San Diego 'I was in the middle of death. I was surrounded by death. Most Americans, most Westerners, wouldn't think this was a good or healthy thing because we either try to hide from death, or we hide death. We push it away. We push the dying into hospitals, the elderly into old-folks homes.
"But I couldn't hide from it.
"It was in 1987. I was graduated from the Air Force officers training school in San Antonio, Texas, when my grandmother had a stroke. I'd always been very close to her, and she made me promise that if she ever got sick, she wouldn't be put in a nursing home. I resigned my commission and moved back to Baltimore, bought a small home, and moved my grandmother in. This was also a time when there were a lot of AIDS patients who couldn't find decent care. It was a real crisis. There were all these people who were sick and who needed someone to take care of them. I can't say that I, at that point, acted out of any religious feeling. I'd been raised Catholic but had pretty much left the Church by 1987. I acted more out of a humanitarian feeling. I began participating in a hospice care program for AIDS patients. I took these people into my home and cared for them along with my grandmother. I never had any more than three at a time. Over the four years I participated in the program, I took care of 12 people who died in my home.
"Death was all around me. I tried very hard to understand all this suffering -- the people with AIDS, my grandmother's. It was very difficult. I'd always been interested in reading about religion in an intellectual way. And it was during this time that I started reading about Buddhism. At one point I came across the Four Noble Truths taught by Buddha. The first one was, 'All existence is suffering.'
"I understood that. For the first time I read something in black and white that explained what I knew. What I had been feeling."
Willis Alexander adjusts a fold of his saffron robe and pours us another cup of tea. A breeze rattles the vertical blinds in the window behind him and washes across the room to gutter the long white candles burning before three sleek gilt statues of Buddha seated on a high altar. Alexander's Southern accent, his pale, hairy shoulders, seem incongruous with his monk's robe and the setting. Wat Lao Navaram Buddhist Monastery in Linda Vista serves the neighborhood's Lao community and a handful of Thai and Cambodian worshippers. Alexander, however, seems at home at the temple and pads about its empty quiet in a pair of white gym socks.
The impression you get from the story he tells of his life is that he was a serious, religious child devoted to the devout grandparents who raised him in Baltimore, who made sure he attended Catholic school and went to Mass on Sundays. When he was 14, he says, he thought he might have a vocation. He was very much impressed by the Xavieran brothers who taught at his school, by their faith, their communal life, their sense of purpose. But as he grew into his teens and began studying more about Catholicism, his ardor waned. By the time he was 17, he no longer agreed with the Church's dogma regarding papal infallibility, contraception, and the ordination of women. He tried attending Episcopal church for a while and found the trappings of High Church liturgy comforting and familiar, but they didn't hold his interest for long. They just weren't enough, he says. He stopped going to church entirely. He was busy with college and, later, officers' training school. While his grandfather's death was difficult, it was his grandmother's stroke that turned his life around.
"We were," he says, "very, very close. She had been very important in my life."
The years he spent caring for her, and for the 12 AIDS patients who died in his home, set him on the course that ultimately led him to Wat Navaram in Linda Vista. Those years convinced him that what he really wanted to do with his life was help people. He attended nursing school and later worked as a nurse in the Maryland prison system. All the while he continued, on and off, reading about Buddhism. After spending several vacations in San Diego, he decided he liked the climate and wanted to live here. He moved, settled in, and began investigating Buddhism a little further, meditating for a short while with Korean Buddhists in La Mesa and even living at the Chinese Buddhist temple on Park Boulevard in University Heights. Still, Alexander didn't feel quite at home.
Buddhism is dominated by two major streams. Mahayana, practiced in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, which relies heavily on interpretations of Buddhist teachings, and Theravada, practiced widely in Southeast Asia, which relies on Buddhism's original canon written in Pali. This reliance on original sources has caused Westerners to typify Theravada as "orthodox" or "conservative" Buddhism, although neither term explains much. Mahayana Buddhists embrace vegetarianism while Theravadan monks eat meat. Some Mahayana denominations allow their clergy to marry while Theravadan ordination requires celibacy.
"I would never want to advocate one form of Buddhism over another," says Alexander. "I personally felt more drawn to Theravadan Buddhism because of its closeness to the original canon, its closeness to the teachings of Buddha."
This attraction brought Alexander to Wat Navaram and to the lectures delivered there by Venerable Benton Pandito, the American-born head monk who studied for more than a decade in temples in Thailand and Laos. It was at Wat Navaram that Alexander's conversion was made complete, although he isn't comfortable with the word conversion to describe his experience.
"In Christianity, conversion, to most people's minds, means a moment of sudden clarity, a moment of revelation. What happened to me was more of a gradual process that played out over a number of years. My faith was the result of study and practice.
"Buddha taught that existence is suffering and that the cause of that suffering was desire in all its forms. I found that in my own life, by practicing mediation, by following Buddhist teaching, it was possible to lessen my desire for things. There came a point after I'd been coming to the temple that I realized I didn't really have any material needs. I had everything I really needed. I didn't want any more possessions. And it was also at this time that I started thinking about my career, about my work in nursing. I had wanted to help people, and I did help people. But most of the illness in this country is self-inflicted by diet, by lack of exercise, by bad habits. I was helping people after the fact, after the damage had been done.
"I'd been thinking for a while about taking vows and becoming a monk, which is a very common practice for most males in Theravada countries. Most men at some point in their lives take vows and live as monks for several months or a year. I'd always had the desire to do that. And then my father was diagnosed with throat cancer and was told he had about six months to live. Part of the reason that men become monks is so that the merit from their ordination will accrue to their parents. It was clear that if I was going to take vows, I had to do it soon while my father was still alive."
On May 10, Alexander became the first non-Asian at Wat Navaram to be ordained as a monk. In a two-hour ceremony at a Cambodian temple on 52nd Street in East San Diego, Alexander took his vows before Venerable Benton Pandito, nine Cambodian monks, a dozen Lao worshippers from Wat Navaram, 20 or so Cambodian lay people, and his father.
On June 10, Alexander will leave for Thailand where he'll travel, study, and visit temples before continuing on to the University of Bristol in England to pursue a graduate degree in Buddhism. But before he leaves, Alexander will take off his robe and renounce his vows.
"It's really a simple ceremony," he says. "It's not a big deal. You can just take off your robe and walk away. That's a completely honorable thing to do. My intention wasn't to stay a monk forever. You have to be very honest with yourself about it. Celibacy is difficult for me, and I just don't have the self-discipline to be a monk for the rest of my life. The path of being a family man is what's best for me. It's better to be a good householder than a bad monk.
"What I want to do is teach Buddhism. After I'm graduated, I'd like to teach either in Bangkok or back here in San Diego. In a way it's a continuation of nursing, of helping people. I believe that Buddhism does alleviate suffering. It gives people a way to avoid or alleviate suffering in their own lives. By teaching Buddhism I'll be able to help people, but unlike nursing, I'll be able to offer real prevention."