This article first appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2005
By my late twenties I’d been a Buddhist monk for five years and was blissfully ensconced in the security of a thousand-year-old tradition when I went to live in Sera Monastic University, in South India. The time I spent there in the late 1970s was a life-changing, formative period—though in none of the ways I had expected. It brought me to a painful turning point that led me to give up my robes, cut all ties, and wander off alone.
I was a child of the sixties—restless, intolerant of my elders and idealistic. I exasperated the poor nuns at my convent primary school in England, who tried to force-feed me on Catholic dogma. I endured the obligatory encounters with political radicalism, drugs, and pop mysticism and dropped out of university when it finally dawned on me that the system was designed not to enlighten but to make a useful citizen of me. I wanted none of it. What I craved was a truly meaningful life, so, like many others at the time, I hitchhiked to India in search of “myself.” The inexorable windings of the hippie trail led me to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s classes in Dharamsala, to the annual Kopan thirty-day retreat in Nepal, and then to Switzerland, where I was ordained by Geshe Rabten.
Geshe had gone to the West to turn out Western teachers, and I joined his small group of students near Rikon, Switzerland, where we lived in cramped conditions. Some of the others had been studying for years and already spoke Tibetan. We took the prospect of becoming teachers very seriously and discussed our mission in earnest. Geshe endeavored to pass on to us the training that had led to his geshe degree, and we thought a great deal about what it would mean to be the future interpreters of Buddhism in the West.
This was an exciting community of like-minded people. All of us in our own ways lamented the limitations of Western thought and were eager to learn Tibetan, to debate the monastic textbooks and transcend conventional knowledge. I discovered that the directed human brain was a powerful tool. My Tibetan progressed, and I was able to peek into the ancient texts for myself. Soon I began to experience self-esteem for the first time in my life; I enjoyed the respect that came with the robes and looked forward to becoming a teacher. After a reprobate youth, I was actually becoming useful.
As I became more proficient, I took part in discussions about how to translate the dozens of technical words that had no direct English equivalents. The language of the debate textbooks is precise and relatively static, but English meanings shift over time as they take their place in ever-evolving systems of thought. It became clear that we’d need to expand our familiarity with Western thought if we were to become effective translators. Geshe happily shared his broad knowledge of the debate textbooks but showed no interest in our language. He taught us as he’d been taught and never apparently considered that we’d be expected to teach any differently when our time came. Nevertheless, we had to understand our audience, and as we gradually delved into Western knowledge from the distant perspective of Tibetan Buddhism we discovered a new respect for our own roots. At first we tried to share our discoveries and dilemmas with Geshe, but he preferred that we spend more time on debate and forget about other subjects. However, the simple fact that we spoke English among ourselves, and to those who spoke no Tibetan, made thoughtful translation an inescapable priority.
Translating Tibetan into English had its challenges, but framing the religious or psychoanalytical questions of Westerners in Tibetan Buddhist terminology is almost inevitably to misrepresent them. Each Tibetan term is precisely defined and thrashed out through constant debate into a clearly shaped building block. It’s not that Tibetan is a less sophisticated language, rather, it’s not sophisticated at all. This gives it a tremendous inner coherence. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines sophisticated as “mixed with some foreign substance; adulterated; not pure or genuine.”)
Problems arose when we were called upon to interpret private interviews between Tibetan lamas and their Western visitors. There was no shortage of professionals and academics eager for cultural exchange, with occasionally improbable expectations. They sought Geshe’s opinions about Christ’s dying for our sins, on Einstein’s theory of relativity, about Jung’s collective unconscious, and even about whom they should or shouldn’t marry. Once rendered in the precise language of Tibetan debate, these questions became a strange caricature of Buddhist philosophy, often provoking Geshe’s consternation. His frowns and smiles were compassionate and fatherly, but they were also a conversation-stopper.
