The man behind the mission

by NISSARA HORAYANGURA, Bangkok Post, Oct 29, 2006

Bangkok, Thailand -- Who's reading Ajahn Brahm's book? A very mixed crowd - Germans, Chinese, Thais, any number of people literate in the eight languages into which his book has been translated. Executives, students, psychologists, even Christian chaplains.

"Last month, a Catholic priest in Adelaide phoned me especially to thank me for the book because he uses it in his chaplaincy work," Ajahn Brahm says, sounding both delighted and a bit amazed. "When you get praise from Christians, you think, wow, this book is actually making those bridges between different religions."

With his knack for presenting Buddhist teachings without being too "Buddhisty" - conveying their wisdom in universally relevant ways - he makes a skilful bridge-builder (if an imperfect bricklayer).

Whether travelling around the world giving talks or based at his monastery in Australia, where only two per cent of the population is Buddhist, Ajahn Brahm is actively involved in interfaith dialogue, although he would rather not use the term "dialogue".

"It's friendship, actually," he says.

He tells of a particularly close friendship he has with the Catholic abbot of a Benedictine monastery just north of Perth. Both being entertaining speakers, they regularly do public talks together as "The Two Abbots", a sort of two-man spiritual-comedy act.

The concept is catchy, but also inspiring. "People see a Buddhist abbot and a Catholic abbot sitting together, talking about similar things, and being obviously friends. And they love it."

The two abbots' close friendship also makes it possible to have that "interfaith dialogue" more effectively. Ajahn Brahm observes that at many interfaith gatherings, one has to "tread on eggshells" out of fear of causing offence.

"But our friendship has gone way beyond that now. We know each other well enough that we're not afraid to disagree. He can say whatever he likes. He's my friend and I refuse to be offended.

"He can say, 'I don't believe in reincarnation!' And I can say, 'I don't believe in God!' And we both win, because we know exactly what we mean," he says with a laugh.

Debates about God's existence aside, another sticking point some Buddhists - particularly orthodox Theravadans - may have in truly respecting other religions is their belief that the only way to achieve ultimate liberation is through the practice of insight meditation, which is not found in other religions.

When this point is raised, Ajahm Brahm immediately responds, "That's called conceit."

He then goes on to quote an inarguable authority - the Lord Buddha. "Once the Buddha was asked that question - 'Can you become enlightened in other traditions?' And he gave this beautiful answer: 'Wherever there's an eightfold path, wherever you practise a bit of meditation, some virtue, some wisdom, there you'll find people becoming enlightened."'

Still, that watch-word "meditation" was mentioned, was it not? Yes, but Ajahn Brahm is keen to demystify "meditation". Many times in his talks, he emphasizes that there is nothing magical or esoteric about it. Meditation is simply stilling the mind. "It's a fundamental freedom of all human beings." He likens it to getting out of a speeding car and walking. When you're riding in the car, you can only see the world whizzing by through the window, the details blurred. Once you slow down, once you still the mind, you can see more clearly.

Buddhism has no monopoly on meditation. He points out that meditation is so popular nowadays that there are meditation groups in Christian and other faiths, so non-Buddhists can practise it within a tradition they're comfortable with.

Nor does Buddhism, or any religion, have a monopoly on truth.

"Now, you can actually bottle water and sell it. But you can't bottle truth and sell it. Religions try to do that. [They say] 'We're the only ones who've got the truth. So we've got the franchise, and no one else can sell it."'

Just as water is the same, no matter what bottle it's in (and no matter what those clever marketers say), so truth is the same, no matter what religious container it's in - love, peace, harmony, forgiveness, freedom.

Making that distinction between the containers and the contents is the key to avoiding inter-religious strife, he says. So much conflict is instigated when others attack one's own containers - the symbols, texts, icons of one's religion. But one need not get upset if one can remember that they are just symbols, and focus on maintaining the contents, the teachings.

"When the Taliban destroyed the Bamyan Buddha statues, Buddhists did not allow themselves to seek revenge, because that would, in fact, mean the Taliban had succeeded not only in destroying the containers, but also the contents."

Similarly, he says, "A Muslim might say, 'I don't like those cartoons [referring to the controversy over offensive caricatures drawn of the Prophet Muhammad], but it's more important that we're friends. Forgiven.' Wouldn't it be wonderful if that happened?"

Following an incident where US soldiers allegedly flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet, Ajahn Brahm was asked what he would do if someone flushed a Buddhist holy book down a toilet.

"Call a plumber."

Ajahn Brahm was recently in Bangkok to give a talk entitled 'Ups and Downs in Life'. An audio recording and an informal written transcript of the talk can be downloaded from Additional talks by Ajahn Brahm can be downloaded from