Monk(ey) Business Part 5: Little Lhasa

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

Traveling through India by train is both a joy and a slow torture when you are a large 6’2 man. On any plane, train, or automobile, it is almost a guarantee that your body will be forced to contort into some awkward physical posture or another. To make matters worse, I somehow ended up on the wrong train (with a much smaller bunk than I paid for) from New Delhi to McLeod Ganj. I spent the whole night freezing, my legs half-off of the top bed platform, as I attempted to get at least a few hours of sleep. Though after a long and fitful night, I awoke to fresh chai, and the treasure that is Northern India’s beautiful mountain ranges. The air was crisp, the mountains idyllic, and I was pretty stoked to be arriving at a three week course culminating in monastic ordination with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama often describes himself as a simple monk. Of course, he is a simple monk, but he is also a head of state, and the main spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. His entire life has been spent serving the cause of the Tibetan people, and teaching and inspiring millions around the world. Born in a small village in Northeastern Tibet, he was recognized as the incarnation of the previous Dalai Lama at age two. The Dalai Lamas are believed to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, and the patron saint of Tibet. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has not only held this role his entire life, but since 1959 has also had the extra burden of shepherding the Tibetan people through one of the most difficult periods in Tibetan history, when at the hands of the Peoples Republic of China, Tibet, it’s people, and culture have been systematically attacked, and are in danger of extinction. Through all of this, His Holiness has also managed to be an effective leader in the movement towards world peace, and a spiritual friend and teacher to many. I have always felt incredibly fortunate to listen and learn from such an inspiring figure. Even more so, to have the opportunity to receive monastic ordination from him. 

McLeod Ganj (a suburb of Dharamshala) is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. It is known as ‘little Lhasa,’ and is an important center for tourism in India. In it’s streets you can find Tibetan wears, delicious food, real chocolate, and a vast mix of international tourists and local Tibetans. The pre-ordination course was being held at one of Lama Zopa’s centers just above the main part of town. In order to get there you either had to drive up a steep road, or take your chances walking up a narrow path infested with aggressive monkeys. The prize was well worth it though, as Tushita meditation center is situated in a beautiful and peaceful forest nestled directly underneath the impressive Dhauladhar mountain range.

Our pre-ordination course was to be lead by a stern but sweet Spanish nun who had trained in both the Theravada and Tibetan traditions. She was appointed by the Dalai Lama to help Westerners enter and prepare for the Buddhist monastic life. Being fairly new to Western culture, Buddhist monasticism can be challenging for most Westerners, as there are few supportive conditions, and many obstacles. His Holiness is well aware of this, and implemented the pre-ordination course in response to the large rate of Western Buddhist monastics who could not continue to hold their monastic vows.

Before the start of the course, a few of the monks and I walked down the hill to check out the heart of McLeod Ganj. This offered a chance to savor the local Tibetan food, buy any last minute warm clothes we needed, and to take in the sights and sounds of the local scene. Around this time is when I started to become acutely aware of the stares I would often invite from strangers. Little did I know it at the time, but this was just the beginning, and the stares and pointing in public would follow me throughout my entire monastic life. Eventually this was something I grew to expect as part of walking around in long flowing red robes, but in my nine years as a monk I never completely became comfortable with it.

The three week pre-ordination course was tough but extremely rich. It offered a chance to reflect deeply on the decision to live life as a Buddhist monastic, study and memorize the vows, and to discuss difficulties that might arise. We were asked to secure a supportive environment to live, and to really reflect on what daily life would entail. What would we do to persevere when we inevitably had bad days? How would we support ourselves financially? And how would we navigate challenges to keeping the vows in Western countries? Not all of us in the course could answer these questions, and by the end of our three weeks together, some had been asked to wait until they had more stability before taking further monastic vows. Since I had the support of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and had already taken rabjung vows, I was fortunately allowed to continue on.

The day of ordination was both exciting and nerve racking. For me, monastic ordination was similar to getting married, and I felt a little like a pending bride on a tacky reality television show. So much aspiration and energy had gone into this day and I didn’t want to screw it up! Our group would join one hundred Tibetans in His Holiness’ private temple to take novice ordination together. In pairs of three we would kneel and repeat after the master of ceremony, formerly taking the vows. Walking up to the doors of the temple we had to answer in the negative to a list of questions that would disqualify us from ordination. This is a traditional part of taking Buddhist monastic ordination, and serves to protect the sangha, and the potential monastic. This was also the time to make sure our radios worked, as a Tibetan to English interpreter would be transmitting directions for the ordination ceremony over the radio. 

After a half-hour of watching the monks in front of me take their vows in groups of three, it was finally time for the two monks next to me, and myself to kneel and take our vows. As I prepared my self mentally, the monk next to me started motioning that his radio wasn’t working. He started getting really nervous and frustrated, so I offered to share my earbuds with him. It was tough to coordinate each time we had to bow during the ceremony, but we made it work. As we repeated the commitment to keep the monastic vows I filled with joy and resolve. Upon the third recitation I watched as His Holiness smiled and snapped his fingers. We had received the vows. By this point I was both ecstatic and relieved. I was now a novice member of the Buddhist monastic sangha!

As I’m sure you can imagine, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is like a sun. His energy and being are so bright, alive, and fully compassionate. It’s almost too much to bear close up! Though at the end of the ordination ceremony I had a chance to meet him personally, and I nervously walked up to greet him. As he held my hand with care, he asked where I was from. Nervously staring at the ground I quietly replied “the United States.” He patted my hand, gently laughed, and that was it. As I walked on, full of a small ray of His Holiness’ giant, radiating sun I reflected on my journey back to the U.S. Soon I would be off to my new life of study and practice in the mountains of the Central Coast of California, sitting alone in my retreat cabin, nurturing those small rays of awakening that the Dalai Lama inspired.