Brain scientist turned Buddhist monk now tells his story through comics

Jan 31, 2018

Chuck the Monk, Carlos Valencia, and Diego Otero.
Credit Chuck the Monk

Homer, commonly known as the Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea, is a beacon for artists around Alaska, but it also attracts others from Outside who are looking for a place to work on their craft. Colombian writer Carlos Valencia is one of those artists. He travels around the world writing a comic strip about a Buddhist cat named "Chuck the Monk" and is giving a talk on it at Many Rivers on Friday. Chuck is based on Valencia, who also happens to be a brain scientist. 

Earlier this week, Carlos Valencia spoke on the phone with his friend, Diego Otero, who lives in Colombia,  about a drawing of a pancake.  They were making sure their “Chuck the Monk” comic strip would be drawn just right. Valencia writes the script and does a rough sketch. Otero illustrates the final version.

Valencia posts a new comic strip online weekly. He also published a collection of the comics in a book called “Chuck the Monk—Empty Fun.” He’s preparing to publish another collection of his comics in a few months. The comic centers around the life of a very curious cat.

“It's a hyperbolic version of me because he is a brain scientist who got all stressed out with objective knowledge and competition," Valencia said. "And you know he was looking for answers about what is the mind, what is the self, using the tool that is science.”

Valencia was a brain scientist in Amsterdam for years, and eventually grew tired of constantly competing with his fellow scientists on how many talks "you give around the world, how many papers you published, grants, what kind of position do you have within a research institute." 

As he became more disheartened by academia, the same curiosity that led him to be a brain scientist in the first place eventually turned philosophical, specifically Buddhism.  He was reading about quantum physics and consciousness when the topic came up. Curious about it, he went to the Zen Center near his university.

“I was expecting to have all these intellectual discussions about consciousness and what is it," he said. "And the main message is shut up and sit down, you’ll see.”

Valencia found that this pursuit of self-exploration scratched an itch that science couldn’t. And it allowed him a slower life without competition. So, he did what any logical scientist would do, and became a monk.

He quit his job and now travels the world with his wife. Valencia hatched the idea to transform his new life into a comic with his friend in 2013. It turned out, searching for life’s answers as a Buddhist Monk in western cultures can be good fodder for comedy. In one comic strip, Chuck’s teacher says, "Being a Buddhist is about how to undefine the self. The moment you define yourself as a Buddhist, you automatically stop being one." Chuck struggles with this. 

"Yeah, great line to answer to Dad about my life choices," Valencia said quoting Chuck from the book and then added, "Which means probably his Dad is asking well now, what? Are you Buddhist or what?  It's not that easy, Dad. Well yeah, I'm a Buddhist, but you know I'm trying to deconstruct this identity..."

Even with struggles like these, Valencia said he is happier now than he was as a scientist. Besides, the core of what he does is the same. He’s still on a quest for knowledge, just now, less office time.

Valencia’s talk on "Chuck the Monk" will be at Many Rivers from 6:30-8 on Friday.