Wandering for Connection
on Buddhist monks, asceticism, and idealism
I recently caught up with a college friend who is now a Buddhist monk.
But he’s not any kind of monk. He’s a wandering monk.
Guṇavīro Bhikkhu (formerly: Jeff) spent the past few months wandering through Brazil, specifically around Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
Like all Buddhist monks, he doesn’t use money, doesn’t harm any living beings, and practices celibacy. But unlike monks who enjoy the safety, predictiability, and relative comfort of a monastery, Guṇavīro’s wandering life is more uncertain.
On a normal day he’ll wake up around 5am, meditate until 7am, and then go on alms round: walking with eyes downcast until he’s given food, or until midday, whichever comes first. Depending on whether people want to talk to him, he heads back to his campsite around 2pm, meditates until 9pm, and goes to sleep.
Guṇavīro spends 3-7 days in a place before migrating to the next town. On a traveling day, he’ll leave as soon as there is enough light to see (and be seen) and walk until he reaches the next town, or until he’s too hot or tired to continue. He typically sleeps on the ground with his own camping gear. Sometimes a stranger will offer host him in their house or yard for a while. Other times, he sleeps anywhere that’s practical.
The wandering life is hard, and Guṇavīro doesn’t plan to do it forever. It took him 7 years of monastery life to feel prepared for this step. Most recently, he spent two years at a monastery in Brazil where he learned to speak Portuguese. When I caught up with him, he was visiting family back in Southern California, considering where to wander next.
My friend is trying to experience, in a very concrete fashion, the Buddhist insight that our bodies, possessions, and relationships are vulnerable and fleeting, and their death and passing is inherently a painful process. As the Buddha taught, the only way to escape this suffering is to end your attachment to your body, possessions, relationships—and ultimately, to your identity. For Guṇavīro, wandering makes these truths far more vivid: a kind of “emotional training for the scared 5-year old inside all of us,” as he told me.
Earlier in life, the friend I knew as Jeff felt strongly about “making an impact” and “contributing to the social good.” He got a Ph.D. in economics and worked in international development. But after sitting multiple 10-day silent meditation retreats, he began thinking differently about how to influence the world. As he said over email:
I have this belief that people need an example more than they need an explanation. I think people are asking themselves who they want to be like, and trying to model themselves on those people. It is rare that just explaining an ideal gets people to reorient their whole lives. But when they see someone with a sense of peace, or inner strength, or unshakability, or balanced compassion, or freedom, then somewhere deep inside, they know that is something worth striving for.
I respect Guṇavīro’s wandering because it embodies the idea that living safely is dangerous and deadly, and also because I feel like I may be on a parallel journey. But while Guṇavīro has dedicated himself to the ascetic ideals of Buddhism, I’ve dedicated myself to the ideal of connection.
Honestly, I’m not a very good ascetic.
While I appreciate meditation in short doses, I wasn’t magically entranced by my first 10-day Vipassana course; I quit in frustration half-way through.
While I adore wilderness trips, I’ve never succeeded as a long-term outdoor adventurer; my favorite part is the return to civilization.
When I go on bike tour, I don’t want to camp all the time; I use Couchsurfing and Warmshowers to find comfortable beds and friendly faces.
True: our bodies, relationships, and possessions are fleeting, and thus we should not overly identify with them. But I also believe that relationships and social connections are ultimately what matter most to human well-being (and there’s good research for this)—and that a healthy body enables a healthy mind (and thus better relationships), so some attachment to physical health is crucial.
With regard to material possessions, I’m more on board with Buddhism; excess attachment to consumer goods is distracting and harmful to human relationships.
This is why I don’t fear material poverty. I fear connection poverty.
I want to enjoy just enough material wealth to enable strong human relationships. Instead of working most of the year to maintain a house, I want to spend the majority of my time wandering between the people, places, and communities where I can experience (and contribute to) the deepest sense of connection. Ideally my work will offer a sense of connection, too.
As long as I possess a basic sense of financial security and I can continue paying my own way, then I am happy to continue this lifestyle, focusing on the here-and-now.
To the extent that Guṇavīro and I are on a similar path, we’re both dedicated to an ideal. His ideal involves a dedication to asceticism and a singular belief system that feels too extreme for me. My ideal involves a level of connection-pursuit and obsession with “adventure” that feels too extreme for many others.
We both want to live our lives as examples, we both see wandering as a way to enact our values, and we’re both willing to forsake much of what’s deemed “normal” or “appropriate” along the way.
Living by an ideal may be simple, but it’s not straightforward. As Guṇavīro wrote to me:
Even now with a fairly well defined path in front of me it feels like there are lots of fundamental decisions to make. Most of the time the main internal debate is between fear which is looking for safety and security and the belief that there is something really valuable worth potentially failing and even dying for. It has been a long process of trying to figure out exactly what is truly valuable and an even longer process of calming and moving forward in spite of the fear.
It warms me to know that Guṇavīro is out there, wandering the world, enacting his idealism—and that he still a human being with doubts and internal debates. His path inspires my path.