Monday, December 14, 2009

Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk - Nikolai Grozni

In 2006, I traveled to Luang Prabang, Laos. One of my most beautiful memories there was waking up at the crack of dawn to watch the monks from the town's over 30 wats walking the street in single file collecting their daily alms. As I watched from the doorway of my hotel, a local boy asked me if there were monks in my country. I said that there were, but it certainly was not like in Luang Prabang, and that they did not walk through the streets in the morning for alms. The boy looked at me utterly perplexed and asked, "but then how do they get food to eat?" And, I didn't have a clue how to answer. Since then, the idea of monks has somewhat fascinated me. To some extent, just the idea that a person would give up years of his life to the study of religion, and also the idea in general of asceticism and ascribing value to a choice that does not seem (in my opinion) very productive. So, when I come across these random memoirs about people who have lived some of their life as a monk, I find it hard to reist a glimpse into this strange secret way of living. Turtle Feet is the story of a Bulgarian musical prodigy who gives up everything and moves to Dharmasala, India to become a monk. He is serious and steadfast in his studies, but the color and life of Gronzi's recollection is not in the telling of his spiritual revelations, but in his description of the sights, sounds, and smells or the world around him. Gronzi's life of poverty, amidst rats and his own starvation, is anything but idyllic enlightenment. Given the subtitle of the book, the reader knows it is only time before Gronzi gives up his robes and revels in Western life, but not before he passes a number of tests and proves his mettle among the monks. I found this book at times tedious and reptitive, and I wanted a little more reflection about the life Gronzi was living, rather than just a narrative description of it. A nice reminder for me of those quiet mornings in Luang Prabang, but in terms of literature, not quite what I was hoping for.

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