Ani Zamba Chozom was one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Buddhist nun. Born in England in 1948, a serious illness as a teenager aroused in her a strong desire to benefit others. In search of answers to her confusion about life, in the 1960s she traveled overland to India, and has since practiced in many different countries and traditions. Today she lives mainly in Brazil, where her practical teachings, rooted in the simplicity of Dzogchen, are proving an inspiration to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, Frances McDonald interviewed her about her fascinating life, which will be published here on Buddhistdoor in eight weekly parts.*
FM: At what point did Chagdud Rinpoche invite you to go to Brazil, where he had been living since the mid-1990s and where he had set up a number of centers and built a Tibetan-style temple, Khadro Ling?
AZ: After I left the retreat in Hong Kong, I called him in Brazil and said I was concerned that he was getting old and I was getting sicker, and before one of us died I really wanted to spend some time with him again. Originally I went there for a few months, and after I began to travel around, he felt I had a karmic connection with the northeast of Brazil. He asked if I was really ready to leave Asia, and invited me to be his representative for the northeast. I then came back to Hong Kong to get a religious visa that would allow me to stay there long-term and also to pack things up. I arrived back in Brazil on New Year’s Eve in 1999.
FM: Where did you start off?
AZ: I first based myself in the city of Maceio, where we managed to put together quite a large center. I also managed to set up about 11 groups and other centers around the northeast, from the Amazon Basin down to Rio. I stayed in Maceio for about three years, but did not particularly like living in the city and felt that possibly a project in a more rural area could be more expansive and benefit more people. After searching around, I came across a region in the interior of the state of Bahia called Chapada Diamantina National Park, which felt right, and some time later I received a telephone call from the community in the small town of Mucuge in the region saying they wanted to offer me some land in order to develop the project I envisioned for “human development.” This project was to be called Dipamkara’s Vision, a name given by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
FM: What happened to the project?
AZ: Though a wonderful aspiration, Dipamkara’s Vision never really got off the ground as there weren’t enough funds to build the kind of infrastructure that might have been needed and there was no real interest from the community to help implement these ideas. Then later I was shown the valley of Monte Azul, which is 30 kilometers from Mucuge and which I thought would be ideal for a retreat center, and so I managed to acquire that 200 hectares of land as well. I decided to focus more on Monte Azul, and have led a number of retreats on the land. I also found a cave there, and spent the year 2012 in it doing solitary retreat.
FM: And now?
AZ: After spending almost ten years in that region, I now feel it is time to move to another state that might make it possible for more people to have access to a retreat environment. So recently I acquired a further 220 acres of land in the state of Minas Gerais in a place called Alagoa. Once again I will start from scratch, as there is nothing there except beautiful land. Still, already I feel there is much more interest from people in the surrounding region. The new center will be called Ati-ling, a name given by HH Dudjom Yangsi Rinpoche.
FM: In general, how have you found teaching in Brazil?
AZ: It’s hard to talk in general, but mostly I find the Brazilians very open, very receptive, quite playful, and very interested in Buddhism, though it takes time to introduce the value of these ideas enough to inspire people to want to integrate them into the way they see life. You know, it took 20 years from the time Chōgyam Trungpa first went to America for people’s minds to really mature enough to digest the teachings, for them to be able to integrate them into daily life. So in Brazil it will also take time.
FM: Have some people begun to take them on board?
AZ: Buddhism is something new in Brazil. Like mindfulness, it’s become fashionable, but to help people to see how it works in daily life, that’s the real test. I have some students in each group that are really practicing and integrating what they learn from their practice into their field of work. Quite a few of my students are doctors, psychotherapists, and physicists, and some have now developed courses around my teachings. They don’t actually say, “This is Buddhism,” but they use the teachings in integrated medicine, and they’re really working—they’re really benefiting a lot of people. For example, a lot of cancer programs are using my teachings to help work with the trauma of cancer. It’s really quite good to see how they’re working there.
FM: I guess you’re not of the school of belief that would say that mindfulness divorced from Buddhism is not good, or not useful—that because it’s not leading to enlightenment, it’s not what the Buddha intended.
AZ: I’d like to mention that the path does not depend on what you call yourself or how you identify yourself. We need to look at the motivation or the intention of the people who are
practicing. If we’re just looking at a way to maintain our comfort zone, it’s not going to go very far. But for some of these people this is only the first component of the teachings. Some of these people are suicidal, and it’s really helping, it’s giving them a different way of seeing life. Now they’re full of joy and wanting to get on with it. This is the first module of the program I teach, and then slowly, once people become more receptive to these basic teachings and see how they can take responsibility for their life experiences, we introduce more and more profound ways of transformation.
FM: So they’re practicing enough to be able to free themselves?
AZ: Yes, slowly, as the teachings are being more integrated into daily life. Some of my students have carried out a detailed research program on the results of this training process, which is being written up and presented as a master’s course and possibly a PhD. The doctors who are working on it have done some very interesting research. And now more and more of the local government officers are interested in running courses. These people have not established the View yet, but the ground is being prepared so that when the seed is planted, they will have the space to be able to see more clearly. Whereas, most of us don’t give ourselves any space whatsoever to see anything. We’re so busy trying to get things to be a certain way so that we can feel better in some way. We think that if we get it just right, then that’s the answer to what we’re looking for. My teachings show people a very different way of seeing things. Here we’re not looking at the things, appearances, themselves, we’re looking at the space that the appearance emerges from and dissolves back into.
FM: Finally, is there anything you’d like to add?
AZ: Just to stress that if we follow a path, any path, we must have a starting point, and we must have some idea where we’re going and why—some clear orientation. Basically, the whole path of Buddhism is involved in the dimension of what we call “mind”—nothing else. So then, what’s the starting point? Basically we have to understand and acknowledge that the way we see life now is totally confused and distorted. That’s the starting point—acknowledging our confusion, and also not running away from it, but in a way, making friends with it. If you treat your confusion as an enemy, you’re never going to want to look at it in depth, whereas if you treat it as a friend, as the fertilizer for your path, then you want to know more and more details about how the confusion works.
FM: So we need the attitude that when we walk on this path, we’re going to work to understand our confusion.
AZ: Yes—it’s by understanding that very same confusion that wisdom begins to reveal itself. Wisdom comes from seeing things as they are—not according to our conditioned way of seeing, but according to the awakened way of seeing. So where are we going? We’re going from the starting point of confusion and then gradually, as we weaken the habits and tendencies that make up confusion, what reveals itself is our own awakened nature. It doesn’t happen by running away from the confusion but by working with it, by understanding our neurotic habits and tendencies, our emotional ups and downs, all of which are the basis of our daily life. That is our path, and that is also our liberation. Wisdom and confusion are not separate at all. They’re just different ways of looking at the same thing.
Watch this space for more teachings by Ani Zamba . . .
*See: The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part One – Journey to India
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Two – Meeting Lama Yeshe
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Three – Ordination, First Retreat, and First Teaching
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Four – Finding the Nyingma Lineage
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Five – Dzogchen and Meeting Her Teachers
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Six – Thailand, Burma, and Korea
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Seven – From Korea to the Philippines to Hong Kong