December 17th 2010
An ex-Buddhist monk tells his remarkable story
Having lived as a Buddhist monk for 17 years - mostly in a remote Sri Lankan forest - then returning to modern Australia in the mid 1990s, Magnetic Island resident Chittapala, offers a unique story of huge personal commitment mixed equally with sublime gentleness. He has also begun a charity supporting Indian children which may well inspire readers to become involved. In the following interview with Penelope Sheridan, Chittapala reveals his astonishingly different past.
How did you become an ex-Buddhist monk?
I think I was always destined to be a Buddhist monk. From my early teens I would ponder questions such as 'what is the meaning of life - why are we born and why do we die - why is there so much suffering in the world?' Without being fully aware of it, I was a spiritual seeker. Later, I became interested in Hindu teachings for a while, and also the Baha’i Faith, which combines all the major world religions.
When I started university, I had no idea of which career path to choose. For a while I thought I would like to be an anthropologist. Then I studied to become a social worker. I wanted to have a career whereby I could help others. However, in the practical section of my course, case work with clients, I saw that I had too many internal problems to effectively help others. At that time I was in my early twenties without much life experience. I had a great dilemma: what was the very best thing to do with my life? I could not see myself going down the usual path of career, family, house etc. I was actually quite lost, so I decided to travel. I dropped out of university, worked as a labourer for a few months, and then flew to Singapore. I did not know where I would end up, perhaps Europe, America?
I had a nice time travelling in South East Asia. I decided to stay a while in Bangkok where I had made some lovely friends. One day a Canadian friend invited me to come to a temple to attend a Buddhist class led by an Australian monk. I was reluctant to go, as by this time, I had reached the conclusion that spiritual teachings were not necessary, that each person could find their own path through life experiences. I was much influenced at the time by Herman Hesse's book ‘Siddhartha’ in which the main character experienced life to the full and eventually came to inner peace. I went to the class, and unexpectedly, it had a profound effect on me. I heard clear teachings on cause and effect, how we are the owners of our actions and resultant fruits. I also heard about impermanence, how all of existence is constantly changing. These teachings were very logical and helped me answer questions such as 'why is there so much suffering in the world?’ I started going to the temple every day to hear the Dhamma (teachings). Then I was invited by a Thai lady to live rent free in a house which she had provided for Western Dhamma students. This was a great time in my life. I was living with like-minded people who were devoted to studying the Dhamma.
The core teaching of Buddha is that it is possible to free the mind of all suffering. This is achieved by practising to remove the causes of all suffering, namely, one's own greed, hatred and delusion. Two months after first hearing the teachings, I decided that I wanted to become a monk. I wished to pursue the goal of freedom from all suffering. I knew this was the very best thing I could do with my life. A few months later I returned to Australia to tie up some loose ends and clear the way for ordination. I returned to Bangkok and fourteen months after first hearing the Dhamma, I took robes. I was twenty five years of age at the time.
Chittapala has his hair shaved for pre-novice ordination, Bangkok, 1977
My early monk years were spent studying the Dhamma, learning the monastic code and practising meditation. Being a Westerner, I also had to adapt to the Thai climate and food. The monk's life is not easy. For example, one has to give up using money, listening to music, relationships and choosing one's food. As well one does not eat beyond noon. There are not many avenues for distraction in the monks’ life. Even though I ordained with great enthusiasm, I found the lifestyle difficult during my first few years. Several times I felt a strong urge to disrobe as my mind was not happy. Each time my fellow monks talked me out of it.
Two years after ordaining I was invited, together with several Western monks, to attend a series of Dhamma seminars in Sri Lanka. During the visit, we stayed in monasteries and I very much liked the feel of the monks’ life in Sri Lanka. I decided to stay on after the seminars concluded.
I lived in various forest monasteries where I meditated and also studied Pali, the language of the earliest recorded Buddhist texts. I had wonderful meditation teachers and met many inspiring monks, both Sinhalese & Western.
After five years of living in forest monasteries, I had the opportunity to live alone in a mud hut in a remote rain forest. I was supported by poor local villagers and walked to their houses each day on alms round. Living in this way I felt very close to the meditating monks of the Buddha's time who also lived alone in forests.
