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Interfaith Dialogue ( 1 May 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Being Among the Monks: Reflections on Interfaith Living

By Su Niye, New Age Islam

02 May 2016

It isn’t often that a lay person gets the chance to live in a monastery. Rarer still is it to get to live in a monastery of a religious tradition different from one’s own. Although I am not a Buddhist, I was recently blessed with the opportunity of spending almost an entire month in a Buddhist monastery. It turned out to be an amazing learning experience!

Some months ago, I attended a service at a Theravada Buddhist temple. As the programme was getting over, a senior Bhante (as monks are called in Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism—the word means ‘Venerable Sir’) announced that they were looking for a teacher to help junior monks learn English and Social Studies. That was just up my street! As the crowd made its way out of the temple, I approached the monk and said that I might be keen to take up his offer.

The Bhante agreed, and in a few days I found myself living in the monastery, along with more than a 100 Bhantes and a dozen or so lay disciples. I was given a room in the monastery guesthouse. I had just two classes a day—in the afternoon—which left me with much spare time, which I could use for preparing for my classes and for my own writing and reading. I could attend the twice-a-day worship and meditation in the temple if I wanted to—it wasn’t compulsory, though.

In the course of the almost one month that I spent in the monastery, I established friendly relations with many of the monks, especially some of those who attended the classes I took. I am not sure how much they learnt from me, but I certainly learnt a great deal from them. I learnt things about Buddhism that I didn’t know before, as well as about the life of the Bhantes.

It isn’t that I agreed with everything that the Bhantes believed, said or did. There were several matters on which I thought differently. Yet, at the same time, there were things about their worldview and lifestyle that I found admirable. The fact that they warmly welcomed me in their midst even though I wasn’t a Buddhist was itself, I felt, quite remarkable. Not once did they ask me what religion I claimed to follow (although I did indicate to some of them that, unlike Buddhists, I believed in the Creator God). As long as I did the work I was meant to, my religious identity was for them of little or no consequence. The Bhantes had a beautiful way of making people who didn’t share their religious beliefs feel at home, accepting them as they were.

Another thing about the Buddhist monastic lifestyle that I appreciated was the great stress that is given to discipline. Novice monks are supposed to follow a closely-regulated daily routine. They wake up well before sun-rise, and after worship, meditation and breakfast, do various chores that they’ve been assigned. Then, it’s time for their lessons, which carry on till lunch, after which they rest for a while. They have classes in the afternoon, and after tea, there’s time for recreation, before they assemble again in the temple for worship and meditation. Then, after some light refreshment, they go to their rooms, perhaps study for a while, and then turn in for the night.

Monastic life isn’t all about meditating and reading scriptures. The novice monks also do some or the other form of physical labour. Some help out in the kitchen, stirring giant pots of curry, scrubbing utensils or cutting vegetables. Others serve food in the dining hall or sweep the temple complex. Some go to the market to buy provisions, while others water the plants in the garden or haul out the garbage bins. Doing physical labour is an integral part of these monks’ training, and no task is considered too menial for them to handle.

That faith and joy can—indeed should—go together was yet another thing that the Bhantes taught me. You should have seen some of their faces—glowing with grace and good cheer! And their child-like giggles and beatific smiles! You don’t have to be grim and grave all the time to be pious—that’s something that they reminded me. While I firmly believe it’s good to be serious about life and, especially given the immensity of pain in the world, you just can’t be all bubbly and excited all the time (unless you are very insensitive), healthy faith should infuse in you hope and joy, which you can radiate to others, too. That the world is characterized by dukkha or suffering is a basic starting-point in Buddhism. But the point is to overcome dukkha, not to simply bemoan it. The Bhante works, including through his gentle ways, his kindly smile and the compassion that he radiates, to help dispel dukkha, in his own life and in that of those who come into contact with him. Just looking at the radiant faces of some of the monks could bring abundant joy to your heart and a smile to your face!

Life for the Bhantes was more or less confined to the temple and the monastery. They rarely went out. ‘Too much’ involvement with the world outside wasn’t encouraged. Some advocates of what is called ‘Socially-Engaged Buddhism’ might find this distressing and un-Buddhistic (given that the Buddha himself kept travelling and preaching his message, till he breathed his last, at the age of 80). Yet, this didn’t mean that the Bhantes were wholly indifferent to the ‘real world’ outside. While meditating, they were encouraged to send out loving-kindness (metta, in Pali) to every single being in the whole universe. Meditation on metta wasn’t for just fellow Buddhists alone or for fellow human beings alone or even only for beings that lived on planet Earth. It was for all beings, everywhere!

The process of ‘sending metta’ started with one’s spiritual teachers, and then extended to one’s parents, relatives and friends. Then, metta was to be sent to strangers, followed by one’s enemies. One was to wish all of these people well.  Metta could then be conveyed to all beings inhabiting the planet—humans as well as others—and then to all beings throughout all the various worlds beyond our own.  Sending metta to others was one major means through which the Bhantes could be truly socially-engaged. Maybe all that loving-kindness meditation they did was, in part, the secret behind the gentle glow on their faces.

In addition to regular metta meditation as a means to serve others, the monks took turns to serve at the bi-weekly free lunch that the monastery hosted for more than 100 patients at a hospital in the city, most of who were from economically very poor backgrounds. Perhaps none of the patients was Buddhist, but that didn’t prevent the monks from blessing them and serving them food with their own hands.

My short spell in the monastery proved to be a great learning (and unlearning) experience. Living with the Bhantes afforded me the opportunity to be able to appreciate several good things about them and their way of life, even as my views on many issues continued to be different from theirs. The experience reinforced my conviction that religious differences are not an insuperable barrier to cordial relationships with people of other faiths. You can, I learnt, get along well with others even if your convictions about some very basic things are different from theirs. Inter-religious harmony doesn’t require denying our religious differences or effacing them by trying to construct an artificial uniformity. We can live together fairly decently despite our religious differences—provided we respect the right of everyone to believe in what they like. Agreeing to disagree, people of different faith commitments can work together on the basis of shared values and for common purposes.

Being among the Bhantes convinced me of the importance of ‘interfaith living together’, especially in a world where religious differences are routinely marshalled to promote hatred and even bloody conflicts. 

Living together with people of different faiths can teach you many things, including the art of cordial interfaith coexistence, which is something that reading about other faiths or brief encounters with people from other religious traditions at interfaith meetings simply cannot.  So, if you get the chance to spend a month at a monastery, as I did, please grab it! It could be an amazing, eye-opening learning experience, as it has been for me!