Financial Broker turned Buddhist Nun: Lessons from my chat with Sayalay Sujata 

Financial Broker turned Buddhist Nun: Lessons from my chat with Sayalay Sujata 

Editor’s note: In conversation with Sayalay Sujata, a financial broker turned Buddhist Nun. Cheryl shares her learnings and insights from her chat!

TLDR: The chase, the corporate life, where can we find happiness? Sayalay Sujata, a Buddhist Nun, shares more about her journey and that you need not become a monastic to experience contentment in life!

The chase of travel, wine, food, and luxury

Sayalay grew up in a family where material wealth was not abundant, and she thought pursuing and owning material wealth will help to fill that lack and bring her happiness in life. And thus, the endless pursuit for the 5Cs’( this was in the 80s, 90s) began. 

She worked hard in the banking industry and was living the “material dream.” With a high-paying job,  her luxurious lifestyle was enviable to many looking from the outside –  travelling, wine and dine, expensive exotic food were the norms. 

However, as she filled her life with material pleasures, somewhere deep down, she was still unable to deny the sense of emptiness within her, and she was stuck in the state of, ‘having everything, yet not feeling happy.’ 

The shine of chasing material wealth for happiness started to wear off a little. 

Happiness found in the quiet

With a stroke of right luck and good timing, she went for her first seven-day meditation retreat without much expectations. 

She followed the teacher’s instructions, and on the fifth day, she experienced a short but profound moment of peace, calm and joy in her heart. And she found the answer right then and there to her question: “Where can happiness be found?”

That was the start of her Dhamma journey which eventually led her down the path of taking up the robes of a monastic.

Her story taught me that thinking that happiness comes from outside – either from another person or some activities or achievement in our life, can cause us a lot of disappointment. 

Perhaps happiness is not out there, nor in the next moment, but right here and now. We complicate happiness by adding on terms and sometimes impossible conditions – after getting a pay rise, after $X million, after the next social media post. 

This perspective narrows the definition of happiness to become outcome-specific, as it is conditional upon getting what we want. By extension, when things don’t go the way we want, life becomes miserable.

Stopping the scrolling and grounding our attention

  In Sayalay’s journey, it seems that the answer to happiness is to stop the pursuit. It was when she disconnected from the world and come into the present moment with no expectations, that she found happiness.  Simply pause, and connect to our present moment – through the five senses. It was when she interacted with her experiences of the world through what she sees, hears, touch, taste, feel, that she was able to feel a deep sense of peace. 

Maybe when you are next on the MRT, stop scrolling and just take a gentle in and out breath and ground your attention back to your physical body.  It helps brings us back to the here and now, to take in where we are on our journey (pun intended), and for the possible first time, experience the abundance that we already have in our lives. 

Happiness is simple, happiness does not ask for much and we can awake to that by remembering to be present in the here and now. 

After 20 years as a nun, what is the path?

The conversation with Sayalay also took a deeper turn as she reflected on her 20 years as a monastic. We discussed the idea of renunciation

Traditionally, most people will think that ordination (to become a monk or nun)  is the only path for someone who chooses to practice Buddhism seriously. 

But after walking through the whole journey herself, she realized that ordination is not the only path we need to walk towards to find true peace and happiness. 

To find true peace and happiness, the answer lies in getting to know ourselves better. Reflecting on the ups and downs in our life can bring clarity to what contributes to a happier life, and on the flip side, what perpetuates our stress and restlessness. 

This helps us to focus on the important areas in our lives, and relinquish the conditions for suffering.  No matter what outfit you come packaged in, be it a monastic or lay person, “Theravadan”, “Mahayanan” or “Tibetan”, she reminds me that mental relinquishment is much more important than physical relinquishment and if done right, you can experience a sense of peace and grounding. 

For example, relinquishing your bad habits and selfish thought patterns yields more happiness than clinging to the identity of “being a Buddhist,” and engaging in endless debates on which is the “best” Buddhist tradition

Escaping the judging mind 

Often, I get caught in the packaging rather than the contents – and project my expectations and ideals rather than focus on the heart of the teachings. 

For example, when observing rituals or chanting ceremonies that I’m unfamiliar with, I notice that my mind jumps into the “judging mode” and I wear a sceptical lens. 

Rather than appreciating the peaceful practice,  my mind compares the experience and immediately labels it as “good” or “bad”. 

Sayalay’s timely sharing on looking at what’s important, not just the packaging taught me to open my heart and invite curiosity into whatever I experience in the present moment, and more importantly, to take the opportunity to reflect on whether judging others contribute to my happiness. 

If it doesn’t add to long-term happiness in my life, then use the experience as a lesson in “relinquishment” of my views. 

