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The Monk Next Door

By Skip Tate

For a year and a half I lived next door to a Tibetan monk. While this might not be unusual in Tibet, it’s not what one expects in suburban Cincinnati. Still, it was an interesting—if not enlightening—experience.

Consider, for instance, the first time we met. After standing on the sidewalk and talking for about 15 minutes, he looked at me and nonchalantly summed me up:

“I can see you’re a good, average man,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”

He went by the name Gexe—pronounced Gee-she—which really isn’t as much of a name as it is a title. Gexe literally translates into “knowledgeable,” but it’s more like an academic title for someone who earned a religious doctorate. Kind of like calling someone with a Ph.D. a doctor.

Every day I would see Gexe in his burgundy and gold clothes walking to or from the library down the block. Sometimes I would see him outside snipping a bud from a row of wild flowers to take inside to symbolize nature for his prayers. When I would get up early in the morning to run, I would always see his light on and I could hear him ringing the bell that is part of the Buddhist prayer ritual.

“Why do you ring the bell?” I once asked.

“Oh,” he said with a laugh. “That’s just to keep me from falling asleep when I pray. Ah ha ha ha ha.”

We came to be neighbors when the elderly woman who lived next door died, and her son and daughter debated what to do with the house. It was the home they grew up in. He wanted to sell; she didn’t. So while their debate raged on, they agreed to at least have someone watch the house. Interestingly, she had heard at her parish of a Buddhist monk from Tibet who was in the area and needed a place to stay. A week later there was a monk next door.

Although he was outgoing, quick to laugh and as harmless as one would expect from a monk, people from the area would stare at him as he walked or carefully avoid making any kind of contact. Perhaps one of the reasons we got along so well while he was here was because I would take the time to say hi and talk.

When he found out I worked at a Catholic university, he would ask, “What’s the latest news from Rome?”

I would simply shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know. The pope didn’t call today.”

“Ah ha ha ha.”

Our proximity to the local library was ideal for him, as his life was about learning and enlightenment, particularly as it related to the Dalai Lama. Gexe was an ardent follower of the Dalai Lama and would search the Web daily to find out the latest news about the exiled Tibetan religious leader.

Once during a backyard conversation that had, inevitably, turned to the Dalai Lama, he ran back to his house and returned with one of his most prized—and only—possessions: a framed 3×5-inch photo. Those who earn the title of Gexe must defend their dissertations before a 16-member panel of high-ranking lamas, and the day he defended his, the Dalai Lama showed up. So there he was, this young monk in the middle of his defense, with the Dalai Lama seated a few feet away.

While our religious beliefs were vastly different, we never let that get in the way. I even felt somewhat privileged when he asked me to help him meet some of his Buddhist needs. The Buddhists have a tradition, for instance, of going to the highest ground on a certain holy day and spending time in prayer. He wanted to do this in Eden Park and asked if I would take him. I did. I later helped him e-mail a letter to a newspaper defending the Dalai Lama.

One other time he came over all upset. His hair clippers had broken and his hair was getting too long. Since most of the time when we saw each other I was outside trying to fix something on our old house, I guess he figured I might be able to fix his hair clippers as well. If nothing else, I had a lot of tools. So he brought the clippers over and, somehow, I managed to get them working again. He was most grateful.

Then, one day, Gexe was gone. The sister finally decided she was ready to sell the house, so he had to leave. I haven’t seen him since.

I was reminded of him, though, when I learned about the Brueggeman Center bringing Tibetan monks to campus from April 10-14. The monks are spending the week in the library creating a Mandala—a large, highly detailed picture made with millions of grains of colored sand—as well as teaching such arts as butter sculpture and sand painting.

Buddhist monks are not all the same, I once learned during one of our conversations. Some don’t follow the Dalai Lama. These particular monks do, though. They’re brothers in the cloth, sort of. So I’m wondering if Gexe will be there. I’m hoping so. It’s always nice to catch up with old neighbors.

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