Journey to Mindfulness by John Wood

I met Bhante G. October, 2010 at his Forest Monastery in West Virginia. He was a small, thin man whose face struck me as being very young looking and no wrinkles! At the time he was eighty years old. He was very forthright in his dealings with people. He signed the book I purchased there with the words:

Journey to Mindfulness: The Autobiography of Bhante G.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Wisdom Publications, 1998

I met Bhante G. October, 2010 at his Forest Monastery in West Virginia. He was a small, thin man whose face struck me as being very young looking and no wrinkles! At the time he was eighty years old. He was very forthright in his dealings with people. He signed the book I purchased there with the words:

To John

with Metta

B Gunaratana

Oct. 1/10

Bhante G. started writing his autobiography while coming back to the States from Sri Lanka, so he told me and Gerry DePaula. I believe he was a very honest and brave man to write the things he did when he was young. Even his family and friends who read the book before it was published were shocked to know of the things he did. They asked him to take them out. He refused. To me it was very refreshing that he kept them in and made the rest of his story believable. He said it like it was. Good for him!

The Autobiography of Bhante G.

The family he was born into was large and very poor but good, solid, and reputable. His father was very stern and strict and to balance things his mother was just the opposite, i.e., loving, gentle and kind. She was injured severely when she fell from a tree and broke her back. The family was located in a very remote area of Sri Lanka, therefore she had no medical treatment and after suffering much pain she had to live with a contorted body. Bhante G. was very young at the time and so he grew up only knowing his mother bent as a cripple and usually in some kind of pain. His father became even sterner afterwards. He loved them both.

During his early schooling his teachers and parents discovered he was blessed with a photographic memory. He was the star of every classroom and could recite verbatim anything he read or studied. Because of his quickness with words and books he caused much enviousness and resentfulness in other students. This followed Bhante G. for a long time until a misfortune occurred.

Because of his prowess at memorizing long suttas he and his family saw no harm in his becoming a monk. So at the advanced age of twelve (12!) he was admitted as a novice monk. During his teenage years he did some very naughty things and at times was downright spiteful toward others. Bhante, later in the book, said that if he had it to do over he would never have started at such a young age. He was not ready to assume the responsibilities and hardships that a monk faced he declared. He believed that one needed to be a little more sophisticated to assume such an occupation.

It was at this time that Bhante G. divulged his ‘temper’ problem. Bhante’s friends, family and associates were stunned by the revelations of his ‘not-so-saintly’ habits while young and rebellious. He admitted that the tendency to ‘fly-off-the-handle’ plagued him throughout his 20’s and 30’s and got him in much hot water, especially with his superiors.

When a very young monk and in a frenzy of religious fervor he chanted for three days at the top of his lungs (he and his companion monk were competing with very loud drums). During this religious fervor he went a week without food and rest and eventually had a breakdown. The result — no more photographic memory! The family tried many different healers to get his wonderful photographic memory back, but nothing work. You may wonder what helped to eventually bring it back…you guessed it (or knew it) — meditation!

Many of his early Buddhist teachers were not good people — many faults. Bhante G. ran away from several of his Buddhist teachers when he was young and he was extremely unhappy with quite a few of his later Buddhist teachers/superiors who treated Bhante G. not as one would think they should for a person following the gentle ways of Buddha.

Money was always a problem while growing up and struggling to get an education. This was compounded by his vows of poverty. He was continually learning English throughout his early years and into his 30’s and 40’s. His attempts at getting an education were gallant — he scratched, scraped and almost begged to achieve the education he sought. He was going to get an education or bust! To someone who questioned his desire to learn English, he said, “I’m a Buddhist monk, and Buddhist monks can learn any subject they wish. I’m also a missionary, so I want to learn English and teach the Buddhadhamma in other countries. Whether you’re willing to teach me or not, I’m going to learn.” Some place else in the book he says, “I thought a college degree would be the talisman that would earn me respect among people of all educational levels. I figured the more education I had, the more people would be willing to listen to my Dhamma sermons.” Then later in the book just after he talked about achieving a Doctorate of Philosophy from American University he said, “… I don’t think we ever “finish” our education, just because we earn academic degrees. I think our learning goes on and on, if we pay attention. We are all learners until we attain enlightenment.”

Bhante G. was a small man and was frequently thought to be a woman throughout his adult life. When he first came to the United States and later so many people accosted him as ‘Ma’am’ that he gave up correcting them. This encounter took place while he was still in Malaysia: ‘When Kamburupitiye saw me for the first time, he looked bemused. “I don’t think you should stay in the robe,” he said. “You can’t be more than eighteen years old. You’re too young to be a fully ordained monk.” I laughed. I was thirty years old at the time, but I still looked like a novice.’

As the book progresses his Buddhism discourses become more numerous and poignant. For example, after his father’s death he talked about impermanence and death. ‘These notions of impermanence and death are some of the most difficult parts of Dhamma to teach. People chafe when hearings things like, “We’re all dying, moment by moment,” or “Everything is impermanent; we can hold onto nothing.” but it’s only because of our attachment to changing things, things we’ll inevitably lose, that we suffer.’

