“Sometimes I have the urge to give everything away.”
Anh H. Tran’s room in Mather House is bright, clean, and austere, conveying a warm receptivity in contrast to the dark, Brutalist concrete of the building. Despite her lack of belongings, she apologizes for the non-existent mess. Perhaps this detachment from worldly goods comes from her 15-year stint as a Buddhist nun.
At age 11, Tran asked her parents for permission to leave Southern California and pursue the monastic life. “I was so adamant. I needed to become a nun. The monastic life was captivating to me.” Her parents were supportive but asked that she wait two years before leaving for good — the monastery, needless to say, is a significant long-term commitment. “They wanted me to learn how to live, how to engage with this life in a way that I wanted to engage in this life,” says Tran.
The child of Vietnamese refugees, Tran grew up Buddhist. She spent weekends visiting the local monastery with her family. The religious sanctuary was not only a place of peace and serenity for her, but also of exploration and play.
Her youthful curiosity is what drew her to spirituality. “I’m someone who’s always dealt with existential crises,” Tran recalls. Her first bout of self-questioning was prompted by the Saturday cartoons. She remembers seeing a close-up of a cartoon character zoom out from a tiny neighborhood into the expanse of the world. “I freaked out,” Tran says, “I realized I am just a speck of dust in this giant universe.”
And because of these questions, or perhaps in spite of them, Tran journeyed to Plum Village, a monastic community near Bordeaux, France, at 13 years old. Four other kids around her age arrived at about the same time. Though still a child, she yearned for the stillness and joy she saw in the nuns and in her teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
But life in the monastery didn’t reflect idealistic bliss. Tran’s first task was to sand an entire wood cabin and paint it by hand. “I didn’t know they have power tools that get the job done in a minute,” says Tran. Instead, she spent two weeks at the barn, laboring daily, to get it done.
This hard work did not deter Tran from monastic life. Instead, she found comfort in the physical toil. Once at the monastery, she felt like her life had clicked into place. Tran knew: “I’m in it forever. Lifetime after lifetime.”
Other aspects of monastic life were less in line with Tran’s penchant for questioning. “I think my energy, my rambunctiousness was annoying to the nuns. But my teacher fanned the flames of my curiosity. He told me to ask more questions, to find those answers.”
Eventually, Tran’s questions led her to leave the monastery and head to the University of Southern California for college and acupuncture school. There was a monastery nearby that she could visit.
In her first years of college, Tran remained an ordained nun. She started college with the intention of going into the natural sciences, but felt continuously drawn back into religion. “I remember my chemistry professor saying that we are not really solid objects, that we are mostly just empty space. That was so shocking to me, what do you mean we aren’t solid? What are we?” Tran says. She quickly realized these answers couldn’t be found in exclusively in the sciences.
Tran’s curiosity extended to all aspects of human existence. “How does one exist in this life knowing that it’s so hard to come into this life. What does it mean to be a human and what am I? How does one become as human as humanly possible?” Tran wanted to know.
In part, the pursuit of these questions led Tran to Harvard. After graduating from USC, she initially returned to Plum Village for a year and a half. But she kept receiving calls from her past academic mentors urging her towards the pursuit of higher education.
Tran describes her life path by referencing a cosmic plan. “If I look back at the whole scheme of my life, anytime there was a shift, it happened perfectly. There’s a bigger picture to it all,” Tran says.
In 2015, she arrived at Harvard Divinity School, ready to delve into questions about the nature of compassion, stillness, and joy in Buddhism. What she didn’t expect was that she would move on from her life as a nun.
A year after arriving in Cambridge, Tran stopped actively practicing the monastic tradition. In part, this change was driven by the necessity of working for payment — a practice not allowed for nuns. Her choice also reflected the progression of her life. “My teacher always said in true love there is freedom,” Tran says. “Do I love myself if I keep forcing myself to exist in this way? Do the people in this relationship with me feel a sense of freedom?”
Indeed, a sense of freedom accompanied her decision to let go of her past. “My passion for beauty and the human experience is still alive and well,” Tran says, “It was my ego getting in the way. I had to transition from who am I to what can I be. I’m still transitioning into not-nun life.”
This transition has been aided by her position as a tutor in Mather House. Apart from serving as a source of support and advice for Mather students, Tran also runs the House’s tranquility room, allowing students to find space for mindfulness in their daily lives.
In leaving behind one community, Tran found herself welcomed into another. “It’s the cosmic plan,” Tran laughs.
And yet, Tran is still connected to her 15 years of monastic life. In her apartment, all her belongings are hand-me-downs, gifts from friends. “Even though I’m not in it, it’s still something that is very much a part of me. I cannot be without the monastery. Who I am today is in large part because of the monastery.”
Tran still finds herself questioning the nature of human existence, but in a different way. “How we can get to a place of being more human or living well with and for others? I’m no longer bound by the institution of my monastery,” she said. “I can continue to cultivate that passion and curiosity in different ways. It goes back to how in true love there is freedom.”
--Magazine writer Margaux R.E. Winter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MrewGnu.