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.How did it change you?
It was hard to be mean to people. I never was really mean, but even just ignoring people or letting people slip by--I couldn't really do it anymore. And I got interested in social concerns, and got involved with Amnesty International at my school.
I'd like to get involved in those things again. But it's so necessary to have training, so that it's not just idiot compassion--when you want to help but you have no skillful means to do so.
How did you hear about Gampo Abbey?
I started reading Ane Pema's books, and was so impressed that there was an American Buddhist nun. That really blew me away. I heard about the abbey's Youth Dathun and I definitely wanted to try it and see what it's like to live as a nun, do meditation and be with other Buddhists my age. This was in my senior year of high school. Last year!
It was one month, 20-25 people. Mostly consisting of meditation, but we also had some talks on the Four Noble Truths, and the Precepts that make up monasticism.
Did you give up a lot of things? Romantic relationships?
I never got into that kind of stuff. When I reflect on what would make me happy, I can't see that a relationship would--I don't think it would solve the basic problem of suffering. So I want to be here for a few years. It's a wonderful place and it happens to be the only Tibetan Buddhist monastery in North America. And I love the monastic college. I'd like to spend next summer in India or Nepal. I'm learning Tibetan, and I'd like to become fluent and teach English.
Do you enjoy the seclusion of the Abbey?
It can definitely be difficult living in a community at times. The people that I've met here have been so incredible. But you don't get much time to yourself--there isn't time, especially on weekdays, to do whatever you want. That's kind of the point.
On weekends I'm sometimes thinking, "I wish I could go into town," but it's a huge effort to go into town. To do anything, really. But that's part of what really works for me about this community. It makes it really difficult for you to get carried away by everything, like shopping or the movies. That's really helpful.
How does living in a small community connect you
with the world?
Our world is very interdependent, this is a fundamental teaching of
Buddhism. If we examine where our food has come from, how our clothes
are made, all that has gone into building our homes, etc., we see
that there have been innumerable people from all over the world that
have contributed to our lives.
In this way, no matter how secluded a person or community might be,
there is still a connection to the entire world.
What would you like to say to other teenagers considering Buddhism and/or Buddhist monasticism?
There's an enormous world out there, with so many different people. You don't have to fit into any categories, because you'll eventually find your way. We all will.