As a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Sonam had no experience with romantic strife, yet he ended up teaching me how to cope with love and loss. He was twenty-five, just a year older than I was, but he’d endured difficulty beyond his years. When Sonam was eleven, a Nepali man came to his village in central Tibet to see if anyone wanted to accompany him to India to see the Dalai Lama. Sonam’s family declined, but he didn’t. He knew even then that he wanted to be a monk, and was so insistent that his family agreed to let him go, asking only that he return as soon as he could.
Sonam and the Nepali man trekked from Tibet to India, taking a path so arduous they had to eat grass to stay alive. As Sonam tells it, they both nearly died. Finally, they made it to India, where the Dalai Lama ordained Sonam—the happiest moment of his life.
Years later when I met Sonam, he was still happy, despite being unable to return to Tibet because of tight Chinese security, and unable to write to his family because there was no mail service to his remote village. He worried they’d been imprisoned, or worse.
I was traveling around India, trying to get over a painful breakup by keeping on the move, when I ran into Sonam. It was my second day in Dharamsala, home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. I was walking down the central street, looking at prayer flags dangling from the veranda of Sonam’s monastery. He reached out his hand and said, “Hello! Welcome my home.” He had high cheekbones that perked up his black eyes, and his big smile gave me the feeling that we’d be friends. I agreed to tutor him in English for an hour a day. In exchange, he agreed to teach me Tibetan chants.
For tutoring, we met at Sonam’s ramshackle monastery. But we didn’t work much on grammar or pronunciation. Instead, I taught Sonam to sing John Denver’s “Country Roads,” a tune he insisted on repeating daily, only instead of, “Almost heaven, West Virginia,” we sang, “Almost heaven, western Tibet.”
Sometimes Sonam would get teary-eyed as we sang—he missed his family and his home. But, regardless of these moments, he seemed to be the happiest person I’d ever met. “This morning, I am very happy,” he’d say nearly every morning while he made us thick Tibetan chai. “This night, I am very happy,” he’d say in the evening as we cooked dinner. “This puja makes me very, very happy,” he’d say when we did the Tibetan rituals for sick children. This wasn’t empty rhetoric; Sonam exuded genuine happiness. As a result, I felt happy whenever I was around him—an emotion that seemed foreign after months of heartache. I spent many days in his presence.
Once he said to me through tears, ‘This is very sad, but no problem.’
“Very, very happy,” Sonam said one crisp morning. “The mountain is big. Many, many meditation.” We were bringing offerings to Tibetan hermits meditating in small huts at 10,000 feet—milk, vegetables, and prayer flags.
Walking up the narrow path to the mountaintop, we sang our usual “Country Roads” and some Tibetan folks songs that I hummed along to. We laughed a lot, but at one point Sonam grew serious. “Sometimes,” he said as we approached the snowline, “I am very sad climbing mountain. Many, many thoughts of home. Tibet mountain, India mountain—same. My family far away.”
These types of statements weren’t unusual for Sonam. And when he made them, he seemed to be deeply in them and at ease with his sadness. Once he said to me through tears, “This is very sad, but no problem.” Sonam was able to simultaneously honor emotions while knowing that everything was completely as it should be.
When I first started practicing meditation, and even a number of years in, I had the view that emotions were illusory. The goal was to shatter them with your Vajra sword of concentration and move on unscathed. While this is one strategy, for me (perhaps having a dull Vajra sword), it led to being afraid of my emotions. Watching Sonam, I was gradually learning another approach.
When we climbed the mountain, I’d just finished a silent retreat and was feeling calmer and clearer. During the first ten days of the retreat, grieving the breakup, I’d collapsed in tears several times. I wanted to run from the sitting, but thinking of how Sonam spoke of his family, I tried to welcome the difficult moments. Taking a step back, I was able to see that I was grieving my parents’ divorce through my own breakup. Within the pain, I felt a few moments of peace, formerly unknown to me in times of harsh emotion.
“But now,” Sonam continued as we walked, just minutes after tearing up about his family, “I am very happy. I go to mountain with my best friend, Ja-ma. You my best friend. I think we go to Tibet together, see family.”
