“Household life is a confining a dusty path. The life gone forth is like the open air.”
For many westerners who move towards ordination, there is the idyllic image of the wandering monastic in their mind. A monastic wandering through the wilderness, obtaining alms from whatever villages and people are willing to be generous. Whether that is of the Buddha’s disciples in the ancient suttas or the modern-day forest monks of places like Thailand and Sri Lanka who wander on tour as part of the ancient tradition.
This wandering is called Cārikā(Pali for journey or wandering) or as most westerners intent on ordination would know better from the Thai – Tudong. There are many such stories available for postulants to eat up and dream about their future monastic life, I was no different.
Even as a layperson I had dreams of being a wanderer surviving in the wilderness, being free of the typical constrictors of modern human life. I even began to practice and train in such ways as to move towards that becoming more of a reality, at least later in life. Training myself to sleep outside in the woods without a tent, learning survival skills, etc.
So it should come as no surprise that when I first started thinking about the monastic life, and first started reading suttas and hearing stories about monastics wandering, I was instantly drawn towards doing something like that. In those early days, in addition to reading about such wanderings in the Suttas, I read two books that were very influential for me :
“Forest Recollections” tells riveting accounts of monastics wandering in the ancient forests and jungles of northern Thailand. For half the book it tells these wonderful stories, then precedes to explain how 80% of the wilderness that these monastics wandered through was now gone, as was the heyday of these forest masters wandering in the early part of the 20th century.
“Blistered Feet Blissful Mind” was quite different and impacted me perhaps more greatly. This is a wonderful story of two fictional monastics who are an amalgamation of various monastics who did this wandering practice through England. The fact that this was done in a place where people would not understand the practice ( as opposed to Thailand or some other Buddhist country, where it would be understood and supported) intrigued me, as did the stories of generosity from the random people they met. I found it interesting how giving people the opportunity to show and practice their generosity often brought out the desire to do so, in some of the most unexpected ways and from the most unexpected people.
It was around this time, almost a decade ago that my first thoughts and desires to do something like this began, in the early days of my intention to move towards monasticism. I suspected It would probably be a rare thing to be able to replicate the experiences of the Thai masters in “Recollections” , but perhaps I could be part of this new generation that will bring the ancient tradition into the west, as I saw in “Blistered Feet”.
So then life happened, I moved to Bhavana, now almost five years ago, and most of the idealistic views of monasticism I had have been replaced with the reality of monasticism, similar to how many people idealize and dream about living in the wilderness, but then actually go out and do it and see how hard and brutal it is and very little like their idealistic dreams haha!
But the idea to do a wandering was still there. I had hit a rut in my practice, an all-time low in my zeal and joy with it, I wanted to do something to help me revitalize the practice. So at the end of last year I made the decision that I was going to attempt my first wandering sometime in 2019. I decided it needed to be in the summer so I could carry fewer things and not worry about cold at night and so the week of July 8th was chosen.
I had spoken to a few monastics who had done a wandering before, gotten some advice and also read some accounts of it being done in some places in America, mostly on the west coast, although there was a monastic who did it for nearly three years up in New Hampshire. One of the things this monk listed as why where he wandered in NH was good was because there was a town every 8-10 miles and plenty of wilderness.
I thought about where I may be able to find a place like that which would be easily accessible to me. A place with enough civilization to get requisites, and enough wilderness to find places to stay without worrying about being kicked out by authorities. After some deliberation, it was actually my own home county of Ocean, in the state of New Jersey, that popped into my head and made the most sense. It was full of both strip malls, and woods, a perfect combination I thought! I knew just the road for this as well, Route 9, and gave myself a 20-mile ranging radius between Toms River, where I was raised, and Manahawkin, which is the last major populated center at the bottom of the county.
So this area met most all of my criteria, plenty of places to try and meet people and get food, plenty of woods to sneak into, close to support so that if I had to call off the wandering or had a major emergency I could reach family. There was also another aspect that I found important; It was a place that had rarely if ever seen a Buddhist monastic, and where Buddhism was basically non-existent. A working-class rural suburban area that was about to have the “auspicious sight” of a monastic wandering down the road for a few days.
I would be doing this by myself, not with any other monastics, or laity as was often the case from accounts I’ve read over the years. I knew I wanted to document this as well, but not in such a way that it would interrupt or become a distraction to my journey, so I decided on minimal video and picture taking. Four videos and a few pictures will appear here in their place as the journey unfolds.
I tried not to do any major planning, didn’t look at Google Maps or anything that my mind would normally do when planning something like this(and oh it wanted to). I did not put in my mind ” I must do x amount of miles a day”. I wanted this to be a true free wandering and to allow it to unfold with minimal control from me. I gave myself a max of four days, as I needed to be back by Thursday and on the road to NYC to lead a retreat Friday morning.
I decided I wanted to document and write about this experience for a few reasons. The first for myself to document my successes and failures. I also hope that perhaps some monastics who have experience in this may read this and give me feedback on what I did wrong and what I could of done better, and of course for everyone else who may read this in the future who have an interest in monasticism and carika/tudong.
Monastic Rules Overview
Before we get started I wanted to give a quick overview of monastic rules to provide some context to my narrative. Monastics cannot ask, or even hint, at something they want or need, to anyone except family members. Monastics have to rely on the generosity of others for their requisites(food, shelter, clothing, medicine) and cannot ask anyone directly for anything, unless the person offers by saying something like ” what do you need/do you need anything/what can I get you?”
Monastics cannot so much as pick a berry from a bush or an apple from a tree, or one fallen on the ground. About the only thing we can freely take without asking is water, water that isn’t a commodity that is.
Monastics cannot accept and eat food past solar noon, which would be about 12:15.
I can rely on only what i’ve brought with me, and the generosity of others, whatever I forget to bring, I have to live without, unless someone offers to support me.
Day 1 (Monday July 8th 2019)
Monday morning I woke up around 6:30am, had a small bowl of cereal, made the short video below explaining what I was about to do and what I was taking with me, and headed out the door.