Despite being a monastic for 20 years, Sayalay has a very humble presence that makes her easy to talk to and for me to open up to. I have learnt a lot from Sayalay’s inspiring journey and found many relatable aspects of her life that I experience in my own life. It reminded me that everyone is on their journey searching for meaning and true happiness in their lives, and the least we can do is to try to encourage each other on the wholesome path of seeking.  


Wise steps: 

  • Finding pockets of time during your commute, to know what’s going on in the moment to breathe and just be with your breath
  • Whenever we are caught up in a critical mind, to pause our judgments and ask, does judging others make us happy?
Film Review: A Monk’s Inner Journey in ‘Wandering… But Not Lost’

Film Review: A Monk’s Inner Journey in ‘Wandering… But Not Lost’

Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries. 


TLDR: ‘Wandering… But Not Lost’ is a documentary about Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s solitary journey in India and Nepal as he explored different terrains and places while centred on his awareness. 

Last year, I bought a book by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche titled In Love With the World. The book chronicles his experience wandering through India and Nepal as a way to practice mindfulness. Mingyur Rinpoche had for a long time intended to go away quietly for a personal three-year retreat in the world and finally realized it in 2011. This book on his journey is now translated into a visual form in the documentary Wandering… But Not Lost.

The book is not so much a travelogue into the different Indian and Nepali provinces but about the monk’s inner journey. Although his body is moving from place to place, there is the reminder for us to keep recollecting our awareness, like he did, no matter where we are and what we are doing.

As a tulku, Mingyur Rinpoche was born into privilege in the monastic aristocracy of Tibetan Buddhism. A tulku is a reincarnated lineage holder in Tibetan Buddhism, who as a child is raised and taught by students of his predecessor to be groomed into a teacher of Buddhist scriptures and meditation to continue the tradition and practice. With all these identities and expectations put upon him, Mingyur Rinpoche wanted to discover his true mind by letting go of all of his privileges and identities. He sought to do so by living as a wandering yogi.  

Mingyur Rinpoche has been teaching internationally to both the monastic and lay community before he brought his plan for solitary retreat into fruition.

Heeding his late father’s advice, Mingyur Rinpoche slipped away in the middle of the night out of his home monastery – Tegar Monastery in Bodh Gaya to take a train to Varanasi, without anyone’s notice.

All Buddhist traditions practice mindfulness retreats but each may do it differently due to various cultures and environments. In Tibetan Buddhism, monks usually retreat to a remote cave to practice solitary meditation for a few years. He is tended to by an attendant who will help him with his basic necessities such as food. As a tulku, Mingyur Rinpoche had his taste of a solitary retreat in a cave, but not out in the world on his own. He had been inspired by the likes of Shakyamuni Buddha and Milarepa

At the start of the adventure, the young abbot faced challenges immediately at the train station. He had not been used to handling money as his attendant was always the one buying tickets for him. He bought a ticket to the lowest class cabin, which he was also unaccustomed to. He sat amongst the crowd and meditated to the sound of the train and was mindful of his aversion towards the body odours found in every corner.

The real test came when Mingyur Rinpoche ran out of the few thousand rupees he brought along with him when he was at Kushinagar.

Kushinagar was the place where the Buddha entered parinibbana. It was also the place Mingyur Rinpoche nearly died. He fell ill from food poisoning, having begged for his first meal at a stall he once frequented. Debating whether to call for help or to allow things to be, Mingyur Rinpoche chose the latter and sat weakly against a wall to meditate on awareness.

The documentary features majestic views of the Himalayan mountains and valleys, as well as Indian and Nepali holy sites as Mingyur Rinpoche travelled and ate by depending on the kindness of others. The film included interviews with him about how he faced challenges by reminding himself to pay attention to awareness. Mingyur Rinpoche added that most people meditate to gain the feelings of peace. But the true purpose of meditation is to see awareness itself. He described awareness as a diamond sitting within us waiting to be discovered. But all we see are the coloured backgrounds that the diamond is placed against.

Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey took a turn for the better after his near-death experience in Kushinagar.

His body became weak, but his awareness brightened and expanded. He felt he was everywhere but yet nowhere. Saved by a retreatant on a pilgrimage in India at Kushinagar, Mingyur Rinpoche recovered from the food poisoning episode and emerged with joy and freedom as he wandered the streets and the mountains, feeling at home everywhere he went.

The documentary is a reminder for us to pay attention to the diamond within us. We can be in the city and our hearts are in the mountains. Or we can be in the mountains and our hearts in the city. But wherever our bodies may go, it is our awareness that is the real beauty against the backdrops of our own lives. 

Watch the Trailer before you book your tickets!


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