Let me preface this all by saying I wanted to write a true and accurate account of some of the more interesting occurrences around how I became a Buddhist, got involved with the FPMT, and subsequently took robes for three months with rabjung vows. Some of it is a little risqué, a little fantastic, but it’s all 100% true, at least from my point of view. I remember wondering soon after reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead if the “magic” of Tibetan Buddhism was still alive and if a Westerner could experience it. Um, it’s both real and not to be trifled with. I think now more than ever our anti-organized religion, overly scientific materialist culture would benefit from more real, frank, first-person accounts of what the human mind is actually capable of experiencing. I’m most definitely not boasting about myself since I’ve always felt I fall into the “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” camp. I’m just a Piscean magnet for metaphysical shenanigans it seems.
When I came across Buddhism at 19 I knew soon after that becoming a monk was something that would definitely be the most fulfilling and productive use of my life. As I write this at 29, I still feel exactly the same way. In Thailand there’s a tradition that young males take robes for three months at age 20 before they start a career or get married although my intention was to don robes for life. So my experience as a monk was also like this rite of passage and the phases in my life are very clearly delineated between “pre-“ and “post-monastic” in thought and deed. I strongly feel this would be an amazing tradition to start in the West for young Buddhists.
Let’s start from the very beginning; I hear it’s a very good place to start. This is the background and accompanying mindset I’ve successfully “liberated” myself from. I grew up in a pretty conservative Irish-Catholic mostly-Republican family from the central coast of California. My grandmother, the matriarch, had a Barry Goldwater campaign poster in her office through my whole childhood. A university administrator and professor, she taught human sexuality for years, apparently giving sex advice to students who sought it. This is highly amusing because she’s the only person I know who thinks I chose to be gay. She also still avidly subscribes to many points of Freudian psychology. Ironically, she was also the one who instilled in me a socio-political consciousness. I absolutely worshipped her.
When I was 16 I had a satori-like experience on the golf course in the country club my grandmother lives in. The summer sun was setting, a slight breeze blew, and I was sitting under a tree watching the ducks swim in the pond in front of me. My mind cleared of all gross subjectivity for the first time: “Oh my god … I’m gay!” A physical weight lifted, and my obsessive-compulsive disorder was literally gone in an instant. I saw as incredible folly everything that had been before this moment. I sat there for a while, truly happy for the first time ever. After a while, I began to walk back to my grandmother’s house, and back to reality. The freedom I felt gave way to a new burden: I had to keep this hidden from the world until I’d fully integrated it into myself and my self-perception. It was truly a testament to the power and control the Catholic Church held over my mind.
I began to see the world for what it was: a mass of half-truths and delusion slathered with people’s projections and ignorance. I would have to be my own source of strength and sanity, I told myself. I began writing a 1,200 page journal that I carried in constant terror in my backpack wherever I went. No one ever found it. I began to question everything I’d ever assumed or been told – what else was I wrong about?
I came out my senior year of high school to a surprisingly supportive reception, except from my grandmother. We were alone on a road trip and I casually told her thinking that as a highly evolved and educated modern woman of her generation it’d be a total non-issue. I just blurted it out all of a sudden, “Oh, by the way, Grandma, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you: I’m gay.” She calmly pulled the car over to the shoulder of the highway, calmly put her hands on her lap, looked me straight in the eye and calmly said: “Now, Rolland, why on Earth would you choose to do something like that?”
At 19 I was really into the rave scene – huge pants, pacifiers, colored spiky hair, some regrettable music choices, and a lot of recreational drug use. I happened to be on mushrooms (they never sat well with my system and psyche) one evening. I was with three friends: two girls and a straight guy friend. I called mushrooms “The Eternal Question” because I seemed to be full of them whenever I took them: What does it all mean? What’s our purpose? What’s going on? (Usually that last question was more logistical than transcendental.) I was just laying in a bed in a spare room while the others were hanging out in the living room. As I lay there, I saw reality start to disassemble brick-by-brick. My conventional perception and understanding of everything, from who I was, to what a wall was, to what the house we were in was, looked like it was literally being held together in brick form and some unseen force was just removing the bricks and dissolving them into nothingness. And then I was what I can only describe as a naked awareness of sorts.