Not surprisingly, the Tibetans laughed at us a good deal. Our consumer approach to enlightenment left us hungry for instant gratification, and we compounded our overexertion by trying to outdo our own teachers in a strict—sometimes positively anal—observance of monastic rules, raising the neurotic stakes still higher. Whereas the Tibetans tend to be a good-natured and easygoing lot, we were uptight and anxious, and their generally compassionate responses often lapsed into gentle condescension. One concerned geshe in Sera actually suggested that I focus my entire practice on finding rebirth as a Tibetan, so that in my next life I’d have a real shot at enlightenment. All this was fair enough, if not actually therapeutic, but when our concerns over questions framed in Western terms were greeted with the same paternal condescension, we were more troubled. “Cultural exchange” seemed at times to be a one-way street that flowed from the superior to the inferior. Anyone who has studied Buddhist tenets will know how various interpretations of emptiness are arranged in a philosophical hierarchy, in which each version is slightly less flawed than the previous, until one arrives at the pinnacle—the “correct” (and admittedly elegant) Prasangika-Madhyamika view. Most geshes trying to understand a foreign system of thought would instinctively seek to place it in this hierarchy, with predictable results.
The situation was disappointing, but not yet critical. In the meantime, something much more important was worrying me—my studies were progressing, but I wasn’t finding the emotional control and stability I’d expected. I was learning about dharma, but what about the practice? Geshe Rabten assured me that learning came first, realization second, and encouraged me to persevere. Thus I returned to India to improve my Tibetan and to see his alma mater for myself. The hundred or so Sera monks who had relocated in South India to rebuild their shattered institution had gathered about three hundred boy novices, cultivated fields of corn, and rebuilt their colleges and houses brick by brick.
Geshe had suggested that I become the monastery’s first resident English teacher, but the completion of the schoolroom suffered interminable delays. It took me a while to realize that this wasn’t the result of poor organization, as the abbot preferred me to think, but of monastic realpolitik. The old-school teachers claimed they didn’t want their boys wasting time, but the real concern was that they’d be tempted from the hallowed halls by the suspect world that English would open up to them.
I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic, for I, too, mistrusted the consumer culture and saw that these boys had little resistance to its dubious charms. The walls of many monastery buildings were strangely littered with calendars featuring fantastic pictures of great cities whose streets swarmed with modern automobiles and whose skies teemed with jet planes. Living in that sun-baked compound reclaimed from the jungle, even I was drawn to those icons of physical ease. In fact, my distant but growing respect for Western thought was echoed by a subliminal craving for Western interaction: I missed the eclectic conversations with my colleagues in Switzerland. I wrote long, candid epistles to them from this bedrock of the Gelugpa—one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism—orthodoxy, and received astonished replies, for what I described wasn’t what they had expected.
Neither was it what my Tibetan hosts had expected, for I wasn’t exactly a polite, reserved visitor. Although I managed to see the monastery’s first dispensary off to a good start, I also raised hackles in many quarters by protesting vociferously against the clouds of DDT that were sprayed into one house after another. I spoke out against the living conditions of the novices, who slept in bundles of filthy rags, didn’t taste fresh fruit and vegetables from one year to the next, and were perpetually infected with ringworm, intestinal parasites, and other easily preventable ailments. The last straw came when the abbot point-blank refused my request to step between a particularly brutal teacher and his six-year-old charge. Eventually, the boy’s mother spirited him away, an occurrence over which there was much shaking of heads and for which I was justly blamed. At that point, I ungraciously abandoned the beautiful but very conspicuous room I’d been given in the Sera-Je temple complex for a rat-infested hut in the remotest corner of the monastic compound. There I could think and tend in peace to the boys who came to me with their cuts and scrapes.
The boys themselves were oblivious to their poverty. With remarkably few exceptions, they respected their elders and studied hard. Despite severely overcrowded conditions—up to a dozen boys in a single room—there was a notable absence of fighting or any deep-rooted conflict at all. The crowding was compounded by a complete absence of running water or toilets.
Only those who have actually visited a Gelugpa monastic university can believe just how noisy it is. Forget about quiet courtyards, silent meditation, and the serene exchange of ideas! Morning and evening, boys pace up and down verandas and laneways yelling their memorized texts at an extraordinary rate, each vying with the next, until they’ve etched hundreds of pages in permanent memory. The older boys expend their testosterone in excited debate, where pushing and shoving is considered good fun and the spittle flies—Gelugpa debate is no dry or pious exercise. Its main purpose is to thoroughly familiarize the student with the content of the Buddhist canon, although the inspired debater will recognize the inherent limits of thought, and land in the sort of existential quandary that points beyond conventional knowledge. Such debate is considered a form of contemplative mind-training.
