Phanganers Love Eastern Religion But… What Do Buddhists Really Believe: Author Brian Gruber’s Interview with Phra Olarn

7 Jul 2022
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Phangan resident Brian Gruber published an oral history of the island earlier this year titled “Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island.” Phanganist is publishing an exclusive series of interview excerpts. This week, we feature a conversation with Buddhist monk and Loyfa resort owner Phra Olarn. 
 
The ebook is available for 150 baht ($4.95) at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. An expanded version with chapters on each island village and favorite local spots will be released later this year.

From Full Moon over Koh Phangan:

Buddhist monks are visible during their sunrise walks through the island’s villages or during temple festivals and events. But most westerners on the island know of only one, Phra Olarn Pengsakul, who achieved the rare trifecta of business success in the West, business success with his Loyfa Natural Resort in Srithanu, and the development of an accessible and popular island meditation program (Inner Walk). He is likely also the only Thai monk who ran away from home as a teenager to tend bar and meet women in Haad Rin.


Brian Gruber  
How does Buddhism bring beauty to your life? 

Phra Olarn  
When we think about existence, we always think about me, in the center. The Buddha teaching is about how to share, how to live life in peace. The Buddha brings awareness of how to live right, in the present moment, how do you live your life and go on your path. The way that people are living today, we are only in illusion, in dream, and we want something in this dream. We are craving, we are attached to everything what happens in the life, and the Buddha shows us the thing that is true, to live free. To be living, but free from everything. And then you get peace, peace and harmony. This is a discipline growing in the human being. The normal animals never stop wanting. So, (Buddhism is) about self and to be free from self, to be living, but not only for you, living for everybody. I have very bad experience in my life before I studied. I was a Buddhist when I was born, but I not understand. 

 

Brian Gruber  
Where were you born?

 

Phra Olarn  
I was born on Koh Phangan. I became a monk when I was 20 years. But I never understand this religion before. I then traveled to Europe, I had a family, and I stayed in Bern, Switzerland thirteen years. As I stayed there, I started to realize that I don't have any tools to live a good quality of life. I searched for people who would teach me about this, how to live your life in a higher quality discipline, not only work, get money, sleep, and wait to die.

 

Brian Gruber  
You were a monk at 20, that’s a fairly typical thing in a Buddhist family in Southeast Asia, to live as a monk for a while. 

 

Phra Olarn  
Three months, four months. Oh, this is about culture. We're not getting into religions. We're not getting understand about any teaching. After thirteen years, by myself, in Switzerland, I start to understand about life, I start to realize about suffering, I start to grow my life to be more generous.

 

Brian Gruber  
Was there a moment, perhaps in Switzerland or when you were building Loyfa, when you had some epiphany or revelation, a moment where you felt this must change, I will go on a new path in my life?

 

Phra Olarn  
In Europe, everybody needs therapy, everybody needs help. So, everybody struggles the same. We are human, we learn some things, we get some information, (but) we do not see the way. So, the way is blocked, we make a wall, we make a cover, we become strong to protect ourselves. But we are also in prison. After I realized this in Switzerland, I awakened myself and I start to study about Buddhism. I understood very little about the Buddha’s teaching. But I grew my understanding. I did not listen or read a lot about Buddhism. But after I started to understand what he talked about, he doesn’t teach what to believe. He teaches that you go on your journey, you go on your path. An interesting master or father shows you the way, then he lets you experience.

 

Brian Gruber  
Is it ironic for you that you went to Switzerland for these revelations. and many Europeans come from the west to Koh Phangan to seek Eastern philosophy, to seek truth or freedom?

 

Phra Olarn  
This is very interesting, because now is the point of the new state facing humanity. Before people searched for beauty to make a holiday, everybody come for the party, for the beach. But today people come to Koh Phangan for the spiritual. People want to be awake, more and more. So, Koh Phangan has many tools, many possibilities to learn. We provide the information, the truth so that they go on their journey. To experience themselves. To be here is a wonderful thing, for a healing human being.

 

Brian Gruber  
Is there something for you that is unique or magical or special about this island?

 

Phra Olarn  
Koh Phangan has many different shapes. Now we make quite different pockets, different areas, they have a party, they really enjoy the beach, have a lot of fun, have seafood. And the place for healing.

