1. Tell us a little about your upbringing – where are you from? Brothers & sisters? Interests?
I was born in New York – Brooklyn, actually, but grew up in Queens. I have many fond memories of spending time at my grandparents’ apartments in Brooklyn and so in some ways I grew up in that quintessential New York borough as well as in Queens. My family background is secular Jewish. My older brother and I attended Hebrew School and both of us subsequently had a Bar Mitzvah. However, my parents were not observant and our family connection to Judaism was really more sociocultural rather than religious. So, I really did not feel drawn to becoming a practicing Jew. I suppose even at a young age I was searching for a quiet, spacious environment. I grew up sharing a room with my brother in a moderate to small-sized two-bedroom apartment. At that time, I was thinking more of the ideal suburban home (as in “Leave it to Beaver”), but later when I attended college in rural upstate New York, and having been influenced by the tail-end of the hippie era, I hoped to live a communal life in bucolic simplicity with a few friends. Alas, that never actually happened – my close college friends actually chose more “normal” lifestyles. Nevertheless, my years upstate awakened me to the potent beauty of rural landscapes and especially of the woods.
2. Could you sketch out the arc of your spiritual and religious journey for us, your search for truth?
My spiritual journey actually began in the late 1970s as a result of reading the works of Herman Hesse, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti, and establishing a regular, non-structured meditation practice. However, I allowed this tenuous meditation practice to slip away during my long sojourn in Europe and subsequent graduate study in NYC. On a summer day in 1998, when I was diligently attempting to complete my doctoral dissertation, I stepped into a Barnes and Noble bookstore and found myself in the Eastern Philosophy section. A book, in particular, drew my interest — Western Buddhism (I think) — and reopened the doors for me. I initially checked out NYC Zen Center, practicing there a few days a week. But soon drifted to insight meditation practice. After attending a weekend retreat at IMS in Barre, MA, led by Bhante G, I felt firmly committed to western Theravada practice. I established a regular daily sitting practice but did not find a group with whom to sit. When my academic appointment prompted me to move to Mobile, AL, I attempted to form a sitting meditation group, but since the few interested people had little or no background in Buddhism, and I did not consider myself to have even the minimal qualifications to teach, I was unable to create the supportive meditation group I sought and needed. I eventually was able to move back to NYC and my explorations landed me at a Tibetan Buddhist center. An introductory talk by an articulate western teacher on compassion for others resonated so strongly that I began to learn about Tibetan Buddhism. Having overcome my initial negative response to the plethora of tangka paintings (with odd-looking Buddha figures, some rather menacing) and elaborate statues which adorned the meditation hall, and having gradually become accustomed to services of chanting and visualizing rays of energy – with short periods of silent meditation – I eventually welcomed the structure of the Tibetan practice. Little did I realize, however, that I had stumbled upon a branch of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) – a schismatic group at odds with the Dalai Lama. I eventually took a tantric initiation into the practice of venerating Avalokiteshvara , the Buddha of Compassion, and felt, at least initially, a real “high” from doing the daily practice of chanting and visualizations. A year later, when I decided to attend a series of talks/lectures the Dalai Lama was going to give in NYC, I collided head on with the NKT-Dalai Lama controversy and opted to follow the Dalai Lama.
Looking back, I think I was caught up in the promulgated belief that Tibetan Buddhism offered the “Quick Path” to enlightenment. Tantric deities provided me with somewhat more tangible access to – or, at least, a method to visualize — Suchness/the Unconditioned/God force I had been seeking (intermittently for 30 years) to experience intimately. I accepted the Tibetan Buddhist claim that in becoming adept in highly complex and esoteric tantric practices (as well as the preliminary practices and of course adhering to the Bodhisattva vows), one can really achieve enlightenment now. I do believe that it was helpful for me to be exposed to the powerful compassion teachings, such as exchanging self with others, and taking on the pain of others, as I have a tendency to focus merely on my own spiritual path and not be aware of the suffering others are experiencing. I became involved with the international organization, Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), under the spiritual leadership of Lama Zopa Rinpoche. And having made contact with an international Tibetan Buddhist monastery in SW France which was about to begin a five-year study program, I made the surprisingly easy decision in late 2007 to resign my university position, give up my apartment in NYC, disperse hundreds of books, and set out for India to ordain. I recall the chair of the English department, who was astonished, uncomprehending, yet also somewhat admiring of my “gutsy” decision to give everything up in order fully to pursue this spiritual path.
