“At this point in my life, I want to develop loving-kindness and compassion at a deeper level and just keep going with that deeper and deeper.”
Ani Kunzang experienced childhood in a very remote area close to the Trinity River in eastern Humboldt County, California. She went to school and attended Hoopa Valley high school located in the Hoopa Valley Native American Reservation.
Growing up in a spacious natural place has left an imprint on Ani Kunzang, such that she is not particularly comfortable in urban settings. Even though she has enjoyed her visits to the cities, she has no desire to reside there.
"I had an older brother. Our father did not have any particular religious beliefs. My mother, however, was a Christian. I first encountered Buddhism through a conversation with my mother in the car as we drove to the closest grocery store, which was a journey of about an hour and half. Although I can't recall her exact words, I do remember her mentioning Buddhism to me. My mother and my brother, who later on chose to be a Christian minister, both were always supportive of me. There were never any conflicts between us in the area of religious beliefs.
As a little girl, Ani Kunzang used to go to a small community church and the minister likely was a Baptist. "I only later realized as an adult how remarkable he was," Ani recalled, "He never spoke about the devil nor harped on about sin, as he didn't want to draw that sort of energy to the children. He would rather focus on teaching us about love and how to be kind to others. One of my earliest spiritual recollections is of sitting with him."
On Sundays, the church collected the children being in Sunday school with age groups. "As I sat next to him, I recall us saying a prayer. I glanced over and was quite astonished that he was conversing with somebody I couldn’t see! This made me become aware of a different dimension, not the one we live in every day, and I am thankful for it.”
“My involvement was high in this and I identified myself as a Christian. When I went to college, I studied Quakerism and then delved into mystical Christianity. Although I never joined a church, I was content with my findings."
Hoopa Valley Native American Reservation
Later in life, Ani la got married and had kids, she recalled seeing a flyer about some Buddhist lama coming to a teaching. She decided to attend, the lama was teaching about the four thoughts to turn the mind, which made a lot of sense to her. She took refuge right then, the lama made clear that there was no need to let go of her faith in Jesus. She is not certain if she ever thought of Jesus as God in the Christian sense but just saw him as her powerful and loving friend.
Then her marriage fell apart, Ani la was working as a speech-language pathologist in the school and saw many children who needed help. She read Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Cutting through spiritual materialism, which had a huge impact on her. Due to having young children, she needed to work in order to make enough money to survive. After her children were grown she received her Buddhist monastic vows. Even after becoming a nun, she continued to work as a speech pathologist. She was able to wear her robes without any hassle. Working at schools allowed her to have time off in the summer to spend with her family, receive more teachings and have time for more intensive practice.
Prior to receiving her vows, Ani la had a difficult time as her children got older; they had many difficulties during adolescence. At the same time, her mother's health was in a rapid decline. “She was unable to do many things, such as get out of bed, care and feed for herself due to her arthritis and polymyalgia rheumatica. She eventually committed suicide.” It was a very sad and trying experience for me and I still have conflicting feelings about it.” Ani la said. “My son was getting into trouble and going in and out of the Juvenile hall. I was overwhelmed by all of it.”
"At that time, I was practicing Avalokiteshvara- Chenrezig. I did it both in the morning and in the evening. I would find an interior state where I felt a sense of peace, which often felt like the only peaceful time I had all day. I kept it up for around six or seven months. I don't want to sound too "woo-woo", I'm a kind of woo-woo person. I don’t see auras, I don't see other realms, however, at this time I had a dream three nights in a row that I would become a Buddhist nun. The aspiration arose very strongly for me to take vows.
“I think probably I have been a Buddhist nun, another lifetimes,” Ani la smiled.
"So I asked my teacher, Lama Lodu of KDK San Francisco about these dreams and told him of my aspirations to receive vows. He arranged for me to be able to take vows. He then asked me if I could go to Shedrub Ling in Kathmandu, which was quite a long way and would cost a lot of money, but I told him I would figure it out. Later, he asked if I could travel to Phoenix instead and I said oh yes, I could do so. He then told me he would get back to me."
"On what was probably the last day of May, I was asked if I could travel to KTD in New York next week. My response was affirmative, and soon a travel agent was contacted to book me a flight. My destination was finally reached. The next day Tai Situ Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, Khenpo Katar Gen-la and two other ordained monks gave me, four other women and four men our vows. Tai Situ Rinpoche was giving teachings. There were many people in attendance at these teachings. The day of the ordinations, no one was allowed in the temple but those giving the vows and those receiving the vows. "
"I still vividly remember coming out of the temple after receiving the vows. The teaching had been canceled for the day in order to give us our vows, and when we emerged, there were many people there who were overjoyed with us. They were showering us with blessings and throwing katas and flowers, and offering us gifts. I remember thinking that I should have been this happy at my wedding!" Ani la laughed!
