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From Model to Monk

May/06/2023 / by Abhijit Masih

After living her early adult life focused on beauty and luxury, Lama Aria Drolma had a spiritual awakening. Now living as a Buddhist nun in a New York monastery, her life couldn’t be more different as she leaves the material world behind and walks the path of enlightenment. 

Aria Drolma stepped into adulthood as a fashion model in New York City, living a glamorous life focused on material beauty. (At one time, she owned almost 300 pairs of shoes.) Now an ordained Buddhist nun living in a monastery in upstate New York, Lama Aria Drolma lives a completely different existence, one focused on spirituality, purity, and enlightenment.

She is a Buddhist teacher and meditation expert  and leads corporate meditation, retreats, workshops, and programs around the world. Llama Aria shared with SEEMA the secrets of detaching from worldly desires and shared her thoughts on the choice of simplicity, discipline, self-care and happiness.

The early years in the glamor world

I went to college in Mumbai and won a beauty contest. I had a lot of modeling contracts and movie offers and I also got a job with an international Airline. I took the job because I really wanted to travel the world and have my freedom and be financially independent. I did not have a clear vision. I was 19 or 20, but I had so much confidence. I felt the world was at my feet and I could choose to be whatever I wished to be.

The upscale life in New York City

I was really excited to live in New York and be in the fashion world and live the New York lifestyle. It was a lot of fun attending parties, wearing designer clothes, going to the latest clubs and restaurants and hobnobbing with celebrities. I must have had a collection of over 300 pairs of shoes and tons of clothes. I was absolutely excited to be in Manhattan, in New York City. I grew up in a very little city in southern India. It’s not even on the map sometimes and from there to make that journey to New York and be a model was really a lot of fun. But eventually the modeling lifestyle and the parties were becoming meaningless. It’s a very empty world and you start to question the reality and your purpose in life. It’s a very hollow and superficial life. When I started questioning my connection, my reality and that I didn’t fit in, that’s when the change started happening.

Model to a monk

I was looking deep into my life and I couldn’t identify with the reality of it. You can call it soul searching or a spiritual awakening. It was really a strong sense of wanting to find the true purpose of my life. It’s really like a strong sense of wanting to find the true purpose of my life. What are you here on this earth for? This question came about because my mother had passed away in her early fifties, and that’s when I found the Buddhist meditation center in Manhattan. It was a New Year’s resolution to start attending regularly because I wanted to go back into my childhood, where I learned transcendental meditation. When I started going into the meditation practice and to the center regularly, my life totally changed 180 degrees. That’s when I met my Guru and understood the Buddhist teachings. That’s when it changed.

Reaction from friends and family

At first it was really very hard for my family and friends to accept that I’m going on this path, which also involved a three and a half year traditional Buddhist retreat. My friends were really concerned that they won’t hear back from me because there’s no television and no emails. They were very afraid for my future. But, some of my former friends from Hong Kong and India, they often said, that was always you. You had that very strong spiritual side. The model friends and all who knew me in the later part of my life were absolutely in shock that I was going to leave everything behind. I was on the top of the game and then to go into a monastery and become a nun was shocking. I had three very important friends and they were like angels. I really feel that when you are on the right path people come into your life to protect you and take care of you. These friends were really supportive. My family and my sister are coming around as well.

Secret to detaching yourself from worldly desires

One of the important focuses in Buddhism is the focus on death. All our practices are leading up to death, and the question is, what do you take with you when you die. The answer is nothing except that karma follows you. So when you have a deep understanding of the illusory world, it’s very easy to detach yourself from material possession and all the worldly desires. There’s nothing wrong in wanting and having all beautiful things. The problem lies in the attachment. The more you are attached to all these material things, you also have that responsibility to keep it safe, and that’s where all the suffering comes from. 

Precepts of spirituality 

As an ordained nun and as a llama, we have five important precepts to keep. We abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.

A typical day at the monastery

I’m very fortunate that I live in the monastery upstate. The day normally starts at 6 am with prayers and chanting and giving gratitude. The chanting and prayers are from 6 to 8 and then we have breakfast. Our lunch is at 12 noon, where we gather together and discuss the day. We have afternoon prayers for the protected deities. Our goal here is to practice mindfulness, meditation, and chanting. The ultimate goal is for us to reach enlightenment. Buddha paved the way and showed us the path, how to reach enlightenment. It’s not an easy task. It takes many lifetimes of meditation, chanting and the practice to become enlightened. So we have practice prayers and chanting to the protected deities to protect us on this path. Then in the evenings it’s a very simple meal. I really love this simplicity and the discipline of living a monastic life and gathering with everyone and chanting prayers. On Saturdays we have prayer and chanting for two hours in the morning, where we light 1,000 butter lamps. They are lit to awaken the whole universe and the prayers are to bring peace to everybody. 

Life mantras for the young

Practicing self-care is a core principle of life.. It’s important to care take care of yourself—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Pursue activities that bring you joy and fulfillment. Develop a self of awareness. Take time to reflect on your thoughts on your feelings. It’s really important to check your thoughts and what you’re thinking. To cultivate resilience, because life is full of challenges and setbacks. When you cultivate resilience, you can bounce back from difficult situations. Also to surround yourself with people who uplift you and support you, support your values and your goals.

Preaching the benefits of mindfulness and meditation

These teachings and practices have helped me immensely and I feel so joyous with having less. When I was in Manhattan I must have owned innumerable pairs of shoes and had clothes with tags on that I had never worn. I continued thinking that all those material things will make me happy. But when I joined the monastery, I realized happiness comes from within. I’m really grateful today that I have the opportunity to teach meditation at the Harvard Business School for Women, Oxford University and even the United Nations. I’ve been practicing for over a decade and have been invited to teach in various universities and corporations, where I do retreats to benefit the employees and the CEO’s. I’m also a regular at the Rubin Museum, where I teach mindfulness and meditation. These days this world has so much anxiety, stress and pressure and to have mindfulness, meditation and practice is really beneficial. This has been my goal to teach people the benefits of mindfulness and meditation.

Words of wisdom 

One of the most important pieces of wisdom I would like to share with everyone is the thought that we are all interconnected and interdependent. We are not independent individuals, as we often perceive to be. We are interconnected to this earth. We are interdependent with this whole earth in the sense we all breathe the same air and the sun nourishes us. It’s that interconnectedness and interdependence that we all have. I want to share that we are all connected and hence should have empathy for each other; for us to have compassion and loving kindness. This is what we practice, because eventually the potential for all human beings is to be enlightened, and the only way to become enlightened is when you have that wisdom and loving compassion for all beings. 

Suggested PQs

I was really excited to live in New York and be in the fashion world and live the New York lifestyle. It was a lot of fun attending parties, wearing designer clothes, going to the latest clubs and restaurants and hobnobbing with celebrities.

Eventually the modeling lifestyle and the parties were becoming meaningless. It’s a very empty world and you start to question the reality and your purpose in life.

At first it was really very hard for my family and friends to accept that I’m going on this path which also involved a three and a half year traditional Buddhist retreat.

There’s nothing wrong in wanting and having all beautiful things. The problem lies in the attachment.

These days this world has so much of anxiety, stress and pressure and to have mindfulness, meditation and practice is really beneficial.

The potential for all human beings is to be enlightened, and the only way to become enlightened is when you have that wisdom and loving compassion for all beings.

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