SAN DIEGO – A small, high cabin with three large windows stands in a green grove. On the raised platform outside the entrance, an old but clean metal pitcher is perched on a portable gas burner. Flip-flops lie in a corner. I, too remove my shoes and enter the small, 9-square-meter room. Quite a few books and four photo albums are hidden behind curtains; on the floor, a thin mattress. Hanging on the wall are three pictures of Buddhist monks, anonymous to me, and another photograph whose subjects I know very well: my parents. The monk who lives in this modest cabin in Southern California is my brother.
I’ll never forget the day when Yam announced that he was leaving. He’d begun to prepare us a year in advance, and all I could think of then was that I had a year to set things right, a year in which to understand what I had done wrong as a sister and what we had done wrong as a family. The difficulty the decision entailed was still written on his face. He felt responsible, perhaps even guilty, for having ostensibly disappointed us.
Now, almost two years later, I found a tranquil, sound man. He fits in well in the commando of monks in the Metta Forest Monastery north of San Diego. Like him, the other monks excelled in whatever they did previously, but elected to switch their Western ways for the life of a Buddhist monastic. My brother was a computer programmer at the age of 19 and did his army service in an elite technological unit of the Israel Defense Forces. After his release, companies in the civilian market fought for him, and at the age of 22 he was earning as much as senior high-tech people.
Like him, most of the other monks here left impressive careers early on. The group includes a physicist, a pilot, two lawyers, a paramedic who was about to complete medical school – and that’s just a partial list of the robed intellectual elite here. And if you’re imagining a withdrawn bunch who, though displaying higher-than-average intelligence, are deficient in human-relations skills, let me say that, like my brother, these young men exude charisma. My brother was always surrounded by friends, and at the time he decided to become a monk he’d been in a years-long relationship with a marvelous woman (he thought so, too, even when he made the decision).
These monks left a life of material abundance to spend their nights in a sleeping bag, and for one meal a day, humdrum work 12 hours a day and a spiritual cornucopia that, they say, fills them with happiness. Happiness, not euphoria. There is no euphoria in the Metta Forest Monastery. Nor is there any sense of a mission among a community that’s “seen the light,” as one might have expected. People here aren’t eager to explain to others why this is the best thing that ever happened to them. There are no spiritual activities, there’s no invitation to intellectual philosophizing, no Buddhist romanticizing, and above all, no flattering of the Western palate.
Begging for alms
The Metta Forest Monastery, which is based on the Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism, is surrounded by mountains, lying amid avocado groves, and overlooking a never-ending verdant landscape. There are 11 monks, 10 of them Westerners, led by the abbot and meditation teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu, more popular known as Ajahn Geoff. In addition to the monks, there are a few permanent residents – people who chose to live the religious tradition to the full but are unable to become monks for one reason or another. There’s an overwhelming Western majority in this group, too. Also present are guests, some of whom have come for a few days, others for a few months. Statistically, most of them will be back.
Members of a vibrant, local Thai community arrive mainly on weekends and enable the monastery to thrive thanks to their donations. (Contrary to my fears, the monastery did not take my brother’s savings, or those of any of the other monks.) In accordance with Buddhist tradition, the community and the monastery have a reciprocal relationship: The community provides the essential material needs for the monastery’s existence (the monks are prohibited from coming into contact with money or using it; they are also barred from owning property), and the monastery supplies the community with what it needs spiritually. This relationship is interesting, even amusing at times, in light of the fact that most of the monks are blue-eyed redheads.
Visitors to Metta Forest are integrated into its regular schedule, which repeats itself seven days a week. The first meditation begins at 5:30 A.M. and lasts an hour. From 6:45 until 8:30, all the monks, guests and residents perform the morning tasks. Those who aren’t monks usually help prepare the large and magnificent breakfast, made with donated food, in the spick-and-span kitchen. There’s only one daily meal here; for the rest of the day, the monks abstain completely from food or drink, other than water and tea.
