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The New York Model Who Became a Buddhist Nun
Aria Das was very much a Material Girl, a total New Yorker very in tune with the city’s fashion world. Her days were spent in the hubbub of high-end marketing in a major department store and her evenings in the city’s carousel of night life. A fashion stylist and model, Das had achieved the Beautiful Life. As she recalls, “It was quite a trip hobnobbing with musicians, designers, celebrities and models from all over the world that would descend in New York City.”
Yet now this consummate New Yorker has given up all the trappings of the luxe life to shave off her luxuriant hair and take the vows of a Buddhist nun at the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery in upstate NY. Her tons of clothes and makeup have been renunciated, and all her belongings now fit into one bag. Her collection of over 100 designer shoes has been replaced with just 3 pairs of shoes and she is supremely happy in her new life as a Lama imparting the wisdom of Vajrayana.
All this did not happen in a day so we traced the transformation of Aria Das, City Girl to becoming Lama Aria Drolma.Das was born in Coorg, South India, to an affluent family which owned a coffee plantation and also had a home in Bangalore. “My fondest childhood memory was attending local Coorg weddings with my parents, and dancing with my cousins and nieces. The aunts were dressed in brocade sarees and traditional jewelry and uncles wore gold and white turbans and silver daggers and we’d dance to the local bands late into the evening.”
Her father often took her partridge hunting and recalled Das, “I remember rising early in the morning and watching peacocks dance and chasing deer, collecting wild mangoes, oranges and coffee flowers on our way back home.”
Her mother was a classic Coorg beauty who was strong and confident and taught her to be strong too. Looking back, Das said, “My mother loved us unconditionally. I remember having a very happy childhood – both my parents doted on us, my sister and I felt absolutely loved.”
And yet things changed suddenly. Her father came to her school one day to say goodbye to her and told her he was going on a long journey. Recalled Das, “We never saw him again and he had gone to become a sadhu, a renunciate. A seed was planted in me that day setting the foundation for my own spiritual awakening.”Growing up, the material world absorbed her. She had inherited her mother’s beauty and when she was only 17, she won the Inter-Collegiate Beauty Contest in the presence of celebrities including Amitabh Bachchan. A full-fledged modeling career followed in Mumbai in which she did commercials and print ads for Ponds, Modella Suiting, and Cadbury Eclairs. She also had a parallel career as a flight attendant on Cathay Pacific where she also modeled for their calendars. She was among the ten international faces of the airlines, used in print media and live shows in several countries.
Das was briefly married and spent time in London and Hawaii and that’s where her modeling took off. She was modeling in-house for the Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Chanel brands as well as for Neiman Marcus. Many of the shows were in elegant country clubs for affluent shoppers.
She moved to New York from Hawaii in 1999 and her first job was at Bergdorf Goodman as a personal shopper. She also did in-house modeling to showcase the seasonal collections to the buyers. She did a print campaign for Majung, an exclusive line of accessories in New York. This led to modeling offers and she did runway shows for Diane von Furstenberg, Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra.
Over the years she felt she had evolved career-wise and wanted to move from modeling into the business of fashion. She worked in the advertising division of Bloomingdales, managing the freelance fashion stylists for the creative team of the in-house catalogs. She said of the energy and excitement of the Fashion Week parties, “It was like being in Candy Land, just mesmerized with all the beauty, glamour and style in an elite fashion world.”
It inspired her to launch her own clothing line “Red Choli”, handmade and exquisitely hand embroidered tunics which were sold at the stores of the Philadelphia Museum, Newark Museum and the Rubin Museum.Yet slowly the euphoria of the fashion world wore off and she found it becoming increasingly meaningless. “The pivotal point in my spiritual awakening was when my mother passed away – the pain of losing her was intolerable after losing my father as a child,” she said. “I learnt the most meaningful lesson of impermanence – all things which are valuable to us one has to leave behind when one dies. And only spiritual accomplishments may be of value, worth achieving.”
She knew her life was lacking meaning and she started visiting Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab Buddhist Center in New York. It was a journey of many small steps, leading to a full renunciation and embracing monkhood.
“My life has totally changed 360 degrees”, she said.Aria Das completed the traditional Tibetan Buddhist 3 and ½ year retreat in May 2015, and has been living in the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery since then. (This retreat is like doing a PH.D in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy where you achieve experiential practice.)
The retreat is an advanced, fully enclosed intensive Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana meditation practice where one receives the full transmission of the Karma Kagyu lineage from teacher to student as well as practices from Shangpa Kagyu lineages. Living as a nun for the duration of the retreat, the initiate remains in solitude, engaging in contemplation and meditation practices for the whole retreat.
