half-sunken boat at sea

Far Away (So Close): Memoir of A Friend’s Descent

By Matthew Gindin on August 26, 2016

I am at the Vancouver airport, frantically searching for a lost, rogue Buddhist nun with my three-year-old son in tow. Then I spot her, looking like a wan otherworldly creature in her grey and brown kimono-like jacket. I wave and yell her name repeatedly until she slowly turns her face towards me, her eyes looking out at me from a great interior distance. There she is, Jenn. She doesn’t smile.

When I met Jenn MacGregor (not her real name), I met her laugh first. I was a cook at a goth cafe in Winnipeg called Someplace, a burger joint with a sarcastic menu (the “Heart Attack Sandwich”, a series of Tarantino references, etc.). I was slowly preparing to leave Canada to become a Buddhist monk either in the US or abroad. I had sworn off women for religious reasons. I was 21.

A few days later I went to a party where I knew she would be. As we both smoked outside in the December air (an iconic Winnipeg experience), I told her of my plans to leave for the monastic life in two years. She said she also wanted to go travel in a year or two, in her case to work on organic farms, or to move to a rural area where she could pursue the dream of a hut and a garden. Later this would become an explicit agreement to part in two years time. We both thought we were on our way out of Western civilization. She was 19.

Jenn was enthusiastic, warm, playful, kindhearted. She kept her hair cut very short, almost bald, and had a Gaelic, elfin look. Our relationship was sweet and easy. Within weeks I practically lived in the bedroom suite in her mom’s house. We all went every Sunday to eat bad pancakes and worse coffee at a local greasy spoon.

My Buddhist beliefs were then of the Theravada school, believed to be the oldest of such traditions. They were rational, empirical, and ascetic, and went against the relativist, pleasure-seeking beliefs of the popular 90’s culture in which Jenn and I had both become teenagers. Knowing this, I was very careful explaining my spirituality. She came to agree with much of it, though she did not formally become a Buddhist. We agreed that I would leave in two years to become a monk, and she would travel and volunteer. A year in, we would become platonic so that the eventual break up would not be as painful. The best-laid plans.

Eleven months into our year I began mentally preparing myself to remind her of the approaching shift from eros to filios. Yet I hesitated. Then one night she became pregnant.

She was shocked. I tried to reassure her, and told her I would let her think on her own about what she wanted to do. Though I was sick at the idea of abortion, I thought this was her decision to make. The Hail Mary I hoped for was that she would want to carry the baby to term and give it up for adoption. After a day she said to me, “When I think about abortion it’s a choice that comes from fear. When I think about adoption, it’s a choice that comes from generosity. I think greater results will come from generosity than fear.”

I was ecstatic, and impressed, and lost no time re-framing what we were doing philosophically. The baby would be a guest with us, a temporary visitor. We were merely bringing it into the world to its true parents. We sent loving-kindness to the little one every morning.

The pregnancy became easier as it moved along. Jenn took up daily meditation. Together we decided on an open adoption, choosing the parents from dossiers. It was a surreal experience, but the couple we chose was lovely, the four of us even becoming friends who went for dinner frequently.

Assisted by a great team of midwives, Jenn delivered the baby at home after a long labour. When Devyn was birthed and on her chest, Jenn was relieved and exultant. “I did it!” she said. A few hours later the parents picked up the baby from our home, and Jenn wrote a poem expressing how paradoxically happy and peaceful she felt. The last line read:

The party’s over
everyone has gone home
I couldn’t be happier

Jenn came with me as I visited potential monasteries. Along the way she became a Buddhist, and shortly afterwards decided that her cabin and garden might as well be in a Buddhist monastery. She decided to become a nun when I became a monk, and headed to Thailand to find authenticity. Jenn had always been idealistic and enjoyed a sense of mission and special purpose. Becoming a Buddhist nun seemed to give direction to those yearnings in her.

Jenn went to Isan, Northeast Thailand, to a jungle wat (monastery), and I went to a wat of the same lineage in California. The parting was excruciatingly painful at first, leaving in me feelings of aching absence and near panic. I was experiencing separation anxiety as an adult. I wanted us to write monthly letters. At first she agreed to every six months, then later wrote that her abbot in Thailand felt we should cease communication entirely.

