palace patching up paradise
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Their zeal to build, however, surpassed their skills and preparation. Newly converted Hare Krishna followers flooded into New Vrindaban after it was founded in 1968, and those who built the palace often lacked construction knowledge and experience. The palace’s plumbing had to be torn out when it was installed incorrectly. Followers learned how to lay marble flooring and hang Italian-imported chandeliers as they went.

As he walks through the palaces corridors, Chris says it took him some time to move beyond mere curiosity to making the temple his home. Raised Catholic, believing in God was never an issue for him. As a film major at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he found himself drawn to meditation and world religion classes, especially Buddhism and Hinduism. His path toward New Vrindaban began when a Hare Krishna follower handed him a flyer for an on-campus event. “So I went,” he says. “The first devotee I met was just like a skinny white kid from Detroit. And I was talking to him and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a monk, I live in Detroit.’ And I’d been reading about all these Buddhist monks who had sat in caves for thousands of years and it was like, ‘You’re a monk?’ And it was just very interesting.”

Chris stayed in Ann Arbor after he graduated and fell into a daily routine of smoking pot and delivering pizzas. In 2006, he came to New Vrindaban with some friends for the Festival of Inspiration, the largest Hare Krishna gathering in North America. He was moved by the devotion off all the followers who came to visit — and he became increasingly disenchanted with his directionless life. “I had to leave (Ann Arbor),” he says. “I didn’t have any place to stay. I just made the decision at that time. I just had this day where I was completely fried with Ann Arbor. I was like, ‘This life sucks here. What am I doing here?’ It really came to the front of my desire. ‘What can I do now? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about moving into the temple. What better time to try it than now?’ ”

So he decided to adopt the lifestyle of a Hare Krishna monk: He became celibate, stopped eating meat, renounced intoxicating substances such as caffeine and tobacco, committed to chanting the maha mantra throughout the day, and shaved his head, leaving only the short tuft in the back. He moved into New Vrindaban’s ashram — the wing of the temple where monks live — in the fall of 2006. “For me, moving in here, because I was just floating around after I left college, it was like: I have to become responsible for myself. I have to do something with my life that I feel is positive,” Chris says. “I really felt that coming here and pursuing this path as a monk, as a devotee, going out and doing programs, becoming a spiritual person, trying to become an example for people to follow if they too want to follow a spiritual path — it’s not what I want to do, it’s what I need to do.”

"I really felt that coming here and pursuing this path as a monk," says Chris Fici, standing here in the Palace of Gold, "it's not what I want to do, it's what I need to do."

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all content copyright Rob Hardin and Eric Hornbeck 2008