As I begun to walk, the sky began to darken. From the last time I checked a weather report I had expected for the day to be hot and dry, but as the first drops began to trickle down I knew I would put my umbrella to good use that day. I was walking down main street in Toms River and saw my reflection in the mirror, so I figured I’d take a shot so people could see my setup.
I walked with both bags “contra-slung” , each over the opposite shoulder, and the umbrella slung over my back. I had done around eight 12 mile practice walks here at Bhavana(there is a 12 mile circuit that Bhante G and others walked in the past) refining my setup(how to wear my robe, what to take, how to pack etc) and training my body. I knew the hilly up and down 12 miles at Bhavana was good training for the flat terrain and long miles I would be traversing in NJ.
I walked at a relaxed pace with no particular time frame or destination in mind. I was determined to let the path unveil itself before me. The plan regarding pindapat(collecting alms food) was to stop at various places along the way all morning until solar noon, this would give me plenty of time and a multiple places I could attempt to stop at.
Ancient Tradition, Modern World
My first stop was around 8am ish at a 7-11 near main street. In speaking with a monastic about her experiences doing this, she reported that they would go to a supermarket or convenience store and go inside to ask the manager permission to hang out in the parking lot, and this usually worked out well. I walked inside and asked for the manager or a supervisor on duty, but when I spoke to the supervisor he said that he could not give me permission as his manager was not here. I thanked him and moved on.
By this point it had begun to rain, and so I took out my umbrella and it stayed in my hand keeping me *mostly* dry, for the rest of the day. My robes became, and stayed, damp, my feet soaked, sandy and muddy. The day topped off at 80 degrees, muggy, humid, and wet, nothing I had not experienced many times before, so It did not bother me much at all, nor dampen my spirits.
That begun to happen after my second attempt at asking permission, this time at a Wawa around 9am. I went in and asked to speak to the manager or shift supervisor. I explained who I was, what I was doing, and what I was asking permission for, I explained that I could not solicit, or ask people for anything, so I would not be approaching any customers, merely just being in the parking lot, not even near the door. The woman seemed to be empathetic and understanding, but said she was not allowed to give any kind of permission as this would need to go through corporate(like with girl scouts or veterans organizations set a table up outside).
Understanding that this permission would take probably longer then my whole wandering, I thanked her and moved on after using the restroom.
The idea I had was to be a “novel presence” in the parking lot, for people to see me and wonder ” what the.. who is this?” and then approach. Or to confuse me with someone begging for money and try to put money in my bowl, from which I would explain that I cannot accept money, just food(this happened a few times in Blistered feet, Blissful mind, so I figured maybe..).
After this second time I realized that it would be basically a waste of time asking for permission from big company places, I figured I’d probably have better luck at mom and pop places. I passed a few other places but was quite gun-shy, maybe afraid of rejection( the mind states arising reminded me of my youth and situations regarding asking women out on dates and rejection, which is not very good for morale haha!) , perhaps getting a little tired and wet and not wanting to go through the whole rigmarole. The thought occurred to me that perhaps even just asking, knowing I’d never get permission, could be an opportunity for someone to overhear and offer, but I think I felt it not worth the hassle , so I didn’t stop at corporate places anymore except to use the restroom.
At one point I stopped by a big strip mall that held the new office of my old CPS county department. It has been nearly 5 years since I left, but I did stop by two years ago and figured since I was walking past I’d say hello to whomever I knew was still there. I spent about 40 minutes speaking with the security guard and the few workers still left in this office whom I worked with for years.
They had seen me in my robes before when I came for a visit, so that was not a surprise. However when I told them what I was doing, they looked at me askance with questioning faces. One jokingly said with a smile ” Seriously? good luck doing that in Jersey”. I said goodbye and that I would probably stop by again on my way back in a few days if I was out that long.
Being in the strip mall gave me an idea. There was no one I could easily ask permission to be in the parking lots at strip malls, and they would often offer multiple places to procure food, and attract people coming to eat, so from that point on I gave up on places where one company owned the whole property they were on, and concentrated on strip malls only.
I stopped at one such place with a grocery store and multiple small mom and pop places. I found a place at the back of the parking lot that was a heavily trafficked area and I stood there with my bowl. I stood for probably a half hour and 20+ cars passed, but not one person rolled down their window and asked me who I was and why I was standing out in the rain like an idiot, so I moved on.
Some may be asking “why didn’t you just go up by the doors!”. There were multiple reasons I did not do that. The first was that I did not want to cause any confrontations or problems with the business owners. I also thought about my role as a representative of Buddhism, something very alien and unknown in these parts. I did not want to bother the customers and come off too much like a beggar. I was trying to preserve the good image of a monastic in my mind, for what it’s worth.
I even did not actively try to make eye contact with people who drove/walked by, because I did not want to induce any kind of feeling of pressure or of them having to approach or help me because they got “caught”( you know that feeling!, like a minor form of coercion). Later in my journey a thought arose in me that perhaps I could have gone up to the buildings, if there was a gap between places and it was not in anyone’s way or blocking walking traffic, something to try for next time.
In the end I felt like there was a trick or a simple solution that I just was not seeing. My thoughts on the matter were about what I could not see in my ignorance, rather then why other people were not doing what I expected at least a few of them to do.
It was during these times of attempting to gain alms that anxiety arose in me and I was prone to lean towards being the least bothersome and intrusive. Contrary to what some may think, I’m actually a pretty agreeable(as in the big 5 temperament aspect scale) and conflict avoidance type person, which at times where assertiveness is needed can be a detriment. I found it funny because in most of my experiences in the later times of my life, I had grown to be assertive and confident, its quite rare that this side of me comes out anymore, but it certainly did in this situation.
I think it was because I was immersed in chaos, the unknown, I was outside of my comfort zone, my normal life experience, and was treading slowly and carefully. I had more anxiety about the process of procuring food, then about whether I actually had food or not. Not once in my journey, once I got into the thick of it, did I actually have a clear worry about food in my mind(which I was quite surprised at to be honest), but the process of getting it was exhausting for me mentally.
