Marilyn Rita Silverstone (March 9, 1929 – September 28, 1999) was an accomplished photo-journalist and ordained Buddhist nun. Hers would be an eventful life, and she is said to have proclaimed with undeniable truth: “I can say that I did it all.
The eldest daughter of Murray and Dorothy Silverstone was born in London. Her father, the son of Polish immigrants, rose to become Managing Director, and President, International, respectively, of United Artists and 20th-Century Fox,working with Charlie Chaplin and other early movie stars in London; and the family returned to America just before the outbreak of war in Europe.
Marilyn grew up in Scarsdale, New York. After graduating from Wellesley College, she became an associate editor for Art News, Industrial Design, and Interiors in the early 1950s. She moved to Italy to make documentary art films.
Silverstone became a working photojournalist in 1955, traveling and capturing the range of images that her alert vision led her to find in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
In 1956, she traveled to India on assignment to photograph Ravi Shankar. She returned to the subcontinent in 1959; and what was intended to be a short trip became the beginning of a fascination with India which lasted for the rest of her life. Her photographs of the arrival in India of the Dalai Lama, who was escaping from the Chinese invasion of Tibet, made the lead in Life. As a photographer, she was beging to be taken seriously.
In that period, she met and fell in love with Frank Moraes, one of the great crusading journalists of his generation. Moraes was then editor of The Indian Express. The couple lived together in New Delhi until 1973, socializing in an elite set of politicians, journalists and intellectuals, and diplomats. A number of Moraes editorials had earned the ire of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and the situation deteriorated to the point that a retreat to London became the best course.
Over the years, Silverstone’s reputation as a photographer grew. In 1967 she joined Magnum Photos, in which she was only one of five women members. Silverstone’s work for Magnum included photographing subjects ranging from Albert Schweitzer to the coronation of the Shah of Iran.
At the time of Silverstone’s death, preparation of an exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery featuring her work and that of other Magnum photographers was nearing completion. St. Andrews University hosted a seminar in conjunction with this exhibition; and as Silverstone had just recently died, the seminar became an opportunity for her peers to celebrate her life and career.
Silverstone’s conversion to Buddhist nun could be said to have begun when she was an impressionable teenager suffering from the mumps. She would later explain that during this conventional childhood illness, she picked up Secret Tibet by Fosco Maraini; and she said the book provided a key she long carried in her subconscious.
In the late 1960s, Silverstone had worked on a photography assignment about a Tibetan Buddhist lama in Sikkim named Khanpo Rinpoche; and, when the lama came to London for medical treatment in the 1970s, Rinpoche stayed with the couple. At this point, Silverstone decided to learn Tibetan in order to study Buddhism with him. After Moraes’s death in 1974, Silverstone decided to join the entourage of another celebrated lama, Khentse Rinpoche, who left London to a remote monastery in Nepal.
In 1977, she took vows as a Buddhist nun. Her Buddhist name was Bhikshuni Ngawang Chödrön, or Ani Marilyn to her close friends. In her new life in Kathmandu (Nepal), she researched the vanishing customs of Rajasthan and the Himalayan kingdoms.
In 1999, Ngawang Chödrön returned to the United States for cancer treatment, and she learned that she was terminally ill. She was clear that she wanted to die in Nepal, her home for the past 25 years; however, no airline would carry a passenger in her fragile condition. Typically, she resolved the impasse by persuading a doctor on vacation to accompany her on the return to Kathmandu.
By all accounts, the journey was fraught with difficulties. Ngawang Chödrön was barely conscious during the trip, and a stopover was necessary in Vienna; but she in the end, she got her way.
Ngawang Chödrön (Marilyn Silverstone) died peacefully in 1999 in the Buddhist community she had worked to establish and maintain.