In search of a wandering Buddhist monk

by Kerry Stewart, ABC, 31 October 2014

A Buddhist monk on a country road

Sydney, Australia -- Buddhist monk Jason Chan has been wandering the east coast of Australia since 2011 barefoot and carrying nothing but his robe and alms bowl. Keeping a diary of efforts to locate Jason in Sydney, Kerry Stewart made some spiritual discoveries of her own.

<< Buddhist monk Jason Chan has spent three years walking up and down the east coast of Australia with nothing but his robe and alms bowl (Kerry Stewart)

Day 1

I forget how I first heard about Jason Chan the wandering monk, but once his dedication to walking in the footsteps of the Buddha entered my imagination, I couldn’t let it go.

Jinasiri, or Jason Chan, as he prefers to be known, has trained as a Theravada Buddhist monk. Since August 2011 he has been walking the east coast of Australia barefoot, wearing three saffron robes and carrying a blanket and an alms bowl. He stops in one place from July to September, just as the Buddha did during the rainy season 2,500 years ago.

Over three years, Jason has covered thousands of kilometres from Townsville to Sydney and along the way he has encountered truckies, cyclists, school kids, country and city folk. They’ve offered him food, shelter and spent time talking with him about life. Now he’s in Sydney and apparently staying not far from my office.

Someone told me he’d seen Jason cross Parramatta Road near Sydney Uni at 8 am and return with food in his alms bowl to Victoria Park by 11 am. This, his only meal of the day, has to be eaten by midday. This restricted consumption of food is one of the rules he lives by and must be incredibly challenging in a country like Australia where the majority of the population aren’t Buddhist and don’t understand what he’s doing.

I rush out of my office and stride up the busy street towards the park at 10.20 am. I’m later than I want to be and haven’t had time to buy even a mandarin to offer him. I feel bad about that, but think maybe I’ll have a chance to get some sushi on the way. Does he eat meat? Probably not. What does he do if someone offers a fish or chicken dish: will he eat it? All sorts of questions are forming in my mind. I haven’t been told where he sleeps, but given his lifestyle over the last couple of years, it’s probably out in the open. So where in the city would he choose to lay his head? Is he frightened at night with sirens screaming down Parramatta Road and angry drunks lurching through the park?

I’m hoping to spend a day walking with him, but I’ve been warned that he shuns ‘gushing excited attention’ because it’s ‘poison to wisdom’. As I wander around Victoria Park with every red or saffron object catching my eye, I realise I have to slow down my excited attention.

It’s surprising how much bright orange there is in the world today—blobs in the distance turn into pretty polka-dot dresses, slippery dips and workmen’s vests. I sit on a bench in the warm Autumn sun for a couple of hours watching students, photographers and picnickers come and go. The ibises scratch around the enormous Moreton Bay figs, the sun sparkles on the fountain.

A bearded man wearing torn clothes and leading three dogs is keen to have a chat. He has a lovely smile and warm voice. We discuss the memory span of dogs. He reckons they’re very lucky because, unlike us, they don’t worry about the past or the future. He says he was able to exist in the present for a day once, and it was one of the best days he’s had.

I smile. A whole day is much longer than I can manage. There’s a Zen Buddhist koan or spiritual question that asks, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature?’ Perhaps I should focus on living life as a dog does.

I didn’t meet the monk today but tomorrow I’ll get to the park earlier, have some food for him and hopefully he’ll pop out from behind a tree. Or maybe I’ll meet the bearded dog lover again. Either would be good.

Day 2

The weather’s starting to change, with a cool wind whipping up the city streets. I wrap a scarf around my neck and wonder if Jason Chan has a jumper. Would his mum insist on knitting him one? Would he accept it?

I start my search for him earlier today than yesterday and buy some Chinese sweet balls, green bean paste with sesame seeds, to put in his alms bowl. I feel confident I’ll find him and happy I have something to offer.

I’ve read that someone else he encountered bought chocolate to give him because they heard he liked it. Jason denied he liked or, for that matter, disliked chocolate, and said it was common for people to project their own preferences upon him. So why have I chosen Chinese sweets? I think I’m hoping to appeal to his deep cultural memory of the food his grandmother may have cooked for him. Perhaps I have it all wrong. Maybe the Chan family has been in Australia for generations and they make Pavlova for special occasions.

The idea of him being a mirror for those he meets is interesting. I once spoke to the Abbott of a Buddhist monastery in the Southern Highlands of NSW, who said the same thing in relation to nuns falling in love with him. He said they project their desire onto him, and think they know him. He denied being known too, and said he was more like a mirror.

I have a strategy to walk to all the places I think Jason’s likely to hang out with his alms bowl. So I go to Broadway Shopping Centre and ask a guy who’s selling The Big Issue if he’s seen a monk with a bowl. He says he did earlier in the week, but hasn’t since. I ask an older nun in red robes, clearly a Tibetan Buddhist, if she’s seen a Theravada monk wandering around. I hardly finish speaking before she says that’s like asking a Catholic priest if I’ve seen a Baptist minister. I apologise for bothering her but am surprised by her blinkered response.

Next stop is Glebe Point Road, where cafe patrons drink lattes and eat runny eggs on sourdough. I peep into the school, in case Jason has been invited to talk to the kids—I’ve read articles in local country newspapers that highlighted his talks to teenage students about grooming and deportment.

