Calgary man becomes monk in quest for enlightenment
In a country where non-Christian religions represent only 1 per cent of the total population, Buddhism is often misunderstood.
But one Calgary man is finding understanding by all means necessary.
20-year-old Brandon is a self-described, "white monk" living among mostly Vietnamese monks at Bat Nha Buddhist temple – known by its patrons as Prajna Pagoda – in southeast Calgary.
Brandon now goes solely by his dharma name – a new name acquired during a Buddhist initiation ritual – Prajna Kusala. Philosophy and spirituality have always been appealing to Prajna but his Christian upbringing didn't provide himwith the fulfillment he was seeking.
So Prajna looked elsewhere.
While listening to underground hip hop artist, KRS-One, Prajna began to learn about different perspectives regarding life and faith. He purchased a book by the rapper entitled The Gospel of Hip Hop and quickly found that he identified with the Buddhist teachings.
"That book brought me back to myself," Prajna said. "Before I wasn't really sure what I was doing and after reading that book it kind of turned on a light switch."
"It made me more focused to do something in the world," said Prajna.
While Prajna maintains that he still draws on many Christian teachings, he says he found in Buddhism what he couldn't in his religious upbringing.
"Buddhism is a religion, but it's not something that you cling to," Prajna said. "The Buddha said it's a raft to get to the shore of enlightenment. You can use the teachings of Buddhism to become enlightened but you don't carry that raft with you when you arrive because to carry it is to carry extra baggage that you don't need."
Although the teachings of KRS-One opened up a new world for Prajna, his thirst for knowledge was not quenched. Prajna sought out any books he could find on Buddhism in his quest for further understanding. The Basic Buddha Teachings by author Glenn Wallis proved to be foundational.
"I always read a lot of philosophy and was always into a lot of different religions," Prajna said. "I researched a lot and that book was what got me hooked."
Prajna, realizing there was simply too much to learn on his own, decided to look for help at a local Buddhist temple. He visited the temple time and time again, asking for other books or scriptures by the Buddha.
The people of Prajna Pagoda welcomed Prajna Kusala with open arms. The primarily Vietnamese-speaking community wasted no time offering teachings and fellowship to Prajna and before long he was frequenting the temple up to 5 times a week.
Prajna immersed himself in his newfound community and developed friendships with some of the novice monks, but his greatest influence came from Prajna Pagoda head monk, Master Thich Thien Quang.
"The master would have been the one who helped me the most," Prajna said. "We were doing a ceremony one day for people who wanted to take the first five precepts to become a monk. I told the master I wanted to take those steps and he gave me the dharma name, 'Prajna Kusala'."
62-year-old Quang has been a head monk at the southeast temple in Calgary for 30 years. Although his responsibilities are extensive, Quang devotes special Friday night sermons to teaching Buddhism to those who are unfamiliar with its detailed intricacies.
"This temple plays a role to propagate the Buddhist teachings for everyone. It's not limited to Vietnamese or Asian people," Quang said. "I try my best to do something for Westerners. If any Westerner comes to me and says they'd like to become a monk I welcome them and I'm ready to spend time to teach them."
Quang has not only helped Prajna to take the fist steps in becoming a monk — he's teaching him to pass on his knowledge to others. Prajna believes that he still has a long path ahead of him but that his journey thus far may make the first steps a little easier for other Westerners seeking enlightenment.
"If I could have gone to an English-speaking temple I would have done that and a lot of other people would probably go too," Prajna said. "It's hard for people to come here."
That hardship is something Prajna hopes to someday change. He says the most rewarding aspect of his new life is that he is now in a position to help others. He hopes to help as many people as possible to achieve their nirvana, but for now, Prajna knows he must improve upon himself first.
"I think as I get better with everything I'll be able to help more people," Prajna said. "Maybe in the future I'll be able to have my own class where I can reach out to people and teach the dharma that the Buddha taught."
Prajna knows that the path to enlightenment can be daunting for outside onlookers but he says at Prajna Pagoda the process occurred naturally.
"The biggest hardship for me was giving up all my life to do this," Prajna said. "This has become my daily routine and I can't do anything else really. The master helped me a lot and it all happened gradually. Now that I'm here I don't find it that hard."
Prajna now spends most of his days meditating and studying the Buddha's teachings. Although he has little connection with his former life, he still enjoys having fun and keeping up with his favourite basketball team.
"I'm a Kobe guy," said Prajna. "So I cheer for the Lakers."
Prajna joins Thich Thien Quang every Friday night for Prajna Pagoda's introductory Buddhism classes. The classes aim to teach a basic understanding of Buddhism while offering an opportunity to learn more through casual dialogue with the temple's monks and patrons.
The class starts at 7 p.m. and is open for anyone who wishes to partake or observe.
Prajna Pagoda - Bat Nha Buddhist Temple
Vietnamese Buddhist Culture Centre of Calgary
1720 36 St SE
Calgary, Alberta T2A 1C8
- By DANNY LUONG, DANIEL BALL & MICHAEL CHAN