Monk(ey) Business Part 11: A Stranger At Home

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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!

Over the nine years I spent as a Buddhist monk I encountered some very unique challenges. Eventually what came to be one of the biggest challenges was simply a lack of Western monastic community within my tradition. Not all Buddhist traditions have this issue, as there are quite a few established Theravada, Chinese, and Zen Buddhist monasteries in America, Europe, and elsewhere. Though since it’s introduction to the West in the 1960’s, and for whatever reason, the Tibetan tradition has not followed suit. One of the first questions I was often asked as a monk was “Where is your monastery?” It was often embarrassing and frustrating to have to explain that we didn’t really have that many well established monasteries specifically for Western monastics within my branch of Buddhism. Western Tibetan Buddhist monastics are of course welcome to study and practice in monasteries in India or Nepal, and often do, but we don’t have a lot of organized communities and forms of support within our own home countries. For me and also for some of my closest Western monastic friends this often leads to an “every man/woman for themselves” kind of phenomena when we choose (or are advised) to stay in our home countries. Not only does this prevent the jewel of ordained Western sangha community from authentically developing, but it can also just perpetuate the competition and hyper-individualism already embedded within Western cultures suffering from the violence of late stage capitalism. 

A large part of the support monastics need and is often easily overlooked is emotional. We are social creatures, and we all need community, love, and affection. The need for love and affection doesn't just magically disappear when you decide to opt out of romantic relationships. The alchemical process of long term celibacy instead offers another way to engage with it. Hopefully a way with more freedom, less stickiness, and more ease. One of the things that caught my eye the most while visiting Tibetan monasteries in Asia was how much affection the monks and nuns showed towards each other. It is not uncommon to see two monks holding hands as they walk, or a group of nuns hugging and laughing together. Of course there are vows forbidding this behavior with the opposite sex, but it was nice to see that this kind of affection doesn’t always have to be romantic or sexual. The cultures that Himalayan Buddhists are often brought up in tend to be more communal, and much less individualistic. This is often embodied and expressed in their everyday activities and ritual. I grew to appreciate this very much whilst staying in Nepal and India, and while living with Tibetans in America. Though this wasn’t without a learning curve. I can’t count how many times I was scolded by the Tibetan teacher I lived with for not dropping what I was doing (immediately) to go make tea for a Tibetan guest who just happened to spontaneously drop by. In Tibetan culture most guests drop by unannounced, and the custom is to serve them just as if you had set up a meeting weeks ago. I didn’t understand the importance of these simple gestures at first, but eventually grew to love them, as they were warm, loving, and brought people together. 

Even though I spent three years living with my teacher, witnessing the more communal aspects of Tibetan culture, my long held habits of individualism hadn’t really budged that much. Maybe I’m just a really selfish person, but I’ve often struggled with the nexus of personal goals and collective interests on the Buddhist path. This very nexus played out for much of my time as a monk, especially in the beginning. I wanted to be a part of a monastery, but also saw such a huge value to entering long term solitary retreat alone. Ultimately I left the fate of where I would spend the first few years as a monk up to Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Lama Zopa is known for the accuracy of his divinations, and I was advised that if I was going to request monastic vows from him, it was within my best interest to also come ready with a list of possibilities of where to go once ordained. This list was filled with various monasteries and retreat places, some in Asia, and some in Europe and America. I personally saw the benefits of both long term solitary retreat and dedicated study in a monastery, but if I had my choice, I really wanted to just go into long term retreat. By that point I wasn’t really a Buddhist newbie, but I definitely still had some fantasies about Tibetan yogis and what long term solitary retreat might mean for me. In some ways it was a wonderful thing to fantasize about, and I must have had a lot of karmic potential fueling this particular interest at the time. In other ways the fantasies also blinded me to the intimate and emotional work I needed to do on myself. The hyper-individualism and lack of emotional education I was exposed to growing up in upper middle class white dominant American culture did not suddenly disappear when I took up the Buddhist path. In certain ways, my early monastic life only exacerbated my social isolation, individualism, and emotional unawareness. Of course there are no perfect scenarios, and we often learn the lessons we need to learn in due time, but I now feel like these were major blind spots that I struggled with for years. Eventually I came to understand that no one has achieved enlightenment on their own as we are always in relationship. Ultimately, enlightenment is brought about based off of our connection to others and our wish to attain awakening for their benefit. We need time to deepen our Buddhist practice in solitude, but there are ways to engage in it with our hearts wide open and available. It took me years of Buddhist study and practice, combined with my own inner healing to begin to experience and understand this more deeply. 

Living in America, walking around city streets, going through airports, and engaging in everyday errands as a monk both took a toll on me and became an incredible source of mind training practice. Sometimes I felt extremely isolated, like a circus freak in a crowd of onlookers. Sometimes I had the warmest experiences in some of the most unlikely of places. When your a walking billboard for Buddhism all kinds of things can happen. Many people just stared, but some would pour their hearts out, as if we’d known each other for years. Being a stranger in my own country was provocative and spontaneous at times. It was also something I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with, as my teenage years were spent sporting green hair and a mohawk. I found something comforting and familiar in looking different. I also found a way to hide my true vulnerabilities by sticking out externally. I got the message early on that it wasn’t okay to be me, so I chose to be anything else. Of course I mostly chose to be a Buddhist monastic in order to further my spiritual path, but along with it came much of my conditioning. In some ways I was comfortable being a stranger. In other ways it was preventing me from healing the emotional wounds behind that comfort.