Running Toward Mystery

The Adventure of an Unconventional Life

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A revered Buddhist monk tells the bracing and beautiful story of a singular life compelled to contemplation, sharing lessons about the power of mentorship and an open mind 
“A necessary and captivating narrative of spiritual courage and truth seeking far beyond the veil of our contemporary delusions.”—Sting
Born in India to a prominent Hindu Brahmin family, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi was only six years old when he began having visions of a mysterious mountain peak, and of men with shaved heads wearing robes the color of sunset. “It was as vivid as if I were watching a scene from life,” he writes. And so at the age of ten, he ran away from boarding school to find this place—taking a train to the end of the line and then riding a bus to wherever it went.
Strangely enough, he ended up at a Buddhist monastery that was the place in his dreams. His frantic parents and relatives set out to find him and, after two weeks, located him and brought him home. But he continued to have visions and feel a strong pull to a spiritual life in a tradition that he had never heard of as a child. Today, he is a revered monk and teacher as well as President and CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he works to build bridges among communities and religions.
Running Toward Mystery is the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi’s profound account of his lifelong journey as a seeker. At its heart is a story of striving for enlightenment, the vital importance of mentors in that search, and of the many remarkable teachers he met along the way, among them the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa. “Teachers come and go on their own schedule,” Priyadarshi writes. “I clearly wasn’t in charge of the timetable and it wasn’t my place to specify how a teacher should teach.” And arrive they did, at the right time, in the right way, to impart the lessons that shaped a life of seeking, devotion, and deep human connection across all barriers.
Running Toward Mystery is the bracing and beautiful story of a singular life compelled to contemplation, and a riveting narrative of just how exciting that journey can be.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Running Toward Mystery

Chapter 1

Going Forth: West Bengal, 1989

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.—­J. Krishnamurti

It was two-­thirty by the clock when I woke up in the semidarkness of the dormitory, the dream still vivid and present. That man was back again, as familiar as an old friend. He had been visiting my dreams for four years now and still I had no idea who he was, where he had come from, or what he wanted from me. His eyes stared right at me with an open, forthright look, and his wide lips were pressed into what might or might not have been a smile. The expression was neutral—­I couldn’t say that he was happy or sad, friendly or not, but he was radiant, glowing with an intense energy. He was silent this time. He had only spoken once before, in a language I didn’t understand.

The last time he appeared I wasn’t even asleep. It was on the train just a few months earlier, when my family was moving, yet again, from Ahmadabad to Kolkata. Draw a line all the way across India at its widest and you can imagine how long a train trip that was. No kid could sleep the whole way, let alone one with my energy. I was in the top bunk, staring at the grimy ceiling and still perfectly conscious even as the metal rhythm was lulling me. Then out of nowhere, there he was. The dome of his shaved head was so vivid I could have reached out and touched the stubble. His eyes glimmered under fuzzy eyebrows that were as white as his crisp, white shirt. He wore a yellow cloth over it, fastened at one shoulder. It was all so intensely clear and bright, nothing sleepy about it at all.

I was six years old in 1985, when the dreams and visions had started. The very first time too, there was no question that I was wide awake. I was with a friend who lived in the same compound, at Evelyn Lodge, where our bungalow was. I had gone to his apartment to ask him to play and we were walking toward the cricket field when I saw what looked at first like streaks and patches of orange in the sky. Was it sunset already? That would mean it was time to go home, but it couldn’t be. We hadn’t even started playing. Then the colors resolved into shapes and their outlines became clear. Men in robes of that saffron sunset color, with shaved heads, were milling about. There was a deer and a small hut. Some of the men went into the hut and came out again. It was as vivid as if I were watching a scene from life.

“Do you see that?”

My friend followed my gaze, squinting into the sky. “See what?” He swung the bat at nothing. I pinched myself. That was what you were supposed to do if you thought you were dreaming. It made no difference. Slowly, as we continued to walk, the scene faded into the sky and disappeared. Later, when I got home, I told my parents, but they said I must have imagined it.

I worried that there was something wrong with my eyes. But I had no trouble seeing the blackboard in class, or the ball when it was my turn to bat, or the mangoes hanging in the orchard, waiting for my arrows. And if it was my mind that wasn’t right? Well, it was right enough in all other departments. My grades were excellent.

And so it was forgotten, no big deal, and the memory would have been lost in the jumbled closet of a child’s mind if I hadn’t seen the other things later. There was a place that I dreamt of again and again, but even when I was awake it appeared very clearly to my mind’s eye: A rocky peak loomed above a plain, wrapped in woods and scrub but with boulders and a cliff face exposed. I had a bird’s­eye view, but I could see no buildings, no human mark on the landscape, nothing to hint at where this place was or why it should rouse in me a lingering sweetness, a yearning. It was as perplexing as the man who kept visiting my dreams, and just as persistent. There were other people who appeared at times, some with shaved heads and some with dreadlocks, wearing different shades of yellow, orange, or red. But he was the one I saw most clearly.

