Twenty years ago she was a chartered financial accountant in a fund management company in Hong Kong — and before that in New York and London — smoking cigarettes and dressing fancy. Today she wears maroon monastic clothes, her head shaven, asking people to buy her book, whose royalties go to the welfare of disabled children in Bhutan….A special report by Saket Suman for Asian Lite News
Emma Slade, 51, is an unusual Buddhist nun in Bhutan. The course of her life changed drastically after a visit to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, in 1997.
“I was on a business trip to Indonesia. I was staying in a lovely five-star hotel and I opened the door, only to see a man with a gun! He pushed it to my chest, I saw the door close and yes, there I was in the room with him. It was a very shattering experience which has now turned into something very useful.
“You don’t expect something like that to happen to you, especially in a five-star hotel. I was there for about three hours. It doesn’t sound a very long period of time perhaps, but I think what happened was a really very odd situation. He was there to rob me but in the end he was quite confused. We ended up being trapped in the room together. I was being held hostage by somebody who himself was trapped in many ways,” Slade said in an interview on the sidelines of the just-concluded Mountain Echoes Literary Festival here in Thimphu.
This incident left a profound impact on her. Only a few days later she was shown a picture of the hostage taker, surrounded by a pool of blood. This photograph, shown to her by Indonesian police, is firmly etched in her memory.
“I escaped alive, that was a great deal. I had terrible flashbacks, experienced lots of traumatic visions. His smell lingered in my head for many, many months. The feeling of him being very near to me was hard for a long time and I had to recover from that. It did shatter my trust in the world entirely.
“I felt as if I had been very lucky to survive and that I could not go on with finance any longer. I didn’t want to go on thinking about dresses and money because I had been given, gifted and granted my life back. I sold my place, all my possessions and I just travelled around the world,” recalled Slade.
She describes this realisation — that she was gifted her life — as an important moment in her spiritual journey, one that led her to abandoning her trouser-suits and high heels to become a Buddhist nun in Bhutan.
So for the next two to three years, she was travelling around the world in quest of answers to questions that she herself didn’t know. “Probably I was just looking for myself,” she added.
“I discovered yoga, discovered this very profound feeling of being connected to the natural world, and that’s what I did for about two years around the world. Then I realised that it was time I should go into retreat and meditate. Since then most of my life has been in and around meditation and yoga,” she elaborated.
Her book, “Set Free”, narrates the tale of her extraordinary life and its changed course.
“Buddhism was of great interest to me since a very young age. Any picture of the Buddha or even the prayer flags sort of pulled me towards them. They seem to express such peacefulness. Gradually, my interest and understanding grew with time — and also my efforts. I came to Bhutan in 2011 to be in Buddhist culture, not as a separate entity with boundaries but to experience it in a natural habitat where that is the way of life,” she recalled.
Slade now splits her time between her hometown of Whistable in Kent and Bhutan. She is also learning Tibetan and has founded a charity for disabled children in Bhutan. The royalties from her book will go to this charity and she hopes to reside permanently in Bhutan soon.
She is currently the only Western woman to have been ordained as a nun in Bhutan. “Now things make a lot more sense to me,” she concluded.