Opening the Door of Your Heart: The Humor and Compassion of Ajahn Brahmavamso

“If I hold up a glass of water for ten minutes, it will feel heavy. If I hold that glass for 30 minutes, my arm will hurt. If I hold it for two hours, I am a very dumb monk,” chuckles Ajahn Brahmavamso, Buddhist monk and Abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia. “But” he continues, “If I set the glass down for a few minutes to rest my arm, it will feel much lighter when I lift it again.”

So too, with life’s responsibilities, worries and concerns: if we set them down from time to time, they seem lighter when we pick them back up. Meditation explains Brahm, is that time when you set your burdens down and rest.

The Royal Bangkok Sports Club’s RSC Auditorium was nearly full on the second of November, 2005. A mix of Thai and western guests, a few monks, Buddhist nuns and some devoted followers gathered to listen to Ajahn Brahm’s talk, “Opening the Door of your Heart”.

I first set eyes on him when he breezed into the foyer. With a bright smile and relaxed demeanor, he said “Good morning!” to the crowd. Realizing his mistake (it was 7:00 pm) he giggled, “Sorry, must be jet lag!” His talk began when he asked all of us to lay our symbolic glasses of water down for a three minute meditation. The Abbot then spoke for 45 minutes followed by a question and answer period.

Hailing from some of the meaner streets of London, Ajahn Brahm says he knew he was a Buddhist by the time he was seventeen, when he came across a book on the subject. He claims that while his friends started getting into drug experimentation and risky behavior, he never once was interested. Instead, he went to hear any and every Buddhist monk or lecturer who came through town.

Prior to donning the saffron robes, Brahm received a degree in Theoretical Physics from Cambridge University, then went on to teach for a short time. At the age of 23 he decided he had ‘had enough of the world” and moved to Thailand where he was ordained. Why Thailand? Ajahn Brahm had been meeting monks from many Buddhist traditions and countries including Japanese Zen, Tibetan Mahayana and other sects. In the end he chose the Thai tradition because “Thai monks smiled the most.”

Brahm says that once he became a monk, he realized quickly that this was what he always wanted for his life. He spent a great deal of time in a forest monastery outside of Ubon Ratchatthani, and then went on to help found Bodhinyana in Australia. In the intervening years, Ajahn Brahm has become known as an inspiring speaker, with a style that is approachable, contemporary and sometimes downright funny. Using simple yet compelling stories that modern people can relate to, Ajahn Brahm has touched many lives and hearts.

One story he likes to tell is of the very first wall he built. With great diligence and care, Brahm set each and every brick. As any brick layer will tell you, this is no easy task. The ability to evenly balance bricks in mortar takes slow and careful labor. Upon completion, Brahm stood back to admire his work. He was horrified: there were two crooked bricks! For several months he dwelled on the wall and berated his poor workmanship. But one day, a visitor came and complimented him on such a fine wall. Brahm was stunned. “Didn’t you see those two crooked bricks?” he asked. “Yes of course, said the visitor, but I also saw the 998 perfectly set ones.”

“How many times in life” Brahm asked, “Do we see only our mistakes?” If we look only at the mistakes and not the 998 things we do right each day, we are certain to suffer. Condemning ourselves for our human errors leads to guilt and guilt eventually leads to punishment. Brahm says he sees far too much condemnation of others’ actions, especially by religions. “So I can’t judge, I can only offer understanding.” This compassion for self and others is the essence of Buddhism and something the Abbott clearly does well. His words and his delightful stories continue to draw listeners from around the world.

Ajahn Brahm came to Bangkok as part of a speaking tour for his new book, Opening the Door of Your Heart. The title comes from an experience he once had with his father when he was a young teen. Driving home after a long day, his dad paused and said, “Son, I want you to know that no matter what you do in life, the door to my house will always be open to you.” Brahm says he knew that the house wasn’t the point, since the family shared a tiny flat in a dangerous neighborhood.  It was his father’s heart that would remain unconditionally accepting of him, regardless of what he did or who he became. That unconditional love, often seen only from parent to child, is something Brahm believes is essential to happiness and well-being, and it can be experienced, he argues, with practices such as meditation, the willingness to make the best of life’s challenges, and by letting go of fear and guilt.

The book, now translated into several languages, will be published in the United States under the title Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung? after one of his favorite stories. With ‘cow poo’ as a metaphor for life’s less appealing challenges, Brahm explains how we each find ourselves at times with a truckload of (emotional, psychological or practical) manure at our front door.

“What do you do with all this poo?” he asks. “To remove it, you can try to stuff your pockets with it. But then you will smell and lose friends.” As with life, when our challenges seem to stink to high heaven, we can wander around in stress and misery, carrying that poop in our pockets. At first, our friends will show us compassion and understanding. True friends will support our challenge. But after awhile, even the closest friends don’t want to keep hanging around the smell of crap.

“Instead, we must take that dung and use it like manure, slowly tilling it into our gardens,” says Brahm. Even though you didn’t order the problem, you are stuck with it and it stinks. If you carry it around you start to smell so you better find some other way to get rid of it. Ajahn Brahm says that this is the law of karma at work. “No matter what comes to you in life, make something good out of it.”

Of course, when we are in the midst of such challenges, it is not always so easy. Sometimes life seems to throw things at us we just weren’t asking for. But Brahm argues that if we blame others, we get no closer to the solution. Apologizing for his language, he then quotes his forest monastery teacher. A country man not accustomed to the eloquent speech of the elite, Ajahn Cha once put it this way: “Blaming other people is like having an itch on your head and scratching your bum.” He urged his listeners “Don’t allow anyone else to destroy your happiness. It is up to you – you are in full control of your life.”

It is clear that Brahm is not a man bent on converting, but one who genuinely seeks to help his fellow human by offering insight, compassion and accessible wisdom. Ajahn Brahm believes that any religion should be about happiness. His book and lectures aim for just that with excellent use of humorous stories to illustrate aspects of Buddhism in action. These tales resonate with the challenges and personal foibles we all experience regardless of religious affiliation.

And what is the garden? The garden is our character; it is the wisdom that comes with experience and suffering. After all, some of the healthiest gardens have been tilled with lots of manure. Life brings challenges, of that there is little doubt. What we do with those challenges, according to Brahm, is what matters. Do we nurture the garden of our lives and grow from the experience, or do we wander through life stinking like poop?


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