I had a list of rather straightforward questions prepared for Sister Sujata, a Buddhist nun who agreed to speak to us about her "career switch" from a finance job some 24 years ago.
After talking to her for about an hour, I felt like I had enough material, and gently steered the interview to a close — or so I thought.
Instead, a seemingly-innocuous wrap-up question sent the interview into overtime, with Sujata going into detail about how a deep sense of dissatisfaction with life — and the pursuit of material comforts — led to her decision to leave the banking sector.
Sujata's own path unfolded similarly — unexpected, but not unwelcome.
"It was not planned for, but it just happened... It really just happened," she said, adding that she was — perhaps subconsciously — looking for a deeper meaning.
"Most of the people will have that [experience].
Seemingly, your career has been pretty successful, and you may have a relationship as well, nothing is majorly going wrong.
But... something is still off the hook, don't know what."
"And it was in a meditation retreat that I thought I found the answer," she said.
I exchanged glances with my colleague, and we squirmed through a moment of uncomfortable silence.
Sujata, perhaps aware that what she said had struck a chord, quickly clarified that not everyone who feels this way needs to become a nun (or monk) to find peace — it just so happened that this was the path she found for herself.
In fact, more than 20 years after her decision to pursue ordination as a Buddhist nun, Sujata now feels that she did not have to become a nun to find the answers she was looking for:
"There is no need to actually enter into the monastery training to find the answer.
The answer is actually within our own heart. It is this willingness to understand oneself better, within."
She may have discovered meditation through the Buddhist practice, but Sujata feels that the principles she has learnt and benefited from over the years is "generally applicable to everyone", Buddhist or not.
Never had a passion for banking and finance
Sujata never had a passion for banking and finance.
This perhaps explains why she sees the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 as a trigger event that made her confront the deep-rooted unhappiness she had held at bay, and not the main reason she left banking.
After all, banking had been a practical choice for her, not something she had pursued to find fulfilment or purpose.
As a young graduate, Sujata landed easily on banking and finance, quite simply because it was "the sector where you're going to make a lot of money".
She started out with the intention of being able to contribute to her family's finances, having come from a humble background.
Caught up in pursuit of material well-being
But she would soon be swept up in a different lifestyle — "basically, the pursuing of the five 'C's," she admitted.
This happened in spite of a rather keen interest she had, in neuroscience and "understanding the mind". After all, such areas were not available as career paths at that time, anyway.
Success in the finance industry came to her quickly.
At the time, the Singapore economy was doing "very well", she recalled.
Sujata worked in a local bank as a broker dealing in futures, before moving on to be a finance manager in Asian bond investments in a large multinational company.
And while she described her lifestyle at the peak of her career in the 1990s as "wine and dine and shopping", her career success left something to be desired.
"Somehow or other, it's like you see yourself progress in your material wealth. But internally, it's always this sense of... how to say, emptiness.
The sense of lack, the sense of non-contentment... that has been always in the back of the mind."
This eventually led her to the climactic events of 1997 — which triggered a soul-searching that was a long time coming:
"Our bond portfolio, overnight, billions of dollars turned to zero."
Reflecting on her feelings at the time, she recalled "a lot of uncertainties" among her colleagues surrounding job security and their finances.
Sujata remembered hearing a story of a trader who had a sudden heart attack, and died in front of a trading screen.
"We got to hear all these stories and really started to question, 'what are we chasing for?'"
Seeking answers outside of her job, the Buddhist was led to a monk, and soon found herself signing up for a seven-day meditation retreat.
"That seven days changed my life," Sujata said. "I experienced a little bit of calm, something I never experienced in my whole life."
"I never planned for a lifetime of ordination"
Sujata looks back on those seven days of meditation as the starting point of a journey that is now 24 years long, and counting.
"Prior to that, I was not a serious Buddhist," she said.
And while she couldn't exactly recall the ambitions she may have had as a child, she laughed as she told us that it was "anything else, except being a nun."
"The meditation training, the Buddhist path, it was really never in my mind or in my planning, my planning was getting married, pursuing a successful career, travelling the whole world, that was my plan."
