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“Set Free”
Webinar transcript - Emma Slade

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Helen Richardson: I’d  like to welcome everyone to this webinar this evening with Emma Slade, with the title “Set Free”.  I'm Helen Richardson, the president of Sakyadhita Australia. First up, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land throughout Australia, on which we are meeting. We pay our respects to their elders, past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. It's a great pleasure to welcome Emma, who's currently in Cyprus, or to use her Tibetan name Ani Pema Deki.


Helen Richardson: Interesting that you went from Emma to Pema!


Emma: Yeah, which was an accident because Je Rinpoche, Geshe Tenzin Rabjay who named me didn't know my name , so he just chose Pema not knowing that my name was Emma. So my Lama finds this absolutely hilarious.


Helen Richardson: To tell Emma’s story quickly, she  was a high flyer  in the world of finance, who after a truly terrifying event, was set on a path that led her down many alleys, but eventually saw her becoming a Tibetan nun. The story takes us from the world of high finance in the UK and Asia, to the Himalayas, particularly the Kingdom of Bhutan, where she found her teacher, becoming the first Western woman to ordain in that country. With the blessing of her Lama, she has written her story in her book “Set Free”, and has also founded a charity, “Opening Your Heart to Bhutan”. Thank you so much Emma for joining us and just reading your book, your life has so many dimensions, Cambridge University, successful international business career, art school, relationships, yoga, and motherhood, and you find success in many of these, but you kept looking for something else. I guess you gain something from each of these steps, but what was pushing you forward?


Emma: Oh, gosh, that's quite a question, isn't it? I think there's two ways you can look at that question. I'm sure many people also feel an inherent interest in the Buddhist path, like something deep in them was interested in the Buddhist path, and I think even as a young child, I was very drawn to pictures of Buddhas and statues, etc. And, I think on some level, there's some deep part of me, which was always interested in finding this path. But I think it was being held at gunpoint in a hostage situation. At that point, it really jolts you into, hold on a sec, stop sleeping around here.


Helen Richardson: And I guess that was a defining moment that you had that traumatic experience.


Emma: So I think after that, you gain a lot of courage. You kind of stop clinging to a lot of things. And when you stop clinging, actually you have this amazing courage that somehow arises. Right? And so I think that I don't know if I knew what I was looking for really, but I just felt quite open to finding out what was there for me? What was the path I was supposed to go down? And yeah, so I don't know how much I was really consciously looking for something when I first went to Bhutan in 2011 and I happened very luckily to meet the person that was going to be my teacher, I didn't think I was looking for a teacher. But that's just what, what arose.


Helen Richardson: And I was reading about your experience in Jakarta, and you say, “it made me realize how precious life itself was.” And that you can't waste it.


Emma: Yeah, I mean, it did. And that sounds very nice. But actually, the feeling of preciousness actually comes from quite a feeling of despair. Because when Jakarta happened, I was still relatively young and I felt very much like, oh! I'm about to die, and I've done nothing. And I felt very, very powerfully that I had not given anything to this world, I had not kind of opened my heart and done something kind and loving in this world. I just felt that very keenly. And so there was just this sense that it's not that I've wasted my time. But I was like  if I go now, I've given nothing. I've left nothing good behind. I mean, maybe a few friendships or I don't know what, but nothing of any value. And I think so although, yes, it was a realization of the preciousness of human life. It was also this sense that. Yeah, I just haven't contributed anything. And I realized that contributing something was obviously a very important thing.


Helen Richardson: And Emma, for those who are online, who perhaps haven't read your book, perhaps could you just explain what happened to you in Jakarta.


Emma: Yeah, so I think it's, especially for from a Buddhist point of view. So if you imagine that you're, you have a sense of safety in the world, right? We have this sense of taking refuge in the world in material things. So I was in a five star hotel in a beautiful room, and I'd been having a business meeting in Jakarta. So I had all the trappings of safety, nice clothes and shoes and somebody knocked on my hotel door, and I opened the hotel door, and the man was there with the gun and pointed the gun into my chest, and then pushed me back into the room, and the door closed behind me. And so there I find myself in this very luxurious place of safety in absolute terror, which is kind of a strange combination. And I think something about that is what gave me the courage to know, don't rely on these things that look safe, don't rely on these outer conditions for your safety. It's not a place to take refuge, actually.


Helen Richardson: And how did you escape that situation?


Emma: Oh, yeah, so I took a chance because there was a certain moment, we had to open the door of the room. And when I opened the door of the room, and he was standing behind me with the gun in my back, and I opened the door of the hotel room and as I stood there my peripheral vision could see many army people and police people with guns lined up along the walls. Actually, I didn't even think to be honest, I just realized that I had a chance to run and so even without consciously thinking of it, I just decided to run, and I imagined I was going to die because I imagined that he would shoot me in the back as I ran but he didn't. And so I managed to escape like that. And actually afterwards I had to see people from the SAS, and they told me off, they said if you're ever in a situation, again, don't do that, because that's very, very dangerous. Yeah, don't run, ? Yeah, but I couldn't stay there. Because when you've been trapped in a room with somebody with a gun, you feel so trapped, there's no exit for you, and there's no way to get out of that. So when the door opened it was like, I'm gonna run. I'm sorry.


Helen Richardson:  Was it a receptionist who realized you were in trouble, that the army suddenly appeared?


