PEI

'He was like, what?': Why 4 women left their 'normal' lives to become Buddhist nuns

Here are the stories of how four women who, while in their 20s, decided to give up their dreams of family and a career for a life of celibacy, study and devotion to Buddhism.

It may have shocked their parents — and boyfriends — but they say they have never regretted their decision

From left, Yvonne, Sabrina, Elena and Joanna are among about 450 Buddhist nuns on P.E.I. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Yvonne had always wanted to be the "perfect wife," so for her, she says, the hardest part about becoming a Buddhist nun was having to break up with her boyfriend.

For Sabrina, who grew up adoring boy bands like the Backstreet Boys, it was telling her father. She knew it would be a shock, so she waited until Christmas Eve to break the news.

Joanna saw herself spending her 20s soaking up the energy of New York, immersed in the colourful arts and culture scene. Not in rural P.E.I., wearing a beige robe day in and day out, her long, flowing hair shaved shorter than an army sergeant.

It wasn't a big stretch for Elena, however, given that her older sister was a Buddhist nun and her brother a monk.

The women are part of the Great Wisdom Buddhist Institute, a growing monastery on P.E.I. of about 450 nuns with an average age of 29. It is separate from the monks' Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society, but many, like Elena, Sabrina and Yvonne, have brothers there.

Family is a common thread among the nuns, they said. There are 66 pairs of siblings and cousins, and four sets of mother and daughter.

They come from different parts of the world, with different backgrounds. But at some point in their "normal" lives, they found a new purpose. They not only practise Buddhism in their everyday lives, but in the past few years have been invited to teach mindfulness and wellness workshops at businesses and organizations in P.E.I., Ontario and the U.S.

They can come and go freely and communicate with their families, they said. Many have had their families visit them at the monastery.

The nuns can leave the monastery permanently at any time, though they say only two per cent of ordained nuns ever do.

Here are the stories of how and why four highly-educated women, while in their 20s, decided to give up their dreams of family and a career for a life of celibacy, study and devotion to Buddhism.

Venerable Yvonne

Venerable Yvonne always though she'd be the 'perfect wife' and businesswoman. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Yvonne was born in Taiwan and spent her high school years in New Zealand. She moved to the United States to study business at Purdue University.

She had a loving boyfriend, and talked about getting married and settling in the U.S. It was all good.

"I never thought that I would become a nun," she said. "I thought I wanted to become a perfect wife and a successful businesswoman just like my mom."

Things began to change, she said, during a management lecture at Purdue. The professor asked the class what they thought was the most important thing in their lives, and all 600 students went silent, blank looks on their faces.

"At that moment I was really shocked. I was like, 'So what's the most important thing for my life?' I want to know."

Every single time we talked about it he would cry and I would cry…. But we said goodbye and then I joined the monastery after that.— Venerable Yvonne

After speaking with her professor and her parents, she decided to leave the business program and find her dream. Maybe go to Africa and help women. 

First, she went to visit her parents in Taiwan. This was big news. Buddhists themselves, they suggested she attend a Buddhism discussion group.

"Surprisingly, it really hit me," she said. "To me it was not like a religion, but it was more like a tool that I can make myself happier."

Yvonne poses in front of herself and her younger brother before joining the monastery. (Shane Ross/CBC)

She wanted to pursue it further, and made plans to join the monastery. But first, she had to tell her boyfriend.

"That was the hardest part, because we didn't break up because we had any problem," she said.

"Of course, he was very sad. So every single time we talked about it he would cry and I would cry…. But we said goodbye and then I joined the monastery after that."

Fifteen years later, she said she has no regrets.

Venerable Sabrina

Venerable Sabrina, standing in front of a picture from her youth, grew up in southern California watching baseball games, going to Disneyland and listening to the Backstreet Boys. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Before she became a Buddhist nun 13 years ago, Sabrina said she had a "very normal" life in southern California.

She grew up a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, and like many teenage girls at the time, fawned over boy bands like the Backstreet Boys. She once saw 'N Sync play live!

She loved going to Disneyland, especially when she could get in for free as part of a youth orchestra that played there twice a year. 

"I had a pretty happy childhood," she said. "My family was very loving and I had a lot of fun growing up."

He was like, "What? ...  Um, go upstairs I need to talk to your mom."— Venerable Sabrina

As she got older, she realized not everybody did, that with all the joys in life, "there's always a sliver of pain and suffering." 

She thought the best way to help people would be to study psychology. In her second year of university in San Diego County, she asked three accomplished psychologists if they could do it all over again, would they?

"Each of them told me no. I was like, 'What?' I got really confused."

So in her third year she decided to study abroad and, on the advice of her mother, check out a Buddhist retreat in Taiwan.

Little did her mom know that a year later Sabrina would come home and tell her she wanted to become a Buddhist nun.

"She thought I would just go to the retreat and that was it."

