It is quite unusual to see people calling themselves "fans" of a Buddhist nun. But so seemed the norm last month when Bangkok celebrated the 2,600th anniversary of Lord Buddha attaining enlightenment.
In the concert and any casual encounters, Ani Choying Drolma always appears energetic, calm, loving and sharp in her words.
When news broke that Ani Choying Drolma, the "singing nun", would be joining the celebrations and give a musical performance, many marked their calendars, they wouldn't miss this rare audience with the iconic nun and spiritual healer who has achieved pop-star status among fans.
The performance drew a large audience of old fans and new admirers, music lovers as well as spiritual practitioners and clerics. Some carried her CDs and sought her autograph and some also posed for pictures with her.
"It's quite unusual for a Buddhist nun to cultivate a pop-star-like following," said the bright and articulate Drolma matter-of-factly. Forty-one years old, she's made roughly 50 concert tours around the world.
"I've never seen myself as a singer. I simply sing out of what I feel is good about Buddhism and the things I implement in my spiritual practice," the maroon robed nun beamed, her eyes glistening.
At the concert, photshoots or while chanting, Drolma sat upright, poised and calm her eyes closed, deep in contemplation. Her lips barely moved but her suave voice flowed like a river.
"I can't do it otherwise, you see, chanting is more of a meditation than just singing, which is people generally think of me [as doing]," she aid earnestly. "When I sing on stage, it's as pure as it would have been in a monastery."
Being a nun, Drolma chose music, for which she has a passion, as a means to share words of the Buddha rather than traditional dhamma lectures or talks. She once served as a chanting master in the nunnery for a few years.
"To sing these mantras and spiritual songs in a melodious way is just a method that is used in Buddhist practice to unite the mind with the sound of mantra or spiritual songs," she explained.
"Melody, in general, has the inherent ability to soothe a very disturbed mind. Also, it helps people take words of wisdom to their hearts easily."
Starting in 1997, Drolma has launched 10 albums so far. They contain Tibetan hymns and sacred chants as well as original scores in Nepalese. It was in 2004 that she became a household name in Nepal with numbers that were in tune with the international music genre. Songs from her album Moment Of Bliss became hits in the pop chart and were widely played by radio stations.
"I feel truly blessed watching people young and old, poor and rich, criminals and politicians respond to my songs. They are a spiritually alert lot, and appreciate the songs, which are words of the Buddha," she smiled.
"I'd like to see people enjoy at least a moment of bliss. If we can cultivate or enhance this moment and develop it into a habit, then people would become less angry, less aggressive, less attached, less greedy and less jealous.
"Also, we can generate this positive energy deep within ourselves and this will free us from stress, tension or depression."
Drolma said she is fully devoted to Buddha-dhamma, not because she was wearing the robe, but because the way the Buddha helped free her from sufferings.
Fearing for her life, she entered a nunnery when she was 13.
"Even as a child I was soaked in anger, frustration and hatred _ the result of various things I'd seen or experienced.
One of the main things was how men could be so unfair, unjust, and discriminative; and not nice [to women]," she said.
In her autobiography Singing For Freedom, which has been translated into a dozen languages, Drolma described her childhood, saying that "not a day went by without a bloody beating". The breaking point came when her father nearly stabbed her to death.
"Life of my mother was very pathetic, horrible. And I was quite scared that the whole story would repeat and continue if I was to get married when I grew up which I thought would mean you are not respected, you are treated like a piece of garbage, and your desire and happiness would mean nothing to anybody."
"I was fortunate to make a decision and say 'no' (stressing her voice) _ I want something else. So I became a nun."
At Nagi Gompa, a Buddhist nunnery in the Kathmandu valley, Drolma met another man who cradled her in a sea of love.
"A real Buddha in my life," she said, of her dear teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, one of the most highly respected meditation masters in Nepal.
"I was losing myself, drowning deeper and deeper. But he picked me up out of that deep, cleaned and polished me. He liberated me from my anger, hatred, and frustration of life; and introduced me to the true nature of our human existence.
"Any positive things people find in me, be it singing or my social activities are totally and completely inspired by my teacher," her eyes beamed whenever she spoke of her teacher.
At the monastery, little Ani (nun) was allowed to be a child.
"In my family, I was never treated like a child. As a girl, I was expected to clean, cook, take care of my siblings.
"But in the monastery, I was allowed to run around, play, jump, sing and dance. I was like a wild child; horrible and intolerable. I was ready to fight to protect myself when I felt someone tried to dominate or pressure me.