Emma: Yeah, apparently, I don't remember this. But apparently, I have must have screamed when he first entered the room. And so somebody had heard the screams? I mean, I don't I don't remember screaming. And then eventually there was some kind of process of people finding out, so a very strange situation.


Helen Richardson: And after that you decided to leave your career in Hong Kong, have I got that right? And you went back to England?


Emma: First of all, I had to recover from the impact of this experience, which was quite great. Because you can imagine we're taught to trust things, we're taught to trust nice places etc, etc. And my trust in the world had been very broken. So I had to recover from that. And then after that, I decided to leave my career and then I just started to study yoga and meditation with very many teachers. And that was really the start of the path that really eventually led me to Bhutan and everything that happened since. But I didn't go from hostage situation into a spiritual path. There was definitely this transition period where I had to recognize how traumatic that experience had been, and in the upper layers of my mind, I did need to heal from that. So I would emphasize that because if somebody has been through something which is very shattering like that, I think they may well need like I did to give themselves time and get the help of others to know how to digest an experience which feels beyond something you can digest. It feels so huge and so shocking. So you have to know how to bring that into your awareness and then move on. So did I did have that transition stage.


Helen Richardson: Did you get any professional help apart from working with yoga?


Emma: Yes, I did, I worked with people who had helped the other hostage takers that had been in the Middle East, like Terry Waite and people like that. And so that was very useful because the conceptual mind, it can't digest something so shocking. It's just you don't know how to digest it. And so you constantly want to push it away or pretend it didn't happen and then it comes back like some kind of undigested egg sandwich. And so the profoundest human experiences I think, especially when they shatter us in that way, we cannot comprehend them on the conceptual mind.


Helen Richardson: I was interested in your approach to yoga, and eventually you became a yoga teacher, but for you, you were going beyond the physical movement although you found this very helpful to yoga concepts like Ahimsa and Pratyahara. Could you say a little about those?


Emma: Well, I don't know if you've done yoga, and other people here have done yoga, but it's the most wonderful thing. I mean, it's a science of how to take care of the whole being and develop them forward. So it covers our values, our attitudes in the world, and as you say, the first starting point is Ahimsa, not to cause harm to other beings. And as Buddhists, obviously we can recognize that's also the foundation of Buddhist principles, isn't it? And then it is quite very logical, yoga. Okay, you have a human body, how can we get the human body to be both relaxed but energetic. Then you have a breathing system? How can we get that to function well, and then how do we train your mind eventually to let your innate kindness and wisdom come up? And so it's just so clever like that. And so I studied it for many, many years. And of course, from a Theravadin point of view, we can see the yoga teachings and Theravadin teachings very similar. Rightly or wrongly, then you could maybe say, but we can debate this, you couldn’t maybe say that the Mahayana intention, the Bodhisattva intention is possibly less explicit in the yoga teachings and also less explicit in Theravadin teachings, right. So, from a Theravadin point of view, we talk about solitary realisers, hearers, and solitary realisers, and in many ways, the yogic path, sometimes appears to me to be the path of a hearer or solitary realiser, so you can see a very close connection there, I think.


Helen Richardson: What impressed me reading your book, whether you're doing yoga, or as you developed in your Buddhist studies, you were always trying to develop kindness and compassion that seemed to me the cornerstone through this whole journey. Where did that come from? Was that sparked by Jakarta?


Emma:  Yes, that was definitely sparked by Jakarta. And I have to say that I had no interest in being a kind person really growing up. So it's always very shocking to me that I have ended up really emphasizing this quality in the human. Because growing up, I really wasn't encouraged to think kindness, yeah, let's go for kindness, I was encouraged to think of let's get good exams, let's get a good job, etc. It's nice to be kind, but it's not essential. It's not like an essential quality of a human, it's like an added extra. So first of all, I'm always really shocked because I spent half of my time teaching about compassion and teaching the compassion sadhana from Bhutan, specifically. And I'm always like, how did I end up doing this. But when there was a very pivotal moment, after the event in Jakarta, where I was shown a photograph of my assailant, who had slid down the wall in the hotel, and he was obviously alive, but in a very bad way. And because of the army that had come in etc, and I had this photograph, I don't know really what happened, I had this photograph, like, in my hand, it was one of those Polaroid photographs with the little white edges that we used to have. And I looked at this photograph, and I just felt this unbearable sorrow for the situation.


Helen Richardson: For the attacker?


Emma:  No, not necessarily for the attacker for the attacker, for the situation, sort of, for me, for the army, like for the whole landscape, I it's hard to describe. It was just a landscape where there was sorrow. And then there was compassion, and they were just absolutely indistinguishable, the arising of sorrow and the arising of compassion, they just were simultaneous somehow. I've never had an experience like it, I don't know, it was a completely different perspective for a moment. And there was no need to be angry or to judge or to blame, or to have any kind of narrative, there was just a feeling of this immense sorrow for this web of confusion that somehow had arisen. And all I felt was compassion. And believe me, I'm not a great person. This is not like something I normally feel. But at that moment, it was a completely different perspective. And I was very surprised. I was just very taken aback by it, but I think that really gave me the insight into thinking there's a way to be human that I had not seen before.


Helen Richardson: Because you would expect anger after a situation like that.


Emma: Yeah, anger or really the wish to blame. And I was just amazed that wasn't there.


Helen Richardson: And in your book, you say you wondered what happened to your attacker?


