Christine Toomey, a journalist and an author, tells a story of Ani Dominique Tenzin Yiudjuk, a Buddhist nun, currently living in Kathmandu, Nepal, which gives a glimpse into the challenges faced by Westerners becoming Buddhist nuns and into the attraction that such a different way of life holds.
“It has been raining heavily the night before I meet Ani Dominique and the road leading to the apartment where she lives in Boudhanath is a sea of mud. With buses and cars at a standstill, there is no alternative but to take off my sandals and squelch through the quagmire barefoot. When I arrive, covered in muck, Ani Dominique laughs and shows me where to wash my feet before inviting me to join her for lunch. From the outset, she exudes warmth and her conversation is punctuated by infectious laughter.
Born Dominique Marchal to a Catholic family in Brussels, she moved to the Swiss Alps in her early twenties and, with the help of a family inheritance, started taking flying lessons. By the age of twenty-three, she was Switzerland’s first female commercial pilot and in the years that followed became a private pilot to wealthy businessmen in different parts of the world. One photograph from her youth shows her perched on the wing of a small aircraft, wearing large dark glasses and a billowing headscarf, a look reminiscent of a young Jackie Kennedy. Another shows her posing in front of a Learjet, arms crossed, wearing a braided uniform. “It was all extremely glamorous,” she says with the intonation of a native French-speaker. “But at the same time I was never free. I was always on standby in case I was needed.”
At twenty-six, Dominique married the first of her three husbands and gave birth to her first son. When the couple divorced, she lost custody of her child and was left heartbroken. Her second marriage also ended in a divorce, after the birth of a second son, as did her third. “All three men fell in love with me because of my adventurous nature. But then they wanted me to be a conventional wife. I made three abominable choices and I take full responsibility for that,” she says, her bright eyes creasing with amusement. “The whole thing about love is this endless wish to appropriate another person. The point about the dharma teachings on detachment is not that you cease to care but that you enjoy everything without grasping.”
When I ask her to explain more, Dominique carries on with candor. “I had a very passionate nature. You could even say I was addicted to passion,” she admits with a deep laugh. “But once I started understanding something of the Buddhist teachings, I came to realize it really was an addiction. Of course, having orgasms is a wonderful thing. But I think it is extremely important to realize that sexuality is something that can be transcended rather than repressed. If you become a monastic and repress your sexuality, you are bound to have problems. But people who understand that sexuality is a fantastic energy and that this energy can be used in a different way are on the right path.”
Dominique started reading books on Buddhism and in her early forties visited Tibet and Kathmandu. In 1995 she returned and helped set up the Shechen clinic while continuing to deepen her Buddhist studies. A little over a decade later, when she was sixty-three, she attended a course near Dharamshala in India for women interested in becoming nuns. “After that, it felt very logical to become a nun,” she says. “In Buddhism the more you see how it works, the more you want to go deeper,” she explains. “You become absorbed.”
Returning to the subject of celibacy, she says, “When you accept that part of your life is over, it creates a lot of mental space. As a woman, you can sometimes think that you will go somewhere and the right guy will be there and you will be able to seduce him, and this occupies a lot of your mind. When you move beyond that, you become a lot freer.”
Did this mean that Dominique was content with the life of a nun because she had led such a full life previously, I wonder? She says not. “I have never been happier in my life than I am now. I had to go through all the hurt and emotions centered on my own needs, which I prefer to call learning rather than suffering, but in another life I hope I will become a monastic at a much younger age.” Dominique concludes our discussion with apologies—she has a meeting at the clinic she must attend—and embraces me warmly as we part.”
Photo from Ani Dominique’s Facebook page.