Weirdly, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead echoes, the naked awareness moments are the ones I remember least about. (Disclaimer: I can describe this whole event far better now as a Tibetan Buddhist than I could at the time.) It may sound cool and ethereal, but it was actually a very bad trip. I’ve never experienced anything more fundamentally upsetting than watching reality and my ego undo without context or effort on my part. I was a mess. My friends came in, knowing I was totally “gone.” I tried to communicate what was happening but all that came out were disjointed words: “Bricks… Undoing… Where?… What’s going on?… Who are we?… What’s going on?” They were not on my level. They thought it might be good to get me a little stoned, and I went along more out of infantile confusion than actual volition. Mistake. Next thing I knew I was back in that bed again but suddenly a lot more “lucid.”
I knew who and what I was: a god! Reality had reassembled, and instead of rather shabby student housing, I saw a divine palace! Just a shift in perception. All the same couches and chairs but its essence, I knew, was divine and perfect, and my friends and I gods and goddesses. I was overjoyed at finally being free of all the human trappings. That state seemed so limited and banal in comparison.
We adjourned to a couch on a deck outside. It was late at night. I flopped down next to my two girl friends and, with all the arrogance due someone of my station, I sincerely and excitedly asked “So … what do you guys wanna do now?” positively brimming with excitement at all the powers of the universe at our disposal. They told me later they’d found my tone a little odd – undoubtedly, the most genuinely arrogant words ever to have escaped my lips. With me being a complete weirdo at this point, they were more amused by our guy friend scaling the roof of his house. I withdrew to an inner world.
I closed my eyes and saw space explode! It expanded and I saw entire suns and solar systems and galaxies form. Wherever I directed my attention, there I was; this was all mine. Planets and life formed. I watched entities leave their planets and explore other worlds. I panned out and saw the universe begin to contract in on itself. Beings started dying off from war or changing solar conditions. As the universe closed in on itself, no one but me was left to witness it.
Somehow, I ended up back in that damn bed again. The girls were outside, and my other friend was on the couch reading a surfing magazine. The universe’s dimensions were contained within the space of the house (palace) and my friend and I the only being left in it. I use ”being” because we were two aspects of a unified whole that was split into two, for some reason. That’s not right, I thought, but how do we re-unify? Of course! My mind defaulted to what it’d known from its experiences as a human. I stoically, logically stood up from the bed and began to take off all my clothes. I remember looking at my totally nude self in the mirror, thinking, “Yes, this is a completely correct course of action,” and began walking the 30 or so feet to my blissfully unaware friend on the couch. He never looked up from his magazine, or even saw me coming. All of a sudden, I was standing in front of him naked as the day I was born, and I reached for the back of his head as if to institute “re-unification.” All he could say in his utter shock and surprise was, “Dude, it’s cool!”
I was instantly snapped back into my human mind and body and my divine trip came to a rather sudden (and drafty) end. In a nanosecond I realized exactly “who I was” and “what’s going on.” I immediately covered my “self” with one hand, my gaping mouth with the other. “Deer in headlights” would probably fall far short of the words needed to describe the look of simultaneous shame and terror in my eyes. “I just came back,” I said. “What?” he replied. “I was gone … and now I’m here. Oh my God. I didn’t know what I was … I wasn’t ….” I retreated back to the room, junk and mouth still hidden behind all-to-insufficient shielding.
When I got home, I felt absolutely compelled to draw the two-faced Roman god Janus, one face watching the past, the other looking into the future, before I could go to sleep. I’m not artistic in the slightest and have never felt compelled to do anything like that again and am still totally perplexed as to what significance, if any, it had. The next day when I woke up, still well and roundly traumatized, I immediately went online to find anything that would make sense of my experience: how had I become so far removed from reality? I found a site that equated the stages of mushroom jelly-brainedness with the Buddhist stages of meditation on egolessness. It described my experience perfectly and something about it resonated “correct” in a deeply profound and transcendental way, unlike anything I’d ever encountered in my exhaustive studies of other faiths and philosophical systems.
