After leaving Mackay, I wanted to explore simple living in spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism. But I’d left it too late. We were way behind schedule, which meant we didn’t have time to detour from the highway. Somehow, I’d have to find a genuine simple living Buddhist on a busy truck route in Far North Queensland.
I called the Buddhist chaplain at James Cook University in Townsville and asked if he knew of any Buddhists living simply and sustainably north of Mackay on the Bruce Highway. It was an absurd request, but instead of laughing at me, he asked a question.
“Have you heard of the walking monk?”
“No,” I replied.
“He walked from Gold Coast to Townsville, and now he’s walking back. You’ll probably pass him on the way up. Ask at truck stops and towns if they’ve seen a barefoot monk carrying a begging bowl.”
So it turned out that a Buddhist monk was walking towards us, and that our paths were destined to cross. I didn’t plan this at all. It was a magical coincidence, the sort of seredipity that sometimes blesses epic journeys.
The next day I asked around, and learned that he’d left Townsville a few weeks earlier. I also did some internet research and found articles about him in local newspapers. He was definitely in the area, but where?
I’d heard a rumour that he slept under bridges, so as we approached the coastal town of Bowen, I stopped at a large bridge and peered underneath. Nothing. I kept scanning the side of the road but couldn’t see him anywhere. I was about to give up when I spotted a man in red robes sitting cross-legged under a tree by the side of the highway. Sophie and I approached slowly, and he motioned for us to sit with him.
He was Asian in appearance, his thin body wrapped in red robes. He said his Buddhist name was Jinasiri, but he preferred to use his real name, Jason Chan. He was 31 years old and was born in Australia. He studied law at Sydney University and worked a variety of jobs (including three months in a law firm) before joining Santi Forest Monastery in Bundanoon, New South Wales. In 2010 he went to Sri Lanka and spent about a year at Na Uyana Monastery.
But the more he studied, the more he realised that the lives of modern monks weren’t in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings in the Pali canon, the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism. “The way the Buddha lived and taught his monks to live was to be homeless,” he explained.
And so, since returning from Sri Lanka in August 2011, Jason had been recreating the historically accurate lifestyle of a Buddhist monk. “I wanted to see if it was possible to live the old way with just three robes and a bowl in Australia. I thought if I could walk from Gold Coast to Townsville, I could prove you could do it.”
He arrived in Townsville in May 2012, spent a few months on Magnetic Island, and when we met him he was walking back south to Sydney.
He lived by strict rules. He was only allowed to eat one meal a day before 12 pm. The food had to be given to him. He couldn’t even pick up an apple that had fallen on the ground, and he wasn’t allowed to hoard food either. “I have to wake up each morning with nothing.”
Despite these strict rules, he had never missed a meal. Drivers pulled over on the busy Bruce Highway to hand him food. When we offered him something to eat he said he already had more than enough for the day.
At night he slept on bare earth, with only a woollen blanket for warmth. He didn’t even have a sleeping matt. “If you sleep against hard things the body gets soft and flexible,” he said. “If you sleep against soft things, the body gets hard and rigid.”
“We have as much ability to adapt to the environment as animals. But what we do is adapt our environment so we don’t have to adapt our bodies.” After learning to adapt, he said, “the body becomes its own palace”.
His feet proved the point. He had no shoes, and his soles were as black and calloused as a dog’s paws. While we spoke, several ants crawled across the bottom of his right foot. He didn’t flinch.
He was probably the most articulate person I have ever met. His sentences were succinct and uncluttered. “Advertisers are in the business of turning wants into needs,” he told me. I once wrote an essay on that topic, and it took me 4000 words to say essentially the same thing.
We talked about sustainability, simple living, and the contentment that comes from renouncing material possessions. It was the most profound and revealing interview of our entire trip. I’ll be including his full responses on these topics in the book.
As our discussion wound up, I asked to take a photo, but Jason declined. He wanted to spread his message through meaningful face-to-face encounters, and he was worried about attracting the wrong kind of fame. “Gushing excited attention is poison to wisdom,” he said. (Despite this, I later discovered a Facebook account in his name.)
So we left him there, sitting cross-legged under a tree by the highway. Before departing, I asked what he would do after reaching Sydney. “The Buddha walked till the day he died,” he said.