I Was a Teenage Buddhist Nun
An interview with Kunga Yeshe, a 19-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nun
BY: Jesse Gale
Last year, Kunga Yeshe (formerly Jessica Topaz) left high school to join Gampo Abbey--a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia. Now 19, her days consist of meditating, working and studying at the
shedra(or monastic college). Kunga explains why she became a nun, and how meditating can link each person to the world.
What religion did you grow up with?
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I started going to Catholic school in first grade because it was supposed to be a better education and my Grandma was eager to give me a religious upbringing.
How did you discover Buddhism?
My stepmom gave me a book called "World Religions" by Huston Smith for my 13th birthday. I guess she knew that I'd been searching for something spiritual. I'd go through the book and test out different religions. Once I went to a Baha'i Temple, which was a wonderful experience. There was something in the atmosphere and in the people--the way that they were interacting--some kind of real openness that I hadn't experienced anywhere.
It was that openness you were looking for?
I think so. I felt connected to the whole world in some respects. It wasn't just Milwaukee anymore. I wanted to know what was outside.
One time, I came across something in my schoolbook: that Christianity was the one true way and that any other religions--I think they even named names, like Buddhism and Hinduism--were the works of Satan. That really struck me. I felt that if I didn't know anything about these religions, how could I make a judgment about them being evil?
What was it about Buddhism in particular that felt right to you?
I remember going through Huston Smith's book and any mention of a god or creator, that sort of thing, threw me off immediately. I didn't believe that there was some being that created everything I was experiencing. So when I looked at the Buddhism chapter, I kept looking for something where I could say "this doesn't fit," but it sounded pretty good. I started thinking, "Well gosh, maybe this is it." I started telling my friends, "I think I'm a Buddhist." My friends didn't know what to say exactly.
I started wondering about nuns--knowing about Catholic nuns. There was a real connection there. If I hadn't been to the Catholic school, I don't know if I would have had such a strong connection to monasticism. I reasoned that when someone is a monk or nun, that's it. That's their job; that's everything they do; it's what their lives are about. All of their purpose is their practice or their study or their religion. It's a very single-pointed focus.
Was your high school supportive of your religious explorations?
Wauwatosa East High School is known for being a really excellent school. But, as with most public schools, there isn't any real exploration of spirituality.
I found this Shambala Center in Milwaukee. I got serious about being Buddhist and started actually learning what it was all about. I started to do meditation--at least once a week for one hour--and made connections with the community there. And then Tuesday nights they'd have open house teachings. I sat in on those classes for a few years, and did meditation and got involved in other ways.
How did you meditate?
I would meditate at home in my room: Shamata. You focus attention on the out-breath, and it's very light attention. You just notice it. And then when thoughts arise, you just label them "thinking" and you return to your out-breath. So it's a very simple meditation, but it's so essential. To see how much our minds are carried away, and how we don't even notice where we are some of the time.
When I wasn't in meditation, I would notice things more. How quickly judgments arise, and then how quickly we take those judgments to be solid. Like, "because I think something about a certain object or person, it's true!" But it isn't.