By Barney Zwartz
May 5, 2012
BEWILDERED by Buddhism? Don't just turn to Google or Wiki. Shave your head, pick up your begging bowl and live in a monastery for a month, immersing yourself in the religion from the inside.
Ignorant about Islam? Become a Muslim for a month, staying with a Turkish family, studying the Koran, sharing the daily prayers and living the life of the devout.
If Islam's mystical Sufi tradition appeals more, study the life and times of its founder, Rumi, visiting his Turkish home town of Konya.
These ''praycations'' are three of the spiritual holidays available through an aid organisation founded by an Australian, Ben Bowler. He ploughs 20 per cent of the profits to aid programs in Thailand and Burma - or, at least, he will if ever there are any profits. ''People say they get perspective and a new understanding, from the inside as opposed to looking from outside in,'' Mr Bowler said yesterday in Melbourne, where he has returned to earn money to keep the project going.
The idea is not to win converts, but to show that the religious heritage has something to offer. Australia is indeed a lucky country, but life can lack profundity, Mr Bowler believes.
''There seems to be a gap of meaning for many people,'' he says.
The ''monk for a month'' program began in 2008, a year after Ben and his Dutch wife, Jildou, became volunteers in northern Thailand and befriended the abbot of a local monastery. He realised many Westerners might be interested in what is a rite of passage for most Thai men.
''It is very authentic, it's not in Bangkok or Phuket, it's not run by a big travel company,'' Mr Bowler says. Instead it is in remote northern Thailand, near the Burmese border. ''Men take in the 10 precepts, shave their heads, don the robes. They become temple novices, taking the vows and living the life of a monk. Some women shave their heads - it's up to them.''
Mr Bowler - son of Jim Bowler, discoverer of Mungo Man, which pushed human life in Australia back by some 30,000 years - started ''Muslim for a Month'' to break down stereotypes ''where fear, ignorance and superstition feed each other''.
Next month he launches an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, a 28-day cultural and spiritual immersion high in the Himalayas, a three-day journey from Delhi, including a pilgrimage to Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama. It will cost $1500 out of Delhi. ''People say we are too cheap, and we probably are, but it's not about making money,'' he says.
Mr Bowler is not one to pause for breath. The Tibetan Buddhism program opens next month, and will be followed by two ''interfaith express'' options.
One traverses Turkey looking at the ancient pre-Abrahamic religions plus Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including the word's oldest temple at Gobekli Tepe - at 12,000 years old, eight millenniums older than the pyramids. The other, in India, covers Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism.
He is also negotiating to start a Christian spirituality project, probably in Scotland. It is aimed at ''nominal Christians who have no idea of what Christian spirituality is about - the mystical, personal experience rather than the dogma or the institution''.
Several hundred people have taken part so far, many in more than one of the programs.
''The time is right. There is a lot of will for this kind of enterprise,'' Mr Bowler says.
Source: The Asian Age