In the Buddhist tradition, practitioners take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community of believers). I have just finished a book Singing for Freedom by a Tibetan buddhist nun, Ani Choying Drolma which provides another perspective on taking, and giving refuge.
Choying grew up amongst Tibetan exiles in Nepal. She was subjected to frequent beatings by her father who was consumed with anger, fueled by alcohol. She also witnessed first hand the beatings and verbal abuse dished out to her long-suffering mother, which made her reluctant to marry. At the age of 13 Ani has a realisation that she can take refuge from brutality be becoming a Buddhist nun. Once she is promised as a nun, she is no longer subjected to beatings, and after a few years is able to live in safety in the monastery.
From the protection of the revered position of nun, and with the guidance of her teacher, Ani is able to deal with her own anger and bring about improvements in her family situation, eventually becoming like a parent to her parents as the roles shift over time.
Ani is not a passive and submissive nun by any means. She has a beatiful singing voice and is able to earn money singing in concerts in the USA and Europe, and eventually reaches fame in her home country of Nepal. Ani sought out this work as a singer, not for fame, but in order to make money to build a school for young nuns. Eventually she is able to build a school which is a refuge from abuse and poverty for many young women whose life options are otherwise very limited.
We often think of the life of a nun as a life of restriction and denial, but Ani Choying Drolma turnes this perception on its head. For her, it is a life of independence and autonomy, that allows her the freedom to pursue her own priorities. Having taken refuge as a girl, she builds a refuge for other young women suffering as she had done.
My favourite line in the book is spoken by her teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche when Ani is struggling with her anger at her father for his abuse. He says:
‘Think about this too. The lotus is born in the mud, but its flower is always white and clean. This is our greatest challenge: to live at the heart of the problem and not to be undermined by it. That is the joy of freedom.’