I was in this forest for three years. During this period I felt that I had fully settled into the monk’s life and could not envisage ever disrobing. However, as it turned out, I contacted a viral illness whilst there. My health began to deteriorate. I became very sick and had to return to Australia to seek a cure. I struggled on in robes for several years with little improvement in my health. Eventually, I realised it was necessary to disrobe to regain health and strength. With much sadness I returned to lay life after seventeen years in robes (1977-1994).
It was difficult for me to adjust to lay life. But over time, I have adjusted and these days my health is much better. For the last eight years I have been living on Magnetic Island. I feel very fortunate to be here. It is an environment conducive both for improving health and leading a quiet lifestyle. Practising the Dhamma continues to be my main source of happiness and contentment. The saying 'once a monk, always a monk' probably does apply in my case.
Did your family accept your decision to become a monk?
Yes, although I don't think my family have ever fully understood why I became a monk. I ordained with my mother’s blessings. During the ordination ceremony, there is the question ‘do you have your parents’ consent?’ Earlier, I had written to my mother asking permission to ordain. She sent me a recorded response on audio cassette: ‘whatever makes you happy’. Whilst I was in robes, my mother was my best supporter (as she has been all my life).
Are you in contact with the people that you knew in Sri Lanka? Have they suffered with the conflict? Do you know if the fighting reached the remote areas where you were?
I still have many friends in Sri Lanka, both monks and laypeople, and continue to be in contact with them. The remote rain forest where I lived was in the southern part of the country and well away from the conflict areas in the north and east.
In 1982 I went on a two month walking tour to the east coast. One place I visited was an amazing forest hermitage called Kudimbigala, just south of Arugam Bay (a surfing beach well known to many Australians). The actual size of this hermitage is 400 acres, but it is located in 10,000 acres of true jungle reserve. Dotted throughout the monastery are huge basalt rocks. At the base of these rocks are overhangs which have been used as cave dwellings by monks at various times for over 2,000 years. When I visited there was a small community of about fifteen monks. As the monastery was not close to any villages, it was not possible to walk for alms food. Instead donated foods were cooked daily on site by lay attendants.
In this part of Sri Lanka, there is much wildlife, including deer, boar, elephants, leopards, sloth bears and crocodiles. There were no fences around the monastery and the abbot encouraged wild life to freely come and go: paths were not swept and there were catchment areas near the bathing wells to provide drinking water for the animals who would visit at night. Monks were expected to be in their (walled) caves by 9pm at night and each monk would strike a wooden gong at his cave during ‘roll call’.
One day at dusk, whilst meditating on the hill above my cave, I heard loud noises below. When I returned to ground level I saw an elephant had been to visit, as evidenced by the footprints. On another occasion I saw sloth bear paw prints near a bathing place.
Unfortunately, the peace of this beautiful place was destroyed during the time of a socialist uprising in Sri Lanka in the late eighties. The abbot was murdered in 1989 by Marxist guerrillas. After that Kudimbigala was abandoned for many years. At one point it was used as a base by Tamil Tiger insurgents. It was not until about 2000 that monks were able to move back in. I visited there in 2004 and was very impressed by the diligent practice of the monks in residence. By then the hermitage was run down and many of the caves were no longer habitable. I was told wild animals no longer visited. The Tamil Tigers shot much wild life for food and there was still evidence of where they had hung the carcasses.
I'd love to hear more about your life at the forest monastery and mud hut.
My first year in Lanka was at Island Hermitage, a monastery located on an island in a large lagoon near Galle on the south coast. Island Hermitage was established by a German monk in 1911. Since then, many exceptional monks, especially Westerners, have ordained and lived there.
This was a formative time in my monk’s life. There was an excellent library where I was able to study Pali, the language of the earliest recording teachings of Buddha. I also learnt much about meditation from my companion monks.
The island was not large – it only took fifteen minutes to walk around the entire circumference. The jungle was lush and there were also several mango trees. Living on the island were many types of birds and also giant monitor lizards. Meals were brought by boat by different groups of supporters each day.
On a few occasions I rowed to the mainland to walk for alms food. I revisited the hermitage at the end of 2008. It was just as peaceful and beautiful as I remember. I felt I could easily live there again, but my present body would not function well on the one or two meal a day regime of the Buddhist monk.