“I've never regretted it, not even for an instant. Sometimes I think, well, what if I hadn't become a nun then I go through that whole fantasy and it's like, oh no, this is really the best.”
KTD New York
Question: You mentioned you had dreams about becoming a Buddhist nun, have you always been spiritual since young?
Ani Kunzang: When I was a young child, I recall the hospital nearest us was run by Catholic nuns in their traditional attire. I remember being by my mother's side and looking up to one of them, feeling a great curiosity, not because I wanted to become a nun, but because she was dressed differently than the rest of us.
From the time I was 18 or 19, I have been doing regular meditation and I tried transcendental meditation and Centering Prayer, which is a Christian form of meditation. In addition to this, I also practiced mindfulness meditation, as it draws from many different religions.
Question: Can you share with us about your main practice?
Ani Kunzang: At this point in my life, I would really like to develop loving kindness and compassion at a deeper level and just keep going with that deeper and deeper. You know, when I was younger, I always thought, Oh, I want to be enlightened. During the 70s, there were all these spiritual teachers coming from Asia and people were always going for that: we were thinking, wouldn't it be great to be enlightened! But at this point in my life I just see people so unhappy in the world and people doing things that don't lead to happiness.
I had to take a computer in to be fixed at a computer shop the other day, and one of the people who was quite nice to me, had a T-shirt on that said, F word. I thought, why would people wear that? It is definitely harsh speech which does not nurture our best qualities. I guess it is amusing for some people but this was a nice man! Why would someone wear something like that? I didn't say anything to him because it would have upset him. It makes me sad that people seem more attached to amusement than to kindness.
I see this need for people to develop. The Dalai Lama talks about kindness is his religion, and I would just like to become kind even in my mind all of the time.
I think the only thing I can do about the situation in the world is to cultivate this loving kindness and compassion as purely as I can while not losing my discrimination, my wisdom.
I mean, if there's a gun control measure on the ballot, I'm gonna vote for it every time. And I will write political letters and stuff. I don’t want to become some squishy thing. I want to be loving, kind and compassionate and this kindness , love and compassion can be strong, clear and wise.
Question: Can you share with us your 3 years retreat and where did the retreat take place?
Ani Kunzang: There is a Buddhist retreat land from Lama Lodu in Laytonville, California. Actually, Mingyur Rinpoche has been there also; he helped dedicate a stupa there. I was blessed to be able to do the retreat in a cabin on this land.
Kathy: You just did it on your own or that there was a program?
Ani Kunzang: It was a retreat program and I was the only woman in that program. At the beginning, there were 9 men but by the end, only three remained. The retreat was quite intensive, with Lama Lodu providing instructions, we did a deity yoga for six months and then we did a collective ritual, a drubcho as a group.
I was unable to perform the group drubcho on my own, as there were hundreds tormas and other things to arrange. Because of this, Lama Lodu would have my support person come and take me to the men's section and I was able to take part in large rituals with them. They were all younger than my son so there was never a big deal with it.
Kathy: Was it difficult throughout the 3 years?
Ani Kunzang: There were parts of it that were difficult and there were parts of it that were wonderful. Probably the most difficult part was I knew that my brother was ill and dying. Undoubtedly I would have left retreat and gone to be with him during his last days, but he wrote to me and said, No, don't come; stay in retreat.
He died eventually when I was in the retreat. I still maintain a close friendship with his wife and maybe four or five years ago, she took vows as a Buddhist nun, and now she's in three-year retreat. It is so wonderful for me to have to have a relative that is also a nun!
Question: How do you envision the setup for Western Buddhist nuns? Would you think there should be more monasteries or there might be different formats?
Ani Kunzang: In California, there are monasteries specifically for Theravada and Chan nuns. The Therevadan and Chinese communities seem to be more consistent in providing support for the nuns than the Tibetan community. I’m sure there are many reasons for this.
During a visit to a Greek Orthodox nunnery, I was curious about their daily regimen. I was told that in their faith when women take their vows later in life, they often remain isolated at home. It is difficult to incorporate them into the community or daily routine. It was interesting since I didn't take my vows until I was 48. I believe having nunneries would be great, as many young women would like to do the same, just like there are young men in Thailand who take vows for a year or two. I think something like that might really help.
