September 12, 2012

The First Buddhist Monk I Ever Saw

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi Remembers Ven. Thich Minh Chau

My First Encounter with a Buddhist Monk

In the first week of August 1965, after finishing summer school, I set out to travel by car from New York to California. I was twenty years old and in September would be entering my senior year at Brooklyn College. I wanted to visit a friend who was spending the summer in San Francisco, and I managed to find a ride with a couple of fellow students. We started from the Sugar Bowl, a luncheonette near Brooklyn College, on a bright Monday morning. After a full day on the road we stopped in Madison, Wisconsin to spend the night at the home of some friends of the people with whom I was traveling.

This was the first time I had traveled west of the Pocono Mountains and the experience promised to be an exciting one. After a good night’s rest, the next morning I decided to take a walk. It was a bright, sunny day. My steps led me through quiet streets to a large, beautiful lake bordering the
University of Wisconsin. Turning inland, I soon found myself on the campus. As I was approaching a mall in the middle of the campus, something astonishing happened. To the right of my field of vision, the door of a big stone building suddenly swung open and out stepped a middle-aged
man with East Asian features, wearing a yellow-orange robe. He was immediately followed by a tall American man who then caught up with him, and the two walked side by side talking.

At once I realized that I was looking at a Buddhist monk. I had never seen a Buddhist monk before, and in America at that time the number of real Buddhist monks probably could have been counted on one hand. I had just begun to read about Buddhism a few months earlier, and I knew from my reading of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha that the Buddha and his ordained disciples wore saffron robes. Thus I could identify the person I was seeing as a Buddhist monk.

I was struck with wonder and amazement at the sight of this serene, self-composed man, who radiated a lightness, inner contentment, and dignity I had never seen in any Westerner. The American man alongside him, presumably a professor, seemed to show him a certain respect and deference, which suggested to me that he was not an ordinary monk but a person of some stature. Just watching him walk across the mall, I was filled with joy and happiness. I think my feeling might have been similar to what a young brahmin in ancient India might have felt if he looked up and for the very first time saw, walking down a path close by, a monastic disciple of the ascetic Gotama, the man that people called “the Enlightened One.”

I must have been about sixty yards from the path along which the two men walked. I wanted to approach the monk and ask him who he was and what he was doing, and many other questions; but I was too shy, afraid that I would appear foolish. So I just stood there watching him from a distance, devouring him with my eyes, observing his every movement during the four or five minutes it took for them to walk across the mall. I was transfixed; I felt transported to another dimension of being. Something in my heart stirred with a deep yearning. I think that if someone had come up behind me and stuck me with a pin I would have felt nothing, so absorbed was I in the figure of this monk. Then he and the professor reached another building, the professor opened the door, and the two men vanished inside. I still felt joy at this chance encounter with a Buddhist monk, but my joy was now dimmed by a note of sadness. My heart sank at the thought that this adventure was over and I had lost the opportunity to tap a living source of the wisdom of the East. Now, I thought, that wonderful monk will go his way, and I must go my way, and our paths will never cross again. Still, I put this momentary sadness behind me, hurried back to the house where we had spent the night, and before long we were again on the road, heading for San Francisco.

The workings of karma are indeed strange and unfathomable! A little more than a year later, in September 1966, I entered Claremont Graduate School in California (twenty-five miles east of Los Angeles) to begin a doctoral program in philosophy. In the spring semester a Buddhist monk from Vietnam came to study at the same university and moved in just below me in the graduate residence hall. He was not “serene and self-composed” like the monk in Wisconsin but had a “happy-go-lucky” manner about him that initially discouraged me from striking up an acquaintance with him. However, once I got to know him, I came to like him and eventually accepted him as my first Buddhist teacher. By the time the summer of 1967 arrived, we were sharing the same apartment in the graduate residence hall. I had taken ordination from him as a novice-monk in the Vietnamese Buddhist order, and later we moved to a small house off the campus.

One day (I think it was in November 1967) he told me that a distinguished Buddhist monk from Vietnam named Venerable Thich Minh Chau was in the U.S. and would soon be visiting Los Angeles. Thich Minh Chau, he said, was the rector of Van Hanh University and an accomplished Buddhist scholar. He had gotten a doctorate from Nalanda Buddhist Institute in India and had written an important comparative study of the Pali Majjhima Nikaya and the Chinese Madhyama Agama. My monk-friend was planning to go to L.A. to meet Thich Minh Chau and he invited me to accompany him.

So one bright morning in the late autumn we arrived at the house of the Vietnamese family with whom the distinguished monk was staying. When Venerable Thich Minh Chau came out from his guest room, I saw a middle-aged man draped in a yellow-orange robe, serene and self-composed, dignified in manner, radiating goodness and sagacity. Somehow, he looked strangely familiar, and I asked myself: “Where have I seen him before? I’ve never before seen a monk dressed in a yellow-orange robe like that.” Then it immediately struck me: “Yes, I have! One bright morning two years ago on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Could this be him?” I had seen the monk in Madison from a distance of some sixty yards and thus couldn’t distinguish his facial features very well, and it was not unlikely that two middle-aged East Asian monks might look alike. So I decided to inquire. I had to wait patiently while my monk friend, the visiting monk, and the host family spoke in Vietnamese. When I got an opportunity I asked him, “Is this your first visit to America, sir?” He said, “No, I was here a few years ago.” That was what I expected. Then I asked: “By any chance, could the Venerable have been on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in early August 1965?” And he said, “In fact I was. I was visiting my friend, Professor Richard Robinson, who started a program of Buddhist Studies there.” Then I told him about that day when I had watched him walk across the campus. He chuckled gently and said, “So this is not the first time we are meeting.”

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