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Dorje was a monk
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Dorje was a monk
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Dorje was a monk
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"It was then just a matter of finding a good teacher. I travelled and travelled."
Conversations
2 April 2010

Dorje was a monk

Interview by Kris McIntyre
Photography by Daniel Guerra

Kris McIntyre on Dorje

Before Dorje was ‘Dorje’, he was Christos Walker … a pretty troubled young Aussie guy from Queensland. He could easily have ended up in more trouble, but instead decided to seek answers in Eastern philosophies. Eventually, in his twenties, he spent five years living as a Buddhist monk, a significant portion of that in silent meditation and contemplation. Coming back home, he still surfs and plays guitar, but also helps other ‘troubled’ youths to find their way.

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KRIS MCINTYRE: So you’re just back from India. What were you up to?

DORJE: I took two young people to an ashram there.

What for?

Maybe because I’m a glutton for punishment! One young guy, Luke, wants to do what I do, so I’ve taken him to India twice this year. I also took another guy who’s probably the sickest example of a Gen Y you’re going to come across: clinically depressed, incredibly wealthy but dysfunctional upbringing, no real sense of his own boundaries, incredible arrogance, chronic fatigue and a ‘poor me’ complex … He’s been stuck in a rut for about eight years, lives off a trust fund and is in a lot of pain. I was looking to find a way to give him an experience of life that would give him some ground to move forward from. Traveling and staying in an Ashram in Southern India, where we visited an orphanage, gave him new experiences and some self-esteem. It also took the focus off me as a teacher and allowed me to work more as a mentor.

What is it that you do?

It’s difficult to describe, but I guess it’s a combination of meditation, Qigong, psychotherapy and mentoring.

You’ve trodden a fairly unusual career path, how did you get started?

I struggled growing up and I could see that a lot of people around me were too and nobody seemed to understand why. I’ve spent my life trying to understand the human condition and apply that understanding to my own life. When I started to have success I wanted to share it with other people and I noticed that other people started to seek me out to learn from me. Those two things are important and they have to go together.

So as a young Aussie bloke who loved to surf, you ended up being a monk in your early twenties? That’s fairly drastic.

I suppose my Buddhist training was a drastic thing to go to, but it was through sheer desperation and wanting to find answers. My parents separated when I was very young. I decided to grow up with my dad in Australia and my brothers were with my mother in the UK. My father had dabbled in yoga and meditation which gave me a reference point for when I really hit the wall in my late teens. I was very depressed, suicidal in fact, and I had chronic fatigue syndrome. I was sick because I had no understanding of diet and health or any of the things that I now know and share with other people, like how to cook, eat and live.

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #24 of Dumbo Feather

So, do you think becoming a monk is a good thing to do for other young people?

Some of the young guys I work with tend to romanticise the concept saying, “Dorje did it. I want to go and do the hard yards and live in a monastery for five years.”

I say to them that it’s a dangerous and difficult path. Westerners are not really designed to grow up in this kind of society and then go into a monastery in their late teens or early twenties. Traditionally, monks would go to the monastery young. My original lama went into a monastery when he was seven. He was also raised in a culture that didn’t have such strong emotional drives. In the West we grow up very emotionally driven, over-stimulated by the media, exposed to drugs and alcohol, our sexuality is very activated and consumerism is constant. They all become tools to avoid painful feelings. When that’s all ripped away and you’re put into a very stark, austere environment like a monastery the tendency is for people to feel suppressed.

It must be like going cold turkey.

Very much so and it can cause major psychological problems. I see a lot of that happening with the Vipassana (meditation) retreats where people go in for ten days, and that’s only ten days – imagine five years! When you get institutionalised, all this stuff comes up and if your teachers aren’t skilled around the psychology of what you’re feeling, it can cause big problems later. That’s one of the reasons I left I suppose.

What drew you to the monastery in the first place?

I was looking for guidance; it’s that simple. I was in a mess and everyone around me looked like they were in a mess too, so I started asking, who’s got the wisdom? I started reading books and meeting people. Then I met a meditation teacher on the Gold Coast where I grew up and she taught me about different religions. We studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and eventually she took me to India to help me find a teacher in a monastery. By then I’d realised that Buddhism seemed to have the best structure for me to learn so it was then just a matter of finding a good teacher. I travelled and travelled and travelled. It’s sad to say, but finding a good teacher in Buddhism is actually very hard, especially one you can communicate with. I ended up finding one in the north of England, up near Scotland, of all places, which didn’t really serve my ego because I wanted to have this exotic, mystical, cool far-East journey …

But you were in India for a while?

