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These Buddhist monks want their faith to be known for more than just mindfulness

Ayyā Somā (left) and Bhante Suddhāso (right), the co-founders of Empty Cloud Monastery.
Ayyā Somā
Ayyā Somā (left) and Bhante Suddhāso (right), the co-founders of Empty Cloud Monastery.

Mindfulness is mainstream. There are mindfulness retreats that will set you back thousands of dollars. Entire sections of libraries and bookstores are devoted to the subject.

My kids learn mindfulness and meditation techniques in their public elementary school. Before my weekly yoga class starts, the teacher says a bunch of stuff about mindfulness, and setting intentions for our downward dogs and plank poses.

On the whole, I think mindfulness showing up in our culture in new ways is a good thing.

However, I do think there's something off-putting about the "mindfulness industrial complex" - the expensive getaways and self-proclaimed gurus, who make promises about personal transformation they can't necessarily keep.

And I've been looking for something different. I wanted to understand the theology that birthed the modern mindfulness movement. I wanted to understand how, by training your mind, you could actually create some kind of divine connection to yourself, to other people in your life, or even to a higher power.

In all this spiritual seeking I'm doing these days, it was time to go deep on Buddhism.

My mom was a lifelong Presbyterian who served as a church deacon, and hung artisan-made crosses around her house. But I also have clear memories of her sitting on her black meditation pillow in front of the window in her bedroom, eyes shut, breathing deep and audibly.

She had books by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh on her bedside table. Like a lot of Americans, she didn't see Buddhism and Christianity as contrary to one another — they could be complements.

I wanted to understand what that could look like. My mom died 14 years ago and I can't ask her, so I have to figure it out for myself. That means doing my own research and having my own experience with Buddhism. And what better way to do that than spending time at an actual monastery?

Now, I do not want to suggest that showing up at a Buddhist monastery for three days taught me everything I need to know about Buddhism or mindfulness. Obviously not.

But it did help me understand why more and more Americans are converting to Buddhism, or even, if they don't go all in that way, they are finding elements of that tradition that they can incorporate into their own spiritual life and identity.

So where do you go to learn about the ancient wisdom and revelation of the Buddha? New Jersey of course. And a monastery called Empty Cloud, which seemed perfectly on brand.

Yes, I, too, want to be like an empty cloud! So my producer Lee Hale and I drove five or so hours from Washington, D.C. to West Orange, N.J.

Two Buddhist monks run Empty Cloud. Their names are Ayyā Somā and Bhante Suddhāso. Ayyā Somā is Italian, and before she shaved her head and put on the robes, she was a fashion journalist.

Empty Cloud Monastery in West Orange, New Jersey.
/ Courtesy of Empty Cloud Monastery
Courtesy of Empty Cloud Monastery
Empty Cloud Monastery in West Orange, New Jersey.

Bhante Suddhāso is a soft-spoken guy from Colorado with small, round glasses. He grew up in a conservative evangelical family and found Buddhism after college.

They welcome us with tea and give us the basic instructions for staying there: No makeup or any other physical adornments. No fancy clothes. Monks always eat before the lay people like us who stay there, and, even when it's not an official silent meditation time, everyone needs to walk around sort of quietly and keep conversation at a moderate volume.

I spent most of my time with the Empty Cloud monks inside the monastery for meals, meditation, and dharma talks — which are like sermons or spiritual lessons.

But we did take one field trip — just a few miles away — to the campus of Rutgers University, where five of the monks walked into a frat house. Yes, it sounds like the beginning of a problematic joke. Even the monks recognized how surreal the scene was.

They went to campus to do something called "almsgiving." Meaning they hold a bowl and wait for people walking by to offer them some food, since monks of this Buddhist tradition can't make or buy themselves meals.

They've all got shaved heads and they're wearing traditional orange robes with sandals. Tevas seem to be the preferred brand in this group.

They situated themselves in a line in front of a shopping mall full of retail shops and casual dining options. They definitely stood out, and at one point the mall manager came out to see if they were staging some kind of protest.

She let them be, but the monks weren't having a lot of luck. People walked by and smiled, but they didn't really get what was happening.

So a young woman who's staying at the monastery called up a friend of hers who is a student at Rutgers. He rallied his frat brothers, and they showed up a couple minutes later to escort the monks a couple blocks away to their frat house, for takeout tacos.

A handful of college guys, mostly wearing pajama pants and hoodies, show the monks into the main living room — and yes, it is a SCENE. Red solo cups lying in one corner. A box of Franzia wine and random hot sauce on one table. A bong on another. The whole place smells like weed. Ayyā Somā makes small talk with the young men, and asks what a fraternity is really about. Just to be clear — she doesn't understand what a fraternity is because she's Italian, not because she's a monk.

Monks from Empty Cloud Monastery visit a fraternity outside Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey where they were offered lunch.
/ Lee Hale
Lee Hale
Monks from Empty Cloud Monastery visit a fraternity outside Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey where they were offered lunch.

One of the guys responds. His name is Michael Porucznik. "It's like a social group, mostly, I would say."

