The Power of Meditation Retreat – How an Actor Became a Buddhist Monk

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Sofie Angevaare
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Highlights: Want to feel grateful regardless of the situation you find yourself in? Gelong Thubten, once a New York City-based actor but now a Buddhist monk, knows that moments of tension are actually moments of opportunity. This is his story.

Want to feel thankful and grateful regardless of the situation you find yourself in? Gelong Thubten, once a New York city based actor but now a Buddhist monk knows that moments of tension are actually moments of opportunity.

Watch the short insightful video above to find out why, and discover how his wisdom could be applicable to your life too.

Want to know how and why Gelong Thubten became a monk?

In this article, we share the story of Gelong’s meditation retreat that led to his new path and may inspire you to pursue one of your own.

The Insightful Wisdom That Stems From Spending 4 Years in Isolation

In 2017, Mindvalley hosted a new transformational education event called Mindvalley U for the very first time. World-renowned spiritual teachers, personal growth experts, and students of all ages came together, bringing and sharing holistic learning experiences.

The event featured a meditation workshop led by Gelong Thubten too

But Gelong did not just come to guide the students through a collective meditation practice. He also offered practical, insightful wisdom on the tenets of Buddhism, as well as the development of empathy, forgiveness, and compassion. 

And the wisdom he shares is profound for good reason.

Gelong Thubten spent no less than four years in utter isolation, meditating at a remote Buddhist monastery in Scotland. He now pursues a path drastically different than the one he seemed to be born on. 

But why did he choose to isolate himself from his friends and family in a remote Buddhist monastery? And why did he choose to become a monk himself? 

Unplugging From the Demands of a Hectic Life

Gelong Thubten grew up in Cambridge, England, and attended University College School, North London, before pursuing studies in English Literature at the University of Oxford. After completing his studies, he moved to New York to attend a theater school and become an actor.

But living in New York and pursuing the life of a working actor was exceptionally stressful.

At twenty-one years old, after auditioning for a role in the film, Little Buddha, Gelong traveled to Scotland to take a twelve-month retreat at the Buddhist monastery, Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery

Overwhelmed and burned out, he sought the refuge of the overseas monastery to unplug from the demands of his hectic life.

His trip to the monastery was only meant to last a year, but Gelong explains that upon arrival, he enjoyed it so much and found the experience to be so rewarding that he didn’t want to leave. 

After a year at the monastery, he decided to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to this new life path.

4 Years of Isolation at Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery

It’s a very powerful experience of having to face your own mind.

— Gelong Thubten

At twenty-one years of age, Gelong Thubten became a Buddhist monk. When asked why he chose to pursue the monastic path, Gelong Thubten replied:

I needed to do something incredibly radical to transform my life.

— Gelong Thubten

From 2005 to 2009, Gelong Thubten traveled to the remote Isle of Arran in Scotland for a four-year meditative retreat. This is a traditional practice taken on by many Buddhist monks over the course of their service, but nothing could have prepared Gelong for what awaited him.

The four-year meditation retreat was marked by 19 hour days of deep meditation, seven days a week. A routine intersected with sleep, prayer hours of collective chanting, and communal vegetarian meals.

During the second year of his stay on the Isle of Arran, Gelong Thubten took a vow of silence for five months.

“It’s a very powerful experience of having to face your mind,” says Gelong Thubten. “It’s very difficult but very rewarding.”

Without any contact with the outside world, no televisions, phones, or Internet, the experience became quite intense, but Gelong explains that but that the four-year retreat of mindful Buddhist meditation and isolated prayer was a worthwhile endeavor.

Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery

The path of the Sangha 

Gelong Thubten now belongs to the group of Buddhist monks and nuns called the Sangha, or the Buddhist monastic order.

This order consists of not only those men and women willing to dedicate their lives to service, but also of those who wish to live by and teach the precepts of Buddhism while still living in the external world: the laymen and laywomen.

Buddhist monks and nuns are dedicated to upholding the teachings of the Buddha, including the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts.

They must give up their jobs, their property, their family obligations, and many of their material possessions to pursue a life of dedication and spiritual exploration.

Being a Buddhist Monk: To Live a Life of Service

Gelong Thubten wanted to pursue a life of mindful meditation and spiritual teaching not for himself, but for others.

“The main point of being a monk is to help people and to serve,” explains Gelong Thubten. “It’s an endless process. It’s not easy, it’s a journey of pushing farther away from your comfort zone.”

To embark on a four-year retreat of isolation and meditation was just the beginning for Gelong Thubten.

Today, he travels and teaches willing students around the world, from medical students in Ireland, to movie stars, to the eager participants at Mindvalley U.

spiritual retreat

How to Embark on Your Own Spiritual Retreat

Many who hear of Gelong Thubten’s story ask: “can I become a monk, too?” Or: “how does the process work?”

Suffice it to say, the process of pursuing a monastic life is one that won’t happen overnight. But if you’re truly interested in learning more about becoming a monk, just like Gelong Thubten, there are quite a few resources you can explore.

First, you should know that becoming a Buddhist monk is something that anyone can do. But you will need to undergo some preliminary preparations.

Buddhist monks are different than Buddhist laypersons.

Buddhist laypersons practice the same precepts as Buddhist monks, but do not live in a monastery. Laypersons still retain many of their ties to the external world, and part of their obligations are to serve and support Buddhist monks and nuns.

The first step in becoming a Buddhist monk is familiarizing yourself with the teachings of the Buddha, learning the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path.

Find a local temple or Buddhist center near you and become an active member of the community. Some people choose to remain members of their local Buddhist community for years before pursuing a monastic path.

The more you integrate yourself into the teachings and practices of the Buddha, the more you’ll understand what it means to dedicate yourself to the practice and service of the community.

If becoming a full-fledged monk or nun doesn’t appeal to you, you can still explore your meditative practice through a guided retreat.

Retreats can last anywhere from a few days to several months, and choosing the length of time you’d like to practice is entirely up to you.

It’s important to remember that these retreats can be powerful awakening experiences. It’s best to start small and slow.

The further you delve into your practice, the more enriched your experience, but it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the initial intensity of these retreats.

Meditative retreats are held all over the world, in a variety of locations and by a number of esteemed teachers.

Today, Gelong Thubten is the Director of Kagyu Samye Dzong Scarborough, Yorkshire, which offers meditation classes, workshops, yoga classes, and retreats throughout the year.

Learn more about the programs and events that may be scheduled in your area by speaking to a member of your local community or exploring what’s nearby online.

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Sofie Angevaare

Sofie Angevaare

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