So back to the narrative. I attempted a few more times at strip malls along the way, always with an eye for the best place to be in the parking lot that afforded me the most traffic and visibility, but the pattern repeated itself, no one so much as stopped to even ask a question, and so it turned out that I was unable to procure any food that day in my travels. I kind of have to admit a little sense of relief that came over me when the time passed and I didn’t have to think about food for the rest of the day. This surprised me but at that point I had no fear at all of not having food that day, nor was I very hungry, once or twice I had a pang but it was short lived.
Take care of your feet
It was in the early afternoon that I started developing some issues with my sandals and feet, after five hours of being wet and muddy and the sandals slipping around I started noticing the feelings on my toes of rubbing that hurts, I looked down at my feet and saw blood. This was a bit of a surprise for me because it was not the normal issues of blisters under the toes, but the rubbing raw of skin on the top of my right pinky toe, and to a lesser extent my left big and pinky toes. This issue had not come up in my training(important lesson to learn, often what happens is what you DON’T expect/train for). I think the small particles of sand and dirt enhanced the abrasiveness as well as the sandal slipping and moving around due to being wet. It was at that point where I really wished I had brought a few band-aid and I realized I forgot my tick removal device.
The main wound on my right pinky toe alternated between bloody and blistery for the rest of my travels that day, and every step was pain. I loosened the straps on my sandals to minimize the rubbing, I cleaned my feet as best I could from the mud, and avoided puddles. This left me with footwear , and footing, that was less firm and more floppy, which meant I had to be very careful when crossing roads and places that could cause a slip up to lead to harm. It also slowed me down a little, but was worth it for the diminished pain and to allow the blister to form without being ruptured. It was at that point I knew these sandals needed to be retired.
(Here are some pictures of my feet at the end of the night)
I’ll Have a Water Please!
I learned I had to keep a sharp eye out for possible places I could fill my water bottle. I had remembered in the old days at places like 7-11 and Wawa you could flip the little white button and get water at the soda fountains. Turns out I’m an old man and behind the times because now these days its all fancy all in one digital display machines. I even looked in the menues to see if I could just get water, but I saw nothing but Dasani and other bottled water. While water is one of the only things a monastic does not need to ask for without taking, a brand company water like deer park and Dasani would not count, that would definitely count as theft so it was a no go for me.
I thought to myself where I could possibly find the old style water fountains like at schools and parks. I stopped at a park along the way but there was not a single water fountain to be found in this park, even by the playgrounds. I thought to myself I should keep an eye out for places like Home Depot that have rest rooms as they may be there. I found a Walmart and went to the rest room, lo and behold there was a water fountain! It felt like I had just found the fountain of youth and happily filled up my whole water bottle, knowing my days journey was almost over and the water I had should last me until my traveling tomorrow.
A Chance Encounter
During my travels on day one I noticed a few people in cars taking a picture of me on their phone. I had one person stop and ask if I needed a ride. He saw some guy walking in the pouring rain and decided to help, which was kind of him. That happened a few times during my travels.
In the afternoon around 2:30 or so a young gentleman in his early to mid 20s named Jesse pulled over the side of the road and ran across towards me, he said ” are you a Buddhist?” and I responded that yes I was a Buddhist monk. He stated that he had suspected that was the case and exclaimed at how unexpected a site I was in this area. He told me that he had been to a monastery up in New Hampshire(Temple Forest) before and had heard of Bhavana Society from an anagarika(monastic postulate) there ,whom I know from my retreats at Buddhist Insights in NYC, a small world I thought.
Jesse asked if he could offer me anything and I said thank you but since it was past the proper time for eating I could not accept anything. I explained to him that I was walking down Rt 9 towards Manahawkin and he said that he would look for me tomorrow morning. This was all in the rain so it was a fairly short encounter.
I thought about Jesse and how he had grown up just 10 miles south of me, and has the same experience I did, a Buddhist in a land of no Buddhism. As I always say I was the only Buddhist I knew in my daily life until I moved to the monastery to become a monk.
After meeting Jesse I admit my spirits were lifted. He was the only person who approached me the whole day and I had been hoping for some kind of encounter with people akin to what I had read and heard about from other monastics. The thought also occurred to me that at the very least if I strike out for food in the strip malls tomorrow , if Jesse came through and was able to find me in time I may be able to have some sustenance. I felt deeply appreciative, grateful and relieved for his kindness and determination to help me.
Home for the Night
Shortly after my chance meeting with Jesse I came to the place I would stop for the night. It was the first area on my journey where woods were readily available to stay in as the miles I had walked from Toms River to here were quite populated and sparsely forested.
I would sleep in the woods by a Wawa convenience store that I had personal significance with. I was in Forked River/Lacey Township, and almost 20 years ago I had worked there when I was young and married, for it was in Forked River that I lived those four years I was with Jackie before her death. It was where my brother and sister in law and various nieces and nephews still lived. I technically could of had multiple places to stay in that small town with a big heart, but I purposely did not announce my carika or tell anyone because I wanted to rely as much as possible on the generosity of people I didn’t know. I felt at home as I went past the wawa and into the wooded area near a lake and walking paths. I felt like Forked River had already taken care of me by finding Jesse.
I searched to find a spot that would not be very visible to anyone who may be walking by, and I found one. It’s only down side was that it was near a stream, as I try to avoid any kind of standing water to minimize being feasted on all night. I was not too worried about mosquitoes though, my main concern as always was ticks, but I’ll admit I was too tired to worry too much about either as I tied a rope between two trees and setup my tube tarp, as seen in these next two pictures:
Once I stopped for the day I really began to notice the days tole on my mind and body. I had walked 12 miles in around 8 hours, almost all in the rain, stopping along the way to try and do pindapat or to use the restroom and refill my water. In addition to the bloody blisters on my feet, the dampness and humidity had started to develop some rashes on my skin, particularly in places where the skin rubs against itself or against robes. I lay there in my tarp wanting to fall asleep but also not wanting to, but that dilemma was solved when after laying there for an hour or more I could not fall asleep.
