Mina '06 ordained Buddhist monk during his off-term

By Kelsey Blodget, The Dartmouth Staff, January 27, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Instead of returning home following an off-term teaching English in the coastal Sri Lankan town of Chilaw, Michael Mina '06 decided to put his biochemistry degree at Dartmouth on hold -- and be ordained as a Buddhist monk.

<< Courtesy of Michael Mina
Michael Mina '06 receives his robes during his ordination earlier this month.

Mina currently spends his days in meditation and Buddhist study at the Rockhill Hermitage Mediation Retreat, secluded high up in the mountains of Sri Lanka. He sleeps on a hard bed to discourage material desire, fasts for 20 hours a day and continues to teach English to the villagers. To stay fit, he exercises each morning with a "bear bar" -- a bar with cement cans on the end -- since "I can't exactly run in my robes," Mina said.

Ever since he was young, Mina recalls, he has thought in a different manner than most of his peers and his Jewish family members.

"There were always these seemingly obscure ideas floating through my thoughts about the interrelatedness of the universe," Mina said.

His mother, Margery Chessare, described him as having been a thoughtful, intense child. "One night he was writing in a journal, and he told me, 'I'm proving that a butterfly  flapping its wings in our backyard can affect something in China,'" she said. "He'd also get upset whenever we killed a fly or a mosquito. He told me recently that he's felt like a Buddhist since the day he was born."

Since his decision to become a monk, Mina has received a flurry of concerned e-mails from both immediate and distant family members. Even his mother reacted very strongly at first.

"I think her initial reaction was due to her thinking a Buddhist monk is like becoming a priest in the Christian religion," Mina said. "But being a monk is not a religious lifestyle per se, as Buddhism is not a religion but rather a philosophy and a way of life. I'm very happy with my decision to become a monk. I feel that it is a very noble way to live."

Mina said his friends and family are now at ease with, and proud of, his choice. Mina had originally left Chilaw in December, evading the onslaught of the Southeast Asian tsunami by mere weeks. Recently, he launched a campaign to help bring aid to tsunami victims, setting a goal to raise $5,000. After e-mailing friends at home and asking them to forward his message, Mina has succeeded in raising nearly $10,000.

According to Dean Stuart Lord of the Tucker Foundation, who originally gave Mina the grant to volunteer in Sri Lanka, the checks are still coming. Mina plans to give about $1,500 to a few families in early February and remain for a few days to help them begin building new homes.

"I am hoping to give it to families who have lost not only their entire home, but also all of their possessions, money, jobs and probably family members -- those who are currently in the most despair," Mina said.

Mina does plan to return to Dartmouth in the fall to complete his degree, although he no longer feels the need to go to medical school and become a doctor. He wants to return to Sri Lanka to continue his Buddhist studies following graduation, so that he can one day teach Buddhism and meditation in the United States.

"I want to help people settle down and bring peace to their busy American lives," Mina said.

His ordination ceremony on Jan. 8 exemplified Mina's dedication to that slower-paced life, which he feels will bring him greater peace, calm and insight into his actions in the world.

The day before his ordination, the monks helped Mina dress in the traditional Sri Lankan king's outfit. He walked in a Perahera, a small parade celebration, with several hundred villagers, up to a newly constructed Buddhist shrine where he gave the first ěpujaî, or offering of gratitude, to the Buddha, he said.

"The next morning began with me dressed all in white and then I was given a purification bath and my head was shaved," Mina said.

The real ceremony began when he asked the high monk to ordain him, and was given his robes in return. After vowing to live by the 10 precepts -- which include abstaining from stealing, sex and false speech -- Mina became know as the Venerated Mahinda Thera, named for the monk who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka 2,300 years ago.