A few years ago, my brother packed his bags and set off on what he thought would be a working trip around parts of Europe. Little did he know, but this solo journey would take him from living and working in a stranger’s home in Spain to becoming a Buddhist and Shaolin Disciple at the Shaolin Temple in Germany.
Anyone who knew my brother before his time spent travelling would never have expected this turn of events and the incredible impact it would have on his lifestyle, mental health and approach to life itself.
I spoke to my brother, Scott, about how and why travelling led him to the temple, and I want to share his inspiring story with you about how anyone facing their own personal struggles can make both big and small changes to how they live and think, that can alter their entire life.
Tell us a bit about who you are
I am 24 years young and my name is Scott Durham (and Hannah’s brother!).
Born in South Wales, I spent my entire childhood in my hometown until leaving to study Countryside Management and Conservation at Aberystwyth University.
I somehow met my partner throwing some unmistakebaly bad shapes on the dance floor of a music venue and it was love at first sight. She must have forgotten her glasses.
After a short break in my relationship and a period of travel, I moved to England to live with my girlfriend after we reconnected. Now, I support adults with learning difficulties in my role as a Senior Support Worker for a charity called Turning Point. I feel very fortunate to really enjoy my job.
What made you want to travel?
I have always had this wanderlust that so many people experience and a massive interest in exploring different cultures and places in the world since I travelled on my first holidays with the family.
However, the real inspiration that sparked the fuse and fuelled my travel was my ever growing desire to abandon society and flee to the wild. I have always loved camping and escaping to the quiet of an abandoned field, distant beach or sand dune. Building the campsite, a small group of friends and making a fire was all I needed.
Another key inspiration for travel came from my taste in literature and music, which has been greatly influenced by my family. My sister, Hannah, and my dad, recommended two books to me: Into The Wild by John Krakauer and On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I could not recommend these books more for anyone who is interested in travelling off the beaten track. I still hold these books dear to me for setting in motion one of the most beautiful and wholesome experiences of my life.
My time travelling started after a rather dramatic and upsetting final year at university. My mental health, relationship, studies, and attitude toward society and humanity as a whole was considerably bleak. I didn’t care for anyone or anything, especially not myself. I sold virtually every possession I had, including my motorbike, and headed out alone to find the time and space I really needed.
Where did your journey start?
The inital plan all stemmed from my first experience of travelling when I was 17, which was basically a ‘working holiday’ or ‘work away’.
I came across a website called HelpX which, for just £20 for a two year subscription, let you view ‘hosts’ that had potential jobs for those who wanted to travel, share cultures and meet new people.
I have always loved Spain and its great weather so it was a no-brainer for me. Luckily, one of the first people I contacted was a perfect match. After a few messages with Simone, I was set to travel to Andalucia, Southern Spain to help out with house tasks in exchange for 3 meals a day and a bed.
I didn’t have the money for a holiday, and I didn’t want to go to a resort to sun bathe for a week. Instead, I spent 10 days helping Simone in her house with all sorts of jobs. We shared stories and experiences and made a great friendship that has continued for years.
The second time around, my travels started less than a month after returning home from university. After selling all my possessions, I decided to start my trip in Spain again as I already had some experience there. After a few messages, I arranged to Aitox and Olliw at the train station in Ronda, Andalucia. I used the HelpX website and SofaSurfing app to put a roof over my head and find work.
After spending one night in the Oasis Backpackers hostel in Malaga, I took a 2.5 hour train to Ronda, a beautiful city in southern Spain famous for its grand bridge and views. From Ronda, we continued the journey to Gaucin in Benerabba. Aitox and his partner Anna let me stay and work on their permaculture project.
The project was to build, essentially from scratch, a permaculture house and garden that operated solely on environmentally friendly materials and energy sources. On top of this, we built and molded a natural swimming pool into the rock, an underground aircon system, a compost toilet, and more.
The site was situated on the steep side of the Benerabban valley and caught the blistering sun for 90% of the day. After 4-5 hours a day of digging, building, remolding, and learning all these great skills, we’d take a short drive to the bottom of the valley to a place called La Escribana. I met a small commune of like-minded environmentalists who were dedicated to building a sustainable future.
After a hard day’s work, everyone would meet at the river’s edge. You could swim, dive into the crystal clear river, play the instruments passed around and enjoy great dinners held on shared tables. The sense of community and positivity was almost intoxicating, I couldn’t believe that such a place existed and that I had found myself right in the middle of it.
The remainder of my time in Spain was spent hitchhiking across the Sierra Nevada mountain range following a dreadful experience at a yoga retreat. Long story short: there was a lot of falseness, fake personalities, too much money being thrown around and horrible negativity for somewhere that was supposedly promoting ‘Peace and Tranquility’.
I abandoned the yoga retreat and spent a couple of weeks living in the anarchistic, anti-societal commune that was Beneificio. I lost myself in the magic of this community that had abandoned society – and this is where my journey took a downward spiral. I abused the freedom, cheap alcohol and drugs, and lost all sense of time. In truth, I do not know the dates or the actual amount of time I spent there.