I travelled first to Bodhgaya to take the first step of homelessness; namely, having my head shaved by Lama Zopa and donning pre-novice robes (and afterwards circumambulating the magnificent Mahabodhi temple). I then went on to Dharamsala to attend a one-month preparation/training course, mostly concerned with vinaya and other aspects of monastic behavior, along with a small group of men and women preparing to become novices. The day finally arrived and we had the opportunity to spend most of a day in the monastery where the Dalai Lama resides. I can still remember drinking the horribly rancid-tasting Tibetan (yak)butter tea – but I was grateful for the warmth it provided in the unheated room on a cold February morning. Following the lengthy service with earphones and simultaneous translation, we took the novice vows and then each of us, including 50 or 60 Tibetan refugees also receiving novice vows, went up to the Dalai Lama for him to bless out robes. It was a joy to have an intimate moment with this beamingly bright and warm, awakened being! Our little group spent the entire night celebrating this momentous occasion by chanting various prayers. I felt I was now firmly equipped to advance on the path.
The next day I departed for Nalanda Monastery in France and joined the monastic community of about 15 monks and some lay men who had recently arrived for the beginning of the study program. A few months into the program, however, I became disenchanted with daily life there. What had once been an easy-going monastery with twice daily chanting and few work tasks was now becoming a Tibetan-style monastic institution (in the Gelug tradition which highlights years of study for monks) with daily classes, exams, Tibetan-style debating, and little or no attention to meditation practice. Having heard about a network of theravadan Thai Forest monasteries in England, founded by the respected American monk, Ajahn Sumedho, I began to learn more about this tradition and soon opted to continue my monastic life in one of these monasteries. Needless to say, my decision was not warmly received at Nalanda Monastery. It was unheard of for a monk to abandon the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, for the lesser one The “Hinayana” (this was, and perhaps still is, the way Tibetan Buddhists refer to Theravada). I was, however, motivated by the wish to once again engage in silent meditation, and hopefully deepen my awareness of the hindrances preventing me from progressing along the path.
After visiting Chithurst and Amaravati Monasteries in England, and Abhayagiri in California, I requested to become a resident at Chithurst. I continued to wear my Tibetan novice robes but was considered a senior theravadan Anagarika. About 9 months later I became a samanera in the Thai Forest Tradition. It actually does make a difference which color robes one wears. The plain golden color of my new robes somehow suited the rather simple, plain meditation practice I now engaged in. While it was a relief to not have to worry about how to do the elaborate tantric practices, I somehow missed the more ceremonial nature of the Tibetan services. Not to mention the often talked about Mahayana concern of following the path of the bodhisattva. Although I loved the earthy, somewhat medieval atmospheric stillness of the meditation hall at Chithurst, and the nearby monastery forest, I decided to move to Amaravati monastery. Ajahn Sumedho was still abbot in residence there and I wanted to hear his talks as much as possible before he retired from his position. In July 2010, on the eve of the beginning of Vassa, I took bhikkhu ordination with Ajahn Sumedho as preceptor. I was at peace with my chosen path – at least for a few months! I felt noticeably different being a bhikkhu. It was a sense of being empowered by this 2500-year-old tradition, following in the footsteps of countless monks before me, and engaging in similar daily rituals. Yet, somehow sneaking up on me was the disconcerting feeling that I was not on the path that was right for me. Again, it was to be a book (or books) that catapulted me into a very different direction and spiritual sphere. I decided to leave the Thai Forest monastic tradition – but not monasticism itself – and continue my journey at a Benedictine or Cistercian Catholic monastery! I’ll offer some explanation in response to the next question.
3. After spending a lengthy amount of time in Christian monasteries, what motivated you to return to Theravada Buddhism and arrive at Bhavana Society?