At 8:30, a daily ritual begins in which the monks arrive with their food bowls (monks are prohibited from cooking or preparing food themselves and are dependent on the community’s generosity), into which the eager believers deposit a symbolic portion of rice as alms. The ritual concludes with everyone walking up the hill to the sala, the central meditation hall, where the splendid repast that has been prepared is served. During the monks’ meal, an hour-long ceremony of chanting is conducted, based on Buddhist prayers in the ancient Pali language; translated texts are distributed to those present. The emphasis here is on the principle that every person is responsible for his own fate through his actions, and a wish is recited for all people to be happy and free of suffering. After this daily ritual, residents and guests partake of their meal.
A cleanup period follows, after which, until 4 P.M., guests are invited to engage in contemplation and meditation, to stroll in the lovely grove, and to read and study. At 4 in the afternoon, everyone returns to the sala for a session of questions and answers with the abbot. Although the questions are naturally spiritual in character, there is no hairsplitting here. In fact, there aren’t always questions. The atmosphere in the Metta Forest Monastery doesn’t encourage chitchat.
Following the gathering, the guests again donate their time and energy to everyday tasks. At 7 P.M., there is another meditation session with chants, to which everyone comes clean and washed. Bedtime is 8:30.
All the residents of the monastery are required to follow eight precepts. The five basic Buddhist precepts prohibit taking life, stealing, engaging in forbidden sexual activity, telling lies and consuming alcohol or intoxicating drugs. Those who live in the monastery follow an additional three precepts: They refrain completely from all erotic and even flirtatious activity; from listening to music and dancing; from using cosmetics; from eating more than once a day, and from eating between midday and dawn.
The 11 monks are committed to observing 219 additional rules, which ensure their material life only to the point of survival. Talking to them is almost impossible. They wander about the grounds, immersed in their world. While striving to achieve control over their thoughts and actions, they must give up notions such as desire, ego and need. The other residents are more amenable to conversation, though all of them are hyper-modest and they are sparing in their words.
Asfen is a good-looking young Norwegian who is about to take the vows and become a monk. His period of candidacy (a year or so is the standard period) has been studded with physical and mental difficulties intended to test his devotion and commitment to the path. In particular, the question of whether he will be able to wear the robe honorably is put to the test. During this period, candidates live in a remote cabin, learn the Pali language, in which the Buddhist holy texts are written, and also clean, wash, sweep, carry, build and do whatever else is needed.
Like everyone else here, Asfen is reticent about what he did in his life before coming to sweep the monastery. His fluent English and intelligent comments suggest a past filled with possibilities. Asked what brought him to the monastery and why he decided to become a monk, he replies simply and straightforwardly: “Because it makes me happy.” Everyone here responds in those exact words.
All options were also apparently available to Tan Tim (“Tan” is an honorific for monks), who grew up in San Diego. He studied physics and was involved with laser systems, his brother is an officer in an elite unit of the United States armed forces, and his father runs a successful business that supplies equipment for solar energy. His parents are an exceptionally warm couple. When I met them, on the morning of my brother’s ordination ceremony, they told me very openly that two years earlier, they’d felt as though Tim’s ordination day was their doomsday. Despite their support, their feeling was that they were attending their son’s funeral.
“I had expectations for my children from the day they were born,” his father told me the next day. But all those expectations – for him to own a home, have a good job, father children and grandchildren – vanished on the day Tim was ordained as a monk. Still, he said, by the end of that day he was able to understand something else: that he no longer needed to bear the heavy burden of concern for his son.
“What do I want?” the father continued. “For him to be safe, happy, for him to have it good. So I understood that he’s in a place where he’s looked after, that he looks after himself, that I can be a lot less worried about him. Since then, I’ve felt good about his choice.” He visits his son frequently, he said, at least once every two weeks.
One happy discovery I made about the monastery – particularly as a relative of someone who has chosen to adopt this foreign world – is that it preserves a place for the monk’s former life for his family, even for his name. Visiting relatives are received with respect and love, and apparently the few objects that remain in the monks’ possession are photos and albums from the past. There’s no penitence, no remorse for past sins, no rebirth names, no erasure of history.
Danielle, an articulate woman in her early 40s, has lived in Metta Forest for three years. The holder of an MBA from Harvard, she encountered meditation during her undergraduate years, when she studied political science and international relations in preparation for a career in politics. Gradually she drew closer to the tools that Buddhism provides for a life of reduced stress, until finally she decided to forgo a family life and a career, and moved to California in order to learn directly from the master whose talks she had listened to online. Danielle cannot be ordained, because the tradition practiced here does not accommodate female monastics. “But I’d be happy to be a nun if I could,” she told me.
