1988 Graduate Shares Life As Monk
by Tim Flowers
November 18, 2004
Buddhist monk Tan Jotipalo ‘88 returned to campus the week of Nov 15 to speak to students about his experiences living in a California monastery. Jotipalo was an art major originally from Crawfordsville and a member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity. After graduation, he worked for a Crawfordsville sales firm before moving to a new position in New Hampshire. It was several years after a recreational visit to Nepal that Jotipalo decided to become a monk. He sat down with Bachelor editor Tim Flowers to talk about his experiences.
Tim Flowers (TF): Could you give me a brief overview of how you arrived at where you are today?
Jotipalo (J): "Living in New Hampshire, I got involved in a lot of outdoor activities, mainly in whitewater kayaking, and mountain climbing. Some of my friends were planning a trip to Nepal to the Himalayas and just the idea of going there sparked something in me. I remember telling a friend, ‘If I don’t get permission to go on this trip, I’m going to quit my job.’ That was pretty severe; in fact, I was shocked that I even said it. Anyways, I received permission to go, but when I was there I had a near-death experience. I got some sort of virus, and not knowing how to take care of myself, I ended up flying into high altitudes, which aggravated the illness. Even then, I still tried to climb at high altitudes and at one point, I had a near death experience."
TF: And what happened at that point?
J: "At the climax, I really believed I had the choice of life or death. The pain was so intense and I was thinking to myself, ‘I wish my pain would end.’ I remember a voice coming into my head and saying, ‘if you wish for that, you’re dead.’ I knew I needed to be separated from my pain, but I didn’t want to die. When I thought that, I immediately came out of my body and floated to the corner of the room and after that moment, the materialistic part of my life was completely gone."
TF: So what did you do after that?
J: "I joke now how I used to motivate myself for sales by putting pictures of things I wanted up on the wall — like a new kayak or a car. That helped me excel at my job. I remember a week after this out-of-body experience, sitting in a hotel in Katmandu with all my possessions out in front of me. I thought, ‘If someone came in here to steal all these things, I would help carry them out.’ It still took another three years before I discovered Buddhism in the form that I follow now, even though after that it took another four or five years to actually become a monk."
TF: So, did you spend the next years searching for religion or peace?
J: "Well, it’s interesting because at that point, I had not read a book since Wabash. I read technical manuals as part of my former job, but I had not read anything to better myself. My interests were almost more of selfish desires. I began to read everything I could get my hands on."
TF: "From that moment when you found that internal spark, and discovered Buddhism, was it automatic like the other defining moments of your life?
J: "Not really. Actually, what it felt like at that point was more of an internal desire to seeking. Then I read everything I could get my hands on, I didn’t even know what it was, but I was just searching for a meaning in my life. After my new near-death experience, I came out with the 100 percent belief that when the body dies, that it’s not the end. It’s what the Christians call a soul or the Buddhist call the rebirth. What I am doing in this life is part of a continuum so what I’m doing now actually has much more importance for me because I know that what I am doing has an importance. I wouldn’t say that I was seeking a purpose for life; I was searching for a spiritual path and hike the Appalachian Trail. I was going to quit my job, go hiking, and then find a job once more. "
TF: How did you then make the transition to Buddhism?
J: "I was still living in New Hampshire when a friend of mine introduced me to an Ashram in Massachusetts. When I quit my job, I lived in Massachusetts for three months and at the end of that time, a friend introduced me to a Buddhist teacher and I went to this retreat. When I was doing this, I had an insight. When I was experiencing this meditation, I actually had this vision of my mind and my body at the same time. I was telling both of these to relax, but I was too tight. I had this insight that the Buddha had said that pain is one part of the body but suffering is another part — and the suffering is optional. Once I taught myself to relax my body, the physical sensation of pain was still there, but the pain had gone away. It was like an aphysical sensation — like we’re feeling the air right now. It was really very intense. At that moment, for me, there was some sort of insight where I felt I could explain to you anything about Buddhism to you at that moment. But, one minute it was there, and the next it was gone. I have 100 percent confidence that path can work."
In Photo: Nguyen Tang Le' 06, a Wabash political science major from Ho Chi Minh City and a Buddhist himself, talks with Jotipalo following his Nov. 17 presentation.