Disrobing – the challenge of letting go, the courage to come back home

The Spanish language and the Aotearoa New Zealand secular Buddhist websites have come together to carry out and offer a series of interviews with well known – and not so well known – Buddhist figures from around the world.

Having developed the core topics and questions around which the interviews will be conducted, we want to present the stories and views of teachers, scholars, thinkers, translators, long-time practitioners … all sorts of people related to the dharma, and especially those involved in the journey of the Buddha’s teachings into the modern world.

Thanks to this collaboration, interviews are published in English here and in Spanish at budismosecular.org.

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Disrobing – the challenge of letting go, the courage to come back home

A conversation between Bernat Font and Sophie Boyer

Working as a nurse with terminally ill people, Sophie Boyer discovered meditation. After several long retreats, she became a Buddhist nun but disrobed a couple of years later, finding that disrobing came with more challenges than she expected. Born in France in 1972, Sophie is a student of Martine Batchelor.

Bernat Font: Your first memory of anything Buddhist is seeing a picture of the Dalai Lama on a magazine. How old were you?

Sophie Boyer: I was about 12 years old. My second and major encounter with the dharma was in my early twenties when I was working with ageing people and the dying. I had difficulty confronting the suffering of illness and death without feeling overwhelmed and started to look for tools to help me cope. I couldn’t find answers in the Catholic tradition I had been raised in and went to a retreat with Sogyal Rinpoche, which is where I became very interested in what meditation had to offer. I wanted to understand why we suffer so much and find a way out.

BF: You didn’t stay with Tibetan Buddhism, though?

SB: It was difficult to identify with all the rituals, statues and visualisations. It wasn’t working for me. One day I saw Martine Batchelor on TV talking about letting go and thought, ‘I want to meet this person!’ She and Stephen were offering a four-day retreat on the outskirts of Paris. This was my first residential retreat, with many hours of sitting and walking, and I just felt at home.

BF: I guess that changed your work as a nurse and you personally?

SB: Yes. Suddenly a tool was available to learn to deal with suffering. I slowly started to understand that instead of fleeing what is difficult or painful, the act of acknowledging it could be releasing and healing. As a matter of fact, instead of fighting against it we can learn to be interested in what is happening within. In terms of experience, the feeling is quite different.

BF: From a retreat with the Batchelors to becoming a Theravada nun in Myanmar there’s quite a distance.

Sophie Boyer in Myanmar with other nuns

In Myanmar with other nuns

SB: My encounter with Martine and Stephen and with meditation was such a shock that it made sense to go on! It started with a one week retreat and then a one month solitary retreat at Gaia House. It was challenging and I experienced a certain amount of anxiety and fear, but it was exciting and interesting to see what was happening in my own mind.

So, the next step was several three month retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. There I met a nun who was on her way back to Myanmar and I went with her. She took me to Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s centre. Later, I ordained as a nun in a monastery in the mountains under the guidance of Sayadaw U Khantidhaja.

BF: After all those retreats, you must have improved a lot?

SB: I don’t know if improving is the right word, but with time and practice we understand that relaxing is an important component of being on retreat.

BF: Do you think sometimes we approach meditation with a kind of tension?

SB: Yes, this is common at the start. We are doing something new that matters to us and tend to have many expectations and preconceived ideas about what meditation is and what we will experience. It goes away with time.

BF: What led you to ordain?

SB: Although it was very sincere, part of it was a fantasy I wanted to fulfil. Once I did ordain though, I very quickly realised reality was very different [laughs]. But I also wanted to see if becoming a nun would bring something to my practice.

Sophie in a garden

Sophie in a garden

BF: Did it?

SB: Ordaining as a nun was an act of letting go which never brought any disappointment. Flying to Myanmar was an act of faith, and trust. Although I had savings, I wasn’t making any money and neither was I planning for my retirement. There were no guarantees and no Plan B.

During this time as a monastic, my basic needs were always covered and I was surrounded by very kind and warm hearted people. I felt in the arms of existence. I developed an incredible faith in life. Of course, it wasn’t easy every day, there were difficulties and challenges which had to be faced too.

BF: Such as?

SB: The very simple conditions of living, the climate and a quite serious ailment which took me to hospital. In the emergency department, the possibility that I could face death arose in my mind. I had been a hospice nurse and now, for the first time, I was on the other side, lying on a bed.

Still, I was coming from retreat and my mind was quite focused so even if worrying thoughts were arising, deep down there was no fear, only peace and true acceptance. However, I wasn’t healing and needed to leave the country. As soon as I was well enough to get on a plane, I flew to Malaysia and a few months later back to Europe.

BF: Did this strengthen your path?

SB: It strengthened my trust and my understanding of the importance of letting go in our everyday lives. We can approach whatever we fear the most with kindness and learn to make friends with it. I’m not saying that I changed overnight and now I can let go of everything. We know it doesn’t work this way. But that experience nurtured my practice and reinforced what I had been following intuitively.