Emma: Yeah, I think my attacker would have gone to an Indonesian jail. That's what the army said. And that's quite hard to come to terms with because obviously, although I was very affected by what happened, my life largely carried on, and his life, I presume, would have come to quite a big emergency stop, and he would have gone to an Indonesia in jail, and I don't think an Indonesian jail is probably a very nice experience. So I definitely felt that his sorrow and his path from there was going to be much more difficult one the mind.


Helen Richardson:  You mentioned Bhutan, and that's where a vast majority of your spiritual path has happened. I was wondering why Bhutan, because my feeling is it's a very difficult country to enter. So how did you organize that initially to get into Bhutan and then keep going back?


Emma: Yeah. So it's not that I chose Bhutan, and they would definitely have been easier places. So I don't recommend it, really. But it was just that when I went to Bhutan, in 2011,I walked into this temple in Dochula, about 3000 meters it’s quite high out and quite cold. And, I just walked into this temple, and there was a monk standing over there. And as I looked at him, he just appeared to have this very shining, like a moon disc around his head. And I was a bit taken aback like and I thought, Oh! I just felt very drawn to him. And so I went to talk to him and as he began to talk to me, although his English was not great, there was something about hearing his voice that I just thought, ah, I could just listen to you forever. What’s going on here. And we sat down on the temple floor, and the other people that I was with, they were like oh Emma she's talking to another monk, oh, for goodness’ sake, let's just go off and see something else, we’ll leave her here, she's talking to another monk.


Helen Richardson: How could you talk to him? He only spoke Tibetan I understand.


Emma:  So the language of Bhutan is dzongkha. We have classical Tibetan for our prayers, but the everyday language of Bhutan is dzongkha, so it's based on the classical script of Tibetan, but its meaning is different, but pronunciation is pretty similar. I just I don't know but I said these words out loud to him. I said I want to be a kind human being and it was like sharing something very secret in my heart and he was the one that I wanted to tell that wish to. And it's something about expressing that openly and saying that openly, felt a little bit, not exactly like a commitment but it did feel like something that I was saying, Okay, this is the line in the sand now I'm telling you now that I want to be a kind human being and once I've said it out loud, and I've said it to you I can't pretend I didn't pretend I didn't say that kind of thing.


Helen Richardson: What was his response?


Emma: Oh, typical Lama. No real response. Just no response. Just got it. I want to feel like he said, oh, good, but he didn't say Oh, good, because the Bhutanese way is not many words. But I had to go because everybody else had left and I suddenly realized.  So I made this really a moment from my heart I'd shared with this monk in Bhutan. And everybody else had gone an I suddenly realized I need to go and find other people I’m with. So I stumbled out of this temple thinking, “What just happened”? So then I went back to England but the feeling of this person's voice, I just don't know what it had done. And I thought I have to go back to Bhutan, I have to go and find this monk, again, whether he remembers me or not, I don't know but I felt like it's unfinished business.  And so I went back to Bhutan, and then we went to Dochula, to find him, and he wasn't there. So I travelled back to Bhutan to find him, and he wasn't there. And I can remember walking to his temple and thinking, well, that's not him, what do you what are you doing in here? That's not him, because you imagine that it's going to be exactly the same as you left it. And of course, it isn't. Anyway, to a very lucky coincidence  we managed to talk to him on the phone, and he remembered me, and he said, yes, I will come and meet you on the 31st of December 2011, I will come and meet you. And so I had this very strange New Year's Eve with a Bhutanese Lama and then the next morning, so he said, Okay, I'll see you at five o'clock in the shine room. So we gathered in the shrine room at five o'clock in the morning on the first day of that year. And then he taught me about the, the compassion sadhana and at the end of it, he said, oh! you're going to need these, he says, and he took his prayer beads from his wrist, and gave them to me. So these are these very prayer beads here. [pointing to the beads on her wrist] And I think that was just one of those moments where you think, okay, this is my teacher, I'm clearly his student, and now we go forward. And then that was it, then from there, he was my teacher for a long time. And then he said, no, I can't teach you anymore. Now you need to go to one of his teachers. So now  I'm no longer taught by him, which has actually really made me very sad. Because I thought, this is my teacher, he'll be my teacher for all of my life. It never occurred to me that he wouldn't be my teacher after a while. That was actually really hard for me. So now I'm taught by His Holiness, the Dorji Lopen of Bhutan. In terms of studying, back and forth from Bhutan, and entering a monastic way within Bhutan, yeah, very difficult country to, to do that in. But it seems to be my karma that that is my place. And so that's how I continue but, quite magical at points, but also quite tough for points. , Bhutan is a very specific culture, 700,000 people, it's a Himalayan nation, which has a very strong sense of its own identity. And so yeah, it's not been the simplest way to study I would say.


Helen Richardson: It's also a country that believes in gross national happiness. Is that  really so?


Emma: Yeah, so I think like for many of us as Buddhists, and we hear the word Dharma and often people will say, well, is Buddhism a religion? Or is it just a way of living? And so Bhutan has develop, this is from the fourth king of Bhutan, who is still alive. He developed this idea of gross national happiness as a way to create everyday structures based on Buddhist principles. So there are various pillars, and it's really a way to ensure that as a country develops, it keeps in mind its ecology, its culture, as well as economic development, it brings in other aspects of development. And I think it's a brilliant idea and it definitely has an influence on how Bhutan develops. But it's got aspects of it which are probably useful for any country or any Buddhist to consider.


