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This Guy Quit Psychotherapy to Become a Hardcore Buddhist Monk

One September in the early 90s, a Canadian psychotherapist came across a flyer for a meditation class on University of Toronto campus. It set him on a path to spirituality that completely upended his life.

All illustrations via Drew Shannon.
One September in the early '90s, a Canadian psychotherapist came across a flyer for a meditation class on University of Toronto campus. He never imagined that taking this aforementioned course would lead him on a path to becoming a Buddhist monk.

Being in his 40s, Sean Hunt was already well settled into his life, had a family, and had started a successful addiction recovery program called Crossroads. Then in '91, he went through a divorce, and as a recovering drug and alcohol addict, he relapsed and began looking for meaning in life that he hadn't found in psychology. That's when he found what he calls his "kind of psychology"—New Kadampa Tradition Buddhism.


"Being a monk and sort of channeling all of my energies into meditation would get more results," Hunt says. "I just decided that in order to make any serious results or changes in my life, it would be better—I'm sort of an extremist."

Hunt was ordained as a Buddhist monk for the first time in May of 1996. Surrounded by about 20 other people (including a man who is supposedly a reincarnation of Buddha, Dorje Shugden) at a colourful spring festival in Manchester, UK, he shaved his head, donned his new maroon-and-yellow robes, and officially renounced everything he previously believed in and all of his worldly possessions. Before he went to England on this trip, he took his 15-year-old son, Aaron*, to his storage facility in Toronto and gave him one of the eight guitars he had collected over the years—a 1950 Martin—and a leather jacket. Hunt sold the rest of the instruments (including two mandolins and a banjo) and the rest of his belongings. Hunt was even given a new name as is customary in ordination—he was no longer Sean Hunt, he was Kelsang Gyaltsen.

After his ordination, Hunt spent the next four months at a Buddhist retreat in Scotland in complete isolation. Imagine an eight-by-eight-foot hut in the woods, a round cushion for meditation, a mat for sleeping, and a shrine of Buddha. Hunt had no contact with other humans at this time with the exception of a monk that would silently bring him daily meals.


His new austere way of living was a far cry from how he lived before. Aaron explains that during his childhood, Hunt was really into gambling and taught himself—and his son—how to count cards for Blackjack. Aaron described how his father would have briefcases full of cash from his casino trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and that he once nabbed $1,400 from dad's stash to run away from home for a few weeks. His dad was also into fishing, cooking, folk music festivals, painting, carpentry, photography, and running marathons. He bought motorcycles, a speedboat, and even got his pilot's licence.

"He was actually flying to meet [Crossroads] clients in PEI, Montreal, just flying his own plane," Aaron says. "He took my mom and I up [in the plane] one time and shut the engine off and just went into a nosedive."

Aaron says that his dad was always chasing something, always running after life.

"I guess after having me live with him and getting into Buddhism and me ripping him off and all of that, I think he finally had enough and he just cracked and he's like, 'I'm going to be ordained,'" Aaron says.

In 2000, Hunt took his religion one step further and moved to a monastery on the Bristol Channel in England. It was a 56-room castle that was over 500 years old where royal weddings used to be held. Less than a year later, Aaron joined his father at the monastery in order to escape a meth addiction he had developed in his late teens when he was going to raves in Toronto.


"I had burned every bridge; even my best friends wouldn't hang out with me," Aaron says. "I saw one of my closest drinking-buddy friends and he said 'go see your dad in England, drop everything and go see your fucking dad.'"

Religion is one of the ways that some people try to rid themselves of addiction. Dr. Wiplove is an addiction psychiatrist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. He says that he's "all about whatever works for a person" when it comes to battling addiction. "In North America there's been a craze with mindful meditation since the '90s… I think there's a lot of value with that," he says.

Hunt found value in Buddhism, which he considers to be more of a psychology or philosophy rather than a religion. "The things I used to think made me happy—stimulation, traveling, or gambling or excitement, relationships—they were actually the opposite of happiness," Hunt says. "It's changed my whole view on where you can find happiness—substances are not the place."

Aaron tapped into meditation after stubbornly refusing mandatory daily morning teachings for the first two weeks at the monastery.

"In a way it's kind of good because it can teach you to focus, which is the only thing I'll credit to Buddhism: it will teach you to use your mind as a muscle," Aaron says.

In addition to teachings, those living on the monastery weren't allowed to eat meat or dairy, smoke, or drink alcohol. Aaron thought it was completely bizarre when he saw that the monks kept Jack Daniels in a closet only to fill tiny bowls in front of Buddha statues as part of offerings.


Three months in, he started sneaking off to the only pub in town to drink. His girlfriend at the time scraped together money to fly over from Ontario and stayed with him on the monastery briefly. Soon enough, they began hitchhiking to a nearby village where Aaron quickly was able to find meth. After a night of partying and doing speed in this adjacent town, his diabetic girlfriend landed herself in the emergency room with an enlarged heart. During her hospital stay, Aaron moved out of the monastery and in with a party friend.

Hunt described the time when his son stayed with him at the monastery as a very happy time in his life. After "things got complicated" with Aaron and his girlfriend, Hunt moved to Spain. He developed and managed a retreat just outside of Madrid on a mountain.

Meanwhile, Aaron and his girlfriend made a quick decision to fly back to Canada when 9/11 happened in 2001, fearing that a third world war was about to break out. After relapsing, Aaron went to rehab and got off hard drugs in 2005. He had little contact with his father, who was still completely immersed in Buddhism. Their relationship still continues to be strained. Aaron is now 34.

"It is hard to know what those relationships would have been like had I not ordained and lived for many years quite distant from them… it is unlikely that they would have been the same," Hunt says. "[My children] are still young and I may have a few years left so I am optimistic about the future. We are still together on the planet and have potentialities."

Years later in '09, Hunt made the decision to disrobe, saying that he "just wanted to be an ordinary guy" again. His son says that his dad also spoke of interest in dating women and "monk's disease" as a reason for disrobing—this refers to a painful condition that can sometimes develop in men after being completely celibate for a number of years (you can't jerk off if you're a monk).

Hunt, who will be 64 in July, is now retired, single, and living in the UK (he has dual citizenship). He spends his days playing ukulele and taking care of an ill monk who is a revered teacher. Hunt still practices Buddhism and is going on a retreat in mid-June in Scotland.

"One thing I have learned is that I can't predict myself too well—any prediction would be sort of arrogant and foolish on my part about what I'll do in the future," he says. "What I do know is that I'll be pursuing the same kind of interests that I've been for the last 20 years, which is trying to learn how to understand and control my mind and the reality that I'm experiencing."

*name has been changed to protect anonymity