Finding Refuge Robin Stremlow
Gratitude for the sisterhood at a Tibetan Buddhist Nunnery
Taming of the Beast by Anna Yakubovskaya
I’m sitting on a small round cushion, red, the same crimson color as the robes worn by three nuns before me. Behind them is a large elevated plush chair,
elaborate, more like a throne, covered in ornate woven tapestries and surrounded by vases of fabric flowers.
An image of His Holiness is perched on the seatback.
This gompa, or meditation temple, is holding space for 21 students from around the world, mostly Israeli, British, and Australian. I am one of only two Americans. The other is the lead teacher at this weekend Samatha meditation retreat. Her name is Venerable Tenzin Pelza. She’s short, wears small round glasses, and she is remarkably approachable despite her intimidating exterior of draping cloth, shaven head, and a panther tattoo on her right shoulder.
When I got to the Thösamling nunnery just after daylight yesterday morning, four hours before the small office opened and two hours before I planned, I flagged down Pelza as she walked into the gompa for morning prayers.
“Can you help me find my place?” I asked, desperately in need of rest after an overnight bus journey filled with vomiting tourists and half-drunken baggage handlers. Without fuss or complaint Pelza led me to the office and eventually to my room, where I slept, hard, for hours.
I am so grateful for her and especially for her panther tattoo.
I, too, have a symbol tattooed on my shoulder. Actually, I have several, around 20, covering my back, left arm, right forearm, feet. Despite almost all of these tattoos having spiritual significance (a dhamma wheel, a lotus, sacred geometry, and a chakra-colored honeycomb—millennial spirituality symbols to a T), I feel insecure, and sometimes unclean, having them seen in holy places. As I sit in this temple hearing dharma wisdom from the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, I feel the strangeness of my body in this place, but I connect with Pelza’s tattoo.
During our first session last night, Pelza asked the group what our expectations were for the weekend. I nervously stood before everyone and said I was looking for a shanti (peaceful) supportive atmosphere to go deeper into my self and my practices, and that I’d like to continue learning the Samatha technique for developing focus and mental clarity. What I didn’t tell them, and what I didn’t tell almost anyone, is the other reason I am here.
I am a single, light-haired, blue-eyed, white female traveling solo in northern India, with a month left on my visa, and a few days ago, in a high-Himalayan mountain hospital, I found out that I am pregnant. Just over seven weeks along.
The main reason I came to Thösamling is that right now, probably more than at any other point, I need refuge.
Following one ultrasound, three very awkward doctor visits, and two waiting rooms filled with Indian and Tibetan women, there is no denying the truth that I, on my own, will be bringing a little mixed-race, brown baby into this world. I’d made travel plans to keep me overseas and in spiritual circles for more than the next eight months. All of my friends had already left India and traveled to countries without monsoon heat and rains, most likely back to homes they own. I truly am by myself, left to process the news, alone.
Fear. Confusion. Anger. Anxiety. Excitement. Joy. Awe. Gratitude. Shock. Mostly shock.
Terrified that I’ll get food poisoning (all too common here), a parasite, or a nervous breakdown from the cacophony of sounds and smells unavoidable in this country, I wondered, Where would I go? How could I keep this baby safe?
One of the prayers we say before each session begins, “I go for refuge until I’m enlightened to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. . .” The main reason I came to Thösamling is that right now, probably more than at any other point, I need refuge.
The sisterhood, I knew.
Luckily, Thösamling was able to squeeze me into the retreat and told me I’m free to stay awhile after the weekend comes to a close.
The name Thösamling, translated from Tibetan, means “place to reflect on the Dharma.” This nunnery was established nearly 20 years ago to give international Tibetan Buddhist nuns a supportive place to practice their beliefs in a world (be it India or abroad) where it is often far from safe to do so.
So now, as I sit on this cushion and pretend to meditate on an image of the enlightened Buddha, tears are flowing from my cheeks onto my teal meditation shawl and I’m sniffling loudly enough to surely distract the ethereal British woman wearing white at my right.
These are tears of gratitude for my answered prayers.
No, I didn’t plan for a pregnancy at this free and self-empowered period in my life. Yes, I’m aware that I’ll face judgment, in this country, and in my own, for choosing to have a child on my own when I haven’t even chosen in which city, or on which continent, to live. And sure, I’ve a whole lot of nervousness about what this baby will mean, practically, for the life I’ve planned to live.
However, I’ve pure gratitude to God, to life, for helping me find this place of refuge while I let myself adjust to the transition taking place. And I’ve only gratitude to that faded panther on Pelza’s shoulder. There is fierceness, protection, and acceptance in the sisterhood sitting serenely before me. In these days, in my life, this is exactly what I need.
Thösamling is an international community living and studying within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition located near Dharamsala, India. They offer weekend meditation retreats throughout the year, and long-term studying opportunities for women. Find more at www.thosamling.com.