Bhante Saranapala, The Urban Buddhist Monk
By Jamie Bussin
I met Bhante Saranapala five years ago when he came on Episode #46 of The Tonic Talk Show to discuss how Canada could become a “Kindful” nation. This was before we discussed mindfulness regularly on the show…and before so many things about the world had changed. I am a cynic at heart, but I do believe that we need Bhante and his uplifting message now, perhaps more than ever.
TT: You describe yourself as the “Urban Buddhist Monk” – what does that mean?
BS: Being a monk of the 21st century. Being social media friendly. Being modern. Being the monk of today. Some years ago, a friend who was also a student of mine learned of my meditation class. We were sipping tea mindfully and he asked me about two traditions found in Buddhism: One is called the forest tradition and the other is the town/city tradition. I explained what a forest monk does and what a city monk does. He told me that I was no longer a forest monk but that I was an “urban monk”. As an Urban Buddhist monk I use technology, I use social media. I’m fully aware of what is happening now in the world and accordingly I try to bring happiness, peace, relief, joy, and mindfulness to everyone for health and wellness.
TT: What was your journey to becoming a Buddhist Monk?
BS: I was born in Bangladesh. I became a novice monk for a short time. It’s a cultural practice among the Buddhists in Bangladesh to do so. After my novice ordination my teacher sent me to a prominent monastery in Colombo, Sri Lanka. There I received my meditation training, my secular and monastic education for eleven years. I would say that I’m not just a Buddhist monk, but rather I’m a “humanistic” monk. I was fortunate to learn from teachers that also did social work. I learned from people from all walks of life. It influenced me greatly. I came to Canada in 1995 and continued my education in Toronto. I was at the Toronto College of Eastern Medicine and I was invited to do a mindfulness session for the students. From there I established a youth group to teach them spiritual, moral values through good deeds. Running soup kitchens, helping homeless people, doing meditation, doing kindful work in order to make their lives meaningful. So since 1995 I’ve been running these sessions not only within the community but across the country, and in the United States, Europe and Asia.
TT: What do you hope to achieve through your mindful meditation sessions?
BS: Through these sessions I’ve been able to bring relief to many people. I’ve seen the positive change taking place in their lives. I want to share some wisdom, words of hope, words of inspiration, for their health and healing. My only intention, when I do counselling, when I do public sessions of mindfulness meditation is that all people be relieved, that all people be happy and that all people be peaceful. If they are going through difficult times, may they become free from pain, suffering, struggles, problems. I want people to be free from fear and uncertainty. If their heart and mind are filled with grief, may they be free from grief and they have a peaceful happy life. All of this is part of my journey towards being a modern urban Buddhist monk.
TT What does it mean to be “kindful’?
BS: Being mindful and being kind. I encourage people to embrace the kindness principle in two steps. The first step is to be mindful to be kind to yourself. The second step is to be mindful to be kind to others. Being mindful is to always remember. So always remember to be kind to yourself. If you’re not being kind to yourself you can’t be kind to others. First we need to be healed in order to heal others. First we need to be happy in order to share happiness with others. First you need to be joyful to bring joy to others. First you need to be peaceful in order to bring peace to others. There was a book written in the 1960’s by an American Psychiatrist, Thomas Anthony Harris, “I’m okay, You’re okay” – being kind to yourself is a way of making yourself okay, making yourself healthy, making yourself happy. With an empty pot you can’t serve tea to others. You have to fill that pot with tea. In the same way we have to fill ourselves with kindness, love, compassion, happiness, joy, peace…and then you can serve a lot of people! But don’t forget the second step of being kind to others. There are so many people going through difficulties. They may not be telling you their story. But their untold story is being told by their behaviour; by picking on others, judging others or hurting others. That story may be a painful one. Be mindful that those people actually want us to be kind to them.
TT: Does everybody have the capacity to be kind?
BS: By nature we all are kind people. We have the capacity to be kind to others. Even if someone is 99% unkind, they still have 1% capacity to become kind. Our mission is to help minimize their 99% unkindness and maximize their 1% of kindness. This is from my upcoming book: Let’s say you do something kind for me – serve me tea, or join me on a hospital visit – and I thank you for your kindness. You begin to consider my thanks, because you are a human being. You feel my true gratitude, my true kindness, how much I appreciated you. Then the next day you feel like doing the same thing for someone else. There is a saying, from one candle a thousand lights can be lit.
