Monk(ey) Business Part 4: Monk City

Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!

After a circuitous trip that culminated in a grueling (and bumpy!) overnight taxi ride, myself and my travel companions (two nuns) pulled into Mundgod, India. We quickly learned that getting into Drepung Monastery was not going to be as easy as we thought. With the visit of the Dalai Lama, loads of tourists were attempting to visit the monastery, and because Drepung was within a Tibetan refugee community, special permits were required to stay within the monastery grounds. Fortunately, a young Geshe from Drepung Loseling came to our aide, escorting us through a back entrance into the monastery, and kindly provided a place to stay for the two nuns I was traveling with.

Pulling into Drepung monastery was like entering a monk city. Building after building housed monks from all over the Himalayan region, Tibet, and India. As a young monk walked me to the apartment I was staying in, I soaked in the sights and sounds of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in exile. It was colorful, vibrant, busy, and loud! If you want your hollywood fantasy of what you think a monastery looks and feels like popped, I highly recommend visiting a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in exile. Being an iconoclast most of my life, I loved it! There was none of that pretentious ‘holier than thou’ bullshit you often find around Eastern religious communities in America, just raw human experience coming up against the profundity of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. 

Geshe Tsulga, my teacher back in Boston had called a friend (Geshe Senge), and asked if he could host me for the duration of the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Because of Geshela’s request, Geshe Senge generously offered me my own room within an apartment dedicated to monks from the Kham region of Tibet. As I walked up to the room, all of the young monks just stopped and stared. I highly doubt they had ever seen a large 6’2 American guy in monks robes walking into their apartment complex before. As I waited for Geshe Senge to come out, I walked into the kitchen, joked with the younger monks, and started talking about Tibetan food (one of my favorite things). Geshe Senge was a stout older Khampa with a kind, yet penetrating gaze. Being one of the more senior monks, he looked after the younger ones, and took care of the daily needs of the apartment complex. He laughed loud, liberally inhaled snuff, and barked orders at the younger monks. Although he was a little rough, there was something about him that I really admired. Again, and despite not speaking the language, there was something very familiar and comforting within the atmosphere of the monastery. Though that comfort was short lived, as I quickly discovered the mangy (and fierce) dog that wandered around the apartment complex, and of course the notorious monastery toilets. 

The teaching sessions with the Dalai Lama were inspiring, profound, and informative. Although I had been to many teachings with the Dalai Lama back in the states, there was a different quality to his teachings within India. He was direct, thorough, and meant business. He even took time out of his more general sermon to gently scold the monks for building such a large and extravagant new temple, while many in the surrounding areas lived in poverty. During this time I also got to know some of the other Western monks who had been at it for much longer than myself. Some of them were in dedicated study programs at monasteries in India, and it was wonderful to spend time with them, gaining insight into life as a Western monk living in Asia. 

As I came back to my room one evening, some of the younger monks were cheering on the fierce dog that lived in the complex. It had cornered a giant rat, and bystanders watched in anticipation as it snarled and barked at it. After a few minutes the giant rat suddenly made a run for it, the mangy dog in hot pursuit. Like a pro, the dog quickly caught it in it’s jaws, shaking it vigorously until the rat went limp. Quickly losing interest, the dog dropped the dying rat in the grass and waddled off into the hallway. I am not sure what shocked me more, the cheering on of some of the monks, witnessing the fragility of life, or the sheer size of this giant rat as it lay dying. What happened next was one of the many seeming paradoxes that I have often witnessed within devout Buddhist cultures. As the rat took its last breaths, the monks went silent. One of them ran off to ask a young tulku (a reincarnation of a previous Buddhist master) who lived in the apartment complex to come and pray for the rat. As the young tulku kneeled down to pray, the other monks joined in, genuinely wishing happiness for a rat who minutes ago they had enabled its demise. I am not defending their actions, but there was something very sweet and innocent that I witnessed that evening. Although they seemed keenly aware of status, and the cycles of life around the monastery, they also seemed to genuinely love this creature that lay before them. I witnessed no pride in them somehow being above or more valuable than the dying rat they kneeled in the grass and prayed for.