During most of my time in Sri Lanka, my base was a strict meditation hermitage called Meetirigala, which is one hour’s drive east of Colombo. The abbot was an accomplished meditation master. Many of his inspiring disciples also were in residence.
It was a lovely place to live. The monks are training their hearts in goodness and their ways of speaking and acting are very refined. At this monastery we spent most of our time in seclusion. The huts were well spread out through the forest. Each one was self-contained to the extent it had a sleeping place, toilet, bathing well and indoor meditation path.
The wake up gong was at 3 am. We would meditate until daylight & then go to the food hall for a light breakfast of rice soup & milk tea. Our pre noon main meal was obtained by walking for alms to the monastery entrance where supporters would offer food into our bowls. For evening refreshments we could partake of black tea or occasionally fruit juice. There was evening devotional chanting at the shrine hall for those who wished to attend. It was expected that most of our time be spent in meditation. When required, one could visit the teacher for instruction. Sometimes there were Dhamma talks, but as these were in Sinhala language, I did not attend. Every fortnight on the dark or full moon, all the monks would come together for recitation of the monastic code. If any rules had been broken during the fortnight, one would confess the offence to a fellow monk in order to make amends. Meetirigala was on jungle hill which was very hot and steamy, and during the rainy season it was very wet. We shared this jungle with monkeys, serpents, deer and mongooses.
Whilst living at Meetirigala I heard that a solitary monk’s hut, in a rain forest called Sinha Raja, had become vacant. I was very keen to go there to have a look. Living alone in the forest appealed to me as the ideal way to live the monk’s life. I visited Sinha Raja and fell in love with the place. The mud hut was next to a ten metre wide water stream with no humans living upstream. I was able to drink this water, bathe in it and also use it to wash my bowl and robes. The altitude was 1,000 metres and the average temperature was a pleasant 25’ C.
Having gone to Meetirigala to request permission from my teacher, I returned to live at Sinha Raja. I was supported by a village 1,500 metres downstream called Pita Kele [‘back of the forest’]. This village was located on both sides of the stream and during alms round I criss-crossed the stream via log bridges.
A log bridge at Sinha Raja
The people in this and other local villages, were very poor, but looked after me very well. Their main sources of income were palm sugar, tea and rubber.
From Pita Kele it was 8km walk to the nearest bitumen road. No one spoke English, so my ability to speak Sinhala, out of necessity, improved. Sinha Raja was a tall tree rain forest and one could easily walk about on the forest floor. There was a variety of wild life, including large monkeys, miniature deer and leopards. I heard the call of leopards a few times, but never saw one. Generally, leopards in Sri Lanka are timid and are no threat to humans.
As my hut had only three walls, serpents of various types would come to visit me. Once I knew the behaviour patterns of these serpents, they presented no problem. The creature that was most troublesome was the ubiquitous leech. During the wet season, I would smear carbolic soap on my feet & legs to prevent them latching on to me. But this was not always successful. My body fed many leeches during my three year stay in this forest! They were present most of the year. Even in the dry season they live under wet leaves and wait patiently for some food to come by, i.e., animals or humans which they sense by body heat.
When I first visited Pita Kele, it was the driest spell of weather for thirty years. Only after living there for some months did I realise how wet it could become. It was had the highest rain fall in Sri Lanka and rained 10 months of the year. It would sometimes rain for days on end, making it difficult to keep robes dry. The beautiful stream would become a fast flowing torrent with large speeding logs. The stream bank was about 1.5 metres above the water level and my hut was raised a further one metre above the bank. One night I woke to find the hut completely surrounded by moving water. By morning the water it had subsided somewhat. When I walked to the village for alms round, I found all the connecting log bridges had been washed away. The water was too fast flowing to attempt to swim across. I wasn’t able to reach the village and didn’t eat that day. Never mind, I was able to make some hot tea back at the hut. (The monastic code forbids monks from storing food overnight).
It was tough living in such a wet place, but overall it was a very happy time for me. I loved being able to live with such freedom. The local villagers who supported me were very beautiful people. One story I would like to relate is about a devout young Pita Kele woman who was afflicted with esotropia (crossed eyed). This condition completely disappeared after she gave birth to her first child. I always wondered if this was a result of the mother’s love that emanated from her own heart.
