This Wednesday we had the honour of having Bikkhu Bodi share with us his life story. He began by introducing himself as an American in Buddhist robes; and seamlessly wove in deep insights as the story unfolded.
Bikkhu Bodi grew up in Brooklyn and it was in Brooklyn college that he first came upon Buddhism through some books on the subject. This led to a deep interest in Buddhism and soon after that he had his first encounter with a Buddhist monk.
One morning sometime between his Junior and senior year he found himself walking through the campus of the university of Wisconsin, Madison; out of the corner of his eye he noticed something rather unusual- a short man with Asian features wearing Buddhist robes. As he watched this man he became almost hypnotised, it seemed as though the glow of peace that the monk’s face radiated was quite unlike anything he had ever seen before in American society. He continued to follow the monk through the campus but couldn’t muster the courage to go talk to him.
A few years later he met another monk, this time a fellow student in grad school. As time went on he befriended this monk and finally in 1960 took ordinance as a monk himself.
Some years after this he visited LA to meet a monk (Thich Min Chau) who was visiting from Vietnam. When he met Thich Min Chau, he had a feeling that he had seen this person somewhere before, and he remembered the morning walk he had taken through the university of Madison some years earlier. When he checked with Thich Min Chau, sure enough it was the same person.
And the ‘coincidences’ don’t end here! Many years later Bikkhu Bodi found out that he was doing the same work for his country as Thich Min Chau had done for his. The major part of Bikkhu Bodi’s work through this life has been translating the four Nikayas of the Pali cannon into English while Thich Min Chau did the same in Vietnamese.
Bikkhu Bodi’s journey then took him to Sril Lanka where he met his teacher Gyanapunika. He continued to live in Sri Lanka for several years and took on his role as the editor for the Buddhist Publication Society till 2001 when his chronic migraines drew him to Singapore and finally back to the US.
Bikkhu Bodi draws his deepest wisdom from his experience dealing with his severe and consistent migraines. He speaks of pain as being different from suffering and says that while physical pain is inescapable, even inevitable, the mind can be developed so that we don’t become miserable because of physical pain.
He draws a distinction between physical pain and mental pain in that physical pain is simply a sensation in the body while mental pain is the identification of the “I” with the pain. For example, we might find ourselves saying “ I am in pain, why me?” and so on.
What was most powerful was hearing him narrate his direct and personal experience of practicing awareness even through debilitating pain by observing each sensation without identifying with it, seeing it as a learning opportunity, realising its impermanence as a flashing and vanishing sensation from moment to moment until it simply becomes one nameless momentary sensation after another and the door to freedom is opened.
We often get the opportunity to hear such advice in Dharma talks, but hearing it in the context of Bikkhu Bodi’s life and practice brought abstract teachings to reality in a way that Dharma talks could never do.