Recently I gave my 2nd Toastmasters speech – about my life as Buddhist monk at Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery, in Serpentine, South of Perth. I’ve put the text of that here, so you can understand a little what life is like in a Theravada Thai Forest monastery in Australia.
In my Icebreaker speech, I took you to the gates of Bodhinyana Monastery. Now it’s time to take you inside, into the world of a Theravada Thai Forest monk.
Bodhinyana, in Serpentine, south of Perth, is the monastery of Ajahn Brahmavamso, universally known as Ajahn Brahm. Ajahn means teacher in the Thai language. Originally from England, Ajahn Brahm had disinguished himself as a brilliant student, scholarships taking him all the way to a Masters Degree in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University. After a period of teaching, and
having discovered the amazing power of meditation, he set off to Thailand where he ordained under the renowned Forest Master Ajahn Chah. Famous throughout Thailand for his diligent practice and his extra-ordinary ability to teach, Ajahn Chah founded a monastery which today is the head of a
tradition that numbers some 300 monasteries, including monasteries in a number of Western countries. His ordination name is Bodhinyana, meaning Enlightened Knowledge and so it was that Ajahn Brahm came to help establish Bodhinyana Monastery in 1984. After a long period as second monk he eventually became Abbot.
A bit over a month after I arrived it was time to swap lay clothes for the clothes of an Anagārika, meaning one who has gone forth from household life to homelessness. An anagārika is a trainee monk who wears white. Even in the time of the Buddha (about 2500 years ago in Northern India) there were white clothed lay followers, where wearing white symbolises purity and the keeping of 8 Buddhist moral precepts. All sincere followers of the Buddha keep what are known as the 5 precepts:
• from killing living beings
• from stealing
• from sexual misconduct
• from lying
• from intoxicating drink and drugs
An Anagārika keeps 8 precepts; the third precept changes to become abstaining from sexual activity plus an additional 3 precepts. The additions are to not eat after midday, to abstain from wearing scents, jewelery, beautifying the body, and from going to entertainments, which includes music and
such things as fictional tv shows and movies. There is also abstaining from high and luxurious seats and beds.
This prohibition on entertainments made the library at Bodhinyana a very popular place!
As an Anagārika I drove the monks to invitational meals and appointments, worked during the communal work period, studied the teachings, attended Ajahn Brahm’s weekly evening talk on the teachings (Dhamma talk) and practised meditation.
I spent a year as an Anagārika, continuously observing the 8 precepts and wearing white, before ordaining as a Novice monk (a sāmanera).
Novice ordination was a landmark event for me. Now I would keep 10 precepts. One precept is split in two and the extra precept is to refrain from the use of money of any kind. From the moment of my ordination I would wear a brown robe and be entirely dependent on the monastery and supporters for my every need.
Anagārikas in Thailand wear a skirt, like the monks do, but in Australia we wore white pants, so Novice ordination was the end of pants, and underpants, for the foreseeable future. Instead I would wear an underskirt (bathing cloth), top skirt (sabong), a piece of cloth that covers the chest but leaves the right shoulder entirely exposed (angsa) and a brown robe (jiwong). As an anagārika I had
shaved my head completely every 2 weeks for the new and full moon holy days and now as a Novice I would continue this practice.
The time leading up to my ordination was nerve-racking. I had left behind family and friends and now, with the giving up of my wallet and car keys (monks don’t drive) I would be leaving the lay world, perhaps forever. The most common refrain in my mind at the time was ‘what the hell are you
doing?’ To add to the pressure was that my ordination was to be in front of several hundred supporters at the city centre where everyone was to gather to celebrate Vesak – the day in May that commemorates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, all of which occurred on Full Moon days in May.
For my ordination I took the 10 precepts under Ajahn Brahm and he became my preceptor, my spiritual father. I was also given my monks name, which is Pāsādika. The day went well and I was now Venerable Pāsādika. Driving home in the car, no longer the driver but the driven, was an odd feeling. For the first time I would be permitted to sit with the monks as they took their evening
drinks and allowables. We don’t eat after midday but certain allowables (basically sugar lollies and some medicinal items like dark chocolate) were allowable. I still remember being back at the monastery returning to my hut in the forest. I felt as if the birds, which used to flee from my stark
white figure, now accepted me as another forest creature in brown. Also, I would now sit at the end of a long line of monks and novices (about 20 of us in all) for the daily meal at 10:00 am.
After a year as a Novice it was time for full ordination as a Bhikkhu. A Bhikkhu in the language of the teachings, which is called Pāli, means one who depends on alms food. A novice may cook, but a fully ordained monk may not and depends entirely on what is provided to him by lay supporters. He keeps not 10 but 227 monastic rules, known as the Vinaya. He receives a set of robes and a bowl
from supporters who are close to him and who become his spiritual parents. Included in the set of robes is a thicker ceremonial robe, the sanghati, which is folded and worn over the left shoulder during ceremonies.
All up I was in robes, from Novice to the end of my Bhikkhu years, nearly 10 years. Although I did not make it as a monk long term the training stays with me still. I have learnt to endure, learnt the power of patience, learnt generosity and kindness and the importance of morality. I have seen joy shining in the eyes of a man kneeling in the dirt to offer rice into the bowls of passing monks. I have
met, served and spent time with the most extra-ordinary beings on the planet, the fully enlighted Forest Masters of Thailand. I have learnt, at least a little, what is beneficial and what is not beneficial and I live my life in a way that I hope is for my benefit and the benefit of all. Thank you.