Saturday, 23 June 2012

The fruit of loving kindness

 Monk turns barren land into thriving orchard at hermitage

IMAGINE a meditation centre right smack in the hills of Balik Pulau, Penang, and surrounded by a sprawling 2ha orchard estimated to be as big as five football fields.

Welcome to the almost surreal world of Santarama Buddhist Hermitage Society, a serene retreat set up by a Buddhist monk and his followers about 16 years ago.

Bhikkhu Nando, fondly known as Praho, is the resident monk of the centre with its adjoining orchard bursting with an assortment of durian, rambutan and other seasonal fruit trees.

Today, the orchard is run by two workers but it was once almost single-handedly managed by Praho.

Through his labour of love, the 60-year-old monk has helped turn what was once a piece of barren land into a bountiful orchard which he shares the fruits with his followers and neighbours.

“It was a piece of botak (barren) land with only a few trees when my followers bought it in 1996 to build a meditation centre.

“As there were no proper access roads into the orchard, I had to walk in carrying tools and soil,” he said in an interview.

Praho said he decided to plant fruit trees for the benefit of the next generation since the land was fertile for growing fruits

It was no easy task though. Due to its sheer size, it took him about five years to plant the trees and ensure they grow healthily.

“But I didn’t feel it was a tough job. It was fate, and I’m satisfied because I knew someday people will benefit from this,” he said matter-of-factly.

In the early days, his daily routine included working on the orchard every morning after sunrise, with the rest of the time spent on meditation and cleaning.

“I also do some reading, especially The Star which is how I get updates on the outside world,” he smiled.

Praho also spoke of several life-threatening moments in his orchard when clearing the undergrowth in the past.

“I came across a cobra or a python a few times. I was stunned for a second but I did not run away to avoid being attacked.

“I prayed in my heart, and each time the snake slowly went away. Thanks to Buddha, I am safe,” he said.

Despite having numerous durian, rambutan, mangosteen, cempedak, papaya, nutmeg and lime trees, he has no intention of selling them.

“I give the fruits to my followers and the people living around here,” he said, adding that the fruits were not meant for commercial purposes.

Praho cited an incident when a man was caught stealing fruits in the orchard.

“He had been doing it a few times but one day I caught him in action and told him it is a great sin to steal from a religious place.

“I said he could get the fruits free if he asked for them. I never saw him again after that,” he laughed, adding the centre was also broken into four times but only a small amount of money was taken.

On why he joined monkhood, Praho said he renounced earthly pleasures to be a Theravada monk in 1982 at the age of 29 after witnessing a series of unhappiness and sufferings.

“I never thought I would end up as a monk one day,” he said.

“I was born to a poor family and had six siblings, and I was ill when I was small.

“Due to an unfortunate incident at school, I became paralysed at the age of 15. I vowed that if I were to recover, I would become a monk for a month. After two years, I recovered,” he added.

He said he then became a wireman and later realised that life was impermanent.

“Life is meaningless if you are rich but living in fear.

“Anything can happen anytime,” he said.

“I couldn’t stand to see the sufferings people have to endure, and decided to become a monk and spread the teachings of Buddha,” he added.

There is a 10m Bodhi tree which was planted when the centre was opened, two halls and 14 huts (kutty) for meditation.

Local and foreign monks would arrive at the centre occasionally for meditation.

The centre is located at 138 Mukim 5, Balik Pulau, Penang. It is accessible through a small road, beside the Penang Municipal Council-cum-Social Welfare Department building, next to the market-hawker complex.

By OH CHIN ENG chineng@thestar.com.my  

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