It would be nice to get him back to Tibet. Selfishly, I also dreamed of going there with him and writing about it. I asked Sonam if he thought we could sneak into Tibet. It was too risky, he said. “Many monk go to Tibet, no coming back. Go to prison.” But a few minutes later Sonam came up with another plan: he wanted to come with me to America, where he thought he could get a job in a Tibetan restaurant and earn enough to pay for the expensive visa to go to Tibet. I could help him get the visa, he said. “You very good, Ja-ma. For you, this visa no problem.”
It was a terrible plan. Getting the U.S. visa would be next to impossible; getting a job would be equally hard; and getting the Chinese visa would be a miracle. But Sonam was excited. “I think this good plan. You help me?” I hesitated, then in my dreamy, Himalayan state of mind, I said, “Of course.” I put my arm around Sonam.
We reached the huts in the afternoon and went straight for one made of weathered wood, torn blue plastic tarps, sheet metal, and mud. Sonam knew the hermit living here and had great respect for him. The door opened right away when we knocked. Standing in front of us was a tall lama with clear eyes. “Tashi delek,” the lama said in the traditional greeting. Then he started laughing. “How strange,” he said to Sonam in Tibetan. “Today I made lunch for three!”
It seemed like we’d entered a bad episode of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. (The old master opens the door, “Ah, I have been expecting you.”) But it was true. The lama had made lunch for three—three servings of cabbage and rice.
I was hungry and afraid the meal wouldn’t fill me. Yet it did and it was the best food I ate during my six months in India. We were clearly in a very high lama’s presence. I felt like my body was filling with pinpricks of light and that at any minute I’d burst into giddy laughter. I could hardly contain myself, but I ate in silence, as if my experience was completely normal.
Sonam and the lama spoke in Tibetan, translating for me. How was the lama’s health? Was he getting enough food? Sonam then told the lama about his plans to go to America and to Tibet to see his family. To my surprise, the lama smiled and said it was a good idea.
Something inside me had been transformed in that hut. Life was full of possibilities again.
The lama took my hands in his and said in Tibetan, “You are a very good person. Thank you for helping Sonam.” I remember thinking his eyes alone proved that the prayers monks recite every day actually work to transform their hearts. He rubbed my hands and chanted under his breath. I was consumed by warmth.
We walked down the hill singing the same old songs, and Sonam said, “I am so very happy. We are going America, Tibet—see family. My family will say, ‘Wah, wah, Sonam!’ Many, many hugs.”
I was in a euphoric state. Everything was as it should be, including the breakup, including this plan to bring a Tibetan monk home with me. Why stress about it? Something inside me had been transformed in that hut. Life was full of possibilities again.
Sonam and I worked daily on his U.S. visa application. We obtained a letter from the Dalai Lama’s office, and collected letters from Buddhists in California who pledged to support Sonam when he came to the States. Sonam borrowed hundreds of dollars from his monastery for the visa application (more than most monks spend in a year) and we performed pujas, trying to clear away karmic obstructions that he said could keep him from going to America. Word about what we were doing spread around Dharamsala, and other monks in town would give me the thumbs-up, as if to say, “We’re rooting for you.”
Sonam was so optimistic I began to believe our plan might work. “Every night I dreaming of America,” he said. “I see family. Very happy.”
Yes, it would work. We believed.
So when our bus lost a tire and nearly drove off a cliff on the way to the U.S. embassy in Delhi, we took it in stride. “No problem,” Sonam said. “Many, many happen.” We didn’t sweat it when my passport was stolen at the Delhi hotel and, when I reported the theft to the police, they tried to sell me cocaine. When the line to get our application reviewed was six hours long, full of people who had previously been rejected even though they had legitimate reasons—say, getting into Yale—we laughed it off. But when we finally got to the window, chanting mantras under our breath, the pale American embassy worker glanced at our huge packet of official papers with official stamps and, without even looking at our faces, added one more: “Rejected.”