Helen Richardson: And one thing that becomes very clear in your book is the incredible commitment you had to make to your Tibetan practice;  hours a day. But at the same time, you had become a mother. And not only a mother, but a single mother, also, you weren't in a centre with other nuns, you were living independently, which I think makes it incredibly difficult. How did you do it?


Emma: Thank you for understanding that because I really appreciate those words. Because in fact, Lama told me to become a nun. It was not my idea. And I was very surprised that he told me that. And I felt quite embarrassed, actually, that he had told me to become a nun. And my son at that point was five years old and I felt very embarrassed, like slightly dirty of the fact that I've had a child. And I thought, how am I going to do this. And I felt very, although Rinpoche’s and High Lamas in Bhutan they may well have children, but they're not really looking after them. That's left to the mother. Whereas the child was very much my responsibility that I had. And I felt very embarrassed about it, when it's like, pretending no I'm not doing this, as well. But actually, I have had to do all of that. And there's been many challenges in that. So we could have a very long conversation about that and sometimes I don't know how I've done it. And many people say to me, wow, you're very determined. And I just think I've been very determined. But I can remember I don't know if the people on the on the webinar that have had children, having children is this massive event, and they will press every button, and they will bring out so many karmic things. And I can remember at one point, my son being quite challenging, etc. and saying to Lama, how do you understand patience? We talk about patients in these texts of ours, how do you understand patience? Because I thought, for me anyway, and I don't know how this sounds to you, but nothing tests your patience as much as a child. I couldn't imagine any monk understanding, patience. And he said, sitting for hours and hours doing prayers in the temple early in the morning, and I thought, forget it, it doesn't cut it, you have no idea? Yeah, you have no idea what patience is, the mother understands patience. In many ways this role of the mother, which is so spoken of in text, etc. I think if you can combine a profound spiritual path with actually physically caring for another human being to such a huge degree, it's a great thing, but it hasn't been easy, but he's much older now. And so I think it's becoming easier to do. But yeah, I just take my hat off to anybody who is both raising children and committing to a spiritual path, because you've got to be in the world doing stuff and making fish fingers and turning up at parents’ meetings, and you're trying to really live well and allow your Buddha nature to flourish.


Helen Richardson: But you weren't just doing like, maybe some of us do an hour's meditation a day, and perhaps listening to a Dharma talk. You were doing six or eight hours a day of chanting and prostrations. I don't understand the full Tibetan practice, but it was certainly full on. So how did you and at the same time, you had to earn a living, so  you were being a yoga teacher?


Emma: No, I didn't really earn a living at that point. To be honest, I pretty much did practice eight hours a day, and then looked after Oscar around that time. I couldn't really earn a living and it wouldn't have been possible at that time to earn a living and do that amount of practice. There just wouldn't have been enough hours in the day.


Helen Richardson: I couldn't see how to do it.


Emma: It wouldn't have been possible. At first I used to get up at four in the morning to do my prostrations. And then Oscar started to think, oh, I want to get up at four in the morning to join in with whatever my mom is doing. At that point. I was like, no. So then I started later in the day, but yeah, in the Himalayan way of training, the good thing is that it's a very set out what to do, which is great, because many people, they want to walk a path, but they're not quite sure how to do it and they read that book, this book, and they pick up that practice and that practice. So it's called the ngondro which is preliminary practice before Mahamudra  and you do 110,000 prostrations 110,000 Vajrasattva’s, 110,000 mandalas 110,000 Guru yoga, and you have to accumulate those on a daily basis. So the moon mustn’t come up in the sky, and you haven't done some practice, right? So when you start on that, it's a serious undertaking. And you've got to realize this is a serious undertaking now. And so that’s what I was doing, and I don't know how I did it, you look back, and you think, how did that do that? But I think I just was very determined.  And Lama had given me these instructions, and I was not going to let him down. And I just lived a completely different life from the people around me.

Helen Richardson: Yeah, amazing. During that time, and writing about that time, there's a phrase you used, which I really liked. You said you were rewiring the neural networks of the brain. Which I think is astonishing.


Emma: Well, I mean, that's the idea. We talk about this now with neuroscience and neuroplasticity don't we, which just really agrees with what the Buddha said, “what you think, that's the reality,” that's what you become, and that's what you experience. So the ngondro, with these four different sets of practices is just like a big rewiring. And the repetition required is because as neuroscience tells us now, you have to lay down these neural pathways and they have to be really laid down like a river, eroding its Valley, they have to be very powerful in the end. And so that's the reason why there's so many repetitions, which, just like any habit, there's this power of habit, I know, we think it's a very destructive thing. Often in texts where the Bodhisattva or something, if you remember, talks about what habit once it's there, once it's established, it's very hard to break. On the other hand, if you deliberately cultivate a positive habit, it becomes very powerful and also very hard to break. So it's just the same theory.


Helen Richardson: And then after you finished all that practice, you had as you briefly mentioned before, you had a full ordination as a nun, you lost your hair and it's a lovely chapter because your son Oscar went with you to Bhutan for that ordination. And again something you said I thought was amazing. You said the happiness of it was beyond any letters I can put together when you finally received that ordination.



