Be good, be happy

By D. C. Ranatunga, Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), Feb 4, 2007

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- ''Our world is a smaller place today. We travel around a lot. We do meet each other, we do marry each other, and we make friends with each other. That's a wonderful time for our world where, as the world gets smaller, we get to know each other better. Maybe with that friendship, knowledge and everything, we can overcome many of the difficulties which separate our nations, religions and peoples.''

<< Ajahn Brahmavamso

This is how Ajahn Brahmavamso, the world renowned meditation teacher from Perth, Australia summed up current trends, at the end of an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times. When I met him around 8 p.m., he had just concluded a full-day meditation retreat. Yet he was fresh and most willing to talk. Greeting me with his charming smile, this frank and amiable personality spoke, joked and laughed during our half-hour chat.
Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso

Autographing his best-seller 'Opening the door of your heart' for me, Ajahn Brahm said the book had now been translated into nine languages — Russian, Portuguese, Danish, German, Sinhala, Thai, Indonesian, Korean and Mandarin. The German edition sells best. His latest book titled 'Mindfulness Bliss and Beyond — A Meditator's Handbook' is expected to be out as a Buddhist Publications Society (BPS) publication in the near future.

I asked Ajahn Brahm why he is so fond of relating stories in his Dhamma talks. He said:

"Even the Buddha related stories. The stories are the elements of human experience. Life is a series of interlocking stories. Sometimes we take the meaning of those stories and their philosophical content and present them to the people but the people do not relate to the philosophical aspects but they relate to the story. When we tell a story which has a message it's very easy for the people to remember. Very often it's amusing — so they enjoy listening to it and they remember it. It's a wonderful means of imparting the Dhamma to the people in a meaningful way and in a way they remember.

"It has worked very well. Even the youth enjoy listening to stories and each time you tell a story, people get more depth of meaning from it and they find out their own meanings and they go deeper into understanding the moral of the story — teaching people to be kind, good, gentle and wise."

In his opening talk at Sambodhi Vihara, he spoke of goodness and kindness as virtues people should try to develop.

"Sometimes, if people want to have a good time, they have to be good. At other times, when people look at goodness, it means you have to be unhappy or you have to give up your happiness. But the truth of the matter is that the more virtuous you are, the happier you are. Being a good person increases your happiness.

“I don't mind telling you this story because we live in a modern age. When I was a young university graduate, I used to drink alcohol at parties where you meet a nice girl and after dancing with her you kiss her, sit in a dark corner, whatever. When I was drunk, I was not aware of that last part of the party which was the most enjoyable part. When I gave up alcohol, not only could I know what I was doing when I was kissing the girl, I could enjoy remembering it. That increased my pleasure. Even that way you can see that the more virtuous you are, the happiness and the awareness increase.

“Kindness is part of goodness. Because, as the Buddha once told His son Rahula, whatever is harmful to another person and harmful to yourself, is what is unvirtuous. Whatever is helpful to another person and helpful to yourself, that is called virtuous, good Kamma. So it is obviously being kind to yourself, is to be virtuous, to be good. There is no difference being kind and being good. Immoral people are unkind to themselves and unkind to others,” he said.

How to relax

With so much of talk about everyone being busy, Ajahn Brahm insisted that meditation is ideal for busy people. “Even if you are a busy person, it is more important to be able to spend some time being peaceful. If you don't learn how to be peaceful, you soon get very, very tired.”

To explain how meditation helps you, he used a simple exercise lifting the half-filled glass of water he had in front of him. "Say I am lifting up this glass of water and you ask me how heavy it is. If I keep holding the glass of water for five minutes, it appears quite heavy. If I continue to hold the glass for half an hour, I will be in quite a lot of pain. If I keep on holding it for two hours, I would be a stupid monk. When it starts to get heavy, what should I do? Put it down — let it go. I don't need to throw the glass of water away — I just put it down for, may be for 20 seconds. When I pick it up again, it feels lighter because I have rested.

“The problem of stress in our modern world is not because we do too much — it's because we don't know how to put our burdens, our responsibilities down for a few minutes and rest and relax. All we need to do is to rest for 15 or 20 minutes in meditation and afterwards we find ourselves so relaxed, we can carry the burdens of life without so much stress. That is what meditation is — learning how to relax so that you can do more with less stress,” he said.

Pointing out that meditation is the heart of Buddhist tradition, he said the Buddha became enlightened when He was meditating and that it was part of Buddhist heritage. “Learn the basics from a monk or a lay teacher and you will find it wouldn't harm the quality of your life. You will be a happier person. A Harvard professor last year published a paper after following meditation for seven years and found that your brain increases in size in meditation. You become more intelligent when you meditate. Find a place and just learn how to relax the mind. Bring some peace into your mind and increase your intelligence - for no charge!" he advised.

Human resources conference

Ajahn Brahm has been invited to conduct one of 11 master classes at the 2007 Human Resources and Development Conference in London in April. He will join a galaxy of top level businessmen including Gavin Davies, the former head of the BBC, and Bill Bryson, Chancellor of Durham University and author of one of last year's best-sellers, 'Short History of Nearly Everything'.

“Among them will be a penniless monk from Australia. It's a wonderful thing that there would be a Buddhist monk at this conference where there will be no other religious leaders — a Buddhist monk teaching around 2000 Vice Presidents and CEOs from all parts of Europe how to run their businesses,” he said.

I asked him what he was going to tell them.“My theme will be learning how to include spiritual practices such as relaxing in meditation, about positive attitudes such as learning from successes rather than from your mistakes, learning how to have a positive attitude for all things in mind so that in a company, people will be working together instead of having office politics. We can be more efficient in the workplace rather than wasting time on arguments and personal agendas which are bad for the company. What's bad for the company is bad for the workforce because they would lose their jobs and the company would go down and the economy will falter. If we only know how to improve the quality of life at work we can also improve happiness especially happiness at home."

Spread of Buddhism

When I asked him of his observations on the interest in Buddhism as a frequent traveller around the world, he said it was growing enormously. He quoted figures from a survey done by the Swedish government in 2005 among all the high school students in the country. “Among the many questions was one where they were asked if they had to choose a religion, which religion they would choose. They had to tick one religion and 60% picked Buddhism. It's a fascinating piece of evidence to show how popular Buddhism is in the Western world. About 60% means a huge number of youth in Sweden had said that of all the religions they liked Buddhism the most.”

He sees the dearth of teachers and leaders as one reason why Buddhism isn't growing faster. "So we are putting talks on the Internet, on UTube — for the benefit of young people. These are up and coming media outlets for the youth where they can download the Dhamma talks in their bedrooms at their own time. On video they can see and hear and they can email back and ask questions. That way the Dhamma is interactive. Instead of expecting our kids to go to the temple, the temple goes to their computer consoles. This is what the Buddha recommended — that you go out into the world — not one person by the same route — to spread the Dhamma. But instead of going by foot we go by the mouse!”

Curious to know what made him remember Sanath Jayasuriya hitting sixes in New Zealand recently (he mentioned this in one of his Dhamma talks), I asked him about his interest in cricket.

"I go through the newspapers. It's important to read the newspapers — the good newspapers — especially in my capacity as a teaching monk so that I can answer questions, be it on the environment or about people's daily concerns. I have many disciples who are Sri Lankans and we often talk about cricket.

I have a very good memory and I know that Jayasuriya is doing an excellent job for the Sri Lankan cricket team, as is Murali," was his answer.

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