When My Son Became a Monk
Sarah Conover FALL 2017 tricycle
A mother adjusts to her son’s new way of being in the world.
There’s a saying I’ve heard among some Western Buddhists: to lose yourself, either meditate or travel. What about doing both at once, while keeping pace with your 28-year-old son, whom you named Nathan Dale at birth but who is now Tan Nisabho, a Thai Forest monk? Long gone is the wavy cap of nut-brown hair and thick eyebrows; his gleaming skull appears and disappears like stages of the moon between his fortnightly shavings.
On those just-shaved full moon days, Tan Nisabho (Tan Po for short) looks a lot like the infant whose newborn eyes gazed unflinchingly into mine, prompting me to say aloud something utterly unexpected after he was cleaned and swaddled: “Oh! This one’s not going the normal route! A monastic!” My mother, standing beside me and looking down at his face, had a similar reaction, calling him “Old Soul.” Intuitions like these are rare, but not unheard of for mothers; I know that this first hello with my boy made it easier years later to say good-bye when he stepped on the plane to Asia with the intention of finding a monastic home to replace the one he’d grown up in.
How did Buddhism wend its way into my son’s life to prompt the radical step of ordination in his twenties? Born in Marin County, California, he began asking ontological unanswerables during toddlerhood: “How can you be sure your dreams aren’t the real life, and your real life isn’t a dream?” Indeed. We raised Nate on a menu of Buddhism lite: silent dinners using Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village chanting book and an evening metta meditation; as he grew older, we initiated a Teen Dharma Circle, mostly comprising Nate’s best friends, all eager to explore the processes and contents of their minds. According to our son, these encounters with the dharma plus the fact that his parents were spiritual companions primed him. Yet the certainty that monasticism would shape his future occurred when, at 15, he read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.
Keeping a couple of toes in the dharma through meditation, books, and a few retreats, our son dove into an intense courseload at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, into group sing-alongs that he convened, into love affairs and ensuing breakups, into mountaineering and all that the Northwest offers in the way of outdoor bliss. Yet during his junior year at college, he told us in private that he’d already seen enough of human suffering to know that society’s approaches to unhappiness did not address its root causes. He felt ready to pursue the life of a monk. We asked him to finish college first, just in case. Always the Golden Boy in everyone’s eyes, he had the talent, the charisma, and the smarts to pursue any career.
Now that Tan Po has been ordained for nearly five years, missing, along with his hair and every possession, is his fireplug physique. On our Skype calls between our home in Spokane, Washington, and his monastery in Thailand, I insist that he back up from the camera and turn sideways. My motherly eye assesses any further corporeal diminishment. What’s left of the old Nate? Not much. But that’s the point of monasticism, isn’t it, to cast off, bit by bit, every dimension of what we identify as self?
Monasticism is truly a world apart from the mainstream, mentally and physically; no individual leaps across that rift without leaving behind bewildered, bereft non-Buddhist friends and relatives. Tan Po’s choice necessitated relinquishing almost every aspect of his former identity, and that included his former social life. His first visit back home, for a memorial—a special leniency for a monk with less than five years of practice—was as awkward for him as it was for friends and relatives. He kept a rigid monastic schedule right in the midst of events, as his teacher had instructed him to do. Refraining from idle speech, he found he had much less in common with his friends who were now all about career and relationships. An indelible memory sticks with me of a breakfast in a Seattle restaurant with some of his friends from Reed College: staring at Tan Po’s transformation, sensing the scope of the chasm between them now, his friend Cathy sat speechless, tears dripping into her untouched food over the course of two hours.
Monastics cannot ordain without their parents’ permission, and some go to radical lengths for the go-ahead. I know monks who have refused to eat until their parents agreed to let them ordain. Western, non-Buddhist parents of monks must navigate a huge stretch in understanding between their disparate worlds. We’ve heard of many sad, befuddled, and confused families, but in general, says my son, Western parents, whether they are Buddhist or not, come around after they see how content their child is. Some Thai parents, especially the wealthy, put up considerable resistance when their sons incline toward a lifetime commitment of monasticism, trying to entice them with such prizes as a fancy car, an arranged marriage, or a top CEO job in the family business.
Although Doug and I are Buddhist practitioners and have always supported Tan Po’s monasticism, we have worried. Our first two visits to Thailand were not reassuring—neither the first trip, a visit to witness his ordination in the middle of the alien environment of a Thai wat; nor the second trip, a junket across the country to meet the living saints he’d heard so much about from fellow monks. (In an oversized karaoke van with the Playboy signage on the doors that one sees all over Thailand, we rushed from one town to the next—Doug and I, Tan Po, his sister, Jamey, and a more senior monk to guide the younger in the protocols of being in public.) During those trips, we were caught unaware at moments when grief over our boy’s absence would surface: for Doug, it was a gut-wrenching sobbing in the bathroom of our first return flight from Bangkok; I thought I was just fine until Tan Po asked me face-to-face during our second visit if his new life was hard for me. We were casually walking on a monastery road, sun shining, tropical birds singing. Overcome with sudden anguish, I found myself nearly unable to stand. He didn’t know what to do. Neither did I at the time.
