Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in Australia with many Australians of European descent adopting the various forms of Buddhism as their faith practice.
The lotus flower grows in swamps. That says to me that even if you are surrounded by shit you can still blossom and be beautiful.
– Alex Sarris –
One of them is Alex Sarris, a Greek-Australian who adopted Buddhism following an “enlightened” experience in a temple in Thailand about ten years ago.
I meet him on a cold and windy Saturday morning at Federation Square. A few people were busy preparing for the 14th Buddha’s Day and Multicultural Festival.
They were laying out purple, orange and white silk tablecloths on long tables, placing round marble balls, serene looking statues, flowers and huge trays of carefully arranged apples under a smiling Buddha.
The wind was wrecking havoc with the tablecloths but the faithful – Alex amongst them – were not deterred.
Sarris describes his experience at the Thai temple as life-changing and says with no reservation that “I walked in that temple and – I don’t know what it was – I cried like a baby, like I had never cried before. It was like all my emotional baggage started to get unloaded, off my shoulders. I walked out light as a butterfly.”
When he came back to Australia he started to go to the Fo Guang Shan temple in Box Hill.
He is adamant that Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life, a philosophy that helps him be a better person.
He recounts his personal and family dramas, of growing up in a family plagued by gambling addiction and violence that led him to become a gambler himself.
He says of his gambling days “the casino for me is like the Satan’s den” and he quickly adds “ I am OK know, I don’t gamble anymore”.
Buddhism gave him inner peace and the “gift of acceptance”.
He reflects on his life by mentioning the significance of the lotus flower in Buddhist symbolism: “The lotus flower grows in swamps. That says to me that even if you are surrounded by shit you can still blossom and be beautiful”.
Sarris is an adherent of the Fo Guan Shan, a humanistic form of Buddhism. Fo Guan Shan aims to make Buddhism relevant in the world and in people’s lives and hearts.
Although there are no Buddhist practices in his daily life he makes an effort to visit the Fo Guan Shan temple every Saturday, where he prays.
He volunteers at the same temple most Sundays.
Alex is a divorced father of two and suffers from multiple sclerosis.
He grew up in Sydney, lived for a few years in the US and came to Melbourne about twenty years ago.
He says that his illness taught him that physical well-being goes hand in hand with the spiritual, that health is a gift that should not be wasted.
“One thing I’ve learned about MS is that your body listens to everything” he says and he embarks on telling me a long and complicated story about MS medication, injections and how they impacted on his life.
His parents didn’t object to him being a Buddhist.
“My mum was understanding,” Sarris said.
“She said that whatever makes me happy, whatever makes me become a better person is OK with her. My dad was a different story.
He is cynical. He thinks that it’s all bullshit. But then again that’s how he is.”
We finish off as the sunshine peeped through the clouds for a few seconds.
The golden statues of baby Buddha kept on smiling to the thousands who walked through Federation Square during the past two days, believers or not…