His father was a doctor, and so was his grandfather, so when James Ross ’18 arrived on Mayflower Hill, it felt like his path was clear: pre med. “I hadn’t even thought about any other possibilities,” he said.

But even if he had, his eventual choice wouldn’t even have made the list.

The one-time Marine Corps ROTC cadet is a philosophy major who moved to Nepal to continue his study of Buddhism through silent meditation.

While majoring in biology during his first year, Ross learned that the military would pay for medical school. He enrolled in the University of Maine ROTC program while balancing a commitment to Colby academics, track, and cross country. Soon he was accepted to the Marine Corps’ Platoon Leadership Class, a two-summer paid internship where the training includes sleep deprivation, high-stress combat scenarios, and extreme physical challenges. And, Ross noted, lots of screaming.

James Ross '18

James Ross ’18

Although he completed the program the first summer, Ross had decided after the first day that he would not be returning to the PLC the next year, and would probably not join the military. “As a kid, I had probably watched too many war movies,” said Ross, who found himself suddenly unsure of what the future held.

One day he was browsing the Colby Bookstore and picked up an unfamiliar text, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, on a whim. The book resonated with him and he bought it. Reading it led him to start taking philosophy classes and attending group meditation in the Rose Chapel, a small room in Lorimer Chapel. He then signed up to spend the fall of his junior year at a Buddhist studies abroad program at a monastery in India. “It was my hardest academic semester ever, but it was also the most rewarding,” Ross said.

He had found the purpose and community he had been seeking.

When he returned to Mayflower Hill for his junior spring, Ross missed the meaning his life had in India. “I saw a future for myself there,” he said.

He decided to enroll in a summer program in Kathmandu, Nepal, studying Tibetan to interpret religious texts. During the final months, he completed a 25-day meditation retreat, which consisted of sitting silently in a room for 18 hours, forbidden from looking at or speaking to another person.

Days before his scheduled flight home, Ross composed two emails: one to his mother and one to Joseph Atkins, class dean for juniors and seniors, to let them know that he would not be returning to Maine anytime soon.

Ross would remain in Nepal for almost a year, academically engaged with Buddhist studies at Kathmandu University while pushing himself to meditate for longer and longer periods. The longest retreat he completed was six weeks, alone in a monastic room in the mountains.

Returning to the United States for his senior year brought both challenges and rewards. He graduated early, learning from one of his Nepalese meditation teachers that there was an opening for a position developing the financial side of a Buddhist monastery called Rangjung Yeshe Gomde—located in Northern California.

“There are many translators but not many businesspeople in Buddhism, because it’s not often seen as a compatible path with a contemplative lifestyle.” —James Ross ’18

While he had originally planned to advance to longer meditation retreats, eventually spending more than three continuous years in silence—while working toward becoming what’s known in Nepal as a scholar-practitioner and translating ancient texts—he also saw the value in helping to create income for the monastery.

“Buddhists typically aren’t great at making money,” said Ross. He collaborates with the lamas and monks at the monastery to choose high-quality Buddhist practice items, such as Dharma books and other instruments for meditation and developed the monastery’s website to sell the goods to American consumers. He is also apprenticing with the executive director of the monastery and contributing to the board’s decision making about things like constructing new buildings. He will work both in California and in Kathmandu.

“There are many translators but not many businesspeople in Buddhism, because it’s not often seen as a compatible path with a contemplative lifestyle,” said Ross, who points out that Buddhist teachings encourage letting go of expectations about the future, while entrepreneurship requires being invested in a particular outcome and working to create results. “But in some ways, I’m serving a greater function by supporting my community financially than if I was just translating texts.”

Meanwhile, Ross enjoys working at one of the few monasteries in the world run primarily by young people.

“My boss is a 26-year-old Brown graduate,” said Ross. Working with other young liberal arts graduates with ambitious goals and the “energy and drive to really try to build something unique,” he cites nascent plans to create the first American monastic university.

“I’m a happier and better person,” he said, “because I’m willing to take big risks.”