To be honest, all this feels sort of awkward. I'm a little worried these guys might be messing with the monks. But, they're respectful and they're asking legitimate, thoughtful questions. The mom in me is sort of proud of them – even though it's clear that some of them are ditching class.

Ayyā Somā asks the students what inspired them to make offerings.

Michael sits up on a worn-out red couch and sort of stutters into his answer. "I very much admire people who discipline themselves to like a specific aspect of life. And I feel like it's also good karma." Everyone laughs. "We also think it's good karma," Ayyā Somā replies.

Chatting with a bunch of monks for a half an hour isn't likely to turn these guys into Buddhists. But who knows what seeds the conversation has planted in their 20-year-old brains?

And that's sort of the deal with Buddhism. There's no proselytizing. In the car on the way back to the monastery, Bhante Suddhāso tells me it's just the opposite. "Buddhists play hard to get," he says.

Which is maybe why it's appealing to a lot of people: Buddhist monks might end up at your frat house for tacos, but they're not going to knock on the door to try and convert you.

In fact, most of the time, they're at their monastery doing their own individual spiritual work.

Just before the pandemic, they moved their home base from Queens to this center in West Orange.

They got a great deal on the place from the Augustinian monks who had lived there before. The Catholics were downsizing and moving west, and Ayyā Somā and Bhante Suddhāso, the co-founders of Empty Cloud Monastery, needed more space.

"They were just really overjoyed that another group of monks wanted to take over the monastery," Bhante Suddhāso told me.

The building itself has a medieval castle vibe. There's a stained glass window in the meditation room with an image of Noah's Ark on it, and there's a cross on the roof.

For now, the monks jokingly say the cross stands for the four noble truths — which Ayyā Somā says can be distilled to this from the Buddha's teachings:

"All he ever taught was suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way out of suffering. So that's all we are practicing is that, um, for the cessation of suffering."

Which sounds great, right? No one wants to suffer. I don't want to suffer. But I needed to understand why pulling away from modern life, the way monks do, alleviates suffering.

Because it's no joke what they have to give up. They pledge to live in celibacy. No meals after midday. No intoxicants of any kind. No pop culture. No money.

"The word renunciation for some people has a negative connotation," Bhante says. "But for us, renunciation means recognizing that we don't need something in order to be happy."

For example, he explains, "When I was a lay person, which was a very long time ago now — 15 plus years ago – I needed to always have music playing."

If it wasn't music in the car, he was listening to headphones. "Like, it was just constant. And so, then getting into this life, it's like, well, one of our rules is that we don't listen to music. So, clearly, I thought I needed that, but I don't need it."

"Do you miss music, though?" I ask. "No," he replies with a laugh.

Ayyā Somā chimes in: "Essentially, from the fear of missing out from FOMO, we go to JOMO, the joy of missing out."

They point out that this level of renunciation only represents about 1 percent of Buddhists worldwide.

I still don't understand exactly what these two get out of this really restrictive life. What is Buddhism freeing them from personally?

And I really want to know what they make of the fact that when I Googled "Buddhist retreat," a whole slew of places popped up where I could probably also get a hot stone massage and a facial peel.

The monks of Empty Cloud Monastery worship with members of the public. The monastery opens its doors to whoever is curious about Buddhist teachings.
Suparman W / Courtesy of Empty Cloud Monastery
Courtesy of Empty Cloud Monastery
The monks of Empty Cloud Monastery worship with members of the public. The monastery opens its doors to whoever is curious about Buddhist teachings.

As I was about to ask this question, we hear a bell ring and Bhante Suddhāso tells me we can take up the matter in the dharma hall.

Turns out, monks are highly scheduled people. It's time to move to a different room, where we join the other residents — the lay people who stay at the monastery for days or weeks at a time. We're all situated on individual meditation pillows, with the monks facing the rest of us at the front of the room. Everyone sips tea and eats small pieces of cheese and dark chocolate ... the only approved evening snacks.

There's a big golden statue of the Buddha on the mantle above the fireplace. Bhante Suddhāso pets Teddy, the black monastery cat, and I get another swing at my question.

I ask him what he makes of how mindfulness has made its way into the mainstream of American culture. Like, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

"I think it's mixed," he tells me.

"The Buddha does identify mindfulness as being a wholesome characteristic of mind, so wholesome in the sense that it's, it's beneficial that it brings happiness, it leads towards awakening," he explains. "But it's still only one factor of the eightfold path. So, if one is only practicing mindfulness, then at best you're practicing, uh, 12.5% of Buddhism. Which is not a complete path to awakening. So it's kind of like if you're making a cake and a cake calls for eight ingredients, and you're like, well, I'm just going to leave out seven of those ingredients. Well, that's not a cake, that's a bowl of raw eggs."

Here at the monastery they're interested in the whole cake. Which involves rising before sunrise, chores in the house and the yard, and finishing your meals before noon. Being on this path also means letting go of the big things you can't change, and focusing on what's happening in your own consciousness.