BF: Eventually you disrobed.

SB: In the West, it is difficult to live in robes as there is no culture of supporting monastic life, though this is changing, especially in the USA. It became very difficult for me. It was unsustainable. This doesn’t mean that other monks and nuns in the West will encounter what I encountered.

BF: So it was a pragmatic decision?

SB: Well, I also started having doubts. I noticed that no matter what we say, Buddhism is coloured by culture, by beliefs that sometimes have little to do with the essence of the Buddha’s message. Also, as a westerner, it was difficult to relate to an Eastern framework filled with cultural beliefs I could not identify with. However, it was an excellent practice.

BF: Some people do identify with an Eastern framework, or at least they pretend to. Should we wonder how honest they are with themselves and their roots?

SB: This is a good question. Becoming involved in a totally different environment can be a good practice. We can cultivate openness and acknowledge our own conditioning, for example. I guess for some people it is easier than for others. After a while, however, we may discover that some of these radical differences have more to do with dogma, that it may be useful to practice discernment in such a situation.

BF: What kind of dogma did you have trouble with in Asia?

SB: The difference of treatment between female and male monastics, for example. Why? Based on what? Who says that? Isn’t it just a rule added by men? It was hard to relate to that.

Or bowing to a monk just because he is a male. At first, when I got to U Tejaniya’s monastery I thought: ‘Why do I have to bow to this guy? I don’t know him.’ And then I became a nun and I had to bow to a five-year-old monk because he is male – why? But as I was very sincere, I really took this to the heart. I said, ‘okay, I see the difficulty and how this challenges me,’ and that was the interesting part. Nevertheless, once I acknowledged and understood what was rigid in me and that ego was very much at play here, it was still meaningless for me to do that.

Questioning a dogma does not imply that I am reacting against it from my personal conditioning. If a dogma is good, meaningful and leads to freedom, why should we not consider it?

BF: Interesting. You are suggesting that we shouldn’t decide whether or not to take on board certain concepts or behaviours from Asian Buddhism based on our instinctive rejection, that we have to overcome these first. Our critique should be based on experience, not on mere comparison with one’s own ways.

SB: If you choose to make the dharma alive even in this, you become aware of how you are reacting. The question then is whether a certain practice nurtures your path and whether it responds to the reasons you went to that place or are doing that practice. If it doesn’t, you’d better question what you are doing there. If, in bowing to somebody, you see resistance arising from too much pride, for example, I think it’s important to acknowledge this and work on it. Once this pride is overcome, however, how then does bowing to a five-year-old monk nurture your practice?

BF: What if it works for someone?

SB: Then no problem, go on.

BF: At some point, then, wearing robes was not nurturing your practice?

SB: I went as far as I could go. I got a great amount out of it but then it wasn’t necessary any more. My life was going in another direction, so disrobing became another challenge. At first I felt like I was becoming a lay monastic, it was difficult to de-identify from the role of a nun and I felt it had been easier to leave lay life than to come back to it.

BF: Why is that?

SB: For very pragmatic reasons. We have to make a living, we come back to the contingencies of the modern world and the patterns and habits from our former lay life can arise quite easily. Formal practice is one thing and conditions are another. We come back to lay conditions and the same stuff comes back.

BF: It’s now some time since you became a lay person again. How have you integrated what you learnt in your new lay life?

SB: At this point in time, I’m working for a travel agency that is offering holidays oriented at self-development. I have also started to offer basic meditation instructions in a few places. Last year, I gave a series of meditation seminars at the Earthfire Institute, a refuge for wild animals where I had spent some time in retreat. We called it ‘Entering Silence, and Listening to the Sound of Life’.

BF: Do you aspire to become a teacher?

SB: I aspire to cultivate what I have learnt and in some way share it. It is a very nice challenge to put the dharma into the perspective of secularity, a dharma that is simply based on universal human values before being any kind of exotic or esoteric practice, a dharma that promotes care for others, kindness, compassion, and that takes into account major issues such as global warming.

BF: What do you think about the discourses against reforming the dharma for the West?

Sophie Boyer

Sophie today

SB: I see fear of change and I can understand this. With every change there is always the potential of losing something on the way, we have to be careful. But I think this evolution is necessary.

BF: How, in its process of assimilation in the West, can we prevent the dharma from becoming just a tool to relax, another product at the service of capitalist consumerism?

SB: Ethics, discernment, an open heart, and checking our intentions. Mindfulness is a wonderful tool – how do we choose to use it? We need to check our intentions over and over again.

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• Bernat Font, the energy behind budismosecular.org, lives in Barcelona where a secular Buddhist group is about to start meeting and is currently studying for an MA in Buddhist Studies at the University of South Wales. He has published a number of CDs as a jazz pianist, available through SWIT Records.

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