Faith Alive: Kelsang Sama, Buddhist nun

January 16, 2010 

How did you become a Buddhist nun? The actual ceremony was only about an hour long. It was in 2005 in Ulverston, England. But much that led up to that. I led a life like everyone else: school, friends, trying to find my way through life as a youth. Also internal issues: difficulties, challenges and the entire emotional spectrum. Discovering Buddhism and becoming a nun was like finding the answer to a question that pervaded my entire life. It was definitely a calling. At a young age I felt drawn to becoming devoted to something universally true and to be part of a pure lineage and holder of that truth in my heart. When I was younger, I expressed this through my piano studies. I began playing when I was 8. I dreamed of being immersed in a conservatory environment. Remember the TV show “Fame”? I wanted to go to that school.

How did the transition happen, from being devoted to music to Buddhism? In the final years before I met Buddhism, I was living in Minsk, Belarus. I was studying piano at the state conservatory there. My childhood dream seemed to be coming true. I was surrounded by prodigious Russian pianists, and we practiced hours and hours a day. I was even at the end of an unbroken lineage of teachers that traced back to Beethoven. But I eventually became disillusioned with art as a spiritual path. The more I worked, the more I seemed to be descending into suffering as opposed to drawing closer to spiritual peace.

Where were you living then? I was residing in an Eastern European country under a totalitarian dictatorship, so my only window to free information was by Internet. I searched and surfed, wrote to teachers and students of various traditions, but only one finally spoke to me most deeply. I saw a photo of a Tibetan teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who happens to be the head of our tradition. I still remember the first time I saw his face. In that moment, I was transformed from a spiritual seeker to a spiritual finder. I had several books shipped to me from England. As I absorbed them, I remember feeling, “I am Buddhist; I am a nun.” That was in 2003, before I returned to the West. I didn’t officially become Buddhist by ceremony until 2004, and not a Buddhist nun until 2005.

What does it mean to you? Being a Buddhist nun to me means striving to internalize Buddhist principles in my heart and to integrate them into my daily life. Among other vows I have taken (yes, I am celibate; people always ask), I practice things such as giving, moral discipline (non-harm), patience, compassion and cherishing others. I am far from having realizations of these, but I maintain the intention and con- sistently try. The first step is to honestly acknowledge where the mind is at any given moment and to work from there. Buddhism is all about working from the inside out. When we change our mind, our actions change.

How did the Buddhist books help you? The wonderful thing about the material was that there was a part for me in whatever mental, spiritual, psychological, philosophical, emotional place I found myself. Everyone needs methods to increase kindness, deal with anger, find relief from frustration, sadness, problems, depression. We want to know how to deal with the challenges we experience in every facet of our life. No person is a stranger to these. We live in difficult times, inner and outer. … There are Buddhist concepts and people may not realize are Buddhist. “Karma,” for example, is also known as the law of cause and effect. Virtuous actions are causes for positive effects. Non-virtuous actions are causes for negative effects. Another Buddhist practice is “Cherishing Others” — we consider others’ feelings and treat them kindly, wanting them to be happy, and this results in happiness for both persons.

Who is your teacher and how does he influence you? My teacher, Gen Kelsang Mondrub, is an invaluable person in my life. In difficult times, I try to emulate his compassion. He tells me how to clear the obstacles and shows me which way to go.

What is your profession? I teach piano at Columbus State University through the conservatory program, for non-majors. Gen Mondrub is the Resident Teacher of Kadampa Meditation Center in Atlanta and is a close disciple of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Gen Mondrub will give two public talks today. The first is 11 a.m. at Books-A-Million, then at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble. He will talk, lead a guided meditation, and then will allow for questions and discussion. Beginning Jan. 23, Cindy Parker of Atlanta will lead a weekly study of “Transform Your Life” at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays at Books-A-Million.

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