Becoming a Buddhist Monk

“a life decision that I did not regret”

Bahnte Pasadhika, meditating at his monastery in Sri Lanka.

“He is very calm and peaceful. I can’t properly describe the feeling, but whenever I talk to him, or just stand beside him, my mind is full of good energy. The way he moves, the way he speaks, the gestures he makes, are full of peace and harmony. Is he maybe the Buddha himself?”

This is an excerpt from my travel diary, on the day I first met Bahnte just over three years ago. At the time, I was traveling in Sri Lanka on an 18-month trip through Asia. A friendly local Sri Lankan Buddhist noticed my interest in Buddhism and connected me with Bahnte Pasadhika, who invited me to his monastery. Bahnte is Sinhalese (the language spoken in Sri Lanka) for monk and as a form of respect lay people always refer to monks with Bahnte in front of their surname.

To get to the monastery I had to go deep into a forest close to the small town of Warakapula about sixty kilometers north-east of the capital Colombo. Continuing by foot up a steep hill, suddenly, he was there. Bahnte Pasadhika was standing near the entrance of the monastery, in his red forest monk robe, welcoming me with a smile. In total, I stayed there for two weeks, living like a forest monk. The monastery was surrounded by a forest and I usually meditated up to six hours a day on a meditation cushion in the forest, covered by a mosquito net that I attached to a tree. My accommodation was a room not much bigger than two meters long with a wooden table which had a thin mattress on top acting as my bed – Buddhist monks aren’t allowed to own any luxurious possessions, including comfortable beds. Together with the monks, I chanted, meditated and ate. The food was primarily Sri Lankan, vegetarian meals, such as lentils or rice all prepared by a local Sri Lankan family that stayed at the monastery.

From right to left, Bahnte Pasadhika, another monk and me, meditating in front of a house that belongs to their monastery.

Today, we’re meeting via a video call. Bahnte Pasadhika is currently in Australia, where the Dhamsuva Meditation Foundation, which he belongs to, is establishing a new monastery. He’s wearing his trade-mark burgundy red robe thrown over one shoulder, leaving the other shoulder bare, as is the custom for buddhist monks, and he’s smiling, as if he has been smiling his whole life. His head is shaved, as always. “We actually have a special technique to wear our robes which is a bit hard to learn. Just by looking how a monk is wearing his robe, we can detect whether the person is a senior monk or not.”, says Bahnte.

He tells me briefly about the progress they’re making in Australia by establishing a new monastery near Melbourne. Most days, he’s giving dhamma talks, speeches or stories about the life and qualities of Buddha, assists with the construction work or teaches meditation.

“So how is it going over there? Do you still find time to meditate?” I ask him.

“Yes, same routine as home. I miss Sri Lanka and can’t go back due to the Corona pandemic, but I feel comfortable here. My meditation practice is going really good.” 

I am surprised when he tells me he’s been teaching children in Melbourne as young as five years old how to meditate.

“It is normal in our culture to get into contact with meditation at an early stage,” he tells me.

“Our parents take us to temples sometimes when we are only 3 or 4 years old. For me, as a child, it was always nice to be at temples. There was nice food and some drinks and everything looked so beautiful. The monks are all very friendly. In Sri Lanka, temples are places to socialize, to meet your neighbor, your aunts, your uncles, your friends.”

Sri Lanka is full of ancient temples and relicts connected to its rich culture and Buddhist influences, and seventy per cent of the country’s population is Buddhist. Sri Lanka is also the country in which the Tripitaka, the most important Buddhist text, was written down after it had been communicated orally for almost a thousand years. These Buddhist scriptures lay out rules, traditions, moral virtues and many other important Buddhist principles.

Bahnte must have been five years old when he meditated for the first time. “But at that age, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Our parents introduced us to meditation but we, as children, had to force ourselves to keep sitting. I didn’t understand what the concepts of mindfulness or equanimity meant and why I should sit down to observe my breathing. As a child, you are simply not disciplined and mature enough to keep sitting. Even for 5 minutes.”

“So how often do you meditate now, and how?” I ask him.

