The simple life

By David Mehegan, Boston Globe, April 17, 2007

Raised to be a Tibetan monk, he had to find his own path to enlightenment

Newton, MI (USA) -- With his bright smile, wire-rimmed glasses, and shock of thick hair, Daja Wangchuk Meston of Newton looks like an ordinary guy in his mid-30s, with a faint south-Asian accent. But his amazing story shows what a precious and hard-won thing an ordinary life can be.

When he was 6 years old, Meston's American mother arranged for him to be ordained as a monk in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery monk in Nepal. Confused and unhappy, he left the monastery at age 16, knowing rudimentary English, and eventually made his way alone to the United States. He ended up in Boston, and only gradually unraveled the mystery of his origins.

Today, Meston and his Tibetan-born wife, Phuni, own a small import shop, called Karma, in Newton Centre. Now he has told his story, without any bitterness, in a new book "Comes the Peace: My Journey to Forgiveness."

Meston, 36, was born in Switzerland in 1970 to Feather Meston and Larry Greeneye, a pair of American flower children from Los Angeles, wandering across Europe in a green Volkswagen Bus, smoking dope , and dreaming of enlightenment. They ended up in Nepal, where his father had a schizophrenic breakdown, and his mother became a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

His father eventually was brought back to the United States, to be cared for by family. His mother left her boy at age 3 with a Tibetan family in Kathmandu. Three years later, she committed him to a life as a monk in nearby Kopan monastery, while she went off to study the Buddhist ideals of compassion and renunciation.

As an odd white boy among Asians in the monastery, Daja was harassed by other monk-boys and beaten for making mistakes in memorization. He was often hungry, and increasingly baffled at his own identity. "Six to 16," he said, "my formative years, were a constant struggle to fend off attacks, taunts, name-calling. I developed a sense of unworthiness and discomfort with my own color, a sense that there was something fundamentally wrong with me."

At 16, increasingly restive and angry, Meston got himself kicked out of the monastery by faking a visit to a prostitute. He spoke Tibetan and Hindi, but his English was poor. "There was nothing for me to do in Nepal as a lay person," he said. His mother, still in the region, reluctantly helped him go to Italy for a year, then to Los Angeles, where she had relatives. "She was furious," he said. "She did not want me to leave being a monk."

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1987, he was placed in a public high school. He took his mother's family name because he thought Greeneye (his father had changed his name from Greenberg) was too weird. Though he spoke four languages -- he had added Italian -- his reading skills were weak and he knew little math and less science or history. He refused to eat a hot dog because he thought it was dog meat. When a history class took up the Civil War, he assumed that the Battle of Gettysburg had happened recently. Gradually he learned. He found his father's older brother, Albert Greenberg, who became a surrogate father to him. Albert took him for the first time to meet the boy's father, Larry, in a Los Angeles home for the mentally ill.

In 1989, at his mother's suggestion, Meston came to Boston, where he met Phuni Sonam, a Tibetan immigrant. They were soon married. He was 19; she was 20. He had not finished high school but in 1993 was accepted at Brandeis University, graduating with a degree in sociology.

"You don't meet many Jewish Tibetan Buddhists, at least not from the age of 3," said Gordie Fellman, a professor of sociology at Brandeis who remains close to the couple (Phuni also went to Brandeis). "When I learned that the Dalai Lama says the heart of Tibetan Buddhism is compassion for other people and the self, I saw that that is the way he has lived his life."

Yet he remained depressed and confused. He traveled several times to Tibet and India as guide and interpreter. In 1999, China had applied to the World Bank for funds to build a massive land-reclamation project which a Tibetan human rights group suspected would displace Tibetans. Meston was asked to visit the area and investigate. Caught taking photographs, he was arrested. During a break in intense interrogation, he jumped out a third-floor window and shattered his heels, in addition to internal injuries.

Eventually, he was released and returned to Boston, where he spent several years convalescing, while Phuni worked in retail jobs to bring in money. Emotionally, he had hit bottom.

"I was physically broken," he said. "I thought I was finished. I couldn't think or function." Then he attended a 2001 conference at Boston University on the writing of autobiography and memoir, which suggested to him "how I could transcend and transform the difficult experiences I had had by writing about them." But first he had to find the truth. "I had no information at all, zero," he said, and since he could not learn much from his father, he asked his mother, who had moved back to the United States.

"I tried to press her," said Meston, "but she would say, 'Why do you care? It's finished, it's past -- move on.' I was so confused because she was the only person I could go to, and she wasn't giving me anything." But gradually she softened. He said, "She began to trust that I would not attack her, and she told me things she had never told me."

What Wongmo (her nun's name) told him, she repeated in a telephone interview from Washington state, where she now lives. She was from an artistic, high-strung family. Her father, John Meston, was cocreator and scriptwriter for the "Gunsmoke" radio and television show. He and his wife were alcoholics and neglectful parents. Wongmo said that as a young person in California and Europe, she was deeply sunk in "sex, drugs, and rock and roll."

"Then all of a sudden to find your spiritual life and purpose, you can't say no," she said. "When you are so young, you need support. I asked [Daja], 'What did you expect me to do? Did you think I could have come back to the US?' I would have gone back to my old habits in a week. I had to stay."

But there was the small matter of the child. After leaving him for three years with the Tibetan family, she decided to have him ordained a monk. "Every mother wants the best for her child," she said. "I thought with my whole heart that being brought up by wise Tibetan spiritual masters would be the best thing for anyone on earth."

The one thing she regrets is not realizing how unhappy her son was in Kopan. "If I were to do it again, I would check more carefully on how he was doing," she said. Yet she still speaks as though, in abandoning the monastery for America, he had traded his birthright for a mess of pottage.

"He spoke perfect Llasa Tibetan, which is like the king's English," she said. "He could have been a translator for His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] or ancient texts. It wasn't his karma, and I have accepted that, but such a life would be extraordinary, to be in the presence of great masters, as opposed to living a normal, everyday, ordinary life."

Albert Greenberg, 81, of Los Angeles, is devoted to his nephew but speaks with outrage at his sister-in-law's family.

"I can't look at the bright side of that family," he said by telephone. "My family was poor and dysfunctional, but they loved their kids. Her family was wealthy and talented, but more screwed up than we were. They had no love in that family. What Daja and Phuni have done for themselves, all that is in spite of what happened to him."

In 2003, through a friend, Meston made contact with Clare Ansberry, the Pittsburgh bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. She wrote a story about him in 2005, and acted as coauthor of the book.

Now that he knows his life story, Daja Meston makes no harsh judgments. The nearest he comes to criticizing his mother is to say, "To be compassionate, you also have to be wise. You can be compassionate and still make a lot of mistakes." He is close to her, and also visits his father several times a year. His and Phuni's home is filled with his father's strange and beautiful artwork.

"The gift of all this," he said, "is the piecing together for myself, and getting to a place where I am comfortable, whether it's understanding my fears, or understanding my parents and all the contradictions, and saying, 'That is life.' Life is a messy business."