I would like first to explain briefly why I made this unusual detour. I am still trying to understand why I did it. I think I always thought of monastic life through an idealized Christian lens. Even in my early 20s when I first developed the wish to become a monk, I imagined a communal life among like-minded brothers spending most of their day in the sacred space of the monastic enclosure, dwelling mostly in silence, and living intimately with the Ultimate Power/God. As a newly ordained bhikkhu at Amaravati, where the meditation hall, while Thai in structure, contains a very English rectangular cloister in front, I began walking the around the cloister early every morning, listening to the “sound of silence.” I also happened upon two books, Benedict’s Dharma, in which four prominent western Buddhists from different traditions reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict (the earliest Christian monastic rule dating from the 6th century) and a thin volume from the controversial Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, who reflects in lyrical prose on the purpose and benefits of monastic life. To be brief, I can say that contemplating these texts – and actually reflecting on the Rule of St. Benedict, particularly the beautiful prologue — led me into considering a change in my monastic direction. My decision not to give up monastic life but rather continue as a monk in a different religious tradition, while clear in my mind was quite difficult to explain to others. I nevertheless followed through on my plan and returned to the USA.
After trying an Anglican/Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Michigan for a year, I turned my attention to the East – Greek Orthodox, that is, where I thought I would find greater asceticism and depth in spiritual practice. It certainly provided both and I was delighted to see the parallels with Buddhist texts in the writings of the early desert monks on training the mind and working with afflictions. Yet, during the course of my eight years there, whereby I moved through each stage of monastic life – postulant, novice, junior monk, and, ultimately taking life vows – something evidently did not really fit. While I welcomed the personalized contact to the Unconditioned “Divine” through Jesus Christ, I never really connected with the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner”) – the epitome of Eastern monastic practice, whereby monks are to recite it silently hundreds, if not thousands, of times each day.
To finally address the question, after this lengthy “brief” preamble. I reached the decision to leave the monastery – and Christianity – for two important reasons: I had developed an interest in mystical Judaism and, undoubtedly the more urgent one: I realized I did not truly believe that the Virgin Mary (the Theotokos [God-Bearer] in Orthodox Christian language) was the mother of God and realized that for me Jesus was just an exceptional, one could say, “enlightened” human being. I hence left the monastery and tried to establish life as a lay person after 12 years of monastic life. My interest in Judaism did not last and what re-entered my sphere of awareness was Buddhism. Beginning with an article by Bhikkhu Bodhi that I stumbled upon, followed by additional texts by this wonderfully articulate scholar and practitioner, I began to establish a daily Buddhist meditation practice. The teachings of the Buddha rang true instantly and I gradually reconnected with the Dharma, not at the exact point where I left off in 2011 at Amaravati, but somehow, I like to believe, enriched by my 9 years of Christian monastic life.
I soon realized that I was still a “fish out of water” living full-time in the “world.” And thus, I sought a community where I could spend considerable time, living with others who were dedicated to following the same path, and having the living conditions to support the deepening of mindful awareness. In searching for such communities, I remembered Bhavana Society, a place I had been to twice before (the last time, in 2010, as a samanera from Chithurst). I began listening to Bhante G’s dharma talks on YouTube and reread a number of his wonderful books. I arrived here on December 20 and that brings us up to the present.
3.a Would you like to share with us the different monastic names you received?
Sure, I’ll just list them:
Tenzin Lamten: Tibetan – “Tenzin” represents the lineage (same one as the Dalai Lama), “Lamten” means “Holder of the Path”
Chandako: theravadan – means “one with zeal (for the Dhamma)”
Br. Cassian – Benedictine – after my patron saint, John Cassian, a 4th century monk who wrote two influential explanatory texts regarding monastic conduct and goals
Fr. Savvas – Greek Orthodox – after my patron saint, Savvas, who established a network of monasteries in the Judean Desert in the 5th century, one of which is still actively occupied.
