The woman bearing down on me does not look like a nun. Instead of traditional robes and simple sandals, she wears a mustard-yellow polo shirt, white sports shoes suited for fast movement, a wide-brimmed sun visor, and an oversize pair of sunglasses. She could pass for an amateur golfer. The visor and sunglasses, she explains as she bustles me through the narrow lanes of Boudhanath, help make her less recognizable.
But even so, every few minutes, someone spots her and waves. For Choying Drolma is something of a celebrity in Nepal. Her honeyed voice won her the country’s top music award for best female singer and best album of the year in 2004. Far beyond Nepal, her singing has attracted accolades and famous fans, including Celine Dion and Tracy Chapman. She has performed at the Barbican Theatre in London and goes on regular concert tours around the world.
But Choying Drolma’s performances owe little to the pop style of the West’s best-known contemporary singing nun, Suor Cristina, the Ursuline Catholic bombarded with record deals after winning The Voice of Italy, or the more staid renditions of the fictional postulant Maria in The Sound of Music. Choying Drolma’s performances do not transgress the monastic rule against singing, since each song is inspired by traditional Buddhist mantras dating back more than 2,000 years, though some have been adapted and arranged in musical compilations with Western artists.
The beauty of her music belies the brutality of her early years, when she grew up in such poverty that her entire family slept in one room and she and her mother were regularly subjected to violent abuse at the hands of her father. As we take our seats in an airy conservatory on the upper floor of her home in a backstreet of Boudhanath, her voice changes tone when she begins to speak of her childhood.
At the age of thirteen, after another of her father’s drunken attacks, Choying Drolma finally took refuge in a nunnery called Nagi Gompa, in the mountains north of Kathmandu. “I was so full of anger, I was like a wild thing when I arrived there. I was always getting into trouble,” she says. But under the patient guidance of her teacher, a great meditation master, she gradually learned to tame her own rage.
“My teacher would say, ‘Instead of cursing the darkness, why don’t you try to light a candle?’ He helped me to see everything in a different way. I learned to perceive the best out of every situation in life,” she says. “I came to see that my father suffered from a kind of sickness. I began to feel pity and compassion for him. I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through what I went through. But also, I have to accept that all the qualities I learned to develop in myself were as a result of my experience. It drove me to the dharma. I had to develop a strong will to survive and that gave me the strength to succeed. I have come to see situations as my friend not my enemy, learning from them whatever I can, and that has helped me to have a lighter life.”
As she talks, I once again feel ashamed at my initial questioning of how much young nuns can know of suffering. While most may not have experienced the violence Choying Drolma did, the climate of low expectation, subservience, and often brutish treatment in which many girls in the region are raised is hardship enough.
In order to help others, Choying Drolma set up an organization called the Nuns’ Welfare Foundation in 1998 to collect funds for a school for young nuns she has built on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The Arya Tara School now caters to more than seventy girls from the age of five to twenty-two from remote areas of Tibet, India, and Nepal. Some former pupils have already gone on to university in India. Once their education is finished, they can choose to return to lay life.
“During the time they are at the school, they have the feeling that they are someone special,” she says. Her next project, in memory of her mother, who died of kidney disease, is to found a specialist hospital in Kathmandu for treating kidney disorders. It seems an ambitious goal, but one of her friends in Germany has nicknamed her “Ani Bond”—Ani being a Tibetan honorific for “nun”—because, like James Bond, she takes on seemingly impossible missions. Before we part, Choying Drolma closes her eyes, folds her hands in her lap, and sings for me. “When I sing I remember my teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. He taught me how to sing with joy,” she says, her joy clear in the smile that plays on her lips as the sound of her singing fades.