The Birth and Death of Monks
by Sean Wilson Fargo
Thirty years old on the other side of the world, I was hot on the trail for something profoundly meaningful in my life. It was so close I could taste it.
Running on the precipice of constant burnout, I was deep in the habit of constantly seeking, doing, and pleasing. I never wanted to miss anything memorable, to feel incapable of a task, to let others down, or to feel unworthy of everyone else’s love.
I knew that what I was looking for was close, whatever it was.
On the night of my thirtieth birthday, alone on a southern Chinese island, I couldn’t stop thinking about a Chinese monk I had met who exuded something even more foreign to me: tranquility. Was this what I ultimately wanted?
The idea of following deep within his footsteps scared something very reactive inside me. That’s when I made the biggest decision of my life.
In the summer of 2008, I joined thirty men from seventeen countries to participate in a one month Buddhist monk ordination program at a temple in Thailand. That month was a wild ride—one that I wouldn’t trade for anything—and after it was over, only eight monks remained. Seven planned to disrobe after three more months of intensive meditation. I, however, decided to stay indefinitely. What had happened?
The first two weeks of the training program were essentially a boot camp. All day everyday we scrubbed toilets, cleaned each other’s laundry, mopped floors, studied mindfulness teachings, sat on hard floors (never in chairs), meditated, chanted, wore skirts (without underwear), ate everything with a fork and spoon (no fingers or knives), slept five hours per night, sat down to pee, and tried not to talk about anything that was not virtuous in nature.
Despite the hardship and trials of the first two weeks, the actual ordination was one of the best days of my life. My family flew in from the States to witness the ceremony. A spiritual advisor to the Thai King ordained me as an official monk and I was given the official Buddhist monk name of Venerable Sean Dhammiko. Dhammiko means “One Whose Faith Lies Solely in Dhamma.” Dhamma means the truth or the teachings of the Buddha.
After the ordination ceremony, we took a bus to the mountains of Northern Thailand to meditate for the final two weeks. We lived relatively lavishly in our own rooms, on mattresses, eating western food, and following a more relaxed daily regimen. My meditative abilities progressed nicely, and the abbot even spoke about some of my experiences on Thai television. It was all happening so fast, this monk thing.
On the last day of the one month program, we boarded a double-decker touring bus to return to Bangkok. Our driver was in a hurry, so he sped through the windy mountain turns, on the edge of cliffs that dropped hundreds of meters down into a river.
Feeling the sharpness of the turns, envisioning our bus falling off the mountain, I prepared for my final breath. This is what the Chinese monk taught me. Calm the mind. Soften the body. Breathe deeply. Reflect on the goodness of my life. Feel unconditional love for all beings everywhere, including myself.
That’s when our bus fell off of the road and began to roll down the mountain, seemingly in slow motion. And yet I was feeling a profound tranquility and calm that I had never experienced before.
This was it.
What I was looking for my whole life was found in this one final moment: true peace. There was nothing to do. No one to be. And I was OK with that.
Then a big tree—the only tree within miles, which happened to be at the root at the edge of a lower, final precipice—stopped the momentum of our large bus before we fell hundreds of feet off the mountain. Our bus lay on its side alone on the precipice, we were dangling in safety.
Moments later, panic ensued around me as I continued to feel calm and peaceful. I knew I had found what I was looking for.
Lying on the ceiling of the bus wedged against a side window. People scrambled to break the glass windows or desperately fling open doors. Diesel fumes filled the air inside the bus. As some of us climbed out of the bus, we struggled to rescue others still trapped inside.
In the end one person died, one was in the ICU, and many suffered broken ribs, shoulders, arms, legs, and more. I went to three hospitals and one medical center, but I was fine. X-rays and CAT scans have all confirmed this since. Nonetheless, I had glass in my feet for three days, two contusions on my head, a bruised back, cuts on my right arm, and sore hips. I experienced vertigo every once in a while, but it’s nothing that Dramamine and an IV couldn’t handle.
As a monk, I meditated as often as I could. Early morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, early evening, late evening. I tried to stay mindful when I brushed my teeth, ate my food, went to the bathroom, etc.
I meditated after I meditated, then I meditated some more. Meditate Meditate Meditate.
I could feel meditation purifying my mind. When my mind was continuously still and focused, I start noticing the little subtleties in everything, like the radiance of the colors on the flowers, the feelings behind people’s faces, the effects of energy in music, even the cuteness of the smiles on warty frogs.
Searching for this path of mindfulness, I made a lot of mistakes desiring worldly pleasures that only lead to more confusion and darkness within. Indulging in my desires only diverted me away from true happiness. I realize that I had been grasping at things my whole life, hoping that someday I could master the essence of life, hold the world in my hand and eat it. With some strawberries. And chocolate ice cream.
But now I think it’s ironic that the rest of my life will be spent letting go of everything that I grasped for. Life is not in the wanting, it is in the letting go.
Letting go of the grasping thoughts in my head, the pride and humility of my past, my anxiety about the future, the harmful social conventions that I had learned, my incessant competition with others, my pesky questions of why I had to do things, my guilt of not helping every destitute homeless person I saw, my daily struggle to keep up with current events, my fear of death, my vanity and materialism, my fault-finding mind, my worries of being picked on, my patriotism, my self-imposed need to accomplish a million-and-one things every day, and my worry of never finding Truth.
After the bus accident, I realized that peace does not lie halfway around the world in Buddhist monasteries. It lies within. I just needed to let go.
Sean Wilson Fargo is a mindfulness consultant and coach based in Oakland, California who spent two years as a Buddhist monk in Thailand. He’s the creator of MindfulnessExercises.com.
photo by Neville Wootton