Photography by Joseph Undaloc
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A monk’s life: Ksantikara Dharmachari on finding peace in the clamour of the East End

Meet Ksantikara Dharmachari, the person who can introduce you to life within the mysterious walls of the London Buddhist Centre, provide fascinating insights into a very different way of life, and yet reveal the common human experiences that unite us.

Ksantikara, who received this name relatively recently, was following a traditional path until his early 20s. He was studying theatre production in London, and had to write a 10-year plan for his dissertation. Having written his thesis, he thought that his life was ‘not mysterious enough, too laid out, all planned’. So, after talking about the meaning of life with his mother, she bought him a four-week meditation course at the London Buddhist Centre for his 21st birthday.

He was instantly drawn to the person who led the meditations – someone with a strange name and a kesa. This more or less ‘religious’ aspect of the practice drew him further to exploring meditation, especially since he has been looking for meaning (and for God) in other ways previously.

He has now lived and worked in the London Buddhist Centre for about 3.5 years, and had his ordination to join the Dharmachari order less than six months ago. If it weren’t for the London Buddhist Centre, Ksantikara would probably not have stayed in East London.

‘I don’t think I’d still live in East London if I hadn’t gotten involved here. At the age of 21, I thought I’d be working hard to develop a theatre career, which is quite a big part of the East London myth – it is quite creative today, East London.

‘I studied in probably one of the best theatre universities, and my perspective of London was turning into a busy, lonely, and densely populated place full of people who are driven but don’t have a direction. It didn’t have much to do with nature or wilderness, with taking the time to look at the sky and just be.’

‘That’s changed significantly. Now when I walk around East London it’s very unusual for me not to bump into people I know. In that way, my view of East London has changed a lot, particularly Bethnal Green. Bethnal Green to me feels like a Buddhist village. There are hundreds of people in the order around here with me, and thousands of people who come to the Buddhist Centre and move to Bethnal Green when they feel ready. I imagine most people don’t know that’s the case!’

In the Buddhist centre, there are no monks – there is only the Dharmachari ordination, and the difference between the two is that monks are not allowed to have phones, use computers, or have money, whereas in the Dharmachari ordination these are permitted. It also means that there is nothing to denote seniority – there is a hierarchy, but it emerges out of friendship.

Being a Dharmachari still involves having a daily routine:

‘I live in a community with 12 other men. There are a lot of women’s communities down the road, but we live separately. I also work here, but not everyone who lives here works here – you don’t have to do both.

‘Because I work here, actually my daily life is structured. We sometimes refer to it as “semi-monastic,” but often it feels so “semi-monastic” that I feel embarrassed by calling it that. We meditate together at 7am every morning. Often, there’s not many of us there on a Sunday, but technically there should be. So that’s a commitment – it’s part of being in the community.

‘After that, we often have breakfast together. Then, most of us work here, but generally people who live here work somewhere, so everyone’s off to work. We eat dinner together at 6pm every day, and we all cook for each other. So I cook three times a month, for the 12 other guys I live with.

‘I also have various evening commitments. On Tuesday I teach the meditation class. On Wednesday I’m going to start a study group soon with another member, leading a study group of 10-12 men for Buddhism. When someone comes here regularly, they might ask to get a bit more involved, and we organise these groups for people wanting to go a bit deeper. On Thursday we have our community night – we eat at 6pm as usual, but on Thursday we do that in silence, then we have tea and chat, and we spend an hour cleaning the community. And then we spend two hours together, we often talk about our lives, sometimes we might study something… it was my birthday yesterday, so we had cake with gifts and cards (of course), and then for about one hour everyone went around and rejoiced in me – they said what qualities about me they like or they think are good. And then on Sunday evening I’m in the chapter with other men from the order, and we talk about how our Buddhist practice is going, and we confess ethical breaches.

‘So you can see why we call it “semi-monastic” – there is something monastic-ish about it, and yet we’ve got computers; you can leave when you want; if I don’t go to dinner no one will be cross with me; there’s these structures that I take quite seriously and most people here do – if they didn’t, it wouldn’t really work.’

For Ksantikara, the ordination he has trained for three and a half years and recently received ‘would remain the most significant thing that has ever happened and will every happen in his life.’

One of the good and surprising aspects of living and working in the LBC is that he has made strong friendships with men, while before he would turn to the women in his life for support, or to nobody at all. One of the more negative sides is that it is a very simple life, and often puts him against the conditioning of earning status, money, and power.

‘A lot of people say “it sounds like you’re trapped!”. But it actually feels very free. And at other times I do feel like I’m trapped, if I get into a mental state that is constrictive then I can feel like “my God, what am I doing here”, “I made a mistake”, or “I wish I could go home and have a holiday.” I think everyone thinks that, but here it can get quite strong, because I’m committed to something. I don’t have to stay here forever, and I probably won’t…  who knows!’

He also says that with the London Buddhist Centre being located in East London, it actually makes it quite a loud place in which to meditate.

Meditation has had a central part of Ksantikara’s life for the last six years, and his practices have changed – particularly in the last year through the introduction of the Green Tara meditation figure as a visualisation practice.

At the London Buddhist Centre, two meditation practices are taught – the mindfulness of breathing (breathing based calming meditation), and the metabavana (focusing on cultivating love and an awareness of the humanity of others). In his case, meditation has helped him in two ways in particular:

  • Doing the breathing practice and having mantras has considerably stilled his mind and physical restlessness
  • his relationship with people have transformed: ‘I’m much more able to take people in. I’m able to love people more. And I haven’t done that deliberately, I haven’t read a self-help book that says “start talking to people like this.”‘

Ksantikara says that the London Buddhist Centre has a strong effect on the East London community:

‘Just by passing near the Buddhist centre, people probably ask themselves “there are people in this building leading a different kind of life – I wonder what that means?” And when they actually pass through the door, feel the stillness of the courtyard and the peace of the atmosphere, they probably want to know more about it. And if they get more involved, learn more about meditation – that will change their relationship with themselves and with other people.’

Ksantikara goes on to broadening the perspective from having an effect on East London to having an effect on the world.

‘The Buddhist vision is that the mind creates the world, and if people change – and the world is made of people – then the world is going to change. The Buddha’s vision is that he saw, at the moment of his enlightenment, that it was him – his mind, his heart – the fact that he had greed and hatred and delusion in it – that makes his life not work, that makes him suffer, and “sets the world on fire.” And I think the world is on fire at the moment. A lot of people say “oh, there’s Brexit, and climate change, and people killing each other, and refugee crisis, and…” but if you stopped and looked at history you’d see the world has always been on fire. That’s what humanity does – it’s on fire with greed, hatred, delusion.

‘What I’m trying to do about it with mixed success is deal with the fact that I bring greed and hatred, or craving and aversion, into the world. And if I gather with people on that basis, these things only get stronger. If I buy things from a shop that I don’t really need, it creates a world, and I definitely do those things – if you look at what I do week to week, I’ve got a smartphone in my pocket that I probably spend too much time on.

‘Furthermore, if I identify on the basis of any part of classification – if I identify too much as a Buddhist, then I create a Buddhist group that is different to non-Buddhists, and that becomes problematic.

‘But it’s also tricky because I’m able to join this Buddhist order, practice Buddhism, and have a life that I find challenging but love precisely because I live in a society with laws and structures, money and safety. I wouldn’t be able to do that as a refugee or as someone who can really feel the effects of climate change, or if our country is at war. So these things do matter, and matter to me. It’s tricky to know what my relationship to the world is. I’ve had 22 years of living and creating a very different world. And that hasn’t gone yet – I’m still very interested in that world, in emotion and in action.’

In order to start a meditation practice, or bring spirituality into your life, Ksantikara gives a recommendation that you probably wasn’t expecting from a Buddhist – that you ‘just do something’:

‘I think there’s a view at the moment that there’s something spiritual about self-care or being kind to yourself. And I think it’s an awful idea. You can’t achieve that. Often what makes us happy is being challenged, finding something difficult and working through it, or giving to somebody else. Almost the best thing to do when you’re feeling low is help somebody else.

‘Temperamentally I’m a bit of a doer. There’s something special about just doing something – maybe to do with commitment. And this idea is quite unattractive in our culture at the moment – we don’t commit to jobs, we can’t commit to partners, people in London move around a lot, they can’t commit to a building.

‘From a Buddhist point of view, you should come to the London Buddhist Centre, meditate, and if you can – meditate at home or take some of the skills you learn and walk in the park with a different kind of awareness. I think there’s something about “do something” and “look up.” Nietzsche said “God is dead and we killed him” – it’s a really good line! I think it is what we’ve done, but then we must look up to something. It’s a very natural thing to revere something, and we stopped. We don’t have shrines, we stopped looking at trees or the sky. The stars are just balls of gas that are miles away – so we’ve lost that reverence. That’s why I’d say the main thing to do is to find something to revere, to commit to something, do something, challenge ourselves.’

Find out more about the London Buddhist Centre at their website, or feel welcome to visit the centre too.

If you liked this piece you may be interested in the history of the London Buddhist Centre

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