by Susan D’Aloia
In the memoir, Running Toward Mystery: The Adventure of an Unconventional Life, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi chooses to become a monk at the peak of his youthful potential. He rejects the spiritual path as a mere life enhancer and encourages readers to embark on a more totalizing journey of self-actualization. By embracing mystery, as opposed to cultural explanations, we can arrive at deeper questions. This wish bookends this carefully written memoir, which is co-authored by Zara Houshmand. Despite an already crowded landscape of books depicting religious quests and spiritual advice- both classics and new works – this book is bound to be widely read if for no other reason than Priyadarshi’s current role as a thought leader while serving as the first Buddhist chaplain at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
There are other reasons to read it, however. The book’s prose captures Bengal with earthy affection as it paints family, guides and mentors with a vibrance that at times overshadows Priyadarshi’s steadfast determination to become a monk. The book also provides geographical understanding of Buddhism’s historicity in modern India, including Nehru’s cultural support of Buddhist monasteries in neighboring countries, as well as the supporting role the monk’s extended family played to assure the Dalai Lama’s protection out of Tibet. Such highlights make up for writers’ reticence to more profoundly negotiate karma or provide substantial insight regarding the technological direction that has penetrated our lives. The authors mention both themes to be of concern, but don’t address either of them directly with much follow through. This falls in line with the book’s gentle suggestion to prioritize self-imposed inquiry as opposed to relying on cultural explanations for spiritual answers.
The adventure begins from the perspective of ten-year old Khulari, (Priyadarshi’s name as a child). As the only boy from a prominent Brahmin family, he enjoys harmonious relationships with his sisters, positively participates in Hindu rituals and performs well academically. Yet one day on gut instinct he walks away from his Christian boarding school on his own. Trusting his inner compass as opposed to a plan, he travels 300 km by train, bus, and foot, winding up in Ragjir, where he hikes up Vulture Peak, one of Siddhartha Gautama’s favorite natural wonders, unbeknownst to him at the time.
Following the sound of chanting and drums, he arrives inside a temple and feels unprecedented orientation. For the next two weeks Khulari lives there, transfixed by the temple’s ornamentation and impeccable cleanliness. He polishes floors and in so doing relishes doing chores for the first time in his life. Finally, the sights and visions of men in orange robes throughout Bengal’s skies that he has experienced since age six make sense! Here we meet Khulari’s first guide, Nabatame, a Japanese monk and radical pacifist. Nabatame is a follower of the late Fujii Guruji, who arrived in India from Japan in 1931, on a mission to return Buddhism back to India as envisioned by the 13th Century Nichiren Daishonin. During this impromptu pilgrimage, the ten-year-old commits to a life devoted to Buddhism. Nabatame, drawing creatively upon Theraveda laws, ordains him at a preliminary level. Determined to pursue a monastic path, Khulari feels ready to forfeit the bountiful life his father’s high-ranking position in India’s civil service provides.
Khulari’s terrified family manages to find and fetch him and is not having any of it. Ensuing chapters detail their varied measures to intervene with his sudden commitment to a monastic life. As his family implores him to reconsider the totality of his uninformed devotion, I empathize with their efforts. It seems reasonable to encourage their pre-adolescent son to study Buddhism a bit more before forfeiting the primacy of his family connections and his entire opportunity structure. Their will to protect their son from what could have been premature indoctrination seems fair. Aside their karmic fortune of wealth and relationships, his parents resist lavish gifts that might ensnare them into corruption and they welcome debate and intellectual inquiry as the larger clan exalts the promise of education so to solve the world’s problems. Many readers, including myself, might gravitate towards such a family, or a community version of such. That might be spiritual enough. But the young monk rejects their guidance. It’s only his father’s threat to deport the Japanese monks that secures him to acquiesce and continue conventional schooling. Still, Khulari rebels.
The book progresses in mostly linear form focusing on three broad stages of Priyadarshi’s life: his young rebellion towards Buddhism, his evolving determination as he learns from monks of various lineages, and finally, his place as a respected Buddhist monk who sits at the interfaith table with other revered leaders. Calcified beliefs don’t yet fuel his initial rebellion. His devotion is rooted in an instinctual knowingness that motivates him to traverse alone throughout various locales in India, including Sarnath, a holy site of Buddhism that becomes a place he returns to for refuge and growth. Eventually this is where he begins to share the noble truths to visiting tourists at the unexpected urging of one of his guides.
While still a child and confined to live under the watch of his parents, Priyadarshi’s gaze focuses on virtuous acts regardless of their religious affiliation. Despite my affinity for his family and their near absence by the middle of the book, I respect the narrator’s scrappiness as he seeks to learn from wherever he can. With the gumption of an adolescent skateboarder, Khulari chases clues of how to live out his precocious sense of vairagya, a Buddhist concept of detachment of conventional rewards and affirmations. He admires a sadhu who methodically cares for bands of skinny dogs with ritual feedings done with patience, regard and order. He learns enough Japanese and Sanskrit so to engage more deeply with sutras and later studies Tibetan.
Gradually, the energy of Khulari, gives into the commentary of the older Priyadarshi. This quells some of the youthful vitality that the writing starts to capture when the journey begins. At times the grown-up voice imposed on his earlier experiences introduces ideas and then quickly drops them. For example, when he visits Mother Theresa’s efforts to care for those destitute and forgotten in Kolkata, he acknowledges that small acts of kindness serve as their own kind of magic, but also recognizes that such efforts can never be scalable. Integrating the change management term, “scalable” raises the question of what precisely, or even generally, the monk would want to scale. The values of kindness and patience? A wider spread and more earnest pursuit of vairagya?
