From carpenter to head abbot of Bodhiyanarama Temple
September 29, 2017
From carpenter to head abbot of Bodhiyanarama Temple: Ajarn Kasulo talks to Dane Ambler about his 28 years as a monk, the intricacies of the meditative experience and reveals how to deal with sorrow in a fast-moving world.
Hidden beneath the thick shrub of rimu, cabbage and fern on 51 hectares of Stokes Valley land, eight people sit in deep meditation under the roof of Bodhiyanarama Temple. Inside, polished wooden floors flicker with rays of the early morning sun. The freshly-ironed robes of three monks are pristine and crisp. Clouds of incense dance in the air, then disappear. Orchids, lilies and dandelions spill out of old vases which are delicately engraved with lotus patterns. A ray of light illuminates a bronze statue of the Buddha, who is wearing a half smile. There are no furnishings, just empty space, yet it feels as comfortable as my living room.
Guiding the meditation is head abbot Ajarn Kasulo, an imposing figure at six-feet tall. He is seated next to a digital timer and a golden bell inscribed with barely visible Sanskrit. Among the group of followers is a white-bearded man in his sixties, his Swanndri coat draped over his broad shoulders. He looks like a farmer and sits apart from the rest. To his right is a young man in his twenties wearing an All Blacks beanie. There is an Indian woman wrapped in a wool blanket, a Chinese woman and two monks seated in the lotus position next to Kasulo. All have their left hand resting in their right, all are focusing solely on their breath, some swaying, and some perfectly still.
Outside the temple the landscape has an unnatural glow; the trees seem greener, pale blue pebbles at the temple entrance have been raked into spirals, and a stream can be heard close by, a constant, tranquil trickle. The stream is the only thing assuring me the world outside has not stopped.
Later that day Kasulo is seated across from me. He has completed his morning meditation, which began at 3am, and has just finished his daily 6am meeting. His broad torso, expertly wrapped in a mustard robe, is perfectly erected. He uncrosses his legs, grasps his teapot and moves next to a window on the upper floor of the monastery. The early rays shine bright on his face, showing 65 years of wisdom. Countless lines spread across his face like creases in an unironed sheet. His brown eyes blink rapidly as he shifts his position to a slightly more shaded spot.
Smiling, he begins to speak “I always say everybody wants to be happy. The question is how do we do that, what is the formula? The whole capitalist, materialist, spending a lot of money, getting a job, career, mortgage, that model didn’t appeal to me.”
“How did you become the head abbot of this temple?” I ask.
“No one else wanted to do it,” he grins, revealing cigarette-stained teeth. Kasulo tells me he smoked frequently before he ordained.
“I grew up in Auckland. I lived a life as a hippy with the long hair for five or six years, and worked as a carpenter. I was searching, looking for answers. People become quite complacent once they get past a certain age, they’ve got their job, they’ve got their career and they stop asking the questions. But I never stopped.”
He pauses mid-sentence to sip his tea. “Ignorance and unawareness is the cause of people’s unhappiness.”
Kasulo tells me meditation is a large part of monastic life at Bodhiyanarama. He explains that in the rush of life we forget to come back to ourselves, and breathing is probably the most important thing we can do to bring us back to reality.
“It’s about contemplation, reflection, and investigation. It can be analytical or it can simply be silent prayer. What’s the meaning of life? Am I happy? What is the nature of love? Is the universe infinite? You’re not necessarily looking for an answer, you’re just opening the mind in a particular way. The mind is processing on its own.”
He pauses to think, running his hands over his shaven head. “The mind has an incredible capacity. People don’t realise it, it is lost in sensuality.”
He pauses, searching for an analogy.
“It is like a container of water. Contact with the world is like putting coloured powder in. When we come into contact with something it colours the mind. Thinking, planning, worrying, speculating is like stirring it all or shaking it. So when we meditate we simply put the container down. Naturally, if you are patient, all that sediment will settle to the bottom. The mind becomes clear.”
As he stops to ponder for a few seconds I can hear sirens and cars passing on the main street. The speed and noise seem to clash with Kasulo’s words, which come slower and are several decibels quieter than that of the average person.
“What is the ultimate function, or point of this life? What is it all about, life, and the universe?” he asks rhetorically, with some frustration in his voice. He gazes down on the courtyard below, where Mika, a 52-year-old Thai woman carefully rakes the pebbles at the temple entrance. I notice he has a frown on his face.
“Have you found happiness here?” I ask to break the silence. At first he studies my face for a few seconds, as if to see if my question is a serious one. He parts his robe slightly, freeing his arm to grasp his small terracotta tea cup, then lowers his head to collect his thoughts.
“Yes, I’m happy, quite joyful actually.” He places particular emphasis on the word ‘joyful’.
The clock hits 12pm. I know Kasulo’s time is valuable and he has a number of commitments to oversee.
A builder, covered in paint specks, disrupts our interview to ask Kasulo of if the temple tent is to be taken down. Kasulo says yes but the man seems agitated with the decision.
While they deliberate, I ponder Kasulo’s words, thinking back to my years living in Asia. I wandered through temples in China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. I trekked the unforgiving Himalayas, through Northern India and Nepal, searching. I found moments of calm but they vanished in a fraction of the time I had taken to find them. The values I had worked so hard to maintain were all too often lost in impressing others. I open my mouth to speak but my words are downed by the sound of a temple bell which chimes three times.
“We’ve gone over time,” Kasulo says, shrugging his wide shoulders and reaching for his teapot. “Feel free to come and join us for meditation.” The sun no longer shines on his robe and a cold chill sweeps through the upper floor. Our time is at an end.
As he rises from his seat, I hastily ask him the most important question I have; how to deal with pain and anxiety and lessen our suffering. He chuckles. “Life is a mixture of sunshine and rain, we have just learn to accept it and put an umbrella up.”