The contrast between her former and current life may be great, but Sujata emphasised that becoming a nun was not a big move that was calculated and evaluated ahead of time.
In fact, Sujata actually came close to returning to her career at one point, as she easily secured a job offer "without much difficulties", due to her "good connection" with people in her industry.
But the company's "immediate offer" did not come with satisfactory pay — which she now views as a blessing in disguise.
It gave her the time to dive deeper in exploring Buddhism — a religious practice she had observed nominally while growing up — and meditation.
Instead of looking for a better-paying job, she decided to commit one month to experiencing life as a Buddhist nun, with no intention of actually getting ordained.
"My purpose of actually practicing the Buddhist path was basically to understand how the mind works, and the meditation practice.
So I thought like, being in the ordination training, I'll be able to experience something more."
In the course of that one month, Sujata would gain the confidence to commit to the ordained life for good.
"It was just more like, trying out for one month. And it turned out to be 20 years."
Giving up her previous life as "a conscious choice"
For those 20 years, Sujata has lived life with "a lot of discipline", giving up her previous hobbies and pursuits in exchange for an ascetic lifestyle.
"I [was] a sportsperson. I dived, I golfed, I do a lot of sports when I was a lay person," Sujata said, listing a few of the activities she has chosen to give up. "A conscious choice," she emphasised.
Sujata has since given away all her diving and golf equipment, but some things — like her love for travel — have remained, albeit in a different form.
"In the past I would go trekking, and now I go pilgrimage," she said, smiling.
Not all of the transitions to her new life went quite so smoothly, however.
Toward the very end of our interview, Sujata let on that when she decided to commit to becoming a nun, she was in a romantic relationship.
"I called it off," she said simply, when asked about what happened.
"I was a very strong, determined person during my younger days, I would decide on something that I wanted to pursue in life and just go for it."
"What else can you do?" she asked rhetorically, returning once again to how she never planned for her one-month trial to extend into a lifetime.
We tried to pry gently into the details of how exactly the break-up transpired, and Sujata's enigmatic answer hinted at a less-than-easy process.
"To be very honest, the path as a nun, it wasn't so smooth. There were a lot of challenges. and honestly, along the way, there were a lot of doubts as well; 'Am I making the right decisions?'"
24 years later, doubts do linger still, Sujata shared candidly, especially in light of her entering her 50s.
"Financial security... old age, and all the medical expenses" are some of the concerns that she dwells on from time to time.
Paradoxically, what helps her manage these concerns is thinking back to her banking days.
"I remember those days when I was working in the finance field where you are trying to, you know, you set a target and try to reach the target. I think it's so difficult... there's always this restriction and your mind is no longer that free, you know? You do not have that freedom.
But if we were to follow the flow of life, things will just unfold naturally, quite nicely by itself."
It's a perspective that has seen her through the transition from a superficially-successful career to a life filled with deep joy — one that she now hopes to share with others.
This desire to share with others is why Sujata is embarking on a Master's degree in counselling at the National Institute of Education (NIE).
"I'm in the best career right now"
Sujata hopes to bridge the gap between secular mindfulness practice on one hand, and the Buddhist meditation practice, to which she has devoted many years of her life, in various "holy places" across the world.
While Sujata does not yet know the exact form that this will take, the need for something in that vein in Singapore is clear to her.
After all, she said, the popularity of mindfulness has skyrocketed overseas, as more scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation is being uncovered.
Yet, in many Asian countries, such as Singapore, the trend is "only starting to pick up".
Seeing a gap, "I decided to come back to Singapore to serve," she said.
Her experience in serving as a volunteer befriender for a helpline amid Covid-19 has only served to strengthen her desire.
"I could really feel the struggle of many people, mentally... I mean, materially, they are fine, but the mental struggle, the unhappiness in many people is something that I thought, 'we can do something about it.'"
It has taken her some time, but Sujata now sees herself as well-placed — in fact, more so than ever before — to give back to society.
"Now thinking about it, I'm in the best career right now."
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.'
Top image via Sujata and by Angela Lim. Quotes were edited for clarity.