India + Sri Lanka, September 2009



I bought Ryan and myself tickets to India one afternoon after giving myself an ultimatum, noose in one hand and Expedia dot com on the other.  Change, or get out of here.  I decided to change.  India seemed like one of those transformational places you go when you really, really hate everything and need a good henna-stained bitch slap.

We decided to visit our friend Jason (*name changed to protect monk-identity).  Also from Hawaii, he turned monk a few years ago, and now studies with 4,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks at the Sera Je Monastic University.  His every endeavor works towards transforming his mind, in order to achieve authentic happiness.  What better way to rediscover my happiness–than to spend a week with a man who would bet his next four lives that he’s on the slow, scenic route to nirvana?  I appreciated the fact that his path– all the way in India, all the way at no-sex university–was called crazy by the people who I called crazy.  At first glance, Jason’s life seemed to be the opposite of enjoyable–six days a week from before dawn to way past dusk, he studies Tibetan, memorizes Tibetan texts, debates the tenets of Buddhist philosophy, chants hours of prayers and mantras.  For 18 years.  Jason is on year three.  Also, his name is no longer Jason, but Namjong.

(I call him Jason.)

Monk Fact: No sexual contact is a root vow taken by all Buddhist monks.

Monk Fact: The number one reason monks disrobe is for romantic love.

Jason used to be a part of the dating world, pre-monk, even dating a former Miss Hawaii.  He attended the same high school as Obama, graduated with a degree in Philosophy from an Ivy League university (watch out!), and while traveling the world following a successful corporate job, became interested in yoga (sexy!), then meditation, and finally, stopped doing the nasty (record scratch).  To Jason, it made sense.  To me, it’s as though he went from not eating cow, to not consuming all living creatures, to not bumping uglies for the rest of his able life.  To this, I had a few thoughts: A lot can get done in a day minus sex and Facebook.  And, Jason was hot.  Hot despite his robes, voluntary baldness, and the fact he doesn’t kill mosquitoes.  Or roaches.  Or women with a stare that says, Mediate on this, bitch.

Indeed, at Sera Je, I found it strange being surrounded by 2,700 men who wouldn’t even touch me with another monk’s prayer book.  It confused me on how to act.  It wasn’t that these 2,700 men have taken a strict vow against all sexual contact, but that a high percentage had never even gotten to third base.  Here at the Sera Je Monastery, my fine piece of ass was worth 0 rupees.  My market value was no value.  I had supply for no demand.

Being in monk world made me understand economics for the first time in my life.

My vagina identity crisis lead me to focus on other aspects of my personality, such as my personality. This didn’t last long, as I woke up on day three at the monastery with searing pain between my legs.  Figuring in detached horror that one of India’s mountain spiders went downtown, I took some ibuprofen and allergy meds, tried my best to when in Rome, and not think about my vagina.

It wasn’t easy.  Monks have worked hard to achieve what I haven’t–which is mental fortitude, mind over genital agony.  Ryan and I would wake up at 5:00am to catch the 5:30am puja—a ritual prayer session inside the monastery.  The chanting was right between monotone and melodious; prayers ended with anti-climatic moans, as voices fell steeply off the staff.  As non-religious as I am, there was a supernatural peace to the thousands of male voices, filling the soundless morning with life.  It was always misty dim at dawn, adding to the surreal scene as endless streams of monks floated up village side streets in their dark robes.  In these mornings, I couldn’t tell if I was still in dream world.

I was learning slowly that the answer to this question is always yes.

At first, I felt concerned for Jason/Namjong.  He gave up the parts of life we consider joyful–singing and playing music with friends, Lady Gaga, Team Jacob, Starbucks, sleeping in, cold beer, hot sex–to live on the other side of the world from home, wear the same maroon robe every day, eat dahl every day, pray for hours in Tibetan every day, and not give into any desire but the desire to become a monk.  How does his spiritual monogamy lead to happiness today–much less in 18 years when he finishes his study? While there are many scholarly things one could write about Buddhist tradition and practice, what concerns me the most about Jason/Namjong is that he is hot and hot men shouldn’t pursue nirvana.  At least not the reincarnating through centuries of progressively more realized states nirvana.  He doesn’t seem like a monk—he seems so normal, the soft-spoken-but-clever guy on a reality TV show every girl has a crush on, the smart good guy I would set up with my friends if he wasn’t celibate and didn’t carry a prayer wheel everywhere, the guy who is pensive but in a good way, short but tall, Asian but not totally.  His monkhood, while full of good karma, is a great loss to the dating world.