I stopped writing, yet I worried. A monk from my monastery had visited her while he was in Thailand and told me she was “in a gilded cage,” being kept in a beautiful hut because she was a local attraction. This suggested that her teacher was far from the true Buddhist master I hoped she would find. He seemed more interested in exploiting her to get attention and donations. In Asian countries Buddhist nuns receive fewer donations and less respect and institutional support than monks do, so Jenn having an excellent male teacher to guide and support her was essential. I knew they existed. I hoped she would eventually find one.

I wrote her a letter expressing my concerns, and my teacher did the same, gently communicating his own to her. Despite our protests, she dismissed our apprehension about her current ajaan (teacher). After that I still worried desperately about her on occasion, but most of the time I took refuge in Buddhist equanimity. She would have to deal with her karma, after all; I could not deal with it for her. It was only much later that I wondered if I had failed our friendship in not flying to Thailand to make sure that she was okay. No one else could have done it; I hadn’t.

Jenn and I spoke only once by mail between 2002 and 2012, when I disrobed in 2004; it was a bare-bones conversation in which I told her of my decision and she expressed her disapproval but good wishes. After that I began the process of integrating what I had learned while simultaneously turning all of my convictions inside out. Through this I came to re-commit to my birth tradition of Judaism, believing in a Creator and a good Creation, and in the primacy of engagement with the world. I kept some Buddhist psychology and meditation techniques, but slowly let go of the rest of the tradition.

In 2012 my wife Miriam and I had our son Zev. That year, through her mother, Jenn requested that I call her in Thailand on a cell phone that lay followers had donated to her, and we spoke about our lives for the first time in ten years. She told me that for a good while after ordaining she had talked to me in her head like an imaginary friend, telling me of her adventures, until eventually it got a bit weird and she forced herself to stop.

As the conversation came to a close, she told me that she and I had a kind of pact over lifetimes that she wanted to sever. She intended to become enlightened within this incarnation, and she did not want any bond to slow her down or hold her back. From now on I would be on my own spiritually. I told her, truthfully, that that was just fine with me.

I was left feeling unsettled. She sometimes sounded warm and at ease, and at other times pious, stilted, and ungrounded. Her demeanor didn’t strike me as similar to the mature monks I had met, who were supple, flexible, and strong of mind after years of spiritual practice. I worried, but convinced myself that she sounded at least fundamentally okay. She told me she would soon go to Sri Lanka to spend some time there.

Almost two years later Jenn contacted me to tell me that she was in California and would be passing through Vancouver on her way back to Sri Lanka. Devyn, our birth daughter, with whom I’ve stayed close, made arrangements to come to Vancouver and see Jenn when she passed through. She had met Jenn only once, fortuitously, years ago, when Jenn was visiting relatives in Winnipeg and Devyn’s father, Berni, spotted her in her white nun’s robes. Jenn had spent a few hours with Devyn and exchanged gifts.

Another meeting was not to be. I called Jenn’s cell, but her frightened mother answered, telling me they were on the way to the hospital. Jenn had been hearing voices and they had told her that due to bad karma she had made she should kill herself.

When Jenn was later released with a prescription for anti-psychotics, she told me she had been communicating with devas (spirit beings) since the previous July. They interfered with her digestion and her body and sometimes gave her convulsions. They also taught her things that she said could not come from her own mind.

I pointed out that all the great Buddhist teachers advised against talking to spirits, but she demurred that these spirits were themselves enlightened teachers. I gently argued that if that were so, how could they tell her to violate the fundamental Buddhist principle of nonviolence and kill herself? It was a test, she said. What if you had failed? I asked.

I realized with horror that Jenn had lost control of her mind. Words like schizophrenia and psychosis hovered above my thoughts like demonic black birds. This was a worst-case scenario, a nightmare. I had inspired her to become a Buddhist nun, yet instead of freeing her from delusion it might only hasten her death.

In the coming weeks after her release she resisted the medication, taking less and less. She withdrew from her mother and me. She became more and more irrational. We often caught her in lies, and she wasn’t eating or sleeping enough. Her abott in Sri Lanka wrote to Donna that while there she had run away in the middle of the night into the mountains, stolen other nuns possessions, and scared them by hanging around their huts in the darkness. Since Buddhist monasteries do not knowingly take in people with chronic illnesses (they are not societies of charity, but places for advanced Buddhists to meditate full-time), they had bought her a one-way ticket to California. It became clear that they were trying to send her home for good.

