A blog series chronicling my nine years as a Buddhist monk
Cooking and attending to my teacher Geshe Tsulga was one of the most precious periods of my Buddhist life. For three years he was often the first person I saw in the morning, and his gentle smile and joyful “good morning!” always made it worth the early rise to cook him breakfast. Geshe Tsulga was born in East Tibet and entered the monastery at a young age. Along with many of his fellow countrymen, he fled Tibet in 1959 into India as the People’s Republic of China occupied his homeland and went on to murder millions of Tibetans. After helping to re-establish Sera Je monastery in South India, Geshe Tsulga moved to the United States to teach, and eventually settled into being the guiding instructor at one of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Dharma centers near Boston, Massachusetts. I met him while I was attending the Berklee College of Music, and as my fondness for Buddhism grew, a position to live and cook for him at the center opened up. Moving into the peaceful environment of the Dharma center was definitely in stark contrast to the Berklee dorms, where my peers were ‘hot boxing’ the practice rooms, and conversations often revolved around the analysis of a John Coltrain solo or the newest ‘killing’ jazz player to capture their ears.
Over the the next three years I lived at the center cooking for Geshe Tsulga while I finished my course work towards a Bachelor of music degree. This was an extremely rich time for my Buddhist study and practice. It was also a rich time of connecting with other Buddhist practitioners and my teacher. In September 2003 the center had the honor of hosting His Holiness the Dalai Lama for a short teaching and blessing. Hosting the Dalai Lama was/is no small feat, and every detail of the visit was planned out months in advance. The morning of the visit we made the final touches on decorations as the local police erected barricades for the visiting crowds to stand behind. Mind you, this was all happening in a middle class Boston suburb where the locals never could have imagined that the Dalai Lama would one day visit their small corner of the world.
The excitement was palpable, and as the motorcade began to arrive escorted by local police and secret service, the Tibetan immigrant community welcomed His Holiness with beautiful singing and dancing. The scene was electric as incense wafted, sirens blared, and Tibetan women sang hauntingly. A hushed devotion filled the air, and I began to weep as the power and profundity of the moment hit me. As I wept, time stopped, and everything stood still. All of the anticipation, preparation, the sights and sounds merged together, and I was transported. It was as if His Holiness brought an entire environment of benevolence with him, one that surrounds and accompanies him as he makes his way to diverse audiences around the world. Walking into our small shrine room, His Holiness beamed as he went on to give a very generous talk to the small amount of people gathered in the room. I had never been this close to the Dalai Lama, and it was an incredibly unique experience. This being one of the highlights of my time living at the center, I also had many struggles. Over the course of living there, I ignored a lot of the relationships I had established at Berklee, and I became less interested in life as a musician. I briefly thought about dropping out of music school, but Geshe Tsulga encouraged me to stay the course.
In the spring of 2003, while still living at the center, I finished my undergrad work at Berklee. It was a relief to be done, and I was looking forward to having more space for my Buddhist practice. There was a nice period of time in here where I was able to serve my teacher, dedicate more time to meditation, and really experience life at a slower pace. Though still being in my early twenties, I eventually wanted to explore life outside of the Dharma center more. Around this time I also started producing electronic music, playing in a local indie rock band, and took up an interest in recording engineering. I eventually started hanging out with friends more frequently, and returned to playing gigs around the Boston area. This led to having to make some very difficult decisions. I loved serving, studying, and spending time with my teacher, but the center duties became overwhelming, and ultimately I felt like I was missing out on part of my youth. One morning I walked sadly into Geshe Tsulga’s room just like I had on so many occasions. Nervously, I looked my beloved teacher in the eyes, and told him that I couldn’t cook for him anymore, and that I was going to move out. There was a silence, and then a short acceptance of my decision. It broke my heart.
During the next few months I lived with friends, worked, and would visit the Dharma center weekly to continue studying. Eventually the banality of working in retail, performing in bars for no money, and living check to check wore out. It was time to go back home to California, save some money, and focus on building a fulfilling music career. Moving back in with family in my mid-twenties wasn’t ideal, but it was nice to be able to spend time with them, save money, and focus on building a career as a recording engineer. I also continued to practice and study Buddhism at a wealth of Dharma centers around the San Francisco Bay Area. The next four years passed in a flurry of semi-fulfilling music collaborations, a successful recording career, and a variety of romantic connections that didn’t quite pan out. I eventually saw into a future that I didn’t want, one characterized by a rapidly changing music industry, and an endless hustle for something so ephemeral. Now 27 years old, renunciation was starting to boil strongly within again. I was becoming more frustrated and unable to resolve the disillusionment I felt surrounded by the immaturity, fragility and materialism of the music scene, and the loneliness I felt by continually not having my needs met within romantic partnerships. It was clearly time for a change.
In the spring of 2007 I flew back to Boston to attend a group retreat with Geshe Tsulga. We spent the next three weeks reciting mantras and meditating on one of the many deity yoga practices existent within Tibetan Buddhism. As usual, sitting cross-legged for long hours was tough, but the retreat was profound and produced powerful spiritual shifts for me. By the end of the retreat I had a very strong wish to become a monk again. Though by this time I had been practicing and studying Buddhism for 7 years, and had a much more grounded idea of what it would mean to live as a Buddhist monastic in the West. It wasn’t long after I returned home to California from the retreat that I was in front of Lama Zopa Rinpoche once again asking to become a monk.
Lama Zopa’s house is like a merit making factory. While many of us choose or design our living spaces for relaxation and comfort, Lama Zopa almost does the complete opposite. The entire house is a shrine filled with Buddhist holy objects and offerings. The house needs at least 3–4 Buddhist monastics at any given time just to keep up with the daily offerings! For a non-Buddhist this may seem ridiculous and wasteful, but for Buddhist practitioners there is a deep purpose and function to this kind of activity. At 27 I walked into Lama Zopa’s (merit factory) house to meet with him once again. This time I knew without a doubt that I wanted to become a monk. Sitting at his feet that day, it was almost as if I didn’t even need to ask the question, but was merely performing a formality. I asked, and with a definitive “yes”, Lama Zopa handed me monks robes and advised me to take ordination with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at my convenience. I was overjoyed! That night I placed my new monks robes in a special spot in my room, and continued to strengthen my resolve and aspiration. In less than a year I would be in India putting on those robes as I entered the life of a Buddhist renunciate…