Monk(ey) Business Part 6: Alone in the Woods
Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!
Arriving back home after three months of being in India was a mild culture shock. The first thing I noticed was all of the billboards lining the freeway as I drove from the airport with my dad. I felt both the sadness of leaving a country so rich in spiritual wisdom and the comfort of being able to roll down the window and breathe fresh clean air. It was nice to be home, but the home I knew wasn’t really there anymore. In some ways my sense of home died at age fifteen when my mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. My dad did everything he could to continue a loving and full home for my sister and I, but the empty void that my mother once occupied seemed to always stare us in the face. When I went off to college it was just my dad and sister, and when I returned, my dad had remarried. I tried, but I was never able to completely fit in and feel at home in a foreign, and sometimes challenging new family dynamic. That day, as we pulled into my stepmother’s driveway, a swirl of confused sadness flooded my veins. Not knowing how to react, I returned to a familiar ground of anxiety, as home, a mirage, chuckled in the distance.
After a few days of resting I decided it was time to work with my resistance to going out in suburban America in my monks robes. With upper-middle class white dominant culture in full swing, most did not know what to do with me. I could often see the nervousness, intrigue, prejudice, and curiosity in their faces. I sometimes tried to imagine the range of thoughts that might have gone through their heads. “Why is he dressed like that?” “How could he be a Buddhist monk, he’s not Asian!” “I wonder if he can do Kung Fu?” “Am I safe with this person?” Whatever the thought, it always took me a sentence or two to break the ice with a stranger. Eventually I became obsessed with proving that a grown white man could be a Buddhist monk, walk around in long flowing red robes, and still be relatable and down to earth. This became a way for me to stay sane amidst all of the stares and awkward questions. It also became a way I avoided my vulnerabilities, attempting to fit into what is considered normal and good in America. Over the years this has given me a small window into the lives of those who are othered in our communities. As I’ve become more aware of my privilege and the way my body is interpreted in a society under systemic white supremacy, I have also recognized that I had a choice that many do not. I could just change my clothes at any moment and completely blend right into the dominant culture. Most who are othered, maligned, and marginalized do not have this choice.
As I continued to experiment with being out in public as a monk, I also started preparing for long-term meditation retreat. Lama Zopa had previously advised me to come back to the states and move into a cabin at one of his retreat centers. The cabin is situated on a beautiful piece of land on the central coast of California he named Land of Calm Abiding. It was originally imagined as a secluded retreat community for Buddhist monastics, but is now open to all dedicated Buddhist practitioners wishing to engage in deep practice. I had previously been at the retreat center as a lay practitioner for a six week solo retreat. Though incredibly challenging, those six weeks proved to be deeply nourishing, and gave me the confidence to enter longer periods of solitary meditation practice. When Lama Zopa advised me to return to Land of Calm Abiding as a monk, I couldn't be happier. I knew it was going to be tough, but over the years I have grown to find the most depth in my practice when the challenges and obstacles seem impenetrable. These days I often hear Geshe Tsulga’s voice reverberating in my head, reminding me that as Buddhist practitioners “we don’t need easy.” As I would soon come to experience, this upcoming period in my life definitely did not disappoint!
With a car full of Dharma books and groceries, my dad and I set off for my new life. As we drove down highway one, through Santa Cruz and Big Sur, each spot more beautiful than the last, I started reflecting on the stories of Buddhist yogis who had renounced living in civilized society for the quiet calm of mountain retreat. My heart filled with renunciation mind and love. I genuinely wished to follow in the footsteps of great Buddhist practitioners of the past. Though what they don’t often tell you is that following in those footsteps is full of pain, disappointment, and falling to get up many times. In one way we all experience disappointment and pain throughout our life, spiritual or not. The Buddha spoke of this as unavoidable, and something we need to find a way to understand and relate to more deeply. Though as many of us often do out of habit, instead of looking to know, relate to, and feel the pain of life with awareness, I mostly resisted and ran from the painful experiences in my life. Because of this, I somehow felt that the spiritual path would be different, and often distracted myself with fantasies about spiritual experiences and advanced meditation practices. I had such high hopes for entering retreat, but was soon to be faced with the disappointment of my limitations and where I was actually at. Over the years this has given me a much different relationship with how I engage with Buddhist practice and how I view my limitations and failures. In small glimpses I have seen that we have the capacity to live and be with so much freedom and spaciousness. When we live from inner spaciousness born of direct insight, we allow the room for unconditional care, compassion, and connection to naturally arise. Though not consciously experiencing it at the time, I entered long term solitary retreat with a wish for this kind of inner freedom. Knowing there was no choice but through.
Land of Calm Abiding is situated within a beautiful valley in the Santa Lucia mountain range just South of Big Sur. As my dad and I approached, it’s towering mountains extended steeply to the sky on our left, as it’s cliffs plunged sharply to the ocean on our right. Pulling up to the gate, a ruffled but friendly caretaker helped us to unload boxes and transfer them to the center’s 4x4 truck which was an absolute necessity on the treacherous and bumpy ride into the retreat land. As we drove up the mountain he talked lovingly about the land, and reaching the mountains peak we looked in awe at the great expanse of the pacific ocean. After a few minutes we descended steeply into a valley and through fresh rocky creeks. Eventually entering the retreat center, we drove passed a few retreat cabins, up a hill, and finally arrived at the cabin I would soon call home for the next three years. It was small, dilapidated, and perfect! It was not directly on the road, so it was fairly quiet, and had a nice view to boot. As I walked the last of my belongings from the truck to the cabin I could feel the stickiness, I didn’t want the caretaker to leave me alone in the woods. Although I felt no external threat, just the thought of sitting alone and facing myself once again shook me to my core. Walking back into the cabin I silently supplicated my teachers and the Buddhas of the ten directions. Sitting down I stared at my unopened boxes. This was my new home.