I was sore and wet and mentally checking off all the boxes of unpleasant sensations I was experiencing. When many small things combine and compound , they can add up against your ability to endure, which I felt I was doing well enough as none of this was a new experience to me.
Admittedly I noticed my mind was mildly grumpy and aversive. In that mind state my resolve weakened slightly, I had thoughts of calling it done, wondering how much more I could take if this was all in the first day. But I stuck to my policy of never making major decisions in mind states like this, as those mind states will pass and you may regret making the decisions while being influenced by said mind states.
There was something else I noticed however.. I also felt lighthearted and content. I got up and went out of the little copse of trees I was camping in. There was a bench overlooking a lake and the sun was starting to get low over it. So I saw there on the bench, alternating between watching the sun go down, and meditating.
When it was around 8pm I decided to go back and try to sleep for the night. When I was returning through the copse to my tent I came across this only 15 feet from my tarp :
I initially thought it was a deer skull, but then a thought arose ” you ALWAYS think its a deer skull because thats mostly the only animal you see”. Im not sure I know WHAT animal that was, and I could see some people being freaked out about a big skull, especially with its mouth wide open like that. I saw no other bones so I was a bit curious how it got there.
I actually had the thought arise in me to figure out some way to take it back to Bhavana! Maybe its the anthropologist in me, but ancient man used these skulls as totems and the like, so I thought it was really cool and considered it auspicious, like my protector. I had a similar experience when I lived in Sacca Kuti at Bhavana, where I was cleaning the area and found a cool deer skull with antlers, that I promptly placed on stones at the head of the path leading to Sacca.
I got back to my tarp and laid down. I used my sangati(3rd outer robe/cloak) inside my red bag as a pillow and went to sleep. I woke up once or twice in the night to urinate and noticed the night had become chilly and I was cold enough that my teeth were chattering lightly, I laid back down in the fetal position, put my robe around me as a blanket, an went back to sleep.
(here is my day 1 summary video taken after setting up my tarp around 3:30pm)
Day 2 ( Tuesday July 9th 2019)
On the Road Again
I woke up about 5:30am. I felt surprisingly fresh and energetic, mentally peaceful and content. My robes and bags were still wet and damp from the day before and the morning dew adding to that dampness, but I suspected it would dry off later. I packed up, slung my bags over my shoulders, and got on the road around 6:00. A new day with new possibilities was ahead of me. I expected heat and humidity later on, but now it was cool with a slight breeze.
I started to walk and then the familiar pain in my feet reminded me of their condition from the day before. I kept my sandal strap around my toes as loose as they could be and figured perhaps I could use napkins from the Wawa as a covering between my feet and my sandals. So I put a napkin around the edge of my foot and started walking. It definitely helped with the abrasion but as I had suspected, it was not stable and the napkins fell out. I tried the napkins again but with the strap fully tightened, but even that didn’t work after a time, so I gave up on trying to MacGyver some system and just kept my straps loose, reminding myself to be slow and mindful at every crossing or anywhere I may need to move quickly to avoid injury.
This slowed me down and gave me a certain gait to my walk, but I made good progress as I went along. I began the process of looking for strip malls to stop at. I knew that from here on in until I turned around to start coming back, I would have progressively less options as there was less population spread out along the road and most of the activity of the main towns i’d be going through today was centered away from Rt 9, which in the old days was the only road before the 1950s interstate program brought in the Garden State Parkway(hence most of the stores and major places were closer to that end then Rt 9). Still in my mind I had remembered possible places to stop if needed from years back, if they were still around, little oasises in a desert of green.
I was actually not hungry, and thoughts arose in my mind that I could probably be ok going even the whole four days without food if need be. It was a real eye opener for me that I could be fine and not hungry after all I’ve done, a good lesson in knowing that I can go days without food, something to remind myself with when I’m back at the monastery and my mind is acting like I’m starving because I didn’t get enough protein or food to eat etc.
I stopped at one strip mall and stayed for a time before departing, again not having any contact. At this point I started to develop the idea that it may be better to try and stay longer periods at one place, even a few hours, but I also did not want to “put all my eggs in one basket” as it were, so for this trip at least I never stayed more then 45 to an hour at any one place, although I do believe staying for 2-3 hours in one place is a tactic I will try in future carika, as it may be the best way to go about things.
As always I would try to find the most visible place in the parking lot prone to having the most traffic pass by. I knew people were less likely to want to approach me while in their cars, then if they were walking towards a store, but I also had in my mind seeing people begging with signs on the side of the road in many places and people opening up their car window to speak with them and maybe give them something, so I figured I’d continue with this a bit more.
As I was coming into Barnegat Township I noticed a strip mall that had a Wawa as well as a few other food places and decided to stop. It was at a very busy intersection and there were dozens of cars going by and many people coming in and out. I think this was around 9:00am. I saw something that gave me a glimmer of hope, an auspicious sign perhaps. In a prominent and wide open corner of the strip mall, with the roads not 30 feet behind, was a wooden square platform that to me looked suspiciously like meditation platforms I’ve seen so many times before. Who knows what it actually was, maybe covering a sewer? I don’t know, but I decided this would be a good place for me to sit for a time.
In my previous strip mall attempts I had stood with my bowl in my hands. I figured it was better visibility to stand and there were no good places to sit(especially in the rain and mud yesterday), although staying in one spot standing with bowl for a long time felt awkward and standing long periods gets wearying.
This time I figured since the weather was good, a platform was available, and with so many people (dozens if not hundreds if I stayed long enough) crossing by, this would be a good place to sit and meditate with my bowl out, to be a bit more comfortable staying a longer period, so that is what I did, as seen by the picture below:
As I meditated with my eyes closed I heard the sound of cars passing in front and behind me. I heard not a word from anyone, nor did any cars stop or anyone approach. I determined that I should probably stay as long as I could here, if anything it would be a good spot for Jesse to see me if he was out looking this early.
I ended up staying about 45 minutes to an hour. I tried to stay longer, but it was starting to get hot, I was a bit antsy, I felt I’d like more time to find other places, lots of things that coalesced into me making the decision to move on. I decided to take my chances with the unknown and see what unfolded.
