Urban Buddhist monk with a heart for kindness

Bhante Saranapala has a bigger dream. He said: “One day, I hope there will be United Kindful Nations (something like a United Nations)." Photo: The Star/ Chan Tak Kong

Four years ago, a Facebook post of a group of Canadian police officers sitting in a lotus position, alongside a Buddhist monk, went viral. People were curious about it.

“The world had never seen a big group of police officers doing meditation with a monk before, and soon the news spread. Even people in other countries started talking about it – in Europe, as far as the island of Corsica!” said Venerable Bhante Saranapala, 46.

The media called him to find out more.

He said that at first, two police officers actually came to see him for advice to build community relationships.

Then, 47 police officers from Peel Regional Police Ontario turned up for his meditation session.

Urban Buddhist monk
“The world had never seen a big group of police officers doing meditation with a monk and soon news spread, said Bhante Saranapala about a Facebook post of him leading a meditation session with Canadian police officers four years ago. Photo: Bhante Saranapala

Saranapala, the deputy abbot of West End Buddhist Temple and Meditation Centre in Mississauga, Canada, has been its resident monk for the past 23 years. He is presently on a three-week teaching tour in Malaysia and staying at the Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.

Remedy for stress

The public, he added, thinks that highly stressed police are emotionally reacting when they become violent.

The police officers, he said, are out there to protect the people. However, they, too, need help to protect themselves from difficulties in their lives.

“Meditation is good for everyone, especially the police officers whose high-stress jobs could lead to mental struggles, anxiety or panic attacks, depression or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It could help them to de-stress, sustain calmness and get relief from their daily struggles,” he said.

Following suit, the Toronto Police Headquarters, the Toronto Police Training College and the Niagara region paramedics requested for similar sessions. The Ontario Provincial Police and Ottawa Police Headquarters also invited him to hold such sessions.

Saranapala recalled that, during this time, cases of police brutality were reported in Chicago and Dallas in the United States.

“People were saying the police should be practising meditation as it is good for them,” he said.

Later, Cable News Network (CNN) also talked about this.

The next thing he knew, he was invited by Morton Grove Police Department in Chicago to conduct a similar session.

Urban Buddhist monk
Bhante Saranapala said: “To be mindful is to be kind to yourself and others,” he stressed. “It’s similar to the principle, I’m okay, you’re okay. Photo: The Star/ Chan Tak Kong

Saranapala suggested that one should devote at least 15 minutes a day to meditation. “Medicine can heal your body but you need meditation to heal your mind,” he said.

Saving a life

Through meditation and kindness, Saranapala saved a man’s life three years ago.

Part-time actor and model Ryan Joseph, then 38, had lost hope after his relationship failed. He was in depression and attempted to take his life.

“On the day he came to see me, he was thinking of taking his own life. I could see cuts and bruises on his hands. I talked to him for over an hour, and changed his mindset,” said Saranapala.

On Jan 30 this year, Joseph’s story of how Saranapala saved his life was featured on Canada’s CTV National News.

Saranapala (urbanbuddhistmonk.com) is a global public speaker, meditation teacher and spiritual counsellor.

A decade ago, he was given the monicker “the urban Buddhist monk”. These days, he jokes about his identity: “I’m a Bengali Sri Lankanised Canadian urban Buddhist monk.”

He said a devotee suggested the nickname as Saranapala was no longer a forest monk but had since become an urban monk.

Receiving his calling

Urban Buddhist monk
Bhante Saranapala puts on shades to cut off the glare as he poses in front of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Sisira Ranjit

Born in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Saranapala is the middle child in his family. He has three elder brothers, two younger brothers and a younger sister. His late father was a tailor, and his mother, a typical housewife; both were devout Buddhists.

At 10, Saranapala became a novice monk. After two months, he was sent to further his monastic and secular studies in Sri Lanka for 11 years, from 1984.

As a teen monk, Saranapala knew that being a monk was the right decision for him.

“One day while doing early morning chanting with 100 monks in Sri Lanka, I stopped chanting to listen instead to other monks who were chanting. I felt very relaxed and happy. From that moment, I found my true calling. Growing up as a teen monk was tough but I got through,” he said.

In 1992, the West End Buddhist Temple and Meditation Centre in Mississauga was set up.

In 1995, the centre was looking for a young monk to serve the community. Saranapala was invited by the founders – his Sri Lankan teachers – to be a resident monk.“I never dreamt of going to the West. It just happened,” said Saranapala.

He also pursued further studies in Canada. He has a degree in World Religion, Western Philosophy and Psychology from the University of Toronto, a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, and a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Toronto.

Saranapala is also principal of its Sunday Dhamma School and director of its Youth Forum that conducts a Soup Kitchen Project/Sharing is Caring, now in its 16th year, in collaboration with the Good Shepherd Centre in Downtown Toronto.

Saranapala was appointed the Buddhist chaplain of University of Toronto in 1999.

Urban Buddhist monk
Bhante Saranapala, the deputy abbot of West End Buddhist Temple and Meditation Centre in Mississauga, Canada, has been a resident monk for the past 23 years. Photo: The Star/ Chan Tak Kong

When he was counselling people, he listened to their personal struggles and offered his advice.

“They found it to be immensely helpful and managed to overcome their personal struggles. It was then that I decided to remain as a monk to help people from all ages and walks of life for the rest of my life,” he said.

Asked what he would rather be if he were not a monk, he said: “I could be a famous singer or musician. I love singing. I have a good singing and chanting voice.

“I wished I had gone to music school and learnt to play the piano and guitar but I have no time,” he said.

As a Buddhist monk, he said, he could not pursue his childhood dream to learn music due to a monastic rule of refraining from entertainment.

Kind nation

He is also the founder/president of the non-profit organisation Canada A Mindful and Kind Nation, set up three years ago. Its role is to promote good values, kindness, mindfulness and mental health.

He said: “My effort is to build a kindful nation and world. One day, I would like to call Malaysia a mindful and kind nation. This is not a religious thing. The word kindfulness comes from the words kindness and mindfulness.

“To be mindful is to be kind to yourself and others,” he stressed. “It’s similar to the principle, I’m OK, you’re OK.”

Saranapala is trying to build “kindful people” and “kindful nations”.

Urban Buddhist monk
Bhante Saranapala is “very happy working towards the building of a kindful nation and thinking about calling every country a mindful and kind nation." Photo: Bhante Saranapala

In recognition of his work, Saranapala has been given several awards: the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada 150 Medal and Sesquicentennial Community Award (for promoting good values and mental health) from the government of Canada, and the Spirit Award from the provincial government of Ontario (for his humanitarian services, particularly towards tsunami victims).

Saranapala said: “I am very happy to be able to create a greater global mission which is good for everyone, and to be able to create a new direction for police forces, paramedics and fire marshals who are now thinking of incorporating meditation (in their work/lives).”

However, his biggest dream is to build a kindful world.

“One day, I hope there will be a United Kindful Nations, and it starts with (the building of) a kindful person ...”

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