I can’t remember if I was 9 or 10 years old, but I was baptized Catholic around the same time I stopped believing in God. Ever since I can remember I have never liked churches nor stepping inside them. I’ve always found the white walls, brown pews, and high ceilings cold and uninviting. While the stained glass windows were pretty to look at I just never felt like it was for me, and for most of my life I was an agnostic. Sometimes people would say, “oh, you’re an atheist.” And I would reply, “No, I’m agnostic. I believe there is something out there, just not God.” It gets kind of tiring after a while, but I think it was a good place to be for a long time.
Being agnostic enabled me to be more open-minded towards different religions and in fact I think seeing a religious practice in action is very spiritual. When I was in Koh Lanta, Thailand early in the morning you could hear the Muslim calls to wake up for prayer. Many people might find that annoying, but I found it relaxing and welcoming. When I was studying Korean on Sundays through the KIIP Program many of my classmates were Muslim and it gave me a chance to see parts of the religious practice. In the dead of summer during Ramadan my classmates hailing from various Muslim countries would observe a fast that was only broken around 8 pm due to the time difference. One day a friend and I joined our Muslim friend for dinner after he was done fasting and we ate the most delicious Pakistani food. I’ve seen people stop to pray towards Mecca in the hallways at school and on the grasslands through Tibet. It is a way of life and it is peaceful.
My first experience with a different religion was learning about Hinduism and Buddhism in the sixth grade thanks to my new classmates from India (one was Indian, one was a Tibetan refugee). It sparked an interest and being around many Tibetan friends I was able to see certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, along with meeting various monks. When I went to India and stepped into a Buddhist monastery for the first time I couldn’t help but think about how warm and inviting it was. Maybe it was the colors, the large Thangkas that adorned the walls, or the ornate details inside, but it felt warm, not cold like the churches I have been to.
During university I took a class on Tibetan Buddhism with a few of my Tibetan friends from the five – colleges and it was a lot of fun, especially since a Tibetan monk was teaching us. Sadly, I forgot most of what I learned there. Back in early 2017, I received mala beads as a thank you gift for volunteering to teach English to Tibetan students. For me, this is something I would never buy myself as I wasn’t a Buddhist. The monk who gave them to me said that he had worn them for a week and had blessed them. They are beautiful and are called སྐར་མ་སྟོང་།་ (Thousand stars?) I think that this gift also became a thread that knew the direction I was headed.
And now here I am sitting in Chengdu, and my Tibetan language teacher, who is also a Buddhist, asked my friend and I if we would like to attend a teaching on the 37 Practices of the Bodhisattva, along with him and two other Tibetan friends. I decided that this was a good chance to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism, as well as, Tibetan language listening practice. Our teacher helped translate between Tibetan and English so that we could have a deeper understanding of the text or to ask more questions about Tibetan culture or language.
At the end of a month we had finished our 37 Practices of the Bodhisattva and prepared an offering to our teacher, Khenpo Shangsem la. We presented him with khatas, and a tray with butter lamps, incense, and fruit. Khenpo la had mentioned to us in our previous class that if we were interested in taking refuge vows he would be more than happy to do that for us. So we decided to take refuge vows (in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) together in our last class.
In the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
I go for refuge until awakening.
Through the merit of my generosity and so forth,
May I attain awakening for the benefit of beings.
At the end, Khenpo la gave my friend and I, Tibetan names. While she instantly loved her name and uses it with Tibetans and Sherpa people in Nepal, I haven’t felted as connected with the name. Part of that maybe that I feel it is above me and I don’t live up to it. My Tibetan name is Nidan Wangmo, ནུས་ལྡན་དབང་མོ། ནུས་ལྡན means powerful, capable དབང་མོ powerful, masterful (like a queen) So it translates to something as ‘capable queen’ . So although those who were with me when I took refuge vows may use that name with me, I don’t use it nor do I introduce myself that way.
As we closed our lesson Khenpo la suggested we offer 20,000 mani prayers to the universe by the end of the year. I have already done 8,000. The Tulku who overseas our mani group is very nice, we actually were able to meet him while I was traveling this summer. He gifted each of us a set of mala beads and his photo.
I’m by no means a perfect buddhist, there are more things I could do to become better. I need to study the actual dharma and actually try and adhere to the teachings and recite more mantras. My hope for myself is that slowly I will learn more as I go, so although I took the refuge vows and am now a Buddhist, I don’t outwardly call myself that as I feel I don’t know enough to be one. Life is a continuous journey of learning and I feel a sense of calm that I never had before since taking the refuge vows. Maybe that is part of what has been missing for a long time.
On a side note:
I’ve gained another partial name from Dondrup’s Dad. Dondrup had said the same to me before so I just let him call me that and that is how his family introduces me to others. Nina མཚོ།་ (Tso) which means ocean. So ནུས་ལྡན་དབང་མོ། I keep in my heart as a thank you to Khenpo la for choosing it for me, and maybe one day I may use it but until then it will be kept safely and cherished.