Thoughts. Experiences. Inspiration.

Becoming a nun: An introduction

October 17, 2013 12


This Saturday, I will take my first steps on a journey I’ve been wanting to take since I was 18. It all began on a pilgrimage trip to Gaden Monastery in 2004, when I was on my gap year and I visited a nunnery and did not want to leave. There was something about the nunnery that made me feel extremely comfortable, like everything there was normal and familiar. So I messaged my mum telling her my plans, and she asked me to request for permission from Rinpoche. Rinpoche asked me to complete my education first before considering ordination. Rinpoche said as a degree holder, my words would carry more weight when I give teachings in the future, that people would not just dismiss them as the words of a nun who had not “lived life”. In the world we live in, Rinpoche said, people value qualifications like degrees so in order to help others, I would have to do my best to attract them first. I followed Rinpoche’s instructions and returned to Malaysia; a few months later, Rinpoche consulted another monk just to confirm for me that I had made the right decision.

It’s been a decade since I made that wish and I’ve never forgotten it. Along the way, I’ve done all of the things society expected me to do – get a job, have a serious relationship, hang out with my friends, travel, eat good food and the like. It’s all been well and good but at the back of my mind (and at the forefront of it, some of the time!), I always knew all of that wasn’t going to get anywhere. I knew my job wouldn’t make me happy, I knew my relationship would end some day either voluntarily through a break-up or forcibly at death, I knew I didn’t want to have kids, I knew my friends would come and go, I knew the places I travelled to would just become memories, and I knew the good food would be…well, pooped out the following day.

Temporary gratification for no ultimate rewards. That was not enough to make me happy.

I’m not trying to portray myself as someone holy, as someone who was born to do this. Perhaps I was, perhaps I wasn’t but it doesn’t matter what you did or who you were in your past lives if you’re not going to make the right decisions now. So like many other people will experience, my journey to this point has certainly not been worry-free.

Over the last few weeks, since the first two photos above were taken, I’ve had reservations about becoming ordained and they are for reasons you would not imagine. At first, I had all of the usual thoughts – am I ready for this? Can I hold the vows? Will I be able to handle the criticism and negative remarks made about my nunhood? Will I let down our lineage which is very precious to me? Will I disappoint my teacher? You see, unlike in the Theravadan tradition, there is no such thing as temporary sanghahood in the Tibetan tradition. Once you’ve got the vows, you’ve got them for life, no and’s, if’s or but’s. You don’t put on the robes then take them off when you feel like it; once you commit to your practice, you commit to your practice and go all the way with it.

I have spent the last few weeks beating down my reservations with logic. I went back to the teachings Rinpoche has given me throughout the years, and relied on Rinpoche as my voice of reason. I knew that whatever doubts arose in my mind were my obstacles coming to stop me, that ultimately I did want to become a nun and that all of the noise in my head was just that – unnecessary chatter manifesting from my negative karma, to distract me from my goal. Of course I would find holding my vows difficult, of course I would slip at times…how could I not after lifetimes of accumulating bad habits?

But was I about to let the fear of slipping stop me from trying at all? Why not actually try to NOT slip? What would be so scary about trying to not slip? Why was I being so stupid as to think that following the vows would harm me in any way, shape or form?

My last final worry was truly the most silly – what if I look stupid in my robes and what if I look stupid with a bald head? When Rinpoche sent me the photo below, instantly my questions were put to rest. It is of Bollywood actress Barkha Madan, a gorgeous woman who made a living from the way she looks, who just received her ordination vows in Sera Je Monastery, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s three great pillars.


Who are you, Elena compared to this beautiful woman who became famous for her face, but then realised that there’s more to life than the way you look? And seriously, was I about to let something as insignificant as my HAIR stop me becoming enlightened? Was I ACTUALLY willing to give up happiness for myself and all sentient beings, for the sake of my hair?! For the perceived “freedom” of being able to wear whatever I want?

My god Elena, you are so stupid sometimes.