I was in India for six months travelling around, but every monastery I went to kept saying, “Go to the West: America, Canada, France, the UK, Scotland, or even Australia, where there are Western monasteries. You’d have to learn Tibetan because we study formally in Tibetan, but then you’re going to have to learn the local dialect because that’s what all the young monks speak. How are you going to get a visa to stay here? How are you going to support yourself?” As a Westerner you can go to Nepal now and study in a really good school, but in the early to mid-’90s Buddhism was just starting to flourish. I ended up studying in a Western monastery in the UK with about 200 Westerners from around the world who were living with a Tibetan lama. He was quite a recluse and classic old school. He was put into a monastery at seven. It was one of the best monasteries in Tibet and he studied with, and developed a relationship with, the junior tutor to the Dalai Lama who was one of the most highly revered Tibetan lamas before the Chinese occupation. He went through his Buddhist studies and then in his late twenties, the Chinese occupation forced him to go to northern India where he went into a cave and did a 19-year solitary retreat. After that his teacher asked him to go to the West and teach. When I came along he’d been teaching in the West for quite a while and was translating a lot of the practices from Tibetan into English so that Westerners like me, who were looking for the wisdom, didn’t have to navigate the language. I was an electrician by trade and the monastery needed someone to maintain the building, so they sponsored me to do the maintenance in the UK.

That’s probably blowing lots of Western notions of what a Buddhist monk does during time in the monastery. What was your daily routine?

Get up very early in the morning obviously.

‘Early’ being … ?

Anywhere between 4 am and 6 am. Six would be a really lazy, take-it-easy day, but normally between 4 am and 5 am, I’d get up and do morning practices – which is to set up your shrine, do all your offering bowls, and preliminaries like 100 or more prostrations which are almost like yogic sun salutes. Then it would be morning practice – a formal two hour practice of chanting and meditation. After that you’d go back and do further practice and that would take you up until about 11 am when school would start. It was the equivalent of a ‘Geshe’ – a degree in Buddhism. Study was from 11 am until 1 pm, mostly group study of all the classic texts. After that you’d have lunch and then work in the afternoon from 2 pm until 6 pm. Everybody had a job whether it was cleaning toilets, mopping floors, working in the ritual preparation room, or as the building crew renovating and maintaining the building. I was on the maintenance team doing electrical work. Eventually they decided to build a big temple to seat about 5000 people, so I spent most of my time doing that. There would be times when we would have festivals where thousands of people would come to hear the lama teach. We’d have to put up marquees and put all the power in and lighting and then pull it all down afterwards. Anyway, after work, you could go to another hour or two of group practice and then if you wanted you could have a light supper. In the evening you would either do your own practice in your room or go to another group practice for another couple of hours of chanting and meditation. Throughout the year there were retreats where everybody would go into relative silence – either one week, or one month, or longer, and we would be sitting anywhere from eight to 12 hours a day. The longest retreat I did was seven months.

That’s pretty hard-core.

Yeah.

In those five years I spent hundreds of hours of sitting.

Do you think there were things you learnt in that structure that you couldn’t have learnt in a Western environment?

No. A lot of it just wasn’t relevant.

Because?

Because it’s very traditional and it wasn’t necessarily what I was looking for because it was within in a religion.

Buddhism is a systematic path to enlightenment which is very special and I love it, but for me, as a young Western person struggling to survive in the world, it wasn’t relevant. Some of it was actually very unhelpful. I needed to know how to work with feelings. I needed to know how to find a stable base so that I could work out who I was and what my values were. Instead what I went through was a five-year reconditioning process where I got told, “We throw out Chris. You become a monk, you’re given a new name, Dorje, and then we condition and train Dorje to be Dorje the monk.” At the end of the five years I did a seven-month solitary retreat. I was meditating pretty much on and off throughout the day, all day, every day for seven months. Just before I went into that retreat I was given a book called A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield – a psychotherapist who had been a Buddhist monk. A few chapters into the book he talked about working with emotions and feelings and it just all clicked for me. So for the last three months of that seven month retreat I abandoned my whole Tibetan practice and just worked on the techniques in that book. I probably grew more in that three months than I had in the entire five years I was in the monastery; but sure, I learned a lot of cool stuff. I mean, I guess some people admire and respect that I’ve been a monk, but they have no idea what that really means.

But it has qualified you to teach those meditation practices that you learnt?

