A Son of Minnesota Returns as a Worldly-Wise Monk


Jim Reynolds began his 40-minute talk to a group of Mayo Clinic physicians and health care workers
last week by closing his eyes, putting his palms together and intoning an
ancient chant in a dead language.

"I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging; I am of the nature
to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness; I am of the nature to die, I have
not gone beyond dying,” he chanted to the group of doctors, first in the archaic
Indian Pali language, and then in an English translation.

Jim Reynolds, you will have guessed by now, is a Buddhist monk. He is actually
known now only by his Buddhist name, Ajahn Chandako, and he serves as the abbot
of a monastery near Auckland, New

His head is shaved, he never handles money, and he owns little more than his
begging bowl, a pair of sandals, and the coffee-colored robes on his back.

Ajahn Chandako (the name Chandako means "one who aspires") is also
a Minneapolis native and a Buddhist spiritual teacher with a growing international
reputation. Last week, he returned to his home state to teach people how to meditate
and to give a series of pithy, gently humorous talks in Minneapolis, Grand Rapids,
Northfield and Rochester.

Graveyard Humor

"When I lived in monasteries in Thailand, the meditation halls sometimes
had human skeletons hanging in them,” Ajahn told the group of 70 Mayo Clinic
physicians, flashing a mischievous ear-to-ear smile. “The skeletons hung there
for everyone to reflect on, and they had little handwritten signs on them that
read: ‘Once I was like you. And one day you will be like me.’”

A knowing chuckle rippled through the room. The health care workers   absorbed Ajahn’s
graveyard humor as pragmatic wisdom – a useful reminder, perhaps, of nature’s
ultimate primacy over all the powers of medicine.

At the end of his Mayo talk, an eager hand shot up in the front row.

“Could you show us how to meditate?” a woman asked.

So, for a few minutes, in a conference room in the middle of a busy Mayo Clinic
day, Ajahn taught people how to close their eyes and summon internal
spaciousness and ease by using only focused attention and wholesome intention
– the channeled inner zeal to become disease free.

Broad Compassion

From a Buddhist view, Ajahn told the Mayo audience, illness is a profound opportunity
for spiritual transformation.

“In the old days, if you were a forest monk in Thailand, it was almost inevitable
that you would get malaria,” he said. “So when you finally got it, you wouldn’t
see it as something abnormal, but rather as a normal human experience and an
opportunity for spiritual practice.”

When skillfully and fearlessly embraced, Ajahn said, illness offers a rare chance
to directly experience the most essential truths of nature. While unwelcome and
painful, such an experience naturally imparts an intrinsic wisdom that can replace
deep-seated arrogance with humility, anxiety with equanimity, and narrow self-regard
with broad compassion.

Rock and Roll

The story of Ajahn Chandako’s emergence as a leading Buddhist teacher
encompasses an epic journey from a bright teenager with a passion for drums,
to a globe-trotting wanderer, to a disciplined meditator in jungle huts,
to the worldly-wise New Zealand abbot and global spiritual teacher that he
is today.

Born and raised in Minneapolis and Massachusetts, and a 1984 graduate of Carleton
College in comparative religion, Ajahn Chandako says his boyhood was a happy
one. He doesn’t recall a particular leaning towards Buddhism, except for one

"If I saw a photograph of a Buddhist monk, something went off inside of
me,” he said. “It struck me hard like a gong. It hit the depth of my heart.”

Throughout his high school college years, that strange inner call took a back
seat to typical teenage distractions, especially rock and roll. He was a drummer
in several bands – in “The Generic Band” the musicians wore plain white T-shirts
that read “Drummer,” “Guitarist” and “Singer.”

Last Fling

Social injustice and environmental problems stirred a strong desire to act in
response, Ajahn said, but he was dogged by a sense of unreadiness.

“Even if there is sincerity, there may not be the wisdom to know what is helpful
and what is destructive,” he said. “Increasingly, I began to think that at least
I can clean up this little corner of the environment” – here he pointed to himself.
“I could clean up my own mind, and my own behavior."

His first taste of the monastic life came on long meditation retreats after college
at the Hokyoji Zen Practice Community in
southeast Minnesota, under the famous meditation teacher, Katagiri
. Those were followed by even longer stints as a lay meditator at a monastery in
Thailand, where he was first exposed to Buddhist monastic life that was fully
integrated into a society where monks had a firm and high standing.

Harrowing Journey

Nearly ready to don the monk’s robes, Ajahn decided he wanted to travel
widely through Tibet, which would be impossible once he ordained. This remarkable
interlude is described in one of the most beautifully-written travel memoirs
ever penned by an almost-monk, The
Outer Path – Finding My Way in Tibet

The story describes a harrowing foot-and-bicycle journey to Tibet in 1987, long
before it was easy for Westerners to travel there. The book combines gorgeous
descriptive prose with a young man’s struggle to meet the demands of an overwhelming
inner drive to undertake ascetic discipline.

“Although I’m traveling lightly, I’m still carrying too much baggage,” he writes
one evening by candlelight in a drafty cave carved into the cliffs overlooking
Lake Manasarovar in remote western Tibet.

Bright Lights

"Often I feel in the awkward position of being half-monk, half-adventurer.
I no longer take things like worldly achievement, social expectations, and
money seriously, but I’m still living a secular life. I’m beginning to think
like a monk, yet I continue to follow old habits.”

Staring at the brightly flickering candle by which he writes, Ajahn reflects
on the pitfalls of his adventurous life, from his rock-and-roll days to his run-ins
with Chinese police and nearly dying of hypothermia in Tibet.

“An insect appeared, circled the flame, and dove in to its death. It occurred
to me that I am not much smarter. Attracted by bright lights, how many times
have I jumped into the fire and been burned?”

Within a few months, Ajahn had returned to his Thailand monastery, shed all his
excess baggage, shaved his head, and turned in his shirts and pants and shoes
for a few plain squares of cloth and sandals.

Outward Ripples

"I could have gone off to the Amazon and become an ecoterrorist,
blowing up bulldozers that were ruining the rainforest,” Ajahn said. “But
I knew that would potentially harm other people, and it wouldn’t come from
a peaceful mind. If one is practicing meditation correctly, it naturally
leads to a reduction in anger and selfishness and greed. It very directly
affects the people around us, our family and friends, the people we know

“Ripples start to go out in unseen ways. Immediately, the idea that meditation
is somehow selfish just doesn’t make sense. It has immediate and far-reaching

Douglas McGill is a former staff reporter for the New York Times and London and Hong Kong bureau chief for Bloomberg News–and now writes for the Daily Planet.

To reach Douglas McGill: doug@mcgillreport.org, and visit The McGill Report.