So I’m looking forward to this Saturday. Yes, maybe I’ll look strange in my white robes, a little like an orderly from a mental institution. Yes, I will get stares and people will ask me why I’m dressed like that. You know what? Stare away because I’ll be wearing my robes with pride and better yet, ask me why because I’ll be happy to tell you. I’ll be happy to tell you that as someone who could’ve done anything I wanted, I chose to become a nun because everything I thought I ever wanted will never make me happy anyway and that ultimately, nothing is more important to me than happiness for myself and for them.

When I turn 27 tomorrow, I will wake up and remember that this will be the best birthday present I have ever received – the opportunity from my lama to finally become happy.

Becoming a Nun

12 Comments → “Becoming a nun: An introduction”

  1. Carmen Koo 10 years ago   Reply

    What a beautiful piece of sharing. Who knew reading an article about becoming ordained could stir up quite a whirlwind of emotions in me. Thank you for being brave to inspire others to what you believe in, and more so, thank you for putting your words of believe into action. It has been a pleasure following your journey to enlightenment.

    • Elena 10 years ago   Reply

      Thank you so much Carmen 🙂 and thank you for attending on Saturday, it meant a lot to see you there x

  2. Sumana 10 years ago   Reply

    Dear Elena .. l am very happy and glad that you have the thoughts of becoming a nun .. Don’t worry about your hair , how do you look when you are bald and etc ?? This is an attachment, clinging onto certain things , everything is impermenant .. l have shaved my hair twice and l am happy to wear the white attire and came back with bald head .. Be happy with your decision and never have second thoughts of it .. You are able to help those people in need .. Wishing you have a blissful journey a nun ..

    • Elena 10 years ago   Reply

      Thank you for your kind wishes Sumana! Yes, in the end I did realise it was clinging on to certain things that have no inherent value. Hair is such a small matter, and I was turning it into an issue when it needn’t have been. It is incredible how sly mara is in playing mindgames to create obstacles in our practice x

  3. Ivy 10 years ago   Reply

    So happy for you, Elena!

    Shaving your head must have been really nerve wrecking! (I would freak out too!) But I guess, at the end of the day, we all just gotta remind ourselves that it’s where we put our energies, thoughts and actions that will ultimate define who we are and build authentic relationships with people, so that our message can spread across. Our hair and or our clothes won’t do that!

    All the best! 🙂

    • Elena 10 years ago   Reply

      Hahaha it was and in fact, between the first two photos, I wrote a draft blog post on the whole topic because I was quite shaken by my hairdresser’s reaction. As he was hovering about my head with his scissors, I told him, “If you make a mistake, it’s okay, it’s going to be shaved off later anyway” and his response was the funniest – “CHOI! You don’t say like that! Don’t make me so nervous, you say like that!” It got me wondering whether hair really was that big of a deal but I guess for someone who makes his living from dealing with hair, it is!

  4. PAW 10 years ago   Reply

    The reason behind not wanting to shave is a sign of holding onto the beautiful image we perceive ourselves as. The relief and light feelings after shave made us realise we are more beautiful without them! Now that the hat has been lifted, we can live fully without the burden anymore! Congratulations! You look radiant & absolutely beautiful! <3 <3 <3

  5. Sharon 10 years ago   Reply

    That was a very good post! Love what you shared. Very happy to see that a young person such as your good self has found her calling at such a tender age. BTW, you are beautiful. With or without hair. You have a beautiful soul. That matters more than any lovely locks. 🙂

  6. Philip kok 7 years ago   Reply

    The First time I Saw You in Traditional Tibetan Robes. It was gourges….The memory at Sarawasti…Om Sarasiddhi hring hring….

  7. David 6 years ago   Reply

    Elena, your story is a true inspiration for someone like me. I’m 29 living in NY, just starting my journey into finding true happiness and meaning of life.

    • Pastor Elena K. Jean Ai 6 years ago   Reply

      Hi David, thank you for your lovely comment. I have been extremely fortunate to come across an incredible teacher who abides in compassion. I offer my prayers, for whatever they are worth, that you are similarly blessed on your journey. If there is anything I can do to help, do get in touch 🙂

  8. Kei Toeda 2 years ago   Reply

    Great writing as usual…Hope you continue to follow your dreams and become ordained at Gaden Monastery!!!

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