At the tail end of 2016, while the United States was wildly disoriented with postelection euphoria or despair, Doug and I landed across the planet for a let’s-try-skipping-Christmas family reunion. The last of our family’s elders, my sweet 93-year-old mother, had died in May, and we hadn’t seen Tan Po in person in almost two years. Jamey, and her boyfriend, Max, not practitioners, planned to be with us for two weeks. Doug and I planned to stay six.
Sister and brother longed for this reunion, but it soon became clear that their travel agendas weren’t compatible in the least. One wanted to follow the threads of intrigue hidden in Bangkok backstreets till the wee hours; the other would rise a few hours later for meditation and chanting. Because of Tan Po’s monastic rules restricting entertainment, the daytime tourism menu we could enjoy together included sacred monuments and monasteries, as many as we wanted, all the day long. Oh, and I forgot museums. We could also see museums together.
It’s no accident that the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code, makes it nigh impossible to blend lay and monk lives easily. A monastic’s purpose is singular; this is hardly so for most laypeople, and our attempt at togetherness exposed the fault line between us that often feels unbridgeable. Following a monk wasn’t turning out to be what Jamey or Max had envisioned for Max’s first trip abroad. Tan Po, Doug and I gave them our blessings to go seek out their own adventures.
Scrapping our original group plan, we three decided to dedicate the next month to a tudong, a mobile retreat to monasteries and sacred sites of the Thai Forest tradition. Tudong is a Thai word that derives from the Pali dhutanga, referring to one who “polishes off defilements, an ascetic.” These days, the term is shorthand for a Forest monk’s wandering through the countryside by foot, vulnerable to the elements and dependent on people’s kindness. Many of the great spiritual masters of Thailand have practiced tudong for years at a time. Our version had little in common with their asceticism, but maybe there was a similarity in spiritual focus, an openness to the ways in which life and dharma might meet us—and change us—down the road.
This decision marked a shift in our own perceptions, as well as a shift in the perceptions of the Thai people we encountered. We were no longer seen as tourists. Instead, we comprised a perhaps never-seen-before trio walking on the side of busy highways and quiet back roads, apparently deserving of an outpouring of generosity. Indeed we were an odd trifecta: a heavenly messenger—the Buddha’s term for monastics, sickness, old age, and death—and two late-middle-aged foreigners with large backpacks. (With Doug and me hovering at 60 years old, we might have had two of the four heavenly messengers covered.)
Tan Po wore ocher robes he had sewn himself and carried the classic gear of a traveling mendicant: his gallon-sized alms bowl and canvas cover; a ground-sheet; a glot (an umbrella with mosquito netting that serves as a tent); and a canvas bag with three books, a journal, and CDs of his teacher’s dharma talks to give away. I weighed his gear against my own and found we were equal, but his looked specially designed for blisters and backaches. “It’s supposed to be unwieldy, Mom—that’s part of what makes it a practice.” Oh.
Doug and I looked like tourists who had taken the wrong turn on the way to a beach resort. Doug wore a baseball cap and almost-monastery-worthy whites so we’d be viewed, maybe just a little, as religious pilgrims. Because Thailand’s beloved king had recently died, I wore black slacks in his honor (also because I can’t keep anything white clean) and the women’s lavender polyester top ubiquitous at Thai monasteries. My sun-blocking umbrella, much needed along the shadeless roads, completed the tableau.
No one passed by us without taking a long, long look, stopping to offer a ride, or returning in their vehicle five minutes later to offer refreshments and ask questions. Our inside joke became “Why do Thai people always look so confused?” A few times we availed ourselves of those rides as well as an overnight train and bus. Unlike the ascetics, we also cheated with a handy iPhone to evade scary highways and walk empty back roads wherever possible past rice paddies and through jungle. This strategy bewildered the Thais even more. Unable to believe that we weren’t lost, they inevitably herded us, very sweetly, back to the busy streets.
That Doug and I were Buddhist practitioners supporting our son’s life in the dharma struck a deep chord with many we met. In our tudong, says Tan Po, Doug and I occupied a role similar to his in Thailand—providing signposts of practice along the path that is the heart of Thai culture. In calling ourselves Buddhists and encouraging our son’s training, we honored Thailand’s great teachers and tradition. Says Tan Po: “If some Westerners with all their wealth can give up their son to the dharma, the Thais perceive it as a call back to their native faith.”