I begin reading the book while living in Singapore and share the title with a friend, a banker who was raised in Mumbai. I ask him if he has any interest in reading it. As I await for his reply to my text, I wonder if I have become a bit brainwashed by the stream of digital listicles on YouTube that provide edited how-to tips or rules of success from a host of accomplished figures, including the Dalai Lama and Eckard Tolle. My friend, who prays daily combining the Hinduism of his upbringing along with Buddhist principles calls me back and replies:
“No, I don’t need someone telling me about that or how to do that.”
But after I type the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi’s name in the chat, he immediately does a Google search and his attitude changes quickly.
“Wow, he has done so much. It’s so impressive.”
I consider all of these emotional responses- my mild disappointment that an idea doesn’t include more elaboration when introduced; embarrassment from consuming too many YouTube clips; my friend’s momentary frustration over presumed direction around his interior life; and then his pride over Google links that depict Tenzin Priyadarshi’s accomplishments as a spiritual thought leader.
Running Toward Mystery: The Adventure of an Unconventional Life does not indulge a reader looking for quick application in their emotionally ephemeral lives, even as it shares a critique of how so many of us approach spirituality. The writers characterize two patterns of limitation. An Indian version where spiritual life includes early Brahmin study followed by five decades of commitment to the family and then basking into spirituality as a retirement activity. The other pattern plays out in the United States where spirituality functions as an endgame or fall back strategy when all else has failed. A life of renunciation takes over only after someone experiences material loss or a broken relationship. Many of us might recognize that we dabble in renunciation only when it suits us. The writers further clarify the dangers of spirituality as transactional, in a cost-benefit paradigm that technology seems to promote in late stage capitalism. All of this sounds about right.
However, it’s best to not to read this book looking for cultural prognosis or tangible redirection. Instead enjoy Priyadarshi’s tenacity to learn discipline through the contributions of spiritual figures that come in and out of his life. The writers emphasize the student and teacher role, or peer relationship, defined by respect, honor and intellectual exchange, where love and emotion emerge not from the personal, but in an exalted life of its own, unbound by dependency. This form seems the antidote to the potential roleplay they critique early in the book, where students and teachers act out residual needs and conditioning in a mutual vanity project of sorts.
A number of interactions with monks carry the second half of the book in the spirit of kalyanamitra, the Sanskrit term for, “beautiful, blessed, or virtuous friend.” Some of these monks drink, smoke and happen to be married. Some engage in diplomacy and others drum and chant as a means for peace. One particular monk demonstrates devotion through eccentric gestures (and at least once is firmly redirected by the Dalai Lama himself). One monk cuts his dreadlocks a few years before he dies peacefully, while another monk tragically gets caught in political crossfire and dies by violence as he wages peaceful development. All of them impact the practice of Buddhism and deeply capture the attention of Priyardarshi. Often highly competitive with himself, these teachers challenge his adherence to perfection. They shake up his approach and pave the way of a Bodhisattva’s life- one characterized by placing others before yourself on the path to enlightenment.
Throughout the memoir, the writers elegantly balance perspective from lineages of Theravada, East Asian Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism without dogma or prejudice. Towards the end of the book, we meet Bakula Rinpoche, a monk and accomplished diplomat who clearly influenced Priyardarshi in this direction of ecumenical respect. Dedicated to rebuilding Buddhism in post-Communist Mongolia, he served as a champion of the Ladakhi people. He was also a personal friend of Priyardarshi’s parents. In fact, their only Buddhist friend who throughout their son’s evolution reassured them. It seems Bakula Rinpoche’s habit of upholding kalyanamitra influenced relationships included a confused and fearful Hindu couple that loved their son, even as they struggled with the choice closest to his heart.
The last fifty pages mark another shift in the voice of the book, from one characterized by the eager pursuit of an ideal, to one of unconditional love. No longer wrestling with Gramscian rebellion, Priyardarshi seems a more open-hearted seeker in these pages, as opposed to have become a Buddhist leader of rigid erudition. Practicing Buddhism means scaling forgiveness beyond our inner circle of friends and family, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi shares. This idea is not new but certainly true and worth application. Beyond his own family, he extends his concern to societies suffering from trauma from war, genocide and economic injustice and further imagines restorative practices. He appreciates the attitude and actions of a ninety-two-year-old farmer he meets once during a walk in a village with the same exuberance as that of Desmond Tutu.
The end of the book suggests for readers to ask deeper questions. Though this is probably good advice, it’s also a line I have used frequently in my role as an education consultant, in contexts driven by cost-benefit calculation. True to my own hubris of desiring more vision, this ending feels unsatisfying. I contemplate again the theme of mystery from the book.
At one point, the teenaged Priyadarshi feels demotivated and directionless over petty politics and self-serving rancor between monks and nuns over stupa development projects in Kolkata. With a rote and lifeless Buddhist practice, he wanders off on a walk and ends up having a rapturous encounter during a kirtan at a Hindu temple with a swami who encourages him with simple questions. The swami guides him back to a more buoyant faith. Soon after, Priyadarshi learns that the particular swami who had shepherded him has been dead for years. An aspirational guide from his native Hinduism lifts him to reclaim his joy in Buddhism; the experience transpires, possibly, from a brief resurrection (or divine intervention). Irony here becomes logic, brought about by an irrational act. We can’t quite square the circle, but the outcome brings direction that matters. This kind of surrender characterizes the mystery the book encourages us to accept and realize. At second read, it seems visionary enough.