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?
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