Kelsang Tara is an ordained Buddhist nun. In her previous life, Tara graduated from Monash University in Australia with a bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Science with Honours, majoring in Medicinal Chemistry. Passionate about research, she then went on to pursue a PhD in Drug Discovery Biology at Monash University. In a bid to overcome anxiety during her PhD studies, Tara started to practice meditation and Buddhist teachings. Wanting to devote her life to practicing and teaching Buddhism, a few months after obtaining her PhD, Tara ordained as a Buddhist nun.
With such a strong science training, what led you to become ordained as a Buddhist nun?
My scientific journey started around early high school, when I started becoming interested in chemistry and science in general. Around the same time, I started struggling with mental health, which is probably quite common in early high school when you are working out who you are and facing challenges that you do not normally face. I started thinking that I wanted to learn what can I do to help people who are going through the same issues. When I applied for university, I looked for a chemistry degree that can help people, and the Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Science was a combination of these two things for me. I found that I really enjoyed research and I had always enjoyed studying, so I continued to study honours and went on to completing a PhD. The principal motivator was that I am doing this to help people, and so, I thought I needed as many qualifications as I can to get to a point where I can really do that.
I had always been struggling with anxiety and stress, but during my PhD that was exacerbated. I was confused about why I was not happy. For a lot of my career I have looked very successful on paper but did not feel very successful in my heart. There was this expectation that I ought to be happy, but I wasn’t. It was only when physical manifestations caused by the stress started to appear that I began to want to solve this problem. I decided to start learning meditation and it was then that I started to discover that this is how I really want to help people; this is the science I have been looking for. I could see it is so valuable, there is nobody that could not benefit from being more peaceful and having the ability to control their own mind.
So, I got progressively more involved in Buddhism and by the time I had finished my PhD, I had given up my previous career trajectory in my heart and started to head in a different direction. I took an offer to be a full-time volunteer and moved to a Buddhist temple in Melbourne. About six months after that, I ordained as a Buddhist nun. I did have a bit of conflict around my decision to change my career, less so about myself, but more so about what other people are going to think. I spent a few months trying to marry the two, I even went to visit labs overseas and see if they had a temple nearby so I could still volunteer. However, I realised that I wanted to devote my entire life to teaching people meditation and to helping to support the organisation as fully as possible, and I could not do both. What helped me make the decision in the end was thinking about, “What will I regret more?” It was not about what I would like to do more, because I still enjoyed science. However, when I asked myself what I would regret not doing, it was very clear that I would regret not taking that opportunity to pursue something that I was really passionate about.
QUICK FIRE ROUND
If you could have a coffee with anyone (dead or alive), who would it be and what is the one question you would ask them?
The enlightened female Buddha Tara, who I was named after, and who, I think, might be the original feminist. She is described as being the swiftest Buddha, a Buddha who is fearlessly compassionate in every moment. I would ask her what I should emphasise in my training to become as fearlessly compassionate as her.
Greatest success from an external point of view was making the career change. It was an achievement to have enough clarity and courage to say, “no, this is what I actually want to pursue,” because it has led to such peace and a sense of purpose that would not have happened otherwise.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you would do differently?
I don’t think you should want to change anything about the past. You learn from everything that has happened and the person you are now would not be possible if you changed even one moment of the past.