Temple of Dochula, Bhutan – place of ordination


Emma: I didn't talk about it too much in the book because it felt very sacred and even though I don't think about this often, so you've really brought the memory of the feeling of it of it back to me now. I just felt so light and strong afterwards like I could just jump and fly in the sky or something. I mean, it was an extraordinary feeling because you connect so profoundly with the person who's given you your vows, who is actually my teacher now His Holiness Dorji Rinpoche. And the way the ceremony is, you connect very profoundly with them. And so it's like tapping into a big electrical or hard wiring thing, just like an electrical power station. If you imagine you're just one little bulb, and then you get plugged into the whole electrical power station, it’s like that. And then so afterwards you feel this kind of like, whhoooo. But it was also quite terrifying because we hadn't done any kind of rehearsal or any kind of really obvious preparation for it. So, Dorji Lopen just spoke the words in Tibetan. and I had to repeat many of them just by hearing them. And that was really hard, because in the west we like to have things written down. I just had to do it through my ear, it was really hard. But, I mean, it was a very amazing day. And then we went down onto the river bank in Punakha, and we built a little stone stupas and this kind of thing. I can just remember feeling so light doing these things, and it's just extraordinary. Oscar stayed; he couldn't come into the ceremony itself, but he stayed down the corridor with some other monks. And they just took care with him, because the ceremony went on for quite a long time, actually, to be honest, it was not like a five minute thing, so very amazing.


Helen Richardson:  But after all that, that amazing experience, you go back to live in small town, England, I think I've got that. Right. And you lived on your own? How did people the other mothers, how did people in the town respond?


Emma: I don't know, I wasn't too worried about how they were going to respond. Because what are you going to do?  I just carried on, I guess there is a difference in the sense that you're not going to be doing the kind of like coffee mornings with other mothers in the community, you're not really going to be so part of that kind of thing, because you're doing other things. But apart from that, it was kind of fine. And then the book came out. And then people started wanting to talk to me quite a lot. And now people are like, yeah, that's our nun. And people are quite happy about it. I didn't really think too much about them. I explained to Lama, I said Lama you misunderstand nobody where I live looks like this. And he just said, okay, but is it to their benefit to see somebody like you walking around? And I thought, yeah, I think it probably is, just to remind people that they can consciously choose a really dedicated spiritual path. It's a possibility for all of us, and so then it helped me.


Helen Richardson: I loved what your son said that you were the happiest mum at school pickup.


Emma:  Yeah.  My son  was very accepting in the beginning, he was very proud of me. Then in the early teenage years he was really embarrassed about me. I had to walk two feet behind, like following  behind a master. And he’d say don’t stand with me. Now it's kind of come full circle because his friends think it's really cool that his mom’s like this, so now I'm back, alright. But I think he has had different responses at different times to what our situation is compared to other people. I remember there was a very kind of sad moment where it was about 12 or 13, where he just said, you're never going to have a handbag like the other mums are you. And I was like no, Oscar, I am never going to have a handbag like the other mums. So maybe some people might think oh it's a phase you're going through, but  then the phase has gone on year after year, and people are probably realising it’s not a phase I’m going through.


To Questions/Comments : 

Ven Juewei:  First of all, thank you very much, Venerable Pema for such a delightful and frank conversation. Wonderful.  I was just commenting that in the Chinese language, we have a character for patience, sometimes called tolerance, where we have the blade, a sharp blade of the knife on top of our hearts. When you mentioned what you went through, and how you had to develop patience, I thought of that. Yes, indeed, it's very difficult. It's knife on top of the heart.


Emma: Oh, that's really interesting. In Bhutan when you have a newborn baby in Bhutan? Yeah. When they put them to sleep in their cot, they put a big knife above their head under the pillow. Right. And I can remember being really concerned about this, but for protection, they put this really sharp knife above the head of the baby. So you're making me remember that. That's just come to my mind. But a sharp blade of a knife on top of the heart. Yeah, I suppose it's helpful to have, when we find these real challenges, I think it's so helpful, isn't it as practitioners, either to know a phrase from a text or an image like that, just to help you kind of not get too involved with the story or the narrative or whatever. You can just see a situation as a situation of patience or whatever you can remember an image like that, remember a line from Gampopa, and it just helps you carry on, doesn't it, to have that kind of thing to turn to. As a venerable, how have you learned patience in your path?


Ven Juewei: The hard way. I live in a community. So yeah, it's, every day we have to exercise patience. We come from different cultural backgrounds and very often when we come together, it's like, we'll have to get used to one another's habits. And to be able to live in a community harmoniously, we have to give in to one another. So we have to practice a little bit of non self.


Emma: Yeah, okay. So it's funny, isn't it? Because probably, if somebody is on the call now who's maybe married, maybe they have a husband and children, they would probably say something quite similar. We coming together as a community, we have to practice patience tolerance, then we have to maybe practice non self,  it’s a similar thing, isn't it? I know, we make a big difference between monastic living and non-monastic living, but actually those human qualities, we have to confront them maybe wherever.


Ven Juewei: Probably, but sometimes bigger.


Emma: Yeah, true and it moves as one like a wave when you're part of a Sangha. You are like part of a wave moving across the courtyard, that was always my feeling.


