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  • D.J. McKay

Driving Away from the Monastery for the Last Time

Hello, good people!

I'm going to take a break from the technical stuff I've been writing about lately to tell a little story. This story is a part of my next book, which I've begun working on at last. This book will be much like my last, in that I will weave the teachings I've received and the insights I've had into stories from my life. The stories in this case, as I envision it now, will cover the period that began the day I left the monastery and end at the point where I began my new life in the world. Today's story is the first in the book, and it describes my last morning at the monastery.

A while back I published the introduction to the book. Here it is in case you missed it: https://www.theoneopendoor.org/single-post/2018/12/31/New-Book-Intro

Here's the story:

There no sufficient way to describe what I felt that September morning, five years ago now, as I drove for the last time through the monastery gates and out into the world. My previous book detailed the ecstasy and the horror of that fateful morning, including the long walk to town beginning some two hours before dawn; the surreal minutes—I don’t know how many they were, but they seemed like days, every one—spent packing the truck I had rented and attending to the final cleaning of my hermitage; the profound moment when, finished at last, I shifted the truck into gear; and the eerie stillness as I began to pull away. After eighteen years of silence, of unspeakable joy and heart-rending suffering, of deep learning, of courage and despair; eighteen years during which I sacrificed my youth to the chance that I may go beyond the illusion of separation and suffering I had lived within, and without which I would, in all probability, have remained lost in my inherited confusion until my last day—at last it all was done. Long hoped for, even prayed for, and just as frequently feared, my last moments as a monk had finally come.

As I drove up the dirt path we called the “lower road” for the last time, I was thrilled and horrified by the audacity of that fateful act. My teacher had given her nominal consent, but I can’t say I truly left with her blessing. My departure was the result of the first independent decision I had made in all those eighteen years. I likely will never know how she felt as I passed the gates—I suspect that she watched from her own hermitage, which stood nearby—nor what she saw in this man, no longer young but still in possession of the fervor and in some ways of the naivete that drove him to pass the gate onto the monastery property for the first time so many years before. It could be she approved without confessing it. Her approval would have spoiled my final moments as a monk, and so she could not have given it: it would have diluted the independence of the decision I had made, my first real act as a grown man, despite the fact that I was nearly fifty years of age. I wish that such may have been the case, but it’s more likely that her outward disapproval was honest and sincere. I imagine she wanted me to go, but regretted the outcome of such a long career, which was laced in her mind, I think, with a sort of failure. I had not become who she wished me to be, a perfect likeness of herself in a younger, male body; and yet, as I drove past her hermitage and into the world beyond, I felt I had become at last myself. I had failed to exonerate the “I” I believed myself to be when I entered the monastery; I had failed to endure it all as “Dave”, but that failure was the success I underwent the training to achieve. “Dave” did not survive those eighteen years, even as mightily as he tried, and that was the greatest thing that could have happened. I left with a deeply cherished experience, accumulated over all those years, of the true Self that exists beyond “I”, and deep compassion for all those, including me, who are trapped within the illusion of identity.

I departed without so much as a nod from the other monks, many of whom I had lived and practiced beside for countless endless days in silence. Such was our way. The truck growled on down the road, and I went with it. It was six miles to the nearest town. I had traveled that way hundreds of times before for groceries or hardware, to visit the doctor or run some errand for the monastery, and in states of mind varying from bliss and gratitude to absolute despair, but never as this, a lone pilgrim who was, most likely, never to return. I drove right on through town and followed the highway down into the foothills, transfixed by this moment, which I was sure to remember forever, and nearly out of my senses.

It was about a three hours drive from the monastery to the San Francisco Bay Area, which was my destination. I had arranged with my brother, who lived in the city, to deposit my few things in his basement and to sleep on his couch for a couple weeks, while I prepared my next move. Half way there I stopped at a large park I spied from the highway. I needed some time to cease movement and to just be. I think, too, that I wanted to savor the transition. It’s rare and astonishing that a person could so completely exist between two worlds, with almost nothing concrete to stand on. The life I had just relinquished was gone forever, and my ties to it wholly broken. It was more than probable that I would never speak to any of those brave souls I had lived beside for so long the rest of this life. And the life that lay before me was little more than a hope and a dream. I had plans, but only of the vaguest sort, and no confidence that anything would come to pass as I imagined. More practically, I had no place to live, no job, no relationships beyond my immediate family, and little money to carry me through. The fact that I had money at all was disorienting to me: there had been no need of it, personally, all the time I trained. I was almost completely unknown to the world—and even to me! I understood too well who I was against the silent backdrop of the monastery; that was the trouble that I left to address, in fact. Monastic life is incredibly difficult, but even so I had become comfortable, perhaps even complacent, and a need had arisen over time to examine myself in a different mirror. I left the monastery to discover who I am in new contexts; or, more exactly, to see more deeply into my authentic nature through the contrasts. And so there I was, only an hour and a half into my new life, and it was as if I had just met myself for the first time. Soon, I knew, I would become whoever I was to be out in the world, and so I wished for the space of an hour to relish the unknown.

I sat down on a bench beside a little pond. A bridge arched over the water, and ducks waddled here and there. I heard the sound of children playing in the background. I sat and breathed, and felt the stirrings of hope and joy within my body, and held the fear that accompanied it like a small child, and watched as Life slowly, endlessly passed by. Then, once the hour had passed, I climbed back into the truck and continued the journey west.