JULY 13, 2014 IDN
By Kalinga Seneviratne
By ordaining women into the Sangha (order of Buddha’s disciples), Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago has placed women on an equal footing with men in India. But today in most Asian Buddhist countries nuns are fighting an uphill battle to be recognized as credible teachers of the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings). One Nepali woman may be unwittingly changing this perception by virtually singing the Dhamma.
“I never label myself into anything I just do what my heart wishes to do, with all the understanding and respect towards Buddha’s teachings and his principles,” said Nepali Buddhist nun Ani Choying Drolma, when I interviewed her just before she performed to a sellout audience at Singapore’s premier concert hall, The Esplanade in April.
Ani Choying Drolma, who has made a name for herself in the world music scene, has been performing to packed houses in recent years in countries such as the U.S., Australia, Taiwan and Singapore. In the process, she has made a lot of money, which she invests in a foundation she has set up in Nepal to educate poor women and empower them in a conservative male-dominated society.
Born in the same country the Buddha was born, to a Tibetan refugee family in Kathmandu in 1970, she became a nun at the age of 13 basically to get away from an abusive father. She entered the Nagi Gompa, a Buddhist nunnery on the northern slopes of the Kathmandu Valley, where her education and spiritual training was supervised by the renowned meditation master Tulku Urgyen Rinponche, who was the head Lama of Nagi Gompa. It was his wife who taught Ani Choying how to sing the sacred chants. Her talent quickly became apparent and in the position of Chant Master for the Nunnery, she led all religious ceremonies and chants.
Ani Choying has come a long way from there and has today become a role model for women’s empowerment in Nepal as well as across Asia. A fluent English speaker, she speaks regularly in international conferences around the world.
“We are conceived in the mother’s womb in a similar way (as boys) with equal respect, equal joy and nourished in a similar way until we are out in the world,” notes Ani Choying, and it is after that that different roles are assigned to boys and girls, which is a man-made culture, she argues. “I believe that’s the wrong understanding, nature has never been biased.”
“I believe in myself saying that I have equal potential to achieve enlightenment. I have equal potential to serve people. Why is that wrong if we believe in it?” asks Ani Choying. “I don’t believe in criticizing people but look inside and say, yes I have potential and I must strengthen that and move forward.”
When asked what motivates her to sing not only in Nepal but around the world, her response was: “What I sing is not tragic love songs or any worldly songs. I sing spiritual songs, meditation songs and the words of the Buddha are translated to a very simple poetic language which is transformed into a musical song. The main purpose of my singing is for me to be able to share the wisdom of the Buddha with simplicity that any person walking on the street can understand the meaning. So people who are able to listen to it at least enjoy a moment of bliss.”
A talented singer without training
Her musical career began in 1994, when U.S. guitarist Steve Tibbetts during a visit to Nepal met Ani Choying and listened to her chanting. He was immediately impressed with her singing talents and eventually managed to record it on a cassette recorder in a small shrine room. The result was a collaborative album Cho, which was released in 1997 to critical acclaim.
“I never got technical training to become a singer and never pursued to become a singer. When you pursue a career in becoming a singer, your main ambition is that you want to become famous or you want to make a lot of money. But it has never been the case with me,” Ani Choying said recalling the beginning of her musical journey. “What happened was this musician who came to the monastery and heard me singing some of the prayers. He asked me to record something. Later he took it back to America and mixed with his music and sent it back with a proposal, asking if I be interested in making an album out of it”.
She at first could not make up her mind whether to do it or not. “I went to see my teacher (and asked) what he thought. His answer was, okay whoever hears these mantras or spiritual songs, whether they are believers or non-believers they will all be benefited, it’s okay. That was good enough for me to record,” she added.
This decision has taken her into new vistas and perhaps opened up new avenues for Asian Buddhist nuns to get themselves recognized as messengers of the Dhamma.
Between 1997 and 2011, Ani Choying has released 12 CDs and contributed to music compilations including Buddha Bar and the sound track to the movie Milarepa. Following the success of her first concert tour in the USA, she began performing in concerts and at festivals all over Europe, North America, the UK, Singapore, China, Taiwan, and many other countries of Asia. She played a major part in popularising Tibetan Buddhist chants with western audiences.
In 2013, giving a whole new spin to the term ‘world music’, Ani Choying sang an inter-faith song with Jordanian singer Farah Siraj for MTV that was composed by Oscar-winning Indian musician A.R. Rahman with the Nepalese Buddhist hymn forming the base of the song, layered with a traditional Jordanian melody.
“I was singing a compassion Buddha mantra, the theme of that song is mother,” explained Ani Choying. “Mr Rahman asked me if there is anything that represents the quality of a mother in your mantra tradition . . . when you think of the word mother the quality of the mother becomes compassion. I can think of the mantra of compassionate Buddha. So I said I can sing the mantra. (and) the Jordanian woman singing in Arabic praising mother”
With the funds coming to her from the blossoming musical career, Ani Choying was able to start supporting the education of girls and young women in Nepal from poor areas.
In 1998 she established the Nuns’ Welfare Foundation (NWF) of Nepal. By providing both secular and Buddhist education to nuns, they in turn would be able to serve the wider community. The flagship project of the NWF is the Arya Tara School, which opened in 2000. She also supports a number of humanitarian projects such as the Shree Tara Band (the first female instrumental band of Nepal), the building of a kidney hospital for Nepal, an early childhood development centre and a street dog care camp.
Ani Choying does not see a conflict between her vinaya principles as a nun and getting paid for her musical performances.
“In Asian tradition you get offering and in western tradition you get paid. Your time, your skill is respected in that manner,” noted Ani Choying when the issue of vinaya rules was raised during the interview. “So when money comes in, then question comes what should I do with the money? May be now I can fulfill my wishes to see all the women and girls getting a chance to go to school and getting an education”.
Thus she added, that she started a school for nuns where they can get a good academic education. “This money helped me to start this project and as it is not enough just to start (it) needs continuation (that) means more money. So then (my) singing continued . . . Whatever financial resources are generated, out of that I’m able to do so much good work in Nepal”.
“It adds good meaning to my existence,” argues Ani Choying. “I feel active. Feel like I’m blessed, at least I can reduce pain in somebody’s life.”
Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore.