Friday, April 20, 2018
News Roundup

Young Tampa monk seeks to build a monastery here

TAMPA

A Buddhist monk and a mystery novelist live in a suburban rental home with a 10-foot-tall Buddha in their living room. The golden statue was a gift from two monasteries up North. It came from Sri Lanka in April, wrapped in monks' robes, tucked into a box, shipped on a boat and then transported by pickup truck. It took four men to carry it, the French doors removed to get it inside this place, which is called a monastery, but barely scrapes by, strictly speaking. • Even the two men who live here agree the title of Mahamevnawa Meditation Monastery Florida is a dream. Their reality is a place of little beauty, a corner house on Doerun Court, just north of Northdale and a mile east of N Dale Mabry Highway. It has a broken, bleached basketball backboard in front. Their meditative walking path of sand is cut into brittle grass in the back yard. There is little shade.

The 27-year-old monk leads meditation classes and events here, at the rental home, and on the road, Naples, Sarasota, Miami, New Jersey. Their local group has about 60 regulars. The monk and his roommate — author Walter Satterthwait, 67, tall, thin, the author of 14 novels, many featuring the evil humans do — are raising money to create an actual monastery somewhere in Tampa Bay, preferably in the woods by a lake; a peaceful place where tranquility isn't so difficult to achieve. They would love for someone to donate land.

It has been tough for the monk, who has lived here for nearly a year after being invited to come by his branch of Buddhism, Mahamevnawa, which is within Theravada Buddhism. In the pendulum of beliefs, Mahamevnawa is on the fundamentalist side, a movement following the origins of Buddhism.

In Sri Lanka, the young monk lived in a lush forest monastery. People waited on the streets to give monks food. He and his life and purpose weren't foreign.

But here, today, he is patient.

He visualizes the monastery they want to build in Florida and the people they hope to help.

"In the beginning, I have to bear this," said the monk, whose name is Bhante Saddhasara Thero. He is short and solid, with a shaved head and a gentle smile, his skin a warm brown. His feet are bare and he wears a red robe wrapped over one shoulder.

He would die without Satterthwait.

In his belief system, a monk lives the life of a beggar. This means the monk has to be given everything he consumes.

"People do for me," he said.

If he is thirsty, he cannot get himself a glass of water. If he is hungry, he can't make himself a plate of food — even if that food was originally given to him. Leftovers have to be handed to him again. He is not allowed to deal with the things of the world that would distract him from his studies: novels or TV shows, cash or gems, or alcohol.

"The ladies," the monk says.

The monks live such a celibate life, they do not shake a woman's hand.

He is absolutely reliant on his roommate.

"This is why I am here," Satterthwait said. "This is my function."

Satterthwait, who favors a wandering life, found the fledgling monastery a few years ago, when a friend recommended its meditation class. He has studied Buddhism for 20 years, but embraced this special meditation called jhana. It was so powerful, he said, "I ceased to exist."

He became a regular. A previous monk lived there then. Satterthwait, who is divorced, was asked if he was interested in the job of caring for the monk. The job pays nothing, but housing and food are free. It sounded good to him and he has lived there since, other than six months when he left to live in Grenada. He has bounced from place to place throughout his adult life. Whenever he got advances for his mystery and historical fiction, the money was never enough to let him live in the States, so he went where his money would stretch. Thailand. Greece. England. France. Kenya.

In 1999, he decorated a Winnebago with the cover and bar code of his book, Masquerade, a murder mystery set in 1920s Paris, and launched a six-month cross-country book tour. The Winnebago is long gone. Satterthwait doesn't own a car. He doesn't want one. He rides around on a bike outfitted with the same kind of engine found in weed trimmers. This is what he takes to get groceries.

"We live simply," he said.

He cooks the monk breakfast and lunch. The monk loves omelets. To encourage moderation, the monk is forbidden to eat after noon. On a recent day, Satterthwait made a green chili stew from New Mexico for lunch. The monk was excited to try it. He's had some very strange things while living in Florida.

"Blueberry waffles," he said. He liked them.

Satterthwait teaches the monk English and American culture.

"I showed him Elvis Presley," Satterthwait said.

In the afternoons, the monk meditates and studies. Satterthwait writes. He's currently rewriting a sequel to his novel Miss Lizzie, set three decades after Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother, when a neighbor turns up dead. He wrote a sequel previously, but it was only published overseas. He hopes to have this new sequel done by the end of summer.

His work often sold big in France and Germany, but he never became a household name in the States. He would still like that, though it's a delicate thing in Buddhism, to desire without expecting a certain outcome. Fame, he said, would be nice, but "it doesn't define who I am."

He said, though, it would benefit people to read his books because they are so good.

"I'm a kinder person," he said of the influence the study of Buddhism has played on his life.

"I'm a kinder egomaniac."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.

     
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