Yeah. You’ve got a lot of people who’ve done a little bit of meditation and decide, “I’m going to invent myself as a meditation teacher.” I don’t see myself as that. What I find I’m mainly doing with people is looking at their nervous system, their emotions and then their mind and asking, “OK, so how in balance or out of balance is that? What do we need to work with? How can we regulate this kind of body-mind continuum?”

How do you look at the nervous system? Do you do that through the physical stuff with your massage?

No. It’s all based on just sitting with people. Through the last ten years of experience I can see very quickly where people are at. Most people who live in this modern world are under a huge amount of stress, whether they know it or not. You know, there are statistics, like the amount of information a modern person living in an urban environment processes in one day is the equivalent to an entire life if they lived 200 years ago. In 200 years the human body hasn’t changed much, but the pressure on the nervous system has gone through the roof. People don’t have much opportunity to rest – they live in artificial environments and their sleep patterns are out, so most of them are completely out of balance unless they’re doing a fairly solid practice, like yoga or meditation, to keep them grounded.

So what’s the solution?

Because most people are constantly in ‘fight or flight’, they’re in a state of sympathetic arousal or overdrive and they’re just overactive. The first thing people need is to calm down and relax. Once they calm down, you can ask, “What are you feeling?

They’re either completely disconnected from their feelings or they’re completely drowning in them, you know.

Then you start to try to give them some guidance around how to work with feeling. The bottom line is that feelings just want to be felt. You look at the great masters, even that incredible Russian writer Dostoevsky, who said, “What seems bad to you within yourself will grow pure by the very fact of you observing it.” In this modern consumer society when pleasure has become the focal point, the whole motivation for living, for a lot of people, has become the pursuit of pleasure. Pain then becomes very scary. Our nervous system in its most primitive sense is based on survival; it’s always checking to see if you’re either safe, and therefore you’re resting and healing, or unsafe, in which case you’re in ‘fight or flight’; you’re in a defensive or attacking mode. Generally, the way we live in now is that we are always checking subconsciously, “Oh, it’s pleasurable therefore it’s good,” or, “It’s painful therefore it’s bad.” If it’s painful we try to change it or fix it, and the way we try to fix it is by thinking. Research tells us we’re generating somewhere in the region of 50,000 thoughts a day. So, I look at people and go, OK, let’s chill you out; let’s learn how to relax around feelings and reduce your thinking and agitation by realising that pleasure and pain are actually equal. If you do anything pleasurable to an extreme it usually becomes painful, you know.

Too much of a good thing as they say … all of those old sayings ring true. When people relax they can start to rise up into more of a place of wisdom, let go of chasing the next pleasure fix and ask, “What’s the meaning in my life? What means something to me?” That’s where, at the end of my Buddhist training, I kind of went. I realised what really meant something to me was to go back to where I came from, not to talk about religion, but about my own struggle and find other young people who I believed were struggling. At that time especially, ten years ago in Australia, youth suicide was massive. I started volunteering at a drug rehab centre for 18 to 24-year-olds.

So, when you went off on that journey did you have a clear picture that you wanted to come back eventually?

My intention was to go and come back, but before I knew it a few years had passed. It was kind of like, “Well, the purpose of your life is to get enlightened and until you are it’s very difficult to really know what to do,” which is kind of true.

How do you know when you’re enlightened?

Classically there’s a whole process to the path to enlightenment and that’s what you spend 20 years in a cave working towards.

Even that gets dumbed down in the West with the notion of ‘instantaneous enlightenment’.

I think a lot of Buddhists laugh down their sleeve at modern self-help gurus who are considered enlightened. It all depends on your definition of enlightenment. For example, I think Eckhart Tolle is fantastic; he’s doing incredible good in the world. Classically speaking, he’s not enlightened; he’s just a special man who’s sharing a philosophy, but I know that a lot of my clients suffering from depression read his books and it brings them some comfort, which is a good thing.

As simply as possible, what are some of the basic tenets of enlightenment?

