Friday, March 19, 2010

A Monk in Manhattan

I recently spent a week teaching and visiting friends in New York City, where I lived for almost 20 years. It was my first time back to New York since coming to Gampo Abbey, and my first major trip outside of the monastery (with the exception of a weekend trip to Halifax last summer for a workshop).

The strangeness of the trip began before I ever left Cape Breton. I noticed that the driver of the shuttle van that took me to Halifax had written my name down on his passenger list as Dennis Hunger, which somehow seemed oddly fitting. I had to chew on that one for a while.

In Antigonish, halfway to Halifax, it became apparent that a big part of the strangeness of my journey would be the experience of being a monk in Tibetan robes, in a culture that has few reference points for such a thing. I often go into Cheticamp (the local town near the Abbey) wearing my robes, but people there are so accustomed to seeing monks and nuns from the Abbey that most of them don’t give us a second look. But in places like Antigonish and Halifax, I was an object of puzzlement, sometimes veering towards open derision and other times towards great curiosity and friendliness. The Indian manager at the A&W franchise in Antigonish came over to me at my table and said, rather matter-of-factly, while I was wolfing down a fast food meal during our 10-minute stop: “Buddham sharanam gacchami.” I smiled and nodded at him with my mouth full, and he proceeded to explain to his very curious employee (who had tagged along with him to my table) that it’s a phrase people in Buddhist countries often say to each other as a form of greeting or respect. I was as surprised by this information as his employee was. It’s a phrase included in our chants at the Abbey when we say our vows and take refuge in the Three Jewels every morning, but I’ve never heard it spoken outside of that context.

At the airport in Halifax, people seemed to take in my appearance as something of a spectacle. I sat in the restaurant near my departure gate and absorbed 20 minutes of open hostility and suspicious glares from a businessman dressed in tight jeans and an ostentatious cowboy hat and cowboy boots, jabbering into the wireless device embedded in his ear. When I went to the restroom, I paused in front of the two doors and looked at the signs. One sign showed a human being in pants. The other showed a human being in a skirt. I looked down at my robes. I looked up at the signs. I looked down again. Disobeying the signs, I entered the door that showed the human being in pants.

I arrived in New York City during the evening rush hour, a time of day that does not reveal New Yorkers at their best. I took the Airtrain from JFK, then the LIRR and the subway to 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue where my friend lives. As soon as I left the airport and began to see the people and the buildings and the city, I felt a surge of intense familiarity, as though I had never left this city, or had merely been away on a short jaunt, an overnight getaway. But it also rapidly became apparent how much I have slowed down internally during a year in the monastery. The pervasive feeling of speed and aggression in which New Yorkers move and breathe – which is at its most intense during rush hour – was more visible to me than ever before, and more painful to witness.

New Yorkers, needless to say, have seen it all a hundred times over, so the spectacle of a white guy in Tibetan robes, on the street or in the subway or in a museum, was not quite as eye-catching to them as it was to folks in Halifax. The majority of people in New York didn’t give me a second glance. But sometimes my robes would catch someone’s attention, and they would come over and ask me questions, or want to tell me about whatever spiritual trip they might happen to be on. A man in the airport asked me if I was a monk, and told me he practices “self-realization” (I didn’t ask what that means). A man in the bank asked me if I was a priest. A young man at the Shambhala Center asked me if I was a monk, and when I said yes, blurted out enthusiastically: “Cool!” While I was waiting to meet a friend in the East Village, two young Hispanic women passed me on the sidewalk, and one of them called to me: “I love your outfit!”

The strangeness of being a monk in the city varies depending on the neighborhood. In the East Village people expect strangeness, they thrive on it, and so as a monk in robes I felt welcomed as part of the clan. In Chinatown, I blended into the scenery and was largely invisible; the people in the Chinese Mahayana temple did not even look up at me when I came in and took photos. In midtown and the Museum of Modern Art, I was highly visible, part of the big-city experience that tourists had paid good money to see; they gawked and seemed to appreciate me fulfilling their expectations and being part of the scenery that gave them their money’s worth. In Chelsea, my old stomping ground, I stood out like a sore thumb. People on the sidewalk stared in disbelief, and even whispered to their friends as I passed, suggesting the presence of a small-town, provincial mentality right in the middle of the biggest city in America. Walking with a friend on Eighth Avenue, I almost had a Marilyn Monroe moment as I stepped over the subway ventilation grates and a sudden wind from below began to blow up my robes. I got off the subway grates very quickly, and was careful not to walk over them again.

Of course, the robes are just an outer symbol of something inside, which are the vows I’m holding as a temporary monk. That was, for me, the real strangeness and novelty of being a monk in New York City. No cocktails or wine with dinner, no bars or clubs, no dancing. No flirting or cruising. Not even the idea was really there (although, of course, many things caught my eye and took my mind in familiar directions). It wasn’t the first time in my city life that I’ve disengaged from such things, but they were very much part of my New York experience before coming to the monastery, and their absence during this trip seemed somehow conspicuous.

I expected that when I returned to the Abbey after this trip, the place would feel different somehow – but I wasn’t gone long enough for that to happen. Rounding the road into the hamlet of Red River, at the base of the mountain where the Abbey is nestled, I felt quite simply like I was coming back home again. The contrast, in scale and tone, between New York City and Gampo Abbey could hardly be any more extreme, but maybe that’s why I like them both (though for different reasons); I’ve always been a lover of extremes. Ani Pema was teaching the same afternoon I arrived, so I slipped without a pause back into the humming life of the Abbey.

As I reflect on my recent journey back to the city, I sometimes feel waves of nostalgia or loneliness. I already miss my friends in the city. I miss the freedom of deciding my own schedule, of going where I want to go, of choosing exactly what I want to eat and when. I miss the sheer volume of entertainments and distractions and spectacles available at all times in a place like New York. Yet, I know that placing myself in this small pressure cooker for the past year has been, unquestionably, one of the best things I have ever done in my life. And I know that staying here and living as a monk for another year is probably the best thing I can do right now. Beyond that, I cannot presently see – and I know that I don’t need to.

1 comment:

lluvial said...

It's quite interesting to stand out in your own culture! The comment of the Indian supervisor seemed warm to me, some how. Oh, how lucky you are that you recite the refuge prayer in Sanskrit with friends every morning. I will try it myself. Wish I would have seen you in your old home. But perhaps we will see one another in some new place. w, l. a.