The Buddhist teachings are so profound and having lived in the monastery for a few years she says she can clearly see how beneficial it has been for the community. She says, “It has always been my greatest wish to be of benefit to others. I truly believe the reason for our birth is to help humanity. My teacher Lama Norlha Rinpoche is an example of how his teachings benefits the community: some of his students have been receiving teaching for 30 to 40 years and most of them feel a sense of peace and inner joy and over the years he now has several thousands of students from all over the world and I would want follow in his footsteps and teach.”Das’ typical day begins at 5 am with meditation and prayers. Instead of designer dresses she now wears the traditional nun’s robes and keeps her hair shaved or cropped short. “My collection of 100 or more designer shoes is now replaced with 3 pairs of shoes and I’m very happy having minimal things,” she says. “I hold my vows of renunciation. Life is simpler with owning less, I no longer feel the need to accumulate things.”
Would she recommend this life to others?
“No, you cannot recommend this spiritual life to others. The spiritual life is for seekers, you have to want it. But if someone is really interested I would definitely recommend practicing the Vajrayana practice which is the direct transmission of the most profound teachings of the Buddha. Vajrayana is the considered to be the most direct path to enlightenment. Based on the idea that we all already possess Buddha-nature in ourselves, and that enlightenment is simply the recognition of our true nature, Vajrayana is known as the vehicle of result.”I asked her if it was possible to have both lives or does it have to be one or the other? “Yes,” she said. ” One can have both lives – spiritual and worldly , but once you have the realization of the nature of all things you are not so attracted to the worldly life, it’s not that exciting.”
Does she miss the trappings of her past life – fine dining, good clothes, having people aware of your beauty, and dating and partying? She says, “Once you’ve completed the 3 and ½ retreat program, the experience is so profound that it changes your perspective. You’re not preoccupied looking outward for your happiness, you learn to look inward and with proper meditation practice you can see the illusory world we live in, the impermanence of everything and one can find joy in simple things.”
“It’s very simple,” she added. “if you want peace and happiness, start to look inward, everything is within you. When one looks outward for happiness it’s never permanent because the nature of everything is Impermanence.”
Currently Das lives at the monastery and has received training to become a spiritual teacher. She said, “There are many who have gone on to become prominent teachers, writers and translators. A couple of them have also gone back for higher studies at Harvard University. Basically one may chose to do whatever one wishes to do.”
Asked as to what she misses the most about her old life, Das said, “I do miss my old friends but when you are on a spiritual path you are not considered fun anymore, it’s hard for them to relate to you, you have changed in your attire and your attitude.”
Her transformation from an “It” Style Girl to a Buddhist nun is so complete that people who knew her earlier do a double-take. She admits, “It was hard at first because your sense of identity is tied to how you look and your look determines your self-worth. As a renunciate you shave your head, use no makeup, perfume or high heels – but the beauty of wisdom that adorns you is far more beautiful than any couture dress.”
(C) Lavina Melwani. This is a longer version of an article which I first published in India Abroad.
Searching for Answers with Lama Aria Drolma
By Aria Das, now known as Lama Aria Drolma
It was during this time of soul searching, just by chance I stumbled upon Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation Center in NYC in 2008. I was determined to make positive changes in my life. My exciting lifestyle and fashion career was becoming more and more meaningless. I made a firm new year’s resolution to start to meditate again and to enrich my life spiritually.
Within a week of going to the mediation center I met my Guru Lama Norlha Rinpoche, who would play an important role in my life, and everything started to fall into place, I felt so ready to experience this path, and it just felt right. We are so conditioned into believing that there is always something external to be obtained, which leads us to fulfillment, we lose sight of our innate wisdom, which is far more enriching. And for me this worked, the Buddhist philosophy had all the answers I sought.
I feel genuinely happy and at peace. My life is simple, I live in the monastery here at Kagyu Thubten Choling and I’m an ordained nun. I’m eternally grateful to be in the presence of my guru who is a world renowned meditation master, and a truly compassionate noble being. It is rare to find an authentic teacher of his caliber.
The Buddhist teachings are so profound and having lived in the monastery for a few years, I can clearly see how beneficial it has been for the community. It has always been my greatest wish to be of benefit to others. I truly believe the reason for our birth is to help humanity.
The west today has the most profound authentic Tibetan Buddhist teachings and it’s a shame to pass it by. I want to share my incredible spiritual journey with all genuine seekers out there. My goal is to share this profound knowledge of meditation which is the new science for optimum health and happiness.
Some individuals in their lifetime leave a legacy and their contribution to society changes the world and benefits mankind – they are the extraordinary human beings. But most of us, we just live ordinary lives and die – how futile! This life with so many struggles and tribulation and one day “poof” just like a candle blown out by the wind, you just die and there is no trace of you and nor have you contributed anything of significance to the world.
I wanted to at least try and be that extraordinary person, to benefit people, and this is my true quest. To teach meditation, the most profound practice.