Somehow, fortuitously, Buddhism had been the one major system that had escaped my serious inquiry up to this point. I found accesstoinsight.org, an amazing Theravada website, and all it took was for me to read the Buddha’s words on the mechanics of karma, a cursory overview of the four noble truths, and to merely see a chart of the 31 levels of existence one can reincarnate into, and I knew I’d found not only an explanation of the previous nights events, but the answer to every unanswered question I’d ever had. I intuitively knew right then that Buddhism was the ultimate truth I’d been looking for, with all the attributes I knew it would have to contain: an all-encompassing and eternal scope, yet able to explain the most minute situation or circumstance, completely in accord with science, and well far beyond it, allowing for various types of beings and mindsets, and highly explanatory concerning what could land one in any of the circumstances it proposed.
I found out a year and a half later, when I was able to speak to my friend again, that I was way more shaken by this incident than him. At least one good thing had come from it – that’s how I became a Buddhist.
At 24, I put on the robes and took the rabjung vows of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. I was working at Tse Chen Ling in San Francisco, our amazing FPMT center there, after having developed a relationship over three years with Ven. Geshe Ngawang Dakpa, the resident teacher. There’d been some strange signs suggesting that Geshe-la was my teacher: a mala he blessed disappeared some time after I stopped saying mantras he’d advised to create the causes to become a monk. A few months later, I engaged in a particularly cathartic cleaning of my entire apartment, including the one bathroom. As I stepped out of the shower, rejuvenated and refreshed, I looked down at the top of the cupboard doors under the sink and there it was! It was tied in a weird knot similar to the knot of the eight auspicious symbols. I flipped out. I’d just started the mantras again the day before. A frantic visit to Tse Chen Ling and a cup of tea with a blindsided nun later, I was mostly calmed down.
The most blatant sign the universe saw fit to give me, though, that Geshe-la was one of my teachers was during my second visit to a Kagyu lama also living in San Francisco, Lama Lodu Rinpoche. I was asking him all these very cerebral questions about gurus, and how to find mine, and where, and how to become ordained, and how I’d spent the previous three years studying in every spare moment, and how I’d strategically moved to San Francisco from Southern California expressly for this purpose when he just flat-out said: “You need to go back to Geshe Dakpa. He is your lama. He is a monk. I am not a monk. I cannot help you.” I started crying hysterically for no reason, a real choking 14-year-old kind of cry. I wasn’t upset, or forlorn, or taken aback by his words or anything. (To be fair, I did projectile cry when my mom introduced me to deodorant at 12, so sometimes it means nothing. Again, Catholic school.) This, however, was more akin to what happens when I see His Holiness the Dalai Lama or Ven. Choden Rinpoche in person. All of a sudden, while trying to control my mystery tears of embarrassment, it dawned on me that I’d also seen Geshe Dakpa a few times and he’d already been instructing me and giving me practices for over a year, and I’d just not seen it as anything of real significance. I kept obstinately trying to develop connections with Kagyu or Nyingma lamas and centers and it just wasn’t happening. I knew now where I had to go.
Rolland Swing II worked and lived at Tse Chen Ling in San Francisco in 2005 and 2006 where he was office and bookcafe manager, a rabjung monk for three months, attendant to Geshe Ngawang Dakpa for a short time, and a personal assistant to Ven. Robina Courtin. He now resides in Seattle where he enjoys spending time with his cat Tushita, getting annoyed at Huffington Post comments from social conservatives, futilely searching for the perfect man, faltering but never giving up on his spiritual practice, and using all the Jedi-Catholic powers at his disposal to steer as many beings as possible towards Buddhism.Tags: prose