Soulful wit

by NISSARA HORAYANGURA, Bangkok Post, Jan 3, 2006

Towards a more joyous New Year

Bangkok, Thailand -- If brevity is the soul of wit, then Acharn Brahm's brand of brevity brightened by levity is the wit of soul. Soul-nourishment, that is.

Acharn Brahm's dharmic punchlines make you stop and laugh, but also stop and think. One of his specialties is turning popular sayings on their head, adding a touch of Buddhist flavour.

For example, "truth doesn't hurt". It's the lack of truth that hurts in life. Or tooth for a tooth just makes more work for dentists. Another great T-shirt possibility: "Make Metta Not War".

Formally called Acharn Brahmavamso, and and before that, Peter Betts, Acharn Brahm is an English monk who had trained under the venerable forest monk Acharn Chah. Chanelling his teacher, Acharn Brahm has adopted Acharn Chah's down-to-earth sensibility while updating and urbanising his teachings.

It's a refreshing spin on dharma instruction. Too often, dharma discourse can be difficult to understand, loaded with incomprehensible Pali vocabulary or just too lengthy to hold one's focus. Not Acharn Brahm's.

At first glance, there is nothing atypical about Acharn Brahm's first contribution to the dharma publication scene, entitled Opening the Door of Your Heart. Its cover is earth-coloured and features a single Bo tree leaf _ your standard-issue, non-flashy, Buddhist-looking dharma book. But, as they say, never judge a book by its cover.

Its plain exterior belies what is in fact a colourful, and eminently readable, collection of 108 humorous tales that also happen to contain Buddhist ideas.

Believe it or not, this dharma book could actually be called a page-turner. In one riddle-like cliff hanger, seven monks are held by bandits. The head monk is asked to sacrifice one so the others can go free. Who would he choose? His brother, his best friend, his enemy, an old monk, a sick monk, a hopelessly incompetent monk, or himself?

Indeed, the stories are not simply funny no, they are not simple at all. What they do is convey the profound dharma in a simple way, which makes them all the more incisive. And because each story in it is so short, it doesn't feel daunting to pick up. You can bite off one morsel to chew at a time _ or a few, because, like crisps, they are addictive. And you can easily come back for seconds, re-reading your favourites to let them really sink in.

It's perfect for people of this day and age, with our busy lives, our short attention spans, our oversaturated media-scape.

That's precisely what Acharn Brahm had in mind. He says, If what you say cannot be understood by a child, it's not worth saying.

He adds, "You have to make [dharma] entertaining so people will listen, that's when you get teaching done.

"One of the problems with religion is that it sometimes gets too boring. And the truth can be very entertaining." He beams a smile that sparkles with good humour.

In person, Acharn Brahm's warmth is palpable. It's testament to nearly 30 years of Buddhist practice as a monk. After nine years in Thailand, in 1983 he went to Australia to establish a monastery, which has over time developed a large following. He still lives there, but also travels frequently to teach in Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka, where thousands come to hear him speak.

Recently in Bangkok as the head of the Australian delegation to the World Buddhist Summit, he made time to give a public dharma talk. More than 800 people, Thai and farang alike, persevered through particularly bad traffic that night to attend. Dozens circled him before and after the talk to seek his advice.

Despite the crowds, Acharn Brahm gave his undivided attention to each person when they spoke to him. He would concentrate his penetrating, almost unblinking gaze on them, lean forward and listen deeply.

Yet his solemnity was always balanced with a smile and a touch of humour. At his talk, one audience member asked, in complete earnestness, "What's the difference between sleeping and meditating?" Acharn Brahm immediately answered, "You're peaceful in both, but when you're meditating you know it, while when you're sleeping you don't."

The audience laughs. They get the joke, but they also get the dharma.

Not only does Acharn Brahm make his teachings easy to grasp, he also deliberately tailors them to relate to modern people. Beyond the individual level, he also wants people to consider how Buddhist wisdom can provide different approaches to global problems like terrorism or natural disasters.

His teachings have resonated powerfully. His book tours in Australia, Singapore and Indonesia have been warmly received. In January, his book will be translated into German and Chinese. It is also being marketed in the US, where in classic US style, its title has been jazzed up to read Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? And true to his objectives, his book has been read by all sorts of people ranging from children to adults, including prime ministers, executives, doctors and psychologists.

Such enthusiasm may be a response to his soulful approach. "People all have the same heart. I don't speak to people. I speak to their hearts."

It may also be due to the universality of his teachings, which can appeal to, and be applied by, non-Buddhist readers too.

His sure-fire marketing hook, not used ignobly to hustle, but to spark interest in his message goes like this: Do you want to be happy? Here's How to Be Happy.

Buddhism, after all, is essentially about happiness. Again revealing his knack for savvy PR, he tinkers with the Four Noble Truths, couching them in terms of achieving happiness rather than ending suffering.

Although he views nirvana as the highest happiness, he focuses mainly on populist Buddhism _ how to achieve happiness in the here and now, in everyday life.

His objective is to help people deal with life's problems in a wise and compassionate way. To enable them to live with less stress. And equip them to become better spouses, parents and workers.

