Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk

A music student renounces all to become a Buddhist monk – and then has second thoughts.

Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk Riverhead 336 pp., $24.95

Nikolai Grozni was a piano prodigy studying jazz performance and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston when he had an epiphany. It was nothing dramatic; he simply woke up one morning, went to the bathroom to brush his teeth, and then, “somewhere between the bathroom and the living room,” he lost all sense of purpose.

He subsequently abandoned his studies, his possessions, and even his name to travel to Dharamsala, India and become a Buddhist monk known as Lodro Chosang. Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk, Grozni’s fourth book (the other three were published in his native Bulgaria), is a memoir of his time becoming and living as a monk, and why he ultimately gave it all up to hatch wild schemes, fall in love, and write “silly books.”

For four years, Grozni studied Tibetan texts at the Institute of Buddhist Dialects, which is part of the Dalai Lama’s headquarters. There, he lived in chastity and squalor, memorizing texts, gazing from afar at the “prettiest Tibetan prostitute in town,” and taking classes with Buddhist masters. For a time, renouncing relations with the opposite sex and general participation in the material world seemed worth it.

But slowly, over time, Grozni began to question his decision. He wondered if “dropping out of school, giving up piano after 15 years of practice, ending friendships, destroying my parents’ hopes, changing my name and identity – to be humiliated by some belligerent old monk who hated Westerners and couldn’t talk to people unless he was debating” was really providing him with the spiritual answers he sought.

After all, he concluded, “one didn’t have to be particularly bright to memorize texts and debate emptiness.”

He soon found himself drawn closer to the community of expatriates living in Dharamsala. Chief among these was a Serbian ex-monk who called himself Tsar. Boisterous, swaggering, with a zest for women, life, and “a dirty Mickey Rourke smile,” Tsar had come to India fleeing war-torn Sarajevo. Without a passport and with a history of dabblings in crime, he’d become trapped there, and his increasingly desperate efforts to escape soon became his raison d’être. But before the net of the law began to close in around Tsar, he and Grozni became fast friends.

In fact, most of “Turtle Feet” reads less like a lesson on Tibetan Buddhism and more like a buddy story. The two young men, bonded by ethnic heritage and adolescent eagerness, soon moved in together. As Grozni struggled with his lessons and his vows, Tsar came up with plan after plan for making money.

One such plan involved burying hundreds of electrical coils in the clay floor of their ramshackle house, with the intent of turning his room into an oven for baking bread, which Tsar would then sell to the other villagers. Once the coils were turned on, though, the entire town lost its electricity.

Other plans met a similar fate, and the pair was facing financial ruin, and Tsar, a life sentence in an Indian jail. With his friend facing a grim fate, Grozni switched his focus to finding a way to help Tsar escape India. With their friend Vinnie, the two men tried more and more dangerous schemes to get Tsar out of India and on with his life in the wider world.

In the end, it seems that Grozni’s faith in the monastic life was undone by the contrast between the bureaucratic dogma that dominates the lives of Tibetan monks and the freewheeling spirit he saw in Tsar’s approach to living.  But this conclusion is not the point of “Turtle Feet.” Its point is the joy Grozni found in the journey.

By the way, the title comes from a Buddhist legend. Supposedly, the Buddha himself has “chakras engraved on the palms of his hands ... perfectly aligned nails and turtle feet.”

Kathryn Perry is a freelance writer in Boston.

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