Then it’s on to Central Station and Chinatown—two places I think he would feel quite at home. Central because musicians and homeless folk sit for hours waiting for the generosity of passers-by, and Chinatown because there is a Buddhist temple where monks go on alms rounds on the weekends. There’s no sign of Jason at either. As I wander back to the park I’m starting to feel anxious that I won’t find him. It’s 10.30 am, so if he’s still in the area, I should see him coming into the park soon. I wait and wait.

There are three grey-haired women running up and down stairs under the instruction of a taut blonde with a high ponytail. A young Chinese student reads a phrase aloud in Mandarin over and over again from a crib sheet. Someone clunks by in their black patent leather shoes, another in high heels. Who are we without a desire to be fit, clever and beautiful? Who am I, if not my aging body, uncertain mind and dated image? Where is that mirror? Not to be found today.

Day 3

After phoning a number of Buddhist groups around Sydney University to ask if they’ve seen or had contact with Jason Chan, the wandering monk, I start to feel him slowly but surely walk out of my life. Fifteen minutes before I’m due to leave work, I get a hunch. I so often ignore, or don’t even feel, the unconscious mind at work, but when I do it makes life so much more interesting.

The hunch directs me to a Buddhist library, which organises and hosts Buddhist education and meditation groups from many different traditions. It happens to be about three kilometres from the park I have been sitting in for the last two days. As soon as I ring and speak to the co-ordinator, the rocky path of uncertainty and disappointment changes into a well-swept path of equanimity. How fickle our emotions are when the landscape of our circumstances change.

The Buddhist Library has housed Jason for the last few days and the coordinator tells me he is giving a Dharma talk on Sunday at the home of the Association of Engaged Buddhists, a few suburbs away. I leave work happy, with my recorder ready to record his talk. I am going to ask if I can accompany him for one day on his journey to his place of retreat in July.

Day 4

I buy vegetarian sushi from the Japanese shop in my local ‘shopping village’—what extraordinary literary licence developers have these days. An air-conditioned enclosed concrete box with neon lights and a supermarket is hardly what I think of when I imagine a village.

I think it’s safest to take vegetarian food to a Buddhist monk, but after arriving at Sangha Lodge, where Jason is giving his talk, I ask if he accepts meat pies if people offer them to him on the road. He says he eats whatever he’s given but if people ask what he prefers, he tells them that he has no preferences regarding flavours, but thinks it’s more compassionate to not eat meat.

There are about 30 people sitting in rows on the floor of a small terrace house in the inner city suburb. Jason sits at the front beside a large golden statue of a Buddha, and describes to the gathered Buddhists his reasons for taking up this path of asceticism. He says that in all the monasteries he’s lived in—and they range from the Southern Highlands of NSW to a Chan monastery in Taiwan to a remote Theravada forest monastery in Sri Lanka—he has never encountered any monks who are free, liberated and enlightened.

He says this is due to a very common problem. Where there is ownership of land and buildings, even in a spiritual community, there is power and wealth, and with power and wealth comes corruption. So after spending a dedicated year at in Sri Lanka, he simply walked out with an alms bowl, three robes, and a blanket. This is the way the Buddha lived until he died in his eighties, and Jason is trying to live in a similar homeless way. He has been told it couldn’t be done in this day and age, even in Asia, let alone in Australia, but he’s going to give it a go.

If I’d seen him some ten years before at this venue, dressed in his suit after having come from his work as a lawyer, I would have said he was a typical Aussie guy. Now, with one slender arm and part of his chest uncovered by his bright orange robe, I’m not so sure.  He has a large, round, shiny scar on his shoulder, his waist is drawn in, the soles of his feet are thickened and his eyes are soft and engaged.

He tells me that there are three important things for a wise life: curiosity, kindness and generosity. So I decide to invite him to stay at my house and give a talk to some Buddhists from different traditions next weekend. He accepts, but gently let me know about some rules that he lives by.

Firstly, there has to be a woman over 50 at the talk, in case we get into some ‘deep and meaningful’ topics. I interpret that to mean sex, and reassure him that I could hold the hands of younger women if need be. He also prefers to sleep away from the house; garages and sheds are ideal. Luckily I have a shed, so I tell him my address and the day and time I  expect him. He insists that he doesn’t need to write anything down and says that he is quite punctual (even though he has to walk about 25 kilometres and doesn’t have a watch).

Day 5

I have sent out emails to several Buddhist groups in Sydney, inviting them to my house at 10 am.  I prepare a bed in the shed. Even though I try to make the room comfortable there is a strong smell of turpentine and paint, which makes me wonder about Jason’s views on comfort. Where does he draw the line? It’s been about six degrees overnight. Should the mattress be soft and the bedcover warm, or will he lie on the floor with his thin blanket? Will the chemical smell distract his meditation? Maybe I need to worry less about doing it right. I’m sure he’ll work out what’s right for him.

The guests arrive with food to offer and a fascination for this young man. One woman met him a few days ago in a suburban park. She had a chat with him while he was sitting under a tree and he invited her to my house for the talk. He told her the address, but because she had no pen she had to remember the details until she got home. An older woman, she was unsure whether her memory was up to the task, but kept repeating the information in her mind over and over.

When I ask if I can record his talk, Jason says he would prefer if I didn’t, then mentions Yoda from Star Wars. Yoda is a mysterious yet equanimous character who doesn’t speak much, but nonetheless points the way for those who are faltering in life. Jason sees himself as a kind of Yoda, but without the publicity. He says that the Buddha warned against celebrity because it is ‘poison to wisdom’. It’s also spiritually dangerous, he says, for people to see him as some sort of guru.

When I explain that my program will talk to people he’s met and ask them how the encounter has affected them, he seems pleased.

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