There is a date in my life that I can hardly forget: December 26, 2004; that day I was ordained as a novice. But that was not the only reason that date was etched indelibly in my heart.

At the very same time I was taking my vows of obedience, poverty and chastity in a Buddhist monastery in California, the other side of the planet was ravaged by one of the most devastating calamities of recent times. While I was “leaving home” (the direct translation from Chinese to say “being ordained”), more than 200,000 people were also leaving their homes, and lives, when the coasts of Indonesia and neighboring countries were swept by a huge tsunami. In my subconscious, the waves of my vows and those of the ocean mixed together to produce a strong realization of how fragile and unpredictable life is.

That day I also died, but in a very different way from all those who got up that morning to work, or to enjoy one more day of their vacations in tropical beaches, not knowing that would be the last. With shaved head, wearing monastic robes, a new name, and a radical change in my lifestyle, the comparison with death is not so exaggerated; after all, the rites of passage of any spiritual tradition seek just that, the symbolic death and rebirth of the candidate to be initiated.

Although four years later I decided not to take the full vows of a monk and instead returned to the lay condition, my life was not going to be the same it had been before that ceremony and the following monastic years. From that day, when I wake up every morning, the first thing I do is to put together the palms of my hands to give thanks for having another day in which I can try (and can fail) to do something positive with my life.

Sometimes life is so hard, or so anodyne, that one may be tempted to feel just the opposite, another day to retake a lot of concerns, or to drag the body around. I thought so when life showed its less sweet face. Now, even though the blows still keep on coming with uncanny regularity, I take them otherwise. I try to see what I can learn from the pain, or shame, or rage or whatever it is that pushes me off-balance. Somehow, now there is not so much a clear distinction between the sweet and bitter faces of life. No doubt, a regular practice of meditation helps to see things in a more balanced, less emotional way, which definitely helps to make more wise and compassionate choices.

We all can wake up everyday, not to struggle but to learn. Life is a school and most of us are students held back to repeat courses.

This post is a personal reflection prompted by the tragedy of Japan, about which I will write the following post.