Bodh Gaya, India. Four years ago I wrote the most-read piece of my life: Will a Vow of Poverty Fill the Void in My Soul? One of the reasons I was interested in this pilgrimage is to meet so many people who have taken a similar vow – the hundreds of thousands of monks who have descended in Bodh Gaya – and find out what makes them tick. Of course, like Catholic priests, a vow of poverty in the shadow of a large institution is far safer than when taken as an individual. One that chooses poverty without support is like Prince Siddhartha living as an ascetic before becoming The Buddha. It does not work. That’s why the Buddha chose life over starvation and obtained Enlightenment.
Although packed into Bodh Gaya, India like sardines, one does not just pick up a casual conversation with monks the way one might with fellow delegates at a political convention. A lack of bars creates even more obstacles for chatting with folks. I was enormously pleased when the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s Minister of Culture dropped by my restaurant table and inquired whether he could share coffee with me. He wanted to hear for himself my story which others had already told him. It was one of two very supportive conversations, the other with a Hollywood film producer who was intrigued by my life decisions and work. His associate, a film director, realized she read my work on her HuffPo iPhone app. Small world!
Looking back, I was wandering in the wilderness of my mind in 2008 when I wrote:
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I was feeling incomplete. Part of me – my soul? – was still missing. In secular terms, I think I am not yet in touch with the best way to serve humanity. In theological terms, I would say I have yet to stumble upon God’s full plan for my life.
I have spoken to monks in Japan and Sri Lanka before, and now here in India. The monks around me are from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and of course, Tibet. I realize we have something in common, but very little. What defines these monks are a uniform, a strict discipline, and a monastic life. My uniform is often jeans and a polo shirt, or suit and tie – on occasion a tuxedo. I have bought saffron robes in Sri Lanka, and maroon robes from Tibet, but only keep them in my drawer in fascination. My writing is a strict discipline – I easily work 80+ hours per week. My life; however, could never be described as “monastic.”
I have given everything away – my inheritance, my savings, my pension – and devoted my home, my career, even my immediate family to this effort. Nevertheless, I have this nagging feeling that I have missed something. That none of this is quite enough. Moreover, I am rather tired and in need of spiritual sustenance.
I am fascinated by the monks around me. Although the Tibetan monks from Dharamsala seem to have been given $20 each by the Tibetan government in exile to attend thisKalachakra in Bodh Gaya, many seem to have watches and cellphones nicer than my own. I asked an American physician who lives in a monastery in India, offering hismedical assistance to the monks and locals there, how monks deal with pocket money. I see some monks riding in bicycle rickshaws through the muddy streets here, and others patiently walking and wonder what the difference is. Basically, it seems as if they have a small stipend from their institution and many receive material things such as watches and cellphones from their families.
I tire of being asked to take a vacation when I have no funds to pay for it. I tire of not being able to afford going out to dinner with my friends. Am I unsuccessful at the age of forty-nine to have nothing left? Or am I marching to the beat of a different drummer?
One advantage that monks have over me, I realize with a note or irony, is that no one expects them to pay for dinner or go on holiday – and seldom are they accused of taking the road less travelled. Around here, it is a fairly normal path.
Voluntary poverty is often an essential element of faith from Buddhism to Christianity – from the simplicity of the Quakers to the monastic vows of Roman Catholic priests. Members of the Franciscan, Jesuit, and Maryknoll Orders have traditionally forgone all individual forms of ownership to better embrace the poor whom they serve so nobly. In this context of sacred vows, personal poverty may be understood as a means of self-denial in order to better place oneself at the service of others.
My impression is that many of these monks are focused inward more than outward to issues of social justice – with the exception of a Free Tibet – but often monks are politically active in countries around the world as well. These monks seem to have self-denial down to an art form – literally – but the emphasis seems to be more on DO no harm more than Service to others.
The notion of a vow of poverty fills me with more peace of mind and soul than I have ever felt. A vow of poverty for me is the idea that I can do no more than I am doing. It lightens the enormous burdens of my life commitment.
