A life less ordinary
Leaving behind his family, friends, and all his worldy possessions at the age of 19, Bhikkhu Tapassi became the youngest person to be ordained a monk at the Santi Forest Monastery in the Southern Highlands. Louise Meers speaks to him about his new life.
When David Briggs picked up a pamphlet for the Santi Forest Monastery, he had no idea what this place would one day come to mean. The 16-year-old from Canley Vale had ventured into Sydney’s Buddhist Library looking for comfort in the spiritual. Feeling disconnected from the world, he thought there might be another way to live. Holding the pamphlet in his hands, he made a silent promise to visit the monastery.
It would take another three years for David to finally make the decision to leave everything behind to become Bhikkhu Tapassi, a Buddhist monk.
* * *
Santi Forest Monastery is nestled somewhere in the 400 000 acres of Morton National Park in the Southern Highlands. The dollhouse-like building sits inside a muddy moat, its sharp A-line roof framing an image of monastic life through large, transparent windows.
On the other side of the glass Tapassi sits down on a wooden chair in the corner of the room. Surrounded by shelves of bound Buddhist scriptures, he is cocooned and almost oblivious to the wild weather outside. The light is dim but Tapassi’s marmalade coloured robe brings brightness to the room. Pausing for a moment, he looks to the side, contemplating where he should begin.
“I was looking for something in my life but not really finding anything that was satisfying,” he says as his eyes come back into focus, “I tried to find happiness in external things but they always let me down. It got to the stage where I just didn’t want to do that anymore; there just had to be another way.”
The rain starts to lash loudly on the windows, but he continues in the same soft, yet steady, voice.
“I was wanting some kind of perfection and long-lasting happiness. Many partners didn’t work, and that was the main thing I was looking for happiness in.”
“I just wanted to turn away from the world and find some kind of refuge somewhere.”
Speaking of Buddhism and his initial visits to the monastery, Tapassi’s watery blue eyes almost seem to brighten. “It was like a puzzle with one piece missing and you don’t know where that one piece is. But then you find it and put it into place and go, ‘Ah!’ – that’s what it was.”
“Pretty much straight away I wanted to become a monk.”
David Briggs became Bhikkhu Tapassi on July 11, 2007 after living at the monastery for three years. At 19, Tapassi became the youngest person to ordain at the Santi Forest Monastery.
“In a way it was kind of like dying. Everything you ever knew or experienced just fades a way and you’re becoming a new person.”
Renouncing the world to become a monk meant leaving behind his family, friends, music and language lessons. “They were painful and joyful,” he says with a definitive smile about his lay days.
Looking down to catch his thoughts, Tapassi’s shaven head reveals a history of its own. A shadow of light-brown hair has grown across the surface; hair that once belonged to David Briggs.
“I was not really good at school,” he continues as he looks back up, “I had a wide circle of friends, but I didn’t really want to go along with what they were doing. Going out, drinking and whatever, it all doesn’t really mean anything in the end.”
But becoming a monk did have its obstacles.
“The transition was like when a new rock has been thrown into the river. It has lots of rough edges on it. But after a long time the rough edges get smoothed over by the constant running of the water.”
“For the first year I had all these rough edges that were there – I was quite critical and negative about things. But after a period of time it smoothed over.”
One year on from his ordination, Tapassi is content in his choice.
“The best thing about being a monk is learning to be simple, quiet, and living with really nice moral and ethical people. Although they can be painful, the challenges of monastic life are also the best parts because you grow from them.”
“I have had second thoughts a few times. I thought about leaving but I think all monastics go through that at some point.”
As talk turns to the outside world, a lighter side of Tapassi suddenly emerges.
“Sometimes I miss computer games,” he chuckles cheekily.
“But I do like to keep up with the news a bit. I like to follow situations such as what’s going on with Russia and Georgia, or with Burma.”
“But Britney Spears and things like that just don’t cut it,” he laughs again and wrinkles his nose.
* * *
When the rain clears, Tapassi leads the way through the forest towards his hut.
“This monastery is little different from others as our routine is quite flexible,” he says as he starts along a muddy trail.
“We wake up about four in the morning and do meditation, chanting or exercise yoga.”
Tapassi outlines his schedule as he passes by the rich browns and greens of the forest, all shimmering from the rain’s residue and the heat of the sun.
“At 7.30 we have a work period which includes building roads, digging out caves or just office duties. Then we have lunch at 11.00. After lunch we don’t have to come out from our huts until the next morning.”
Turning right at a small wooden sign that says Bridge Kuti (or ‘Bridge Hut’), the trail narrows and eventually presents a log bridge that leads to Tapassi’s hut.
“There’s a few different things you can do in the hut,” he says as he enters, “Meditation and study – they’re both important. You get a better understanding of both if you practise both.”
A mattress with a bright blue cover lies on the floor, next to a pile of books. A small fireplace huddles in the corner, and on the other side of the hut, the wall bears pictures of monks and nuns that inspire Tapassi.
Growing serious again, he defends a life of isolation.
“People think that being monastic is running away from the world, but if they began to live the monastic life for a little while they would realise there’s no where to run because you always have to deal with your mind.”