Meeting Halfway: Where Western Culture and Eastern Philosophy Can Co-exist

I went to the Japanese who told me I was in line with their beliefs but was too aggressive. Lastly, I went to the Chinese and they said they wanted me.

By | Fri 18 Mar 2016

“I’m not sure I am worthy of an interview. My life is not particularly interesting,” said Dr. Christopher Fisher.

I beg to differ.

I mean, how many western guys do you know that left their home at 18 to move to Asia and become a monk?

According to Fisher, a lot. Well, maybe in his friend circle.

Doctor Christopher Fisher, who recalls his earlier-life as an ‘American Dream,’ currently teaches Buddhism at Chiang Mai University. Fisher, a college dropout, has lived a roller-coaster life with no boundaries.

Born in 1967, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a young adult, Fisher constantly battled with the concept of death. “My mother was a ‘flower child,’ my father, on the other hand, bled red white and blue. During the Vietnam War, my father’s attitude was to sort things out the ‘old fashioned way,’ by killing all the enemies,” Fisher said. “My grandmother came from a family of 17 brothers and sisters. I watched most of them die. Watching them go one after another caused me to question god and religion.”

A teenage boy seeking out his true identity, Fisher wanted answers. First, he went to the Muslim community, who could not answer his questions on death. Then, he went to a rabbi, who Fisher says responded to his questions in a way that better spoke to him. “Why focus on death? Isn’t it enough to live?” Still, Fisher was unfulfilled in his quest to understanding the metaphysical world.

He then met with Buddhists, whose words inspired him. The core Buddhist philosophy of accepting and being at peace with reality resonated with him. By the age of 13, Fisher identified as a Buddhist.

Through out his teenage years, he read up a lot on Buddhist philosophy and when he after a short stint at Pennsylvania State University in 1995, he dropped out and told his family he wished to become a monk.

And so his journey began.

“First, I went to the Koreans and they didn’t think I fit in with them. Then, I went to the Tibetans and they said my thoughts were way off from theirs. After that, I went to the Japanese who told me I was in line with their beliefs but was too aggressive. Lastly, I went to the Chinese and they said they wanted me.”

“I asked when I could be a monk, and they said, ‘When you go to China and learn Chinese.’”

Once in China, Fisher immediately became a novice. For three years, he lived in a monastery in Songshan. He describes his days as routine– wake up, clean up, meditate, eat breakfast, do chores, go to school, eat lunch, do homework, meditate, and repeat.

“Initially, I was happy. It was the most amazing journey. After six weeks, I hated it more than anything in the world. Computers were just invented in the U.S. There were a lot of material items that I didn’t have,” Fisher said.

Despite second-guessing the path he had chose, Fisher stuck it out. As he progressed deeper into his training, he realised he had made the right decision.

I asked him what switched. ‘Simple,’ he said. “I learned that the things I thought I was missing, I wasn’t. What I wanted was nothing but a shaky notion. Lacking things I want doesn’t bother me anymore because I understand that the only thing bothering me is the need of it.”

This revelation was transformative.

“Since that experience, I’m much calmer. Before, Japanese monks thought I was too aggressive. In American culture, this translates to passion. Americans commit 100% to things. I’ve learned to stand back and look at things in a rational, logical way,” he said. “The Japanese no longer think I’m too aggressive.”

Whilst he was living in the monastery, Fisher wanted to study Buddhism as well as Chinese, but his teacher would not allow it. He told Fisher that until he had a degree in science, no one in the Buddhist world would take him seriously. So in 1989 he earned his Bachelor of Surgery, specialising in trauma.

Fisher notes that this perfectly captures the Buddhist value on logic.

That same year, Fisher was ordained in China. In 1992, he was finally able to pursue his wish of studying Buddhism and departed to Tokyo, Japan, where he earned his Master of Theology degree followed by his PhD in Buddhist Studies.

In 1996, that same year, Fisher returned to the United States. “I wanted to walk in the normal world,” he said.

At that time he was 28, and wanted to utilise his degree in surgery, mainly because he wanted to make money. After partaking in a one-year equivalency programme to legitimise his medical degree in the states, Fisher began his work as a trauma doctor.

Throughout this time, he maintained his connection to Buddhism and was involved in a community of monks. He participated in a hospital programme called Clinical Pastoral Education and became a chaplin.

It was during this time that a friend asked him to visit him in Bangkok, and so he did.

“He sat me in his office and this lady came by and asked who I was. She brought me a coffee and a copy of the Bangkok Post in English. My friend told me that she worked there and was a lawyer. We all went out to dinner later and she and I became friends.”

It was not long before Fisher and his lady friend, Jariya Buain, began dating. “She was the opposite of a stereotypical Thai girlfriend. She had more money than I did. She was educated in Australia,” Fisher said.

In 2005, after several visits between Thailand and the United States, Fisher and Buain married. That same year, they relocated to Chiang Mai.

Today, Fisher’s life is a melting pot of his mixed perspectives and influences. He has learned to incorporate both his western roots and eastern lifestyle into his family-life and career.

“I consider my relationship with reality to be very well-cemented, I think that’s what it is. It’s the relationship with reality. Understanding the nature of things as they truly are, without speculation, and to be okay with that,” Fisher says.

As a Zen monk, Fisher had no restraints on family life. Today, Fisher and Buain have two children, Patricia, 4 and May, 8.

“My wife and I are Buddhist. I don’t know what my children are. We allow them full exposure to any religion they show interest in.”

“I tell my children to take risks. I think eastern parents tend to shelter children more so than western parents. I don’t shelter my children from the horrors of the world,” Fisher said. “I’ve never lied to them either. I consider things as minor as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy to be lies.”

Fisher has been a professor of Buddhism at Chiang Mai University for 12 years. He reflects on his experiences teaching both Thai students and American students. The two groups represent very opposing backgrounds, which has challenged his ‘melting pot’ lifestyle.

“I’m never upset or angry, but I get flustered teaching Buddhism to westerners. I have friends who won’t teach them at all. Western students come to Thailand and want to take a single Buddhism course, but we’re so deep into it that it’s beyond an academic level. Trying not to offend or say anything politically incorrect is challenging.”

Most of Fisher’s students are Buddhist and he feels that they know what to expect out of his classes. He has never had a Thai student argue with him and reminisces about one particular instance when a student told him that he disagreed with his opinion, but respected it nonetheless.

“I actually try to provoke my Thai students to argue with me. In my classes with American students, someone whispers something and it spirals into a whole new discussion. That doesn’t happen with my Thai students.”

“You see,” continues Fisher, “Westerners are looking for a black-and-white sort of thing, nothing so abstract. They don’t like contradiction. Buddhism is very contradictory. We are imperfect beings, and in that way, Buddhism perfectly encompasses humanity.”