Heat, Humidity, and Sweat
The heat and humidity were definitely rising at this point. I started to sweat and my rashes from yesterday started to become more inflamed as skin rubbed against skin and damp robes rubbed against skin. It was around 10:00 that I started having to alter my walking gait even more, making myself more bow-legged to minimize chaffing and rubbing.
I also made sure that my bag straps were fully spread out over my shoulders and not bunched up, I did whatever I could do to minimize the affects and creating more issues. As I walked I also tried to stay in the shade as much as I could. Once again I had had experience with these issues from my lay life past, and was not something unexpected to me, I knew what I could do to minimize my issues.
With both my feet issues and now chaffing rash issues, I would have been quite a funny sight to see walking like that had I been wearing pants, although I believe the robes hid most of that from others. I walked like that for the rest of the day and it definitely hindered my normal walking speed greatly.
I also started to realize that I would be going through my large 48 oz water bottle pretty fast as I was walking in what was to become a 90+(“feel” like 96) degree day with close to 100% humidity. I had to be extra vigilant on keeping hydrated and looking for places to fill my water bottle.
Bad Boys Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do
It was also around 10 that I was walking along the road and from behind me I heard “Hello Sir”. I turned around and there was a police officer about 10 feet behind me with his squad car parked about 20 feet behind him. Thinking back now I understand why, but at the time I was a bit surprised I heard or sensed nothing of this mans arrival, my situational awareness is pretty honed , but here this officer was.
I walked up to him and said hello. He told me that someone was driving down Rt 9 and called in a police report that a guy walking down the road had a rifle slung to his back. It was obvious to the officer almost immediately that I had an umbrella , not a rifle, so he was quite calm. I turned around to show him my umbrella.
Originally the umbrella had a sheath that had a strap, but it broke that morning and I used a monastic sash as a strap for the umbrella so it hung on my back. Knowing how faulty human perception is, I did not feel it a stretch that someone driving 40 mph and seeing me in their view for a second , if that, may have in their vision appear a rifle in the place of an umbrella(similar things have happened to me in my own experience.. you cannot trust that your perception is showing you reality, hence why we have delusion, along with greed and hatred).
Once the officer saw the umbrella I immediately told him that I was a Buddhist monk that was wandering through the area. He asked me for my contact information, which I felt weird at first, and informed him I live out of state, but he asked for that and I gave it. He said thank you and offered me a nice day. I turned around to start walking and about 4 feet behind me was another officer, again I had had no clues that this other officer arrived and it was as if he appeared out of thin air for me. We nodded to each other and I continued on my journey.
The Wawa At The End of the Rainbow
I now began to see the familiar signs that told me I was entering Manahawkin. I had arrived this far, close to the end of my 20 mile ranging area, earlier then expected and it was around this time I started to think I would reach the end and start heading back before stopping to camp for the night. I had started to keep an eye out for possible spots in the woods and saw some promising spots walking through Barnegat, but I also kept my eyes out now as well.
I passed a few places along the road that reminded me of families and cases I had in my old CPS career. I had definitely not expected this journey to have some life reflection and memories , even in the midst of “survival” as it were, but since I turned 40 I’ve noticed my mind being very prone to reflecting on my past(is this why people have a “mid life crises” I wonder?).
Now began the true “green desert”. The last 3-4 miles with essentially no places to stop even to find water, just woods and some residential houses, and no shade. This situation I am not sure if I had actually remembered, I think I may of either assumed it wasn’t as long (driving it in the past..) or there were more places to stop. I had begun to sweat profusely by that point and drank down my water to keep hydrated as much as I could, knowing the dangers of dehydration.
It was a brutal slog, and it was getting later in the day, so thoughts and worries occasionally entered my mind that Jesse may not find me in time. I had not eaten for close to 30 hours by that point, but I was actually not hungry at all and can’t remember even the slightest of hunger pangs that whole day.
The road seemed to stretch on forever, my water was dwindling, the temperature rising, I kept thinking “oh thats right, its just right up the road now” a few times. My mental and physical state I suspected had been going downhill for a little while, but now they were certainly deteriorating. I did not know if i’d get any food, nor how much farther I’d be able to take this carika, or any of the many uncertainties, but I knew I needed to focus on getting to that wawa at a minimum just to be able to fill my water bottle, rest, and think about the next step.
During this section , as I got closer to the local high school, which the Wawa was right next to, I had two encounters with young teenage boys in their trucks. Both times they were screaming something out the window to me, but they must not of understood that words coming out of a 30mph moving vehicle are not going to reach me intelligibly. The second truck(these were two incidents separated by about 20 min) I heard nothing, but the first truck I only heard one word, it was a word I had not been called by a person since I was a teenage boy myself that begins with the letter P.
When retelling this part of my story later I joked that they must of thought I looked fabulous in my stylish robes and hat, but the person I was speaking to said their impression was the boys thought I was a cross dresser. This reminded me of the multiple times people thought Bhante G was a little old lady during his years in America and I got a good laugh out of it.
I finally made it to the Wawa, 23 miles from where I started the morning before. As I entered the air conditioned store it was like I found an oasis, a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
While in the rest room I went to refill my water bottle in the sink, previously during my journey I had come up with a problem being that I was limited in what I could fill my water bottle with because it was too big to fit under sinks, hence the looking for water fountains. I had thought perhaps It would have been better to bring the smaller bottle I normally use, but looking back with how hard it was to get water I’m glad I was able to take the bigger one to carry more.
I was so desperate for water I didn’t really care that it came from a bathroom sink, and a thought came to my mind that if the bottle couldn’t fit in the sink this time then I could fill my bowl with water and drink from that, as well as fill up my large water bottle from my bowl, that monastic bowl can be a handy thing to have!
I was amazingly surprised, however, that the sink was just big enough for me to put my 48oz bottle under, and amazed at my luck to find a place with such a big sink. I had previously stopped at this wawa many times during my career so it was already a fond place, but now I felt it was sent from the devas. When you are in a situation like that, the little things can bring so much gratitude and appreciation.