“Between four and five hours every day. I sit down in the cross-legged lotus position on a meditation cushion in my room, close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Once my mind is focused and calm, I start doing different meditation techniques. Vipassana meditation is one of them. I move my attention through the entire body. From head to toe, without leaving a single part out. Once I am at my toes, I wander up again and so on.”

“And what do you get out of it? What does it do to you?”

“Happiness. My mind gets very calm and concentrated. I am mindful and aware of whatever is happening. Instead of reacting to small disturbances or thoughts, I just observe them. Additionally, I am relieved of the constant circle of unconscious thinking about the past, the future, wishful fantasies, or whatever. By constantly thinking, we are less concentrated on the present and feel exhausted by carrying the burden of the ‘monkey mind’.”

Like a monkey, our mind is constantly active, ‘jumping around in our head’, trying to be occupied with any task. It’s a natural instinct, which helped us to survive in the African savannah thousands of years ago. By constantly trying to be engaged with a thought, our mind was always alert of anything that could happen. Is there a lion? A mate to pair? Is it safe here? Where can I find water? Are questions that our mind had to come up with throughout the day to secure our survival. But today, in our safe world full of distractions we experience the “monkey mind” as a burden, as a hindrance to find peace, equanimity and joy in the current moment. We spend most of our lives distracted, kept in a circle of one thought, following the next, barely appreciating and living the present moment.

“When I started meditating, the first step for me to get out of this circle was to accept the monkey mind. I accepted that it is running around, trying to be occupied all the time.” But instead of losing oneself in the thought process and clinging to the thoughts that came up, Bahnte treated them differently. “Back then and today, I just observe. I just observe whatever there is. My thoughts, the sensations throughout my body, I just observe them.”

Through consciously experiencing the rising and disappearing of thoughts and sensations within him, Bahnte learns about the fundamental truth of inconsistency. Nothing will stay forever. The most beautiful rose will fade away and our most loved ones will die one day. Death and decay are natural. We know about this, but often don’t know how to cope with the loss of a loved one as an example. Here too, Bahnte says, meditation has helped him. When a close family relative died, he was sad but the sadness didn’t overcome him. He was grieving about the loss and observed his sadness. Soon, he felt better and accepted reality as it is. With an unobserved ‘monkey mind’, one might lose himself in constant thinking about the loss, never letting go.

“But does the ‘monkey mind’ get calmer when we observe it?”

“Yes, a little bit but more importantly, we can occupy our ‘monkey mind’ with a single task, such as observing one particular feeling or one particular part of the body, such as the triangle under the nostrils while we breathe in and out. We call this breath-observation technique Anapanna. It’s the first meditation technique that we advise beginners to do and it also worked for you, right?”

After the first couple of days staying at Bahnte’s monastery, I already began to experience how my ‘monkey mind’ became calmer by observing it, and how I could focus better on the present moment. I started noticing the many small things that make life so beautiful – chirping birds, the sun shining through the leaves, a delicious meal or the kind face of a stranger. Until then, it was constantly normal for me to think all the time. When I was eating, riding my bike, doing groceries, listening to music, walking, or doing sports, I was always thinking – but about something completely else. Instead of focusing on the fresh air, the feeling of my feet touching the ground, or the taste of the food, my ‘monkey mind’ was occupied with lost friendships, wishful future scenarios or childhood memories. For a long time, all this seemed quite normal to me but in more and more, often beautiful, peaceful situations I catched myself how I thought about something completely else. Being a constantly distracted 20-year-old, I was surprised how beautiful and relaxing full awareness of the present moment is. Every time that I realized I was thinking of something else than the present moment, I brought my focus back to my breath. When I sat down to meditate, they came again. Thoughts about the future, “What will I do later, in one year, in two years?”, thoughts about the past, “Oh, how beautiful it was there!” or “Person X was not nice to me on this day.” But the more I meditated, my mind was wandering less and my focus sharpened.

“So is it bad to think? Should we all just be present all the time?”

“Thinking is actually really important and a wonderful gift that humans enjoy. However, we should think consciously and be aware of our thoughts. As an example, we can take a moment and think but once we have come to a solution or start another task, we should focus on that task completely, with all our attention. But the condition for most people is that they think all the time, without even realizing it and sometimes even by suffering from it. They think about people who treated them bad in the past, about missed chances, or future scenarios that might never occur.”

