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A Buddhist Monk Is Driving the Bus

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Damber Gurung - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Damber Gurung

Damber Gurung learned how to be a better human being in the company of the dead. When the Bhutanese man was 16, he spent a winter in a cemetery deep in a jungle near the Khudunabari refugee camp in eastern Nepal.

Along with 17 other boys and young men, Gurung underwent intensive Buddhist meditation training with a monk. The youths' parents couldn't afford to send their offspring to a monastery for lengthier training, but they hoped they would return from the retreat ready to lead the community in preserving its cultural and religious traditions.

"It was real tough. It was scary at night," said Gurung. "[But] it changed my life."

Far from any distractions, he led an ascetic life for three months. He spent up to 20 hours a day reading Buddhist holy books and meditating. He ate just a fistful of rice and vegetables once a day. During this period of seclusion, the monk in charge taught Gurung the principles of Buddhism: Believe in love, be kind to fellow human beings, don't fight and protect lives.

Now living in Burlington, Gurung continues to live by those tenets. While he has never resided in a monastery, and he has a family and a full-time job, members of his community still call him "lama," or monk.

"It's a big role," said Gurung, 39.

Back in Nepal, he could count on his fellow monks to share responsibilities. Here, he said, his workload has "doubled," since he's one of just two spiritual leaders who serve the Buddhist Bhutanese population in the greater Burlington area.

When he's not busy performing Buddhist rituals in his red and saffron robe, Gurung wears the blue uniform of Green Mountain Transit. In May 2014, when he took a job driving a bus, he became the first member of the Bhutanese community to work for the transportation company.

Gurung is one of more than 1,900 Bhutanese refugees who have resettled in the Green Mountain State since 2008. Known as Lhotshampas, or "people of the south," they are ethnic Nepalis who spent nearly two decades in refugee camps in Nepal after Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck stripped them of their citizenship in the early 1990s. Most Lhotshampas are Hindus, but some, like Gurung, practice Buddhism.

Gurung has been a monk for 23 years. When he returned from his teenage retreat, he was a "lama" qualified to lead Buddhist ceremonies — a status that his soccer teammates teased him about, he recalled. In addition to completing another, six-month meditation retreat, Gurung worked throughout his time in Nepal and India — as a teacher, an employee at his father's bike store, a watch repairman and an administrator for an Indian organization.

In 2011, Gurung and his wife and two sons moved to Vermont. That same year, the Gurung families founded the Miteri Pariwar, or Friendly Family, in Burlington. Following a common pattern for New American populations, they established the community organization to offer emotional and social support in their new homes. They later opened up the group to other families such as Rai, Chhteri and Monger. At its height, the informal group of mostly Buddhist households counted 95 families as members.

Although Vermont has several Buddhist centers, such as the Milarepa Center in Barnet, the Buddhist Bhutanese have little interaction with their fellow practitioners. Instead, their gatherings are usually held at a member's home. Hemant Tamang-Ghising, a Miteri Pariwar member, cited cultural differences as a reason for the separation. He's had many conversations with Gurung about building their own stupa — a hemispherical structure used for meditation.

"Damber and I have many hallucinations," mused Tamang-Ghising, who works for the Burlington School District.

He means "dreams" — and added that ideas like the stupa are likely to remain such for the foreseeable future. For now, the resettled community is more concerned with securing basic necessities. "The primary priority is survival," Tamang-Ghising pointed out.

Those who continue to practice their religious traditions have had to compromise and adjust to new social conditions, such as busy schedules. Reading the holy books can take Gurung up to six hours, the monk said — time he doesn't always have. It's not uncommon for him to postpone celebrating important festivals, such as Buddha's birthday, and to perform those prayer rites on the weekends instead.

"Change is natural," Gurung acknowledged. 

But cultural expectations remain the same. Homeowners want the monk to bless their new abode. Squabbling families want him to mediate. Patients want him to pray for their speedy recovery. Parents want him to give their newborn a Buddhist name. Grieving families want him to prepare funeral rites for their dead.

The monk requests no payment for any of those services, said Tamang-Ghising: "[Gurung] is dedicated to providing services. He never denies anyone anything."

But dedication isn't always enough, and as much as he wants to help his community, Gurung said, he has found it a challenge to juggle his secular and religious duties. For instance, he has had to turn down requests for his services because of his day job.

"I feel bad," said the father of two, "but I have to tell them I can't dump my job to read holy books."

A flexible work schedule is a prerequisite for GMT drivers, said Jon Moore, the company's director of operations. Sometimes employees only get their schedules a week in advance, he noted.

Moore added that Gurung is responsible for "spreading the word" about GMT as a transportation provider and employer to the wider Bhutanese community. Whether he's off or on duty, he's quick to offer to help commuters read the bus schedules.

When Gurung first arrived in the U.S., he worked as a housekeeper at the University of Vermont Medical Center. But he wanted a job that would allow him to meet people, he recalled. In 2014, he walked into the offices of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (which has since merged with the Green Mountain Transit Agency to become GMT) and asked if the company was hiring. He started out driving part time and soon found himself promoted to a full-time position.

Others have followed the monk's lead. Before Santi Dahal, 31, joined GMT last year, he consulted Gurung, his former neighbor in the Khudunabari refugee camp, for advice. When Dahal eventually applied to be a driver, Gurung was one of his references. During his training period, Dahal mostly rode with Gurung.

"We speak the same language. That makes me comfortable," Dahal said.

Gurung's Buddhist teachings have helped him cope with the stresses of being a bus driver, he said. Once a motorist accused him of making an illegal turn. Instead of retaliating, Gurung handled the situation "professionally," Moore said.

When the monk isn't playing an ambassadorial role for GMT or fulfilling the spiritual needs of his community, he tries to foster a sense of citizenry in the Bhutanese population. His current project is a blood donation drive scheduled for December 24 at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes in Burlington. In 2013, when the Miteri Pariwar organized its first blood drive, 15 Bhutanese people came. This year's event already has twice that number signed up.

"A lot of people are scared to give blood," Gurung noted. But the act could save lives, putting into practice one of the teachings of Buddhism, he pointed out. A regular blood donor when he lived in Nepal and India, the monk is optimistic that more will join him in expressing their gratitude to their new neighbors.

"I'm so glad [that] people from America, they accept me, give me a chance to be here," Gurung said. "I just want to thank them."


The original print version of this article was headlined "Road to Truth"

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