A simple monk with a complex life

by Kara L. Richardson, Courier News Online, Aug 1, 2005

Millstone monk prepares for Dalai Lama's visit to Rutgers

Millstone, NJ (USA) -- In the quiet of morning, Ray McAdam sits before an altar and chants. "Om-ah-hum ..."

It is the Tibetan Buddhist mantra for the dead, said 108 times every day for 45 days after the death of his neighbor, Georgette Kelly. McAdam, an 85-year-old monk, wears a jade mala -- or rosary -- to keep track of the repetitions.

Much like the Dalai Lama -- Tibet's spiritual and political leader -- whom McAdam has met several times, McAdam calls himself a simple monk, with a day much like everyone else's. McAdam will be one of 40,000 people expected to see the Dalai Lama speak about "War, Peace and Reconciliation" on Sept. 25 at Rutgers University.

McAdam, a pacifist, wrestles with the violent news he watches on his television -- which is directly below the altar in his home. He watches the "Today" show in the morning, CNN in the afternoon and old movies in the evening.

When Meals on Wheels stops by, McAdam pauses for lunch. Last week, he ate roast beef, Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes. (Yes, McAdam said, many monks eat meat.)

Every now and then, McAdam drifts into meditation -- when he says the hum of his fish tank and air conditioner cease -- and pictures flash in the silence of his mind.

McAdam was taken by Tibetan Buddhism at age 13 when he read Alexandra David-Neel's "Magic and Mystery of Tibet." He lived in Pittsburgh with Chinese foster parents who were Taoists and were brought to the United States by Protestants.

"I wanted to trans-steamer my way to India and work my way to Tibet. I wanted to get there and learn it all first hand," McAdam said. But his foster parents protested, saying he was too young. Reluctantly, McAdam stayed, and so did his practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

McAdam studied economics at the University of Pittsburgh and graduated as World War II was growling across the globe. He served as a corporal in the U.S. Army until 1945, but never in a capacity where he had to kill. He was a company clerk under Gen. George Patton in the Third Armored Division.

McAdam studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City to earn a Masters of Arts degree. He taught for a year and decided to run an antique shop -- specializing in Asian art -- in New York. He also traveled, studied philosophy in Mexico and was an interior designer.

Eventually, McAdam took a job as a TWA purser, handling the money and paperwork of airline passengers, in 1954, a job that provided great benefits, he said. He had a $600 monthly salary and could fly to Asia for $300, and did so more times than he can remember.

McAdam said his strategy was to fly to Thailand, where he could get inexpensive flights to Nepal. From there, he has twice walked across the border into Tibet.

Less mobile now, McAdam sits in the living room of his Alley Way home, surrounded by the relics and reminders of his journeys. Outside hangs a Tibetan flag. He also grows bamboo, Cyprus and Kafir lime.

Former Millstone Mayor Alice Dorschner, a friend of McAdam's, said she heard a Buddhist monk lived in town when she first came to the borough. But little did she know that she was sitting by his side at Borough Council meetings.

"He just doesn't fit my picture of what a Buddhist monk is," Dorschner said. "You picture someone so simplistic ... Ray is so eclectic in what he knows and what he's done. He's traveled around the globe. He's a gourmet cook -- I mean he taught my husband to make Thai food. He has a wide circle of friends and students. He raised parrots. It's like, what has this man not done?"

Now Dorschner, 58, her husband, Keith, and McAdam start each Sunday together at the Neshanic Flea Market.

Back at his home, every inch of shelf space is crammed with images of Buddhas, bells and thunderbolts -- all traditional Tibetan symbols. McAdam's friends lovingly call it the dust palace. But perhaps the most important items are neither the intricate jade carvings nor the gilded buddhas, but the framed photos of former teachers -- from McAdam's immediate guru, Kalu Rimpoche, to the Dalai Lama.

Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Kappa professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at New York City's Columbia University, said Tibetan Buddhists often keep framed photos of teachers around, the way many people put up photos of family.

"Teachers are like spiritual ancestors," Thurman said.

McAdam also has some of Kalu Rimpoche's ashes in a prayer-inscribed amulet on his altar. "They are reminders," McAdam said. "He's the one who takes you through the initial steps. We, as students, are tied to him. His word is law."

McAdam refers to the Dalai Lama -- a Mongolian word for Oceans of Wisdom -- only as "His Holiness." McAdam first met him during the Tibetan political and religious leader's first trip to the United States in the late 1970s when few people knew who he was.

McAdam's Buddhism studies have since intensified, though he had already spent three years in retreat, involving weeks of silence and meditation. McAdam became a monk by the 1980s, and still studies Buddhist texts daily.

McAdam has met the Dalai Lama at least six other times, and once hosted the Dalai Lama's brother, Indiana University professor Thubten Norbu, once at his home. McAdam walked with Norbu and several Tibetans across Manhattan to the United Nations, to bring attention to the Tibetan plight for freedom.

"We're not supposed to have political views -- but we're some of the the world's biggest politicians," McAdam said about monks.

If you go:

Groups from Canada and an Irishman celebrating his 49th birthday are among the 22,385 people expected to attend the Dalai Lama's Sept. 25 lecture "War, Peace and Reconciliation" at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, university spokeswoman Nicole Pride said.

Rutgers officials expect the 41,000-seat stadium to sell out. Tickets will not be available the day of the event.

The 8:30 a.m. program is rain or shine, and will kick off a semester-long focus on the themes of conflict resolution and moral obligation. Activities are expected to include courses and events such as seminars, lectures, concerts, exhibits and films, inspired by the Dalai Lama's teachings and philosophies.

Tickets are available weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. by phone at (866) 445-4678 or in person at the Louis Brown Athletic Center ticket office, 83 Rockefeller Road, Piscataway. Attendees will receive tickets by mail in late August.

Admission for the public, as well as Rutgers faculty and staff, is $10. Groups of 20 or more traveling by bus are entitled to a discount rate of $7 per ticket. Rutgers students may buy up to two tickets for $5 each with valid university identification. Children ages 2 and younger are free. There is a $3 handling fee per order and a $10 parking pass fee.

Free shuttle buses will run from designated campus parking areas as well as from the NJ Transit New Brunswick train station. More information on parking and shuttle locations will be available in September.

Doors at the stadium will open at 6:30 a.m. Sept. 25. The program will start at 8:30 a.m. Entry is not permitted after 10 a.m. For more information about the Dalai Lama's visit, go to www.president.rutgers.edu/dalailama.