An Incredible Journey

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

David Johnson studied under the Venerable Geshe Damcho Yonten (center), a Tibetan lama, and accompanied him around the world.

David Johnson has hitchhiked across Australia’s desolate Nullarbor Plain. He’s ridden a camel on China’s Silk Road. He’s meditated in Kathmandu. And he’s met the Dalai Lama on more than one occasion.

The Haiku resident has embarked on a series of adventures worthy of a Hollywood screenplay. And his journey is far from over.

Johnson was born and raised in the Southwest England city of Bristol. As a teenager, he taught himself the intricacies of programming and went on to earn a degree in computer science. While working in the then-nascent computer industry, Johnson says something began to gnaw at him.

“My life felt incomplete,” he said. “Something was missing. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I wouldn’t find it unless I went looking for it.” So, he quit his job, packed a bag and headed to the airport. For several months, he hopscotched — via plane, bus and on foot — through Australia and Southeast Asia.

One night in Sydney, Johnson attended a travel company’s presentation about the Himalayas and was instantly captivated by the images of the snow-capped mountains.

Haiku resident David Johnson embarked on a journey of self-discovery — and now he’s helping others rediscover themselves.

“It was like someone plugged my chair into a wall socket,” he recalled. “I was on the edge of my seat.”

Back home in England, Johnson began researching routes through the Himalayan range and became keenly interested in Buddhism, meditation, the Tibetan people, and the life and legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. It wasn’t long before he was consumed by the same sense of restlessness he’d felt years before.

“The mountains kept nagging at me,” he said. “There was something pulling me there. I had to go.”

Weeks later, on a sweltering afternoon in 1989, Johnson stood outside the Jinnah International Airport in Pakistan with a backpack slung over his shoulder. He journeyed through the rugged Karakoram mountain range into Kashgar, China, making his way to the ancient Kumbum Monastery (one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism) in Qinghai Province. There, he says, a feeling of familiarity washed over him.

“It was like meeting an old friend.” he said. “It felt as though all of my travels made sense.”

Not long after, Johnson arrived in Bodhgaya, a village in northeast India that is home to one of Buddhism’s holiest sites (it is where Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha.) Early one morning, as he wandered around the village streets in search of something to eat, he spotted a crowd gathered outside a Buddhist temple that had recently been converted into a medical facility. His curiosity piqued, Johnson made his way through the sea of people just as a nondescript green car pulled up — the passenger door swung open and the Dalai Lama emerged to greet the assemblage.

“He was just a few feet away from me,” Johnson said. “It was a surreal moment.”

In the months that followed, Johnson explored the mountains and monasteries of Nepal and India an eventually reached the hillside city of Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

In Dharamshala, he stayed with a Tibetan lama and immersed himself in the study of Buddhism and the teachings of the Dalai Lama, whom Johnson encountered once again — this time, with a smile and a handshake — during one of his public audiences there.

When his travel visa expired, Johnson returned home to England, and soon after, took up residence at the Lam Rim Buddhist Centre, a Tibetan Buddhist community in South Wales. For six years, he studied under Geshe Damcho Yonten, a Tibetan lama, and accompanied him around the world. He also attended multiple lectures given by the Dalai Lama in India and throughout Europe; Johnson was chosen to give a formal offering to the spiritual leader when he visited Glasgow, Scotland.

He met his wife, Melissa, a longtime Maui resident, in England. They lived in Wales for several years, then moved to Portland, Ore., in 2007. After eight years there, the couple decided to move to Maui in a homecoming for Melissa.

“If I was asked to state simply what Buddhism is all about, I would say that it is a way of living a happier, more peaceful life,” Johnson explained. “At least that’s been my experience with it over the past 25 years.”

And today, he helps others find ways to live happier, more peaceful lives.

He’s active with the Maui chapter of the ManKind Project (MKP), which conducts programs for men, including peer-facilitated men’s groups — called “I-Groups” — and the New Warrior Training Adventure, an initiatory retreat for men. Johnson took part in the transformative retreat as a participant in 2015 and he’s staffed it four times since; he also leads weekly I-Groups.

Johnson’s involvement with MKP inspired him to host monthly group meetings for men who identify as introverted and/or highly sensitive. According to psychologist Elaine Aron, highly sensitive people — those who have acute sensitivity to external or internal stimuli — account for 15 to 20 percent of the population and are often misunderstood by others.

“Being introverted or highly sensitive doesn’t fit the archetypal image of a male, but some of us are just wired that way,” Johnson said. “I wanted to give men a place where they can talk about it.”

And for the past year, Johnson has volunteered as a co-facilitator for weekly men’s mentoring groups at the Maui Community Correctional Center.

“It is really rewarding work,” he said. “The experience has given me insight into human nature and how we can change. I’m grateful I was asked to be a part of this.”

Johnson said someone once told him he’s lived an unconventional life.

“Of course, to me, it has simply been a natural unfolding of the path to truth and wisdom,” he said. “But I realize now that this path is not always available to everyone, and that awareness has led me to teaching and sharing what I’ve learned in order to help others enrich their journey towards greater peace, contentment and self-assurance in a world of uncertainty.”

To learn more about the ManKind Project and the next New Warrior Training Adventure, visit www.mankindproject.org. For more information about Johnson’s men’s group meetings, visit www.crossingthethreshold.net.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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