Monk(ey) Business Part 1: Meeting God
A blog series chronicling my nine years as a Buddhist monk
The first time I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche it was sort of like meeting God. Walking into the room, he filled it with a curious other worldly presence. As the other students bowed down or cried as he touched their heads, I felt a strange combination of fear, as if my ego was going to be annihilated on the spot, and a deep exhale as if arriving home. This may sound too religious or cult like, and I guess it could have been if Lama Zopa wasn’t such an outstanding being. All I knew at the time was that I was feeling a deep primal rumbling at the core of my being, something I couldn’t explain, but was profoundly nourishing and familiar to me.
About one year before I met Lama Zopa, I started having dreams where he would suddenly appear. The dreams were both exciting and confusing, full of precious advice presented in sometimes ridiculous circumstances. At the time I knew there was something very special coming into my life, but I didn’t have the cultural frame work to place it in. All I had were some half-baked fantasies about Tibetan yogis, and an exhaustion with my current world view. Around this same time I started to have a deep longing to live as a Buddhist monastic. It didn’t come from any practical or realistic expectations of what that might mean, or how I would do it, but was just there.
In the summer of 2002, two years after my first encounter with Lama Zopa, I was again sitting face to face with him at a five-week group retreat in Barnet, Vermont. By this time I had become more serious about my Buddhist practice, and was living at a Buddhist center in Massachusetts, studying, cooking for, and attending to the resident teacher Geshe Tsulga, a monk from Tibet. The retreat in Vermont was tough! Lama Zopa is known to start a teaching in the early evening, and often finish at 2, 3, and sometimes 4am! My legs started to hurt so bad that I ended up tying a sweater together to hold my knees up throughout the long practice and teaching sessions.
Throughout much of my life, the religious and mundane have seemed to mingle and follow me around, interlinked, as if alerting me to the view that all aspects of life need to be seen and integrated, and that the spiritual path is not necessarily about ignoring or transcending the mundane, but learning to wake up within it. This five-week group retreat was no exception, as I came to the retreat with the wish to talk to Lama Zopa about becoming a monk, and ended up spending part of the retreat breaks sneaking off into a field to make out with a new friend I met upon arriving. At the time these were like two polar opposites tugging at me from different directions, but in retrospect sort of made sense.
About half-way through the retreat I awoke to the pleasant news that my request to have a private audience with Lama Zopa had been granted. That day, the morning and early afternoon sessions flew by, as I couldn’t wait to ask Lama Zopa the questions I had been preparing. I was also incredibly anxious, as I was planning to ask Lama Zopa if I could become a monk. By this point in the retreat I was torn. I didn’t want to admit to myself that maybe I wasn’t ready to become a monk, and instead, frolicked in the field with my new lover, and at other times entertained fantasies of what it would be like to live as a Buddhist monk. I also had some really rich inner experiences at this time, as we were meditating all day, and receiving teachings each night.
Later that day I walked into a tiny cabin behind the main kitchen for my meeting with Lama Zopa. He could have had any number of rooms to stay in during the retreat, but instead he chose to take shelter in a small rustic cabin in a large field. Walking in, I barely had room to prostrate, and as I sat cross-legged in front of him I shook with anxiety. Nervously introducing myself, I asked him if he thought it was a good idea for me to become a monk. Taking out his divination dice, he cast them, and then remained silent. “Sure, you can become a monk if you’d like, but in three years there will be an obstacle to keeping the vows.” My elation turned to dread as the answer seemed to mirror my own doubt and uncertainties. I had heard stories that Lama Zopa previously ordained people on the spot who expressed the wish to become a Buddhist monastic, so what was wrong with me? Wasn’t my passion and wish enough? I walked out of his tiny cabin that afternoon with more questions, feeling a combination of wonder, dejection, and reprieve. It would be another six years of deep reflection and searching before I was in front of Lama Zopa asking to become a monk again…