22 March 2008


At Ellis Island, the Russian Jewish immigrant, Morris Medvedovsky, aware of the American penchant for short names, when asked his name at the hiring window, replied, 'Name's Med.' Smith was how the man heard it, as he seemed to hear a lot of other names, so yet another of that illustrious family was launched in America.

Bob Smith was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1939. He grew up in a middle-class, secular Jewish household. Coming of age in the early 60’s, the wanderlust bloomed in his blood, fueled by the time, and his own search for a more satisfactory life that the USA could offer him: the verities of the Eisenhower years imploding in the prophetic paeans to a missing vision conjured up by the poems of Allen Ginsburg and the novels of Jack Kerouac, then an assassinated President, Civil Rights, Vietnam, LSP, and all the rest, as America wrestled with the painful prospect of an existential adolescence.

By the time Bob Smith got his BA in English from Wayne State in “Detroit, then went to the Writer's Workshop in Ames, Iowa, he'd been involved in the Civil Rights movement, and his appetite to experience a more - if we can dissolve the patina on the word-'holistic' way of life, had been whetted by the best literature of that complaint. ‘The land of Opportunity offers opportunities I don’t seek' - Bob Smith.

So he set off to Europe, just about a half-step ahead of droves of other young Americans also jumping the reeling if not sinking ship of the, perhaps, fatally flawed American Dream. After an unexceptional year on the continent breathing in its world weariness, weight of history, and rich cultural claustrophobia he, skeptical idealism in tow, hied himself to the Promise Land, After a couple year on kibbutzim in the Galilee and the Negev, he ended up squatting on the then—undeveloped beach of Eilat, on the southern reach of Israel. The local gendarmes, in their wisdom, burnt out the 'beatnikim', and, on a trumped up charge, threw him in jail briefly and beat him up. When he got out, he still had some sore love for the land (he had seriously considered permanently settling at the Negev kibbutz, Ein Gedi), but he'd been disabused of any Zionist idealism and much affection for the State of Israel.

At this time he came into the possession of a slim, dog-cared paperback called The Way of the Compassionate Buddha. His ordeal with the Israeli police and the desertion of his Danish girlfriend at the same time no doubt made him a more sensitive reader, but it also struck a deep chord of destiny. In the Buddha's Teaching was the most trenchant explanation of the essential problem of the human condition, as well as a way to solve it, that he'd ever encountered. No overnight convert, he still had some thinking and experiencing to do, but the seed had been sown in him.

Leaving Israel, rucksack on his back, he headed overland to India. In Nepal the seed sprouted. From his sojourn in Katmandu he visited me in Shantini—ketan, Bengal, and, thence, to Calcutta, where, at a Buddhist monastery on December 18, 1966, he was ordained as Vináyadhára Sámanera, a novice Buddhist monk. (Vináyadhára means Keeper of the Discipline in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist scriptures. Sámanera means novice.)

As India wasn't a Buddhist country, his preceptor suggested he go to either Thailand or Sri Lanka to further his study and practice and to live the life in a more sympathetic environment. And so he did, in Sri Lanka, for the next five years.

The Path is not a straight one. At that point he felt his progress was obstructed by too much unfinished business to remain a monk. (By that time he had taken his higher ordination and was Ñánasuci Bhikkhu.) So he trekked back to India, then Nepal, where, in Katmandu, he disrobed.

He returned to the USA, but found it, as ever, a Land of Opportunity offering opportunities he didn't seek, and, after a few years, he hit the road again.

A year in a Guatemala village, where he could live a simple life, think, and write, shook him out of his stateside blues (almost shook him out of more than that in the earthquake of February, 1976), and he was soon winging back to Asia.

In Thailand he took the robe again and was ordained Bodhesako Sámanera, A line from Edward Albee's The Zoo Story explained it all, he explained: 'Sometimes you rave to go a long way out of your way to come back a short way.'

Bob once said to me he felt he was 'always moving toward Nepal'. It's not surprising that that portion of earth where Siddharta Gautama was born and died should have held such an attraction for him. And again it was in NepalKatmandu— that he unexpectedly died. He was 48 years old.

From Thailand Bob returned to Sri Lanka, where he lived the last six years of his life. When he died in Katmandu, after emergency intestinal surgery, he was on his way back to the USA to celebrate his father's 80th birthday and also to publicize a book he'd long labored on and finally electronic type-set and published himself. The book is called Clearing the Path and is a. compilation and annotation of the Buddhist philosophy writings and related letters of an English Buddhist monk, Ñánavíra Thera, who died in Sri Lanka in 1965. The discovery, or rather re-discovery, recognition, of Ñánavíra's unpublished writings by Vináyadhára in 1967, helped to clear the novice monk's path.

What I've tried to do in this pastiche of letters (written by Bob to myself or his father) is no more than to suggest a man and his search for meaning; what he may have found, or ghosts of what may be found. In no way does it purport to be a biography—or autobiography—in any other sense.

I've centered the narrative of the letters in Sri Lanka--now and then pulling from the past in other places—because it's there that he spent almost twelve years as a Buddhist monk. Much of that time he lived in a fashion which hasn't been seen in the West since medieval times when mendicant friars wandered through Europe. In his last years, he had simple but modern digs on the tea-estate of an English couple near Bandarawela in the southern highlands of Sri Lanka, where, along with his begging bowl and a few books he had the personal computer, which, with no instruction, he programmed for the difficult diacritical demands of Clearing the Path.

Bob was always up for a new mental challenge. Despite his deeming it necessary for himself to be cut off from much of the technological trivia that imprisons most people in the modern world, he kept as keen and curious an eye on science and technology as literature and philosophy, and politics, for that matter, although he considered that a minor vice. But the journalist, even war-correspondent, still perked a little in his blood, as a few of his lengthyletters describing Sri Lanka's communal strife clearly demonstrated.

When I think back to Bob on the road in the 60's, with Walden and Civil Disobedience in his rucksack, tinkling in my ear is a song he loved then: Bob Dylan's Tambourine Man.

'Though you might hear laughin', spinnin',
Swingin' madly 'cross the sun,
It's not aimed at anyone,
It's just escapin' on the run,
And but for the sky there are no fences farin‘.
And if you hear vague traces
Of skippin' heels of rhyme,
To your tambourine of time,
I wou1dn't pay it any mind,
It's just a shadow that you’re
Seein' that he's chasin'.'

A couple other quotes flicker through my head that the man said in a manner that made me suspect he'd realize them in his bones.

'The ability to give up what one would keep: that is freedom.’
Marianne Moore

'We don’t so much solve our problems as get over them.'
Bob Smith

So... to the story then... as Bob sometimes ended his letters: 'To begin at the beginning, as the White Knight instructed Alice....’

In this case, it's more like the middle.

Sooke, B.C.
September, 1989

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