I have always been interested in learning about the history and beliefs of different religions, particularly Buddhism. I recently came back from a ten-day adventure in Japan, where I had the opportunity to visit one of the most famous Buddhist temples: Sensoji.
Founded in 628 AD and completed in 645 AD, Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple. It is also the most-visited spiritual temple in the world, attracting 30 million people a year. Sensoji temple is home to many different gods. Some of the Buddha statues around the grounds are believed to help people who are suffering by providing joy, healing the injured, and much more.
While walking around the Sensoji Temple I was encompassed by the smell of gorgeous incense in the air, immaculate gardens, and beautiful statues at every turn. I was blown away by the beauty and rituals in this religion. Having the opportunity to see and meet monks was quite the experience. It is hard to explain, but the feeling of calm that flooded over my body when meeting them was something I have never experienced before and did not expect. It was like they were just giving off a magnetic energy of kindness.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that day walking through the temples and gardens, and I was left with so many questions about Buddhism and what a monk actually was or did. When I came back home, I needed to know more about these mysterious monks. One of my best friends in Norway, Anders, is good friends with a Buddhist monk. We have spoken a few times before about this bespectacled man, who insists on cycling year-round through the snow and who started a new residential community at the age of fifty to share love and electric appliances. When I asked if he would mind being interviewed, there was no hesitation. Anders gathered my questions, met him at a local deli in Oslo—and here is where the story begins.
So, let’s start out with a brief introduction.
My name is Gunaketu Kjonstad, but I was born with the name Bjorn. When I became ordained in 1996 into the Triratna Buddhist Order, I was given the name Gunaketu, which means “Precious Flame.” I can choose to what extent I want to use this name. I am from Norway but have lived in other countries like France, England, etc. Currently, I am the chair for the Oslo Buddhist Center.
What made you want to become a monk?
Well, first we need to define terms: Triratna Buddhist Order started in 1968 and was founded by Sangharakshita in England. He decided that in the West, what was needed was not another traditional Buddhist order but something new, something that didn’t emphasize the split between either you’re a monk or you’re a lay person. He thought that this distinction didn’t always work well and certainly didn’t work well in England in the 60s. So he himself disrobed in the traditional manner and started the Triratna Buddhist Order. I was ordained and became a full-time Buddhist practitioner. Training for ordination takes three years and upwards. But then I can choose my own lifestyle. So, I myself have adopted a daughter, and I adopted her after I was ordained. You don’t have to live in celibacy. I did live as a celibate for five years. Then I moved back to Norway to start the Oslo Buddhist Center. Many things changed, and I ended up adopting my daughter. So this is just like a long preamble to the word “monk.”
And so, why did I choose to become ordained into the Buddhist Order? Well, I looked around, and the Buddhist perspective on life was the best that I could find. The concrete way that one could practice and realize that goal was very appealing. Thirdly, I also found a group of people that were fun, engaged, and serious. This mix got me really interested. After a couple of years, I began preparing for ordination and was ordained four years later.
So, you could say Triratna Buddhist Order is a more “liberal” way of the Buddhist tradition?
Yes, it is certainly liberal in the sense of how one can choose one’s lifestyle. Compared to other Buddhist monks, there are far fewer precepts that we are asked to observe. Though in terms of spirit and the intention in which we seek enlightenment, I don’t think we are more “liberal.”
It’s still a major anchor in your life then…
It’s not a major anchor, it is the major anchor in my life. It is the value platform that I live on the basis of. I don’t think I am any less serious about practice than the monks in a traditional sense.
Could you sum up what does it means to be a monk for you?
First, it is to have a perspective of enlightenment that I can live a free life. By free, I mean free from delusion. And free to spontaneously express a compassionate lifestyle. Ideally, it’s a free flow of care and consideration, where I am not held back by any ideas, or thoughts that I should present myself in a certain way to you. I don’t play out any roles or things like that. I am just free to be a constant human being. It’s a very interesting and good perspective on life—that I want to be good with life. That is primarily what it means, and within that there is also a care to make this place a better one.
Is there a specific age that you have to be to become a monk?
Traditionally, kids in preschool can be ordained in the East. Then they are re-ordained when they become “of age,” and I think that varies in different countries. In Triratna Buddhist Order, I don’t think we would ordain anyone until they were at least sixteen or eighteen years old.
Would you still let them be a part of everything?
Oh, yeah. I think the key point is that you have to make sure people are really capable of taking responsibility for their own lives, so they know the implication of actually becoming ordained.
What are the different “rules” that you have to follow as a monk?