The gender separation is due to reasons of modesty. According to Buddhist tradition, a group of at least five people is needed in order to maintain a monastery and only a man is allowed to train male monks. The last female nunnery disappeared in the 13th century, and only men now wear the orange robe.
Edie also gave up a family and a successful career as a family doctor to devote her life to spiritual practice in the monastery. She felt that her work was detracting from her ability to meditate, “and in fact was detracting from my goal of leading a happy life free of tension.” As she had grown up in an American family of Thai origin, her decision to give up her career was perceived as a noble one. She doesn’t live full-time in the monastery, because it’s important for her to be with her parents, too, but she has forsaken the idea of raising a family of her own.
Forgoing a family is a meaningful point, perhaps the most meaningful. I know my brother wanted children and anticipated that event. Everyone in the family looked forward to the day when he and his partner, who looked like perfect future parents, would have children. I asked him whether he didn’t think it was a waste for someone like him not to have offspring. He smiled the familiar smile that means he doesn’t wish to go into the matter. He was not interested in convincing me how worthwhile his decision was.
John, a tall American with smiling eyes who retired not long ago, was washing dishes energetically. It’s not his first time here and certainly won’t be his last, but now that he’s retired from his managerial job, he can come for a month at a time. Becoming a monk is out of the question, because he has a family, a wife and children whom he loves, but at the monastery he follows all the rules rigorously. While he scrubs pots, he relates that while Buddhism wasn’t alien to him, growing up in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, it had never especially attracted him. He doesn’t consider himself a spiritual person, but he’s always been drawn to the beauty and simplicity of nature. When he started to meditate and discovered the talks by Ajahn Geoff, however, he found himself enthralled by Buddhism.
Almost everyone in the monastery has one thing in common: They came here after looking for online tools to improve their meditation practice and discovered Ajahn Geoff’s internet talks. It is clear after a conversation with the abbot what has drawn his listeners to California to meet him personally. He has a true radio voice – quietly charismatic, soft yet assertive, with rapid inflections. His speech generates a tranquil, meditative atmosphere.
Geoff, who’s also blue-eyed, was born Geoffrey DeGraff in 1949, on a ranch in the northern United States. He father was a farmer, and his mother a writer. The Christian spirit and religion, including the value of manual labor, pervaded his home. He was first exposed to Eastern thought as a teenager when a new neighbor who’d moved from California brought over a book titled “Cosmic Consciousness.”
He took a course in Buddhism when attending Oberlin College and was introduced to meditation. After graduation, he responded to an ad for a teaching position in a university in Thailand, where he began to pursue meditation more seriously. When his mother died, he spent a few months in a monastery in northern Thailand, which he says helped him cope with his bereavement.
When he got back to regular life, he says, he looked around and realized that no one was as happy as his meditation teacher. “I wanted to be happy, so I went on learning from him until his death.” In 1990, he was invited to join a project to establish a monastery in California. The American monk accompanied the abbot mainly as an interpreter, and when the abbot died, in 1993, Geoffrey became the head of the monastery – Ajahn Geoff.
From the day of its inception, he says, Metta Forest has avoided all missionary activity, but he doesn’t deny that its popularity is soaring. In the past few years, probably thanks largely to the internet, “the monastery has become truly international,” Ajahn Geoff says. In addition to Americans, there are people who come from France, New Zealand, South America and Scandinavia, “and now we even have an Israeli,” he notes with a smile.
Following my stubborn effort to understand why people are flocking to his monastery, Ajahn Geoff replies, “I try to maintain the teachings as close as possible to what the Buddha taught, what my teachers taught, without trying to change things to fit with American culture. Some of my analogies are drawn from everyday life in America, but the basic principles are ones I learned over there.”
Beyond the veneration for monks that exists in the Thai tradition, he explains, Western monks are held in even greater respect. “A young Thai man who has reached a certain age will be encouraged at home to embark on this path,” he says. The respect and prestige that accrue to the monk’s family, and the belief that life in a monastery will endow the young man with important values for life, can encourage a mother who feels that her son is leading a very protected life. “Young women may even urge their potential partner to become a monastic for a few years, and their value in society will rise. Consequently, the motivation of a young person from Thailand might be very different from that of someone from some other culture, who will usually go through the opposite process with his family.” Indeed, this man knows whereof he speaks.
