Daja Wangchuk Meston begins his memoir dramatically with a desperate leap from a third story hotel window in a remote area of Tibet. It’s a quick glimpse at a man pushed beyond his limits, unsure of his place in the world, and desperate beyond sense. When he jumped, he fully expected to die.
That was in 1999, and the author had been in the custody of Chinese authorities, suffering long days of interrogation with no sleep, accused of crimes against the People’s Republic of China for his work on behalf of Tibetan rights.
The memoir then leaves behind that awful, desperate step–a step that shattered his heels and his life (both of which would take years to mend)–and takes us back in time to his first steps as a toddler on the Greek island of Corfu. Daja was born to hippie parents (Feather and Larry Greeneye) who hoped to leave behind the commercialism of their own American upbringing. When he was one, his parents travelled to India on a whim, and then on to Nepal to attend a Buddhist retreat. It was there, in the mountains of Nepal, that the author’s father suffered a debilitating attack of paranoid schizophrenia and disappeared, only to emerge from the woods a week later, disheveled and incoherent. He was sent back to the states (alone) and did not see his son again until decades later.
When Daja was three years old, his mother inexplicably delivered him to a local family (Tibetan nobles, living in Nepal) to raise. For three years he believed they were his real family–until they sent him, alone, at the ripe old age of six, to a Buddhist monastery to take the vows of a monk.
A number of privileged Americans have gone (by choice) to monastic retreats, seeking solitude, respite, and peace. This might lead the innocent reader to assume that Daja’s upbringing took place in a peaceful, idyllic setting. The truth is, his childhood was far from idyllic. Thanks in part to his pale skin and blond hair, Daja was treated as an outcast both by his peers and adult monks alike. And the indignities he suffered over the next ten years were Dickensian in scope: sleep deprivation, forced labor, lice infestations, constant hunger, humiliation, beatings, dysentery, alienation and isolation.
He was further emotionally orphaned by a mother who chose, herself, to join the (different) monastic life of a Buddhist nun, shaving her head, wearing robes, and leaving the secular world behind (to include the responsibilities of parenthood).
At its core, this is the heartbreaking story of a lost childhood. It is the tale of one man’s lifelong search for identity, belonging, and the welcoming arms of family. And it is difficult to read this book and fathom what the young author endured without feeling angry on his behalf. But the adult Meston refuses to stay in a place of anger and self-pity, searching instead for a path toward understanding and forgiveness. Fortunately for all of us, the redemptive ending brings us full-circle, and–as the title implies–comes back around to peace.