Well, when you say “monk,” I reply as “Dharmachari,” which is the hybrid that I explained earlier. We don’t consider what I follow as “rules” but, rather, as guidelines or precepts. For instance, if you were an interior architect, there are certain principles that you learn to apply. So if you were to put lighting in a room or paint the walls a certain color, there are certain principles that you observe. Sometimes, you break them consciously for a specific effect, but there are still certain principles. I think it’s similar with Buddhism. There are ten principles that I undertake, and three of them are to do with the body, four of them with speech, and three are with the mind. They are supposed to help me become enlightened.
Are some of the principles more important than the others?
Yes. The first one is the leader and sums up the principle of all of the others. It is to abstain from harming others and living with kindness to all things. The other nine are expressions of the first one.
Are there certain things that you cannot eat or drink?
No, I can eat anything I want. But, what do I want to eat? We take into consideration the non-harming of other beings. I don’t want to kill a cow, so I can eat it, or kill your dog so I could eat it. So, I try not to make a distinction between your dog and a cow or sheep out in a field somewhere, or a fish swimming in the sea. But of course, if I were about to die and I had to choose between the sheep or me, then I would probably choose me. Luckily, living in Norway, it’s very easy to be a vegan or vegetarian.
What about smoking or drinking alcohol? I heard that is something that monks don’t generally do or accept? But I guess that goes for different types of monks?
The guiding principle is that I am trying to cultivate and sharpen my awareness of reality. I want to be curious and alert. So with that principle, we aim not to smoke, drink or imbibe substances that would alter our mind, because it counteracts the sharpening of the mind. Monks in the East, or traditional Buddhists, would abstain from any alcohol or drugs. In Triratna Buddhist Order, we are more liberal in a sense, so we are not to take anything that clouds our minds. Personally, I was living for ten years without drinking any alcohol. Later, I started drinking alcohol again, but as a principle, I will stop at a certain point where I know it will affect my mind. I won’t overdo it.
What would you want others to know about life as a Dharmachari?
I think that it’s a very good feeling to live according to truth. You are seeking truth and are on the path to live more in harmony with the universe, exploring that mystery of being and of empathy, care, and love for others. It gives confidence in conflicting situations that you end up in. I use that as a guiding principle, tuning into the mystery of being in contact with the mystery of life or a higher dimension in a living way.
That’s interesting that you said a “higher dimension.” What does “higher dimension” mean?
With a higher dimension, I mean here we are sitting in a café with chairs, a table, service and so forth. We are two people talking to each other. We are interconnected on a planet that is zooming through space at an incredible speed without us noticing it. What is the organizing principle behind your sense apparatus that allows you to recognize what I say, translate it into meaning for you and connect emotionally with me? That opens up some questions that are very interesting scientifically, philosophically, and what not. But also, I think there is another dimension outside of that, which science is unable to explain and that scientists are curious about. Going into meditation sometimes, there is a curtain that is pulled away and there is something else. I can experience life in a completely different way. So, that’s what I mean by a higher dimension.
Do Buddhists believe in one god or many?
I don’t believe in a creator god. The Buddha lived in a primal culture in the precursor to Hinduism. They believed in Brahma as the creator god. I think the idea of Brahma is different to our Christian God. Buddha is not Brahma, though Hindus claim he is. At the same time, Buddha acknowledged that there are many gods. Maybe it’s a bit like our culture was here in Norway, with Odin, Frøya, and Thor as gods. The Buddha thought about it in a very matter-of-fact way and would even go and teach the Dharma (the teaching of the Buddha) to the different gods. Buddha just didn’t accept the idea of one creator god, that he could see all, be all and would have the power to send humans to hell or heaven. Sometimes, the Buddha would comment, critique or even mock the idea of a creator god. Buddha acknowledges strong, powerful human beings as gods but not as a single creator god.
So, there is one Buddha, but aren’t there more? Isn’t it a state of mind or being?
Buddha is actually a title. It’s the title of the first living being that becomes enlightened within a world system. Two and a half thousand years ago, Siddhartha Gauatama was the first enlightened person in India. Since then, lots of people have become enlightened but we don’t call them Buddha.
Sooner or later, our world system is going to collapse—that is what science tells us. The whole idea of enlightenment and Triratna will disappear, but that won’t last forever. As in old tales, the cycle will start again, and that is the same in Buddhism. Sooner or later, life will emerge, and self-reflective consciousness will emerge. Another Buddha will sooner or later emerge.
Would you say Buddha is like Jesus, in that sense?
