October 12, 2008 thesundaytimes
I, who have nothing
Monk Ajahn Brahm is against paying religious leaders a lot of money
- Tan Dawn Wei
While the world is going crazy over crashing share prices and collapsing banks, one man is completely unfazed. British-born Buddhist monk Venerable Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera, better known as Ajahn Brahm (Ajahn means teacher) in religious circles, declares himself “one person in the world who’s completely immune to the economic downturn”.
The 57-year-old does not carry a single penny, has no mobile phone or MP3 player. At his monastery set across 97ha of rolling hills in Serpentine, Western Australian he has no radio, Internet access of TV. He sleeps on the floor and has one meal a day from his alms bowl, where kind donors sometime slaps ice cream on top of curry.
Yet, he travels up to 10 times or more a year to speak at mental health seminars, human resource conferences and meditation meetings all over the world. And people turn up by the thousands to listen to him; he is like Anthony Robbins in monk roves, except his talks are mostly free unlike Mr. Robbins’. He’s also been described as “the Seinfeld of Buddhism” for his dry British wit, self-depreciation and candid talk on all things big and small.
You get a taste of this very soon after meeting him, when you ask him about how he travels without money, and with no entourage.
“I can’t go shopping for more clothes, this is the only robe I have. And the shops in Changi Airport haven’t got my colour. I don’t wear perfume and I don’t drink alcohol so it’s a waste of time buying duty-free alcohol. So what does a monk need money for?” he shrugs. He does, however, carry a mall cock just to make sure he doesn’t miss his plane. That, and a little bag that carries his toothpaste, razor and passport.
“The Buddha said a monk should be like a bird. You’ve never seen a bird carrying a suitcase even though he goes from country to country. It’s wonderful to be able to do that. It takes me five minutes to pack,” he grins.
Ajahn Brahm is in town on a whirlwind trip giving five talks in three days, one of which was on Friday, at the Asia-Pacific Psychiatric Rehabilitation Conference organized by the Institute of Mental Health. He has also been a spiritual patron of the Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore since 2000. That infectious humour of his, and the fact that he demystifies Buddhism with stories and anecdotes, has made him a highly respected teacher in the fraternity. He has a Facebook fan page with nearly 1,000 members – he is surprised when you tell him that; he’s never seen it.
But his credentials come largely from the way he lives. He furrows his brows at fellow monks and nun who wear gold watches, carry cellphones and get ferried around in expensive cars.
He doesn’t believe religious leaders should be paid a lot of money either.
“How much money did Jesus have? He had nothing. And the Buddha had nothing. We’re not supposed to be materialists; we’re supposed to be spiritual. And the world of the spiritual does not lie in material things. It lies in things like compassion and forgiveness and simplicity.”
People crave for authenticity in this day and age, he said, especially with all the spin from politicians, corporations and businessmen.
“We’re at an economic downturn here and many people are afraid of what might happen if they lose their savings and house, and I can come along and say I’ve never had a house and savings and I can be happy and peaceful. If I can do that with nothing, you don’t need to be afraid.”
Born Peter Betts to a poor family 0 his father was a casual worker and his mother a typist – the young man decided at age 16 that religion was important in life. He went out and bought one book of every major religion and did “market research”. Buddhism appealed to him.
After finishing theoretical physics at Cambridge University on a scholarship, he taught at a high school for a year before traveling to Thailand to be a monk for a year.
Five days at a monastery there was all it took for him to decide he wanted to do this for life.
He ha an older brother, by the way, who is an investment banker. Ordained at the age of 23 in Bangkok, he spent nine years studying in the forest meditation tradition – which uses a remote wilderness setting for spiritual practice – under the late Venerable Ajahn Chah.
In 1994, he took over as abbot of the Bodhinyana Monks Monastery in Australia, which he and the monks built from scratch, learning plumbing and bricklaying on their own. He is now building a retreat centre on the land.