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The Passion of the Monk
“ ‘Follow your passion’ is dangerous advice. ”
Thomas had this realization in one of the last places you might expect. He was walking a trail through the oak forest that outlines the southern bowl of Tremper Mountain. The trail was one of many that cross through the 230-acre property of the Zen Mountain Monastery, which has called this corner of the Catskill Mountains its home since the early 1980s. Thomas was halfway through a two-year stay at the monastery, where he was a practicing lay monk. His arrival, one year earlier, had been the fulfillment of a dream-job fantasy that he had nurtured for years. He had followed his passion for all things Zen into this secluded Catskills retreat and had expected happiness in return. As he stood in the oak forest that afternoon, however, he began to cry, his fantasy crumbling around him.
“I was always asking, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ ” Thomas told me when I first met him, at a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By then, several years had passed since Thomas’s realization in the Catskills, but the path that led him to that point remained clear and he was eager to talk about it, as if the recounting would help exorcise the demons of his complicated past.
After earning a pair of bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and theology, then a master’s degree in comparative religion, Thomas decided that Zen Buddhist practice was the key to a meaningful life. “There was such a big crossover between the philosophy I was studying and Buddhism that I thought, ‘Let me just go practice Buddhism directly to answer these big questions,’ ” he told me.
After graduation, however, Thomas needed money, so he took on a variety of jobs. He spent a year, for example, teaching English in Gumi, an industrial town in central South Korea. To many, life in East Asia might sound romantic, but this exoticism soon wore off for Thomas. “Every Friday night, after work, the men would gather at these street carts, which had tents extending out from them,” Thomas told me. “They gathered to drink soju [a distilled rice liquor] late into the night. During winter there would be steam coming from these tents, from all the men drinking. What I remember most, however, is that the next morning the streets would be covered in dry vomit. ”
Thomas’s search also inspired him to travel across China and into Tibet, and to spend time in South Africa, among other journeys, before ending up in London working a rather dull job in data entry. Throughout this period, Thomas nurtured his conviction that Buddhism held the key to his happiness. Over time, this daydream evolved into the idea of him living as a monk. “I had built up such an incredible fantasy about Zen practice and living in a Zen monastery,” he explained to me. “It came to represent my dream come true. ” All other work paled in comparison to this fantasy.. He was dedicated to following his passion.
It was while in London that Thomas first learned about the Zen Mountain Monastery, and he was immediately attracted to its seriousness. “These people were practicing really intense and sincere Zen,” he recalls. His passion insisted that the Zen Mountain Monastery was where he belonged.
It took nine months for Thomas to complete the application process. When he finally arrived at Kennedy airport, having been approved to come live and practice at the monastery, he boarded a bus to take him into the Catskill countryside. The ride took three hours. After leaving the city sprawl, the bus proceeded through a series of quaint towns, with the scenery getting “progressively more beautiful. ” In a scene of almost contrived symbolism, the bus eventually reached the foot of Tremper Mountain, where it stopped and let Thomas out at a crossroads. He walked from the bus stop down the road leading to the monastery entrance, which was guarded by a pair of wrought-iron gates, left open for new arrivals.
Once on the grounds, Thomas approached the main building, a four-story converted church constructed from local bluestone and timbered with local oak. “It is as if the mountain offered itself as a dwelling place for spiritual practice” is how the monks of the monastery describe it in their official literature. Pushing past the oaken double doors, Thomas was greeted by a monk who had been tasked with welcoming newcomers. Struggling to describe the emotions of this experience, Thomas finally managed to explain it to me as follows: “It was like being really hungry, and you know that you’re going to get this amazing meal—that is what this represented for me. ”
Thomas’s new life as a monk started well enough. He lived in a small cabin, set back in the woods from the main building. Early in his visit he asked a senior monk, who had been living in a similar cabin for over fifteen years, if he ever got tired of walking the trail connecting the residences to the main building. “I’m only just starting to learn it,” the monk replied mindfully.
The days at the Zen Mountain Monastery started as early as 4:30 A. M. , depending on the time of year. Remaining in silence, the monks would greet the morning with forty to eighty minutes of meditation on mats arranged with “geometric precision” in the main hall. The view outside the Gothic windows at the front of the hall was spectacular, but the mats kept the meditators too low to see out. A pair of hall monitors sat at the back of the room, occasionally pacing among the mats ...