Koh Phangan has a lot of beautiful energy, especially where we are right now. You can feel the difference when we go to Koh Samui. Even though they more nature, they're not feeling the energy like here. This is from the strong culture of the people here, the Buddhism and Buddhists bring a lot of harmony in this island. Still the energy from the island itself is very powerful for me, to see the parts from the West with this side of the island is beautiful energy. 

 

Brian Gruber  
I'm going to press you on that a little. You say you can feel this? There are some people who say it's built on crystal, rose quartz or amethyst. Some people say there are vortexes around the world – special spiritual energy centers or ley lines or meridians. Do you believe any of that? And do you believe there is some identifiable description as to why this place has that energy which you and many others feel? 

 

Phra Olarn  
Where the person will live will bring the energy to them long-term. This is not only about one point on the island, but the culture is very deep. We have nine temples in this one island. How come we have nine temples? Everywhere, there is a temple; this is to show up how the Buddhists have strong, deep ground inside of this island. The compassion, the energy that the people gave to this island for a long, long time. When you come to the temple, you can feel beautiful energy you can touch, because the people who come inside are beautiful.

 

Brian Gruber  
Why do you believe Thai kings chose Koh Phangan as a place to visit?

 

Phra Olarn  
Koh Phangan is like a magnet. Cannot compare. Koh Phangan is not big, not small. And this harmony inside is what bring people remember about the island. Many who they passed one time never can forget about this. 

And this is an amazing thing. Many places we go on holiday, we can really, okay, leave it behind. But Koh Phangan stays.

 

Brian Gruber  
Did Rama V build the first temple here?

 

Phra Olarn  
No, no. Before that. This temple already nearly 350 years. Very long time already. So, we have a long culture. 

 

Brian Gruber  
When you were a baby, how many people lived on Koh Phangan? 

 

Phra Olarn  
About two and a half thousand.

 

Brian Gruber  
Do you recall, did the Thai people welcome western visitors?

 

Phra Olarn  
For sure. The Thai people are every time welcoming. Before, when somebody come visit, we are angry when they do not eat with us. When they come visit, we offer them the food. They do not sit and stay to have the lunch or the dinner, we not happy about the visit. This is showing our culture. This is a charm of this island, is a beauty of this island. 

 

Brian Gruber  
What did you do, if I may ask, in Switzerland?

 

Phra Olarn  
I'm a chef at the beginning. And later on, I am the restaurant manager. Loyfa was not about the business of gastronomy, but building a place to stay. I have three steps to do. First, build a place to stay. Second, the food. Organic. So, the third, the healing, about the body and mind. What I am doing now is about this third step. 

Brian Gruber  
Buddhism talks about right action and right work. Your lifestyle now is very different than what you did in Switzerland. But what was similar? Was there something about the way you tried to approach right work and right action in Switzerland, at Loyfa, and at this temple that is similar for you? 

 

Phra Olarn  
Working happy. You enjoy your work, you leave, you let it go. You're not craving, not wanting. It gives more harmony and more freedom to what you're doing. You can do everything and you come back to the center, you do action, but you stay in the center. This is the point of the Buddha, of Buddhist thought. Sometimes you have to deal with a difficult situation. So, it will be very easy, because you are clear, you are clean, you are complete, your energy is never low. 

 

Brian Gruber  
Have you visited some of the communities here on Koh Phangan, The Sanctuary, Samma Karuna, Orion? 

 

Phra Olarn  
I've been to Samma Karuna. I know Orion a bit. Everybody has different styles of teaching. I don't want to compare. People have to understand what they really need, really want. 

 

Brian Gruber  
Some of the communities here were influenced by Osho. 

 

Phra Olarn  
I have many friends that are Osho teachers. It's a funny thing because I'm so open. And sometimes I'm ambivalent about religion. I'm Buddhist, but I'm not religious. I open my mind and open to views to share. All the techniques differ but we have one goal.

 

Brian Gruber  
What’s that goal?

 

Phra Olarn  
We are just human, we are born with no beliefs, and now we learn to be free from believing. You are ready for everything, you are developing all the time.

 

Brian Gruber  
Tell me about this temple. What do you do here? Why do people come here to visit?

 

Phra Olarn  
People come here and to the island to be awake. To be centered, to find the right harmony, to be compassionate, to feel their self. So, I cannot teach the people but I give the way to the people that to learn. They take a few days, they're going to understand this path. They forgive themselves, they also let the past go. And then they are ready for every move. 

“Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island” is available for 150 baht ($4.95) at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. Watch the Phanganist for new interviews in the coming weeks.