A Miniature Monk Learns How To Read And It Changes His Life In Unexpected Ways

I was ten years old, raised in my parents’ spiritual ashram, and the subject (let alone the practice) of my schooling had yet to be addressed. I had memorized the Bhagavad Gita and was capable of reciting it start-to-finish on command (both in English and Devanagari). I could conduct meditation sessions for the contemplative elite and dispense dharma talks on a moments notice, yet I still did not know how to string letters in the English alphabet into coherent sentences. It was in the effort to address this negligence that my father finally sat me down with the intention of formally educating me.

I believe it was a February morning thick with moisture. Gray light poured through the picture window as we stumbled through all the sounds that make up words on a deck of neatly inscribed flash cards—slowly stringing more and more syllables together. Even though it was rudimentary, appropriate for a child half my age, I was unable to order the symbols into language. Then, unexpectedly, something began to tumble rapidly into place, like multiplication tables yet somehow more exciting—there was logic and reason to it, but there was also rhythm. It gave a shape to what was once only sound—a body to what was once only a verbal faculty. And then came a flood of words. We ran outside into the blonde dying grass. I read street signs. I read bumper stickers. I read the state names on license plates.

Dad and I held onto each other. A surge of gray clouds poured into one another over us, we could feel them merging together, we could feel them thickening the air with coolness. It rained down on us in torrents. We were soaking wet and laughing.

That night we carried blankets out into the living room beneath the picture windows. Rain was splashing against the glass. The old gas heater with floor vents was cranked up, the metal grate hot to the touch. Dad and Mom, with my two youngest siblings, were all bundled in a pile together—and I, wrapped in a blue quilt, read my first book.

The library became my secret sin. When I was supposed to be dissolving the last strongholds of desire in my interior castle I, instead, was huddled in a corner of the public reading house identifying with the notes of an underground man, while nursing the remnants of Pip’s crumbling expectations. I came to know unrequited love by proxy. I devoured hundreds of pounds of printed words by the time I was fourteen. I became human by reading about people doing things I’d never do, because by then, I was already a lifelong monk. As a child I had forfeited my humanity in pursuit of a better world—this was my secret sadness, one that found solace in knowing that I could still be alive in language, if not in my own skin.

Years later, my father died. I eventually led the religious community he created, and achieved my own kind of mastery in the world of enlightened gurus he had raised me in—and then I threw it away, disillusioned and broken-hearted. And yet of all the lessons he gave me, the memory I carry most affectionately is the day he taught me how to read. The Bhagavad Gita has slowly, over the years, been erased from the index of my memory, as well as all the other Sanskrit and Bengali oratory performance pieces I labored over in my youth. But reading has only refined my verbal facility. When it came time to be human, not a monk, I had the vocabulary for what I was finally experiencing. I had learned how to tend to my own loneliness through reading, and now language helped me to reach out of isolation and touch others. Reading revealed to me that other people—their turmoil, their mirth, and their loneliness—were every bit as real as myself. Finally, it was reading (and writing)—not meditation—that gave me a way to grieve my father once he was gone. It was from books that I learned the language of loss and reconciliation, and that I was not alone in this.

A former guru of mine, commenting on my fall from grace, said that I had read too many books—my head had been filled with too many ideas. Knowledge had corrupted me, made me an unviable monk. She was right. The printed word revealed to me the value of a life that offered no escape from death. The ache of loss was not something I wanted to insulate myself from. Reading showed me that suffering was beautiful, and was worth every ounce of pain. Without pain, without the risk of love, I was held captive to my own isolating dream of spiritual enlightenment. We all inescapably feel ourselves to be the special center of our private worlds. Good writing undermines this natural solipsism—rendering it both ridiculous and tragic—by making us feel love and kinship to private worlds that we are not necessarily the center of. I came to love ephemera, and was willing to die for it. Everyone I know is perishable, and I’d rather be here, with them, than polishing my own solitary kingdom of light.

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photo by: PhotoAtelier
Shyam Dodge

About Shyam Dodge

Shyam Dodge is a Harvard educated former monk. Raised in an ashram, he has been practicing and teaching meditation, Asian philosophy, and yoga for over 20 years. He has taught workshops across the United States, master classes at Jivamukti in Germany, and led retreats to India. His memoir, Wet Hot and Wild American Yogi, continues to enjoy a cult following in the United States and Europe, both for its emotional honesty and “stop-you-in-your- tracks insights.” His collection of sacred stories, Sweetened Condensend Milk, remains a part of the curriculum in the philosophy portion of many yoga teacher trainings worldwide. Shyam’s work focuses on creating a psychologically astute and scientifically coherent conversation about contemplative mind-body practices. In addition to his scholarly and social service efforts, he is a fiction writer, satirist and pop culture essayist.

Comments

  1. Adele C Schiller says:

    What a beautiful account of your introduction to reading and your lifelong relationship with the written word! I wholly agree, and I thank you for this perspective from your heart.

    1. shyamdodge says:

      Adele, thank you:)

  2. yogijulian says:

    YES! beautiful piece my friend. keep unpacking this post-enlightened gift shop of poignant nostalgia, painful reminiscence and hard won humanity – it is illuminating to us all.