Editor's note: Shveitta is a life coach and a regular contributor to Buddhistdoor International. Her column is devoted to all that she has learnt about happiness. According to her, happiness is a daily habit. As with any skill, the more we practice, the better we get.
She has interviewed thousands in search of an answer to her personal question: What is happiness? She spoke with psychologists, fortune tellers, mystics, CEO's, university professors, trash collectors, housewives, children, and anyone else who would share their ideas. Today she travels around the world sharing what she learnt.
She has written for other online publications and magazines. She holds regular talks in schools, corporations and universities. Her mission is to be MAD: To Make A Difference by making this world a happier place.
I first met Ajahn Brahm a few years ago when my friend Suree asked me to drive a monk to Cathay City for a talk that he was to conduct there. I had no idea who I was supposed to pick up but agreed out of curiosity. I had by then started on my quest of understanding the meaning of happiness and thought it would be a great opportunity to spend some time in the company of an enlightened master.
I arrived at the designated place and was waiting in my car when I saw Suree walking towards me with a tall ‘gweilo’ monk in tow who was beaming from ear to ear. I learned that the smiling monk was born in London UK and originally named Peter Betts. He had studied Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University and then travelled to Thailand to become a monk and trained with the Venerable Ajahn Chah. He was renamed Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera (lovingly known to most as Ajahn Brahm).
Having got a quick briefing on his birth and academic background I proceeded to chew his brain on why he decided to become a monk. He told me with a very straight face that it was because of a broken heart. He said the love of his life walked out on him and he felt he had only two choices, either end his life or become a monk. He decided on the latter. I believed him. Not sure if it is the true story but it sure sounds more interesting than saying that it was his calling.
I did my driver duty and was kindly invited by my friend to sit in for the talk. The next 90 minutes were the most amazing 90 minutes I have ever had! Ajahn Brahm in his inimitable style had the audience in splits. It felt more like a comedy show than a serious Buddhist talk. Ajahn Brahm had such a wonderful way of making serious topics appear so simple that the whole auditorium was completely mesmerized and at times laughing hysterically. I remember the story he shared that day. He spoke about ‘The two bad bricks’:
After we purchased the land for our monastery in 1983 we were broke. We were in debt. There were no buildings on the land, not even a shed. Those first few weeks we slept not on beds but on old doors we had bought cheaply from the salvage yard; we raised them on bricks at each corner to lift them off the ground. (There were no mattresses, of course — we were forest monks.)
The abbot had the best door, the flat one. My door was ribbed with a sizeable hole in the center where the doorknob would have been. I joked that now I wouldn't need to get out of bed to go to the toilet! The cold truth was, however, that the wind would come up through that hole. I didn't sleep much those nights.
We were poor monks who needed buildings. We couldn't afford to employ a builder — the materials were expensive enough. So I had to learn how to build: how to prepare the foundations, lay concrete and bricks, erect the roof, put in the plumbing — the whole lot. I had been a theoretical physicist and a high-school teacher and was not used to working with my hands. After a few years, I became quite skilled at building, even calling my crew the BBC (Buddhist Building Company).
When I began laying bricks, I'd tap one corner down to make it level and another corner would go up. So I'd tap that corner down then the brick would move out of line. After I'd nudged it back into line, the first corner would be too high again.
Being a monk, I had patience and as much time as I needed. I made sure every single brick was perfect, no matter how long it took. Eventually, I completed my first brick wall and stood back to admire it. It was only then that I noticed— oh no! — I'd missed two bricks. All the other bricks were nicely in line, but these two were inclined at an angle. They looked terrible. They spoiled the whole wall. They ruined it.
By then, the cement mortar was too hard for the bricks to be taken out, so I asked the abbot if I could knock the wall down and start over again — or, even better, perhaps blow it up. I'd made a mess of it and I was very embarrassed. The abbot said no, the wall had to stay.
When I showed our first visitors around our fledgling monastery, I always tried to avoid taking them past my brick wall. I hated anyone seeing it. Then one day, some three or four months after I finished it, I was walking with a visitor and he saw the wall.
That's a nice wall”, he casually remarked.
Sir, I replied in surprise, have you left your glasses in your car? Are you visually impaired? Can't you see those two bad bricks, which spoil the whole wall? What he said next changed my whole view of that wall, of myself, and of many other aspects of life.
He said, Yes. I can see those two bad bricks. But I can see the 998 good bricks as well.”
I was stunned. For the first time in over three months, I could see other bricks in that wall apart from the two mistakes. Above, below, to the left and to the right of the bad bricks were good bricks, perfect bricks.
Moreover, the perfect bricks were many, many more than the two bad bricks. Before, my eyes would focus exclusively on my two mistakes; I was blind to everything else. That was why I couldn't bear looking at that wall, or having others see it. That was why I wanted to destroy it. Now that I could see the good bricks, the wall didn't look so bad after all. It was, as the visitor had said, 'a nice brick wall’.
I too, had been struggling with my own two bricks and had failed to see the 998 perfect bricks in my life. That one story left a huge imprint and I became a fan. I read all his books and watched all his YouTube talks. Last year when Suree called me to tell me that Ajahn Brahm was coming back to Hong Kong and if I would be interested in driving him to Cathay City again, I jumped at the opportunity. This time I had hundreds of questions and he answered each one of them with so much patience and clarity that I was in love all over again. I did not miss any of his talks while he was here last year and then one day when I was supposed to drive him and a few other monks back to the temple where they were staying I decided to take a detour. I decided to take the scenic route and before they could figure out what was happening I had very surreptitiously brought them to my place. I wanted Ajahn Brahm and Venerable Dhammapala to come to my home and I was afraid that if I asked them they would say no as Ajahn had a very tight schedule. I decided to kidnap them instead!
So we drove along the harbor and the lights looked beautiful. After we had driven for quite some time, one Venerable said that nothing looked familiar to him and asked if I knew the way. I said, “ Oh yes I know exactly where we are going”. After being in the car for about 25 minutes, the Venerable appeared a bit concerned and asked me again if I knew the right way. I then confessed that I was not really sure so I was going home to pick up my husband and then he would drive them over to the temple. I don’t think the venerable was very happy with my idea!
Although it was true that I was not really confident of reaching the temple at night, what I really wanted was for Ajahn Brahm to come and bless my home and meet my husband. It was a very naughty thing to do but I just followed my heart.
We arrived at my place around 10:00 at night and sadly they could not stay long as it was already quite late and all the monks were very tired. My plan worked however because my husband agreed to drive Ajahn Brahm, Venerable Dhammapala and the three other young monks to the temple. By the time he came back he too was besotted with Ajahn and came with me to his next talk. My helper too was mesmerized and the next morning my daughter who was nine at that time was so upset with me that I did not wake her up to meet the smiling monk. She heard about the beautiful prayer he had done and the special blessing that one of my helpers received that actually turned out to be a curse for me. My helper wanted to go to Canada and this was on her mind. When I asked Ajahn to bless her and do a special prayer for her, her dream came true. Although I wanted her to be happy, I realize now that I really miss her and I wish I had asked for my own prayer to come true and not hers, but then that would not be the Buddhist way!
For weeks afterwards we kept discussing how wonderful it was to have had 5 monks visit my house and how I had actually kidnapped them and brought them home.
Ajahn Brahm is back in Hong Kong in Feb 2013 and I cant wait to see him again. Please check the following website for details and if you can, do not miss the opportunity to listen to this amazing story teller/monk.