the mind works, and recognize the impermanence and emptiness of all external and internal phenomena .You will learn to gradually see how your mind reacts and as this experience deepens you no longer are at the mercy of sense perceptions and emotions. You realize you have freedom before you react .The experience, deepened by meditation, leads to serenity and joy.

Our Retreat master Lama Norlha Rinpoche was born in 1938, in the Nangchen District of Kham, eastern Tibet. He entered Korche Monastery at the age of five, receiving monastic ordination at fourteen. By the age of twenty-one, Lama Norlha had completed two three-year retreats, during the second of which he acted as assistant to the retreat master. After the communist takeover of Tibet, he escaped on foot to India where he met Kyabje Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche and became his close disciple.

In India, Lama Norlha established several three-year retreat facilities where he trained monks in the complete cycle of transmissions and practices of the Kagyu Lineage. In 1976, at the request of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa and Kalu Rinpoche, Lama Norlha came to New York City where he taught Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices to a wide range of students. Two years later, to provide students with the means of studying and practicing at a more profound level of commitment, he founded Kagyu Thubten Chöling Monastery and Retreat Center. Following the sacred example of his own masters, Lama Norlha has dedicated his life to teaching the practices that make up the Kagyupa three-year retreat.

The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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