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Nikolai Grozni

Describe your latest project.
Turtle Feet is a memoir about the four years I spent in India as a Buddhist monk and the people I met on my journey. I went to India to study Tibetan, debate, learn the core Buddhist texts studied in the monasteries, meditate, and discover the recipe for the entry into the ultimate reality. After living for two years in Dharamsala and attending classes at the Institute of Buddhist dialectics, I realized that most of my expectations with regard to the path to enlightenment and enlightenment itself were based on preconceived stereotypes and absolutes which seemed to contradict everything that was true and real in life. Did being spiritual mean that one had to be a "good" person? Did higher knowledge require work, the way piano playing required constant practice? Was enlightenment populated by tidy, apologetic liberals who never swore, or loving monks and nuns who burst into tears at the sight of a squashed bug? Was ultimate reality a place where the dichotomies that condition our confused existence — good and evil, here and there, before and after, being and non-being — persisted with an amplified strength?

I found the answers of these and other questions when I befriended a crazy, truly existential Bosnian man named Tsar. He showed me that going to the other shore required a kind of genius, a spontaneous transcendence which can never be achieved from the self-deluded comfort of academics, moral righteousness, voluntary solitude, or the ego-acrobatics of mind training.

Some of my close friends, who have followed my meandering through the world of classical music, jazz, Buddhism, and writing, have interpreted this memoir as a sort of confession of my disappointment in Buddhism and of my failure to find higher meaning. And how wrong they are! While Turtle Feet should certainly be avoided by readers who believe in Santa Claus (and there are many), it in no way advances the case for a nihilistic and defeatist approach to the human condition.

Life is absurd — and so is enlightenment. Life is funny — and so is enlightenment. Life is larger than categories, absolutes, and dogmas. And so is enlightenment.


  1. Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk
    $11.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "This is a rare and wonderful book, unlike anything I've ever read before. Rich in detail and humor, with a quirky and exotic cast of characters, it's an exquisitely written journey through life in a Tibetan monastery and village..." Anne Lamott, author of Grace (Eventually)

    "[A] remarkable book. Yes, it's a spiritual journey filled with beautiful insights — but it's also a funny and gritty tale of dysentery, stoner roommates, cranky monks and flirty nuns. I felt enlightened for having read it." A. J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically


If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Stop Trying: Everything Is Already Perfect.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I delivered mattresses across New England. One of the most memorable moments on the job was when a young couple asked me to wait outside their bedroom so that they could try out the new mattress before they signed the credit card invoice.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Romanian-born E. M. Cioran is, to me, one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. His writing has helped me get through the most difficult periods in my life. The Trouble With Being Born is a true masterpiece.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"There were so many hairdressing establishments and funeral homes in the regional center of N. that the inhabitants seemed to be born merely in order to have a shave, get their hair cut, freshen up their heads with toilet water and then die."
(from The Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov)

How do you relax?
I play chess. A lot of chess.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Sitting alone on a terrace overlooking the sea and reading a good book. It's late in the afternoon and I have nothing left to do, and nowhere I need to go.

Talk about your vision of the ideal life.
Moving to a different country every year. Starting from zero, learning a new language.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five Books That Can Change Your Life:

Freedom from the Known by Jiddu Krishnamurti

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

Molloy by Samuel Beckett

The Stories of Paul Bowles by Paul Bowles

÷ ÷ ÷

Nikolai Grozni was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and educated in the United States and India. In previous incarnations, he has been a piano prodigy, jazz musician, Buddhist monk, and, most recently, the author of three novels published in Bulgaria. Grozni holds an MFA from Brown University. Turtle Feet is his first book of nonfiction.

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