VonWachenfeldt’s Journey to Buddhism
On a warm Nepali night during the summer of 2010, Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department Jason VonWachenfeldt heard piercing noises coming from the nearby monastery.
On a warm Nepali night during the summer of 2010, Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department Jason VonWachenfeldt heard piercing noises coming from the nearby monastery. He woke up to screaming Buddhist monks who woke up at around 2:30 AM to watch the anticipated World Cup games. He was staying at a guest house in Boudha which held a community of Tibetan refugees just outside Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, when the shouts of the monks interrupted his sleep just a couple of hours before they had to get up at 4 AM to begin chanting. Still, the riveting World Cup game proved to be the main priority of their morning.
When pursuing his Ph.D., VonWachenfeldt was sent to Nepal to study Buddhism. Initially, VonWachenfeldt was mostly expecting three months of research and learning. While many of his days consisted of studying Sanskrit and early Buddhist texts at another monastery called the White Gompa, his stay there also became a fully immersive experience in which he had conversations and discussions with many locals and monks and learned first-hand about the lives of real Buddhists.
When VonWachenfeldt was dropped off in the middle of this unfamiliar city from the airport, he realized that he would not be a sheltered tourist: “There wasn’t much planning ahead of time and [he] thought they would have more things set up for [him] at the monastery.”
Despite this initial setback, VonWachenfeldt was able to find a place and settle into the new environment with the help of a monk who gave him an extensive tour of Boudha. VonWachenfeldt implemented more structure into his time there and filled his days with learning and exploration. For instance, after doing research and work, he explored the busy streets of Thamel and its rural outskirts. He also often entered the village center and interacted with the locals there before returning to study at the White Gompa monastery. He engaged in “a lot of learning about the local customs through just talking to people [and] being willing to ask questions and also being willing to make mistakes.”
By exploring the community of locals surrounding him, he gradually picked up a better sense of the customs and bits of the Nepali language. “I’m never going to pass as a Nepali, right? But learning how to blend in as part of the community and not necessarily just a tourist [was vital],” he noted. Although VonWachenfeldt faced hardships such as food poisoning and power outages from the wet monsoon season, learning how to blend in with the culture as a respectful traveler rather than an oblivious tourist was the largest hardship.
Part of overcoming this obstacle took the form of actively engaging with Buddhism while leaving behind his original perceptions of the tradition. For instance, he especially cherished his breaks in the middle of the day where he spent doing koras, a type of meditative practice, with monks at Boudhanath, a grand stupa in Kathmandu. One day, as he made his clockwise rounds around the stupa with a monk, he began to ask him questions about his lifestyle. He turned to the monk walking beside him and curiously asked a question which seemed completely valid at the time: “How many hours do you spend meditating?” With a pause, the monk looked at him as if he were crazy and continued to explain in amusement that only higher, special monks meditated alone for long periods of time. This experience pointed out that the reality of Buddhist practices contradicted with VonWachenfeldt’s previous perceptions of Buddhism.
Over the course of the three months, he realized that it was important “not to homogenize groups…[or] to romanticize them either as [a] great ideal.” Perhaps, unlike what we’re taught in our religion classes, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is not necessarily to achieve nirvana but rather to land in a “slightly better rebirth the next time around.” People often learn that followers of Buddhism are strictly devoted to discovering this divine state of enlightenment. However, VonWachenfeldt realized that many Buddhists, and even monks, simply just hoped for a better second life—that “these are just people living their day.”
“All religions have different voices and different perspectives and you can’t think of any tradition as singular, whether that be Hinduism or Buddhism,” VonWachenfeldt added. He continued to state that the realities of certain practices can sometimes “conflict with what you would read or be taught”—teachings that potentially reinforced this singular mindset of a religion. Discovering the realities of practicing Buddhists impacted him on a spiritual level; the impact ran deeper than his basic understanding of the religion.
For example, earlier in his stay, he had talked on the phone with his wife about Buddhism in relation to Catholicism, the religion he grew up with. He spoke about rituals and traditions that seemed to represent the core of Buddhism and told his wife that these aspects are prevalent in Catholic practices too. He had said into the phone, “I don’t need to really identify as Buddhist.”
A couple of weeks later, he had the chance to meet with a local Buddhist teacher, who discussed his research with him. When the teacher asked him whether he was Buddhist or not, VonWachenfeldt explained that he did not consider himself Buddhist. However, the teacher told him something that stuck with him even after he returned home: “If you’re living your life with impermanence in the front of your mind, I don’t care what you call yourself—you’re a Buddhist.”
He originally arrived in Nepal with the purpose of fulfilling a requirement and participating in hands-on learning about Buddhism. However, he also came back with experiences which challenged his original perception of Buddhist practices and his own spiritual identity.
“Living in Nepal and seeing how the monks lived and how a lot of Tibetans practice made me much more comfortable with recognizing that Buddhism has fundamentally shaped the way I think maybe even more so than my Christian upbringing. And so I would definitely identify primarily as Buddhist,” said VonWachenfeldt.