May 3, 2005

A Wandering Buddhist Monk of Minnesota

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report


ROCHESTER, MN -- The Buddhist monk Bhante Sathi’s journey to Minnesota began with a hunger strike against his parents.  

He was 16 years old, living in the Sri Lanka town called Kandy where his father owned a clothing shop, and he desperately wanted to become a monk. He wanted to throw away the modern boy’s clothes his father had given him, and put on the ancient maroon robes that monks wear in Sri Lanka.  

But Buddhist law says a young man can’t become a monk unless his parent’s give thir permission – which Bhante Sathi’s parents refused to do. So he stopped eating for three whole days. When his parents didn’t still didn’t give the okay, he ran away to a forest monastery far from his home.  

After a few days he telephoned home with an ultimatum.  

“ I told my parents, ‘if you allow me to become a monk, I will come home and be ordained in a monastery close to you. But if you do not allow me, I will not come home.’” Finally seeing their son’s total focus and determination to become a monk, the parent’s relented.  

Living Beings

Today, Bhante Sathi (pronounced Bahn-tay Sah-tee), 31 years old, lives in Chanhassen and teaches Buddhism and meditation techniques at schools, meditation centers, and churches around the state.  

Last Saturday, in the wrestling room of the Rochester Community and Technical College, Bhante Sathi sat cross-legged on a thick blue wrestling mat, surrounded by a dozen college students and beginning meditators. 

For seven hours, he led the group in 20-minute meditations interspersed with storytelling about the Buddha’s life, short lectures explaining meditation techniques, and discussions of Buddhist philosophy.    

“Buddha didn’t discover anything new,” he told the group. “He simply realized the workings of living beings and their minds. Buddhism isn’t even a religion because it doesn’t ask you to believe anything or take anything on faith. It simply invites you to practice and learn for yourself.” 

Taking Steps

A visitor to the class after lunch might have been amused to see Bhante Sathi, barefoot in his flowing maroon robes, leading his students in a super-slow-motion walk across the wrestling mat.  

This was a “mindful walk” in which the students concentrated on every tiny  change and sensation that occurred in their legs as they walked – and got so bogged down in tracking these details they could hardly take a step. 

After he became ordained as a teenager in Sri Lanka, Bhante Sathi (the name means “Venerable Sathi”) worked as a editor of ancient Buddhist texts written in English. He lived in Kandy until 1999, when he visited a Buddhist temple in Southfield, Michigan, and the short visit turned into five years.  

Last year, he visited Minneapolis and sensed a strong demand for the dharma – the teachings of Buddha – in the state. He moved to Chanhassen in 2004 and since then has been traveling wherever he has been invited, while offering weekly meditation classes at the Heartwood Mindfulness Center in Minneapolis, and at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Mankato.
 
Snow Falling

As a wandering teacher in Minnesota, Bhante Sathi is part of a wave of Buddhism that is fast spreading throughout the United States.  

In the early 1950’s, there were fewer than 100,000 Buddhists in this country, according to most sources. Then, in the 1960’s, the Beat culture became infatuated with Zen Buddhism, which uses brain-teasing meditation “koans” such as “What is the sound of snow falling?” to train the mind.  

Other types of Buddhism have since landed in America in wave after wave,  not only as cultural fads serving Americans eager for exotic spiritual practices, but following millions of new Asian immigrants to the U.S.  

Tibetan Buddhism, for example, taught by the Dalai Lama, began surging in America only after tens of thousands of Tibetans were forced into exile by China, which invaded and has occupied Tibet since 1959.  

Pure Land Buddhism (from Japan and China), Chan Buddhism (from China), and Theravada Buddhism (from southeast Asia) all now boast tens of thousands of followers in this country. A popular Buddhism guide lists 1,500 meditation centers in the U.S., with possibly more than a million Americans who would say that Buddhism is their religion.  
 
Released and Free

Bhante Sathi’s brand is the Theravada school. Scholars believe it is oldest form of Buddhism and the one that is closest to what the Buddha himself  taught during his lifetime in northern India around 600 B.C.
 
Sated on a folding chair after his recent retreat at the Rochester RCTC, Bhante Sathi reached into his robe for a cell phone that buzzed loudly. He flicked it open to listen to yet another invitation to teach the dharma.  

“ People are more and more worried these days, but without reason,” he said after the call. “Most of us are always dealing with our ego, which takes a great deal of energy. In meditation we learn to let go of the ego, to live in the moment, and to see things as they really are.  

“ When you reduce your ego in this way, you feel more released and free.” 

To reach Bhante Sathi check his website, www.triplegem.org.

Copyright @2005 The McGill Report