This is not what you’re thinking. He wasn’t a jock, a rebel, or a nerd, and this wasn’t a love affair. It goes more like this…
A 20-year-old white Jewish girl and a 40-year-old Tibetan monk walk into 7-Eleven. They buy Slurpees, smile incessantly, and take selfie, upon selfie, upon selfie.
My friendship with Jamyang Gompo, “James Lama,” began in the fall of my sophomore year. We were both in a small interdisciplinary course called Science and the Nature of Evidence: Are We Our Genes? James was one of six monks in his cohort of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a partnership between Emory University and His Holiness the Dalai Lama designed to bridge western science and eastern spirituality. Every two years, Tibetan monks from various monasteries are chosen to study science at Emory for four semesters, after which they return to India and teach science to their peers.
While I didn’t personally interact much with James during class, I couldn’t help but notice his smile-he was constantly radiating this jovial energy, and his vibe intrigued me. On a whim, I invited him to get lunch in the Emory dining hall. Shortly after our first meal together, he asked me to be his philosophy tutor for the following semester. I had never taken a philosophy class, but I agreed. The rest is history. Just five months later, my family was on our way to O’Hare to pickup James from the airport. Some of my fondest memories are from James’s time in Chicago- riding on the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, ordering Lou Malnati’s pizza, playing board games, cruising around in my dad’s convertible, and watching lots of Tom and Jerry.
This blog post is much overdue, purely because I could not (and still cannot) conceive how to express our relationship through words. If you know me well, you know that when I talk about James I get so excited and happy and just can’t shut up. For now, I’d like to share the most integral lessons I’ve learned from our friendship, along with some photos that I guarantee will make your heart smile.
Simplicity is a gift.
This was going to be James’s first and only time staying with an American family, so I wanted him to choose all of our adventures, meals, and daily activities. I was struck by the distress that choices brought James. He insisted that I choose everything, and I quickly learned that the plethora of trivial choices that we all make each day is a foreign concept to James. In the monastery, every single monk eats bread and jam for breakfast every single day. There is one kind of bread and one kind of jam. When my mom offered James various types of cereal, oatmeal, bagels, and toast for breakfast, he said just bread would be fine. When she put orange marmalade, grape jelly, and strawberry jam on the counter, James could not believe the myriad number of breakfast options in a single house. The same thing happened when I asked James what pizza toppings he wanted or what board game he would like to play- he always insisted that I choose.
In the United States, we are conditioned to think that more choice is better, yet having to make countless minute decisions each day exerts cognitive resources that could perhaps be conserved, and thus devoted to more valuable pursuits, if our lives were simplified. I can’t help but think how many hours I’ve wasted standing in front of my closet throughout the years, when I could just be wearing a red robe like James!
Full presence is powerful, and patience really is a virtue.
Before James came to Chicago, I wanted to plan where to meet at the airport, so I asked him if he would be checking a bag or only bringing a carry-on. James could be an icon for the growing minimalist approach and downsizing movement in our country- he arrived with solely his school backpack. The bag I carry around campus weighs significantly more than what James brought for a four-day trip! But because he was not carrying around any extra baggage, he was able to be fully present, aware, alive- something we should all be striving for.
Living in the present frees us from dwelling on the past or fretting about the future, but reaching and maintaining full presence is quite difficult for many people, including myself. When Uber was taking ten minutes longer than expected to arrive to take us to Union Station, I became extremely frustrated and worried that we would miss our train home. Based on my visceral reaction, James grew concerned as well. I explained that if we missed this train, we would have to wait 30 minutes for the next one, and that the train ride was an hour long. He informed me that the train ride from his monastery to the closest airport is three days. Well, that sure put things into perspective!
Cultural barriers are an illusion.
Before meeting James, if you had told me that one of my closest friends would be a Tibetan monk, I’d tell you that you were crazy. What could two people of such disparate cultural upbringings possibly have in common? A lot- intellectual curiosity, a love of learning, a desire to find and emit positivity, and a drive to develop meaningful connections with others.
James is the Knenpo of his monastery, which means he has achieved the highest level of Tibetan Buddhism philosophical study and now acts as president. But our typical conversations do not concern philosophical principles or scientific inquiry. I have not become a devout Buddhist monk. I do not turn to James for spiritual guidance. Rather, I turn to him to feel happy. I do not think of James as a holy religious figure, but simply as a good friend. He loves Starbucks coffee (but the closest one to his monastery is 10 hours away!), wearing Ray Bans, and telling jokes. His favorite American joke is why was 6 afraid of 7 (my mom had to bite into an imaginary apple to explain that 7 “ate” 9!) and for his birthday, my family sent him a selfie stick, a Tom and Jerry (no words makes for easy understanding!) DVD, and a children’s joke book. He exclaimed that we “knew just what he needed”- not what I would have ever expected a Tibetan monk to say!
In a world full of religious, ethnic, and cultural conflict, our friendship highlights the ability of humans to find meaningful connections regardless of background. Sure, the language barrier creates challenges at times, but we usually just end up laughing- acknowledging how hard we are trying to express our thoughts so that the other can understand. Smiles and laughter make up the most potent language of all- the universal language of friendship.
So that’s the story of the first boy I brought home from college! It’s definitely not what I expected, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. James is now back in India. His two years at Emory ended a few days after his stay with my family, but we still talk via Facebook multiple times a week. He is truly one of my closest friends, and I am confident that it will remain this way for many years to come.