OK, here we go. You could say that there are three principal aspects of enlightenment. The first is renunciation, because the pursuit of pleasure indicates that you’re still in a lot of pain and you’re trying to compensate for that pain using external means … This is kind of living out a narcissistic reality. When you realise that stuff isn’t going to solve your problems, that’s a major revelation. I think that’s a revelation a lot of young Western people perhaps will come to because they’ve grown up in such a wealthy society and are thinking, “Wow, my parents and everyone around me had stuff and they’re not happy; they’ve still got sickness; they’re still struggling; they’re still getting divorced.” Relationships are a classic example of one area of suffering. So, renunciation is getting to the point where you go, “Ah, the source of my pain is internal and the solution therefore is internal.” So you get busy trying to transcend the pleasure/pain paradigm. I call it, the struggle. Buddha talked about craving and aversion, the struggle, being scared of pain, pursuing pleasure, so it’s a neurotic cycle. As soon as you go beyond this struggle and preoccupation, your own pain falls away, you transcend it and what happens naturally is that the second path, compassion, opens. You are moved then because you see everyone around you is in pain and the more peace you find, the more apparent other people’s pain is. Your heart gets heavy with that kind of compassion and you go, my God, we are like the height of the Roman Empire and it’s collapsing around us. We’re on the Titanic, we’re about to hit this iceberg. Everybody’s telling us; they’re ringing the bells, but we’re so obsessed with our consumption and our own pain that we can’t help ourselves to save ourselves. That seems very judgmental on one hand, but there’s no judgment, there’s just absolute raw love for mankind, for animals, for nature, and your heart breaks open. So, that’s the second stage: absolute love and compassion. Then the third and final stage, which is really the pièce de résistance, the cherry on top, you know … The cake itself is renunciation, the icing is the compassion but the cherry is this transcendent self. It’s mystified a lot in Buddhism and Hinduism and there’s a lot of debate around it. They call it ‘emptiness’, but basically it’s when you realise that you are not an individual, that your sense of self is not correct, that you realise that metaphorically you are like a wave on a vast ocean of waves. On the surface, sitting here right now, you, me and the tape recorder look like three separate things; but in reality, if we follow your path down to your depth, and we follow me down to my depth, and the tape recorder and that person driving that old car and everything down to the depth, and if we go deeper and deeper, we come to the depth of this one ocean that is the source of every wave and everything. In that essence your selfishness, your unconscious assertion of self, falls away and you realise that you are just a part of every thing. You still function conventionally, but you realise that your egoic self is just a temporary phenomena. When those three things come together – renunciation, compassion and wisdom – they become what in Buddhism they call a ‘realisation’, which is irreversible.

It sounds fairly simple and yet I imagine it’s not.

I see that there are two ways. You can just get wisdom and live in a cave, try to realise those things, and when you get it go, “Great. Well, I’m a Buddha and I can do all these groovy things and I can help serve the world,” or, you can be someone like myself, which I believe a lot of Buddhists are and go, “Well, yep, that’s my pursuit so that I can become more and more qualified as a helper, but I’m going to just get busy with what I can get my hands on right now.” If that’s pulling beers in a bar and being friendly and considerate to the people around me, if that’s working as a waitress in a restaurant, or being an electrician, whatever it is, that’s up to you.

So that’s the thing, you don’t have to necessarily become a humanitarian aid worker?

What I had to really accept, and I really encourage my young crew to too, is to be authentic. Like when I was trying to be my teacher, I’m not, you know, a mid-70s, yoda-looking, Tibetan who speaks with a Tibetan accent and is very mindful and an exquisite being who’s been trained and educated since he was a child, I’m not that.

You’re a guy that surfs every day.

I’m a crass, Aussie surfer who lives in Bondi, does a bit of gardening and tries to love, particularly young people, and be a mentor.

You know, I try not to really position myself as a teacher or, God forbid, a guru or something. It’s more like, “Hey guys, you and me, let’s go to India together; let’s go surfing together; let’s cook some food together. You need somewhere to stay? OK, you can stay here. Let’s get you a house where you can all live together.” So, that’s where I’m at right now. I’ve created my first home outside of my house where I’ve got a group of six guys living together and I’m hoping to keep expanding that. I hope it’ll eventually be like, “OK, instead of going to India for retreats, let’s go down the South Coast, buy a block of land and build some eco tents, a cabin and a meditation hall.” I still go to India and I like to contribute physically and financially to charity work happening there. I get young people to do that as well, like orphanages and all sorts. But, what’s authentic and true for me is that I was born in Australia, I’m in my late 30s and I’m a guy who has a similar conditioning to the young people I work with and can empathise with them. If I were an Indian guru I wouldn’t perhaps really understand the content of their lives. I might understand the context, the way of looking at it, like the three principal aspects of the path, and go, “OK, these young people need to learn renunciation. Just start …”

“Hand over your iPod.”

