Buddhist monks

A Forest Monk’s Lesson in the New York Jungle (New York Times)

The stolen bag did not contain much in the way of material value. But its sudden absence greatly distressed the Buddhist monk who had been victimized, and so the police were summoned to the scene of the crime: a Starbucks at the opulent Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

A police officer in a softball jacket sat down to take the statement of the tall man in a brown robe, whose decaffeinated coffee, no milk, was turning cold. Routine questions elicited complicated answers. For example, the victim’s name was Venerable Kassapa, but Venerable is a term of respect, not a first name.

”I’m a Buddhist monk,” the robed man confided. ”In case you’re wondering.”

”I knew,” the police officer said gently. ”I’ve been around.”

This is a simple tale that is not so simple, about a monk, a theft and New-York style redemption….

Venerable Kassapa, 41, is a forest monk in Sri Lanka. He usually lives alone or with a few other monks in rock-shelter huts, where he depends on the charity of villagers. He eats one proper meal a day, does not carry money, and devotes much of his celibate life to meditation, contemplation and the study of Buddhist texts. People often bow before him.

He sometimes travels to other countries and often speaks to very small groups about Buddhism. For the last few weeks he has been in the New York area, his trip sponsored by the New York Society of United Sri Lankans.

On Monday afternoon he sat on a stone bench in front of the Plaza Hotel and recalled how, as a young boy in London, he became disillusioned with the world. ”I wanted to find a way out of discomfort and uneasiness,” he said. ”A way out of suffering.”

His mother’s struggle with an illness may have prompted his brooding; he is not sure. But he is certain that the factors leading him to a Buddhist temple at the age of 13 included these: his mother’s interest in transcendental meditation, and his own interest in a popular television program of the time, ”Kung Fu.”

When he asked one of the temple’s monks whether they taught martial arts as well as Buddhism, he recalled, the monk laughed. ”Here we don’t tend to the body,” the monk told the boy. ”We tend to the mind.”

At 14, he became a novice monk and moved to Sri Lanka; at 20, he was ordained. ”And I’ve never, ever, regretted making this move,” he said.

With the sun slipping behind the Plaza, Venerable Kassapa agreed to take a stroll for a cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Trump Tower. Walking down Fifth Avenue in his simple cloth robe, a simple cloth bag clutched in his hand, he was a character out of context: a six-foot-four study in self-denial, ambling along the boulevard of acquisition.

”I am a beast out of its habitat,” he said.

He passed under the ”You’re Fired” advertisement that adorns Trump Tower and moved through the marble lobby, seemingly unaware of the effect his presence had on others. As an escalator raised him up to a floor redolent of coffee, he was asked whether he knew the name of Trump. ”I’ve heard of him,” he said. ”He’s a very wealthy man.”

Venerable Kassapa sat at a small table and accepted a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Soon he was sharing what he described as his ”vision” for the United States: that this great country, filled with energy and potential, would one day lead the world into a brave new era of truth and harmony.

Shortly after suggesting that American power ”can be harnessed for harm or for good,” he noticed that his cloth bag was missing from the chair beside him. He felt no anger when he realized that the bag had been stolen, he said later. Only shock, because such things do not happen to contemplative monks.

”This is very bizarre,” he kept saying. ”Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

Security officers were summoned, and then two police officers from the Midtown North precinct. They glided up the escalator and walked directly toward the monk. He was easy to pick out.

One officer went off to check garbage cans, while the other interviewed the monk. Finally, the time came to detail what was in the bag. No money, of course (”I don’t use money,” the monk said), but an eclectic list of items duly recorded by the officer.

Among the articles inside the cloth bag: a white plastic bag, a cellphone that someone had lent to him for his New York visit, a bottle of water, some white thread that he gives to people as a blessing and many pieces of paper. On these were written the names and telephone numbers of his supporters around the world.

”I would really appreciate it if you could do as much as you can,” the monk said to the officer. But the officer leveled with the monk. ”A lot of times, with nothing of value, they just throw it in the trash,” he said. ”It could be in Brooklyn, it could be in the Bronx.”

The officers left Venerable Kassapa to contemplate his loss, especially the bits of paper bearing the names and phone numbers of all those friends. ”This is a raw lesson in life,” he said, the kind of thing that ”I first became a monk to overcome.”

He descended the escalator, peered briefly into a garbage can — just in case — and then paused to study Donald Trump, who was standing at the elevator bank, talking on a cell phone. ”I’ve never seen a billionaire before,” he said.

