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Teen-Age Buddhist Monk Comes to Mother's Homeland

November 05, 1987|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer.

Feather Meston was not the only San Fernando Valley schoolchild of the 1950s to grow into a flower child of the 1960s and, smitten with Eastern religion, convert to Buddhism. And like her, others traveled to the East in search of a spiritual master.

But Meston is one of the few who stuck with it to such an extent that, a decade and a half later, she remains a Buddhist nun.

So complete was her immersion into Buddhism that in 1973 she left her 3-year-old son with a Buddhist family in Nepal so she could continue her religious studies, and he could be raised by people more spiritually advanced than herself.

When the boy was 6, she moved him to a Buddhist monastery in Nepal's Katmandu Valley, at the foot of Mt. Everest, where he spent the next nine years. Meston--or Wangmo, as she prefers to be called--visited her son over the years, at times staying in a Buddhist center not far from the monastery.

'Wanted to Be Cute'

The boy is called Daja Greeneye.

"This was the flower time, and Lawrence and I just wanted to be cute," Wangmo, 42, says of the name she and her then-husband gave their son.

Daja and Wangmo were reunited for a month recently in Whittier, where he has come to attend an American high school. She was on a stopover between a Buddhist center in London and one in Hong Kong.

Asked about her son's upbringing, Wangmo explained that it was begun out of choice, not necessity. There had been enough money and family in America for the boy to be raised here. Wangmo's father, John Meston, created the "Gunsmoke" radio and television shows. Her grandmother, Bernadine Fritz, was a wealthy Beverly Hills matron.

"Like any mother, I wanted the best for my child," Wangmo said. "What I didn't want is for him to have the influence and experiences that I had growing up in the Valley and Hollywood--in America. I had never learned anything about morality, and I knew that American society was based on getting ahead for one's self."

Daja looks like a typical American teen-ager, but speaks with an accent that is hard to define. His native language is Tibetan. His second language is Nepalese. He also knows English, Hindi and Italian.

He said he decided a year ago to leave the monastery and learn about the West. Daja renounced his vows as a monk, meaning he needn't pray as often and may date girls, but he said his faith in his religion remains firm.

"My main commitment, also my wish, is to help people," he said. "The way to do that is to get an education and maybe become a teacher."

Daja spent a year at a Buddhist center in Italy before coming to Southern California in August. He attends La Habra High School and lives with an American family that has studied Buddhism. His hosts are also his legal guardians.

"I felt I needed Western education, and I also wanted to see the West," Daja said of his decision to come. "I was always wondering what it is like here."

And what is life like at an American high school for your average ex-monk from Nepal? The adjustment has not been easy. Nearly all the subjects in school are new and difficult.

"In the monastery, he basically learned only three subjects--philosophy, religion and languages," said Bob Shoup, Daja's high school counselor. "That's been the extent of his formal education. One of his problems has been understanding basic mathematics. Multiplication and division were new concepts to him."

Shoup said, however, that the boy perseveres.

"He is not easily discouraged. He rolls with problems. He accepts them and goes on. He doesn't seem to be worried, and he doesn't seem to have a temper."

Daja said making friends has been slow.

In Nepal, "the children have much more respect for their teachers and older people and to their parents," he said. "I have a few friends who are quiet and humble, but there are not many."

Kung Fu Lacking

Fellow students are mostly uninterested in his background, he said.

"They think the monastery is some kind of kung fu place, so they ask me, 'Do you know any kung fu?' I say I don't, and that's all they ask."

He has yet to be invited to the home of a schoolmate.

Wangmo said her longest periods of separation from her son have been for a year, a year and a half and, once, for three years.

"I really did leave him too long that time," she said, while insisting that Buddhism has taught Daja the patience and independence that overcome loneliness. Daja said there were times he missed his mother, but he was seldom miserable.

During one of the periods of separation, Wangmo was locked by her lama, or teacher, inside a "retreat house" in India, where she spoke to no one for more than a year. She recited mantras, studied and performed breathing exercises.

"I was the happiest I've ever been," she said. "There's nothing to bother you. If you're a Buddhist or a practicing spiritual person, it just gives you the space and time for study and meditation. For the Buddhist, the most interesting exploration is of the mind."

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