A Monk at a College Reunion

Last weekend I attended my 20th college reunion (at Carleton College in Northfield, MN). Since graduating classes are small by university standards (there were about 400 people in my class of ”89), students tend to know–or at least recognize–a fair number of their classmates. And since reunions include other class years as well, you can get a feel for the well-known stars of other classes, especially when they make featured presentations.

One of the stars of the class of ”84 was Ajahn Chandako, abbot of a Buddhist monastery in New Zealand. In his college years, his name was Jim Reynolds. In his PowerPoint presentation, he showed a photo of his Carleton ID picture when he was Jim: a face with an open smile surrounded by long curly blond hair (very different from his now-shaved head–though the smile is the same). Back then he seemed to be a star for a very different reason: he played drums in a few bands, and lived to free-spirited excess in some familiar college ways (it would appear, from his hints and the knowing chuckles of his classmates). He interpreted Buddhism back then as a process of going with the flow and having no rules. He–like I would be a few years later–was a Religion major.

Then during summers between college, Jim began going on Zen retreats in the Twin Cities, with Katagiri Roshi (someone now deceased whose path I keep crossing through those who learned meditation from him–the writer Natalie Goldberg, and also my friend Zuiko Redding, the Zen teacher in Cedar Rapids). He found that he really took to the silence and the rhythm of meditation, and began to do longer retreats in subsequent summers. It began to dawn on him that a monkish life suited him, and just a few years out of college, he entered a monastery full time in Thailand (after first traveling through Tibet and writing a book called The Outer Path: Finding My Way in Tibet). He explained that the first 10-15 years are entirely occupied with learning how to be a monk, fully and deeply–including how to keep the long rectangular cloth that is worn from falling off while you are out for your daily begging rounds. Eventually the longing of westerners for monasteries led him to respond to the request that he work at monasteries in Oregon, then in New Zealand (where he founded a monastery).

He seemed to be a sane, grounded human being. I liked the way he spoke of the first years in the monastery as being very much about coming to terms with all the karmic darkspots in yourself (I can”t remember his own exact wording), until you simply become more yourself–less burdened by ego. He seemed a transparent, down-to-earth sort of person whom I and my friend Eric instinctively sensed to be trustworthy. I”ve met a number of people with those qualities–Christian and Buddhist and otherwise–and I was already familiar with a lot of the Buddhist rituals and teachings he showed in his photos or referred to in his speech.

But what was interesting to me to witness was what Ajahn seemed to mean to his classmates from the class of ”84. Throughout his talk they interrupted him with questions. I could tell the question came from the class of ”84 when it was prefaced with his first name, “Jim, . . .” They spoke his name familiarly, sometimes with a note of respect, sometimes with a note of possession (this is our very own monk!), sometimes with an air of leveling or debunking. The questions were typical ones (about his experience with this or that in the monastery, or about the basic teachings of Buddhism). But it was the tones of voice that struck me. This was not an audience gathered for a dharma talk–a Buddhist sermon. This was an audience that knew Ajahn when he was Jim, and was terribly curious about the path his life had taken since then. Because of his classmates” familiarity with the Jim of old, the attitudes in their questions ranged from near-awe to an assumed intimacy that seemed to say he was really “just one of them”–or that his experience was somehow their very own.

One of my own classmates (from ”89) seemed to experience the awe side of the spectrum. “Listening to him talk was like listening to a redwood tree!” she exclaimed. I liked this image–though what most impressed me about Ajahn was his straightforward commitment to living in a steady and wise way, with no pretensions. I didn”t see anything particularly magical or awe-inspiring about him. This seemed fitting.

And I wonder if he”d have drawn such a crowd if he”d become a Christian monk, rather than a Buddhist one. Carleton is a secular college (the chaplain–for whom I worked as a student–facilitates religious activities for all religious groups on campus, from Christian to Muslim to pagan and druid). And Buddhism still seems more exotic to most westerners, and at the same time, to those jaded on loud conservative Christian voices, more rational (especially with its non-theism). But it was clear that he”d stumbled upon a well of water he had not known existed, and decided that being nourished by that well was the most practical thing he could do with this life.

Sitting in conversation with some of my own classmates in a discussion about our lives 20 years out, I noticed that wisdom and perceptiveness and courageous struggle–with the inner and the outer
life–was present in those of us “in the world” as well. I suspect there is more continuity than discontinuity between thoughtfully lived lives in and out of a monastery. But the class of ”84 reminded me that there is a particular shining blessing–and challenge–borne by those who make a commitment to a monastic discipline that surrenders the orientation to reproduction and moneymaking that defines most human lives.

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