"But my teacher gave me a chance to let out everything and then he created a certain atmosphere to make me understand that it's not necessary to be angry about things.
There are different ways to perceive things and this is how the whole transformation took place in me.
"Rinpoche once said, 'Before building something on a ground, you must clean it first.' That's what he did to me," she summed. Since young, Drolma has had a knack for singing and dancing.
"It was the most exciting thing I could ever think of doing in my life. By nature I'd always been an entertainer. I was not shy," she said.
She was an entertainer even in the monastery. "While I cook or do the cleaning the temple, I would be singing and dancing and people would laugh."
"I love to hum. Usually, when people are tired, they give out a sigh, which I find quite ugly. As for me, I hum," she said, demonstrating. She took a deep breath, then released it in a hum, "Om mani padme hum", and smiled.
Her passion for music, which radiates from her eyes, was engendered by her teacher who was a great chanting master himself.
''My teacher had a great voice. All these traditional melodies, I'd learnt directly from him. He taught me everything; the way I sing actually, the style is very much from him.''
The vocal and musical training as well as spiritual transformation, guided by her teacher, was subtly crafted in her psyche.
For an hour every morning and afternoon, little Ani was summoned to read aloud some texts in front of her teacher.
''He would correct me when I had it wrong,'' she recalled. ''And as a child, I was in a hurry to run out, play and jump. He would say (she made a deep voice mimicking her master), 'Who is chasing you?'.
''Sometimes, he'd say (now in a slow and gentle voice), 'My dear, read them nicely, carefully, and I promise to give you this', He'd usually give me something that I'd like,'' she chuckled.
After a few years in the monastery, Drolma, then 17 or so, was encouraged to lead the chanting at religious ceremonies and rituals. But when her teacher became ill, she resigned from the task to tend to him until his passing away in 1996. During that time her teacher still encouraged her to sing.
''When I approached him to offer some leg massage, he would say, 'No, why don't you sing for me?'. At times, he would ask me if I knew any Nepalese or Bollywood songs,'' she grinned.
''I understand very clearly now that he knew everything. He had the vision of my future and he was guiding me towards it.'' Her teacher is not physically present today, but his spirit remains alive in her heart.
''I can't never let go of him. Having him in my heart means I will not lose track of my life,'' she said.
''His way of life is all teaching for me. He led an altruistic way of life. He was always concerned and cared about others.''
Following in her teacher's footsteps, Drolma does not sing for the sake of it, or to release personal anguish. She sings to alleviate people's suffering.
''The most important thing in anything you do in Buddhist practice is the right attitude, which is, 'Whatever I do, may I be able to do for the benefits of all beings,.''
Through the proceeds of her CD sales and concert tickets, as well as public donations, she was able to found the Nun's Welfare Foundation of Nepal in 1999 with the aim of promoting education and welfare of nuns, girls and women in Nepal. She believes that when given equal opportunity, women have great potential to contribute to the betterment of society.
Arya Tara School, the flagship project of the foundation offers free boarding and education to nuns in both secular and spiritual knowledge, including Thanka painting and Charya spiritual dance, the ancient arts exclusively encouraged only for boys.
''When I was young, I wanted to have a good education, but due to certain problems, lots of the girls don't get that opportunity, including myself. Understanding this difficulty, I want to be the one who fulfills the wishes of those girls.''
There are 15 other projects under the foundation's umbrella _ an early childhood development centre, a street dog care camp, a bio-gas project at a school, water reservoirs and Mother's Home _ a refuge for old and abandoned mothers, along with Arogya Kidney Hospital.
''Everything that I've done and want to do is because of what is lacking in our society,'' she said.
The hospital, for instance, was initiated after her mother passed away due to the lack of proper kidney treatment in her country, and water reservoirs were needed to free women of the daily burden of carrying water from nearby water sources to their households.
''As I would not want these things to happen in my life, I try to do something, at least, to reduce the amount of pain and difficulty that people are going through,'' she said.
Despite many social activities and musical obligations, Drolma still wishes to do more.
''We all wish to be happy in life. And to achieve that, we do different things. The way I've found to experience happiness in my life is by following the Buddha's path, which is to be able to serve every being and bring them comfort and happiness,'' she said with a soft smile.
The Nun's Welfare Foundation of Nepal can be reached at www.choying.com or www.theanifoundation.org/.
About the author
- Writer: Karnjariya Sukrung