Religion

Lama Juju

A lot of time I write for Rogue Priest in the style of an essay. Today I have a much more personal post.

Having completed my 2.5 months in Mexico City, me and my mediocre Spanish hopped a plane back to the States. My destination: Albany, NY to break my sister out of a monastery.

My sister, Julie, is a Buddhist. In July 2008 she gave up her worldly life—job, boyfriend, apartment, car—and entered a “three year retreat” in a Tibetan monastery in the Catskills. (That’s in air quotes because it lasts closer to four years.)

Other than sending and receiving letters, she had no contact with us. No visits, phone calls, or emails. During one 6-month vow of silence even the letters weren’t allowed.

This morning, my parents and I walked up the steps of the monastery’s shrine room. We took our seat among about a hundred other people whose loved ones had been in the retreat. Silently the monks and nuns filed in: men sat in one long row, women in the other, facing them; and we saw my sister for the first time.

She saw me there, thinner, with short hair, a cleaner face, and my green ceremonial wrap and her eyes flew open in surprise. She grinned and suppressed a happy scream at me. I grinned back.

She, too, has lost weight. Her head is shaved, and she moves carefully and gracefully in her crimson and saffron robes.

For three hours she and the other lamas led rounds of chanting for our benefit and the goodness of all beings. Only when it was over and the final horn had blown could we rush up and hug her.

I held her. For the first time I knew my sister’s pain at the long separation. Three (four) years without family is a long time to last.

We chatted over lunch. Julie was tired. They’d gotten up at 4 a.m. to start their preparation. Not unusual for them, but hard all the same. Often, talking of casual things, her voice seemed choked up.

But she had successfully completed the retreat, as I knew she would. An older monk, Lama Karma, gushed to us how above-and-beyond she was in her practice. I watched her face: would she bashfully look away? No, just a happy smile. Meditation does have its benefits.

Me in my priestly green and my sister Juju in her Buddhist robes.

Sometimes I wondered if the retreat would change her. Of course it did, but not in a way that anyone could object to. Chanting and playing the horn she’s very serious, focused and deliberate. But when she speaks she has the same joyful easy humor as always. It’s the same Juju I’ve always known, just burnished.

I think about the doubts she surely faced in her retreat. A retreat has different risks and benefits than a walk across the world. I won’t face the same things she did, but in a way I feel more united with her than ever.

When I stumble into Rio I wonder, will I shake in her arms?

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13 thoughts on “Lama Juju

  1. Reading your stories here over these past few months Drew, you’re beginning to feel like an old friend, and yet we’ve never met in person. Thank you for sharing in such great, compelling detail. I appreciate knowing you here, and maybe someday in person our paths will cross. Many blessings on your continued journey. To Rio and beyond!

  2. What you two have done and are doing takes an incredible amount of commitment. Congratulations!

    You two have so much to catch up on! You’re going to have to show her an iPad! Just kidding:)

    I might like to become a Buddhist monk some time…

  3. Wow, your sister’s journey is also amazing. I always freak out a little when I read about some spiritual retreats. maybe prejudice, but I’ve read some scary stories on “brainwashing” and end up worrying about some friends.

    But seems like your Juju went through a valid retreat that is fullfilling her spirit and heart the way it should, and you would know if something was wrong.

    It must be hard anyway to be away from a dear one for such a long time with no news at all. The way my family is so close, I know I would miss any of my siblings a lot if that happened. But what an experience, and how much she must have grown up inside during this time. It’s lovely the support you and your parents are giving, blessed be, she looks so sweet. Congratulations for her!

    I guess you may shake in her arms out of the huge amount of experiences, learning and feelings you will get along this journey, almost the same way she did.

    Kisses from Nydia.

  4. I shook with tears as I just read this, Drew. Please tell JuJu I love her, please. I’m very happy you are reunited. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the photograph you posted. With heart bursting with joy, I have to get offline now to calm down. Love you both much!

  5. Thanks everyone. Part of me hopes she starts some kind of American Lama blog to chronicle her own exploits. But the Buddhists tend to shy away from anything that could appear to be egoistic and for her I think that includes publicizing her life. We’re very different in that regard but very similar in many other ways.

    I’ll be sure to pass along your good wishes to her – again, thank you.

  6. Kate says:

    Thank you Drew for posting this, as your mother and Lama Zangmo’s I am very proud of my children and stunned at their accomplishments!

    Love you both my dear children,

    Mom

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  8. Rua Lupa says:

    I had hoped to hear of your family. I’m glad of such a joyous reunion and can see how close you all are. Many Blessings in your journeys :)

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