A conversation about challenges, happiness and the spiritual journey

After wandering around the world, Buddhist monk Frans Melchers, who was born in Bakhuizen, is temporarily back in Friesland to visit family and friends. We’re going to go into town together. “We learned a lot about the world at the home of our maternal grandparents.”

Original article by Rixt Oenema, published in the Leeuwarder Courant, July 18, 2023
Translation by Amina Stemmler
Photos by Catrinus van der Veen

The Summer. A great time to have a conversation with each other and to talk to people who have a story to tell about what concerns them and the challenges in life but also about where happiness can be found these days. Today, Frans Melchers.

The spiritual life journey of Fransiscus Ismaël Melchers (‘Frans’ to his family and friends) or Karma Ösung (his Tibetan novice monk name) brought him from India to Harlingen. The Buddhist monk (36) is temporarily back in Friesland for the first time in more than three years to see his family and friends. In front of the house of his mother Anneke Melchers and stepfather Hylke Smits, with his maroon and saffron robes fluttering in the wind, he points out a good parking space to the reporter.

Are you at home? Does it feel that way?

“What is home..? I definitely don’t have to be in the Netherlands to feel at home. I have that feeling also in India, where I currently live. And actually, I already am a kind of nomad: traveling all over the world to help people who are looking for the meaning of life and lasting happiness. Always and everywhere, I continue my own study and practice of Buddhism.”

“By the way, for the first two weeks of my visit, I did not actually make any appointments – I had only intended to be with our mother. However, my schedule filled up so quickly that I almost needed an assistant. These two months in the Netherlands have provided me with plenty more food for thought. But you know? As a teenager, whenever I saw pictures of monks and nuns in Tibet, I always thought to myself, ’That’s home.’”

Fransiscus Melchers is the youngest in a family of four sons. His brothers are Folkert, Martijn and Tom. They grew up in Bakhuizen, at the foot of their province and along Iselmar (Lake IJssel). Their village was large enough to provide the foundation for their upbringing; school, sports like soccer and tennis, and church activities. Yet, their parents always told them that there was a whole world beyond Gaasterland and that they should think bigger.

His father, Tom Kusters, operates a driving school and his mother works in healthcare. Despite their busy occupations, his parents spent all their vacation time to enrich their sons as much as possible. They went on hiking trips throughout Europe, from Ireland all the way deep into Scandinavia, learning mountaineering and canoeing. And in their Bread & Breakfast accommodations, they encountered people from foreign places and with different backgrounds. Appreciation of nature and openness to the world of others – that’s what it’s all about.

Religion is intertwined with everything. Frans attends catechism and serves as an altar boy at the village church, Saint Odulphuskerk, where the priest preaches on good and evil and on the origin of all things. They play soccer at the Roman Catholic [Soccer] Club where Frans stands out as a left winger. After church services on Sunday, his whole family always gathers together at Grandma and Grandpa Melcher’s farm in Mirns for coffee and cake.

Photo by Catrinus van der Veen, originally published as part of the article in the Leeuwarder Courant, with the text: “I definitely don’t need to be in the Netherlands to feel at home.”
What did God or faith mean to you as a boy, do you still remember?

“I don’t think I really ever felt Catholic. Did I have deep conviction as in, ‘I believe in God’ or ‘I follow Jesus’? No, I didn’t. However, the deeper question was always present in me and also in my brothers – What was the meaning of it all? On Sundays, at Grandpa and Grandma’s, we learned a lot by listening intently to the adults as they were discussing worldly matters.”

“I recognize now that on the maternal side of the family, there are many altruistic relatives. Making the world a better place can also be found in small ways. For example, take my uncle, Nico. He left farming to pursue becoming an auto-mechanic. His interest in the functioning of gears led him to a position in which he can be helpful to others which, in turn, makes him happy. He always stays positive. Uncle Nico responds to every challenge by saying, “Come on, we can do this!”

“Being raised Christian may have contributed to the fact that I prefer to do things right. Morality was taught to be very important. Moreover, our parents always encouraged us to study diligently at school. I completed all my studies decently and I was never a rebellious adolescent.”

At the age of thirteen, Frans’ parents separate. His father returns to his hometown of Rotterdam and his mother and the sons move to the village of Woudsend. They leave their Catholic way of life behind in Bakhuizen and no longer attend church services. Despite the very real impact of divorce and the loss that comes with it, they manage well in picking up the remaining pieces of life to create a new one.

At seventeen, he receives a community school diploma from the RSG, rents a room from a landlady in Rotterdam and furthers his education in sports marketing and management. During this period of his life, he continues to examine the purpose and meaning of life. He reads the philosophy based novel entitled Sophie’s World and becomes immediately gripped. His attention is captured in a way that has never happened in his life thus far and the story profoundly influences and shapes the next chapter of his life.

He knows he wants to study and teach philosophy. He quotes Socrates, one of his favourite philosophers, who held the view that an unexamined life was not worth living. How can people ever find meaning in a peaceful world if the big questions are not being asked? In other words, if we would all ask ourselves what truly gives life meaning, we can create a sustainably happier world. Those who open their hearts and minds will find wisdom and kindness within themselves.