TT: If we can practice being kind or mindful, is it correct to consider kindfulness/mindfulness as skills?
BS: Yes. It is a special innate skill. Let’s say you have a particular thought or feeling that may not be beneficial. Then you become mindful about it. Before you activate that thought with actions or words you reflect on those potentially hurtful words or actions and realize that they will impact someone else – that you might hurt someone and in turn cause them to hurt you or someone else. Through mindfulness I’m teaching others to consider whether responding with kindness to rudeness rather than being pulled down to their level. If you can be patient you may be able to change the situation. Protecting yourself is a way of protecting others. By being kind, mindful, peaceful (etc.), you’ll have a great impact on others. It is an innate capacity.
TT: Do you think it’s odd that we have to try to be kind?
BS: I think it depends on the environment. When we start growing up we become interested in external things in our environment. We see unkindful things happening. The environment is conditioning our minds to become like that environment. We just have to be reminded that we are inherently good. Don’t be influenced by external things. You can change the environment if you can change yourself. Whatever you are adding into the universe will be returned to you.
TT: If one is inspired to be kind or mindful, what should the first step be?
BS: The first step is to look at yourself. Ask a question. Are you being kind to yourself and being kind to others? If so, have you done a small act of kindness for yourself and others? Maybe you could do something for yourself like meditate for fifteen minutes a day. It could be mindful breathing or loving kindness meditation – that is wishing happiness, joy and peace to yourself and others. And then you can put that into action. “Today, I am going to help someone. Today, at work, I’m going to be nice to people. I’m going to be kind. I’m going to be appreciative. Maybe, I’ll invite someone for tea.” Whenever I have a counselling session with someone, I invite them for tea. And I make tea for them. When you’re out and you see a homeless person, see if you can give them a water bottle or buy them a coffee, tea…a sandwich…a bagel. Yesterday, the wife of one of my students, who happens to be an RCMP officer, reached out to me on social media because her husband wanted to meditate together with his family and me for his birthday. We did that, and everyone was so happy and thanking me. But I said the thanks should go to his wife who was thoughtful and put the meditation session together. She knew what her husband wanted and provided it to him. She was very kindful.
TT: How does mindfulness impact wellness?
BS: Neuroscientists have done a lot of research into this. One named Richard Davidson, invited a French monk into his lab at the University of Wisconsin. He affixed 256 sensors to his brain and to computers. He gave the monk simple instructions – “go and do your meditation”. The monk did loving kindness meditation with mindful breathing. The positive changes taking place in the brain surprised the scientists. He published an article in a psychology journal in the United States. In summary he states: No matter what has happened to you, you can always change your life. In order to change your life you have to do something new – you have to reframe your mind with something healthy. If you continue to do this you will be a happy and healthy person. I can tell you that this is true from my experience. I started meditating when I was ten years old in Bangladesh, and continued when I received training in Sri Lanka and when I was teaching in Toronto. I have seen people who are healthy and happy. Meditation works. Wellness comes from choosing to use good words, doing kind deeds and choosing to think kind thoughts. That’s why I’m publishing a book with these ideas and methods.
TT: How can mindfulness help us as we age?
BS: As we age we want to be happy. Happiness depends on how we train ourselves now. Consciously and unconsciously, we allow ourselves to be affected by negative things. We are allowing our brains to be wired with negative thoughts. If our brains become wired with negative thoughts, feelings, emotions and perceptions then our lives when we’re old will be unhealthy. If we can start practicing meditation now and if we can wire our brain with the feelings of kindness and mindfulness, love, compassion and good will – all the good behaviors and good deeds, guess what? Our lives in old age will be healthy and happy. We can actually live longer with wellness.
TT: At the top of this interview you describe yourself as a modern Buddhist monk who uses social media. Let’s bring this full circle: What is the role of mindfulness in the age of technology and social media?
BS: Well, technology can be used for negativity and positivity. I’m using technology mindfully to bring positivity. There are many people who follow me on social media who want my daily message. I sometimes give my programs live on social media for those who can’t attend in person. I share videos of the humanitarian projects that we’re working on. I hope it’s inspirational. This gives people a good mindset. We are connected. I am choosing to spread good messages. This is a way of being mindful.