It was about to get even better for as I walked out of the restroom I heard “Bhante”, and there was Jesse. He had brought me some food from home and also got me a small sub from the deli. I stood there for a time and spoke with him about Dhamma and Buddhism.
Jesse said ” you got stopped by the police eh?” and I laughed and wondered how he knew. He told me that he had made a post about me on facebook to make people aware I was wandering, that if they saw me to offer food and help as I cannot ask. He said that the post became very popular and many people posted their sightings of me and some were saying they would be going out to look for me.
One person posted that they heard on the police scanner about me being stopped for having a rifle, so that was how he knew, a small world. I told Jesse that I did start to notice more beeping and picture taking today then I had yesterday, and also relayed to him the experience I had with the two trucks of boys.
We parted ways and he said he would look for me again tomorrow, which part of me felt relieved about, but also another part of me felt that I should still try to meet others and do pindapat even if I was less inclined to due to Jesse’s support. Either way I was very grateful for the chance encounter on this trip of meeting him, and his support.
Show Me The Way To Go Home
I now began my walk back through the “green desert”. My mind was lifted from my meeting and procuring food, but my body was still a wreck, as it was back to my bow legged loose sandal crab-style walk. Time was getting short so I stopped in the grass by the woods on the side of the road to eat. I was still surprised that after all I’d done the last two days, I wasn’t really hungry. This would be one of the few times in my life I really ate with no craving, but as we chant daily ” simply to maintain the health of this body”.
I ate half of my sub and it tasted amazing (then I had craving for the taste of a good sub arise), I think my body really needed those salts and nutrients. I also tried to pick at some of the other food. I tried to be aware of mindfully and slowly eating, so I don’t feel like I ate that half a sub too fast, although I might of, it was around this time that I started to get small subtle hints that it was getting hard to think, hard to concentrate, the ability to be mindful was getting farther and farther away, although it had not fully dawned on me yet.
One way or another I very quickly felt bloated and “bla” in my stomach. I was reminded of all those days I’ve spent in the heat where I was never really hungry, almost like my body had trouble processing food in extreme heat and exercise situations. I figured I would get up and walk for a time and then sit down again later to finish more food before time was up.
Now it was seriously beginning to get hot and humid, I continued to sweat profusely and drank my sink water mightily, even though my stomach wasn’t feeling too good. I had not noticed any promising places to hang out in the woods for the night in Manahawkin that had a convenience store close, and since it was still 2-3 hours before I wanted to stop for the day, I figured I’d make my way back towards Barnegat, towards one of the promising spots i’d seen, and closer to some Wawas and strip malls to be able to refill my water and go to the bathroom. I even had spotted a restaurant I kept in mind in case I needed to go in there and ask if I could get my bottle refilled.
I stopped one more time in the desert to have a little food, and then out of the desert a strip mall had a nice row of trees that provided shade over the sidewalk, so I decided to stop there to finish eating whatever I could get in my stomach for that day. It was a cool and comforting spot, and I wanted to stay there for a long time, but I was glad for the break and knew I needed to move on. I had definitely not been able to finish all the food I was given, but I felt bad about the prospects of throwing it away(monks can’t hold on to or store food over night), I figured I’d hold on to it in case I was able to give the food away to someone or something of that nature.
At this point in the journey it was a matter of walking and keeping an eye out for where I’d stop for the night. I was taking way more breaks and moving ever more slowly in this part of my wandering then I had before.
I was also having trouble finding places to refill my water(which was draining fast) as usual, but then I noticed this nice shaded gazebo area that was a little memorial park and I really needed a break, so I stopped to sit in the gazebo and rest. I searched around the area and found a water fountain! My mind praised the good thinking of the people of this town for putting a water fountain there and I greedily filled up my bottle and drank my fill. I wanted to have a full water bottle, or at least half of one, when I stopped for the night so I could drink while stopped and also have some water in case I needed it for the start of the journey in the morning.
While I lay there in the gazebo I had thoughts of literally just going to sleep here, staying here for the night. I did not want to get up and go back out into the sun again, but to sleep. My main issue was that I did not want to sleep in any public areas for fear of having the police or someone come and tell me I can’t sleep there for the night, so after a time I got back up and waddled away.
Nature Is A Harsh Mistress
After stopping to rest and keeping an eye out for places to setup camp, I came across this clear opening into the woods and it looked from the road to be a good flat place to stop. One of the roughest parts about woods in New Jersey, at least by the shore areas, is that they are just full wall to wall of brambles. Unless you have a machete, which of course I did not (nor as a monk can I harm plant life), you are stuck with trying to get around , you cannot go through.
Going through is rough , because you have to manipulate and maneuver, and the brambles catch you and don’t let go. One of my stops to eat earlier in the day was actually inside the woods, and to get there I got caught up on brambles 4-5 times, including my robe being wrapped up twice over on one bramble. It was like a puzzle game to get yourself unstuck from these brambles.
By this time in the day, around 2pm, I had looked at a few spots, but passed on each for a variety of reasons, proximity to water, not enough clear land, too many brambles, unable to get in the woods etc.
I came up though to an opening in the woods that had been cleared out. I noticed from various garbage like cans and paper that it had definitely been inhabited by people at some time in the past. A part of my mind was warning me about being wary of things that come too easy, as I know there is usually some kind of a catch, but I was too exhausted and mentally drained to be too worried about that, I was pretty apathetic actually.
I walked down into the woods and saw a nice spot so I setup my tarp and mat and plopped down to rest. I almost immediately noticed the abundance of these yellow flies that liked to suck blood. They were quite persistent but I had dealt enough with mosquitoes in the past, and I was sufficiently apathetic, that they didn’t bother me too much.
I went to pee and noticed my urine was quite a dark brown color, which I immediately recognized as a sign of dehydration, but I was confused as I felt I had drank a sufficient amount of water that day, at the time I guess I couldn’t compare that with the amount of liquids I had lost, It didn’t come to mind.