Sharon: I live close to Chenrezig Institute, so I see the nuns, they're living as a community and going to pujas and all that kind of stuff. And your book reflects that you live harmoniously in the community. So I was wondering, is that an option for you to ever go and live in a community. Because I think years ago, one of the Lamas in the FPMT advised someone who wanted to become an ordained sangha member, that they should actually live in a community because their sustainability as being ordained, to keep being ordained. So I guess what I'm saying is that it's harder living independently, which you seem quite comfortable with really.


Emma:   It's a big question.   When I started on this path, I just didn't think about it. I was granted the opportunity to live in a monastic community in Bhutan, which is a very great honour. And because of covid my visa has run out now.  I have been granted that opportunity. And I was very happy there. I'm very comfortable with monastic living, I can say, but in the end, Oscar asked me to return. And I had a very difficult moment of thinking, Okay, do I stay here? Or do I return when he's asked - so I returned. It was a very difficult moment;  it's not an easy balance. But if I can live, make sure that he is okay and fulfill those responsibilities, and help other beings and continue my spiritual path, then that's probably what's going to happen for a little bit longer at the moment. In terms of in the end, if it was possible for me to live in the Buddhist University in Bhutan as a translator and assistant editor because I do some of that work for Bhutan right now. That would probably be the best place for me. The dilemma that I have as a woman who is born in the West, is that I'm quite a strong character. I'm never going to be a Bhutanese nun, I'm far too strong minded. And so I think that the perfect place for me would be in that way in Bhutan. And we'll see if that happens. If that doesn't happen, then I'll have to think again, I think, but it was a very difficult moment where I had to really think like, I heard the voice of my son saying, Mummy, can you come back? And then I returned from Bhutan at that point. But as venerable has said, in all of our circumstances, we have an opportunity to develop kindness and in all of them we have the opportunity not to develop kindness. Whatever those circumstances are, I have a part of me, with founding the charity and I think the charity is a good thing in the world. I think it's done good things, and I think it's a good thing.  I suppose some part of me does like being quite active, and that is a different thing than being in a monastic setting where your main role is to do your morning prayers and your study and your prayers, etc. It is a very different experience to be within a boundary wall, practicing it is a very different experience.  I'm still  active at this point in terms of wanting to do the charitable work to help others and I think it would be harder to do that behind a wall.


Sharon: I know it's interesting because I can see the nuns in Chenrezig Institute and they're quite happy up there but they leader a sort of such a nice life. They get nice meals and they've got good accommodation and so I was just wondering. Because you seem to be more in the world, you want to be in the world, that's my feeling, that you are of the world. I


Emma: Yeah, I think maybe more but I also think that it may look like nice rituals and nice meals etc. but there's a lot that goes on. And when you're in that community, and Venerable I'm sure would agree, you have to follow a very strict timetable on things. You don't have this choice about, oh, should I get up now? Should I not get up now? Should I see this friend? Should I not see this friend? You don't even have the choice, I mean, with the charity, shall I, put a water filter in the school, or shall I build a footpath over there? Because you're following a set structure. And that's a big thing. That's a big thing to get used to. So although it may look like some aspect of its kind of nice, like simple it's a very different mindset to be comfortable with I think, wouldn't you say, Venerable?


Ven Juewei: Oh, yes. Yes, definitely. I think what appears, you know like a swan on the pond swimming on the lake. It looks like the swan is very gracious, but actually, it's paddling very hard underneath the surface. It's the same and it's like meditation to, it looks so simple, just to focus on the breath, isn't it? But behind the efforts that's needed in order to do that ritual?


Emma: I have opportunity because I’ve got many monastic colleagues and friends in Bhutan  now, I think, particularly Bhutanese monastics, it's such a beautiful country, and so many of the monastics are so beautiful and serene, well, most monastics are serene but, you couldn't dream they’d have any difficulty. And, I have a one that I work with quite a lot in translating stuff and we can have quite open conversations. I might say something like, oh, that’s difficult, trying to do this and that, and, he'll go, yeah, this is very difficult. And I'll go, how can it be difficult for you, you look like you're on a serene cloud floating through the sky. And in a mindfulness way, like the mindfulness teachings, it's just that kind of recognition, this is difficult. I mean, not a big drama around it, but it is difficult, but for a monastic to share that reality with a lay person would not be considered good. So you will not find monastics, explaining to other people that there are hardships or difficult moments in what appears to be a very serene life. And because it wouldn't be they would not see it necessarily and Venerable may want to add in here, they would not see it as benefiting you to hear that they have difficult moments, they would see it as not helping you, disturbing your mind or putting doubt in your mind. Right. So I think that monastics also have difficult moments, which they just recognize as difficult moments, but you just won't hear them a lot. Is that right venerable, would you say that also?


Ven Juewei: Yes, that's definitely true. We are trying not to I think, by the very term venerable, it means that you have to be respected. And we are supposed to be able to use the Dharma to solve our own internal problems, whether it's within the community or within ourselves. And this causes actually quite a fair bit of pain within individuals. Sometimes people may get desensitized from what may be going on in an institution that they don't consider to be fair. And just because we all come from different cultural backgrounds, and having to live together under the same roof, under the same routine is quite challenging for many people. But I guess what difference is that if once we have a common mission, and a set of values to go by, we help one another. So the importance of being one another's spiritual friends, treasuring the fact that we can be together this lifetime, we've committed ourselves to the path, then we try to work at helping one another. I think that's what makes it difference. Instead of saying, this is what I need, we try to look in terms of what is it that the other people may need?