Outside, on Fifth Avenue, the forest monk expressed a keen desire to go to that Manhattan forest called Central Park. ”I need a little bit of a breath of fresh air,” he said, and then he was gone.

That could have been the conclusion to the monk’s New York tale. But destiny would not allow it.

Late Monday afternoon, Riccardo Maggiore found a white plastic bag at the entrance to his hair salon on West 56th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. Yesterday morning, his wife, Eileen, did some sleuthing. And before noon, plans were under way to return the plastic bag — though not the cloth bag — to its owner, a forest monk.

There wasn’t much inside the bag. A cellphone. Some white thread. And what Ms. Maggiore described as ”a million pieces of paper.”

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I Gave Up A Life Of Riches With My Millionaire Love To Live In A Buddhist Hut (Daily Record, Scotland)

I gave up a life of riches with my millionaire love to live in a Buddhist hut; As her wealthy lover proposed, offering her a Venetian apartment as an engagement present, Scots teacher Gabrielle McGuire realised all she wanted was to become a Buddhist nun.

Samantha Booth, Daily Record, Scotland: As a Buddhist nun, Kelsang Machig leads a simple life. She shaves her hair, doesn’t wear any make-up and doesn’t have many material possessions.

She’s celibate, teetotal and loves to spend time on her own in empty huts meditating. A far cry from the life she could have had if she hadn’t chosen to become ordained.

If she had accepted the marriage proposal from her handsome, multi-millionaire boyfriend a few months before she decided to become a nun she could have spent the rest of her life jet setting while decked out in designer gear and dripping with diamonds.

But the mum-of-three from Glasgow chose the maroon and yellow nun’s robes instead.

The 53 year-old said: ‘There is a little story I tell which best illustrates why I made the choice I did.

‘I had spent a weekend on silent retreat in a hut with nothing in it except a sink and a bed. Weeks later my partner took me on holiday to the best hotel in Venice.

‘He proposed to me, offering a luxury Venetian apartment as a wedding present and wined and dined me in all the best restaurants, but, when I compared the two holidays, I made a realisation. ‘When I was on my own in the hut I was possibly the happiest I had ever been and that feeling came totally from within.

‘In Venice I was having a great time but my happiness was dependent on all the things we had – the plush hotel, the sumptuous dinners and the expensive champagne so I turned the lovely man down and became a nun.’

That was 18 months ago and Kelsang Machig was ordained last summer.

She is coy when asked about her former boyfriend and refuses to name him, or show us his picture, but she assures us that while he was a successful businessman he isn’t a well- known figure.

Back when they first met she had simply been Gabrielle McGuire, who worked as a remedial teacher in Glasgow Academy.

She admits she had always been looking for something else in her life.

An old hippy at heart and interested in alternative ways of living she had tried it all from crystal healing to Reiki, but it wasn’t until she was first introduced to Buddhism more than eight years ago that she began to have an inkling she had found what she was looking for.

She said: ‘I think it all started when I first took up karate 10 years ago. It is a martial art and the teachings, quite naturally, took me into Buddhism ‘Even then it wasn’t until I started classes by my current teacher, Kelsang Tarchin, four years ago that I really knew I had found how I wanted to lead my life.

‘He taught mehow to bring the teachings of Buddha into everyday life and once I started to try to do what he said I saw it worked. I was hooked and wanted to know more and more I became a devoted student.’

Machig had only been learning under Tarchin for a year when he asked her to pass on what she had learned to others by becoming a Buddhist teacher but the twinkly-eyed mum wasn’t sure she was ready.

Although she happily followed the ways of Buddha, instructing others meant taking vows, like giving up toxins, that she wasn’t sure she was prepared to take just yet.

But she also knew she wanted the chance to help people find the kind of life she had found.

She said: ‘I had learned how to deal with anger, how to banish guilt, how to watch for the moments in every situation which used to annoy or irritate me and how to stop feeling like that.

‘I knew the teachings could have the same affects on others who wanted to learn.’

Over the years Machig became more and more involved in her religion, passing a lot of her knowledge on to her three sons.

But it wasn’t until she and a friend meditated through the Bells at New Year in 2002 that she knew for sure she wanted to take it that one step further and become a nun.

She said: ‘I found such great peace in being a Buddhist I wanted to take it as far as I could.

‘The idea had been forming for a while but although it wasn’t a flash of lightning, meditating while everyone else was partying was a really poignant moment for me and helped me to make my decision.’

WITHIN 48 hours of asking for ordination Machig was told she could fulfil her dream. In June last year she shaved her waist length hair and put on her new set of robes for the first time and prepared to start her life as a nun.

