A story about a young Buddhist monk from Cambodia, the difficulty of transcending desire, and a friendship that did not go as planned.
“Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun’s melting rays. Dreams and a restlessness of the soul came to him.” -Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
I’ve been wanting to find a way to tell this story since 1997, when I stumbled into one of the most extraordinary friendships of my life.
Arun* was a Buddhist monk, but he didn’t want to be. Of course, I didn’t know that when I first knocked on his door. Through a friend, I’d agreed to spend time with him each week, tutoring him in English. I would up being a different sort of tutor altogether. And so did he.
Of course, I had an agenda of my own. I was a twenty-something in a soul-crushing cubicle job, lost and bewildered in the Big World of Pseudo-Adult Life. I was the falling leaf that drifts and turns in the air. And I had the ridiculous idea that I could absorb some manner of enlightenment, whatever I thought that meant, if I kept company with a Buddhist monk.
But enlightenment, whatever form it takes, seldom comes in the ways you expect.
My first surprise was that Arun didn’t plan to stay a monk for any longer than he absolutely had to. (I believe the status of his visa may have depended on his remaining in the saffron robes and continuing to preside at Nashville’s Cambodian Buddhist temple.) Like many young men in Southeast Asia, he’d gone into the monastery at 18 less for spiritual reasons than to honor his family and get an education. And that decision opened his world in ways he’d never imagined: he learned to read, came to America, and fell in love.
That was the second big surprise: he’d fallen for a married woman who was also looking for a way out of a difficult life; and that didn’t sit so well with the powers-that-be at his former monastery. He was promptly exiled to Nashville’s temple—which was actually just a dingy old ranch house just off Dickerson Pike, a few blocks from the temptations of XXX bookstores and other prurient entertainments.
We soon gave up on the “English lessons” and just commiserated—about relationships and life choices, like a couple of girlfriends. Soon I was cooking up all sorts of projects to cheer him up, not realizing that I was inadvertently causing him to break all manner of religious law and custom. For example:
1. I brought him some flowers to plant. He planted them, but then casually let it drop later that he wasn’t supposed to dig in the soil because he might inadvertently harm a worm or insect.
2. I took him out to lunch with my mom. This produced a series of transgressions—he wasn’t supposed to eat a meal after noon, I believe he said. And you should have seen his eyes light up when my mom lit up. He bummed a cigarette, and I realized that his corruption was nearly complete.
My favorite moment with Arun was an afternoon so perfect it’s almost impossible to describe. My friend Peter, a non-religious Jewish man who was studying Buddhist practice, came to visit. We spread a picnic out on the old wooden table in the front yard of the “temple.” And then, the two young Mormons dropped by.
Try to imagine the scene: two baby-faced Mormon missionaries attempting to engage a Buddhist monk, a total spiritual skeptic, and a Jewish Buddhist in religious debate. The young fellows’ work was cut out for them. By the end of the lively discussion, the Mormons had agreed that Arun, and anyone else, ought to be able to believe whatever they chose, as the five of us tossed a frisbee in the yard. Arun sat on the table, clapping his hands and giggling.
I knew the end of Arun’s monkhood was coming when I got the “smoking” call from him at work one afternoon. I picked up the phone, and heard his quiet voice saying, “I want to smoke.” Huh. What to say to that one. I had a hunch that what he really meant was, “I am lonely. I am bored. I crave something. I want to engage in, not renounce the world.” In less serious moments, he joked that he wanted to be a country singer, “like LeAnn Rimes.” Pretty un-monkly stuff.
Initially, I’m embarrassed to confess that I was a little bit disappointed by this turn of events. Having a Buddhist monk friend had a certain cache, I had to admit. I’d take him to Ultimate Frisbee practice and to Radnor Lake sometimes. People were drawn to him, fascinated, and this reinforced the air of studied eccentricity I was working so hard to cultivate.
But when the day came for Arun to move from the monastery into the world, I was happy for him. If he wanted to renounce renunciation, to embrace desire, I was all for it. And although I didn’t wind up achieving Nirvana (I know what you-re thinking, and no, I didn’t achieve that type of Nirvana with him, either), I have to admit: in some way that I can’t fully grasp, observing Arun’s path to his re-imagined life somehow freed my imagination to follow my own.
If you want to find out how, you’ll just have to read the full essay in HER Nashville.
“Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.” ― Herman Hesse
*Not his real name