A divorced former Intel engineer. A barefoot-in-the-woods Berkeley grad. A Harvard Divinity School dropout. And a man whose broken engagement left him questioning his basic values.
I thought I had an idea about what a person’s life looked like before they became a Buddhist monk. Something about being born under golden skies as a tiger stood beside the river under a Banyan tree. But instead of “Oh, I joined when I was six,” these monks’ stories were more like “I was drowning in modern culture, and realized I wanted to live this knowledge, not just study it in academia.” Because of their ability to say, “Yes, me too,” I had an easier time connecting with them while we hiked the Appalachian Trail than I expected. When I walked the Path of Happiness, I was just starting to explore Buddhism in earnest. Beginning that spiritual journey with a physical one taught me some things whose full value I wouldn’t recognize until well after I had left the trail.
Morning on the Appalachian Trail
“This is a first. We get all kinds comin’ through on the trail, but I’ve never seen monks!” The nine of us stood in the living room of our gracious trail-adjacent host, who allowed us the use of a real bathroom, running water, and a few cookies. We had decided to take a minor detour from the “official” trail (which ran through this little mountain town anyway) to grab some ice cream. We came across this lovely, warm-faced, middle-aged woman who invited us to take a break inside her house. “What church are y’all from?” she asked.
“It’s called The Order of Interbeing,” said Brother Man. I wondered at the time why he didn’t use the name Thich Nhat Hanh, the founder of the Order and, they say, the second-most famous Buddhist in the world after the Dalai Lama. “It’s a part of the Zen Buddhist tradition.”
“Ohhh, ok. Buddhists. Well that’s somethin’ different,” said our host, her smile never wavering, “are you walkin’ the trail for some kind of religious thing?”
“Well, sort of. We use walking meditation all the time in our practice, this is taking it a step further and including the community of laypeople on the journey, with a specific emphasis on the importance of fostering peace in this world. The monks are walking from our monastery in Upstate New York to Washington, D.C., and others are joining us for a week at a time. We’re calling it ‘The Path of Happiness,’” Brother Man replied, using at least two terms I was pretty sure she would not be familiar with.
“Well that’s just great that you all are walking together like that. Buddhism. Huh.”
To her, we were a novelty, a story to tell her friends, but we were also bonafide Appalachian Trail hikers, worthy of all the respect that goes with the title. And I’ll admit that novelty was part of the draw for me, too. When my friends asked where I went on vacation, I imagined, I’d respond with very un-enlightened feigned modesty, “Oh, just hiking the Appalachian Trail with Buddhist monks, no big deal.” But it was a big deal, just not in the way I expected.
On day three, we were still getting used to each other. I’d taken a quick liking to all of the monks, but I related particularly well with Dohan, an initiate who hadn’t yet earned the title “Brother.” I still was a bit intimidated by that honorific, especially early on in the hike, so I found Dohan more approachable. Dohan was about thirty (my age), and looked every bit a Monk early that morning, with his shaved head and brown robes, doing Tai Chi alone in a field as the sun rose over the trees. One of my explicit goals was to use my time with the monks to chart my (figurative) path in exploring Buddhist philosophy, so, when he returned to our campsite, I asked Dohan if he would recommend a ten-day silent retreat, something that Plum Village does not offer.
“Some people find them very useful,” he said to me with appropriate monkish diplomacy, “but retreats sometimes leave the impression that meditation and mindfulness are things that you have to go somewhere else to do, that you need a special environment. I participated in a few of them before I found Plum Village. It was hard for me to find a use for that kind of meditation in my day-to-day life. I felt like meditation was something you do alone on a mat for an intense hour, before going on with your day. But the truth is, you can meditate anywhere, any time, while doing anything.”
Indeed, eighteen months and two retreats later, I now catch myself thinking that I really ought to go back to do another silent retreat, to sit through ten days of stillness to try to reinvigorate my practice. But maybe, instead of dreaming of something I might do months in the future, I should instead be looking to invest in right now.
Speaking of right now, what can ruin a camper’s present moment more than an unexpected and sudden thunderstorm? As I finished my chat with Dohan, dark clouds were just starting to roll in. I recalled canoeing through the rain with my family as a child, glum faces and wet boots all around. An unexpected rain always meant ruined plans and an unwelcome change of course.
