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Finding peace on the railway tracks. A Buddhist monk’s lessons about happiness

Story published on

 May 20, 2019

He says that we’re looking for happiness the wrong way. Many people I’ve met over the past months told me the same thing. We have to find it within ourselves, they claim. Everything outside – job, success, loved ones, money, they can go away and all you’re left with is you and that haunting, fearfully shy whisper: ‘am I doing enough to be happy?’

He doesn’t understand why we hurry so much through life. And this is a man who believes in reincarnation! Don’t be the slave of your desires and your emotions, he instructs, after a long exposé about the eye, the nose, the tongue, the ear – keepers of our invisible chains. Train your mind, control it, so that it doesn’t control who you are!

He talks passionately about love. But it’s a very different sermon than that you would hear at a wedding ceremony. His is a love of self and of all others. A wise love or, rather, a love of the wise one. Love cannot be selfish, he tells me, as my husband walks behind us, trying not to be there. You need to be wise enough to love someone for loving’s sake. 

This is the story of a fortunate day when I found peace on the railroad tracks in Sri Lanka. A day when I lost myself on a path to happiness, walking alongside a Buddhist monk. We were close to Ella, in Sri Lankan tea country.

Wrong track to happiness


Love and wisdom are intertwined, the monk says. Love cannot be selfish. One needs to be wise enough to love for love’s sake.

The Mind

Don’t be the slave of the mind, the monk instructs, be the master of it. Control it, train it, so that then you can also be in charge of your emotions and not get angry anymore.

I set off on a fake quest. The more I tried to discover what happiness looks like for very different people around the world, the more I realized how impossible that is.

There’s absolutely nothing more personal and constantly morphing and evading than happiness. I know I’ve seen it, I’m sure I touched it. But I can’t show you it’s universal face.

I was still looking for happiness success stories one day in Sri Lanka, when, walking on the railway tracks (people walk quite a lot on railway tracks in Sri Lanka) near Ella town, home to the Instagram-famous Ella Rock, I saw a Buddhist monk talking to some tourists on a bridge. We stopped for a second to listen. He seemed an interesting individual. But because we were supposed to climb the Rock that day and the weather was moody, we went on our way. 

A little while later, we saw him again. We waited for him to reach us and resumed the conversation on the bridge. It felt as natural as meeting an old friend with whom you have a lot of catching up to do.

He’s a Buddhist monk, I said to myself, he spends his days in meditation and pursuit of the life’s greater truths. He MUST know the universal secret to happiness, joy and peace. So I asked for his permission to record our railway track conversation.

We talked peace until we lost our way

He talked and talked and I mostly listened and listened some more. We debated happiness until we had a train coming behind us on the tracks. We talked peace until we lost our way. Literally. We forgot to turn left on the bushy, unmarked path that leads to the tea plantations that then take you to the climb to Ella Rock. But, as he had been doing that whole day, the monk showed us the way. One way.

“Madam journalist from Romania, I’m very happy to teach you these things”, he said.

So here it is. I came a long way to bring you what happiness and peace mean for someone who stopped looking for the first one and truly found the latter:

The neutral feelings

Lanka Nanda Thero talks little about happiness and a lot about peace, controling your desires and being the master of the mind.

Meditation, he says, is a great tool to purify and strengthen the mind. It’s also incredibly difficult to truly do, as I now know. Meditation makes you aware of the reality of life and the world, the monk says. You can explore the whole world through yourself. Mindfulness or awareness comes hand in had with meditation. It is the way to organize your feelings, to see what’s there and how it impacts you.

When it comes to said feelings, he puts them into three boxes: they are either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The goal should be to keep yourself in the neutral area, be unattached.

The Facebook Parable

“Even a small attachment can create a little pain”, he writes in a little yellow book he published in English in order to pass it on to tourists looking for peace on the railway tracks in Sri Lanka.

Suppose you go home, with the intention of using Facebook and you find no power supply. Then you can observe how the anger arises in you. Realize this is due to attachment. Give up the attachment. Think ‘I will use it when power supply is back, until then I will do something else. That is the trick. See your pleasure as a vanishing thing, no matter how pleasurable it is”. Sure, the monk seems unaware that the pleasure of Facebook was in our pockets all along, connected to a power bank, but you get what he’s trying to say. 

He is though aware that this neutrality of state and mind is very hard to achieve by the inexperienced. How does one stay neutral when one is sick or mourning the loss of a loved one, anyway? His ideas about the neutral feelings are very intricate. For the more practical me, he’s referring to peace, that inner balance that guides you firmly through life and prevents you from ever doubting your steps again.


“Europeans don’t feel free”

Lanka Nanda Thero became a monk 2 and a half years ago, “to lead a peaceful, quiet and happy life”. He feels unburdoned by life. “These are all my belongings”, he says, as he points to his begging bowl and two bags on his shoulder. He took refuge from society, from politics, gossip and from the rush for money. 

Europeans tell him they don’t feel free. They feel something keeps them from going where they want, whenever they want it. “That’s because they have a target, they have to make money, to work very hard. Some people say ‘we have money, but we don’t have peace, because we don’t have time’”. We all know those people. At one point or the other in life, most of us have been those people. 

Buddhism is a religion of cause and effect. Buddhists believe that ignorance and craving are the two major causes of suffering.

Later that day, on Ella Rock

The lessons

The monk’s book

There are many things in his teachings that feel too much directed to the already initiated. His long and sometimes confusing talks about the eye, the literal eye and the mind’s eye. But, as he also points out, what he preaches on those longs walks on the railway tracks is also very practical, once you peel off the layer of misticism.

– Trying to control your feelings and physical desires, so that they are not the only driving force in your life.

– Taking time to meditate in one way or another, to pay attention to yourself, to your mind.

– Taking care of friends.

– Not doing harm.

– Seeing the beauty in people and places.

– Accepting that everything, even love, can be fragile and temporary.

– And, above everything, learning the one true lesson of peace and joy: they are always within ourselves. Because that’s the only part in your life that will always be there.

There was one part of his sermon on the railway tracks that I still heard in my ears even months after leaving Sri Lanka. “To reform society, we have to change our own attitudes. One by one”. Starting with ourselves. This is a person who truly believes you can completely change society one by one. This is an idea I keep coming back to, wherever I go.

And, months later, after our talk was more like a mental picture of a day where my mind stood still, even for some moments, there are these lessons that he gave me and I pass on to you:

  • Be a good friend. Take care of your true friend
  • Be a wise person, so that you will be useful to yourself and to others
  • Try not to get angry. Or when you do, understand why and how it affects you
  • Be patient
  • Stop the hurry. Notice your own life
  • Know, train and control your mind
  • Everything you seek, first try to find within you
Lanka Nanda Thero

Buddhist monk

Back to our room with a view. Placed on the table, the monk’s book