Her eyes are the first thing you notice: large, black pools that mirror her emotions without guile. Ani Choing Drolma may be garbed in traditional robe and have sheared hair, but she drives a car, has a cell phone and several very popular CDs to her credit. Clearly, she is not a typical Buddhist nun.
As progressive in her work as her approach to modern life-she even has a website, www.choying.com-Ani Choing is committed to her dharma and sangha, as is apparent in the Nuns Welfare Foundation (NWF), an NGO that she started in 1998. As a young nun who joined Nagi Gompa at the age of 13, her secular academics were replaced by religious studies. In the years that followed, Ani Choying noticed while monks were encouraged to engage in challenging intellectual exercises, nuns were urged to focus solely on prayers and pujas, leaving them with little or no skills to interact with the outside world.
The confidence she gained by learning English and basic medical skills through private lessons impressed the young Ani Choying and left her wishing other nuns could feel the same self-assurance. Her personal experience had taught her where the crux of the problem lay: "Scratch around our supposedly up-to-date society and you'll find a deep-rooted patriarchy, something that affects even religious priorities. Monastic life depends on the community, and given this bias, it's obvious there is more support for monks. Education for nuns is seen as secondary." NWF was initiated to redress the balance, a place where the sisterhood could come for support-spiritual, educational or financial.
After two years of raising funds Ani Choying was ready to take on the foundation's first major project in 2000, the Arya Tara School for nuns, fittingly named after The Liberator. At Arya Tara nuns are given both a secular and a religious education. They learn Tibetan, Nepali, English, math, history, art, basic first aid along with religious scriptures and rituals. "Spiritual development certainly makes us wiser, but intellectual pursuits make us smarter," she says.
Ani Choying believes secular knowledge-including how to cook, clean and shop for food-will help Arya Tara nuns to better navigate their way in a world outside that of the nunnery, a necessity if they wish to be proponents of active compassion. The love and compassion preached by Buddhism needs more than just prayers, according to her. "Recycling the word 'compassion' is not enough, it must be accompanied by concrete action for society to benefit," says Ani Choying. Arya Tara is a school, not a nunnery that asks for a lifetime commitment. After their education, the young nuns will be encouraged to return home to Muktinath, Manaslu, Helambu and even Tibet to so they can reach out to their community in an effective and practical manner. "Join us, get an education and leave. Come back with projects that the Nun's Welfare Centre can support," she tells her young charges.
Arya Tara School is funded entirely through the proceeds of Ani Choying's concerts, CD sales and from private donations. In the past "the singing nun" has had to deal with traditionalists who viewed her use of the prayers as sacrilegious. She was wary of performing in Nepal but chose to do so to support Arya Tara. "I do not change the melody or the words. When I perform with others-like contemporary musicians-it becomes a bridge for others to experience the wonder in these prayers," she says. "It's like a beautiful woman whose beauty is not marred or altered when she wears jewellery or perfume."
Despite her popularity here and abroad, Ani Choying is remarkably focused, humble, and dedicated to the memory of her teacher: "This is a path I set on with the blessings of my guru, Tulku Urgen Rinpoche, who encouraged my singing and taught me the beautiful spiritual songs that I now perform." From him she learned the practice of Chod, or "cutting," helping to recognise and cut through egotistic tendencies. The chants used in this practice are the ones Ani Choying has spread the world over. Her voice has a natural clarity and organic quality that perfectly conveys the spontaneous and ecstatic nature of the songs.
Ani Choying Drolma will be performing her fourth annual Kathmandu concert at 6PM on 25 May at the Durbar Hall, Hotel Yak and Yeti, to aid Arya Tara School build their new premises in Pharping. This year she will be accompanied by local jazz legends Cadenza, incorporating ancient Buddhist chants as well as Amazing Grace, the Jewish Shalom Malekham, the Gayatri Mantra and the Maha Mrtitunjaya Mantras.
And what of the future? "Right now I am dedicated to the Nun's Welfare Foundation and I'll work for it as long as they need me but I look forward to going on retreat. I am blessed to receive more than I give," she says, quite unaware just how much we, her audience, receive in turn.
Ani Choying Drolma's 4th Annual Kathmandu Concert: "Songs to cut through ego-clinging, traditional melodic Buddhist chant" at 6 PM on Sunday, 25 May. Yak & Yeti Hotel, Durbar Marg. Tickets Rs 600. Available at Yak &Yeti, Fire and Ice, Upstairs Bar, Summit Hotel, Double Dorje. Email: email@example.com. 4436059