Emma Slade had an international career as a highly successful financial analyst. She was known for her dynamism, intelligence and analytical skills. But a deep seated desire to enquire into the deeper aspects of what it is to be a human being was brought to the surface following a life-changing visit to Jakarta, Indonesia.
This led her on a journey from banking to Buddhism, which eventually led her to taking ordination as a Buddhist nun and founding the charity Opening Your Heart To Bhutan. Her well-honed financial and management skills are now benefiting the charity which changes the lives of hundreds of disabled children in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Emma Slade, who splits her time between Britain and Bhutan, recalls the trauma of being held hostage in a Jakarta hotel room and reveals how, having spent five years in robes, she balances motherhood and monastic practice.
I was born in Whitstable (southeast England) in 1966, the eldest of three. My childhood was quite traditional: Dad earned the money; Mum stayed home and cooked the fish fingers. It wasn’t demonstrative or emotionally verbal. I’m always telling my son, Oscar, 11, I love him and that he’s fantastic.
By the age of nine I was very tall so always felt slightly odd; socially, I wasn’t very confident. At 16, I changed to a boarding school. The teachers thought I should aim for Oxford or Cambridge and I got offered a place at Cambridge to study English. (Slade switched courses, then dropped out, worked in a supermarket, then returned to complete a foundation course in art.) I then got a place on a fine art degree course at Goldsmiths college, in London. Towards the end of my three-year course, Mum told me Dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
I’ve had trauma, I’ve overcome trauma, and it’s been incredibly helpful for me to go through that. The first real shock was the death of my father when I was 26. When I was 10 or 11, my Dad had said he could see me going into investment banking. Until his illness I imagined I would be an artist or a curator. But, with his death, I could not continue with that plan. I needed to make sure I could make a living and not lean on Mum.
first arrived in Hong Kong in 1995 as part of the graduate programme of a global bank. I expected to hate Hong Kong but I didn’t; it has extraordinary energy and doesn’t procrastinate.
It was on a business trip to Jakarta in September 1997 when a gunman held me hostage in my hotel room. Overcoming the hostage situation wasn’t such a big deal: because I had the courage to escape, the event was finite. It had a start when I opened the door to him, and then there was the (three hours) in the room with him. Then it had a finish when I decided I was going to run. It was ghastly, but it had a start, middle and end. But the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arose without me realising and just got worse.
Three months afterwards, I was in a way worse state than I was in the hostage situation. I moved back to Kent, commuting to my bank’s London office, but soon resigned. I travelled to Greece, where I discovered yoga and meditation. I didn’t want to be job-defined. I wanted to find some other, less conformist way to live. Suffering with PTSD means you lose trust in everything – in yourself, your body and the world around you. I had to come back to my own body, which is why yoga has been so important.
I was drawn to Buddhist teachings, and formally became a Buddhist in Scotland in 2003. I visited Bhutan for the first time in 2011 and became the first Western woman to be ordained as a nun. I have now been in robes for more than five years. There were signs early on that I might go down this path: if I’d been born in Bhutan, I’m sure I’d have been a nun from a young age. But, when I was growing up, the idea of prayer was embarrassing, like hearing your Dad singing. Now, at 51, I believe prayer is a useful thing to develop. I never thought I’d hear myself saying that because it’s the most naff, old-fashioned, illogical thing to be doing!
I thought having a child meant it wasn’t possible for me to become a nun. But it was my lama’s idea and he was adamant. People have an idea that the only pure form of monastic practice is in a monastery, with no family, no material goods and no real-world connections. That’s not actually true. There are lots of practitioners in the Buddhist world who have had children but they tend to be men, who carry on with their monastic practice and leave the children with their wives. It’s easy to see me as a lesser practitioner because I’m also washing the school uniform and making Weetabix. I feel attempting to do both makes me a greater practitioner. Oscar has been a real handful; being a single parent is not a walk in the park. Motherhood has taught me selflessness and patience – a lot of the qualities Buddhist practitioners want to learn. I think some mental qualities are best developed in monastic seclusion; others are best developed in the real world.
I wrote the book Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan (2017) for my charity, Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, which provides access to medical care, disability aids and basic amenities for children with special needs in east Bhutan. The book took some courage to write and made me realise my life has been quite unusual. Writing it was the closest I’d been to the incident in Jakarta for a while. My heartbeat was raised and my hands were clammy while writing those two chapters.
I’d never had this thought until the other day: I was on the doorstep of the hotel room, he had the gun in my back, without moving my head I could just see all these crouched army and police people with guns. In that moment I just decided to run. I thought, “Oh my God, what if I hadn’t?” What if we’d both left the room together? What would have happened? Would they have let us walk to the lift? Would they have started firing? Would he have fired, pulled me back into the room again? My mind was filled with all these possibilities of what else could have happened.
In Buddhist tradition, there’s this notion of manifesting in a form that’s most helpful to others. My life is multidimensional. I’m running an international charity, teaching yoga, bringing up a child and being a nun. I’ve had to be clued up on social media: I’m living now, not 100 years ago. It’s not of benefit to Bhutan if I spend all my time there. I like having one foot in the West and the other in the East; you see both more clearly by not being fully attached to either. I’ll probably end up in Bhutan. My son has been to Bhutan three times and he loves it, but he’s a typical little boy and wants to kick a football around.
For a lot of my life, I wasn’t working to help others. There’s no way I’d have prioritised anyone over myself. In the Himalayan Buddhist tradition, we have this notion – bodhisattva, a Sanskrit word. We want to develop this view that we’re working to help others. When you see someone in robes, you tend to assume they’re all peace and light and have never had a difficult moment. From a spiritual perspective, it takes courage to say I wasn’t born as peaceful as this and I had to go through my own process of discovery, questioning, changing.
People are always surprised at how I am: they think I’m going to be very serious, no sense of humour, very strict, but I’m not like that at all. I’m pretty smiley. From what I see of other people, I feel I’m free of a lot of things that cause unhappiness. From a Buddhist point of view, your basic consciousness is in a state of pure joy, but around it are layers of confusion which create a state of unhappiness. You don’t become happy, you take off these layers. I think I’ve taken off a few layers – anyone can do it, if they put their mind to it.