Watch "A Reflection on Life & Career," a 25-minute documentary of Grant's experience at at Vimutti Monastery.
How does a white, upper-middle class Minnesotan become a Buddhist monk at a monastery in New Zealand? This was my first question of many as I prepared for my externship with Ajahn Chandako (James [LaBresh] Reynolds ’84) at Vimutti Buddhist Monastery this past winter break.
The Career Center’s mentor externships program gives students an immersion experience in a field of interest through shadowing and a home-stay. The idea is that insight into the day-to-day nature and lifestyle of a profession is invaluable to students who are aspiring doctors, publishers, lawyers, monks, etc. It’s also a chance to form a meaningful mentorship that lasts beyond the one to four week stay.
An externship to a Buddhist monastery might seem unrelated to my career interests as a psychology major concentrating in neuroscience and considering medicine. I was nevertheless intrigued by the opportunity because of an article I had read in a neuroscience journal detailing the changes that can happen in an experienced meditator’s brain. I also had a vague sense that I might glean insight into the “what’s-this-life-all-about” question that inevitably creeps into most college seniors’ heads.
I met Ajahn Chandako two years ago at Carleton’s Reunion while working for the Career Center as a recruiter. As I scanned the class of ‘84 that was picnicking on the Hill of Three Oaks, one member stood out. He was wearing golden-orange robes and eating out of a large, similarly colored alms bowl. I approached the group of people he was eating with and offered my spiel about the Career Center’s new programs. “Do any of these sound like something you’d be interested in?” I asked.
Ajahn Chandako looked down, swallowed, calmly placed the lid atop his alms bowl, and replied with a grin, “Yeah, totally. You just have to shave your head.” I was sold.
I later learned that monks in the tradition in which Ajahn Chandako practices do not own money, eat after midday, or sleep on anything more luxurious than a floor pad. In fact, monks in his tradition follow 227 of these precepts—rules that are meant to assist one on the path to happiness and liberation (but that also might clash with one’s idea of a good time at a college reunion). As a monastic resident, I was to follow eight precepts, some of which I expected to be easy (refraining from stealing, lying, alcohol, and sexual behavior) and others that seemed more difficult (not eating after midday, listening to music, or harming any living beings). It turned out that all of them were easy to keep, and in hindsight, my contentment in simplicity was one of the most rewarding—and challenging—parts of the experience.
Monasteries exist to provide an environment that is conducive to tranquility and focus. Life is intentionally simplified in the name of quietude, contentment, and diligent meditation practice. Therefore, mine was not as much a shadowing experience as it was one of immersion. I joined the monks for the daily meal, offered by laypeople from the surrounding community—Buddhist monks and nuns cannot eat anything that is not specifically offered to them and cannot store offered food overnight, a precept that is meant to help them develop gratitude. I would also work for four hours a day in the afternoon, usually landscaping, cutting paths, and planting. Otherwise, I spent much of my time in solitude meditating, reading, playing with a wild goat named Lucky, and exploring the 150-acre monastery.
I was fortunate enough to go on an eight-day retreat in which I meditated for eight hours a day, starting at 5:00 a.m. Thirty new people came to the monastery, but I didn’t meet a single one of them until eight days later because we took an oath of silence on day one. I was trapped in my own head with nowhere to go, and I remember feeling like I had an imaginary talkative person chained to my back and having the Scooby-Doo theme song stuck in my head for about nine hours straight. Despite the early difficulties, the majority of the retreat was deeply peaceful, and my concentration improved significantly. As inner-dialogue began to fade, I became less of a hostage to my thoughts and sensations. I began to realize what a gift the retreat was, for it helped me scratch the surface of the joy that results from peacefulness.
So, what did I learn? I didn’t discover a trove of wisdom, but I was lucky enough to appreciate familiar virtues to a much deeper level than I had previously, giving them more weight and respect in my everyday life. I felt gratitude to an extent I never had before. I became more motivated to minimize selfishness, to have positive intentions in thought, speech, and action, and to be mindful of what is and is not in my control. I realized how peaceful meditation is when practiced consistently and glimpsed how powerful it can be.
Thank you to the Career Center for funding the majority of the trip and to Jessica Mueller in particular for her guidance and enthusiasm. Readers, the video interview below is worth watching. It stars Ajahn Chandako, to whom I’m also grateful for hosting me and throwing my life for a loop.