This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, the story of an intrepid woman triumphing over immense odds and coming out much stronger for it. Ani (which means ‘nun’ in Tibetan) Choying Drolma is a Buddhist nun of international fame, known specially for her amazing voice, which she puts to wonderful use—singing Buddhist chants across the world. No one who has seen her (I had the good fortune of meeting her briefly some weeks ago, when she kindly autographed the copy of her book that I had procured) would ever guess from her tom-boyish looks, her soft, twinkling eyes and her infectious cheerfulness that she has had a particularly harrowing childhood. But as she tells us in this book, she didn’t allow herself to succumb in the face of the heart-wrenching trauma that she was subjected to for years. Instead, the trauma only made her a stronger, braver, and more compassionate and loving person. If it wasn’t for her awful childhood, she might never have become a nun and walked on the spiritual path and reached where she has today.
Name of the Book: Singing for Freedom
Author: Ani Choying Drolma
Publisher: Nepa-Laya, Kathmandu
Reviewed by: Roshan
Ani Choying was born into an impoverished Tibetan family that lived in a one-roomed tenement in Kathmandu, Nepal. Ani Choying’s mother doted on her, but her father was a horrifically-violent man. He would fly into a murderous rage for no excuse, mercilessly beating up Ani Choying and her mother. Reading Ani Choying’s gut-searing account of growing up in a brutalized family, you’ll be firmly convinced that one of the most urgent needs the world over today is compulsory training in parenting for people who want to have kids as well as a legally-enforceable charter of children’s rights in every country.
Not all little children who suffer parental abuse are as fortunate as Ani Choying was, though. Her Tibetan Buddhist society allowed her an escape route— becoming a nun. Unable and unwilling to suffer her father’s cruelty any longer, the day her father nearly stabbed her to death, she decided it was time to run away. She escaped to a Buddhist monastery outside Kathmandu and asked to be ordained as a nun. An ani enjoys a certain respect in Tibetan society, and she knew that as a nun, her father wouldn’t dare torment her any longer.
Life in the monastery, home to several dozen nuns, had its charm as well as its challenges. Ani Choying flowered under the love and care of her spiritual master, a very compassionate man. Aware of Ani Choying’s painful past, he guided her gently on the Buddhist path. She didn’t turn out to be a conventional Tibetan Buddhist nun, though. She learnt to ride a jeep, eagerly sought to improve her English and flouted convention by learning martial arts. When an American jazz guitarist visited the monastery and heard her sing, he invited her to record an album with him. Soon, she became an internationally well-known figure, spending much of the year abroad, enthralling and inspiring audiences with her spiritual music. This she continues to do even now.
But Ani Choying doesn’t sing for money or for fame, although these two she earns in plenty. Rather, she sings for a cause. The money she earns from her singing tours goes into the Arya Tara school that she has set up for young Buddhist nuns in Nepal, little girls who often come from brutalized, poverty-stricken, homes with cruel fathers. Ani Choying is determined to ensure that these girls are spared the horrors that she faced when she was their age. Her experience of a battered childhood is the inspiration behind this remarkable educational initiative that now supports around a hundred girls. Not stopping there, Ani Choying went on to launch another project which she is also using her singing money for: a hospital for the needy. Ani Choying’s mother suffered and died of kidney problems, and she is determined to do her little bit to help others like her. Her singing work is helping to get that hospital off the ground. If it takes being somewhat of an unconventional Buddhist nun who goes around the world singing Buddhist chants to generate resources for all this good work for others, Ani Choying is more than happy to do it!
While her dread of her father drove her to don the robes of a Buddhist nun, her spiritual master gradually helped Ani Choying overcome the wounds of her battered childhood. Slowly, she began to learn to derive joy from so-called ‘little’ things—saving an injured mouse, for instance, or crying over a Bollywood film or coming up with a new idea for a song. Being a nun didn’t make her oblivious to the beauty of life. In fact, it made her even more appreciative of it. Her spiritual practice enabled her to gradually heal, though she could still get worked up, especially at injustice. She took to visiting her family regularly, and even helped finance a house for them. Every now and then she was hauled back home when she heard of her mother being clobbered by her father. Sometimes, she would be boiling with anger, but now she knew that, as the Buddha says, anger can only make things worse. Increasingly, she began to find that she was able to overcome somewhat her resentment of her father. Although it pained her to see her father’s continued brutal mistreatment of her mother, she was able to develop a certain compassion for him without condoning his behavior, at the same time as she continued to try to encourage her parents to reconcile. If it wasn’t for her father and his brutality, she gradually came to understand, she might never have chosen to flee home and become a nun. Instead, she might have landed up as a very ordinary housewife, bossed around by an abusive man like her father.
Ani Choying has got a beautiful way with words—not just as she sings them but also as she writes them. She weaves together a greatly moving story of a little girl who managed to heroically escape from a horrific family situation, and of a young nun who was able to be healed through spiritual practice, including by using the memories of a painful childhood as a resource for her inner transformation. From much evil, her life so strikingly reminds us, much good can also emerge.
Ani Choying could easily have let herself wallow in self-pity and hatred for her father. But she consciously chose not to. She would have only gravely harmed herself beyond repair had she done that. Following Buddhist practice, she was finally able to come to see her tormentor as her benefactor, to be grateful to him for everything he had done for and to her (including brutal torture) and, in the process, to emerge as a more compassionate, loving and stronger person. As she puts it:
“My father enabled me to overcome, to search deep inside myself for resources I didn’t know I had. He made me fight. All that I am I owe to my father, and I will always be grateful to him. If I hadn’t been beaten, I would never have come into contact with my teacher and I would have none of the qualities that I have managed to develop to be a good human being. I believe that trials make you a better person. Because the acid taste of pain makes you better able to appreciate life’s sweetness…Like a magnet attracted in opposing directions, I have built myself around love and hate, violence and unconditional love, restraint and the infinite. I was drawn first one way, then the other, until my internal receivers stopped panicking and sending me contradictory messages—until I found my stability.”
Following the wisdom of the Buddha and inspired by her spiritual master, Ani Choying transformed fear and dread of her father into love, compassion and understanding. Her many years of terrible trauma made her determined to commit her life to work for girls living in family contexts as brutal as hers had been, as well as to help people on the spiritual path across the world through the gift of her beautiful voice.
An incredible life—and this book describes that life in an incredible way!
(For more details about Ani Choying, see http://www.theanifoundation.org/
(You can listen to several chants sung by Ani Choying on youtube.com)
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