I was old enough to know that dreams, however weird they might seem, are normally rooted in the workings of our own minds and that waking hallucinations are not normal. I didn’t have a theory—­not even a half-­baked hint—­about what these intrusions in my mind might signify. They seemed to come from beyond me, beyond the world of logical sense, a genuine mystery that begged to be solved.

Now I lay there in the darkened room, listening to the random snuffles and snores of a hundred sleeping boys, and felt a mounting sense of urgency. I wasn’t going to get any closer to the answer by lying here wide awake until the morning bell. To find it, I needed to go out and search for it. After all, mysteries are how adventures begin.

It was time. I crept out of bed slowly. There was just enough shadowy light spilling over from the foyer to see by. Moving as quietly as possible, I put some clothes into a small daypack. I sat on the edge of the bed, so I didn’t have to risk the noise of pulling out the desk chair, and wrote a note to my parents. Just a few words that revealed nothing so much as a ten-­year-­old’s hubris—­that I was leaving on a spiritual quest and didn’t know where it would take me, but they shouldn’t worry. I slid the note under the wooden lid of the desk.

I thought about stuffing the bed, but there was no point. This wasn’t a prank. The staff would know soon enough that I was gone, and it seemed that a spiritual quest ought to begin with a certain dignity. I padded through the hostel dormitory, past the many beds with boys arranged in many ways, and then down the hallway. I put my sandals on and stepped out into the night.

St. Vincent’s High and Technical School in Asansol was one of the oldest of the many schools that the Irish Christian Brothers had built in India, and the campus was vast. I kept to the shadows of the tree-­lined paths, avoiding the few streetlights. By the time I had walked from the hostel to the gate, there was a hint of morning mist and the faintest wash of light in the sky. Dawn was still an hour away. I was surprised to find the gate ajar and no sign of the watchman who was usually there at all hours. No need for a story. A pedal rickshaw stood in front of the gate as if waiting for me. I climbed in and said, “Station,” as if I were any traveler on a busy day, not eager for questions or conversation. He leaned into the cycle to start and we moved through the silence of the empty streets.

I knew these streets better than most who boarded at school. My family had lived in Asansol before my father’s job took us to Ahmadabad. Although Asansol is a huge industrial hub in West Bengal, where the British first mined Indian coal that fed the nearby steel mills and railways, its heart still felt like a small and sleepy colonial town. So provincial, in fact, that my mother was the first woman to learn to drive there. I was her passenger as she practiced maneuvering the oversized Ambassador around bicycles, rickshaws, and free-­roaming cows, not to mention the pedestrians who would stop in the middle of the road to stare at a woman driver.

We were halfway to the station when it occurred to me I had no money to pay for the ride, or for a train ticket. I had the idea to stop at the home of a family friend who lived on Gorai Road on the way to the station. The man I called Bhola Uncle was from a zamindar family of wealthy landholders like my own, and one of very few friends in the business world who my father trusted. As a high-­level career officer in the Indian Revenue Service, my father’s social life was much constrained by the fear of corruption. That threat of sticky social ties was also the reason for the constant reposting that came with his position and moved us so often from city to city.

But Bhola Uncle never leaned on my father for favors. Though his home was palatial in scale and the relatives who shared it with him flaunted their money in other ways, it was what he himself did with his wealth that impressed me as a child. Once a week, the poor of Asansol would line up at the entrance to his family’s compound and he would sit at the gate, looking owlish in his huge glasses, and scoop rice or wheat out of sacks with a metal container, as an offering to anyone who came. He seasoned each measure of grain with a few kind words, very softly spoken, and a smile.

I asked the rickshaw wallah to wait. I crossed the lawns and gardens of the compound, past the various apartments, guesthouses, and the relatives’ mansions, and finally the big temple where I knew I would find Bhola Uncle up at this early hour, doing his morning prayers. He was surprised to see me.

“I need a hundred rupees.” It was blunt but I didn’t want to explain, just hoping that he wouldn’t ask questions, trusting that he would trust me.

“So you have some expenses?” he said, with barely an eyebrow raised. I said yes. He reached into the pocket of his kurta and handed me a note.

Years later I had the chance to ask him what he was thinking that morning—­just as my parents asked him soon after, when they were desperately searching for me. He told me what he had told them: “After all the years that I’ve prayed, all the good deeds that I’ve done in good faith, if the boy has stopped here first, my money won’t lead him to trouble no matter where he is headed.” I’m sure it gave my parents no comfort at that moment, but for me his simple response of a hundred-­rupee note with no questions asked was an unspoken blessing on my journey.
Zara Houshmand is an Iranian American writer and theater artist. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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Running Toward Mystery

— Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks —