Buddha and the Art of Motorcycle Breakdown

On The Town | Paul Malone | July / August 2013

"I’ll meet you at the door," were my Buddhist friend’s instructions. It was the 60th birthday of Buddhist monk Bhante Seelawansa at Palais Eschenbach in Vienna, so you would have thought he’d show up. I hovered at the entrance, trying to look as if I belonged.

Suddenly, one of the hosts approached, with a smile to melt the polar ice caps. And with a "Welcome, sir," he led me to the Golden Ballroom, its ceiling shaped like a tray of chocolates and touted for its acoustics optimal for Mozart. No white wigs, though, but more than a few shaved heads. I shuffled along a forward row and took a seat.

Bhante Seelawansa – with his shiny scalp and orange robes – looked every bit the Buddha as he stood on stage and smiled radiantly. "I did not come here to celebrate my 60th birthday," he said. "Birth is suffering, so why celebrate it?" An interesting twist.

Sensing the impending flashback, I slid in my chair, and stretched out my legs.

"One rainy night in the early ‘80s," he began, "an Austrian adventurer came knocking on my monastery door in Sri Lanka. His motorcycle had broken down. So I took him in… and he only left after I agreed to come to Austria with him."

"Pushy guest," I whispered to my neighbour, a man with a severe haircut and orange garb. He ignored me.

"That was 30 years ago," Bhante Seelawansa continued. "We are still very good friends." Then he confessed: "It was difficult here at the start – the language, the culture. I was thinking of disrobing."

My neighbour and I exchanged amazed glances, his at least, genuine.

Bhante Seelawansa raised his forefinger. "But a friend told me, with the robes I can help many people. She inspired me to remain a monk." Since then, he told us, Buddhism has become well-established in Austria.

Various dignitaries now stepped up to toast the birthday boy. It was hard to concentrate, as mouthwatering aromas wafted in from the foyer, clearly a Buddhist test of patience. I searched for inner calm. Next an enchanting Indian dancer with bells on her ankles swept onto the stage. I felt like The Life of Pi’s Piscine Patel in Pondicherry, mesmerised by her gracious movements, her demure smile.

Then, still tingling, we filed out, following our noses. The foyer had been transformed: Long tables creaked under colourful trays of Sri Lankan and Vietnamese delicacies. I sampled everything, drifting off in a daze with my overloaded plate.

I was determined to meet Bhante Seelawansa – not easy nudging through the circle of well-wishers.

Eventually I broke through, caught his sublime gaze, and was just about to speak… when the red-hot chili dish I’d scoffed moments earlier erupted with volcanic effect. Tears welled in my eyes; steam from my ears (so it felt). Bhante Seelawansa looked alarmed.

"Bloody hell!" I cursed. "I need a drink!" Only a blessed surge of song muffled my outburst, as two monks carried out the birthday cake, and I was forgotten.

Bhante Seelawansa contemplated those sixty candles. Could he blow them out in just one breath? Nearly as difficult as extinguishing all desire in just one lifetime, he took a deep, deep breath. The foyer fell silent. We all crowded round…

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