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: So, you were pretty sick, and in 1978 Chagdud Rinpoche directed you to move to Thailand to spend time with the abbot of Wat Thamkrabok, who you met in 1975 and was a great healer.
AZ: Chagdud Rinpoche’s advice to me was, “You don’t leave this abbot until he says you’re at least 95 per cent cured.” There I was, saying goodbye to Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Chagdud Rinpoche, all my teachers, the Tibetan tradition—everything. And I arrived at this monastery in Thailand, which was a center for the cure of drug dependency. So Mother Teresa’s prophecy of me working with drug addicts was being fulfilled, ten years later. I lived there and worked there and practiced there. I lived in this cave-like situation up on a hill at the side of the monastery and set up programs for the rehabilitation center. I did lots of different things. My illness wasn’t cured yet—this was all during the process of being cured. The monk’s way of curing things was very unorthodox. Not only did I take the medicine that the addicts were taking, which was a detoxification for the whole system using over a hundred different kinds of herbs that make you vomit, but just being with this abbot . . . He’d take a glass of water and spit in it, and say, “Right, drink,” and that was all part of the cure.
FM: Did it work?
AZ: Yes. I don’t know how, but it worked! Slowly I began to get better, and got more involved in the center. I tried to initiate different things, and at the same time, carried on with my own practice. I stayed there doing various things, involving myself more and more in social projects, until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979. And though I wasn’t completely better I felt strongly the need to be of help, so I said, “I’ve got to go, they really need people down at the Cambodian border. I think I can at least help a bit.” So he said, “You be careful!” Then I left and went down and helped set up the refugee camps along the Thai border.
FM: And then?
AZ: There was an incident in the camps where the Thai government was trying to send the children who were left alone in the camps to other countries—either their parents had been killed or, in their escape from Cambodia after the Vietnamese invaded, they had somehow been separated from their families. I was very against this idea as I felt we had not been given enough time to check more deeply where their parents might be, or if they were alive or not. So some doctors and myself tried to stop the cars from leaving the camps with the children and because of this, I was told that I would not be allowed to enter the camps any longer to help. This upset me a lot as I had taken responsibility for many children there. I then got very ill again and was sent back to the UK to recover. On my return I went back to the camps, but the situation had dramatically changed for the better, so I was no longer needed there to do the work I had been doing.
FM: So where did you go?
AZ: I began to travel. I wasn’t really well enough, but I felt I really wanted to travel in Thailand. I began to look at the different masters in Thailand, and went to visit Buddhadasa, to listen to his style of teachings. And then Ajahn Chah, a wonderful master in the northeast. I stayed with him and practiced at his Wat [temple]. At that time Ajahn Sumedho was there, Jack Kornfield was there, Joseph Goldstein, many people who have written books, and a few other teachers that people don’t know. I would go around and spend time in different communities and practice, and learn more about the Thai method of shamatha [calm abiding meditation], different skillful means. The Thais emphasize shamatha and vipassana [insight meditation]—very useful. I thought, “The Tibetans could do with more of this. As a basis it would be very helpful.” There’s not so much emphasis on shamatha in the Tibetan tradition.
FM: Did you decide to stay in Thailand?
AZ: No, I went into Burma—I decided I was going to go on a long walk. So I walked from Mae Hong Son, which is way up in the north of Thailand, all along the border of Thailand and Burma, until I came down to Three Pagodas Pass. And then illegally I went into Burma and lived in the forest with the tribes—mostly Mon at that time. These tribes supported me there. My motivation was to find out what was going on. I was looking at the source of the opium trade—I’d been working with the end product, which was all the people who were addicted to heroin. I wanted to see what was happening in Burma that perpetuated this trade, and if there was any way to bring in a kind of crop substitution program. A stupid idea—who’s going to walk days to buy strawberries, whereas they’ll walk for weeks to get the opium! The tribes used the opium more as a barter system. Half a kilo and they got all their rice, or 20 pigs—that’s how they survived. It was all about a way of living and surviving, not like when it came down to street level. So I stayed there for a while, and then after doing all that I decided I wanted more of a challenge in progressing along the path. In Thailand, women were not really seen as equals, and there were no women who I could really go to as examples, practitioners I felt that I could really learn from.
FM: But you hadn’t felt that to be a problem in Nepal or India, with the lamas?
AZ: No, I hadn’t found that at all. I was always stimulated by the teachings and the practice.
FM: You didn’t feel that they withheld anything because you were a woman?
AZ: Not at all. Especially with teachers like Chagdud Rinpoche and Lama Wangdor, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and Dudjom Rinpoche—it was total equal vision. Chagdud Rinpoche, his whole lineage has been focused on the female energy. And Thinley Norbu too—he really gave a lot to women. Then I was invited to Korea. Someone I met in Thailand helped to pay my fare to go to the monastery of Kusan Sunim. I went there to learn more about the approach of Seon [Zen]—it’s quite different to the Tibetan or Thai approach in its immediacy.
FM: Why did you feel you needed to learn that?
AZ: In fact it wasn’t so much about going there to study the Seon tradition, it was more about going there to meet women practitioners who were living examples of realization, who had really practiced and had a high level of realization. I wanted to see how they integrated this realization into their lives. I hadn’t met many realized women.
FM: And they were nuns?
AZ: Yes, they were nuns, and they were equally accepted in Korea. They were really respected as practitioners and scholars. And the only temple that would really accept me in the beginning was Songgwangsa, because of Kusan Sunim—he was the only master who was really open to Westerners. They thought we really couldn’t practice, I think. The Tibetans also did in the beginning—they thought we hadn’t ripened or cultivated the conditions where we could actually hear the teachings and practice them yet. So I think in the Tibetan tradition earlier on they kind of held back. They weren’t ready to give Westerners the whole transmission at that time.
FM: But you had pretty much the whole transmission.
AZ: Yes, I think I had the whole transmission, because I was looking for teachers that I could really communicate with. I wasn’t looking for famous teachers, I was looking for teachers that I could work with. That’s what the student-teacher relationship is about—being able to meet the mind of the teacher. The student and teacher really work together on that level. But if the student’s not willing to open and the teacher’s not willing to open, you’re not really going to go that far, you’re just playing a game of being student and teacher. You have to present or acknowledge your own confusion and neuroses, and say, “Look, this is the way I see things. I don’t know how to work with this, I react like this . . . how can I see more clearly? What do I have to do? What’s the best kind of practice?” and so on. If you’re not willing to open up psychologically, you really can’t have a guru-student relationship. What’s the point? It’s not going anywhere. Just to call yourself somebody’s student—what does that mean? It’s another way of identifying yourself, another credential for your ego. “I am so-and-so’s student.” Great! How you react in daily life doesn’t change that much no matter whose student you are, unless you practice.
*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 Seven – From Korea to the Philippines to Hong Kong
The Life Story of Ani Zamba Chozom: Part Eight – Brazil