“You believe that?” asked a bright nineteen-year-old incredulously.
I actually considered it a fact, but since it wasn’t within my direct experience and the thesis remained unproven—at least among Tibetans—it was indeed a belief. “Yes,” I agreed, “I believe it.”
With the adversarial gusto of a practiced debater, he rose to his feet and reminded me that the wind that destroys the universe at the end of the aeon blows continuously, just above the summit of Mount Meru, destroying everything in its path—American spacecraft included. I jumped at this diversion from scriptural rote and entered cheerfully into the spirit of things.
However, it soon became clear that this was no intellectual exercise. When I suggested that Mount Meru, the center of the classical Hindu and Buddhist universe, was at best a metaphorical description, he became perturbed. Worse still, I responded to his scriptural citations by stating that not everything the Buddha said was necessarily true. The mood changed perceptibly, but I blundered on a little further before realizing that the conversation had gone beyond the pale. I was now struggling with my companion’s personal sense of belonging, his moral and intellectual security. I was no longer just an adversary, but an outsider.
With that, reality hit me in the face.I could learn to speak Tibetan, put on the red robes, and even live in Sera Monastic University, but I was as completely out of place here as I’d been at home—a mass of contradictions when I began and a mass of contradictions now. I “believed” in enlightenment, but without real experience what did that amount to? Such convenient belief was an arbitrary decision, made as if I were an independent entity in charge of my beliefs, thoughts, and existence—not dependent, a product of my times, born of an environment from which I was not separate. I wasn’t a Tibetan but a Westerner who for some reason or another was compelled to ask questions that consistently undermined my own sense of security. I could no more unplug my urge to ask awkward questions than I could abandon my mother tongue. As a godless, disenfranchised Westerner living, as Stephen Batchelor puts it in Living with the Devil, “on a ball of rock and mud hurtling through space, who is skeptical about the promises of religion,” I was already predisposed to questions that resisted final conclusions, even though I still ached neurotically for security.
The eminently human young Tibetan whose insecurities had so shocked me had unwittingly undermined the illusion that had most convincingly brought me into the Tibetan fold—that Buddhists are more tuned in to reality, more open than most religious and even scientific Westerners. The realization that ordained monks and respected scholars might be acting out of insecurity was as painful and therapeutic as having a boil lanced.
I put together an inventory of what I felt compelled to believe, as opposed to what I simply wanted to believe, and remembered that the path is not an instruction manual. A superficial reading of the Prajnaparamita Sutras—a series of vital Mahayana sutras—suggests a sequence of identifiable stages, as if the attainment of each one qualifies the seeker to embark on the next. This wasn’t what the Buddha did, or what he taught. Since becoming a monk I’d filled my life with study, tantric imagery, and monastic ritual that was fascinating but guaranteed nothing. I asked myself, “What is dharma practice?” and the simple words of Lama Thubten Yeshe came to mind: “Know[ing] your own mind and how it works.”
I left Sera and traveled south, going into retreat in a Sri Lankan monastery, away from the romance and colorful imagery of Tibetan Buddhism. There, the differences between the plain bread and water of Vipassana practice and the huge ice-cream sundae of the Tibetan tradition took on a practical new meaning. Perhaps my dharma diet had simply been too rich for me.
After fifteen months, I returned to Switzerland with mixed feelings of relief and foreboding. My robes represented the freedom to devote myself undistractedly to dharma practice, but what did that mean? I began to see the path as a state of mind, an attitude that, when maintained, is itself Buddhahood—not an achievement but a process. Far from being a concrete, predictable, and infallible road map, the path is empty. Like everything, it’s uniquely related to one’s own mental formations. We find our path, I thought, in probing our own creativity.
The question now was, what practices would help me? To what extent were they authentic? How to measure authenticity? Like any other, the Tibetan establishment was a human institution, self-perpetuating, tending to resist the change, questioning, and doubt that is every true seeker’s life mission.
