Life is sometimes full of surprises when you open a door. It turned out to be true when I opened a classroom door of Hong Kong University in October, 2011. Inside the room stood a Buddhist monk, wearing a brown robe called a “kasaya.” He was teaching his international and Chinese students, including a girl wearing an Islamic headscarf and a white boy wearing a crucifix around his neck. The people of three of the world’s biggest religions – Buddhism, Islam and Christianity – sat there peacefully and harmoniously.
“If you walk in small steps, several steps forward, and several steps back, you are walking on a cloud. It’s like walking in heaven,” the Venerable Dr. Dhammapala said while demonstrating the walk. He was totally into his teaching about Buddhist meditation, with his bespectacled eyes looking into the air. Many of the 21 students had printed English lecture notes in front of them. But Dhammapala, a visiting assistant professor, had something more fashionable in his hand: an iPad.
“It is most interesting when the professor talks about his life stories,” Alan Yang Gregory, a mixed-blood Year 3 student majoring in international business and global marketing, said. He chose the elective course in Buddhist psychology and mental cultivation because his uncle, a businessman in Taiwan, wanted to be a monk, and Gregory wanted to know why.
Dhammapala indeed has a lot of stories to tell. He is a monk in a highly commercial city, unlike many others living in seclusion in the mountains. He has triple identities, a professor teaching in university, a chief administrator of a monastery, and a son of a rich Malaysian Chinese family.
With his diverse identities, Dhammapala has to try to strike a balance, but it is not easy. In the highly commercial city of Hong Kong, he is much less respected compared to the Buddhism-loving countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand, where he studied for nine years, he says. His identity as a professor requires him to focus more on the academic studies and not on preaching. One the other hand, his identity as a monk requires him to spread the ideology of Buddhism.
Born in 1970, Dhammapala became a computer repair technician for Hewlett-Packard Company in 1994 after he graduated with an electronic engineering degree in Malaysia. He went to Sri Lanka in 1996 to study Buddhism because he was fed up with the work pressure and customer complaints about delayed repair work. In 2003, he graduated with a master’s degree in Buddhism. After one year teaching at a Thai Buddhism college called Hatyai, he went to Hong Kong to get his postgraduate degree in 2004, and later became a visiting assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. He started helping building the website called “Buddhistdoor” in 2008. His work was appreciated and he eventually became a chief administrator of the monastery also named Buddhistdoor.
“It is a money-worshiping city. Unlike in Sri Lanka, people here don’t respect monks that much. When I walk in the street, people look through you as if you are transparent,” Dhammapala said with his voice slightly raised. That was the only time he appeared emotional during our three hours of Mandarin interview at the Buddhism Center at HKU. His voice was always soft and even and his smooth skin made him look much younger than he actually was.
In one of his many old photos, he is being served with food by a follower who is kneeling down with the plate raised above her head. That was a picture taken in Sri Lanka, where “people are very poor but they respect monks a lot,” Dhammapala said.
Buddhism is divided into different branches. Theravada is more popular in South Asia and Dhammapala believes in this branch; Mahasanghikas is more popular in China. Dhammapala has to explain the different branches in an academic way without personal judgment in his class. Jianxin Xue, a master’s degree student studying Buddhism at HKU, thinks it is very difficult for a monk to be neutral when teaching. “Dr. Dhammapala sometimes stops himself while talking because he realized he has to focus more on the academic study,” Xue said.
When the Buddhism philosophy of being nice to everyone faces the strict judging criteria in an academic setting like a university, Dhammapala says he is unhappy. “I dislike the way of saying you are not good and giving you a bad grade,” Dhammapala said. “But according to the rules, I have to differentiate the students.” He said he thought some people were not as talented as others but he wanted to give them good grades as long as they tried hard.
He said he did not want to teach at HKU next semester for these reasons, and also because he was too busy with work as a chief administrator of the monastery, which is located in Tsuen Wan.
Our interview was interrupted three times by phone calls from the staff at Buddhistdoor. He used fluent Cantonese to give them instructions about how many chairs to set up for a conference and how much the food budget should be. He is fluent in many other languages, including Sanskrit, Pali, French, Japanese and Tibetan. After our interview he took a taxi to give a speech in the evening.
The activities at the monastery are designed to fit into the needs of Hong Kong society. They are organizing a youth leadership, interpersonal skills training program aimed at improving the spiritual satisfaction of the people in the community. On the Buddhistdoor website, a notice about a yoga course can be found. Dhammapala also travels a lot. He went to Sri Lanka for a week-long Buddhism conference in October and to New Delhi in November.
His staff at the monastery spoke of Dhammapala with respect when I visited them. He was in New Delhi then. His Muslim student at HKU, Hanan Chiang, the girl wearing a headscarf, spoke highly of his class. “The class is interesting,” she said. “I especially like the part about concept of soul, as it is totally different from Muslim belief.”
Despite the many successes in his monk’s life, he says, his family still didn’t show full understanding of his choice of being a monk. In his album, his parents showed up in the postgraduate commencement ceremony in 2009. But they didn’t smile standing by their son. “I don’t think they are proud of me,” Dhammapala said bitterly.
He recalled his childhood and his study in Sri Lanka as, “the most bright and happy time in my life.” When talking about his life choice, he said:“I have found the life path that I should go.”