I first left home when I was 17 years old, and since then, I’ve been in hundreds of cities in dozens of countries. One thing I learned pretty quickly is that places are like people; you have a relationship with them, and they can evoke reactions in you that are as deep as those that people draw out of you.
There are two places I’ve been that I felt immediately at home in. One is Pai, North Thailand (I almost died there, but that’s a story for another day) in the Mae Hong Son region, and the other is Sunnataram Forest Monastery in Bundanoon, Australia. This story is set in the latter.
I was bumming around Australia at the age of 19 when I picked up a book on Buddhism in a backpacker hostel. I’d read a few books by the Dalai Lama already, but this one was about much deeper Buddhist teachings; interdependence, impermanence, karma, and the eightfold path to liberation from suffering. I read it over the course of a few days, and when I was finished, I noticed a list of Buddhist retreat centres and monasteries in Australia on the back few pages.
At this stage of my journey, I’d been all across Aussie, and I was absolutely broke. I knew my journey was coming to an end soon. I had a few hundred bucks left and was in Townsville in Queensland. I had to head back towards Sydney so I could get a flight home, but I wasn’t ready to go yet, and so I called one of the numbers in the book and asked them if I could visit. Truthfully, it was the only one that was free, and that was my main reason for calling, but man, I’m glad I did.
Skip forward about a week, and I’m in a small black car with a golden Buddhist amulet hanging from the rearview mirror. A quiet, smiling Thai man has just picked me up from the train station in Bundanoon, a tiny little town in the highlands of New South Wales. He doesn’t say much, but I feel a gentleness about him and a calmness of spirit. Within twenty minutes, we’re pulling into a gravel road surrounded by dense forest, and within a few more minutes, we’re pulling up to a temple in the woods.
Sunnataram is like nowhere else I’ve ever been on earth. I’ve seen my fair share of beautiful Buddhist temples in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, but this one was something else. It wasn’t as glamorous as some I’ve seen, and was comparatively simple, rustic, and humble compared to many of them, but the setting is what made it so beautiful. It was slap bang in the middle of the mountains, far away from anyone or anything, overlooking a huge grass hill and a valley covered in forest for as far as the eye could see.
As I stepped out of the car, I heard the sound of wind chimes in the gentle breeze, and I smelled incense burning, as is the case in most temples. There was nobody around because it was evening, and I don’t recall exactly what the welcoming process was like, but that night was the first time I spent all alone in the forest in a small wooden hut called a Kuti. I’ve attached a picture below to show you what it’s like. There was zero light and zero noise other than the sounds of the forest outside, and inside there was only a mattress on the floor, a basic cabinet, and a photo of an old Thai monk called Ajahn Cha.
I’m Not Leaving
In the beginning, I only planned to spend a week or so in Sunnataram, but I immediately fell in love with the place and resisted leaving with all my might. I didn’t want to go home yet, and this place was so interesting, with daily Dharma talks, and guided meditation sessions in the main temple along with construction work and bush walks during the day. The monks were building a pagoda, and I asked could I stay longer if I helped out, which they were more than happy with.
Over the course of the several months I stayed at Sunnataram, I met lots of interesting characters. Two of them, Mick and Yan, are friends to this day.
Mick was a monk at the time, but he’s since disrobed. He was a Thai-Aussie with a classic crocodile dundee accent and was an ex bad boy/debt collector with a fetish for Samurai and Mongol culture. He had ordained temporarily to earn merit for his mother (this is a Thai belief that doing a good deed earns good karma, which can be passed to anyone you choose), and decided to stay when he flipped his car at “150 KPH MATE!” and emerged only with a cut on his elbow. He took it as a sign and became a monk permanently. He taught me lots of the dharma and told me he believed I was a monk in the past due to my immediate understanding of what he was teaching me. “You get it, mate,” he told me. “In fact, you could teach it. You were here before, and that’s why you’re drawn to this place.” I think he was just being kind and trying to encourage me to learn more.
Weeks and then months passed by in Sunnataram. I meditated every day, followed the same vegetarian diet as the monks, and laboured a few hours every day on the beautiful sandstone Pagoda they were building. Truthfully, the monks were too kind to be hard on me, and I probably slacked a bit, especially as the daytime heat kicked in. But they laboured 12–18 hours a day, barely stopping to rest. Slowly, ever so surely, the pagoda took shape, and then came an incredibly special day.
The Placing of the Relics
“It’s time to place the relics in the pagoda,” Prah Mana told us. He was the head Abbot of the monastery who had given up his career as a doctor in Thailand to follow his true calling. “Gavin, would you place the lotus capstone in the pagoda after we place the relics inside?” he asked me.
I felt honoured, and of course, I said yes. Why he picked a skinny, raggedy backpacker boy to literally seal the relics of what they deemed to be an enlightened monk inside something they’d been working on for years I’ve never quite figured out, but I jumped at the chance to do it.
On the big day, dozens of people came to the monastery, and the ceremony began. A sandstone lotus flower, beautiful and intricately carved, was placed on the construction elevator along with myself and Garret, a homeless Aussie who had lost his job and just started walking one day and found the monastery as well. The chanting started, the incense was burning, and the elevator slowly rose up to the top of the Pagoda where the stone was to be placed.
Prah Mana led the ceremony, blessing the whole process in either Thai or Pali and then asked one of the other monks to place the stones inside. These stones had apparently been found in the ashes of an enlightened monk they’d cremated, and they were placed inside an urn, which in turn was placed inside the Pagoda. Some of the Thai guys who were master stonemasons were up there, too, and helped us lift the sandstone lotus flower up, place it into the slot, and seal it in place. It was a beautiful event and one of my happiest memories of being in Australia.
The rest of the day passed with chit-chat, vegetarian snacks, and a Dharma talk lead by Prah Mana.
“Don’t be seduced by the world,” he told us. “It might look beautiful, but everything fades. Everything is impermanent. Don’t try to grasp it. Just appreciate its beauty with non-attachment. Smile at it, love it, and let it go when the time comes,” he instructed us as he had many times before.
Time to Go Home
Shortly after this beautiful day, I felt ready to move on. I emerged from my Kuti with my backpack, gave Mick a massive bear hug and thanked him for everything, and went back the way I came. I’ve seen him several times since in Thailand, but this was goodbye for now.
If I could choose anywhere on this earth to go before I die, I’d choose Sunnataram. Maybe someday, if I don’t have to work anymore, and when my kids are grown up, I’ll go back and stay and serve the community there. It’s still the most surreal, beautiful, and peaceful place I’ve been, and I hope I get the chance to go back as an older, hopefully wiser self and see it again.
If places really do have personalities, then Sunnataram Forest Monastery is my true love. I feel drawn to it in a way I can’t explain, and I miss it with fondness every time I think about it. Looking back, that couple of months is one of the happiest of my life so far.
Here’s some footage of Sunattaram made by my friend Mick. Give it a like on YouTube :)