She was no longer Gabrielle McGuire but Kelsang Machig and she admits she sometimes still forgets what she is and thinks: ‘My goodness, I am a nun.’

She said: ‘I am so happy now. It is something I love doing and I am glad I am taking it as far as I can.’

Her parents found her transformation hard to take but they soon saw how happy becoming a nun made their daughter. Her sons on the other hand took it all in their stride. The youngest, 17 year-old Tom thinks it’s cool to have a Buddhist nun as a mum, her middle son Peter, 23, doesn’t have a problem with it and her eldest son, 24 -year-old Robert, had a surprise in store for Machig. The musician had grown-up with his mum’s Buddhist beliefs and like his younger brother Peter took classes and went on retreat.

But once he had seen his mum ordained he decided he too wanted to swap his rock band for monk’s robes.

He was ordained a month after his mum and as an ordained nun herself Machig was in the unique position of being able to attend her own son’s vow taking and was with him as he took his new name, Oche.

She said: ‘It was an incredibly special moment for me and a very moving ceremony. I was really excited by it all.’

Machig was also certain about something else. She knew she wanted to keep teaching even after she was ordained but did wonder what the reaction of the school, the pupils and their parents might be.

She said: ‘I tried to prepare them all in advance and include everybody as much as I could.They were all fantastic about it but I still think it was a bit of a shock for everyone when I first turned up with my hair all shaved off in my robes.

‘Especially as they all knew how much I loved my clothes, make-up and jewellery.’

But the newly-ordained nun knew she wouldn’t miss any of her material possessions andhad already given most of them away.

And what impressed Machig more than anything was the ease with which her pupils accepted her.

She said: ‘They were full of questions about my hair and my robes, but they really did take it all in their stride.

‘I told them it was now my job to be happy and they ask me all the time if I am happy today.’

Machig believes it is good for the world to see her out and about in her robes.

She doesn’t believe in ramming her beliefs down anyone else’s throats but thinks it is good for people to become accustomed to the diversity she brings.

And she says since she has been out and about in Scotland wearing them she has never had a negative reaction.

She said: ‘People look and smile andsome even come up and ask mewhy I am wearing them, but that’s all good.’

She might have turned down untold material riches and luxuries to become a nun but Machig is adamant she is far richer as she is.

[Original article no longer available]
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New seasons, new lessons and a nod to Buddhism (via Buddhist News Network)

Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING (Unrated) ***½

Transcendental, humorous, occasionally grim and above all wise film about the journey of life. An elderly monk teaches his young pupil some hard lessons in this intriguing reflection on the cyclic nature of life.

The South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk is known to many as a maker of violent films with a radical and often shocking view of Korean society. People who gave up watching The Isle, can however this time enter the cinema without fear to see Kim Ki-Duk’s serene and breathtaking meditation about the essence of life.

No one is immune for the power of the seasons and their yearly cycle of birth, growth and decay. Not even the old and the young monk who live as hermits in a floating monastery on a lake surrounded by mountains and trees. In the spring, the young monk in his cruel innocence binds stones on the backs of fishes, a frog and a snake. For punishment, he has to carry a stone on his own back as he looks in the stream for the frog and the fish he mistreated. When the boy is 17 (in the summer), a girl comes to the monastery.

The young monk soon experiences the meaning of love and obsession. In the third episode, autumn, the boy returns from the mountains as a 30 year old. The old monk finds him when he wants to commit suicide in front of the statue of the Buddha.

See also: A meditation on lessons of life (film review)

He makes him carve the Prajnaparamita Sutra in the wood to rediscover his tranquillity. As an adult man, the monk (now played by Kim Ki-duk himself) returns to the deserted monastery. A woman leaves her newly born son with him. In the last part of the film, it is against spring and we see an old monk and a child…

Nearly all of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring takes place aboard a floating monastery on a pond surrounded by picturesque trees and mountains. An oasis of serenity and beauty, the locale is far enough removed from civilization to feel like another planet — a perfect place for an old monk (Oh Young-soo) to raise his young disciple and educate him in the principles of Buddhism.

With the onset of each of the seasons, which leap ahead several years in the characters’ lives, the pupil learns a new lesson. In spring, while still a boy (Seo Jae-kyung), he discovers the price of casual, mischievous cruelty. In summer, now a teen (Kim Young-min), he experiences sexual longing when a young woman (Ha Yeo-jin) visits the temple for healing. The boy’s lust causes a rift between him and the monk that will take years to repair.

