Weekly Local Biography

  Lawrence Maund

Even as a young boy growing up in Australia, Lawrence Maund had an inquiring mind and felt the pull of things spiritual. He read about Buddhism, and it “struck a chord” with him. He was especially impressed with the role of the individual in designing his or her own life and in accepting and living with the consequences of that design.

As a teenager, he began to study and meditate, and by the time he was in his early twenties he was seriously practicing the faith. In 1972, he left Australia and came abroad to make a pilgrimage to the sacred places of Buddhism, spending several months in India. Then he came to Thailand and was eventually ordained as a monk in a rural area of Isaan. There, as a monk, ever mindful of the impact of his behavior on others in the village, he learned to speak Thai fluently and soon taught himself to read and write the language. And there he lived among the villagers, the only foreigner for miles around.

After the rains, he did a wandering practice for nine months, going all over the Northeast, eating only sticky rice, sleeping in the forest and in caves, meditating and walking. He walked between 30 and 40 kilometers a day, one step at a time, practicing being in the moment. He calls it “the most precious experience of my life”. He had his robes, his alms bowl, and his water container. He needed nothing else. He lived in the moment. He was totally supported by Thai people and culture in his development. But sticky rice is not a balanced diet, and nutritional deficiencies soon took their toll. He returned to his monastery, focused on the teachings of the Buddha.

In some ways he was more at home in Thailand than in Australia. As a practicing Buddhist in Australia, he was strange, different. In Thailand, despite being a foreigner, Buddhism was the way of life. He was a monk for two years, leaving after the second rainy season to study and learn more. He went to India, but the political situation made it impossible for him to stay there. He went to Nalanda University and studied for four years. In 1979 he came “home” to Thailand, and worked at the Buddhist University in Bangkok. But Bangkok was changing and growing, and it soon became too congested for his comfort. On a visit to Australia, he took the international examinations and achieved United Nations accreditation in translation and interpretation. Then he visited a friend in Chiang Mai, a respite from Bangkok, and was offered a position by Chiang Mai University teaching language translation courses and developing a master’s level translation curriculum. And this is where he began to notice just how much Thailand was changing, and the special place it held for him.

Originally, he had translated documents related to preserving and promoting Thai culture in the face of growing tourism. Then the documents gradually changed to reflect the promotion of economic exchanges and development. Finally he began to see HIV-related information – statistics, research, education and prevention. That was when he knew that there was a problem in the way international organizations were trying to treat HIV-related issues in Thailand. Without truly understanding the culture, they were taking the western approach of going through the medical establishment to address problems related to the virus. They should be going through the monks and monasteries, he realized, utilizing their role in Thai culture.

Lawrence began to teach as a volunteer at Mahamakut Buddhist University at Wat Chedi Luang, and one day he gave an assignment to his students: using the teachings of the Buddha, describe the role of the monk in the community. The results were astounding. With his help, his students had gone straight to the heart of the problem. They defined that role, and I describe this as a layperson. Monks must remove suffering. They must remove their own suffering first by removing their own lack of knowledge. Then they must remove the suffering of the community by removing its ignorance, and finally they were to provide support in times of suffering. The basic idea of the Sangha Metta Project was born, and Lawrence worked for almost two years refining the proposal. He finally presented it to UNICEF, and it was born as a pilot project.

The Sangha Metta Project is a model of community care. The monks are educated about HIV, and in turn educate the community. They provide information and care from infection to symptomatic HIV to full-blown AIDS and finally death. And because the state of a person’s mind is so important at the moment of death, they do all that they can do to make that death peaceful. Many things have changed along the way. More people in Thailand who are infected now have access to modern health care. Hospitals now work with the project. Outside organizations from all over the world have noticed this UNICEF model of care that was inspired by an insightful man whose class researched how ancient precepts could impact a modern syndrome. The Sangha Metta Project has spread to every Buddhist country in Southeast Asia, and been recognized by organizations all over the world. It has trained over 5,000 people, and developed many additional programs. One focuses on novices as peer educators and youth spiritual leaders.

Laurence Maund has traveled the world, sharing his knowledge and experiences. He met with the Global Health Council and Faith in Action. His model of care now crosses religious barriers and has become interfaith in many parts of the world. He met with the Press Club and testified on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. And now he is phasing himself out. As a good parent, the response to human suffering that he worked so hard to develop is now an adult organization capable of carrying on without him. With joy, he looks forward to returning to what was started 30 years ago. He will return to Bhutan and again enter the monastic life. Well done, Laurie.