Turtle Feet: The Making And Unmaking Of A Buddist Monk
By Nikolai Grozni
New York: Riverhead Books, 2008
336 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
THE ROLE OF monasticism in Buddhist life is a great challenge in the West. To many converts here, the 227 rules for Therevada monks (and 331 rules for nuns) seem rigid and inflexible, exactly the sort of stuffiness they had rejected when embracing Buddhism. To others, shaved heads and funny robes can seem cultish or just plain weird.
In Turtle Feet, the young Bulgarian-born musician and writer Nikolai Grozni recounts his own two-and-ahalf years in funny robes as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in India, “without newspapers, radio, TV, jazz, non- Tibetan books, social obligations, a girlfriend, and a nine-to-five job.” The result is a thoroughly entertaining exploration of Buddhist monasticism from the inside—and a unique view into the Tibetan refugee community and Buddhism itself.
Grozni’s prose is both evocative and unsentimental, as in this early description of arriving in Dharamsala, the capital city of the Tibetan diaspora, shortly after his ordination:
Since it was July, the Himalayas looked like a collapsing mud cake: roads gave way to uprooted crags, fortifications yielded to sinking houses, electricity poles pointed to the horizon, water pipes burst and dug gullies. … Dharamsala’s main street was right below us—a narrow dirt road lined with rows of shops and restaurants stacked upon one another like towers made from a mishmash of incompatible construction sets. A web of telephone wires, dilapidated awnings, and dirty plastic sheets wrapped the street and all buildings, giving the impression of a village seized by a monster spider.
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