Question: Do you see more young women in the West choosing the monastic path and becoming nuns?
Ani Kunzang: No, I don't see that. When I look at it, the nuns I have known only a few have consistently kept their vows for a long time. They are mostly people like me who have an income on their own, and who either never had children or their children are grown. I haven’t encountered many young people who aspire to receive lifetime vows. I think more would be interested in taking vows for a season or perhaps for a year. However, Sravasti Abby has young people at their monastery. I am not familiar with the ages of folk at Gompo Abbey. Also i don’t know all the Tibetan monastic locations in the US.
This might sound controversial, I think Tibetan Buddhism is tied up with patriarchy structures. A lot of women, particularly young women simply do not want to enter into an organization that is patriarchal.
Most of the Tibetan schools have not been welcoming the push for women receiving full vows in addition to the novice vows now available. However some nuns in the Tibetan tradition have traveled to Taiwan in order to receive full vows. Some of the Theravadans have started giving women full vows. Certainly the Chinese have always had full vows for women. It makes a difference in terms of the respect you get in some situations. However, I've never been disrespected. So this is not something that has affected me at all. But when I think about it, I think that I can't dismiss the political perspective.
On top of that, in our culture there is a strong idea of what a successful person is. You're supposed to have a successful career; you're supposed to have a great marriage, or relationship; you're supposed to be physically fit; you're supposed to be a great parent and your children are supposed to be amazing; you're supposed to have a good car, etc. People are striving for external worth, searching for validation from others. But there's just no way, people can’t live up to that.
Question: If there is one thing, what would you think can benefit today’s western Buddhist nun the most?
Ani Kunzang: For people who are interested in taking the monastic path, you could take vows for three or four months and see how that felt. And maybe do that two or three times and then decide whether you want to take them longer or not. To have something set up for that, so that you could actually do that.
And then, of course, to have mentors, you know, I had very few mentors and in fact, I didn't have a copy of the Vinaya in English probably for eight or nine years.
It was actually not until I attended a conference for Western Buddhist monastics (not all of whom were from the West ), some had migrated from Asia, Theravada monastics gave us each a copy of the Vinaya in English.
Question: Can you tell us about your life or daily routine as a Buddhist nun?
Ani Kunzang: When I get up in the morning, I make my tea and I feed my cats, because if I don't do that the cats will keep disturbing me until I feed them. Then, I do morning chants and meditation. I do Chenrezig meditation and I do sitting meditation. Most of the time, I will study Dharma teachings. I have been studying sutras lately because I realized most of my Buddhist life, I have been reading commentaries, I've read books in English. I thought I should read sutras. The very first time I read the Diamond Sutra, it just blew my mind. It just opens totally up.
So I will study for two or three hours and then I'll have lunch. For the last couple of years, I would take naps if I am tired. During the Covid, I had a surgery on my knee and I got covid . As I was recovering from the surgery, I got another covid for a second time. The second covid has taken a long time to recover from. Since I live by myself, it’s easier to manage my schedule.
Then I will have afternoon meditations, too. Now, there are other people who live here at Gomde. Sometimes I go to group practices but sometimes I don't, it just depends. I always participate in group retreats.
Sometimes I teach on Zoom. On Sundays at eight in the morning, we do a Shakyamuni Buddha practice online called Treasury of Blessings.
During the week, I facilitate some Chenrezig practices online. Once a month, we read Sutras together. I'm also in a couple of meditation and Dharma groups. We study books and meditate together.
Question: Anything else you would like to share with us?
Ani Kunzang: I'm in my seventies and, how do I say this? I have never found it challenging to live as a Buddhist nun. I have always had really auspicious circumstances around me. Particularly since I've been at Gomde; the people here are just absolutely wonderful to me. The young people here are so kind it sometimes makes me cry.
And when you were talking just now, it occurred to me that there is attention paid to Buddhist nuns in the West and I am one of the Western Buddhist nuns! But I think monks have just as much of a challenge and maybe even more. In fact, I don't know very many Western monks at all that are living in the West.
The circumstance I'm in now is just incredibly supportive and great and I'm really thankful for, but I do acknowledge that that's not so for most Western Buddhist nuns. Maybe if you're in a place like Sravasti Abbey or Gampo Abbey or one of the other places, but there's very few of those places actually.