Back in Switzerland I found myself the elder monk, as most of the core group from Rikon had now left for a variety of compelling personal reasons. I taught younger monks, interpreted for Geshe and other visiting lamas, and traveled to other European centers to translate. This was less straightforward than I’d initially imagined. While I’d seen Western audiences happily swallow the most unscientific tales from a Tibetan lama, I was now expected to explain how I reconciled things like Tibetan cosmology with the terms of objective inquiry. It got worse. Following in the tradition of my predecessors, I traveled once a week to Geneva to teach a group of laypeople. I sat before them with crossed legs, feeling constrained to present the same systematic teachings I’d heard myself so many times, and to which they too had grown accustomed. After all, I wore the robes, was there under the aegis of Geshe Rabten’s dharma center, and had a responsibility to represent the orthodoxy. I felt that my delivery was wooden and lifeless, but afterward I was praised for my wisdom and insight. I shuddered inwardly. I’d finally earned the right to teach, but I felt like a fraud. It was time to leave.
I felt my departure as a going forth to homelessness. Buddha’s original intention was to free his followers from the all-consuming commitment of the householder life and to leave behind the illusion of security. He didn’t advocate community life for his bhikshus but instructed them, “Wander forth, O monks. Let no two go the same way.” I was beginning to realize just how much could change in the two-and-a-half millennia between the communities that gathered around Buddha in northern India and today’s renewed Tibetan tradition. The Tibetans had to be understood in their cultural context. By extension, I also had to admit my needs as a Westerner and walk a path sufficiently broad for my exasperatingly sophisticated baggage.
I’d acquired some marketable skills and might have found a place in any number of monastic or academic institutions, but I’d had enough of ivory towers and was bitterly aware that scholasticism tends to make things more exclusive, not more accessible. The direction that instinctively emerged was much less convenient. I would abandon everything, go somewhere unknown, and enter the great rat race. I trusted that whatever I’d learned of truly practical significance would continue to grow in me, and that whatever had been arcane, self-perpetuating dogma would fade. In the meantime, I’d live like most other people, find out what the lay life was like, and perhaps even discover why they call it “real” life.
Abandoning the sense of belonging to a group that held the key to enlightenment was a wrenching experience that left me feeling isolated for years, but once made, the decision proved irreversible. Clinging to this security had undermined the most important aspect of my practice—that of critical thinking. And yet, without the refuge of my formative years, how would I have acquired such a clear notion of where I was going and of the unique and creative nature of every path?
Two decades later, I owe a great deal to the lay life. I prefer words of common sense and humor to the flowery epithets of wisdom and compassion. I think less about Awakening than simply staying awake to the enlightening moments that are everywhere for anyone who pays attention. It’s not about belonging at all, but letting go.
I indulge myself too, and look back on the days of my monkhood with wonder and fondness. The people with whom I shared those huge idealistic dreams are dearer to me than I would ever have imagined. And although at first I horribly missed the moral support of a community, the sacrifice has been more than worthwhile: as the idealism has faded, the dreams have become unexpectedly real.
The Buddha taught for many years, but the dharma he explained wasn’t about acquiring knowledge; it was about changing the mind. It doesn’t take a lifetime of study. We all practice as we learn, all at our own rates.
I first encountered Buddhism as one who’d found his way, but I promptly got lost again in the very words that were supposed to set me free. Still, I remain in awe of the man Siddhartha Gautama and his skillful teachings, a treasure that not only survived the fossilizing effect of sanctification but even penetrated my thick skull. I’m as profoundly grateful to the teachers who maintained its vitality as I am to the instinct that led me off on my own. I think that all those who feel so inclined should study the old languages and texts of Buddhism, even take ordination and rise in the hierarchy—but never let down their guard against the illusion of security. There is nothing to hang on to. The path emerges from a personal, surprisingly innate sense of direction and not from what’s expected of us by those who supposedly know better. Staying awake means continually reevaluating the ground on which we walk. Buddha wasn’t trying to be humble when he told us to think for ourselves; it’s the very essence of his teaching:
Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought, “This monk is our teacher.” When you know in yourselves, “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice and abide in them.
—From the Kalama Sutra