Three months later, thinking about Jason, and about how I’m writing and he’s still not having sex–I’ve shifted towards the understanding side on the spectrum of understanding.  What if instead of a Buddhist monk community, it was a self-supported writing community?  I could live with thousands of bald writers, somewhere beautiful and remote, and all day we’d write and study words.  If our lives were dedicated to understanding existence through writing, bliss through writing, writing through writing–and I had to give up material things–gym membership, my MacBook Pro, holiday-themed bikini waxing–I could do it.  But I’d draw the line at romantic love.  Love is one of the few experiences in my life that’s always on the “pro” side.  I can be contentedly single for years, but love gives me a balanced sort of mania.  I fall in love with myself, my words, my dreams again through another person, who sees me new.

Jason takes each of his monk vows with joy, certain they will help him reach the place he defines as happiness—but in our own lives, we all decide what we are willing to sacrifice to “get there.”  I realized, during our first week in India–that I was acting a lot like an Asian father—judging Jason the same way my father judges me—asking how can you give up the very things that make me happy–that give my life meaning?  Jason’s decisions made me look closer at my own imbalances, misplaced values, and dependencies.  Financial security makes my father happy; doing what I love—which includes love–makes me happy; meticulous ritual and breaking down emotions into malleable cognitive processes makes Jason happy.  To me, Jason seems to be on the hard road to happiness.  To my father, so am I.  It’s always a hard road, because none of us have the passport stamp for our ultimate destination.  We can’t even see past the next sharp curve.  We have too many blind spots; we focus our rearview mirrors on parts of our lives that justify what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

We move forward by looking back.

Sri Lanka

We left the monastery in a quintessential Indian downhill rickshaw ride, where we miraculously defied both death and near-death.  Twenty-minute ride, two-hour bus, ten-minute rickshaw, seven-hour train, 30-minute rickshaw, seven-hour wait, one-hour plane, and a three-hour taxi ride later, we arrived at my friend Nick’s home in the hill country of Sri Lanka.  At this point, my Darth Vajayjer was in a feverish rage.  Walking made me cry a little, sitting made me nauseated with pain, and urinating had me speaking in tongues.  I had tried to seek help at the monastery, but the doctor was in America, and the only person who could see me was a monk nurse.  I didn’t want the monk nurse’s introduction to vagina to be mine, even though it would probably convince him to be a monk in this life and the next 20.  When I arrived at Nick’s—I started popping some Cipro.  And Ambien.  And drinking Three Coins, Sri Lanka’s most excellent beer.

Two days later, the memory of my vagina’s last stand actually fading thanks to the Cipro, I uploaded our photos from India.  As the photos flashed one-by-one on my MacBook screen, I saw monks, children, the sunset, and a flash of what could only be the infected nub on my left labia meets the crypt keeper.

“Ryan, what the hell?”

Apparently, after the Cipro, Ambien, and Three Coins, I thought Voldemort Junior would make good slideshow material for the folks back home.

If only memories were as easily emptied as the little trashcan on my desktop.

I met Nick six years ago, when I moved to a small town in southwest Bulgaria as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  He was running the organization he founded–Orphan Sponsorship International.  He was American, I was American–we were meant to be friends, meant to come together in the evenings, discuss our work frustrations over Kamentiza beer, catching a little cancer in the smoke-filled cafes.  When he moved to Sri Lanka, I took over his work in Bulgaria, his frustrations, orphans ringing the doorbell at 7:00am saying they needed new school shoes immediately.  And tampons.  And a Ferrari.  After I finished my work in Bulgaria, and moved back to America, Nick insisted I come to Sri Lanka, at least to visit–the kids are amazing–he insisted–and they never ask for Ferraris

Finally, I was here—at Nick’s house in Bandarawela, a town in the lower right half of the Sri Lanka tear.  We spent our days in Nayabedde—a small, impoverished tea estate village nearby, where Nick works with social orphans, trying to do the best he can by his motto–you can’t change the world, but you can change the world of a child.