Emma: Yeah, that's that switch of perspective, which is such a huge thing. But I think you like in modern terms, there are issues there about knowing as a monastic how to be skilful with your own mind, and difficult moments. Like you say, it’s an interesting subject.


Helen Richardson: Emma, we have a few more questions. And we also have a request to see your photos.


Cilla: I wanted to ask  if you have had the feeling or the knowledge that you have reincarnated from a past life in Bhutan?


Emma: So I'm not sure but my Lama had one vision, and which he didn't share with me. Of course, he didn't share with me, he shared with somebody else who then shared it back to me and where he did have some visions. I believe that was why he was so certain to tell me to be become ordained, because he had had a vision of such a thing. So but myself I have had some extraordinary things happen for sure. But I think I just feel in certain places in Bhutan clearly, something is very strongly there. And I can't really deny that, like even if I wanted to be sensible about it. When these things happen, you can't really deny them actually. It still seems bonkers, really that I'm ordained in Bhutan and it's when I was born by the sea in Whitstable. It's all a bit strange isn't it! Whether one is reincarnated or not, the question is, what does one do with this current time? And is it to benefit other people? Isn't it? These are kind of mysterious things, still, we have to recognize we're in samsara and we have to try so hard to be free of it lifetime after lifetime, isn't it?


Judith:  Thank you, Emma. I'm so impressed and amazed by the fact that you combined and balanced motherhood with your spiritual path. I'm interested in this idea of a nun householder, and that in fact you can provide a great source of comfort, kindness, wisdom to people just by your presence. But also people seeing how you go about your life, and that you don't necessarily have to be in a monastery. In fact, I know a couple of Tibetan Buddhist western women who are not living in monasteries, they're living like householders.  And as I said in my comment, my, my first teacher was Ayya Khema and she was never a monastic. And she could never have fitted into a monastery. But she was brilliant, really. So there are many ways to follow that path. And I think it's terrific what you've done. And I thank you.


Emma: Thank you. It's very nice to have those words from you. I really, really appreciate it. If you've been a mother yourself, then we know what that word means. Don't we. It's not just a word. It's actually many hurdles and moments and incredible things and many challenges,


Judith: I used to have a few, I still do have a saying, my practice is my relationship.


Emma: Yeah, I guess like in Buddhist practice, being a mother takes us to the heart of our commitment to this world somehow. So it's quite similar, for me to Buddhist practice. So, yeah, but I guess it's just a great opportunity, we've been given both of these opportunities. So I don't know this teacher.


Helen Richardson: Ayya Khemu was one of the first Theravadin nuns in Australia.


Judith:  She passed away about 20 years ago.


Emma: Yeah. The reality is, and probably why your words really I find so kind to hear is that when you're,  one of the most challenging aspects of being a monastic practitioner, within more of a householder setting, or ordinary setting, of course, is that you're very exposed. Like, if you're in a monastery behind a wall, you're very hidden. So you can make your mistakes without anybody seeing. When you're not behind a wall, it's you have to be extremely careful. Because you make your mistakes within the sight of other people. And that's an interesting dynamic.


Judith:  Yes, I think there's a very rich well there for you to tap.


Emma: Yeah, something like that. [laughing]  But I think Judith, maybe this is why we need many lifetimes, because I feel like I will always be Oscar's mother. I will always be that isn't it? There won't be a time at which I say Oh no, okay I've retired from this now. And so whether I'm in a monastery in Bhutan or I'm in a monastery in the west or not, I'll always be his mother so whether I look like I'm juggling those roles, in my heart obviously it’s always going to be like that, isn't it? But I already feel as if I lived about nine lives in this time. I think I just need to live about another five or something then I can just do everything. And it's really interesting because when I left Bhutan there to return to England, Ugyen in Bhutan said yes, well it's just much better you're in the world, you're doing all this good stuff and you're doing all these things, what's the point of all these rituals, he said. And I was like, what!  You're a person really believes in all these rituals, what are you saying to me, I don't really understand it. And so I was really surprised by that, but I suppose, from a Himalayan point of view, the greatest form of practice is seen to be in retreat. And whilst that is also ritualistic, it is to do the prices of more advanced meditation to train the mind. And a lot of the time behind the walls in a monastic setting to do these rituals is all about cleaning the mind, purifying the mind and preparing the mind for time in retreat. And ritual for ritual sake is a funny thing, isn't it.


Helen Richardson: I'm Emma, just, if you have time, we'd love to see some of your photos and to also hear more  about “Opening Your Heart to Bhutan” - your charity.  


Helen -Don’t have the photo of her teacher


Emma:  If you're wondering from the book, what my Lama actually look like, Lama Nima Tshering, Lama looking very young and this is a one of my times in Bhutan, we just outside a small hotel outside Thimphu where I don't know we were having a meeting or something. And it was a hotel where they had a very, very small earthquake one night that I was there, which was my first real earthquake. So that was interesting.




But this is in the Thimphu Valley in Bhutan. So the capital, they moved the capital from Punakha, which we'll see later to Thimphu which is closer to India. Bhutan has this very strong relationship now to India. So this is Punakha, the original capital of Bhutan, and this is where I was ordained. So that experience of that very powerful experience happened in this dzong. So you may well have seen Potala Palace in Tibet, very similar structure here, the dzongs in Bhutan, and the slightly sloping walls and the inner shrine tower here. And this little cantilever bridge, if you can see on the left hand side here, cantilever bridge, and so Lama, myself and Oscar we parked just behind these trees in order to enter the dzong, we went around here. And it was somewhere around here with the sound of the river in this room here somewhere around here that I was actually ordained. Wow. And so Punakha is at about very much lower altitude, it's a sunny place and so quite easy to be there compared to some other places in Bhutan.


