“. . . whatever is true . . .”
I hope you will be as blessed as I am by Ryan Damon’s story, the story of a young man whose diligence and perseverance in seeking the truth are truly admirable.
I first met Ryan several years ago when his sister transferred from the public school to the small Christian school where I was teaching. Maura entered the school as a junior high student. I was her science and English teacher, and I would often stay after to give her extra help.
Ryan was attending the local community college. He would come to pick Maura up and would stick around to chat for a while. He was friendly and playful; I would never have guessed that under his jovial exterior lay a troubled young man.
After Ryan graduated, I didn’t see him for several years. Maura explained that he had joined a Buddhist monastery and wasn’t allowed to visit.
When I ran into Ryan at a grocery store years later, he gave me a big hug. He seemed to be overflowing with joy and told me that he was now going to church and trying to live Biblically.
I ran into him twice more at another store, and at a graduation party. Again, he was all smiles and exhibited such enthusiasm for his new faith. I invited him out for coffee so I could hear his story.
Ryan was raised in Mahopac, NY, in the Catskill Mountain region of the state. He was the youngest of four boys, until his sister was born when he was 9 years old. From the moment Maura was born, Ryan adored her and took on the role of protecting her.
Ryan’s memories of his childhood are dark and disturbing. His home was filled with fighting and turmoil. His parents finally separated. Shortly after, on a beautiful, crystal clear day, Ryan left for middle school and came back to find only a skeleton of his house, black and smoking. His family lost all of their earthly possessions that day; Ryan was able to salvage only a few of his T-shirts.
After the fire, as the divorce was finalizing, Ryan moved into a hotel with his mother, Maura, and one of his brothers, a brother who was autistic and who had violent outbursts. At this time, Ryan felt that he needed to be stronger for Maura.
He started lifting weights and practicing martial arts. Ryan didn’t have God in his life at this time and made exercise his “god” as he was seeking to be the man of the house.
Also, during this time, he became a “ladies’ man” and eventually settled into a relationship which lasted for two years.
In 2008, after graduating from high school, and after his girlfriend broke up with him, he moved upstate to live with his father and Maura. Ryan describes this period of his life as very dark and painful. He was still dealing with the pain of the divorce and fire, and now, the pain of an ended relationship.
One night he was feeling so desperate he thought about driving his car over a cliff and ending it all. It was his love for his family, especially Maura, that stopped him from doing it. He remembers crying out to God, but he felt no relief. Looking back, Ryan explains that he didn’t know God at the time.
He had been raised going to church until the age of ten, and his memories of the church were of the stained-glass windows depicting Christ on the cross. He thought of God only in terms of pain and suffering; he had never connected to the God of love.
Feeling lost and unsure of what direction to go in, Ryan enrolled in Herkimer County Community College. During this time, he also began doing his own in-depth research, seeking to know the purpose of life, and seeking relief from his pain.
Ryan’s role model through his martial arts training was the actor Bruce Lee, even though he was deceased before Ryan was born. He researched Lee’s life and discovered that he practiced Daoism and Buddhism.
In the college library between classes, Ryan spent his spare time studying these Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. During this time, he began to formulate a plan to join a Buddhist monastery when he graduated from college.
After graduating, Ryan spent a week at the Blue Cliff Monastery, located downstate in a beautiful, wooded area of the Catskill Mountains. The monastery taught “mindfulness,” the practice of focusing on the present moment.
During his visit, Ryan lived as a monk. He roomed with three other men, rising at 5am to begin sitting meditation in a large group of about 40 people. During these sessions, he was instructed to focus on his breathing and to not let his mind wander into the past or future.
His days were filled with other meditation sessions interspersed with periods of noble silence.
Each monk also worked for an hour a day raking the yard, cleaning a building, or doing other chores that needed to be done.
Each of the meals was eaten in twenty minutes of silence so the monks and guests could practice mindfulness as they enjoyed the textures and flavors of the food. The monks occasionally had down time and would play frisbee or basketball, or they would even skateboard.
Though Ryan had some frustrations about being distracted and not being able to concentrate during the meditation periods, he left the monastery after the week fantasizing about how the monastic life might bring him peace and healing from his pain.