After the initial shock, her mom, who is Buddhist, came around, especially after Sabrina told her she would go on to graduate school if it didn't work out.

Her dad, who is not a Buddhist — well, she had to wait for just the right time to tell him.

That time was Christmas Eve, right after supper. 

"He was like, 'So you're about to graduate university. Do you have any plans in mind?'" she recalled.

"I was like, you know, dad, I was thinking maybe after I graduate university I'd become a Buddhist nun and he was like, 'What? ...  Um, go upstairs I need to talk to your mom for a bit.'"

Sabrina, right, says she had a happy childhood. In this family photo, she is seen celebrating a birthday with her mother and brother, Matthew, who is a Buddhist monk on P.E.I. (Shane Ross/CBC)

She waited upstairs with her brother, Matthew, for about an hour when she was finally called back down. Her mom put out a plate of apples.

"I could see my dad was a little teary eyed. He had cried I think," Sabrina said. 

"First he double-checked to see if I was crazy and then he realized I was being serious and then he just started thinking, well what can I do for you."

She knew he had finally accepted her decision when he bought her a new pair of thermal underwear, which she wears under her robe during the cold P.E.I. winters.

In 2017, after graduating from med school at Berkeley and working as a doctor for 10 years in Los Angeles, Sabrina's brother Matthew moved to P.E.I. to become a Buddhist monk at GEBIS.

Venerable Joanna

Venerable Joanna says she loved the energy of New York City, but has found her home at the Buddhist monastery on P.E.I. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Joanna grew up an only child in northern California, but it was always her goal to live in New York City after graduating university.

"I loved the energy, I loved the vibe of the city, I loved the culture and the arts there and I really wanted to surround myself with that," she said.

She said her "eyes were opened" when she went to university to study health psychology.

I wanted a family. I knew how many kids I wanted. I probably had their names figured out.— Venerable Joanna

"My best friend growing up as a child suffered from severe depression and I always wanted to find a way to help her because I really didn't know what to do when I was 14, 15, 16," she said.

"I realized that there were a lot more problems in the world than just my friend and then I suddenly felt very small and that I didn't really know how I could contribute and what I could do for the world."

She knew people — friends and family — who were well educated and had good careers but still seemed unhappy and dissatisfied with life.

She began studying Buddhism as a way of helping others find joy. Her mother, a Buddhist, had always wanted this path for her, she said, but eventually gave up on the idea given her "way of life before joining the monastery."

"I surprised a lot of people," she said. "I wanted a family. I knew how many kids I wanted. I probably had their names figured out."

Joanna says she would spend hours on her hair and picking out clothes before becoming a nun. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Before becoming a nun, she said she would spend hours on her hair and picking out clothes.

"Now I save all that time because it's just very simple…. It allows us to focus on the things that we want to focus on and for us that's studying and improving ourselves and becoming better people."

She's been a Buddhist nun for six years, and has "not regretted a day." That was reaffirmed on a recent outreach trip to New York, she said.

"New York was again full of arts, full of culture, full of diversity. But coming back to P.E.I., coming back to the monastery I was like, 'You know, no, this is where home is and this is where I belong.'"

Venerable Elena

Venerable Elena says her family had an influence on her decision to become a Buddhist nun. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Elena was born and raised in Taiwan. As a kid she travelled around Asia and Europe a lot with her parents.

She studied foreign languages and literature. She can speak multiple languages, including French.

Her older sister became a Buddhist nun in 2006, not long after hearing the Dalai Lama speak in India.

"She was really moved because she is always someone who wants to perfect herself," Elena said.

I always only looked at the happy side, like travelling or learning new things or making new friends. But what can I really do for my life and for the ones I love?— Venerable Elena

Elena said she and her younger brother were sad at first because they were a very close family. Then, in 2008, her brother became a Buddhist monk.

"He thought that some of the things the monks are learning are really interesting. For instance, what he found most fascinating was that debate, he found that can really sharpen your thinking."

After her siblings joined, Elena began to think more and more about joining as well.

Sabrina, Yvonne and Elena have brothers who are Buddhist monks. Joanna, third from left, is an only child. (Shane Ross/CBC)

Then some tragedies struck. She learned an old high school classmate, who became a talented musician, had died of leukemia. And one Christmas morning while staying with family friends in France, she came downstairs to see them hugging and crying after learning their neighbour had died by suicide the night before.

"These events really shocked me because I started to really think this is something that everyone might encounter, the struggling times in life," she said.

"I always only looked at the happy side, like travelling or learning new things or making new friends. But what can I really do for my life and for the ones I love? Or maybe even more people? And how can I really make good use of my life?"

She found those answers six years ago, she said, when she became a Buddhist nun.

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About the Author

Shane Ross is a former newspaper and TV journalist in Halifax, Ottawa and Charlottetown. He joined CBC P.E.I.'s web team in 2016.

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