I also noticed that I was closer to stagnant water then I suspected, I noticed a stagnant pond I had not seen when I find came in and setup camp. This solved my wondering about these yellow bugs. I then decided to make my end of day two wrap up video:
Afterwards I was laying down and those yellow blood suckers kept coming. My experience in the woods with mosquitoes usually shows me that you hang out, give them metta, they take their fill and then go away, but these yellow flies were amazingly persistent and even my metta and patience were starting to fail.
At least a dozen had fed by the time I brought up enough desire to put my robe around my body like a blanket, even with the heat. I had every part of my skin covered except my face, and I had my hat on trying to cover as much of that, but they were so persistent they were going for my face and the back of my head, so I decided to give up my hands, the back of which have plenty of veins, in sacrifice to these bugs. They swarmed my hands and I tried to practice metta, but the words were jumbled and my concentration non existent.
It was a battle between my exhaustion and apathy, and a desire to do something, that was almost instantly ended once I started noticing the ticks. There were ticks both inside and outside my tarp, I think it was by the 4th or 5th tick spotted that I realized I needed to move , apathy and exhaustion be damned.
When I got up to start decamping, I felt very dizzy, another sign I recognized, it was at that point that I had strong suspicions of the condition I was in, and had my first thoughts that I would probably be ending my carika early.
The End is Nigh
I got up and started walking again. At this point as I walked I started to analyze my condition and put together all the small signs I had barely noticed along the way.
It was obvious to me now that I was very dehydrated, regardless of how much water I thought I drank. I knew dehydration was serious, but I knew what I also suspected I had was just as serious.
In the last years of my lay life, post weight loss surgery, I had become an exercise and endurance event junkie. It was during one of these events, a military endurance event called a Goruck Challenge, that I first experienced what I would later find out to be hyponatremia, or a severe lack of sodium in the blood/body. I had seen many of the signs today that I came to know from my endurance days : loopy muddle-mindedness, dizziness, apathy, lethargy. It’s a state that I compare to with being drunk.
Not to get too far afield, but I figured it may be helpful to understand the situation I was in :
“Sodium is an essential electrolyte that helps maintain the balance of water in and around your cells. It’s important for proper muscle and nerve function. It also helps maintain stable blood pressure levels.
Insufficient sodium in your blood is also known as hyponatremia. It occurs when water and sodium are out of balance. In other words, there’s either too much water or not enough sodium in your blood.”
Hyponatremia signs and symptoms may include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of energy, drowsiness and fatigue
- Restlessness and irritability
- Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
Causes of low sodium include:
- drinking too much water during exercise (this is very rare)
Hmm.. low sodium can be caused by dehydration, yet also be caused by drinking TOO much water.. was it the chicken or the egg for me?
Now how about dehydration ?
“It’s important to monitor for signs of dehydration. These can include:
- Feeling thirsty
- Dry mouth, tongue or skin
- Muscle cramps
- Feeling “low energy”
- Tiredness or lethargy
- Decreased urine output or dark, concentrated urine
- Dizziness or fainting
- Rapid heartbeat or breathing
- Confusion or disorientation
As you can see, both seem to be connected in many ways, including sharing many of the same symptoms, of which I had :
- Loss of energy, drowsiness and fatigue
- Restlessness and irritability
- Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
- Tiredness or lethargy
- Decreased urine output or dark, concentrated urine
- Dizziness or fainting
- Confusion or disorientation
So now you got a glimpse into what was going through my head, examining symptoms, self-diagnosing. I essentially needed lots of Brawndo, or at least Gatorade. Probably also a bunch of beef jerky would of helped , something which ended up becoming my go-to fixer upper food for this kind of situation in my Goruck days. Not only was I sweating out my sodium, I think drinking the amount of water I did also helped dilute it, even though it was not enough water to stay hydrated.
I was in a real catch 22 situation, and I began to see the writing on the wall as I walked, but I was not ready to admit it yet. It was about 5pm now as I walked, my rashes inflamed, robes wet from sweat, I was tired of the sun and wanted to get out of it, at least to rest and think about my next move, perhaps where I would stay for the night, etc.
I came upon a large strip mall with a Big Lots store and decided to go around back to get in the shade. It was nice and cool back there with a good breeze. I even noticed two gates in the back fence then lead into the woods behind. I scoped them out briefly as possible places for me to stay, and then went and laid down against the building on the concrete.
Alright, now it was time to think, but thinking was very hard, my brain was drunk, but I knew I had to make a tough call. My mind was two sides battling for dominion.
One side was saying ” you’ve been here before, remember the Heavy? you are not in any condition to make rational good decisions, you are a danger to yourself right now, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do this another few days”
The “Heavy” was a 24 hour Goruck endurance event I attempted(after completing multiple 12 hour events successfully) that I had to be medically dropped from at hour 14. I was in a fairly similar situation mentally, and perhaps not quite as bad physically as I was those years ago, but pretty rough. I remember with sheer grit and determination pushing myself forward, not accepting defeat, and two former special forces cadre who were leading it trying to make me see that I was a danger to the team and myself.
It was hard for me to see that in the moment, but I trusted their evaluation, and when I had looked back then at some of the loopy decisions I had made in the last few hours, they were right. Now I was all alone, but I evaluated my actions of the past few hours.
I saw all the signs. Signs I had seen again multiple times in events and situations since then, even once or twice as a monastic climbing the mountain here I had low sodium, the situation I was in was not new to me. I knew that I could not trust my judgement.
But the other part of me did not want to hear any of it. It was saying ” now you have some support!, now people are even looking for you! do you want to disappoint them?
So I sat there in a stupor as the battle played out. At one point I did some further evaluating of my situation. I took out my phone and used the connection for the first time to check google maps. I could not find any obvious place for me to stop and refill my water for the next 4-5 miles, and the idea of walking that long now felt impossible, and disheartening.
The side of my mind that wanted to continue said ” well maybe you can sleep right here and continue on!” It was trying to convince me to continue, and I felt it had some valid points, even still confirming everything the other side said about my current condition. I tried to examine if there was any “ego” in me wanting to continue, and on the flip side any feelings of failure I may have that I wanted to avoid if I stopped. I couldn’t tell clearly one way or the other.