After visiting the monastery twice more, Ryan began the process of becoming a monk, which took about six months. During this time, his father paid the monastery for his training which, Ryan recalls, was about $3000.00.
When Ryan signed up, he made a vow of celibacy, gave up his worldly possessions, exchanged his street clothes for a robe, and shaved his head. He also agreed to follow all the rules and regulations of the monastery and to have little contact with the outside world, even his family.
Ryan’s training period ended with a trip to Plum Village near Bordeaux in France where he was ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh, a world renown Vietnamese monk. Ryan enjoyed the landscape, culture, and French people during his week-long trip and was proud to become one of the first monks to be ordained who had been trained on American soil.
Back at Blue Cliff Monastery, Ryan threw himself into life as a monk and soon earned the nickname “Brother Ha-Ha” because he laughed so much. He took the teachings of mindfulness seriously and tried to implement everything he had learned, but after a while he found that it just didn’t make sense to him, and he had many questions. He asked questions repeatedly to the other monks. Though they were patient with him, he was never satisfied with their replies.
After about a year, he resorted to researching on his own in the monastery library which contained primarily Buddhist books, most written by Thich Nhat Hanh. He studied the books in the library but still had many questions. He became increasingly more frustrated and stressed as he worked so hard to attain “mindfulness” and ultimately “enlightenment,” concepts which were still elusive to him.
Two other factors led to his decision to leave the monastery. There were rumors of violations of the vow of celibacy. A good friend of his, another American monk, left the monastery because of an incident in which he was abused by another monk. This greatly disturbed Ryan. Also, Ryan’s broken heart was healing, and he was again thinking about getting married and having a family.
In 2018, six years after becoming a monk, Ryan informed the other monks he was planning to leave. They immediately called a meeting, and, after they were sure he was serious, formally accepted his resignation. He called his father and was picked up two days later.
Living in the outside world again was a major adjustment. For six years Ryan had been told what to do, and now he had to relearn the basics. It was especially challenging to have to make decisions again. He is so grateful that his father was willing to take him in during this time of transition.
Ryan first went to welding school, but that didn’t work out, so he went to Florida to live with his friend, Taylor, and to help him with his herb business.
Taylor had a little sister about Maura’s age who was heavily involved in church. She was always praising the Lord and reading her Bible. This got Ryan thinking that maybe he needed God back in his life, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it. He picked up a Bible and started reading it a bit, and he felt inspired to attend church with his friend’s family.
At the service, he stood still and watched. The service was so different than what he had experienced in the monastery, and it made a deep impression on him. Soon after, he returned to New York.
Ryan moved back in with his father and started working at Lowes. At this time, a profound change occurred in Ryan. He began thinking of his grandparents and other ancestors who had come to America from Italy and Ireland. They had had a challenging but beautiful life centered around God and the church. They were people of faith in God, and Ryan realized that that was what was missing in his life. He made a definite decision to pursue Christianity.
Shortly after, Ryan attended church with a friend from work. When he walked into the door, the first person who greeted him was Sue Smith, the mother of one of Maura’s classmates. She looked at Ryan with such surprise and said, “I know who you are, you’re Maura’s brother. You have no idea how much I have prayed for you!”
Before Ryan left church that day, he repented and asked Jesus to forgive his sins. He asked God to renew his life and to give him guidance.
Ever since, Ryan has been reading the Bible and listening to sermons. He is also attending church regularly. But more importantly, he is experiencing God’s peace and joy in his life on a daily basis. And God has blessed him with a wife, Caitlin, and a son, James.
When asked the difference between his experience as a Buddhist and a Christian, Ryan points out that Buddhism was alluring at first and offered him some relief from his pain, but it is a system which denies God as Creator, a system which denies God’s power and which is based solely on man’s works.
“I was tearing myself apart trying so hard to work out my own salvation, which only led to extreme anxiety, emptiness, and loneliness,” Ryan explained.
“When I joined the monastery, I was seeking to find myself,” Ryan continued, “but it took me a long time to realize that what I was actually seeking was God.”
photo credit – Maura Damon
connect with Ryan through the Damon Family Blog.