the monk in the garden: notes on mental difference

I went to the Lan Su Chinese Gardens in Portland this afternoon, and was sitting under a pagoda feeling annoyed and disappointed that the tiny sanctuary intended to make you "feel as if you've traveled through time to another era in a faraway world" was instead crowded with so many people wielding cameras and smartphones that you couldn't take a single step without interrupting someone's shot, when I was approached by a young man in a hand-woven poncho and a Salish hat, with a leather medicine bag around his neck. He sat down beside me, took out a set of tingsha which he began to swing around, and started talking about Zen. It emerged that he was both a monk and a shaman and a traveler who had followed the river to Portland in search of a girl he had seen only in dreams. His life work was to restore balance to the universe; to achieve this, he often played his tingsha in the produce section of grocery stores.

He asked me if I was enjoying the garden. I grimaced slightly. "It's kind of—overstimulating," I said, waving at the iPhone hordes. 

Instead of joining me in my griping, he beamed and started telling me about Chinese garden design, pointing out the symmetry of the bridges, the interplay of light and shadow in the latticework, and the pruning of the trees. We spoke for a few minutes more. Now and then, I felt something begin to strain inside of me—the usual how-am-I-going-to-extract-myself-from-this-crazy-person's-company response. I stayed, partly because he was so young and seemed so fragile, and partly out of a desire to rebel against the iPhone-wielding hit-and-run spirit that had annoyed me so much when I entered the garden. If I really had traveled through time to another era in a faraway world, I reasoned, there would certainly be mad monks in the garden. And isn't that the kind of world I've been yearning for?


When I walked away, the whole garden looked different and more beautiful—not just the ponds and pagodas, but the people with their gadgets too, who suddenly appeared like the wondrous manifestations of an unfolding universe that they really were. I ended up spending another hour there, marveling at all the details I'd overlooked before. 

Encounters with people who exist outside the realm of consensus reality aren't always so uplifting—on the contrary, they're often awkward and anxiety-producing. As I was biking home from the garden, I wondered what had made this one so different. It wasn't just that he was young—young people experiencing reality disturbances can be plenty frightening. And it wasn't even the fact that his monologues were filled with starlight and river dreams instead of conspiracy theories.

It was that he seemed loved. 

He had come to the garden with a friend. He spoke fondly of his parents and teachers, and a brother with a honey and beehive store in a different part of town. He was clothed and sheltered, and seemed healthy, sober, and addiction-free. 

How much of the awkwardness, discomfort, and fear we feel around  people with mental differences is actually a discomfort with addiction or homelessness?

How many more starry-eyed monks would we have, I wondered, if we simply made room for them in the garden?


  1. Perception is Reality?
    So very Zen.
    Here's to the roaming monks and their grace.

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