4. Do you have any insights, mundane or supramundane, that you’d be willing to share with us?
On the mundane level, I would say that everyday occurrences, especially annoying, irritating, or unpleasant ones are a valuable tool for deepening the awareness of one’s unacknowledged hindrances. I am trying to keep in mind that “break-through” moments of awareness are more likely to come in a moment of unrestrained anger or sorrow than on the meditation cushion. As for the supramundane, I am attempting to steer away from expecting a dramatic encounter with the Unconditioned but rather just being still enough to notice it right now, at this moment – as Ajahn Sumedho says, “Now is the knowing.”
5. Having now been a layperson and monk of various orders for significant amounts of time, what advice or reflections would you give to one considering ordination?
While Buddhist and Christian monastic orders certainly have their differences regarding daily life, the commitment is similar. I think one should take one’s time before making the decision to seek ordination. Of course, the door is always open to leave the monastic life later; nevertheless, one shouldn’t approach monasticism with this option in mind. I have found, especially in the Greek Orthodox and Theravada monastic tradition that ordained life requires a zeal for working towards the goal, in Buddhism, of course, that means liberation or enlightenment. But one can have this zeal as a lay person as well. The Buddhist monastic, however, makes this goal the center of her/his life. Monastic life offers the environment, the conditions, for this, but one still needs to have the drive, the commitment to follow the path unswervingly. Especially now that we live in a time where we can stay connected to the world quite easily, I think it is wise to limit that interaction. Whenever I embarked on a journey away from the monastery, to visit family, as soon as I stepped inside an airport terminal, I was instantly struck, one could say, shocked, by the assault on my audible and visual senses. I felt I was from a different planet!
I would also like to mention that from my own experience, I have come to see monastic life somewhat stripped of the idealized images of non-stop peace and tranquility. I think some of the most important lessons I have learned are to recognize that my fellow monastics are likewise working through their afflictions and thus there will be occasions of interpersonal conflict – ego vs. ego. These conflicts can, however, be fruitful for learning about one’s own weaknesses.
Lastly, I would say that potential monastics should consider the unexciting monotony of monastic life. Every day, the same routine, seeing the same people (mostly), day after day after day…. That really is the point. The excitement and, hopefully, positive change, needs to occur within the monastic.
6. What are one or more aspects you appreciate most about living at Bhavana Society?
One aspect I especially appreciate is the physical environment. I had never been here in the winter, and now I really enjoy the still beauty of the bare woods. And I also love to gaze at the surrounding mountains, forming a natural protection for us. I also appreciate the warm, friendly and considerate residential community. I have found here the conditions for ongoing personal practice, provided I use my time wisely. Finally, I am grateful for the healthy vegetarian diet. This is not a given at all Theravada monasteries.
7. Please tell us about your experience and thoughts on the topic of the fetter and hindrance called doubt.
Looking back over the last 25 years of my journey, I suppose doubt has plagued me in two ways. First, the periodically arising question about whether I am on the right path, at the right place, with the right people. As is clear from my history, I repeatedly came to doubt the efficacy of my current path/environment. I think for me the doubt was not actually whether the ultimate goal of the particular religious tradition was valid, but rather was it the right goal – and path leading to realizing that goal – for me. To counter the doubt were always thoughts that I should persevere and not seek “greener grass” elsewhere. I am merely succumbing to delusion. However, doubt always seemed to win the battle, and I subsequently moved on to another path.
The other aspect of doubt I have had to deal with, especially in Buddhism, is “am I doing the practice right?” I periodically succumb to anxiety about finding the right meditation method and performing it correctly. This doubt and the anxiety it generates is, of course, a major hindrance to progressing along the path. I am attempting to develop the ability to just quiet the mind to the extent that I can trust the “knower” deep within me. That does not mean that I will not attempt to follow meditation directions but rather be more trusting in the mind’s natural inclination.
8. What do you love? What excites you?
Honestly, I am trying to curtail mental excitement! I do, though, get excited when I discover a book or teaching that really resonates with me. I then get a bit carried away seeking to learn more about it – which often involves book purchases! I think what I love the most, and have done so for a long time, is just communing with nature. Standing in stillness and just being. Fortunately, I have many opportunities for that here.