Journey to Mindfulness - Preface

The Autobiography of Bhante G.

Preface

Writing an autobiography might seem like an inappropriate exercise for a bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk, since we bhikkhus strive to eradicate the ego, not glorify it. Through meditation and mindfulness we want to let go of attachments and practice selflessness. Why then would I write a whole book about me?

The idea, oddly enough, came from my meditation retreats. Whenever I teach a retreat, I invite attendees to write questions on slips of paper and put them in a box. Each evening, after my formal Dhamma talk, a lecture about the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, I pull a few of the slips out of the box, one by one, and answer whatever question is there.

Usually people want to know about meditation: how to keep up the momentum they’ve built at the retreat; what to do when they are so agitated they can’t sit still; how to practice if they don’t have a good teacher nearby. Sometimes, though, someone asks a question about my life:

“How long have you been a monk?”

“What was it like, growing up in Sri Lanka?”

“How do you maintain monastic discipline in this world full of temptations?”

When I answer those kinds of questions, I tend to ramble. I tell stories about my life and people seem to enjoy them. The meditation hall, usually a silent place, fills with laughter. Often the students say, “Bhante, you should write your autobiography!”

I’ve read a few life stories of spiritual men and women, and in them, it always seems like miraculous, wondrous things happen to the main character. Sometimes, the main character may even be the one performing miracles.

Reading these amazing stories, one might conclude that spiritual people are somehow very different from regular people. As for me, I can claim no miracles. I have been a simple person all my life. Early on I learned that if I worked hard, I would usually get good results— nothing supernatural about that. In many ways my life is probably much like yours.

And so I was hesitant to write the book my students were suggesting. I worried that it would appear to be an exercise in ego. I was afraid people might think I had grown vain and self-absorbed in my old age. “Not necessarily,” a friend told me. “You might be able to do some teaching by telling your own story.” I thought about that. I thought about my life and realized that, yes, this might indeed be an opportunity to show how the Buddha’s teachings can be an extraordinary guide, leading a simple person like myself to a life of great happiness, great fulfillment.

As a monk, I have dedicated my life to protecting and maintaining the Buddha’s teachings. I have found that because of that, the Dhamma has protected and maintained me as well. That’s what I have learned in my seventy-five years. And that’s the essence of what I want to share with you in all these rambling stories about my life.

For example, I can say sincerely that whenever I was arrogant in my life, I suffered a great deal. As a young man in monks’ college, I spied on other students, I gossiped, I was always looking for others’ faults. And because of that, I was miserable.

In fact, I’d say that has always been my greatest weakness: finding fault in others. Rising above that defilement even a little bit took many long years, through much trial and error, and even now I occasionally struggle with it. But more or less, I’m happy to say, I can now pretty much accept people as they are. And my life (not to mention theirs!) is so much smoother as a result.

 

By relying on the Buddha’s teachings, I have learned slowly to withdraw from conflict rather than charging into it or, worse still, going looking for it. That, too, has made life immeasurably more peaceful.

With the help of the Buddha’s teachings and the practice of mindfulness, the greatest change I have made in myself, I think, is that I can easily forgive people now, no matter what they do, and believe me, this skill didn’t come easily! I had to work long and hard at it. But my own anger, contentiousness, and judgmentalness were fertile ground for practice. Just because a person becomes a monk, by no means is he immediately free from all defilements of character or empty of worldly concerns. As you will see over and over in this book, even in the supposedly noble world of spiritual work I encountered— in myself and in others—petty jealousies, backstabbing, indifference, and cruelty.

When I reminisce now, I can see that all those things that seemed so awful at the time have ultimately led to positive outcomes. All the people and situations that I thought were painful were also teachers pushing me in the direction I was supposed to go, pointing out what I needed to learn to become happy.

In retrospect, I am grateful for the mysterious chain of causes and effects that unfolded in my life, even though many of them felt awful and unlucky at the time. If my father had not been such a strict disciplinarian, I might not have left home to become a monk. If my teachers hadn’t punished me so severely, I wouldn’t have gone off to missionary school. If I hadn’t lost my memory and needed a “cure,” I might never have taken an interest in meditation. If I hadn’t fallen sick working with the Untouchables of India, I wouldn’t have left to go to Malaysia. If my visa had been extended in Malaysia, I probably would never have ventured to America. And if things hadn’t fallen apart so bitterly at the Washington Buddhist Vihara, I might not have started Bhavana Society. But this has been my life, and I am grateful for all of it.

Even so, it pained me to write about some of these things, to dredge up the memories of old hurts and conflicts. Several times I nearly lost my nerve and withdrew from the plans for this book. In my periods of doubt, I kept remembering the words of Mark Twain: “Only dead men tell the truth.”

I thought about the sometimes ugly truths of my life, and I worried. If I wrote about them honestly, I would be displaying my weaknesses, my shortcomings. But hiding the truth—well, that didn’t feel right either. And furthermore, it seemed so un-monk-like to write about unpleasant conversations and situations that happened decades ago, to reveal people who were unkind to me, especially when many of them aren’t around anymore to defend themselves.

Adding to my worries was the fact that my native culture does not prize open discussion of conflict. When my Sinhalese nephews read an early draft of this manuscript, they were aghast. “You can’t talk about people this way,” they said. “Why do you want to rehash these old problems? It can only cause trouble.”

People in Sri Lanka don’t want to hear about a monk’s mistakes or character flaws. They prefer to think of him as an exalted holy man to whom they can bow down in reverence. In the spiritual economy of Asian Buddhist monastics and laypeople, honoring a venerable bhikkhu by giving him gifts or supporting him brings spiritual merit. To find out that he is anything less than worthy would disturb a layperson’s sense of order.

But in Western culture, the truth is highly prized. So I couldn’t tell my life story and leave out the bad parts; that would be a “sanitized” version and would perhaps be perceived as dishonest. And if I portrayed myself as never having struggled with difficulties and shortcomings, my story certainly wouldn’t help anyone see the value of the Dhamma in dealing with life’s slings and arrows.

The first of the Buddha’s noble truths is that life contains suffering. We cannot avoid suffering. Our only option is to work at overcoming the defilements within ourselves that cause suffering: greed, anger, and delusion. Overcoming these defilements is a lifelong task, as I hope the story of my simple life, my own journey to mindfulness, will show. But I also hope my story will illustrate that, no matter how strong they may be, the sources of suffering can be overcome in your life, too!

 

How to cite this document:
© Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Journey to Mindfulness (Wisdom Publications, 2003)

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