By Moises R. Cotto
Meditation is a practice that has become increasingly popular among people of all backgrounds and spiritual beliefs. One individual who has come to know a lot about meditation and its benefits is Heather Moody, a Buddhist nun who adopted the name Lopon Damchoe Wangmo on her quest for intellectual and spiritual enlightenment which started in her home country of Canada. She has taken her skills of learning languages to several countries in Asia, including Nepal and India. She also completed a nine-year program of philosophy in the Ngagyur Nyingma Institute at Namdroling Monastery. Wangmo is currently enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School and has attended events held in Worcester State University, like the weekly WSU Mindfulness meetings as well as sharing her experiences during information sessions for the study abroad program, “Global Writing and Reporting in a Tibetan Settlement in South India,” which will commence in May 2017.
Q: What were you like as a young student (from high school to college) and how did your initial experiences as a young adult inform your present?
Lopon Damchoe Wangmo: I went to high school in Saskatchewan. I did a lot of photography and drama and wore black for a year. There was a lot of pressure to go right into university but even then I was worried that if I jumped right into undergrad I would be caught up in a cycle of debt and work that would prevent me from travelling, so I decided to travel first.
I spent a year travelling in Asia, in India in particular. I was teaching English to Buddhist nuns in Dharamsala and they so impressed me with their joy—even though they were living in cow sheds and faced a lot of obstacles, they seemed content and harmonious as a community. I wanted to become a nun right away, but that frightened my parents. I went back to Canada and then spent a year in Taiwan teaching English and learning Mandarin. Finally, at 21 I found a place at Namdroling Monastery in Southern India where I could be a nun and learn Tibetan. Within two years, I was speaking fluently enough that my teachers encouraged me to join the scholastic program, so I didn’t actually begin my higher education until I was 23. It was a nine-year program, granting three degrees.
I graduated in 2012, since then I’ve been teaching Buddhism both at my home institution (in Tibetan) and to International students in Nepal.
I’m actually the first, and so far, the only international student to have graduated from the program. I didn’t know at the outset that I would be in India for fifteen years, but I’m glad that I didn’t give up.
Q: What has it been like immersing yourself into a culture that is very different from the one we have in North America?
LDW: I experienced culture shock many times in the first few years in India, but have now grown to appreciate certain freedoms I enjoyed while living in the nunnery, such as much less focus on appearances and a greater sense of connection with the community.
Q: What drew you to wanting to learn about religion and spirituality?
LDW: It has always seemed to be the most important thing. In high school the idea of just doing “worldly” things like buying a house or having a career seemed like unsatisfactory goals—I didn’t think they would be avenues to lasting happiness.
Q: Did you meditate before you became a Buddhist nun? If so, how did you learn about it?
LDW: I learned about meditation and Buddhism at the same time. I learned to meditate from the very books that were also giving me information about the tenets of Buddhism.
Q: In your opinion, what are the benefits of meditation for a student in college/university who likely leads a stressful life?
LDW: Meditation can give us a sense of spaciousness; we become slower to anger or have other emotional reactions because we can see the emotion before it fully manifests. This gives us a chance to choose how we are going to react, which is very, very helpful in difficult situations. Even just sitting and choosing to cultivate calmness can help with stress, most people don’t realize that if we train our mind, we don’t have to get so stuck in our emotional upheavals.
Q: You are quite busy right now! Is meditation most beneficial to you at times when stress levels might be most prevalent for you or do you find that meditation is best utilized when life is more relaxed?
LDW: I think it is good to start training when you are relaxed, and eventually that habit of calm abiding will permeate your daily life. Once you know your mind is capable of calm, single pointedness, it is something you can deliberately engender at more stressful times.
Q: As a woman, have you had any challenges while being in a rather conservative culture?
LDW: I find American culture much more challenging. I haven’t minded being around conservative Buddhists because in this case I am also conservative, insofar as my choices are deeply informed by my religious values. Our adherence to our Buddhist faith is what brings us together as a community.
Q: What are some social issues which might be native to India that you believe Americans/Westerners should be concerned about? How can we help?
LDW: Western resource consumption affects the whole world, but when food and water become even more scarce, I suspect it will be the developing countries which suffer the most. We could learn a lot from the developing world when it comes to being satisfied with what we have and not always thirsting after new things.
Q: As someone who has been studying Buddhism, are there certain teachings/principles which you think might benefit college/university students who wish to live a more fulfilled life?
LDW: Know that your experience is shaped by your state of mind. You can train your mind to be patient and loving and your world will be transformed accordingly.
Q: Do you think that we, as humans, are capable of finding our own form of spirituality without having to subscribe to any religion?
LDW: We are truly fortunate to have the freedom to determine our own beliefs and live according to them. That being said, it is worth talking with people who have been practicing their respective religions a long time. They have insights into the process of spiritual development.
Q: Lastly, what do you think students can achieve by studying abroad in India?
LDW: So much can be achieved. Spending time in a country like India will open your eyes to a much larger world and types of human experience that we don’t often see in the West. It isn’t all beautiful or inspiring. You will see things that shock and disturb you, and I think you will be enriched by the experience.