The next twenty-four hours are blurry. I blocked them out. Delhi is hot and dirty, and mostly I remember my throat drying up. We went to a terrible restaurant that night, and Sonam, for the first time since I’d known him, ate meat. It seemed the rejection had shaken his faith. It certainly had shaken mine. “Today I am very sad,” he said. “I am sorry, Ja-ma. This plan no good.”
I’d failed Sonam. Why had I agreed to the quixotic plan in the first place? Was it because some hermit said it was a good idea? Having high spiritual realization didn’t mean he knew about the U.S. Embassy. Our spirits were low, and riding in the cab around Delhi everything seemed hopeless. We went to bed silent, without our evening chants. I had restless dreams of war and travel.
It’s amazing how much we affect each other’s moods, how there is really no separation between us. Seeing Sonam happy, I instantly felt lighter.
The next day Sonam was up early, doing his puja. I rolled over and had that feeling of not knowing which city I was waking up in. When I remembered I’d been trying to get a monk out of India, I thought, I need to get out of this country—I’m detaching from reality. I was tired of showering with a bucket, tired of bargaining, tired of bus tires falling off.
I expected Sonam to be depressed, too, but when I looked at him, he took a break from his prayers and smiled. “Ja-ma, good resting.”
“How are you?” I asked sluggishly.
“This morning, I am very happy.” And he genuinely was. “This visa, no problem,” he said, as if the visa were just an egg he had left out of a cake. “Later, you me Tibet going.”
It’s amazing how much we affect each other’s moods, how there is really no separation between us. Seeing Sonam happy, I instantly felt lighter. I didn’t need to leave India just yet. I could enjoy the last month before my plane was scheduled to leave. After all, once I left, I might never see Sonam again.
When I did leave, a month later, Sonam gave me a ring with the Sanskrit symbol om on it. I almost never take off the ring, and Sonam and I write regularly. Every time I’m in a tough patch I get a mental picture of him. I can hear him saying, “This is very sad, no problem.” And now, six years later, I may even get to see him again. Recently, I received a phone call. The person on the other end was laughing when I said hello.
“Ja-ma,” the voice said. “This Sonam. I am here! I am here! – America.
After I got that “I’m in America” call from Sonam, I was excited to hear from him, but a little nervous. He said he was in New York City with a teacher and some other monk friends from India, but his travel buddies were all heading back to India and Sonam was going to stay and follow his original plan: finding a job, saving money, and eventually returning to Tibet to try and find his family. Even though he had made it to America – the first hurdle – the rest still seemed quixotic.
Sonam and I were out of touch while I was traveling abroad for about six months, but I called him as soon as I got home to check in on how his New York stint was going. Sure enough, he hadn’t just found a job working as the gardener for a well-to-do American Buddhist family, he was also on his way to getting a green card, and, through a distant cousin or friend (I still have hard time understanding his English), had found his family and been able to talk with them numerous times on the phone.
I’m hoping all his dreams will come true.
Sonam was laughing as he told me the good news. He first spoke only to his sister because his mother couldn’t stop crying tears of joy for two days when she found out her son was indeed alive and well. Unfortunately, Sonam’s father had passed away from some type of sickness, but Sonam seemed fairly at ease with this, at least on the phone. What he did not seem at ease with was the news about his brother, the only member of his family to go through high school. Sonam told me that his brother had made his family proud by becoming a police officer, even though it made them all nervous that he was working with the Chinese police. Their fears turned out to be valid when Sonam’s brother apparently tried to defend a Tibetan who was being beaten or abused by his Chinese colleagues. Again, Sonam’s poor English made the details of the story difficult, but what was clear is that the incident turned ugly and Sonam’s brother was killed by police officers.
Sonam said the incident made him very sad and angry, but that he was also very happy to have connected with his family. I’m not clear on the details, but it sounds like he is in close touch with his village and learning about ways that he can help his from abroad. He is apparently getting an English speaker to forward me the details on what he’s trying to do.
I’ll likely get the update soon. Sonam still always makes a point of saying we’re destined to go to Tibet together. He also has his heart set on coming to California to see the ocean. I’m hoping all his dreams will come true.