1988 Graduate Shares Life As Monkby 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.