Hours later, after we had finished our hike for the day, the skies began their ominous rumbling above us on the Path of Happiness. I thought of those soggy experiences I’d had before, fearing the worst. The monks, though, simply pulled out a tarp and strung it over a picnic table at our campsite. Under that shelter we huddled, watching nature’s show. Lazy Monk pulled out his phone to record video of t
he unexpected hail that pinged against the tarp, making a special kind of music. The rain was welcome, a giver of life that had a unique beauty. A simple shift in perspective completely reversed the effect of the change in weather.
The Path of Happiness presented some real challenges. Difficulties that were different in kind from the cliché blisters and wet sleeping bags. We were, after all, nine strangers actively seeking both physical and spiritual growth. Since no growth can ever come from a place of comfort, we were forced to go beyond what was easy and natural to find solutions for our group as a beloved community, a concept that would lose its cloying effect and become a real tool for connection and living.
By the fifth day of our hike, we had all gotten to know each other pretty well. We were getting used to the demands of the trail and had fallen into a rhythm. That day, around lunchtime, we were pausing between some towering oaks when a stunningly contrasted red and black bird alighted on a branch above us.
“Look!” Dohan said to Brother Man, the nature lover from California, “I’ve never seen that bird. Any idea what it is?” Brother Man considered a moment.
“My best guess,” he said with a sheepish grin, “is a red-winged blackbird.”
“Ah, or rather, a black-winged redbird,” suggested Dohan, since the bird’s primary color was a deep crimson. Only a few seconds had elapsed, but by this time the whole group was admiring our summer-plumaged companion. I piped up.
“That’s a scarlet tanager.” I only knew this because I had seen one by chance a month earlier. In fact, I could probably only identify some twenty bird species. But right then, it seemed like I could identify all birds, since I had by then named 100% of the species anyone had wondered about (that is, just this single tanager). Sam, a woman who had recently graduated college, gave me an incredulous look. In a small lie of omission, I allowed her to believe I was some kind of master naturalist.
Sam had come on the trip with her friend Cali, a recent high school grad. They’d met years earlier at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Deer Park monastery in California, and had continued growing together through Plum Village events like the Path of Happiness. Their presence on the walk brought young voices and a different perspective (as well as a predictable daily absence at breakfast). Besides myself and my then-fiancee (now wife), Ruby, the other lay-people on the hike were Stephanie, a Spanish and Portugese Studies professor, and Carol, a very active retiree and yogi.
Brother Man and Amethyst
After the brief visit by the scarlet tanager, we resumed our walk, with me and Brother Man taking the lead. We continued to chat about wildlife for some time, then allowed the sounds of the forest to fill the space. Behind us, in a route of conversation that escapes my memory now, Sam and Cali were talking about the migration of people from Asia to the Americas over the Bering land bridge.
“That’s why Inuit’s eyes are so slanted: to protect them from snow blindness. Asians’ eyes got naturally more slanted as they moved north. Only later, when indigenous people came further south, did they start to open again,” said Sam, herself of East Asian descent.
“Oh, that’s interesting, but be careful with putting causes to evolution. People have a tendency to make up stories for evolutionary changes that really aren’t testable,” said Brother Man.
“Um, excuse me?” Sam said, stopping on the trail. “Why would you say that?” No one could help but notice her voice breaking with emotion.
So began a half-hour break there on the trail as everyone tried to understand not just what had happened, but also how we could all come to see each other better. Emotions were running high, so Lazy Monk suggested that we resume walking, giving us all time to reflect. The energy of that afternoon’s walk was subdued, as we all realized what had happened: a white man had corrected an Asian woman’s understanding of her own people’s story. There were plenty of speculative side conversations, but Sam remained quiet as we stopped for the evening and had our dinner.
Sensing that there was still healing to be done, Lazy Monk suggested the group have a Dharma sharing session. After we gathered around a picnic table, he explained how such a session would work for those of us for whom it was a new experience. That evening, the Dharma sharing was mostly meant to give space for talking about what happened earlier in the afternoon, but we were free to talk about anything that was on our minds. We were explicitly not to respond to others´ sharings, as it was not a time for discussion or arguing, but only to better understand each other.
After an uncertain minute of silence as everyone kept their gaze lowered, I volunteered to share first by bowing to the circle. I spoke, among other things, about my acute consciousness of my own privilege that day, being a relatively well-off straight white man, and how I felt that I was not in a place to comment on any issues of race. The group thanked me, and then each person in turn spoke about their own perceptions of race relations in small groups. Even in a group where everyone was together as equals, it became obvious listening to each person’s contribution to Dharma sharing that in our society we are all always aware of race. A lot of nurturing and enlightening points were brought up as we went from person to person.
