In India, where most families perceive faith as ‘intergenerational transmission’ than a ‘matter of choice’, then how free is one to practise one’s chosen faith? Gracefully written, Running Toward Mystery, serves as a life account of revered Buddhist monk Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi. The edifying memoir, co-authored by Zara Houshmand, poses several hard-hitting questions and lessons on impermanence that a reader may seek to reflect upon as one flips from one page to another.
Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi was born in a Hindu Brahmin family, to a father who was a high-ranking officer in the Indian Revenue Service, a mother who valued her independence as much as her infallible religious belief systems, and a clan that was familiar with spirituality, although in their respective terms. The story dates back to 1985 when six-year-old Priyadarshi, a student of St. Vincent’s High and Technical School in Asansol, begins to have persistent dreams and visions of a mysterious mountain peak, and men with dreadlocks and shaved heads wearing crimson robes. At the age of ten, he responds to the gravity of the matter and silently bolts out of the giant gates of his boarding school to an unknown destination. His note comprising of only a few words, in all brevity, calls his decision to leave a ‘Spiritual Quest’. The news of disappearance reaches the family in no time. And, as expected the next two weeks go into incessant searching of a young boy whose heart didn’t flinch even once at the thought of pursuing his calling, a strong inner impulse, a strange, insatiable pull.
“My breath stopped, and a shiver passed through my body. This was the place I had seen so often”, writes Priyadarshi describing the Vulture Peak. For the unserved, this Japanese Buddhist temple (also known as Gádhrakúta) was the Buddha’s favourite retreat in Rajgir, Patna and the scene for many of his discourses. Now, it was 10-year-old Priyadarshi’s new home, from where he never hoped to return. But we must accept the things to which fate binds us. After two weeks of anxious search, his family finds him here, and what follows after only further insulates his desire for contemplative life.
Faith permeates the moral and ethical fabric of our world, but how deeply do people understand its true nature still remains difficult to pronounce. In the preface, authors establish that the voice of faith often invites one to penetrate some of the profound mysteries involving ‘self’, but how one chooses to respond is one’s prerogative. Seemingly straightforward questions such as “What is my purpose here on earth?” “What is my identity?” “What is the meaning of my life?” are tough to answer if one’s understanding of faith is wavering. This book holds exquisite details and anecdotes of Priyadarshi’s life and deep dives into these questions in a convincing manner. In the same length and breadth, it also throws a flashlight on how society views ‘faith’ and its ‘nuances’ – for instance, when Priyadarshi writes, “What they saw as running away, in defiance of all expectation that society had laid on me, I felt instead as running toward something that pulled me, mysteriously but irresistibly.” or, when one of his relative’s retort, “Full-time religion is what people do when they have no education, no prospects, no other way to survive. Why be a monk?”. Furthermore, a reader can sense conflict proliferating into doubt and distresswhen his father assembles 76 members of the family to discuss his son’s decision to embrace Buddhism and ordain as a monk. The same family that prides itself for being modern, secular and well educated.
Priyadarshi’s contemplative spiritual journey has been anything but smooth and balanced. In patches, one can even see irony embroidered with a fine thread. With his father wanting to support his endeavour but tied to the invisible chain of their family’s social status. The moment when he comes across a murkier side of religion and that shatters him in ways one can barely imagine. “It shook me profoundly to realize that monks and nuns could sink to jealousy, one-upmanship, and the confusion that seems to follow money like a hungry dog”, he laments. These experiences, embedded deeply in his mind, lead him to dive into the ‘Guru-Shishya’ relationship. The one, he professes, everyone should value. “The behavior of the teacher is “Torah to be read.” As the narrative expands, one does not fail to notice that Dharma teacher Priyadarshi, who is at the moment the president and CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the MIT, does not promote religion or faith in a subscribed set of belief systems anywhere in the book, instead, he introduces the readers to ‘mysticism’, ‘devotion’, ‘acceptance’, ‘impermanence’, ‘finding one’s own spiritual path’. He urges his readers to delve inside and wake up to one’s sense of reality and embrace it with an open mind. He defines renunciation for them in a language that is more pragmatic than theoretical.
The book is a compelling read for anyone who wants to understand and channelize their inhibitions surrounding Faith and view it from the lens of shared understanding and compassion.