When is there a moment that we don’t think at all? That we are just present, focused on the present moment, instead of thinking about the future or the past? In fact, for most people those moments only occur briefly, when they have to solve a difficult task, do sports, talk to a person they like or sleep. For Bahnte, meditation was the skill that changed his life by changing how he handled his mind.

But learning to deal with the monkey mind wasn’t Bahnte’s main intention when he decided to become a monk. Growing up during Sri Lanka’s civil war in the 1980s, he heard about killings and atrocities from an early age. “From my early childhood on, the Sri Lankan civil war was omnipresent. Human life had very little value during that time, and it was normal to hear of bomb blasts, people dying and other cruelties. But hearing from monks about the sacredness of life was wonderful and attracted me a lot. Many people thought that the fighting would continue forever and Buddhism played an important role in remembering our ideals, our values and the belief that human life is sacred. Whenever I thought of a person that I wanted to become, whose qualities I admire, who simply fascinates me, I had to think of monks. They are an integral part of our culture and highly respected! As a child, I remember how much we enjoyed going to the temples. The monks there were so nice and friendly. They never screamed or shouted at us and gave Dhamma talks – interesting, beautiful stories about the life of Buddha and his followers.”

One day, the well-known monk Bhavana Hamuduruwo visited his village and taught meditation there, giving serious and thought-provoking information about the life and the qualities of Lord Buddha. From then on, the sixteen year old Bahnte Pasadhika meditated more regularly. “In fact, I meditated whenever I had time for it! After school, on Sundays, whenever I had time, I sat down and meditated,” he says.

“Being in my twenties, I started to realize that wealth, money, prestige, sports or other worldly pleasures didn’t interest me much, and the simple lifestyle I was already living, fulfilled me. Meditation made me feel so peaceful, relaxed and happy,” he recalls.

 In 2007, against his families wishes (he was far too young they thought), he took the step. He joined a monastery with the proviso that he was free to leave if he ever thought he’d made the wrong decision. That moment never came.

Bahnte Pasadhika and me, talking via video-call.

So, what does his life look like today?

Bahnte Pasadhika spends the majority of his life teaching Buddhist principles, philosophy and meditation. He’s a well-traveled monk, having visited 34 countries.

“Buddhism is a lot about discipline, about working hard,” he says.

Buddhist monks also spend three to four months per year in meditation retreats and they last for about one month.

This is Banthe’s schedule: He wakes up at 4 a.m., refreshes himself with some water and goes to the meditation hall. Here, the monks chant together for half an hour. The next hour they meditate. Banthe’s first meal is at 6.30 a.m. Then he cleans the monastery and sweeps the pathways before meditation starts again at 7 a.m – for three hours.  At 10am he has one hour for cleaning his room, washing his robes, taking a bath or taking a walk around the monastery. From 11 to 12 is lunch followed by his first ‘rest’ where he can spend an hour sleeping, reading, listening to Dhamma talks, going for a walk around the monastery, planting trees, making ponds, and in general doing anything relaxing that doesn’t break the monastery’s laws. A second, long group meditation is from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. followed by another hour break before the evening chanting starts at 18.30h. When the chanting is done, the most relaxed time of the day starts when the monks can do what they want. At 22.30h, everyone has to go to sleep, as the next day starts early.

“During the retreat time, we don’t need much sleep,” he adds.

And does he miss things from the life of a lay person?

“Yes, sometimes I miss things like going swimming in the sea, or driving a car.”

“So how do you deal with this?”

“I just accept it and observe how my mind reacts to it. What really matters is the peace and harmony I feel through meditation, through monkhood, through helping others. I am satisfied, I am happy,” he says.

He gives one of his luminous smiles and asks: “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

We have a little chat about an online meditation program that we want to organize together and then Bahnte has to leave – a busy day of dhamma talks and meditation lays in front of him.

“Teruwan Sarranai!”

(In English: “May the blessings of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha be with you!”)

Living for two weeks as a Buddhist monk. Me and Bahnte Pasadhika, at his monastery in Sri Lanka.

Below are additional photos that I took with my phone while staying at Bahnte’s monastery in January 2018. The photos enlarge if you click on them.

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