As the three week long teachings wrapped up, I hopped on an overnight bus to Sera Je Monastery, about an eight hour drive from Drepung. During the bus ride I got to know Phuntsok, a young monk who I had been sponsoring the last few years.  I introduced him to American indie rock and electronic music as we shared headphones along the bumpy ride. Indian highways often remind me of rural roads back in America, though when you pull into a truck stop, instead of Lay’s chips and beef jerky, you can chow down on chai, puri (deep-fried bread), and dhal, a well earned treat after hours of inhaling car exhaust as Bollywood music blasts in the background.

We arrived at Sera Je to a peaceful and quiet scene. A good portion of the monks were still back at Drepung, and the monastery was between semesters. Settling into Geshe Tsulga’s apartment complex, the monks treated me with such care and kindness as we had heard so much about each other over the years. Geshe Tsulga’s nephew, an upbeat and laid back monk, was in charge of the complex, and we talked in broken english and hand gestures. Sera Je monastery is situated within Bylakupee, a South Indian town that is home to several Tibetan settlements. This is the area that as a refugee, a young Geshe Tsulga, and many monastic and lay Tibetans basically dug out of the South Indian jungle. It is now home to a variety of monasteries from various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. I spent much of my week there meditating, hanging out with the monks, and visiting the local temples and monasteries. 

A month or so earlier, in Bodhgaya, I accompanied Jigme Rinpoche to a divination session with Lama Kalsang Rinpoche, a lama who was well known for his healing Chöd practice, and Gesar of Ling divinations. Tibetans and foreigners came from all over to request Lama Kalsang’s help in healing and prognosticating their dilemmas. Walking into his hotel room in Bodhgaya, I was a little intimidated, as he was a very powerful practitioner. I had also never seen a divination system quite like the one he used before. Rather than dice or a mirror, it was performed with a tassel like object that the diviner ritually laid out in relation to the patients problem or inquiry. Now in Bylakupee, I made my way from temple to temple, visiting the local sites around Sera Je monastery. One day I haphazardly walked into a small Kagyu monastery. As I walked into the main shrine I saw a picture of Lama Kalsang, and immediately started inquiring if he was available to help with an issue one of my family members was having. I was asked to bring a picture of them, and come back the next day. Arriving, I walked into Lama Kalsang’s room and made three prostrations as is customary. He sat in a small corner of a very spacious room, and the air was thick with the kind of grounded feeling you come to expect when in the company of realized Buddhist masters. 

He started the divination and asked a few questions about the person I was having the divination performed for. He went on to inform me that a malicious female spirit had attached to the person, and was causing them mental and physical harm. Not knowing the person at all, he then asked me to locate an article of clothing in the South East corner of their house. Upon locating it, we were to take it far away and discard it. Later that evening, as I called my family member back in America, the South East corner happened to be their closet! I was definitely blown away, and as they removed the article of clothing from the house, Lama Kalsang and the monks of the monastery did prayers and healing practices to remove the malicious spirit. The belief that we are surrounded by many seen and unseen beings is common within Buddhist and Tibetan cultures, but I had never quite witnessed something so close to home before. It was a little unnerving, but it also deepened my faith in the power of the Dharma. 

While back at Drepung I had gotten word that my registration to receive monastic ordination with His Holiness the Dalai Lama had gone through. In order to prepare for entering into monastic life, all westerners participating in the ordination ceremony were required to arrive in Mcleod Ganj (the home of the Dalai Lama) early in order to participate in a three week pre-ordination course. Even though this ended up cutting my time at Sera Je Monastery short, it was well worth it, and as I said goodbye to the monks it was hard to even imagine that in less than a month’s time I would be sitting in front of the Dalai Lama fully entering into the Buddhist monastic life…