He is happy and content with the years he spent studying philosophy at Utrecht University and afterwards, as a teacher at a secondary school in Rotterdam. Together with a good friend, he publishes two collections of works on philosophy and well-being in education and upbringing. So, this is sustainable happiness; the kind that comes from within and is not dependent on circumstances.

In the meantime, life continues to steer him towards new crossroads. In 2011, he travels to India with his girlfriend to attend a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Dharamsala – a place known as a refuge for Tibetan exiles and their spiritual leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. And although the love relationship does not last, Buddhism becomes rooted deeply within Frans Melchers. He meditates and searches for ways to practice the teachings of the Buddhist tradition, known as the Dharma.

Upon returning to the Netherlands, he joins Nalandabodhi, an international Buddhist community founded by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche who later becomes his spiritual teacher. In his small study group, an exercise on bringing death closer to the mind makes a big impression on Frans. Suppose you still had ten years to live? One more year to live? Six more months? One more week? One more day? What would you do and what would you let be with the time that is left? Frans answered, with 10 years left? Become a Buddhist monk in a monastery.

We go into the city for a vegan lunch at Eetcafé Nooitgedagt. Lunch must end before 2pm at the latest, after which time, he forgoes meals for the remainder of the day. The Buddha ate one meal a day, after sunrise and before noon. In his maroon flip flops, we stroll through town together while Frans explains that daily fasting is one of 36 vows he has taken as a novice monk. There are many tourists and a group of workmen are sitting on a terrace.

You can’t deny it. By their facial expressions, I see people reacting to your appearance. What do you think of that?

That is how it is. My robes are an important symbol but at the end of the day, they are only pieces of clothing. I do notice that my appearance can be like a mirror to people I encounter and spontaneously offers opportunities to make a genuine connection, from heart to heart. Ha! At first, my mother thought it would be startling to others when I  cross the street in my robes. Then she worried that people would have unkind reactions but in actuality, the opposite is true. It often sparks wonder and questions.

In 2017, he makes a long overdue trip to Tibet and he meets a new love, a Jewish Orthodox woman. He travels to Jerusalem to spend more time with her and pursues yet another masters degree in Jewish studies at Hebrew University. But that heart and head of his keeps whispering, “Go the other way!” When Frans finally fully embraces his aspiration  to become a Buddhist monk and to preferably attend a Nepalese monastery, his mother responds that of course this was a good path as long as her youngest child comes home once a year to visit.

And now? He lives on campus at Sarah, the College for Higher Tibetan Studies in Dharamsala, India. It is a life of celibacy, simplicity, and devotion. He studies Tibetan there and immerses himself in the Vinaya; the Buddha’s precepts and instructions, mainly to guide the lives of monks and nuns into a virtuous direction. The volunteer work for Nalandabodhi continues without interruption.

His wanderings, his questions: everything comes together on July 4, 2022. That is the day that Fransiscus Ismaël Melchers from Bakhuizen, in the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, at the foot of the Himalayas, receives his monastic vows from His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche. A last strand of hair is cut off and the ceremony fills him with gratitude, a feeling of being strongly supported and a new sense of responsibility and a sense of commitment.

In his new, maroon and saffron robes, he is now part of a 25 century old tradition of Buddhist monastics. Because the fabric of the sitting quilt of spiritual teachers and students are ‘touching’ each other during the ceremony, the monks and nuns, generation after generation continue to be directly and symbolically connected to the Buddha himself. The most important message: ‘Do not do anything that is harmful. Be virtuous. Tame the mind.”

Photo: Catrinus van der Veen, shot at the Pier of Harlingen
The world is very chaotic. How do you deal with that?

“We humans are like waves on the ocean. Waves themselves are not that interesting but the depth and the current below is. We allow too many outside influences to disturb our inner life. If you can release your grip on those outer disturbances, you will naturally experience peace, brightness and kindness on the inside. So, there’s no need to get upset too quickly or get carried away by all those outside influences. One can choose to say to oneself: At the moment, I don’t need to know everything about everything and that’s perfectly fine.“

“We allow too many outside influences to disturb our inner life.”

“Everything is interconnected! Look at the food on our plate. How did it get here so beautifully? The service brought it to us. The cook made it with love. The farmer cultivated the ingredients. The weather and the soil ensured that the vegetables could grow. Wow. This interconnectedness helps us understand that we can help each other. Together, we can bring more kindness, freedom and peace to all living beings. I’m still just a beginner myself but even so, I feel I do understand the message – Nothing beats kindness.”


What is that like for the family, when a son or a brother leaves home to live far away in India as a monk? There may be less contact but the contact has deepened, say mother and son. For example, she was able to recommend to him, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiesen, a classic philosophical story about a hike through the Himalayas, which he read with great interest. Anneke Melchers: “It has enriched my life.” Her youngest: “We talk more deeply about inner matters.”

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