Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!
Flying into Bodhgaya, India was like entering a time warp. As my taxi drove down a tiny two lane road, black smoke spewed, horns honked, and huts and ox-drawn carts lined the road. Bodhgaya (the site where the Buddha attained enlightenment) is ironically centered in Bihar, one of the poorest Indian states. At the time of the Buddha it was most likely a vast jungle, eventually becoming one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Along with its growth as a pilgrimage site, a bustling town and various Buddhist temples have sprung up around it.
It was the start of a three month trip to India to study, practice, and visit Buddhist sacred sites, and I was nervously wondering what exactly I got myself into! Being a total newbie, I rushed to exchange $500 in cash upon my arrival. What I didn’t factor in was the stacks of Indian rupees I would quickly have to find a place to stash. The area surrounding Bodhgaya is notoriously dangerous, and openly exchanging loads of cash was probably a bad idea. Luckily it was mid-day, and I quickly found a taxi as I stuffed stacks of Indian rupees into my bag. Arriving at Root Institute, Lama Zopa’s dharma center, I immediately put my stuff down, and enthusiastically made my way to the main Bodhgaya temple complex. The air is completely magnetic in Bodhgaya, and even among the throngs of beggars and fumes of toxic smoke (a mix of car exhaust, burning plastic, and hay), it is truly a magical place. As I arrived at the main site, beggars unlike anything you would ever see in America, hit me like a wave. Weaving through them, I slowly made my way into the circumambulation path and main temple, the blessed feeling in the air continuing to get thicker as I approached. It was like entering another world, as monks prostrated, pilgrims of all ages circumambulated, and Buddhist yogis from all over Asia and the Himalayan region were scattered around the temple grounds, praying and meditating. My heart filled with joy and faith as I circumambulated, and mumbled mantras. I reflected that Siddhartha Gautama, an ordinary man had conquered birth, old age, sickness, and death in this very spot, going on to spark a peaceful religion that has survived and benefitted so many for over 2,600 years. It was beyond inspiring, and I felt a deep connection to my teachers and the lineages of Buddhism that were/are passed down through them.
For the next week, I would go down to the Bodhgaya shrine to meditate and pray each day. It was the yearly prayer festival time (monlam) for the Kagyu and Nyingma sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and I started to meet some of the Himalayan yogis who were there for the festival. I would often take a lunch break with one older Bhutanese lama. As we sat at one of the local food stalls eating something that was most likely going to tie me to a toilet for the better part of the afternoon, we would attempt communication through a flurry of sign language and broken English. These were rich meetings for me, and it was nice to connect with a dedicated Himalayan Buddhist practitioner.
One day, as I came out of the shrine, a Tibetan monk in his early forties asked me where I was from. We struck up a conversation, and it turned out that he was Jigme Rinpoche, the son of Ngakpa Yeshe Dorje, a famous yogi who was appointed by the Dalai Lama to make and stop rain (yes, he was known to actually summon and stop rain storms). For the next three weeks I would go on to basically be his sidekick, and was privy to some of the meetings and happenings around Bodhgaya during prayer festival time. It was also interesting to watch his daily activities, as he would somehow end up at the right place and time to spontaneously help those in need. By this time Lama Zopa had also started teaching daily, and Jigme Rinpoche asked if I could help to get him a private audience. With only a week or so into my India trip, and due to the profound blessings and inspiration of my daily visits to the Bodhgaya temple, I was thinking to ask Lama Zopa if I could take Rabjung monastic vows with him. These vows weren't quite the main vows of a monk, but acted more like an entrance into the monastic life. I would later go on to take Getsul (novice) monastic ordination with the Dalai Lama towards the end of my trip.
Sitting to the side nervously fidgeting as Jigme Rinpoche talked with Lama Zopa, I worked up the courage to request Rabjung ordination. Lama Zopa immediately said “yes.” When I asked when he could give the vows, he thought for a few seconds and said “tomorrow.” ‘Whoah! tomorrow!’ I thought to myself. I was internally as ready as I would every be to become a monk, but I actually didn't bring the robes he had previously given me, and getting robes made for a large 6’2 American guy isn’t the easiest thing to quickly do in Bodhgaya. Overhearing this, Jigme Rinpoche immediately said “no problem,” and we hurried out to the center of town to talk to a tailor. When we arrived at the tailor the power was off (not a surprise), and guessing by their tone of voice and hand gestures, I gathered that Jigme Rinpoche was arguing on my behalf to have something made by the next day. After some real Indian haggling and rigamarole, the tailor finally agreed to have my robes finished in time.
Putting on monks robes for the first time was like slipping into familiar skin. It didn’t feel awkward at all, but very natural. As I walked to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s room to join the four others I would take rabjung ordination with, a few friends beamed smiles at me, and the reality of actually becoming a monk hit me. I knelt in front of Lama Zopa as the ceremony started. Repeating the pledge to keep the vows, he cut a bit of my hair, gave me a new name, and that was it, I was a monk! As in previous weeks, I wandered down to the Bodhgaya shrine, this time in monks robes. The Himalayan yogis and monks who I had been practicing with for the previous weeks did double takes beaming huge smiles. It felt like a definite homecoming.
Just before leaving Bodhgaya I got word that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama would be giving Getsul (novice) monastic ordination to a group of Westerners towards the end of my time in India. Although I was a bit late to the registration process, this was great news, and I hurried to register and acquire the appropriate letters of recommendation. Although it would be a few weeks before I found out for sure if I could join the ordination ceremony, I got word that it was likely I could attend. Leaving Bodhgaya, I hugged Jigme Rinpoche and his family. We exchanged gifts as they kindly drove me to the train station at 4am. It was such a rich and fortunate month in Bodhgaya. Now in monks robes, I was looking forward to exploring South India and spending the next month attending teachings with the Dalai Lama at one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries outside of Tibet. I had come to India with an open heart, not knowing what I would find. As my trip commenced I watched with deep gratitude and joy as my inner aspirations began to take fruit…