When it comes to happiness, he learned from the master. "Acharn Chah was the happiest man I've ever seen _ he gave me inspiration." Although Acharn Chah had fewer academic credentials _ not having finished high school whereas he had graduated from Cambridge with a degree in theoretical physics _ Acharn Brahm readily acknowledged that Acharn Chah had far more panya (wisdom).

What's the most popular topic people ask Acharn Brahm about? Much like mor du (astrologers), it's "love and relationships". Many of his teachings directly and skilfully address romantic relationships and marriage.

However, Acharn Brahm takes a broader view of love.

The abiding theme underlying all his teachings is giving unconditional love. Whether it's towards a spouse, parent, child, friend, or any other being for that matter, the truest kind of love is unconditional love, love that is forgiving, kind and completely accepting. It says, "Whatever you do in life, and whatever you have done, the door of my heart will always be open to you."

Perhaps even more profoundly, Acharn Brahm also teaches us to "open our hearts" to pain, to life's problems, even to greed, anger and delusion (kilesa or defilements). For acceptance, rather than resistance, is the most powerful way to tame them.

He also emphasizes that one should not forget to extend unconditional love to oneself, especially among those given to self-blame and guilt.

Self-blame often leads to one of the most painful afflictions, depression. Although age-old, depression is becoming increasingly prevalent in today's world, ranking high on the WHO's list of leading causes of death. While still a taboo subject in many cultures, especially in Thailand and the rest of Asia, Acharn Brahm addresses it frankly in many stories in his book.

In his view, the increase in depression is linked to modernity. He theorises, "the reason why it's a common disease now is because we live in a world of such great criticism. We're too hard on each other, too hard on ourselves. Of course we're not perfect, but we see only the two bad bricks in a wall, rather than the 998 good ones. Which is totally depressing.

"We've never been so demanding of each other as in modern times. Because now, people have more material stuff. The more you have, the more you demand. We're asking too much of our partners, our jobs, our life."

What's the solution then? Lowering our standards?

Well, the nicer, Brahm-ian way to think about it is to "not ask for so much" and to "be more accepting". To prevent depression or simply to be happier, it helps to be more accepting of our lives, and ourselves, as they are. For those who are suffering from mental illness, accepting the condition itself, and oneself for having it, is a major step towards ending it. Some people even come to appreciate it, for depression, as with all difficult parts of life, teaches us valuable lessons.

Yet the road to recovery is by nature long and the biggest obstacle is impatience, he says. "But it doesn't matter how long it takes, it needs to be done. So we just do it."

More than that, he believes "You have to be proactive." Proactive not just in getting out of depression, but proactive in creating happiness in life in general. When Westerners ask him, as they are often wont to do, "Who created the world?", he replies, "You did." What he means is that we are ultimately in control of our own lives. We create our own happiness.

As such, one shouldn't allow anyone else to control our happiness, whether it is to upset you or uplift you. In even the latter case, the decision to be happy is ultimately one's own.

Taking responsibility for one's own happiness can feel like a heavy load. Yet it needn't be so, says Acharn Brahm. The flip side of responsibility is opportunity. The assumption of responsibility is not only a form of empowerment; he goes so far as to say it is a moral duty. "I think it's actually immoral and unethical to give responsibility for your life to others."

If that seems a little harsh, he quickly tempers it by saying, "I don't mean, 'You're in control, it's all up to you.' The point of the spiritual path is to help guide you in how to use that responsibility. So you're not left on your own. Other people can take your hand and help lead the way."

In making life decisions, his basic guideline is, "It's not the what that's important, it's the how." But what is the wise "how"?

Acharn Brahm's take is to "make peace with whatever you're doing. Give it everything you got, but also give 'rest' everything you've got, when you need to. Have fun with what you're doing. Put joy into your life that gives you energy. And then don't ask for much in life, so whatever you get is a bonus."

In addition to those general rules of thumb, he emphasizes one powerful strategy for creating happiness in particular. One could say he sings the praises of, exactly that _ praise. The oft-cited example of the power of praise is Pavlov's dog experiment. Even among humans, educational psychologists have proven that positive reinforcement is a more effective teaching method than negative.

In addition to outside affirmation, self-praise is extraordinarily powerful, but commonly underrated. And under-performed. Yet it is vital to give praise, just like unconditional love, to ourselves.

Acharn Brahm points out, "People often say, We learn from our mistakes. But actually, learning from your successes is more powerful than learning from your mistakes."

People often get so fixated on a mistake that they can't let it go. By focusing too much on it, they do not learn from it and instead keep committing the same mistake. The more effective way to deal with mistakes, he says, is "AFL". His catchy acronym stands not for the American Football League, but "Acknowledge, Forgive, Learn".

Yet in a society that stresses humility and a religion that seeks to extinguish ego, doubters often ask him, "But doesn't praise make you big-headed? Without skipping a beat, he answered, "No, it makes you big-hearted."

And once you open the door to that big heart, suffering can go out and happiness come in. So go on, open the door, and usher in the joys of the New Year.

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