Richard Harrison left behind a life of crime to become Bhante, the devout Buddhist.
The late Bhante, AKA Richard Harrison.
"I nearly died before I became a monk," 61-year-old Bhante told me. "Too much heroin."
Something killed Bhante, but in the end it probably wasn't smack. He was found dead in a Cambodian pagoda earlier this year, and the immediate cause remains mysterious. But his efforts to lead a monastic existence in Southeast Asia – a decision that once rescued him from a life of crime – appear to be at least partially to blame for his death.
For the last 14 years he lived in Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia as a Buddhist monk, under the name Bhante Pannavudho. But he soon learned that being one of the few white bhikkhu [an ordained Buddhist monk] living in an entirely foreign culture was no easy path to serenity. Despite being there to conduct charitable work among orphans and the poor, country after country in Asia tried to kick him out, driving him to despair and the brink of suicide.
I met him at the same pagoda where he would die a few months later. He wore the traditional saffron robes of a monk, but his missing front tooth and bruise-coloured prison-style tattoos – a skull and crossbones, a dagger, a fading swallow, a crudely lettered “Do or Die” – hinted at the life he led before he discovered Buddhism. So did the cigarette clamped between his lips – a pleasure a devout Buddhist monk is normally expected to forego.
"I gave up up heroin, I gave up women, I gave up alcohol, I gave up fighting,” he explained. “But I can't give up smoking.”
Bhante had walked away from the life he was born into, the life of an outsider on society’s fringe. Now, in Cambodia, he was a different sort of outsider – more than he’d ever been as a drug addict and small-time criminal.
He was born outside of London as Richard Harrison. From early on his life was defined by addiction, drug trafficking, jail time and even a stint as a sergeant at arms of the Hells Angels.
"I have taken every drug you can think of in excess," he told me with the kind of pride only bearable from those who have given it all up. "I've done heroin and I've done cocaine and I've done amphetamines and I've done barbiturates and I've done cannabis, of course – tonnes of it. I think I've tried them all. They very nearly killed me a few times."
In his early thirties he made a career of trafficking drugs between Gibraltar and Spain. One day, his La Linea flat was raided by the police. While throwing his main stash of hashish out the window with one hand, he waved a set of nunchucks with the other, screaming at his Spanish neighbour, who he assumed had ratted him out: "Hey, you, el muerte! I'm gonna kill you!" The police were clearly not amused by his antics, and when they found a small amount of hash in the flat that he’d overlooked, they threw him into a police car.
"I’d had the sense to throw out the 40 grams I'd got, but when they put me in the car I realised I'd got another 20 grams of hash in my pocket. Oops," he recalled with a grin. "So I ate it in the police car. Twenty grams of really good hash. I couldn't swallow it all, but by the time I got to the police station I was just... bye bye. I was completely caned."
So caned that he barely noticed that the police detained him for 72 hours. Just as he sobered up, he was released, thanks to a paperwork error. When he returned to his flat, all his possessions were gone. But the story has a (vaguely) happy ending: in an alley outside the window, wrapped in a bit of tissue, he found his 40 grams of hash.
In the late 80s or early 90s – Bhante wasn’t sure; he measured time by how many passports ago it was – he went to Thailand to help a friend who owned a guesthouse in Chiang Mai that was run by the friend's girlfriend, a former prostitute.
"I went out there and there was a heroin addict who was helping himself to whatever he wanted in the guesthouse," he said. "So I took him up on the roof of the guesthouse and we had a little discussion. I got a big bottle of Valium from the pharmacy. I got a big bottle of whiskey. And I sat him down and got him very, very smashed out of his head for about three days, four days, and got him off the heroin. And then I kicked him out."
A short while later Bhante encountered the man again. “He came and he put his arms around me,” Bhante recalled. “I'd got him off the heroin."
While this wasn't the end to Bhante's drug taking and criminal activities, it was an emotional turning point of sorts, for it was the first time in years that he had voluntarily done something to help another person, and his first taste of the psychic rewards of compassion.
Bhante's temple in Cambodia.
