Sera/Wall, Julia Kjelgaard, 2002. archival iris [rints, 14.5 x 26 imches. Created at the Kala Institute in Berkeley, California; research funded by the University Research Committee, Emory University; Courtesy of Trillium Press in Brisbane, California.
Sera/Wall, Julia Kjelgaard, 2002. archival iris [rints, 14.5 x 26 imches. Created at the Kala Institute in Berkeley, California; research funded by the University Research Committee, Emory University; Courtesy of Trillium Press in Brisbane, California.

By my late twenties I’d been a Buddhist monk for five years and was blissfully ensconced in the security of a thousand-year-old tradition when I went to live in Sera Monastic University, in South India. The time I spent there in the late 1970s was a life-changing, formative period—though in none of the ways I had expected. It brought me to a painful turning point that led me to give up my robes, cut all ties, and wander off alone.

I was a child of the sixties—restless, intolerant of my elders and idealistic. I exasperated the poor nuns at my convent primary school in England, who tried to force-feed me on Catholic dogma. I endured the obligatory encounters with political radicalism, drugs, and pop mysticism and dropped out of university when it finally dawned on me that the system was designed not to enlighten but to make a useful citizen of me. I wanted none of it. What I craved was a truly meaningful life, so, like many others at the time, I hitchhiked to India in search of “myself.” The inexorable windings of the hippie trail led me to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s classes in Dharamsala, to the annual Kopan thirty-day retreat in Nepal, and then to Switzerland, where I was ordained by Geshe Rabten.

Geshe had gone to the West to turn out Western teachers, and I joined his small group of students near Rikon, Switzerland, where we lived in cramped conditions. Some of the others had been studying for years and already spoke Tibetan. We took the prospect of becoming teachers very seriously and discussed our mission in earnest. Geshe endeavored to pass on to us the training that had led to his geshe degree, and we thought a great deal about what it would mean to be the future interpreters of Buddhism in the West.

This was an exciting community of like-minded people. All of us in our own ways lamented the limitations of Western thought and were eager to learn Tibetan, to debate the monastic textbooks and transcend conventional knowledge. I discovered that the directed human brain was a powerful tool. My Tibetan progressed, and I was able to peek into the ancient texts for myself. Soon I began to experience self-esteem for the first time in my life; I enjoyed the respect that came with the robes and looked forward to becoming a teacher. After a reprobate youth, I was actually becoming useful.

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