In Buddhist countries, news of actors and celebrities donning a saffron robe for a few weeks or even a year isn’t something strange as a person is not required to stay in monkhood for life. It’s also a tradition for a son to be ordained as an act of gratitude to his parents or to study and practice Dhamma.
But Bollywood star Gagan Malik has a deeper purpose. The 45-year-old actor wants to restore Buddhism in India, his mother land and the birthplace of Buddha through the Tri Ratnabhoomi Foundation, which has launched a donation campaign to distribute 84,000 Buddha statues to be placed in homes in India as the first step of his plan.
It has been more than two months since his ordination on February 10 at Bangkok’s Wat That Thong Temple, long beyond the 15-day ordination plan, but Malik, now known as Gagan Ahsoko (one who has no grievance) still has no plan to leave anytime soon as he has become deeper in the bliss of Dhamma, which began taking its root in his mind about nine years ago when he took the role of Prince Siddhartha in the film, Sri Siddhartha Gauthama, which won him the Best Actor Award in the 2014 World Buddhist Film Festival.
Q: What was your reason for ordination in Thailand?
A: Number one reason is my master Phra Rajvarayanasophon, the Abbot of Wat That Thong. Second, Thailand is the Buddhist capital of the world. I believe the best Buddhist way that one can learn in a disciplined way is Thailand.
In India, Buddhism is vanishing, the total population must be 1-2 percent of Buddhist people out of 100 percent. It’s very unfortunate because Buddha was born in India and this treasure of Dhamma is not utilized by Indians at all. So I came to Thailand to learn Dhamma in a much deeper way. That’s what I am learning right now, in a disciplined way. Then I can go back to my country and try to propagate in a correct and disciplined way. And the final most important reason is King Rama IX is my biggest source of inspiration. He’s my role model.
Q: Could you elaborate more on the happy part?
What do you mean by ‘being happy properly’?
A: This birth that human beings take is nothing but suffering. We need to understand the law of impermanence. It’s your assumption that my life is happy. Only I know if my life is happy or not happy. Even if I’m happy, do you think I’ll be happy till the end? Will I not get a disease, old, or die? They’re all going to come to me. It’s coming day by day. No human being is truly happy in this world…So, to be happy means the inner happiness that we always look forward to; the real happiness, not the materialistic happiness. You know the materialistic happiness is something like a glass of water which has a hole underneath, no matter how much water you put in, it will never fill up. Inner happiness that Dhamma taught you is forever. Once you practice Dhamma, then only you can taste the real happiness. It’s all about practice.
Q: When did this kind of reflection begin?
A: When I was chosen for the movie Siddhartha Gautama which was produced in Sri Lanka. I took a book called “Old Path White Clouds” by late most Venerable Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh…The day I read that book, I was surprised, amazed, shocked that this treasure of Dhamma. How come it’s missing in my country which is the land of Buddha? That was how my mind started changing and how I learned that status, fame, and money is not real happiness. It’s all temporary. It’s all changing. Attachment to something is suffering…Once I become old, who will look at me? Right now, I am an actor who is loved by many. That time will come then people will say, “Oh! He was a good actor.” Nobody is looking at me because I am old. No teeth. No hair and wrinkles all over. Finally, death will come.
Q: So that was the turning point.
A: We hardly get time to know ourselves. When you ask questions to your inner self, you’ll get the correct answers. It’s like opening the eyes of the mind for me after reading about Buddha’s life and Dhamma. It brought a 360-degree turn in my life. So we can clearly say that this movie and reading about the Buddha has a strong impact on me.
Q: Which part of playing Prince Siddhartha impressed you the most?
A: I think all the scenes were interesting. Every scene was giving me some knowledge, some kind of Dhamma in some ways. But I enjoyed the scene where he was not eating for a long time. I thought “Ok, let me feel it” and so I took a fast for two days just to feel the hunger. I had a severe headache after that…The other one was the most emotional scene when he was leaving the palace. And his wife Princess Yasodhara and their child were sleeping. The prince leaving all the luxuries and going out of the palace to do the great sacrifice for the whole humanity, not for himself.
Q: On your ordination day, you looked very blissful, very serene. How are you feeling now and how has life in monkhood been?
A: Many people asked me, “How do you feel when you get ordained?” And I said in one line that “A thirsty man who is thirsty for years got the water right now”. So when a thirsty man gets water, how does he feel? That’s my feeling.
Q: As an actor and former professional cricket player, you’re a role model to many young people who are your target group in ‘spreading the proper happiness’. How would you explain to them the merit of meditation when most people see it as a waste of time for closing your eyes and sitting still?
A: They need to understand that in Buddhism, you need to be your own master. It means you need to practice and see yourself. If I am a coach of any sport. Let’s say cricket, the coach can teach you but who will make the runs on the field? The coach or the player? The player. The teacher cannot play for you. So they need to see themselves, practice themselves and then come back and talk about it.
If you are not doing meditation, that means you are losing the greatest treasure Buddha had given. If you meditate, you will realize you have become more intelligent. You will be more focused. You will eventually be more mindful and have less suffering. Why do you think meditation is only for those aged 50 or 60? Why not now?
Q: You’re also on the mission to distribute Buddha statues across India. What about books and the Bhuddist Scriptures?
A: We have enough books in India. If you give someone a book, it might not get read. So we have to go slowly and gradually. The final goal is not Buddha statues, but Dhamma. This is the beginning. I have roadmap in my mind how I have to take Dhamma there. If I start distributing books, they will end up being sold. Nothing will come back. But with Buddha statues in their houses, they will pray or at least pay respect to him. Then the next plan is get Dhamma there step by step. The story about 84,000 Buddha statues are coming will create a lot of buzz in the country with all the temples holding a ceremony. People would want to know more about the Buddha and that’s when I will tell them, “This is what the Buddha said”.
Q: What is the most important thing that Buddhism has taught you so far?
A: The most important thing that Buddhism taught me is living in the present with full mindfulness. We cannot change the past, we don’t know about the future. People are too worried about these two things. Buddhism is all about living in the present with mindfulness. Mindfulness only comes through wisdom. Wisdom will only come through meditation. That’s the core lesson of Buddhism.