While it is virtually impossible for me to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with many of these monks, who are surrounding me in the tens of thousands, I believe by watching them that most are content. As I sit here in the media tent of the Buddhist revival, with up to 500,000 people including Richard Gere surrounding me, happily drinking the butter-and-salt tea that an army of young monk runners provide.
One concept often repeated over the last week is “Happiness.” I have pondered over this word at great length, drawing form my own half-century experience. I believe Happiness is too much to expect and is essentially a selfish pursuit. Contentment is what I seek. If I arrive at Happiness, it is marvelous. But is we give birth to a Mongaloid child, are we destined to never find happiness? We can, of course, choose to be Happy in that the child is alive. But there is little to be Happy in abject poverty and telling people to deal with it and be Happy – don’t worry, be happy – is to my mind a thought process destined to keep peopled from achieving their potential.
I wrote in HuffPo that I wished on this pilgrimage to re-examine my core values, founded in Judeo-Christianity but tempered by Buddhism, and confirm that the path that I have chosen for the second half of my life. I believe in the last ten days I have now done that. I feel very rooted with the basic building blocks of humanity: the world’s best partner and the best son on earth. Our family dog brings me great joy as well. Life continues like a wheel, as the Buddhists say.
The suffering I have endured – much less than most people, especially here – has led me to be stronger. My two decade-long dance with HIV has made me aware of how precious life is, how vulnerable the body can be, and how it is possible to overcome adversity. The losses of my mother and father have allowed me to create social institutions, however humble, to help support young global leadership. I realize I have more than most and I am appreciative.
I did not expect to find Nirvana on this trip, but I do believe I have found myself once again. One night, lying feverish in bed with profuse coughing and sweating, a voice rang through my mind – my own voice – that said: You have done enough. I believe I have been overly driven to make an impact and I realize now I have done enough.
Plans for a socially-aware investment firm to help build the developing world need to wait – I need to strengthen my organizations and foundations first. I need to spend quality time with my family and friends. I need to make sure that the kids who I have fallen in love with in Haiti and Indonesia are set. I am content – no, happy — to report, post-pilgrimage, that I am indeed ready for the next half century. May whatever wisdom and hope I have collected from the first, as well as the children of the world, guide me in my life’s second half.
Edited by Ferdi Kayhan.
Pilgrimage to Buddha’s Holy Sites
Main Sites: Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar
Additional Sites: Sravasti, Rajgir, Sankissa, Vaishali, Nalanda, Varanasi
Other Sites: Patna, Gaya, Kosambi, Kapilavastu, Devadaha, Kesariya, Pava
On Pilgrimage: Following the Footsteps of Buddha Across N.E. India: 14 Parts
1. HuffPo: On Pilgrimage: Following the Footsteps of Buddha Across N.E. India
2. Daily Kos: Under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya Where the Prince Became The Buddha
3. Daily Kos: Photo Essay of Bodh Gaya, Where Buddha Became Enlightened
4. Daily Kos: Next Step of Indian Pilgrimage: Mountain Where Buddha Preached
5. HuffPo: Touching the Untouchable in a Rural Indian Village
6. Daily Kos: Rediscovering the World’s First Great University in Buddhist India
7. Stewardship Report: Buddhism for Beginners: Insights from a Non-Buddhist
8. Daily Kos: Buddhism and the Universal Concept of Social Responsibility
9. HuffPo: Can I Help Support Education and Orphan Care in Bihar, India?
10. Stewardship Report: Most-Photographed Man in the World Prepares to Retire
11. Daily Kos: Varanasi: Holy City of Buddhists – As Well as Hindus, Jainists, Jews
12. Daily Kos: On the Banks of the Ganges: Continuing the Search for My Soul
13. HuffPo: My Pilgrimage Complete: Lessons Learned, Life Continues Like a Wheel
14. Daily Kos: Pilgrimage Postscript: Pneumonia and Possible T.B.
The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org) is the umbrella organization under which The International University Center Haiti (Uni Haiti) and Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW) are organized. If supporting young global leadership is important to you, subscribe to J. Luce Foundation updates here.
Originally published in The Daily Kos, January 21, 2012.