OFF a beaten track and tucked in among the eucalypts just north of Bendigo lies a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that is home to five monks.
Those who have not visited may find it hard to imagine a 2600-year-old Indian religion so alive in the Australian bush.
At the Thubten Shedrup Ling Monastery there are only two meals a day, breakfast and lunch and there is daily prayer, involving prostrations on the floor, chanting and meditation.
The monks have taken many vows including those of celibacy and no alcohol and they spend their time poring over Buddha’s teachings.
It’s a secluded, disciplined and devoted life that one does not commit to lightly.
Lhundrup, that is his Buddhist name, understands the stark contrast of the world most of us know, versus the life he has chosen.
His journey into Buddhism took years of searching and questioning.
Before he was Lhundrup, his name was Chris.
He was raised a Catholic but became a "retired Christian" by his late teens after deciding the faith was not for him.
Later he married, had three children and had a career as a radio announcer and music director at Melbourne radio station 3XY.
But in his 40s there were some life-changing events that caused an upheaval of life as he knew it.
Lhundrup began questioning what life was about and why people suffer negative experiences.
He returned to Christianity searching for answers but came across the old issues he disagreed with as a teenager.
He then investigated Buddhism and visited the Atisha Centre, the public teaching centre beside the monastery.
In contrast to his experience of Christianity, Lhundrup found Buddhism logical and it helped him make sense of what he was going through.
“It had a sense of familiarity about it for whatever reason, there was a sense of arriving home again,” Lhundrup said.
“Because I had no particular desire to go back to the career I had before I became a monk, my marriage had broken up, my children had grown up, the prospect of dedicating my life to Buddhism, to practise, to helping other people who were interested in finding out about Buddhism, to teaching and just helping establish the conditions for a monastery seemed to be the most wonderful way to spend my life.”
The process of deciding to become a monk took about seven years and in 2002 he took up residence at the monastery. He received his new name and was fully ordained by the Dalai Lama in 2004.
Sitting crossed legged in a prayer room, draped in traditional Tibetan robes, Lhundrup appears very comfortable with the decision he made 12 years ago.
Unlike many ‘Westerners’ who convert to Buddhism, Lhundrup said he was lucky to have a supportive mother, sister and children.
“My father passed away but I know he would have been very happy.
“My mum thought it was the greatest thing in the world.”
Lhundrup said he didn’t see his family any less than if he lived in Melbourne, despite the secluded nature of monastic life.
“The idea of being in a monastery is to not get caught up in a lot of the day-to-day world that’s out there,” he said.
“So we don’t often go to the pictures or parties or the pub on a Saturday night for a drink.”
“The environment (of the monastery) helps you keep your vows.
“If you are out living in the society, it becomes a bit more difficult.
“Here we have like-minded people.
“We meditate and do prayer sessions together, we live together as a community.”
Lhundrup said the Buddhist teachings were about training the mind to understand the reality of our existence.
“That is, there is a lot of suffering in life,” he said.
“We all know that, there’s physical suffering, mental suffering, we can see it all around us.”
The opposite of suffering – happiness – is problematic Lhundrup said, in that it was fleeting, and did not last forever.
“Even the things that we call pleasurable and fantastic, of course we should enjoy them, there’s no denying that they’re good experiences.
“But ultimately their nature is also in suffering because they come to an end. They don’t last.”
Lhundrup said Buddhists believed suffering did not have to continue and that it was possible to be freed from it, by achieving a higher state of mind called ‘enlightenment’.
He said Buddhists believed all creatures, not just humans, had the potential to achieve ‘an enlightened mind’ to escape from suffering.
The concept of reincarnation, Lhundrup said, was that the body died, but the mind continued in a new body, “not as the person you are in this life, but with very, very subtle qualities”.
The idea of being in a monastery is to not get caught up in a lot of the day-to-day world that’s out there.- Lhundrup
But he said the cycle of reincarnation came to an end when enlightenment as achieved.
The seclusion in the monastery, regular meditation and prayer, studying of Buddha’s teachings are all aimed at transforming the mind and achieving enlightenment.
However, Lhundrup and his fellow monks are not cut-off from life in Bendigo.
They are active in the community through Buddhist teaching and meditations for the public at the Atisha Centre, hospital visits and school talks.
“I must say Bendigo people have been very kind and very receptive,” Lhundrup said.
“In some parts of the world, particularly Western monks, you know, Westerners walking around in robes can have a hard time because it’s so unfamiliar to the community.”
Lhundrup does get strange looks occasionally and questions such as, ‘why are you wearing a skirt’, ‘why do you dress up like that’, ‘what do you do’ or ‘who are you’.
“That’s okay, it’s a bit unusual to walk around in robes.
“I’m making a statement, I’m dedicating myself to the Buddhist way of living”.