I've dabbled in meditation over the years. I started as a way to deal with my own grief after my mom died from kidney cancer.

But the longest I'd ever sat and tried to meditate was, maybe, 15 minutes. So, when it was time to go down to the meditation hall for an hour of silent sitting, I was a bit freaked out.

I situated myself on my meditation pillow, my eyes closed, and took in some deep breaths, like everyone else was doing.

This wasn't a guided meditation for beginners. There were a few monks in the room with about six other residents, and it was clear they knew what they were doing.

Me, not so much. Bhante Suddhāso had told me to come up with a mantra and just say that over and over. He suggested the words "loving kindness," so I went with that.

Breathe in, breathe out. Loving kindness. "Yes," I thought, "I am killing this meditation."

Then it started to unravel: "Are they seriously not going to feed us dinner? Did my kids get a ride to baseball tonight? How am I going to sleep here? Wait, no ... Loving kindness. Loving kindness. Kindness. Do the monks get to pick out their own robes? Does Ayyā Somā miss make-up? It's really hard to do a smokey eye."

Needless to say, I didn't reach any higher level of consciousness. But there were people who seemed to have.

When I snuck a peek during the meditation, I caught a glimpse of this young woman named Katie McKenna. She's not a monk, but she was sitting perfectly still, no fidgeting. And she was always smiling. She had definitely figured something out.

I caught up with her later and we chatted for a bit. She said she's been a Buddhist for about 10 years. She was laid off from her tech job earlier this year, and after that happened, she hightailed it to her happy place - the monastery.

She tries to visit monasteries whenever she can. She used to suffer from a lot of anxiety, but she says Buddhism has changed that: "I hardly ever have anxiety anymore. I just feel a lot of joy."

"I grew up in Indiana," she continued. "So, there's a lot of Christianity around around me. And I feel like people would just proselytize and tell me, like, this is the way. So I feel like I've just had this innate trust with Buddhism because there was this teaching – to come and see for yourself."

I asked if there was any part of her that wanted to go all in and become a monk?

"Yeah. That does come up for me from time to time. It's come up for my boyfriend, too, actually. We broke up for a little bit in September, briefly, 'cuz we were both struggling with, like fully giving ourselves to the relationship because we both had this inclination in our mind towards monasticism."

They stopped watching TV and movies. No music. No dinner. They meditate for long periods of time every day.

"The cool thing about this path," she says, "is, it just starts happening to you."

It definitely wasn't just happening to me. I mean, I'd only been at this for a few days, but I was more interested in a form of Buddhism that let me live in my actual life. I needed to talk to someone who wasn't about to shave her head and move into the monastery.

I found Sudha Ram.

Sudha wasn't staying at the monastery like the others, but she lives in the neighborhood and comes over a lot.

Within a few minutes of talking with her, it becomes clear that she has endured a lot of disappointments in life. And right now, she is working through problems in her marriage. She tells me that Buddhism has taught her things that her Hindu faith never did.

"If you don't love yourself and put yourself in front of others, who're not gonna give you love, you're not gonna be successful. So I give loving kindness to myself. I give loving kindness to the other people who need to be given loving kindness. That helps a lot because the anger, the rejection, and, you know, the ill feeling, come often."

I think she's about to share more about her relationship with her husband, or her kids, or something about work. But she starts telling me about her dog. A golden retriever named Simba who died not long ago. The dog came to her in her dreams.

"He came to me and he said, 'mom, what did you learn from me?' I had to think, what did I learn from him? I know he was very loving. He was a golden retriever. He loves people, he loves pets, he loves everybody."

"So I said, 'yeah, you are very loving.' And he said, 'Mom, you are very loving, too. But you still have judgment. You still judge. I'm not. I love everybody. So that's the difference.' "

I know how bizarre this sounds. I'm sitting in the basement of this Buddhist monastery, talking with this woman I barely know, about her dead dog who talks to her in her dreams. And tears are welling up in her eyes and then in mine.

And I get that her grief and loneliness are bigger than this story. And we hold hands briefly across a table. And I share my own losses with her. And none of it is healed, but there is a comfort in that shared intimacy between strangers.

Letting go may be the Buddhist precept for ending suffering. But I think, just as important as the letting go is the letting in. Letting monks into the frat house. Letting a journalist into your monastery. Letting a stranger into your grief.

Yes, the ultimate enlightenment happens internally — when you free your mind from attachment and longing. But awakening also happens when you are willing to step into the breach with someone else. To be present in their pain and have them witness yours.

Pali is the ancient language of Buddhism, and Ayyā Somā told me that her favorite Pali word is "kampa".

"Which literally means 'trembling together.' Sometimes we focus a lot on our trembling, or the trembling of the other person. But we don't realize that it's actually the same trembling, and we're all trembling together."

Buddhism may teach that the individual has the power to ease their own suffering, but true contentment requires us all to care about each other. It's not just about being alone in our mind on the mat. Buddhist monks still have to engage with the rest of the world. And the world has to engage back. We share our stories with strangers and absorb one another's grief.

We tremble, together.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.