The “Bollywood” Nun: An Indian Actress Takes Ordination Vows

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The newly ordained Ven. Gyalten Samten (right) with Geshe Sherab, Sera Je Monastery, November 2012. Photo by Bill Kane.

By Ven. Ingrid Norzin Braun

History was made in South India at Sera Je Monastery when a 38-year-old Indian woman named Barkha Madan, who works as a model and Bollywood actress, became one of the first non-Himalayan Indian Tibetan Buddhist nuns in FPMT.

Barkha asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche to ordain at the end of his long life puja in early November 2012, during a photo session. “Is it good for me to ordain for the benefit of everyone?” she asked. “Good,” was Rinpoche’s reply paired with a thumbs-up. That evening there was a refuge ceremony in which Barkha participated. Wanting to ask Rinpoche again, she offered a khata with a letter requesting ordination. Rinpoche smiled and asked Ven. Roger, Rinpoche’s secretary, for the divination dice. “Maybe you should wait…” he hesitated. “Actually, tomorrow morning with Choden Rinpoche comes out best.”

Stunned, Barkha’s mouth hung open. “I jumped in my skin,” she told me later, having expected more time to prepare for ordination like Connie, the other young women who would be at the ceremony.

Although Ven. Robina, her mentor, had told her, “When the right time comes, you will ordain,” she was concerned that her family had not been informed and that she was scheduled to go on a three-month tour to promote her film, which was to be her livelihood, in addition to some savings, for her future life as a nun. She was afraid of what the media would make of a Bollywood star on tour in robes and a shaved head.

The three of us tossed around problems and solution back and forth: “I believe your mother loves you and wants to see you happy.” “A wig and a beautiful maroon gown in the first month; robes for the next two months.” “Do I have khatas and envelopes?” “Connie has extra robes you can use.” “Why don’t you go to Choden Rinpoche and find out when his next ordination ceremony would be?” But the conversation eventually ended with, “I don’t want to wait too long, after all, I could die tonight.”

Back in her room, Barkha could not sleep. She reached out to Lama Zopa Rinpoche in prayer to help her make up her mind. She felt Rinpoche’s energy enter her heart, and the next morning, after an early breakfast, she called Ven. Namjong at the Sera IMI House (FPMT’s house at Sera Monastery), and asked him, “Where do I go after ordaining as an Indian nun?”

In Indian culture, parents and family are very important so she called her mother. When she hesitantly expressed her wish, her mother replied, “What are you waiting for? Go for it.” This was her green light!

She met Connie at 8 a.m. to ask for her extra set of robes. Connie ran as fast as lightening, and they together arrived at Choden Rinpoche’s with little time to spare. After obtaining Rinpoche’s permission, Ven. Namjong buzzed off her long hair in minutes at Sera IMI House across the road. The whole process – hair cutting, quick shower, and robes – took 15 minutes. As Ven. Namdak was giving her a breakdown of the vows, her body began to shake and blissful tears began to pour down her face. After a few more last-minute instructions, she entered the room, saw Rinpoche and “melted.” Six other participants took getsül vows with her.

Later, when I saw her, she looked like she had always been a nun, except for her bright red nail polish on her fingers and toes. (The monks from Sera IMI House didn’t have, unsurprisingly, nail polish remover!) Although some people thought it was too rushed, she reports that most people were supportive, especially her sister who came from Bangalore to stay for a few days after her ordination.

Now Ven. Gyalten Samten, she remains as beautiful as she is strong, kind, unpretentious and gentle, and she has great faith in Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She felt like she was taken by the hand and guided “to this end” and feels that her being a nun will come out well for all sentient beings. “There is no turning back,” she said. “On November 4, 2012, at 11:20 a.m., I was reborn.”

Ven. Gyalten Samten has starred in four Bollywood films, acted in 20 TV shows and produced one film. Lama Zopa Rinpoche told her that promoting her most recently released film in robes would be good and has given her much personal instruction to help her on the path.

Ven. Ingrid Norzin Braun is a long-time student of Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

For information on Sister Yeshe’s work, visit www.bodhicitta-vihara.com

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