When we left the comfort of his mother ship, as I call his home monastery, I marked our travels by the kindnesses heaped upon us—in fact, they amassed so fast that both my husband and I began journaling a list halfway through our trip and couldn’t keep up. We began our walking tudong at the outskirts of the city of Ubon
Ratchathani in the early morning. Within five minutes, the main road bisected a food market for farmworkers—food stands sheltered from rain or sun by makeshift roofs resting at rakish angles on jury-rigged walls. Tan Po hadn’t eaten his one meal of the day, so this would likely be his alms round.
No sooner had we passed the first stall than word of the foreign monk and the two old persons following him flew from one family to the next. A few stalls and steps later, his bowl topped out, but the bounty continued. If a monk turns down an offering, he is not allowed to eat. By the time we reached the finish line, Tan Po had chanted a number of blessings and his parent-porters carried the rest of the largess. These offerings of food are given in silence without eye contact; if the givers wanted a blessing, they’d ask by kneeling, barefoot, on a bamboo mat laid down in anticipation. Once they were kneeling, with their heads bowed, Tan Po would then chant a prayer that ended with these words:
“May the angels always protect you. By all the power of the Buddha may you always be well; by all the power of dhamma may you always be well; by all the power of the sangha may you always be well.”
The laity offer food to something far greater than any individual present. Buddhist tradition, says my son, frowns upon a monk responding with a flimsy two-syllable “Thank you,” as it diminishes the immense beauty of the act. The offering is made to the monastic robes, to the ideal of awakening, not to the individual monk, who merely expresses that ideal.
The old ladies bowing to Tan Po on the street and the ubiquitous generosity toward Thailand’s monks used to embarrass him. “After a while,” he says now, “you shut up and take it. It’s not for you; it becomes another opportunity to shed self.” He is regularly gifted dental checkups, and physicians treat him when needed, as they did last year, when he suffered from a mosquito-borne staph infection. Physical therapy if necessary. Sutures. Nothing is expected in return, not even for the multiple tattoo removals. Nor will any of these folks accept payment from us, his parents.
Being on tudong with our son shifted our understanding of the depth and beauty of what he has chosen to do with his life. The context of being in a Buddhist country and traveling by foot refined the awareness: the unbounded generosity toward his robes allowed us to see clearly that he represented a shared experience of virtue for laity and monastic alike, a gift to both. What we witnessed was never a give-and-take, but more like a give-and-give. All the great ajahns, or teachers, speak of monastic renunciation—the trainings to abandon evil, distraction, sensual pleasures, hindrances, and ignorance—as an offering. To watch how a light shone in people’s faces as they ran up to Tan Po with food, to see my son in his new role softly chant a blessing on the side of a busy street, to feel time stop and witness those on both sides create something intimate, shared, and sacred, brought tears to my eyes many times.
Tan Po is unwavering in earnestness when he asserts that he can’t imagine a more beautiful life than his present one. But mothers understandably gasp when I tell them I’m not allowed to hug my son. (My personal addendum to the rule: not allowed to hug him in public.) And coming to terms with Tan Po’s new life has been quite a challenge for his sister, Jamey. At first, she felt it as a stark desertion—no more brother to pal around with, no more sing-alongs, no more Thanksgivings or birthdays. No more Christmas presents to open together or jelly bean trails to follow to an Easter basket (we’ve kept up the cultural rituals of Christianity that Doug and I grew up with). Angry, she would taunt him instead of giving voice to her pain. But when she went to visit him on her own a few years after his ordination, she said, “Seeing him at the monastery was like seeing an animal in its natural habitat.” She couldn’t envision him doing anything else.
Many of Tan Po’s friends and relatives continue to feel abandoned, certain also that he’s wasting his true potential. Even though I angle into discussions with “It’s a calling! What healthy young 20-something would give up so much if it weren’t?” the bare fact stands that seclusion from normal society is central to a monastic’s mindfulness and practice, essential not only to learn to abide by hundreds of rules for living in community with his brother monks but also to follow that elusive, fragile spiritual thread. I am reminded of the first few lines of William Stafford’s “The Way It Is”: There’s a thread you follow. It goes among / things that change. But it doesn’t change. / People wonder what you are pursuing. Many still wonder what Tan Po pursues, but he can’t imagine a better life than one wherein cultivating inner goodness is what you do all day.
The arc of my relationship with my son over the past five years began with cheery if somewhat naive parental support for his decision, tinged with keen moments of letting go and a tentative faith that we’d eventually all find our footing. I believe we have, and he has. He writes and calls friends and relatives from time to time. He and his sister stay connected. We speak with Tan Po every other week for two hours or so about dharma. On our recent tudong, the Thai faithful honored us as practitioner-parents of a monk, showing us that the dharma is a shared home, spilling over with the goodness of its occupants. I had homed in on the contrasts between a monastery and lay life on our first visits to Thailand, but our tudong built a bridge between the two, ushering us through a door that our son opened wide, a way of being in the world with spirituality at its core for both monk and layperson. For Doug and me, there’s a growing recognition and astonishment that Tan Po is now leading the way, just as he did on tudong.