Your life as a monk sounds so gruelling...When you say it was difficult to adjust to lay life - what do you mean?
Some of what I have related may make it appear that the monk’s life is gruelling. It is not easy in the beginning. It is a very simple lifestyle and coming from a Western background probably makes adaptation more difficult. The monk’s life is about mental cultivation and learning to let go of the inner causes of suffering. If one is able to make progress in meditation, then one can live very happily indeed.
There are several reasons why it was hard for me to adjust to lay life. As a monk one is generally able to live away from the distractions of modern life: media, entertainment, technology, shopping malls etc. Where I lived in forest monasteries there was no electricity or phones. During the time I was in robes, whole new technologies had developed, for example, internet, cds, video recorders, and atms.
Back in Australia in 1992
When I disrobed, I had no idea what a cd was. I remember on my first trip back to Australia, a friend took me to into a Sydney office to apply for a visa. He remarked how ‘slow’ I was compared to everybody else. I was used to living in very simple dwellings, and returning to living in cluttered house was not comfortable. When living with monks, I was constantly in association with like-minded people. We shared the same deep basic interest in practising Buddha’s teachings.
In the initial years after disrobing, I felt isolated from my Dhamma companions. This feeling was exacerbated as my health was very poor at the time. In the ensuing years I made many new Dhamma friends. But probably my deepest friendships are those I made at the time I first discovered the Dhamma. I value these Dhamma friendships highly.
As a monk I led a celibate life and had little contact with women. Lay life is much different, of course, and the most common lifestyle is for people to be in relationships. I have learned that living a solitary disciplined lifestyle is the easiest, happiest and most peaceful option for me.
Tell me about your connection with Bodhgaya?
I have a strong connection with Bodhgaya. This came about in an unexpected way. Bodhgaya is in northern India, and is said to be the place where Buddha became enlightened under a Bodhi tree (ficosa religiosa). The descendant of this tree still exists and it is the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists world wide. Day or night, the temple complex around the Bodhi tree is full of energy and colour, with Buddhists of all different traditions and nationalities chanting, reciting texts or meditating. It is for this reason that I first visited Bodhgaya in 2004.
However, during my visit I met a little girl begging on the streets. For some reason, she was determined to follow me around. After seeing her a few times, I decided to try to help her by offering her an education. With the assistance of some new Indian friends I was able to meet her parents and arrange this. I continue to support this child and hope to do so for a long time. This child very much lives in my heart. Since 2004 I have made several trips to Bodhgaya to visit this child.
When friends here heard the story about this little girl, they also wanted to sponsor children in Bodhgaya. Now we have quite a few sponsored children there. In January 2008, with donations from friends, we opened a vocational centre for young women in Bodhgaya. In August 2008 we incorporated as Kusala Projects Inc, a small association based in Townsville. Subsequently, we have become a registered charity. Most of our support is local, but we receive help from individuals in many countries. I am the secretary and treasurer. (See: http://www.kusalaprojects.org)
Chittapala with the girl (left) he supports and her family
Sometimes there is much paper work and correspondence. This work makes me very happy, because as well as helping poor children and families in India, I am able to rejoice in the good actions of the sponsors who make this possible. Whatever good actions we do, in whatever place, ennoble the quality of our hearts.
How did you come to live here - what's your history with the Island? Were you connected to the Island while you were a monk?
In the first years after leaving the monkhood I lived in Sydney. I found the winters there were too cold for me after living in the tropical climates of Asia for many years. I wanted to move north to the warmth of Queensland, to somewhere that had both ocean and bush. I didn’t know where I could find such a place until an old school friend, now residing at Bluewater, suggested Magnetic Island to me. At that time I’d heard of Magnetic Island, but didn’t know where it was, or anything about it. On his suggestion, I came for a two week holiday in August, 2001.
During my first visit to the island, I stayed in the appropriately named holiday cottage ‘Nirvana’ in Arcadia. After being here just three days, I knew the island was just what I was looking for, and six months later, I returned to live.
Have you been involved with setting up the Dharma Centre at Nelly Bay? If so do you teach there?