I thought this would be a good time to make a short video, maybe it would help make the decision more clear.
I had my phone in my hands from previously checking the google maps, and I put up my fathers number on the screen as the war raged on. The battle ended rather abruptly though, when I found my finger, almost as of it’s own accord, press the button.
It was weird, because I clearly remember not having come to any decision, nor having any clear intention ” ok i’ll call” before the finger touched the screen. It was almost like someone(devas?:P) had taken my hand and moved it, as opposed to something I did of my own volition, but just like that, for better or worse, my carika was over.
I had walked about 28 miles, stopped at around 10 strip malls, spent one night out in the woods , had one meal , and other then those first managers and the brief stop with my co-workers, only really spoke to one person the whole 36 hours of my Carika.
It was now Tuesday night, and I had until Friday morning to rest and recover before heading to NYC to lead my metta retreat. I had no fears that I would need to go to the hospital or anything like that. I knew I needed to hydrate, and salt up, and so that is what I did.
I got to the house and left all my bags outside, so as to not bring any ticks or bugs in the house. I essentially stripped my clothing and put them and my bags right in the wash. I wanted to minimize the amount of creatures I’d take into the home.
I ended up taking five ticks off my body over the course of the next few days, the last being when I was in NYC on Friday. I had showered and checked my body on Tuesday and removed one tick that I saw, but I think the others were quite small and were well attached enough that even showering didn’t do anything to them. I also found a tick on my bowl bag when I was going through my things outside.
I don’t know if these ticks were on me the whole time, or were somehow transferred from my bags to me while i was resting(the latter of which I find fairly implausible), but I suspected at least one had been sucking my blood for a day or longer.
When I returned to Bhavana after the retreat I went to the doctor the next day and she said that it was too early to do any lymes testing, but gave me a prophylactic dose of a medication that may stop something like lymes from growing if I did contract it. I also ended up having chiggers, a type of bug that burrows into the skin but doesn’t stay, it just leaves lots of itchy bumps on the skin, some of which I still have all these weeks later as I write. The doctor told me to keep an eye out for lymes symptoms in the next weeks and months and to return if I noticed any.
My urine remained quite dark until Thursday night, a full two days after I had ended the carika. I rarely had to pee that whole time and for the first time in ages I slept through a full nights sleep without having to get up to pee ( I AM getting old these days). I saw that as the bright side of my current condition, you know what they say, always look on the bright side of life! it could always be worse.
I got on facebook when I arrived home and messaged Jesse to inform him of what happened and that he no longer had to search for me anymore because I ended my carika. I also saw his facebook post and responded to some of the peoples questions as to who I was and why I was doing this silly thing.
Here is what Jesse wrote on his facebook:
“There’s a Buddhist monk walking up and down route 9 in ocean county until Thursday (I spotted him in Forked River); he’s easy to spot because he’s got a shaved head and wears red monastic robes. Dude can’t eat unless somebody offers him food before noon, so if you see him before noon, please offer him food (he’s probably a vegetarian) or let me know where you saw him. I spoke with him briefly earlier around 2pm and he didn’t get to eat at all yesterday. I plan on searching for him in the morning, so if you see him you can simply let me know where and I’ll go & feed him. Thanks. _
The next time I do this I decided it best to not do it in the hottest days. I knew I wanted it to be in the summer so I didn’t have to worry bout carrying anything extra to keep warm at night, but perhaps the best time to do it would be June or early September, where it is cooler but still manageable at night.
Next time I have to remember to bring a little baby powder for rashes and chaffing. I use to bring a little one on my endurance events but totally forgot what could happen like that. Also remembering to actually bring some band-aids and the tick remover that I had set on my desk to bring but totally forgot.
I think next time I should force myself to be more comfortable with spending longer periods of time at possible places I could receive food. This meaning possibly even spending multiple days at one food/camp location and not necessarily falling prey to the “there could be something better over the next hill” mentality. I also admit one of the biggest issues for me in staying in one spot for too long was the uncomfortable though of standing/sitting out in the sun/rain and waiting, even with meditating I had trouble thinking about spending 2-3 hours in one spot, it was just easier to hope and move on.
I also knew that if I had a longer time out there and became a bit more desperate, that I would have been more assertive in trying to get food. If I was hungry and desperate enough I probably would of risked altercations by getting closer to doors and the like. I probably still have a lot of ” getting over myself” when it comes to doing this.
In the end I suppose the whole journey was not very good in terms of surviving as a wandering monk, but I though the aspect of wanting to bring the image of a wandering monk to the people of my home county was pretty successful. I was probably seen by at least 1000 people during my carika, and peeked some interest in at least wanting to know what I was.
My sister , who lives in more urban central New Jersey, told me ” why did you go down there to do that! there are large Sri lankan, Indian and Asian communities in my town , you should of done it here and you would have been supported by people who actually knew what you were doing!”. But I said that to me that would in many ways defeat the purpose of me doing what I wanted to do.
I wanted to truly test surviving on the random and spontaneous generosity of others, without foreknowledge and not out of any feeling of duty or culture. I wanted to do this for, and with, the people of the county I grew up in, fully knowing that, like the person who wrote in the facebook post above ” I would have offered him something if I knew he could not eat”. To peak their curiosity, and give them something they’ve not seen before.
There were many factors that lead to this first carika of mine being how it was. Maybe you saw mistakes I made along the way? maybe you have ideas of what I should, or should not of done in any one situation? Especially if you are a monastic who has done carika/tudong, any feedback and advice would be greatly appreciated.
As I said before, I plan to do this again. This was my first time with many unknowns, so I didn’t have too many expectations, now I’ve learned and I think I will be better able to do it again in the future. A big thank you to my Forked River friend, Jesse, whose support helped greatly, and to all those who were keeping an eye out for me along the way. One Carika down, hopefully many more to go, before this life is through and/or the spiritual journey complete.