Yeah, we had a classic iPod situation. One young guy said to another guy who was in a bad mood, “I don’t want my iPod any more”, because it had all his chanting and stuff on it and he was going through a bit of a rough patch. So he goes, “Here, take my iPod. Just give me 50 bucks,” and the other guy went, “Great!”, so he took it. A week later comes, “I want my iPod back. Here’s your 50 bucks.” So it’s like, “OK, how do we learn from that? What was going on there?” … You know, making it really grassroots for young people with all of their stuff, relationships and relating. It’s realising, “What’s my sexuality? Am I gay, am I straight?” A lot of young guys go through that confusion because they’re not in touch with how they feel. They just start guessing about their sexuality and find the whole thing very confronting, or they’re overdoing it and they turn relationships into another form of consumption. If you think about it, if you’re conditioned to pursue pleasure, you’re using everything.

Just as you use a cigarette for pleasure, you use a person for pleasure; you use the environment for pleasure and you don’t care.

Relationships become very disposable as well.

Well, that’s why they’ve become so disposable. But you start to gently, as they get some renunciation, get them doing yoga with someone like my lovely friend Eileen Hall. She’s been taking all of my young people, more and more, into her yoga class and helping them as they’re learning the discipline of being with discomfort. You don’t have to chase discomfort, but you can stop begrudging it and you might stop chasing pleasure to such a point that it’s destroying your life – that’s the definition of a drug addict. Part of my work is with people with serious addiction, recovering from serious addiction, and sometimes we go to India together. I’ve been going to India with young people over the years because there is an ashram there that is in such a different world to here that it takes them away from all their creature comforts, all their distractions, and it gives them a clean environment to face some stuff in themselves. Often that stuff doesn’t come up unless they’re given a bit of space and time, and then some guidance to help them move through it. I have been working on a doco which follows me, a recovering ice and heroin addict, and a mixture of young people through this process at the India ashram. I’ve been working on it now for about two years. It’s all part of the SOLA (School of Life Australia) charity we are setting up here in Sydney. Basically it involves projects like the retreat centre I spoke about earlier, the India doco and the classes in Sydney.

Have you mastered the art of integrating Eastern philosophy for the Western mind? What do you think that key is?

I think sometimes we just have to stop and look around and ask a few home truths. Just look at our youth, look at nature and kind of go, “What is it that I’m doing that’s not working and can I change that?” If you don’t know, investigate and find your answer. That’s all I’ve done. I’m a Westerner and I look for that answer not only in the East, but all philosophies throughout the ages. Look at Aristotle, he talks about the same thing. Look at Dostoyevsky, look at Eckhart Tolle, you know, they’re all European examples of the same thing; it’s not necessarily the East where the keys reside. My instinct was to go East because it was just the opposite of West, or so I thought. The East is very much catching up to the West.

You know, what I think is interesting is that in the West we tend to bag our own society a lot and we look towards the East for some wisdom and yet there’s got to be something good in our own culture. Why don’t we celebrate in terms of finding our own wisdom and being cool with that?

Well, every culture, every human being has wisdom because we are nature. The Qigong masters looked at nature and went, “How could I, in my nature, mirror that tree?” and that’s actually the form of Qigong. If you spend a bit of time slowing down and becoming curious about yourself, about your body, about your own psychology, then yeah, I think on some levels there’s nothing wrong with the West; it’s just that we need to realise that we’re falling into an old pattern, a bit of a selfish pattern, that man’s been doing throughout the ages, whenever we become wealthy. I forget which Greek philosopher said it, but when you have more than you need, more possessions than you need, that’s the beginning of corruption. We all have that inherent wisdom; I don’t believe it’s East and West. I personally had a deep fascination with Asian culture and the ancient wisdom in those Asian cultures like Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, but we have it in the West as well. I’ve built a bridge and I’ve got one foot in either world. I can blather on and chant in Sanskrit and I can sit still for a long time and sound very wise when I relate certain Buddhist teachings; but in reality, I’m just your average Aussie guy who likes surfing and just, you know, found my own approach.

That’s the key, isn’t it, finding your own way?

Yeah, it’s about finding your own authentic expression and that’s a big journey; that’s a very confronting journey. You know, there’s a lot of talk about the planet, but we need to look at human beings as well.

It’s like it’s just a global need for enlightenment. It kind of feels like the issues are so big that there’s a sort of complacency about it and that you can get to the stage of going, “Yeah, sure, renounce. I can feel the compassion but is what do I do as an individual that is actually going to change that because I’m only one in an ocean of millions that don’t give a shit?”

Yeah, absolutely, but that’s where those three simple principles of personal enlightenment come in: renunciation, compassion and wisdom. That’s very simple and you just kind of go, “OK, what am I really hooked up on; what am I spending my time on and what do I want to do with my life?”

Kris McIntyre

Photography by Daniel Guerra

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