For someone who eats his only meal of the day before noon, Venerable Sujato looks surprisingly solid. He’s tall, with cropped salt-and-pepper hair and glasses that give him the look of the Buddhist scholar that he is. We’re meeting on a sunny spring day in Harris Park, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, where he shares a flat with a fellow monk, Bhante Akaliko.
We chat easily. Bhante Sujato’s hands move throughout our conversation, and I find myself wondering whether they still carry the memory of the musician he was in the late 1980s.
Back then, Anthony Best spent most nights on stage with the Perth indie rock band Martha’s Vineyard, blond locks flying, belting out tunes while playing his beloved 1972 Fender Telecaster. But though his fame was growing, his happiness was not. A song he wrote at the time called “None of This” reflects his incredulity at the insatiable hunger for more that was the norm wherever he looked.
The transition from rock musician (and unenthusiastic student of economics) to Buddhist monk began with a holiday. While traveling in Thailand, Best made a spur-of-the-moment decision and signed up for a meditation retreat in downtown Chiang Mai. He found the daily routine of sitting in meditation for many hours painful and grueling. Then, about a week into the retreat, he had an experience that would change his life forever: “I was sitting in the crowded courtyard of the monastery, dogs barking, chickens squawking, noisy traffic all around. It was the hot season and it had been really stuffy all day—the sun was going down, the day was cooling and I was having a cup of Chinese tea. Just sitting there, in the shade, I thought: This is what peace of mind feels like, and I realized that I’d never felt this before.” Best fell in love with meditation, and as he learned more about the ancient teachings of the Buddha, he found a life that he felt was for him.
In 1994, Best was ordained as a Theravada monk in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah; he spent the next two decades practicing in Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia, including a three-year retreat at Bodhinyana monastery with his teacher, Ajahn Brahm. Bhante Sujato eventually returned to Australia and established the Santi Forest Monastery, a hermitage for Theravada Buddhist nuns (bhikkhunis). In 2009, Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Sujato performed the first full-ordination ceremony for bhikkhunis since the order died out more than a thousand years ago. (For this bold and controversial act, Ajahn Brahm was removed from the Ajahn Chah Forest Sangha lineage.)
Bhante Sujato’s special interest is the earliest teachings of the Buddha, those shared by all Buddhist traditions, and his scholarly writings include Sects and Sectarianism and A History of Mindfulness. His most recent project is the translation of the four Nikayas of the Pali canon, an ambitious undertaking that took him two years of intensive work. His translations are available for free at Sutta Central, a digital library of early Buddhist texts that he cofounded in 2005.
When our conversation begins to feel like a dharma talk, I ask for a definition of meditation. Bhante Sujato isn’t keen to answer, preferring to guide his students toward understanding their own mind. When prompted, he offers these words: “At the heart of everything is awareness itself.
“One of the big moments of insight that came to me in meditation was catching a glimpse of the delicacy of this awareness, its softness, and its power as well. And literally everything makes an impression on it.” A deep silence follows this revelation. Bhante Sujato had just described a tangible experience of something mysterious and beautiful yet ordinary.
Just now Venerable Akaliko comes in. It’s only an hour to midday, and the two monks need to make ready to go on their alms round to neighboring shops and supermarkets. It’s their one meal of the day and should not be missed.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.