Cook: The monk and the wrestler

Cook: The monk and the wrestler

April 28th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Before he lived alone in a hut in an English forest, speaking to no one for an entire year, Randy Weinberg, blue eyes the color of the sky, was a wrestler. A very, very good one.

Born in 1952, Weinberg went to Baylor School and wrestled his way to five Mid-South championships and one National Prep title. His mind was as disciplined as his body. Valedictorian at Baylor, he enrolled in Princeton, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, deferred entrance to medical school so he could travel to Oxford as a prestigious Rhodes Scholar.

Success was laid out before him like a red carpet.

Then he went to Thailand, where time spent in a forest monastery taught the championship wrestler that his real opponent was elsewhere.

It was within.

"I was 24," he said. "And felt so weary and exhausted. I didn't know how to appreciate what is. How to enjoy ... being. I was so busy becoming successful."

Like escaping a choke hold, Weinberg walked away from everything and became a Buddhist monk.

"It was a going down," he said.

That was more than three decades ago. Since then, Weinberg -- given the name Kittisaro ("worthy of honor") upon ordination -- has become a different champion of sorts, known within spiritual communities across the continents.

On the afternoon of the Boston Marathon bombings (neither of us knew at the time), Kittisaro and I sat at the lakeside home of his father, who is aging; Kittisaro has returned to Chattanooga to care for him.

"His body is so frail. It is a message, reminding me," he said. "I would not have had this life without my mother and father."

Out over the lake, geese flew by. Boats passed. Birds whistled in the yard above white flowers. In a calm voice, using simple words to talk about complicated things, Kittisaro spoke about becoming a monk, how to reduce 21st-century stress, and the troubles facing the New York Yankees.

"They've been decimated," he said.

(Even the Yankees suffer.)

Becoming a monk meant taking vows: celibacy, no intoxicants, no harm to any living thing.

"Even mosquitoes," he said. (Blow. Don't swat.)

Each day, he and other monks would walk through the village with their begging bowls. Villagers, admiring such spiritual work, shared bits of food.

"A pinch of rice. Half a banana. Leaves for a salad," he remembered.

Like Jacob struggling against the riverbank angel, Kittisaro wrestled with his spirit. He caught typhoid fever and almost died. It taught him that this championship-wrestler body of his was not invincible.

"All these things we think are? They are like a bubble," he said. "Pop, and it's gone."

He meditated for years on the in-out of his breath, which taught him about the nature of things.

"To appreciate the part of us that never dies and never sickens that is at the core of every moment," he said.

He left Thailand to help create monasteries in England; he lived for a year in a West Sussex forest, taking a vow of silence.

"It was one of the most magical years of my life," he said.

Kittisaro is not some hippie Peter Pan, floating and tossing silly words. Quite the opposite. He is perhaps the most alive, intriguing and honest person I have ever met. I left our conversation wondering and marveling: How does one become like him?

"He wanted more out of life than just academic accolades," said Dr. Herb Barks, the former Baylor headmaster.

Once, Barks invited Kittisaro back to campus, where the monk, in his robe and sandals, bowled students over by proclaiming: I own nothing.

"Kids went, 'Whoa,'" Barks remembered. "I had him back every year."

Kittisaro and Barks will join the current Baylor students on their upcoming senior trip. Kittisaro and his wife, Thanissara (she was a Buddhist nun; they both left the monastery in order to marry) run a hermitage in South Africa, where they also work in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and its devastation of the people there. He's also teaching at the Center for Mindful Living on McCallie Avenue.

"It's hard to be with our stressed selves. That's why we follow our addictions. This is suffering that needs to be understood," he said. "One begins by practicing."

As we spoke, more than once, he mentioned the Gospels, especially one particular verse.

"The kingdom of heaven is within," he said.

Sometimes, we must wrestle to find it.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.