Many tourists visit temples when they are in Southeast Asia, and so did Richard Harrison. Unlike most, he ended up staying for three months, with no companions except for two elderly Thai monks. Although he and the monks had no common language, he believed that his time with them put him on a new, more spiritual path. It wasn't a path he easily took to, however. For the next ten years he bummed around Europe taking drugs. But he kept thinking about his stay at the temple. At last, he decided to come back to Asia and surrender to Buddhism.
"I was naughty. I was very, very naughty,” he said about his life prior to that point. “There was whole days, there was whole weeks, that I can't remember. I don't want to sensationalise that sort of stuff. I was a bad boy. I was an evil bastard. Let's put it like that. I don't mind admitting it. There was nothing that could change me. I'd done drug rehabilitation centres – three times? Nothing would change me. Nothing could get me out of what I was like.”
I met Bhante soon after he arrived in Cambodia after being forced to leave Malaysia. One of his worried friends in Penang had reached out to ex-pats in Cambodia, looking for someone who might be willing to talk to him and listen to his troubles. Lured by the prospect of interesting conversation, I went to the temple to meet him.
When I saw Bhante puffing on a cheap Cambodian cigarette and tapping away on his ancient laptop, I mentally rolled my eyes. My limited knowledge of Buddhism didn't include tattooed ex-con monks, and I assumed he was little more than a grifter in an orange robe. Surely the stories of his good works were exaggerated, if not totally made up? It was only after he died that I learned they were true.
He'd been living in Malaysia on a tourist visa for six or seven years – three of them in solitude in a cave, he said. Every three months he'd go to Thailand and come back to Malaysia to renew his visa. Malaysia, a Muslim country, has strict rules against foreign non-Islamic religious teachers, but the authorities tolerated Bhante's presence for many years – probably because he wasn't proselytising.
Instead, he collected food and distributed it to needy people of all backgrounds, be they Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Buddhist. His Malaysian friends have many stories to tell of his selfless charitable work. They say he was a fixture at the Lip Sin wet market and Supertanker food court in Penang, where he could be found barefoot and collecting alms every Sunday morning, starting before the sun came up. He refused to accept cash, only taking donations of foodstuffs, which he then distributed to a wide network that included the Shan Children's Home, various charitable organisations and more than half a dozen needy families.
"For years I spent my life hurting people. And now, without thinking about it, I was helping people," Bhante told me. "And I realised what was happening: it was the way that the karma was coming back. It wasn't coming back directly like you would expect, it was coming from behind and giving me a kick up the pants."
But as time went on, the Malaysian government became less friendly. Bhante had stayed far longer in Malaysia than non-Muslim religious teachers were generally allowed. Then he learned from Thai authorities that Interpol was requesting information on him. The visas he was given got shorter and shorter – instead of three months, only two months, and then only one. Finally, when he made a visa run to Thailand in the last days of 2011, he was denied entry and told he must leave Malaysia within 24 hours. And so he came to Cambodia, the country with the laxest visa rules in Asia.
Bhante must initially have felt that he’d found safe harbour, for – in addition to its casual attitude about immigration – Cambodia is a Buddhist country. He moved into the temple at Preah Vihear, near the Thai border, but he soon grew frustrated by Cambodians’ equally casual attitude about Buddhism.
"They say they're Buddhist, but they are only Buddhist by name," he told me, his frustration evident. He felt that most Cambodians don't understand the basic precepts of the religion, which prohibit lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, intoxicants and the taking of a life, a tenet that’s interpreted to require vegetarianism among monks in some sects of Buddhism. The monks weren’t even following the rules specifically set out for them, including the prohibition on handling money; many were collecting donations of cash rather than food. I said I wasn't surprised, considering the local preoccupation with money, which can be seen in all facets of Cambodian life, often to detrimental effect.
"That's the way it works here,” he said. “There is no help for these people at all." He was appalled that in a supposedly Buddhist country poor children regularly die for lack of money to pay the doctor, while the Khmer riche whizz through the streets in shiny Lexuses and Land Rovers. Whenever he was able to get some money together (he collected for specific causes with the help of assistants who handled the cash for him), he would spend it trying to help Cambodian children – something he believes that all Buddhists should be doing.