Does a person have to give up all superficial pleasures in order to achieve happiness?
“You don’t have to give up all superficial joy; the Buddha said that you don’t have to abandon any pleasures that are in accordance with the dharma [“cosmic law and order”; also, the teachings of Buddha] but it’s going to be an individual matter in many cases, what kind of pleasures those will be. Some people can live in a relatively comfortable environment and strain their mind very well. Other people find that they have to go through more hardship before the mind is willing to settle down. There are certain pleasures, I mean the pleasures that would come from breaking the precepts of killing or stealing or illicit sex, alcohol, lying, those are out. But simple physical pleasures, it would really depend on the individual. It’s useful for a potential practitioner to deny himself something every now and then, to see if he can get along without it.”
It is the tremendous popularity of meditation and yoga in the West that is bringing people to his monastery, but Ajahn Geoff has mixed feelings about this. “On the one hand,” he notes, “I think it’s good that the Buddhist tradition is made available to other people for them to use. The question is to what extent do these teachings give their best results when they’re taken out of their original context. There are some people who wouldn’t want to come to the original context, people who, you would have to drag them to come to a monastery, but they’d have to go down to a meditation or mindfulness center. But then what’s happened to mindfulness is that it’s become denatured; the Buddha never taught mindfulness as simply being accepting or nonjudgmental about what things happen. Mindfulness for him is the ability to simply keep something in mind, the distinction between the kind of mind states: skillful or unskillful ... if it’s something skillful then how do you nurture it in a skillful way. And this is getting missed.”
When someone wants to sell something, he observes, “The concern is ‘How do we package it so people will buy it?’ I see many [places] that were originally strictly Buddhist centers moving more and more in that direction, out of concern that the center’s not going to be able to survive unless they ... change the product, basically. And I think this is the reason why the Buddhists set up a monastic order, so that you’d have a tradition where people were living by the original principles as much as possible without any pressure to have to sell.”
His monastery, the abbot adds, is based on the original tradition. They don’t sell retreats – people are simply invited to come if they’re interested. “This is one of the reasons why it’s always been tradition that dharma is given for free. The books are given for free, the teachings are always made available for free, so if people don’t like it… well, they don’t take the gift, that’s all.”
After a week of sleeping on the floor, making do with one meal a day, cleaning pots and pans, and very few stimuli, I wondered why it was that despite the criticism I sometimes had (some of the Thai customs, for example, looked to me like a different version of a religious ritual I’m familiar with) – I wanted to return to the monastery. Cynicism doesn’t blur my awareness that, thanks to my brother, I’ve been applying some of the principles of Buddhism and it has improved the quality of my life.
Concrete changes occurred in my relations with my brother. From the moment he was ordained as a monk, we could no longer hug him, because every form of physical contact is forbidden him. But we’re just as close as we were. Although the honorific “Tan” has been added to his name, our phone calls haven’t changed. We still talk about all the things that are happening in my life – and very little about what’s happening in his.
We talk a lot about matters of spirit and society, as we always did, and we still laugh at the same jokes. The attempt to understand and to look for a rupture that possibly made my brother and the other monks choose the path they did, didn’t work.
I ask Ajahn Geoff one last question.
Do you think there are non-Buddhists who are happy? From your perspective, does everyone suffer?
“A journalist friend in Bangkok once asked me, ‘Why does Buddhism talk so much about suffering? I don’t suffer in my life.’ And I said, ‘Do you feel any stress?’ He replied, ‘Oh yes, lots of stress.’ And that’s what we’re talking about. You don’t have to be miserable to experience lots of stress in your life, or pressure, and a lot of that is self-inflicted. That’s one of the reasons we meditate: to find out why the mind inflicts these pressures on itself.”
Maybe people who think less, suffer less?
“They’re going to get old and they’re going to get sick and they’re going to die at some point. And at that point, you need something to fall back on. This is what meditation provides you with: the skills that are needed not to suffer in situations like that.”