Ani Choying Drolma: the Buddhist rock star nun
by Geoff Wood, ABC Australia, 9 March 2015
She’s an international singing superstar and women’s rights activist who was discovered in a Himalayan convent. Ani Choying Drolma’s fans include Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt and Tracey Chapman, but her story has a dark beginning, as she tells Geoff Wood.
Sydney, Australia -- The beatings started when she was five years old. Sometimes her father used his fists, sometimes a whip or a cooking pot. The day he tried to stab her was the day Ani Choying Drolma decided to leave home. She was 13.
Born and raised within sight of the great Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath in Kathmandu, Ani Choying escaped by taking refuge in a Buddhist convent, the Nagi Gompa nunnery. Attached to the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery, it overlooks the Kathmandu valley in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Ordained in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, Ani Choying took the title ani, meaning nun. While at Nagi Gompa she studied English, and learned to sing spiritual songs and melodies from her mentor and guru, the abbot Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, who passed on to her the teachings of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Her life changed abruptly once again when she was discovered singing devotional prayers in the nunnery by American musician Steve Tibbetts in 1994. Tibbetts happened to be visiting the Nagi Gompa one day when he was told to go and hear the young nun sing. He took a cassette recorder with him but was so captivated by Ani Choying’s voice that he forgot to hit record. He had to track her down in another monastery to record her on his second attempt.
‘He’s the one who really brought me to the world and introduced me as a singer, and with the blessing of my teacher people really appreciated my singing. [It] surprised me really to realise that I had become a singer,’ she says.
Even today, she still laughs fondly at the memory.
‘My singing was mostly the monastic ritual ceremonies or meditation: how to chant the mantras and sing the spiritual melodies,' says Ani Choying, who is currently touring Australia.
Together, Ani Choying and Tibbetts recorded an album of meditative Buddhist chant and singing titled Cho, with Tibbetts providing a diaphanous soundscape. The album took its title from the tantric Buddhist practice of intense meditation and visualisation.
‘Cho is a Tibetan word which literally means to cut through,’ says Ani Choying. ‘That particular kind of Buddhist practice has emphasised being able to cut through your ego-clinging.’
Released in 1997, Cho quickly became a best-seller around the world, but fame hasn’t changed Ani Choying’s motivation.
‘The new thing I have added in my way of singing is the modern spiritual songs in the local language, in Nepali, with the aspiration that I would be able to share the words of wisdom to larger audiences because words of wisdom from Buddha are real,’ she says.
Since her debut Ani Choying has released 11 albums, including Selwa, a second album of Tibetan language songs and chants with Tibbetts, a series of albums in her native Nepali, and solo albums of Tibetan Buddhist mantras sung in melody. She’s also written her autobiography, Singing For Freedom.
In 2014 she was appointed as UNICEF Nepal’s first ever national ambassador, and works as an advocated against violence towards children and women.
It hasn’t all been incense and ritual. In 2004, her song ‘Phool Ko Aankha Ma’—a call for peace and harmony—had all of Nepal singing along. Shortlisted for the song of the year and best female vocal performance prizes at Nepal’s Hits FM Music Awards, it won best composition, while the album Moments of Bliss picked up record of the year and made Ani Choying a household name.
According to Buddhist tradition, Nepal was the birthplace of the Buddha himself, and Ani Choying’s music reflects her Buddhist outlook, as do her actions. Money raised through her concerts and record sales goes the Nun’s Welfare Foundation, an NGO she set up in 1998 to oversee a variety of medical and teaching charities in Nepal, including the Arya Tara school for young nuns, which she started in 2000 just outside Kathmandu.
That is a massive statement in a country where 80 per cent of women are illiterate, and where the UN estimates1.6 million children work as labourers and 5,000 live on the streets.
‘[My] first intention when I started singing was absolutely none of those things but then later on, when I realised it can generate some income, then I started enjoying it,’ she confesses.
‘It helped me to fulfil many of my wishes or dreams, especially to run a school for young nuns so that they can achieve better academic education without having to worry much about what they will eat or where they will live.’
Ani Choying is putting in practice the Buddha’s teachings on actions and intentions, but she’s also following her heart.
‘I’m starting a kidney hospital for those suffering with kidney failure, which is a really tough situation for many of my brothers and sisters in Nepal. I know this situation because my mother suffered with it and died,’ she says.
This is the real key to understanding the superstar singing nun. Having escaped a life of poverty and violence with the help of music, Ani Choying now wants to help others make their own escape.
‘I know it is probably impossible to eliminate their sufferings, but at least I can try.’