It was a warm, muggy August day, last summer. As I walked home from the train station, taking the simplest route down the straight avenue that led from town to my house, I saw a couple in the distance. At first I thought it was a father and a daughter. They were walking in my direction, I was walking in theirs. They slowly came into clearer focus.
They weren’t a father and daughter. They were two men, walking with their arms interlocked. Their posture was similar to a father walking his daughter down a wedding aisle. They walked slow-paced, each step careful and considered. The taller, older gentleman on the left stood firm, head high, shoulders back. The shorter, younger man hunched. He was leaning into the older one appearing to take comfort in their closeness, until I realized that the older man was having difficulty walking. The younger man was supporting the older man. The younger man was wearing a robe, the older man was wearing a loose fitting t-shirt and loose-fitting jeans. They both wore sandals.
When they were within half a block of where I was walking it became clear the younger man was a buddhist monk, wearing an orange and rust colored robe. His head shaven. The older man had the undefinable look of age. He could be 70, he could be 80.
When we were within ten feet of each other I could see the older man’s eyes. They twinkled with a wetness that could be confused for tears, but were probably a sensitivity to the bright light of the day. The younger man looks at me, sizing me up. I could have stood aside to let them pass, but instead I said, “Hello, I live just down the block, who are you?” which might have sounded rude, but I did my best to make it sound welcoming.
The older man stopped though the monk seemed to tug at him to keep moving. The monk looked up at the older man’s face to check for a signal. The corner of the older man’s lips twisted up in a modest smile. The monk then looked at me and said, “This is Rinpoche, he’s a world renowned scholar, a friend to the Dalai Lama, a friend to heads of state. He’s a former monk, he was a monk like I am. He is my mentor.”
“He was a monk?” I ask.
“Yes, he decided to retire from being a monk on his 94th birthday. He had joined the monastery when he was a child.” Rinpoche then stands even straighter, pushing his shoulders farther back and begins to wiggle his arm away from the grip of the monk.
“Wow,” I say, “that’s a dedicated life.” Neither of them reply. Rinpoche continues to look in my direction though his eyes appear to be focused on the distance behind me. The monk looks directly into my eyes, then looks past me, as if waiting for my permission for him to continue with his walk. I think about 90 years in a monastery. 90 years doing anything consistently. I think on my life and the stops and starts, the zig zag path, the mindless commutes, and the daily routines.
I ask one more question, “Rinpoche, after being a monk for so many years, since you were a child, why did you decide to stop being a monk?”
His lips straighten the smile away and his face tenses up. He has a difficult time speaking. He takes a breath and his eyes shift to mine. As he answers the monk begins to take a step past me, pulling at the arm of Rinpoche.
As he too takes a step, putting him directly at my side, he whispers near my ear…
“Because life is short.”