"I told them, 'You people are on the point of losing Buddhism because you're not teaching it,'" he explained with conviction. "If you lose Buddhism then you're losing your heart. It's the heart of Cambodia. Without Buddhism, there is no Cambodia."
But that sort of talk didn't win him a lot of friends in the Kingdom of Wonder. At Preah Vihear, the other monks saw him not as a fellow monk, he complained, but merely a barang, a foreigner. They would not give him the respect traditionally afforded to a monk of many years, such as allowing him to sit in a position of honour in the pagoda – a situation that Bhante found intolerable.
Bhante in turn made an insubordinate comment to one of the head monks, pointing out his superior’s lack of knowledge about Buddhism in front of some of the junior monks. This was a huge loss of face for the head monk. In Cambodian society, face is the idea of honour, reputation and dignity rolled into one, and public slights are taken much more seriously than they might be elsewhere.
So the head monk wasn't willing to just let it go. He reported to the Cambodian immigration authorities that Bhante had overstayed his month-long tourist visa by a year. Cambodia is not usually known for actively pursuing over-stayers (or most other kinds of lawbreakers), but in this case – presumably at the urging of Bhante's fellow monk – they told Bhante that, if he wanted to stay in Cambodia, he would have to pay a $1,600 fine for overstaying his tourist visa and doggedly pursued him even after he left Preah Vihear for Wat Damnak.
The prospect of being thrown out of Cambodia worried Bhante; he had nowhere else to go. "A monk shouldn't need a visa,” he said to me despondently. “There is no 'I', so who do they even issue a visa to?"
Despite the fact that other foreign monks living in Southeast Asia are often treated like demigods, it seemed no Buddhist country was willing to accept a white monk like Bhante. Living under a vow of poverty, he did not have the money for a long-stay visa to Cambodia in the first place, and certainly not the $1,600 for the overstaying fine. His indulgent life had affected his health, too – a previous gallbladder surgery, an irritated colon and a "very messed-up stomach" that made it painful to eat, combined with a healthy distrust of the Cambodian medical system, left him surviving on little more than Coca-Cola and cigarettes.
One of the greatest benefits of religious belief is the sense of community it can bring, but when I met Bhante he clearly felt more excluded and discriminated against than he ever had during his previous life as a thug. He was living in a temple where he didn't speak the language, where few people spoke even rudimentary English and where no one seemed to take Buddhism seriously. He longed for the sense of purpose he’d felt in Malaysia, with his food collections and peers who believed in their work together helping others. Even his life alone in a cave was better than this, he said. But after being summarily ejected from Malaysia and coming to Cambodia, a country that seemed intent on getting rid of him as well, he began making comments about his rotten health and how death might be the easiest solution to his visa problems.
Not long after I interviewed Bhante, he sent me an alarming email that hinted at suicide. The subject line was "done al i can", [sic] and the email read in its entirety: "Guess it's an OD or a charcoal fire, not many other choices left." The next morning he was found dead in the toilet at Wat Damnak.
The monks at the pagoda believe Bhante died of natural causes and no further investigation was carried out – autopsies aren't commonly done in Cambodia. Bhante's body was buried at the temple, as befits a monk.
Before Bhante died he told me the story of Angulimala, a ruthless killer who wore a garland around his neck made of his victims’ severed thumbs. He had murdered 999 people when he met the Buddha and had an awakening that caused him to give up killing and become a monk. Eventually, Bhante told me, Angulimala reached parinibbana – the highest level of attainment – despite his previous life. To Buddhists, Angulimala's story represents the potential for redemption and spiritual progress, regardless of what one has done in the past.
"So there's hope for somebody like me,” Bhante said. “All the bad things that I've done, and all the good things that I've done... I don't know, I think the good things outweigh the bad.”
Read more of Lina's writing on her website.
More stories from Cambodia: