Life Of A Buddhist Monk
Life Of A Buddhist Monk
Mettanando Bhikkhu (Thai Buddhist Monk) gives expert video advice on: How can Buddhism relate to human rights?; Why did you become involved in human rights?; What have been your experiences of meeting the Dalai Lama? and more...
How did you find your calling?
Well, the spiritual journey started when I was about twelve or fourteen; about that age. I was deeply interested in meditation but not in Buddhism. My parents sent me to a Catholic school where I spent eleven years there. I didn't have a good impression of religion and I was almost ignorant of Buddhism. But my curiosity was in meditation, and one day, when I was walking in the streets of Bangkok, I heard two people talking about meditation experiences and that intrigued me a lot. They were talking about being mindful and breathing. I came back home and meditated, trying to do what they were talking about, and found it very, very peaceful. So, my first experience was that meditation was a strong impression for me, and so it made me meditate very often and I became more serious when I got into high school, which led to passing competitive examinations and it helped me to understand lessons learned in class.
When did you know you wanted to become a monk?
I was a member of Buddhist society in a University. I became very active and was elected president, and every year we organized a mass ordination retreat for students to become a monk for a month time. So far the project has been very successful and so I received my impression. This is what I like to live, a quiet peaceful life, and I found monks and meditation masters, very peaceful and thought it was a good life. My father was a doctor and his aim was to have me inherit his profession, his surgery, but I felt it was not a life I would like to live and I felt being a monk is more an answer of things I am looking for.
How can Buddhism relate to human rights?
I think the concept of human rights has to do with solving problems and solving them in the nature of suffering of human beings. I feel that the concept is also shared in the teaching of Buddha and that is the whole point. And I found that the Buddha respects the will of people in the same way that most thinkers and reasonable people agree. For example, he said that "I am just the one who shows the way" in other words like a sign post. "I show the way. It is up to you either to walk it or not". There is no commandment in Buddhism. You have your own free will to choose. Denying Buddha does not mean that one has to go to Hell. So he was quite liberal in his attitude, was a very good teacher and I think that is a part of the earliest Buddhist teaching. But later on to my surprise many teachers of Buddhism refused to accept the concept of human rights. And they said there is no ground in Buddhism. I say the opposite.
Why did you become involved in human rights?
One thing that changed my mind completely from the original orientation to Buddhism, which I took so strongly, was my experience and research on AIDS and Buddhism, which was my dissertation at Harvard, which I did 1990 to 1993, at Harvard Divinity School. My research topic was the AIDS epidemic and Buddhism in Thailand. It revealed to me another part of Buddhism, that I had never realized before. At that time, in 1991, Thailand was called the capital of AIDS of the world. Then my curiosity was whether Buddhism could help, and I did my survey, my research, and found to my surprise that it was a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. Then I started to rethink about the nature of Theravada Buddhism, and I found that the imitation of Buddhism made the region have very little interest in society, almost nothing. So monks and Buddhists, who were real, practicing Buddhists, had almost no interest in problems of society. In fact, they didn't see society. They want to live a very passive, peaceful life. That's all. So that was my approach. After that particular thesis, and what I conclude, I think Buddhism needs to reform, especially the law of karma, and make Buddhists more active and see the holistic perception of society, which included the self, as an active participant, to help others, and to help the world.
How does karma undermine human rights issues, such as AIDS?
One of the great problems was the invention of karma, which is very strong in most Buddhist school. I call it the logic of karma, which is you are what you have done, and you deserve everything what has happened to you. So, he has done something bad in his past life, and the karma that is done will be caught up with him. So he suffers as he deserves it. However, for the non-believer they just say he wasn't a bad guy, he just has bad luck, and he was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. So by this logic you can interpret very clearly that not only does this guy have bad luck, but he was also evil. He deserved it. So Buddhists tend to think that in this entire country, that people who suffer in poverty, or who live their life in poverty, or who suffer from AID's; they deserved it due to their past karma. And they don't have anything to do with us.
What are your feelings on gender equality?
I became strong supporter of equal rights between genders, especially among religious people. I think that it is essential to have an equal partnership between genders. Why it happened that way, because religions are institutions which provide care and nurturing to people. And who are the main caregivers? Women. Human civilization is based on nurturing and care. And the people who are actively involved with caring are women.
How were your writings about gender equality received?
My book became very controversial. A lot of senior monks came up and criticized me for being too Westernized, bringing Western value in Buddhist studies, and some even accused me of being a spy of the Pope, to destroy Buddhism. I think it's time for Buddhists to look critically of their own religion, of our own religion, and to find what we should improve.
What have been your experiences of meeting the Dalai Lama?
I think Dalai Lama is a very charismatic person, and his charm is not of his look, but his humbleness, his availability to listen to everything. And, he is a man of great thinking. He meditates very deeply, and he thinks very deeply and very honestly. When he doesn't know, he says "I don't know", and he tries to explain things in a very simple way. So, I have a great admiration of him.
What are your thoughts on western culture?
I have learnt a lot from Western culture, and I see that there are always loop holes and weakness in every society. By applying the logic of the teaching of Buddha, we should reform or improve our lives everyday. Now, by using the logic of the Buddhist community, I think that European culture is over developed and there's a high percentage of family breakdowns, high percentage of suicide, and high drug use in the West. The drinking problem is also everywhere. I think the society itself has lost some kind of integrity, and this is something I am also aware is happening in Thailand, and it can create a lot of problems. I see there are three pillars of life; these are healthcare, education, and religion. They form a triangle for the quality of life, and the individuals in communities should have rights and responsibilities to maintain this quality of life triangle. By doing so, they will feel they own the system and support of each other. It will maintain the quality of life for individuals in the community and will keep families together stronger and the health care system becomes cheaper. Volunteers are very important, and they are key to this. In Thailand we have the blessing of the culture. There are six million people who are registered volunteers with the ministry of culture, which is about 10% of the population. This is quite enormous. The government has not made full use of this as of yet. If they made full use of the volunteer system, they could create a very good society, with care to health education and spiritual well being united in the same place. So this is what I am promoting.