The island is a very friendly place and it is not difficult to meet people. However, after a while, I did feel the need to connect with other people interested in Buddhism. Thus, I responded to a public notice placed in the Magnetic Times by Sally O’Connor asking for expressions of interest to form a Buddhist group. I contacted Sally and, subsequently, a meeting with several locals was held at her Picnic Bay house in December 2002.
From this meeting Magnetic Buddhist Dharma was born. Since January 2003, MBD has been meeting every Sunday morning for chanting, meditation and teachings. For the first few years this took place at The Grove, Nelly Bay and more recently at 27 Wansfell St, Picnic Bay.
I was quite active in MBD during its first year or so. Due the dedication of its core members, Helene Rankin and Sharn Rocco, it quickly developed its own momentum. During its seven year existence, Magnetic Buddha Dharma has hosted many visiting Dharma teachers from varied Buddhist traditions.
In 2005 I was invited to share teachings with a Townsville Buddhist group, Friends of the Dharma, who meet each Sunday afternoon in Pimlico. Since then, I have had regular involvement with them. Dharma teachings are quite precious, and I find that having the opportunity to give in this way is very fulfilling. The words Dharma (Sanskrit) & Dhamma (Pali) are the same and mean 'teachings' or 'the way things are'. 'Dharma' is more widely known and is now part of the English lexicon.
Is the Island a good place to live for an ex-monk?
The island is a beautiful place. It is also quite egalitarian - one has the freedom to live in whichever way one chooses. My time here has been very beneficial. My health has vastly improved and my Dharma practice continues to develop. It may be that some time in the future, I would wish to live in a more remote setting. However, I don't ponder the future very much. I find that living in the present makes life very peaceful.
In a follow-up question, we asked Chittapala a question we thought may be in the backs of some readers minds: Why does a ‘rich’ Australian decide to become a monk & live off poor villagers?
The ordination ceremony for a Buddhist monk is called ‘going forth from the household life to homelessness’. This tradition has been extant in India for thousands of years: householders leaving their everyday life, giving up all their possessions and dedicating themselves to spiritual life. Indeed, this what Buddha did when he left his former life as a prince to become a wandering ascetic. He renounced all manner of comfort, pleasure and wealth available to him in the royal palace to seek the higher happiness of liberation.
I had a similar intention when I entered the monkhood. I gave away all my money and possessions (admittedly I didn’t own very much) in order to lead the monk’s life to the full. In Eastern countries, this is an accepted part of the culture, but I guess in the eyes of Westerners, it is considered quite radical. My ‘going forth’ was sponsored by a devout Thai Buddhist who provided me with the eight basic monk’s requisites: three robes – inner (sarong), outer, outer double layer (for cold weather), alms bowl, razor, needle and thread, cloth belt (not a good look if one’s sarong falls down), and a strainer to purify water and remove tiny creatures from it.
Mostly, I subsisted on food collected during silent alms round in the village. At other times I ate meals provided by lay supporters in monasteries or at their homes. I was dependent on the generosity of lay supporters for all my needs: robes, medicine, transport etc. Monastic rules forbid the acceptance or use of money (no retail therapy for the monk).
Unless sick or previously invited, I could not ask a layperson for requisites, except for my immediate relatives, but even then, circumspection was expected. The monk’s life is about developing contentment with little to increase one’s own happiness and also to avoid being a burden to one’s supporters.
Buddhists deem the monastic lifestyle worthy of support. They expect the monastics they support to apply themselves to study & practice, and later to become their Dhamma teachers. The onus is very much on monks to follow their monastic discipline and make good use of their time in robes. Buddha often mentioned that the monk’s life if lived loosely, without making effort, does not bear great fruit.
When I was in robes I was part of the cultural fabric in Thailand and Sri Lanka. I did not have any means of livelihood except the generosity of supporters who have faith in the Buddha and his Teachings. This reciprocal relationship, laypeople offering the material means for monks to survive, and monks, in turn, offering the Teachings to laypeople, has been functioning well for the last 2,600 years.
NB: Referring to the top of page photo Chittapala says, "If anybody is wondering, I don''t usually wear headbands - in this photo it was a braid given by the priest at the Hindu temple we were visiting."
Interviewer: Penelope Sheridan
Photos: Courtesy Chittapala
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