Emma Slade is one cool mendicant — austere yet chic with bald pate and dark maroon robes wrapped around her tall, lean frame. She's lively, full of good humour, laughs a lot, often at herself, and has a ready, full-face grin. "I've been called the 'fun nun'," says Slade whose book, Set Free that talks about how she became a Buddhist nun has been creating waves around the world.
Yes, Slade is the only Western woman to be ordained a Buddhist monk in Bhutan, a country that hasn't been very open to outsiders – foreign tourists were only allowed to enter post 1974, and TV and the Internet as late as 1999. But that's not the only striking thing about her story. More fabulous yet is what set Slade on the road to spirituality.
In 1997, Slade, who studied at the University of London, was taken hostage by a gun-yielding crook who'd sneaked into her room in a five-star hotel in Jakarta. Slade, who was then a high-power, finance executive with a multinational bank, was on a business visit to the city. Petrified, Slade could do nothing as the robber threatened to kill her until she was rescued by the police. The episode became a turning point in Slade's life, setting her on a path of self-questioning. "I had been seeking security in money, and had ended up being held hostage.
"You've got to laugh at the irony of it," she says, well, laughing. Over time, as she tried to make sense of the experience, gave up her job and turned to yoga, travelling the world to learn yogic practices. In 2011, she went to Bhutan and at the temple in Dochula, met a monk, Lama Nima Tshering "whose face sparkled like the moon" and heard his voice. A year later, Slade was ordained and set on the rigorous path of studies — 440,000 practices of ngondro (foundational diciplines) and 110,000 mandalas — that initiates must master.
Much of these studies are conducted over the Internet, over Skype, when Slade goes back home to Whitstable in the south of England, where she lives with her 11-year-old son Oscar, and her teacher to Dharamsala. She is in Bhutan once every three months.
Mobile phones have become quite common in the monasteries, says Slade, adding that while the technology is modern, "the core of the teachings is very traditional, within the lineage of Bhutan. There's no cut-down version for a Westerner." One outcome of her studies has been Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, a charity, started in 2015, which has gathered a quarter of a million pounds and built a hostel and other infrastructure for disabled children in rural Bhutan. "Studying compassion," says Slade, "I wished to be of service to Bhutan." Royalties from the book too will go to the charity.
Slade is often asked how she copes with her vastly altered lifestyle — even in England, she's in robes, eats frugally, studies and meditates. "Renunciation, everyone seems to think, is a loss. It isn't," she says vehemently.
"There's nothing about my earlier life that I miss." Buddhism, she says, has helped her understand what's enough, and "use the rest to help others". And, of course, humour. "A sense of humour is essential to Buddhist practice. Humour lets you go of the serious sense of self that we have. In fact, a friend suggested that my next book should be the 'Stand up comedienne as a meditator!'"