Helen -also don’t have a photo of the footprints


And then this is one of my favourite photos of Bhutan and this is some footprints left in a place in Bhutan because supertall has many footprints left all over the place and this is just one of them that I quite like showing people that this is in the south of Bhutan, which is south a bit.




This is the village that I founded my charity in. So if you've read the book, then Narkum and the school, here. And this is the kind of strange agricultural, warm agricultural place in southern Bhutan, where people live a fairly subsistence and quite tough life. This is some of our children that we help the charity helps.




This is the British Honorary Consulte to Bhutan, Michael Rutland and the foreign minister to Bhutan, and this is when I received some award from the British Prime Minister. And I was freezing cold at this ceremony in Bhutan. So that's why I look really, really, really cold.


Transcriber added.


The Points of Light Award – 2017 - celebrate outstanding individual volunteers who have made a change in their community. Emma’s award recognises the work she has put in to founding and running ‘Opening Your Heart to Bhutan‘, a charity dedicated to supporting children in the country.

Donations -



Oh, that's the book that you've kindly mentioned today that raised so much money for the charity, that's been the main thing that's raised the money for the charity. 


Helen Richardson:  Can I recommend the book if you haven't read it, it's very easy read. But there's a lot of wisdom in it. Well done for that.


Emma:    A current project is supporting a speech therapist in Bhutan, and also giving teaching support and  food for 74 special-needs children. To feed 74 children takes quite a lot of money, actually, as it turns out, and some teaching materials, and Ugyen was giving me this list, and I was just kind of gulping as he was giving me this list


Helen Richardson:   What really impressed me was that when these projects come up, you don't just say, okay, you scrutinize them, and make sure they're viable in the same way as you used to scrutinize projects in the corporate world. So that training has actually become very useful.


Emma: It has, and I have to be skilful. And that means things I say no to. Ugyen is always really surprised by that, because he can think if he makes a nice story about something, I'm going to say yes. And then I don't always say yes. He  knows that now, because it's not responsible for me just to say yes to everything.  I have to say yes things with the confidence that we can do them.


Helen Richardson:   But I think people need to know that because so often, like, for example, with money, we gave here to bushfire relief. Some of it hasn't been spent, communities are still struggling. Whereas when you hear about charity that, is being run with very little administration, then I think that you can give you confidence.


Emma: Yeah, most of the fundraising comes from my activities and I'm jolly well not going to give my time and then for it not to be spent well. I want it to be as effective as possible.

You start out, you have a charity start out getting sleeping bags, and maybe repairing a roof. And now we've built huge school and it's like, you keep going, you have a good idea, you want to help, and then you keep going, and you get people that are kind enough to support you. And then it's amazing what you can achieve. But I know I saw the awful bushfires. And I had the opportunity to meet your wonderful koalas, that was the highlight. And I saw many koalas had a very difficult time and I was so saddened to see that. You've got to see the money as your responsibility, you've really got to care as if it really is your money, and you've got to be careful with it like you would be with your own savings or your own life. And I think that's where, because my relationship with Bhutan is so close, that it just feels very close at hand.


Judith: How is Bhutan being affected by covid?


Emma: Well, what I'd say about that is for much of Asia, and I'm sure you and in fact, for much of the world, the degree to which countries have been affected by covid is only known if those countries have tested religiously, right? Otherwise, we don't really know the numbers to be frank. Bhutan has come up with the covid situation extremely well in a way, because they closed the borders completely last March, and there was no debate on it. They just closed the borders, right. And so only Bhutanese nationals could return to Bhutan, and they had a 21 day quarantine period, and they were very firm about this. As a result, Bhutan has had one official death from covid now and Bhutan now has just started to open again. And if you wish to enter the country, double vaccinated you have a 14 day quarantine period and a very, very strict 14 day quarantine period. So they are obviously taking it very cautiously, and they have a small population. And let's remember that in normal times, they have an open border with India and I'm sure you may have seen the terrible sights of what happened with covid in India. I think Bhutan is extremely cautious once it saw what was happening with India, to really maintain that very firm borderline. So they've done pretty well. Everybody they're over the age of 12 is double vaccinated. I think the take up rate is like 99.9%, or whatever. And they've done they've done well. They have Thimphu the capital, but Thimphu is nothing compared to the size of Melbourne right. In terms of that close community transmission, a country like Bhutan where population density is less, everybody together, that's probably helped them in terms of not having so much community transmission. And so fingers crossed, and we just see as they begin to let more tourists in, but so if you want to go to Bhutan now you will have to have a 14 day quarantine period in the country, which may well put you off the idea, I suspect, it's putting me off the idea. So if it's putting me off the idea, I can't imagine what it's doing to other people.


It's very lovely to have this chance to talk to you. So thank you very much for all your understanding and your capacity to be kind and generous with your comments and your views. I really appreciate it; it means a lot. Thank you



Helen Richardson: Thank you very much for your time, I recommend the book, it really is a wonderful read.


Emma: My pleasure. Thank you


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