After everyone but Sam had shared, a long silence passed. We were all respectful, of course, not putting any pressure on her to share her own thoughts. Finally, she bowed in. She explained that she heard what all of us were saying about race and was thankful. However, what had bothered her that day on the trail was not that it was a white person, but rather that it was a man telling her that she was wrong.
This revelation sent the group reeling. We had made an enormous assumption without realizing it. All of us, from the professor of Latinx studies to the Dutch monk-in-training, were so used to seeing things in terms of race and so used to the authority of the monks that we couldn’t even see how this person had been hurt. We listened to Sam intently as she told her story of abuse and negligence at the hands of men, and the scars those experiences had left on her. Afterward, we all retired to our tents to consider the day’s events.
Even though we had all been pondering the wrong issue for hours, we were able to come together again as a group the following day. In fact, our bonds were then closer. Dharma sharing was not about “solving” the problem, it was about being heard and seen. For our group, it was better than a logical resolution of the issue, it was a coming together. This tense experience on the Path of Happiness reminded me how humans heal: not through intellectual debates and logic, but through the presence of our community and by holding space for each other.
The monks taught me two songs on the trail that have stayed with me. They’re simple songs in both their melodies and their lyrics, as many powerful songs are. When we sat around the campfire on day five, we sang, “Happiness is Here and Now:”
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Nowhere to go, nothing to do
No longer in a hurry.
Happiness is here and now
I have dropped my worries
Somewhere to go, something to do
But I don’t need to hurry.
Please, call me a hippie, but I’ve been able to transfer this song to other people. When Ruby and I go camping with friends, we teach this lovely melody around the fire. They, in turn, bring it into their own lives as a gentle, simple reminder to be in the present moment. The beloved community continues to grow.
The other song, “No Coming, No Going,” is about parting ways with someone you care about. Dohan taught it to us on the final day when the group started to get emotional about our quickly-approaching departure. In the parking lot, we sang it again, and Dohan taught me the “Three-Breath-Hug,” which is a way to mindfully and fully embrace someone that is exactly as it sounds. The song is a reminder that we can also be mindful of our connection and enduring bonds even when we part ways.
No coming, no going, no after, no before.
I hold you close to me. I release you to be so free.
Because I am in you and you are in me,
because I am in you and you are in me.
At Plum Village Thailand, where I’d visit a year later, though the monks were wonderfully open to talking, eating, and working with us, I never was able to shake the feeling that I was just a visitor in their world, unable to gain access to the “pure” Buddhist life that I imagined the monks live off in their quarters. The Path of Happiness, however, gave me an opportunity not just to be with monks, but to do with monks.
At the monastery, the authority of the monks gave me the sense that monks are a bit superhuman, having transcended our mean existence. They haven’t, of course. They are just like you and me, but with a tad more practice. On the Path of Happiness, the Brothers faced the same trail I did, with the same challenges, the same frustrations, and the same equipment. They lived naturally, joyfully, and mindfully all the while, no special equipment needed.
Yes, we “cheated” by having backup supplies. The hike was explicitly not about making ourselves suffer.
Today, when I am frustrated with a task, I can remember the peace Brother Man had when we were trying to light a fire with wet firewood. When I catch myself mindlessly slurping my gourmet coffee, I can remember the almost childlike joy Lazy Monk found in the instant stuff we prepared in the mornings.
While walking the Path of Happiness, I listened to the monks’ tales, often as we sat cross-legged on the ground, leaning our packs against trees as we took a much-needed break after a few miles of trekking. I came to understand that their stories are my story, too. These men who seemed so “other” on the first day, representing in their brown robes the capital-lettered Community of Mindful Living, slowly became part of an us. I, too, have questioned everything after a major breakup. I, too, have quit a “good” job after becoming disillusioned with the power of money to bring happiness. I, too, have spent time in the woods and realized there is a stillness, a kind of power there that I can connect to. What if I had been closer to Blue Cliff Monastery? Could I have become a monk? “Maybe in another life,” I’ll say, while firmly rejecting the idea of reincarnation.
How beautiful is the irony that “getting away” for a week on the Path of Happiness showed me that we don’t have to go anywhere. Brotherhood and “monkness” are things always available to us.