An entrancing cinematic poem, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring was written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, an accomplished South Korean filmmaker whose work remains largely unknown to American audiences (this is the first of his movies to receive wide distribution in the United States).

Kim, who also edited the film and appears as the adult pupil, leavens the movie with the tenets of Buddhist principles: Animals, meditation, man’s relationship to the natural world and spiritual penitence all factor strongly in the plot, which has the circular structure and resonant wisdom of an ancient fable. But this delicate, transporting movie, which keeps dialogue to a minimum to tell its story primarily through images, is also a triumph of sheer cinematic craft that mirrors its characters’ contemplative natures while extolling the virtues of lives simply led.

Cast: Oh Young-soo, Seo Jae-kyung, Kim Young-min, Kim Ki-duk, Ha Yeo-jin.

Writer-director: Kim Ki-duk.

Original article no longer available…

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Serenity now: Monks will help police combat teen violence

Lowell [Massachusetts]: A shaven-headed Buddhist monk in a saffron robe, the Venerable Sao Khon seems an unlikely crimefighter. But he might be one answer to violence on this city’s streets.

Police are planning to refer Southeast Asian youngsters who have run away from home to the Cambodian-born monk and his brethren to provide moral and religious guidance. Police hope to catch youngsters at a crucial point and keep their lives on track.

“They need to understand the difference between good and bad and they may not understand that,” the 68-year-old Khon said through a translator. “The kids need to talk about their problems to the monks and then the monks will show them which way is bad and which way is good.”

It is not the first time that law enforcement has turned to religious leaders for help with youth crime. Ministers were enlisted, for example, in the battle against violence in Boston’s black community in the 1990s, a program that has become a national model.

But the program is unusual in the Cambodian community in the United States. Khon, president of an association of 80 Cambodian Buddhist temples nationwide, said that he had not heard of a similar venture elsewhere.

Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston, is a former mill city with a population of about 105,000. Nearly one-fifth of the residents are of Asian descent, many of them Cambodians who arrived in the 1980s.

The Southeast Asian influence is obvious in the city’s Highlands section. Stores have signs in both English and Khmer. A playground is filled with Khmer shouts as dozens of young men play volleyball.

Straddling his bike, Kevin Yaing, 12, said he would be open to talking to a monk. “They know a lot,” he said. He also offered — quietly — that he wanted to become a monk himself, “but I know it’s a long process.”

But Vannara Nhar, 13, sat on a stoop with one hand in a bag of Cheetos and the other clutching a Kool-Aid, and said: “I think if they, like, talk to us, it would be boring. We’ll talk, but it would be boring.”

Police Capt. Bob DeMoura, who commands a precinct in the Highlands section, said he was concerned about a rising tide of violence related to Southeast Asian gang rivalries. Two weeks ago, for example, a dispute between two gangs resulted in a stabbing, followed the next day by a retaliatory shooting, he said.

The usual police tactics have not seemed to work, prompting the veteran cop to seek alternatives.

The program will focus initially on first-time runaways.

“I look at this as early intervention,” DeMoura said.

The counseling might eventually be offered to truants or as an alternative sentence for minor crimes, such as disorderly conduct.

Denise C. Lewis, a researcher at the University of Kentucky who has studied Cambodian immigrants, said that in the rural community she examined, it was not uncommon for Cambodian families to take their children, without police involvement, to a monk when they had problems.

Even in America, “there is a lot of respect, even among youth, for the Buddhist monk,” Lewis said.

See an archive of the original article.

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Cambodian monks use meditation to quit smoking

Cambodia’s Buddhist monks, dragged last year into the front line of the southeast Asian nation’s fight against smoking, are proving surprisingly adept at kicking the habit, campaigners said on Friday.

About a thousand saffron-robed monks were urged 12 months ago to quit smoking in a bid to get the general public in deeply impoverished Cambodia to follow suit.

Of that trial group, only 13 percent have lit up again, a very impressive level of abstinence, said Yel Daravuth of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

The United States-funded missionary group now wants to roll out its smoke-free monks project across the rest of Cambodia, where around a third of monks and two thirds of the male population are avowed puffers.

“The monks act as role models in society,” said Yel Daravuth. “We found that if monks quit, most laypeople said they would be prepared to quit as well, so we are targeting as many monks as possible to give up smoking.”

The guinea-pig monks even took saliva tests to prove they were not lying about not smoking. “Only two were cheating,” Yel Daravuth said.

And the secret of their success? Many hours of meditation, he said.

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