Jenn disrobed and agreed to stay with her brothers in Winnipeg, though her behaviour remained disturbed and disturbing. After a few days in Winnipeg, she disappeared. Her mother had given her access to some money, and she had bought a plane ticket to an unknown destination. Donna called me to say it might be to Vancouver, as a stepping-stone to Sri Lanka. Minutes after I hung up Jenn called me from the Vancouver airport on a stranger’s cell phone, asking for help.

When I found her she looked gaunt. She was moving weakly and slowly like someone who had been fasting for days. Her facial mannerisms were odd. She wouldn’t respond to my questions.

I took her to a bank at her request and strategized with Donna on the phone while Jenn was inside, telling her to call the Vancouver Police and have them pick up Jenn at my house to take her to the hospital. When they came she didn’t speak, neither to the compassionate and gentle plain-clothes police nor the paramedics who ultimately carried her out the door. When she turned to look at me on the way out, her face was an unintelligible glyph.

I visited her three times at the hospital. I gave her a very rare, precious Buddhist amulet my teacher had given me that didn’t have any better purpose now than as a gesture of love, which might or might not reach its intended destination in her heart. I brought some magazines, some chocolate. Finally Jenn was returned to Winnipeg, but again her behaviour began deteriorating. After her brother caught her smoking cigarettes in the house (a habit she had picked up in the psyche ward after being smoke-free since she was 19) she defiantly sat in the bedroom of his toddler-age children and lit a cigarette. Other times, out and about, she became belligerent and got into fights with strangers.

As soon as she got her disability check she bought a ticket to Sri Lanka and was practically and legally unstoppable. Agonized texts, emails, and phone calls went back and forth between her mother and I. Upon her arrival the monastery had her hospitalized in a psychiatric ward in Kurunegala, northeast of Colombo.

Days of silence followed. Donna and I tried to get information but learned almost nothing, getting a busy signal or incomprehension from the hospital and minimal communication from the monastery. After ten days of increasing anxiety news finally came in.

Jenn was back at the monastery and apparently stable. Amazingly another nun had heard of her situation and had come to the monastery to look after her. This maroon-robed angel had bipolar disorder and was on medication herself. She had come with her mother, who had become a nun to look after her ill daughter. As is so often the case, the afflicted were taking care of each other. Every day the mother and daughter team crushed Jenn’s anti-psychotics into her Sri Lankan tea.

This was amazing grace. Despite all of our attempts to stop Jenn from going back to Sri Lanka, it was there that she had found a way to be a nun and receive a minimal degree of medical care, at least for a time.

In the weeks and distance that followed, I felt her beginning to slip away from my life again, back into the folds of my brain and of the cosmos wherein she had resided during the years we didn’t speak. I was grateful for the care of this other nun and her mother, yet worried about the future. Would Jenn get a visa to stay in Sri Lanka, which required that the monastery vouch for her when she was only a burden and potential danger for them?

I traced the scars left behind and tried to find causes. Was what happened to Jenn simply genetic? Was it a demonic attack? Was her illness psychological, rooted in her giving up our child? Or was the cause stress due to the lack of support that she and other female Buddhist monastics experience?

I was angry at the Buddhist community for not taking care of Jenn when, after 15 years of service, she became mentally ill. I was angry at the way her being a woman had meant less access to teachers and resources, a deficiency that may have contributed to her breakdown. In the end, though, I realized that I simply did not know the causes or ultimate meaning of what had happened to her.

A kernel of the Jenn that I remembered was still there, yet the new Jenn was toddler-like: combative, manipulative, delusional, moody. My only relevance in her eyes seemed to be as a means to get back to Sri Lanka.

Now she has found a small portion of salvation, the amount you could carry around in a monastic’s alms bowl. Once again a sea of unknowing separates us, and her ship is far off in dreamlike waters, a vulnerable boat, beyond my reach. In my port city of Vancouver, I am West and she is East – not in some hypostatized cultural way, but directionally and profoundly, separated by a vast ocean. Her passage to Sri Lanka only physicalized this, as it was true even when we sat together in the psych ward at the Vancouver General Hospital. More true than it had been during the ten years we didn’t speak.

I do all I can do now, praying that she finds harbour. May she come to rest on land, in a place from which, even if she can’t send a message to me, she can again send one to herself.