Nick is the only person who has told me that if he dies tomorrow, he’d be happy with what he has done with his life.  He doesn’t make a single rupee from his sponsorship work–to survive he builds a website here and there, and thus lives a life as ascetic as the monks at the Sera Je Monastery.  He studies books on ancient Greek and Roman politics and philosophy  to unwind.  He likes to think for thinking’s sake, prefers an isolated life to one where he wakes up every morning to silent emergency sirens blaring in his head–the ones that make Americans jump out of bed and into khakis–that fear of failure, that desperate search for security.  Nick, his books, his beautiful home for $150.00 a month, children and families whose gratitude he is too humble to fully accept—Nick has determined what defines enough, and he has enough.  His life, I could move into.

Almost.  For three weeks, it’s idyllic.  We spend every day with the kids, play games we make up on the spot, visit homes where we dance and sing, drink milk tea and throw birthday parties.  Everything we experience is simultaneously profound and superficial, because we do not speak Tamil.  Still—it’s here, in the middle of poverty, where I experience travel’s most addicting feeling—that feeling that I’m in my favorite place in the world, here in the hills, quilted bright tea tree green, the kids sprinting out of the one-room school in a giant dust cloud, beautiful in their white uniforms, bare feet, hundreds of smiles too wide for such small faces.  (The moment I smile back, we are no longer strangers.)  But our games, the easy laughter and gentle hand holding–these are the best parts I remember about the Peace Corps, condensed, minus the daily challenges of community development and volunteer Chlamydia epidemics.  I remember how language opened a door I sometimes wished I could slam shut, and actual working with orphanages and the organizations– trying to change things with my American backpack full of tricks–is as easy as squeezing Type AB negative blood from a potato.  But you try because you can’t be human and not try.  What we from any-class America don’t comprehend, is that not everyone in the world looks at their neighbor and sees a human being, an equal, a child worth saving.

On one of our last days in Bandarawela, I woke up with one eye swollen shut.  The next morning I woke up with the other eye swollen shut.  Rather than running down the hall screaming “Metaphor!  Metaphor!”–I let Ryan call me the Hunchback, and remind me it could be worse, it could be my vagina.  I was suspicious of the culprits, because we were using “Ninja”–a Glade plug-in looking device that filled the house with a constant spray of bug killer.  (If it was killing little things, it was probably giving us a little bit of cancer.)  We had been talking a lot about cancer, because on our second day here, Nick’s dad was diagnosed with cancer of the pleura–the smooth membrane that surrounds the lungs, a body part that hardly seems worth learning the name of, until you get cancer there.  The only cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure, which happened to Nick’s dad in the navy during wartime.  It was good for Nick that we were here, because he is always alone, which is fine, until dad gets terminal cancer and only has a few months left, and dad’s in Iowa–and who can he talk to about being so far, about always having felt so far, besides the kids, who speak Tamil and Sinhalese.  He wouldn’t talk to them about what he is going through, because they’re kids.  Kids whose grandmother puts them on the streets to beg, whose dad died and mom works all day in the tea estates for $2.00 a day, who are all Tamil in a country that has killed Tamil people.  We will never talk to them about anything that’s hard for us, because there is nothing that can touch what they suffer now and what they might suffer tomorrow.  And the amazing thing is they are not suffering.  Not as much as we think they should be.  So many withouts, that they have no sense of without, each is canceled out by another.  Here children laugh hysterically at a funny face, dance joyously, excitedly show you a certificate they won for placing 3rd in a long jump competition 5 years ago.  We brought apples to school. In Nayabedde, apples were Ferraris.  It’s funny how strongly you begin to miss moments, children, happiness while they’re happening.  And that’s life—always being nostalgic for the present, learning to be thankful for what we have before it’s gone.


One Response to “India + Sri Lanka, September 2009”

  1. 1 TOMMY SHIH PHOTOGRAPHY » Chromatic Magazine Cover Story – Tim Fagan

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