No, but sometimes, when we talk in terms of several Buddhas, we mention Dipankara. This is a previous Buddha. Gauatama is by no means the first. And this is a very central Buddhist idea—it’s a cycle. It just goes round and round without a perceivable beginning. As a Buddhist, I was puzzled when people would say that the Big Bang was the start of the universe. I take it for granted that there was something before that, even if we cannot perceive it today. And now scientists acknowledge that the Big Bang isn’t the beginning, and they are looking for what was before that.
Do Buddhists believe in the afterlife?
Yes, we do. The afterlife, in a sense, is a continuation of consciousness, just as presuming you went to sleep last night and you wake up this morning recalling what your plans were today.
With the law of Karma, we have an effect from your intentional activities. If you act out of kindness, you will reap kindness. If you act out of malicious intentions, you will reap suffering. Traditionally, Buddhists think this will affect us after we die. So, somehow, the good karma that you generate this life that will affect you after death.
Because you have strong illusions of who or what you are, you will recreate a “self,” and this self will re-create an illusion. This is a fiction or illusion that you re-create and is one of the base illusions we have as people. Even if you grow up as a healthy human being with family, job, and friends, there is still much more to life. Some of that is to let go of those illusions, as does Neo in the film The Matrix. The modern philosophers, post-modernists, and so forth—they were trying to deconstruct this ego, but they didn’t go far enough. They didn’t deconstruct themselves, and I think that is a Buddhist project. Until we really “know” this and stop reconstructing ourselves, we will be reborn somehow, and that is the afterlife. Does that make sense? [laughs]
So, unless we destroy our sense of “self,” we will be reborn?
Yes—for better and for worse.
If you really don’t want to be reborn, you can do that?
Yes, easy as that. And you can do that right now. Just let go.
In that sense, there is no afterlife then?
Well, there is no afterlife for you. Of course, when the Buddha was enlightened around the age of thirty-six, he didn’t vanish into thin air. He carried on living. He just didn’t have a view of himself that he was clinging on to. Now, another technical term: Paranirvana. When the Buddha did physically die, he wasn’t reborn anywhere, and there wasn’t a self for him to regroup around. But, what exactly happened then, we don’t really know. The Buddha encouraged us not to speculate about that. The Dharma tells you to just get on with our own life and reflect on that, rather than to speculate on something we can’t grasp. It’s like trying to see beyond the horizon of our planet.
Unless you become enlightened, you won’t see what is beyond?
Yes, only when you are beyond will you know.
A normal being that goes around and is at peace with themselves will probably be reborn according to how he or she has lived. But when you become enlightened in this life, you will not.
Trying to understand it is like grasping an image of the moon reflected in water. Having a really still pond at night, you might see the moon reflected in it. If you grasp the water, you only get wet.
It’s to keep the harmony?
No, it’s more like seeing what the moon in the water is. It’s just a reflection of the moon. The moon isn’t in the water. However much you grasp the water, it doesn’t do anything to the moon. The moon wasn’t there in the first place.
What does the Dalai Lama mean to you? He is a pretty well-known monk.
[laughs] He is the best known monk on the planet, I think. He is a wonderful example. I find him immensely inspiring. I recently read one of his books with Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy, which I think is one of the best examples of religious dialogues that I have ever seen. I think if all religious leaders around the Earth could do just 10% of what is in that book, the world would be a much better place. Also, he thinks that about 80% of the content of all the major religions are the same, and only 20% is different. It’s on the basis of that 80% that we can really build a wonderful world. We can all come together and talk about that 80%. If you choose to talk about the 20%, you can, but for most people, the 80% is enough. The numerous amount of kindness that makes the world go around—that is what all the religions talk about. Small acts of honesty, trust, and care. That’s what we need to build on and not focus to much on the differences.
So, focusing on what brings us together and not what pulls us apart?
We visited a Buddhist temple and they were offering a lot of food to the statues. What does that mean?
There are two aspects to it, traditionally. Remember I told you earlier about the precepts or ethical guidelines that we follow? We follow ten presets—most people in almost all Buddhist traditions will have five guiding presets: love and kindness, generosity, contentment, truthfulness, and clarity of mind. This offering of food is an expression of generosity. When they see the Buddha statue, they want to actually give it to Buddha to show respect and gratitude. You also want to give to monks, so they can carry on living their way to deepen their practice and teach the lay people.
It seems like the life of a monk is a pretty sustainable and considerate way of being.
It’s very sustainable. You take into account the effect you have on the planet and how future generations will live.
The way of Buddhist living is, in a sense, very helpful in reversing climate change. Living in moderation is not always easy. It’s a practice, and it leads to contentment. Second, it’s a life where we take care of other living beings now and in the future and enjoy the love that emerges. Third, it is so important to forgive, yet speak up against unkindness everywhere. Then we can live in harmony.