He brings up an interesting spin-off concerning impermanence or change. “Because of impermanence, we have the opportunity to learn, develop, grow, teach, and make other positive changes, including practicing the Buddha’s path. If everything in our world were set in concrete, none of those changes would be possible. The uneducated would stay uneducated; the poor and hungry would stay poor and hungry. We would have no chance to overcome hatred, greed, and delusion, and their negative consequences”.

Bhante G. dispersed Dhamma teaching throughout this book, but as the book progressed his discourses become more frequent and when something would happen to him he would follow-up immediately with some moral from the Three Jewels, the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha.

Why did Bhante G. come to America? Have to read the book because his life prior to coming here was just a preparation for that move. Divisions between Sinhalese and Indian branches of the Mahabodhi Society brought Bhante G. many headaches and insurmountable problems. Politics is rife in the Mahabodhi Society. He dealt with India’s untouchables extensively — later affecting his health. During his time in India working with the untouchables he came in contact with Doctor Bhimarao Ambedkar. Buddhism, to Ambedkar, offered a path of compassion and an escape from the rigid caste system that Hinduism supports.

Bhante moved to Malaysia. There in Malaysia he worked on his English speaking skills which caused some dissension with the people who asked him to come there. They were critical because they wanted him to use more Sinhalese during the Dhamma classes instead of English. He continued using English! He was a man of conviction and managed somehow to usually get his way. When he didn’t he found a way of getting away.

Bhante acknowledges having a fear of people who are older due to his upbringing. He said, “When I was a boy, we could never talk back to our parents. Never. We were supposed to keep our mouths shut out of respect for our elders. Not once in my whole childhood did I dare to disagree with my father, or even speak strongly to him. It was the same at school; the teachers knew everything. They dispensed the knowledge, and we weren’t allowed to question or debate any of it. So all during my childhood, I was dutifully quiet. I hardly spoke around adults. And that conditioning persists, believe it or not, seventy years later. Sometimes I have a dream in which I’m sitting with my father or my teacher, and I’m afraid to speak. The fear is deeply rooted in my subconscious.”

Bhante goes to America. After his brother, Rambanda, died, he received a letter that would change his life. It was a formal invitation from the Sasanasevak Society asking him to go to Washington D.C. and become a teacher in one of their temples. In Bhante’s words: “I was forty years old, and finally I was about to do what I’d always wanted — to teach Dhamma in English, in the capital of the foremost English-speaking country in the world”.

He finally made it to the Washington Buddhist Vihara after some interesting moments arriving in New York City — read about it in the book. After much time serving in sundry ways with that organization, eventually temple politics drove him away from there to the Forest Monastery — in Bhante G’s words: “The truth is, I had gotten tired of temple politics. The original founder of the Washington Buddhist Vihara belonged to the Amarapur Nikay sect of Theravada Buddhism. I belonged to another sect, Siyam. That, unfortunately, created conflict over the years.”

His dealings with the opposite sex were very minimal (he was a celibate monk since the age of twelve). During a period in the 70’s he was asked to give a two week Dhamma retreat in New Mexico. While there he was confronted with examples of free love. After he had been very embarrassed seeing nude women swimming close to where he thought he was sheltered from such sights he asked the manager to move him to a more secluded cabin. He set up his new quarters and that night after teaching all day he walked to his cabin and saw a light in it. He thought that was quite nice of the management to do that for him. When he entered his quarters he saw a young woman lying in his bed. He was incensed and demanded her immediate evacuation! Here are his thoughts about that encounter: “It seemed to me that any person who tried to seduce me was dis-respecting me as a monk and as a teacher. It was a slap in the face to 2,500 years of tradition and a grave insult to the teachings of the Buddha. Maybe it sounds incredible, but I don’t find the vow of celibacy a burden. As a monk, it is my choice to live this way. It has been my life since I was a young boy. I wouldn’t think of compromising it”.

I love his genuine love for humans. Here is an example of his thoughts about metta: “My response to discrimination is usually simple: metta, or loving-friendliness. It is one of the four brahma viharas, or “heavenly abodes” describe by the Buddha. It’s a pure, unadulterated desire for the well-being of others, a love without attachment or expectation, practiced unconditionally. It’s the ultimate underlying principle behind all wholesome thoughts, words, and deeds. Metta transcends barriers of religion, culture, geography, language, and nationality. It is a universal and ancient law that binds all of us together. We need it in order to live and work together harmoniously. Especially because of our differences, we need loving-friendliness. And when we extend this sentiment toward others, it naturally makes our own lives happier and more peaceful. I used the power of metta every day in that refugee camp. The refugees needed it to help heal their psychological and emotional wounds. I needed it, too, to stay strong enough to work with them in such painful circumstances. And those who opposed what I was doing — well, quite frankly, they needed it, too.”

The book is very readable. It is a page turner and somewhat of a quick read. You will grow to respect the man and the monk more than before.

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