A high-flying banker who travelled the world, Emma Slade gave up everything to become a Buddhist monk. An incident in Jakarta, of being held hostage in her hotel room by a robber, made her rethink her life and question what she had achieved. Apart from a rack full of suits and bank balance, she came up with nothing else. She survived the situation and decided to make her life more meaningful. Twenty years later, having turned a Buddhist monk, she now runs a charity organisation helping disabled children in Bhutan and has recently penned a book, titled Set Free. Speaking on the sidelines of the recently-concluded Mountain Echoes Literature Festival in Thimpu, she talks of finding happiness and the role the world’s ‘happiest’ country played in her life. Edited excerpts:
Do you think others could as easily transform their lives as you did and achieve happiness?
Yes, probably more easily. I don’t think I would want to put anyone through what I underwent. I mean if you could do it and not go through that, it’s probably a lot nicer.
Do you think you are being deprived of anything in your present state, and what have you gained?
The only thing that I have lost is confusion and I would say I have gained much more in return. I get up each morning and I feel a sense of purpose, to help people and make myself useful to humanity. I feel so joyful for all the opportunities I have had. I could have just led a life of being where I was, in England, watching telly and having a beer or whatever. But my life has a purpose now.
Since we are here in Bhutan, I wanted to know what role did this place play in who you are today? What in Bhutan helped you—the nature, the beauty, the stillness, the calm, the culture, the traditions, the spirituality?
Everything. The most important thing is that I met my teacher here. My teacher is Bhutanese and I am trained in the Bhutanese tradition, so I feel a part of Bhutan that way. That’s the most precious thing for me. But then, there are many other things, like the lakhangs, the small temples and villages, the devotion the people show to them, just spending time with them, seeing people going around, making offerings, the sincerity of practitioners here, which is really moving. And the fact that they have the tradition to see so many things as sacred—you know the sky is sacred, the mountains are sacred—which is like a way, of what we would say in the West, an appreciation, but it’s more. You describe something as sacred, you really take care of it.
How difficult, as a woman, was it to become a monk?
It hasn’t been for me. I have been incredibly lucky, for whatever reason. But I am not sure if all women will have a similar experience.
Would you say Bhutan is actually the land of happiness?
I can’t say that because there is suffering everywhere in the human realm. I am sorry, but that is the reality.
There is poverty here, there is underdevelopment, and people don’t have access to the best of facilities like healthcare, etc. So, in that sense, why do you think it is called the world’s happiest place?
This is the happiest space that I have found in the human realm, as it has a wonderful balance between human and nature, it has a deep history of the practice of compassion. Compassion leads to happiness. The Dalai Lama has said it many, many times. Being compassionate is, kind of, a selfish practice, because you yourself become much happier when you express kindness to others. So, we are in a country where the practice of compassion has created a lot of mental happiness. But it’s not perfect. And it’s in the human realm and we know that. Unless we are enlightened, we are in samsara, and so we should not be stupid and think it is all perfect. Not because Bhutan has something wrong, but simply because we are in the human realm. Sri Lanka is in the human realm, Germany is in the human realm, America is in the human realm. You know all these people are in the human realm unless they are enlightened. When we are in the human realm, there will be suffering. Different kinds of suffering, but there will be suffering. But there is a depth of very accomplished practitioners here in Bhutan, in the monasteries, caves, mountains, the yogis. That has an enormously beneficial effect for the country. Relatively, the people here are very happy.
What makes people happy? The trappings of modern infrastructure, medical facilities, better environment, or a simple life, where people are compassionate, where people live in a place like this with clean air, amid nature and greenery…
A middle path between the two. Because, life where there are no hospitals can lead to real suffering, right? You need both. You need some of this, and you need some of that. That’s necessary, as you have to be practical. There is physical suffering, you need medicines for physical suffering. There is mental suffering, and the West knows that very well. The West knows the mental sufferings of anxiety, depression… You need enough facilities to alleviate your physical sufferings, but you also want a coach who understands compassion, patience, tolerance for mental well-being.
Is there any such place on earth where a middle path has been achieved?
I see circumstances like these everywhere I go, but they are not complete. I see them in a jigsaw.
Maybe in people, or maybe a community, or a family, or in a group, but not in entirety…
Yes. Not completely.
Do you feel healthier and calmer after being more detached from the trappings of needs, desires?
Personally, I feel very much happier. And healthier for sure. However, it is nice that I am happy, but it is not particularly important whilst other people suffer.
Is this your way of life now? Are you ever going to go back?
I have taken my vows for life. I am in total joy and I am not giving it up.