From Greenfield Center to Buddhist monk

by CONNIE JENKINS, The Saratogian, Jan 18, 2005

Hanover, NH (USA) -- His new name is Mahinda. His new life is still unfolding. The fact that Michael Mina, 21, of Greenfield Center, traveled to Sri Lanka this fall as part of his pre-med studies at Dartmouth College wasn't a shock to his mother. But the part about becoming a monk -- that certainly surprised her.

'He's always traveled to do community service,' said Margery Chessare. 'He helped restore an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Belarus and has been to Nicaragua. He loves doing this stuff.'

In an e-mail to The Saratogian, Mina wrote, 'You may be aware that meditation and other practices like yoga and ayurvedic medicine are becoming more popular in the Western world. Though it is not associated with Buddhism, meditation is what lies at the heart of Buddhism. People are therefore, in a sense, practicing Buddhism without realizing it.

'There seems to be a stigma about Buddhism, due to a lack of knowledge in the U.S. anyway, which tends to inhibit Buddhist meditation instructors from 'advertising' the word 'Buddhism.' However, through their teaching of meditation, they are getting the message across. Buddhism is actually a philosophy and not a religion, as it is perceived to be by most. Therefore, anyone can be a Buddhist at heart, while still accepting to a great degree their own religion.'

Chessare and her husband, Paul, have four sons between them. Mina, a 2002 graduate of Saratoga Springs High School, has an identical twin, Christopher.

'They're very similar -- intelligent and competitive -- and have similar aspirations,' their mother said. 'But Christopher is the scientist. He's a realist.'

Mina, then, is the idealist. He has been interested in Eastern philosophy and has talked of being a doctor in a Third World country. The dean at Dartmouth became an important mentor to him and introduced the young man to the Tucker Foundation. That opened the door to study in Sri Lanka.

'He wanted to go to a Buddhist country,' Chessare said. 'He offered to teach English in exchange for learning about Buddhism, and he volunteered at a medical clinic there.'

Along the way, he crossed paths with a monk who teaches meditation to physicians.

Mina was invited to live at the Rockhill Hermitage, a meditation temple high in the mountains, about 20 kilometers outside Kandy City. That's where he was when the Dec. 26 tsunami hit Indonesia.

While he was far from the devastation, he's hoping to raise money this month to help some families along the coast. Since an article about his efforts appeared in The Saratogian last week, former teachers and old friends have come forth to offer donations, Chessare said.

'The vast majority of people, however, are very poor and thus work long days just to keep their own family living and therefore are unable to help, even with a disaster such as that which has taken place here,' Mina wrote.

'A humble home here may cost about 1,500 U.S. dollars (though nothing that an American would consider livable), so it is my hope to be able to give at least a few families a home as well as essentials that they need. I set my goal at $5,000, but I am hoping to raise much more.'

Mina will travel down to the affected area and go with the family to buy the materials for their new home. He wants to stay there a while to help with the initial construction.

His mother is still piecing together steps of his spiritual journey.

'You can be a novice monk without knowing a great deal,' she said. 'They even ordain children. It's considered their destiny and is a great honor. But they take them away from their families.'

As parents, the Chessares are highly regarded by the Buddhists, and Mina could not be ordained without their permission. Their son was ordained a couple of weeks ago and now is called Mahinda.

'Actually, my full name now is Venerable Americave Mahinda, pronounced Americ-av-ey,' he wrote. 'That's Sinhala for American. The birthplace is always in a monk's name.'

Chessare isn't sure when her son will come home, though she's proud and happy about his choices.

'His brothers are sure he'll come home and 'derobe,'?' she said, 'but I'm just watching it all unfold.'

To donate to Mina's collection, send checks to The Tucker Foundation, Dartmouth College, Attn: Dr. Stuart C. Lord, Tucker Foundation Tsunami Relief, Dartmouth College, 6154 S. Fairbanks Hall, Hanover NH 03755-3335. Write 'Rockhill Hermitage Relief Fund' on the memo line of the check.