Amy Miller sat at the front of the room while students, faculty and community members filed in and took their seats. It was a bitterly cold, February afternoon in the upstairs of the Old Chapel and a crowd had gathered to hear Miller lecture.Most people would expect someone hosting a lecture to stand at a podium, wearing formal attire and immediately begin their speech. But Miller is not your average woman. Not only did she stand out from the crowd with her shaved head and flowing, red robes, but she also had an expression of supreme contentment and happiness.
Miller is a Buddhist nun.
Her lecture was on “The Art of Happiness” and was also coupled with her Buddhist teachings. She began with a description of her life before she became a Buddhist nun, which was surprisingly average. She did not grow up in Asia under the Buddhist religion. Instead, she actually grew up in the United States under the Jewish religion.
“I was raised Jewish. We weren’t that devout, but I had a strong Jewish identity and liked it and enjoyed it. I guess you would call me a ‘Bu-Jew’ now,” Miller said.
When asked why she chose the Buddhist religion, she replied, “The Buddhist philosophy made sense to me. I enjoyed the good heart the teachers had and they all seemed so happy.”
Miller also always had a special emphasis on charity in her life. After working in Washington, D.C. with poverty-stricken people, she went on to work in hospice care with people who were affected by AIDS. She then worked at a magazine and specialized in investigative journalism.
After working with a Methodist minister to get him elected to the Senate, she decided she wanted to travel the world. She first a meditation class there with other Buddhists. The teachings she learned there seemed to resonate within her and answered questions that she felt were not answered with other religions or ways of life.
She went on to be involved with Buddhism for 13 years before she was ordained as a Buddhist nun. She now helps with administrative work at the Milarepa Center in northern Vermont.
Miller described her typical day as a nun: “I usually wake up at 7 a.m. and I meditate. There isn’t any set time for meditation, but I will usually meditate anywhere from a half hour to an hour. I usually do this a couple times a day. I also have prayers and rituals that I do every day. I take care of the Center; I usually teach in the evenings and sometimes lead a retreat on the weekends.”
She went on to describe the life of Buddha, his teachings and the different kinds of Buddhism. Miller is specifically a Tibetan Buddhist nun, which is signified by her maroon robes. The point that Miller emphasizes is that Buddhists want to end the suffering of others, but first they must end the suffering within themselves. Only then can they truly be a benefit to society.
“If you cherish others, including yourself, this decreases suffering for all,” she said.
Miller highlighted some of the central Buddhist characteristics in her lecture, which included the Buddhist emphasis on the study of the mind. Not the organ of the brain, but the mind within. According to Miller, the mind is not physical, it is something spiritual and only the acknowledgement of this can lead to enlightenment.
When asked if there was a moment when Miller knew that she was going to dramatically change her life, whether it was becoming a Buddhist nun or taking another path, she nodded enthusiastically.
“I had a few times when I thought like that. When I was working in politics, I was at a boyfriend’s house and was going to take a trip to Asia, and at one point, for some reason, I knew that everything would change,” she said.
Miller said that she found happiness and answers within the Buddhist religion and agreed with many of its teachings, especially around happiness.
“Happiness is using my life in a meaningful, realistic, practical and balanced way and my religion helps me with this.”
Miller also commented on the difference between happiness in Eastern and Western cultures. Was there such a disparity between that side of the world and ours?
“I don’t think there is much of a difference between the happiness of Eastern and Western cultures – people want food, shelter, and the basic things – but they also want to be loved, they want fundamental happiness. This seems to be the same in both cultures.”
The good vibes were easily felt through the crowd, because Miller has a special way of speaking to everyone. She didn’t seem to lecture or preach as others might have about their religion.
“I don’t think I’m really spreading, but just serving others better. I want to help alleviate suffering; if someone asks for help then I will give it. But I can’t force this in people,” she said.