Awakin Calls » Emma Slade
Emma Slade: Buddhist nun, nonprofit leader
How does a jet-setting financial analyst from London end up a Buddhist nun in Bhutan? Emma Slade (ordained as Ani Pema Deki) is a yoga and meditation teacher and author who left a successful career in finance in her thirties to find peace and meaning in the mountains of Bhutan. Unusual for a mother of a now 12-year-old boy, she was ordained a Buddhist nun in Bhutan in 2014 after rigorous training – the first (and in 2018 still the only) Western woman to have achieved this in Bhutan. Her book and memoir, Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan, captures her life journey. She currently divides her time between Bhutan and England, where she runs a charity, Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, to benefit special needs children in rural Bhutan, See full.
How does a jet-setting financial analyst from London end up a Buddhist nun in Bhutan?
Emma Slade (ordained as Ani Pema Deki) is a yoga and meditation teacher and author who left a successful career in finance in her thirties to find peace and meaning in the mountains of Bhutan. Unusual for a mother of a now 12-year-old boy, she was ordained a Buddhist nun in Bhutan in 2014 after rigorous training – the first (and in 2018 still the only) Western woman to have achieved this in Bhutan. Her book and memoir, Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan, captures her life journey. She currently divides her time between Bhutan and England, where she runs a charity, Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, to benefit special needs children in rural Bhutan, and she teaches yoga and meditation.
Slade grew up in Kent, England, studied fine arts at the University of London and Cambridge University, with the intention of becoming an artist or curator – until the death of her father from lung cancer when she was 26. She then switched tracks, based on her father’s belief since her childhood that she could be an investment banker. She worked in finance managing accounts worth upward of $1 billion for many years in New York, London and Hong Kong – with all the accoutrements of the successful life. She wore fine clothing, stayed in fancy hotels, “ate balance sheets for breakfast, and walked with a wiggle.” She lived a seemingly charmed life.
But in 1997, while traveling for business in Jakarta, Indonesia, she was held hostage at gunpoint by armed men in her five-star hotel room – a harrowing experience from which she somehow managed to escape alive, but was affected very deeply. On the evening of the attack, Emma was asked by police to identify the perpetrators. She saw in front of her a “man in underwear slumped against the hotel wall – with blood around him. I felt such sorrow for this man, for this situation. This moment is the one I don’t forget.”
As she later recounted in a TEDx talk, her body escaped the incident, but her mind was changed forever. She suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. “The past and the present know no difference,” so that while engaged in ordinary tasks such as reviewing balance sheets, she could recall and feel her perpetrator’s skin against her body. Referring to the image of a lotus flower, she said that “Jakarta was my mud, but it was also the seed of my future development.” A seed of compassion had been laid when she saw her perpetrator. "Once I had recovered enough to see my life clearly, I felt that I'd been treating it very superficially, and that after this experience, I really needed to inquire more deeply into what it is to be a human being."
After receiving therapy for PTSD, Slade found that making money and having a career – two things she had equated with success and happiness – were a very small part of who she actually was. So Slade resigned from her banker job, and came across and deepened in yoga, a practice which helped her gain trust in herself and the world again. At the same time, she began to look into her long-held interest in the nature of the mind, particularly as described in Buddhist practice (she recalls having seen a reclining Buddha in the home of her grandfather). She heard the great mantra of compassion, which touched something deep in her. She formally converted to Buddhism in 2003 after attending various retreats in Scotland, and continued to teach yoga and meditation for many years.
In 2011 she visited Bhutan. "Spirituality is embedded in daily life here,” she discovered. “I came because I wanted to meet monks and serious retreatants, and witness first-hand what it might mean to dedicate your life to spiritual practice as a Buddhist." During this visit, she met her lama (teacher) by chance, went home to England, then returned to Bhutan to find him. He taught her about Buddhism and suggested she become a Buddhist nun, which she did in 2012. She was ordained Ani (meaning “nun”) Pema (Lotus) Deki (Blissful) in a naming ceremony in 2013.
Eventually “all that compassion practice had affected me.” Directing the energy into compassion in action, Slade in 2015 founded Opening Your Heart to Bhutan, a UK-based nonprofit organization that transforms lives of children and young people with disabilities or special needs living in rural Bhutan. In 2017, Slade published her memoir with all proceeds going to her charity, and uses her tremendous financial acumen for the benefit of the children of Bhutan. “The [financial] skills of old have been very useful in bringing me now a very meaningful and happy life.”
Her charity has received acclaim in a few short years. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met with children benefited by her charity and then discussed her work with Slade at a reception with the King and Queen of Bhutan in April 2016. Slade received the British Prime Minister’s Points Of Light Award in January 2017. She was also short-listed for the Asian Voice Charity Award for "Most Inspiring Individual in Charity" in January 2018. And she is the subject of a short film called "Happiness" that is part of a schools education project set up by the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion in Oxford.
When asked what she recommends for people who want to live a more meaningful life, Slade offered to Time Magazine: "Mindfulness makes you calmer. Compassion makes you happier. I'm always going to encourage people to help others as a route to happiness. I believe in the transformative power of compassion."
Join us to hear more from this compassionate and courageous spirit!
Five Questions for Emma
What Makes You Come Alive?
I am very lucky as I enjoy most everything I do. Living by the values I believe in is the source of deep contentment for me. I am probably at my most happy when I am meeting the special needs children our charity helps. These encounters re-affirm for me why I am doing what I am doing and have offered some of the most profound moments of connection I have experienced.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
Two; firstly being held at gunpoint in Indonesia in 1997 and secondly meeting a monk in Bhutan in 2011.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
My Lama (teacher) arranging for my ordination in Bhutan as a Buddhist nun. The first time this has happened for a western woman.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
Become fluent in classical Tibetan.
One-line Message for the World?
To prioritise non-harming above all else.
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