I realised after a scary encounter in which I was threatened by a stranger that I needed to leave. I packed up my bags and hitchhiked from the mountains to the nearby town of Nerja, where I had planned to meet up with others that I had met in the valley. Unfortunately, they were nowhere to be seen and I was lost: I had no direction in my life, nowhere to stay and no money.
I found a quiet beach, slept under the stars and seriously re-evaluated what I wanted to achieve from my travels. It was time to leave. I hitched a lift back to Malaga, caught a connecting flight to Germany, and I left as soon as I could.
How did you find yourself at the temple?
After a period of sobering up both mentally and physically, I decided to follow the real purpose of my trip: finding a peaceful retreat in myself to think, evaluate my life and discover who I wanted to be.
I have always been spiritually inclined and had an interest in meditation, the energy of the world, the power of nature and connecting better with ourselves. I suffered quite badly with social anxiety through university but had been fairly confident (if sometimes overly confident) until that point so it really threw my mental compass out of whack.
After leaving Spain, I wanted to find somewhere that I could explore my thoughts whilst still embracing travel. Using HelpX, I learned that the monastery in Germany was looking for helpers. I had initially planned to head east through Europe so this was in the right direction for me.
There was a rigorous process of application and conversations with the abbot of the monastery. I cannot put enough emphasis on how rigorously the monastery considered its applicants.
The temple is a real, authentic Shaolin Temple directly associated with the founding sister temple in the Song Shan mountain range in China. Within Shaolin reputation, it has garnered great respect and authority. There are worldwide recognised masters that have undergone the most intense training regime you could possibly imagine – and to these masters I give my absolute respect and admiration.
What did you do during your time there?
I started as volunteer and I ‘worked’ whilst training for 3 months. It was made clear that there is no such thing as ‘work’ in the temple, but simply tasks that are required to ensure the temple runs well.
The tasks I did included everything from cleaning the grounds, seeing to the animals (dogs, cats, horses, turtles, etc.), cooking for the residents and guests, cleaning the temple, and anything else necessary to maintain the temple.
Inbetween the ‘working’ periods, I was training Kung Fu, Qi Gong, studying the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching), mediating, and learning a wealth of knowledge and experience from the masters.
How did you become a Buddhist and Shaolin Disciple?
After 3 months of working my skin to the bone, I decided that I was completely overwhelmed by how much I had learnt in such a small period, and how much my outlook on life had already improved.
I asked to become a disciple, and after a few weeks the abbot and masters agreed to allow me to become a disciple of the temple. After undergoing the ceremony of the Three Jewels, I was officially a recognised Buddhist in the eyes of the Buddhist community and given my Buddhist passport allowing me to begin studying sacred, original texts that have been handed down since the Buddha began his teaching.
The exact same routine was in place: work, train, work, train, and so on. The only difference was the now important role of being a face and member of the community of the temple, which meant punishment for disrespecting or not following the rules was immediate.
The regiment was torturous and the most difficult thing I have done in my life to this day, but the wealth of discipline, knowledge and peace that I have found in myself is impossible to quantify. My physical and mental fitness was at its absolute peak. I felt compassion for everything around me.
Shortly after, I was ordained as a 36th generational Shaolin disciple of master Shi Heng Zhong, in direct lineage of the Buddha himself. I was given the Dharma name of Miao He which translates in Chinese as ‘wonderful peace and harmony’.
How has travelling, and the experiences you had, changed you?
The experience of travel itself I could write about for hours. It contained everything that most people would expect: friendship, fights, laughter, tears, getting lost, violent sickness, heartbreak, reuniting with people, and so on. I hold no one experience above the rest as they were all necessary to come to where I am now.
However, one of the most important things about my time away was the people I met and the memories we shared. I have laughed so hard I cried, and was able to help when a good friend was in a tough situation. We built his new house so he had somewhere to stay when he needed it most. I will also feel forever blessed to have met my spiritual brothers at the temple who I experienced and learnt so much from.
You cannot beat the relationships you make and the bonds created when you connect with another person so far from home. There is something really beautiful about two different cultures coming together – and realising we are all the same.
Although there were difficult times, I don’t dwell on them other than to reflect and learn. I took the chance, when I escaped my responsibilities and travelled, to finally unleash what felt like all the pent up anger and resentment at everything that had happened over the previous year and there was nothing pretty about it.
I lost control at one point. I was lingering in limbo: no sense of direction, no purpose, and abusing things to help me forget. I didn’t think it would happen, but when I was hitchhiking through the Sierra Nevada mountain range after the second week, I carried around a feeling of being homesick like a ten tonne weight. I was ready to throw in the towel and book the first flight home, but I felt like I would have let myself, and my family, down if I had given up on my travels and returned home for a little bit of homesickness and succumbing to a period of depression, so I continued. I’m so glad I did.
My time in the temple has altered the way I live my life, my outlook, my mental health, and my relationship with the world and everyone within it. I am now, and continue to be, a polar opposite of the narcissistic, anti-social and reckless mess of emotions that I was when I left university.
What learnings would you like to share from your experience of Buddhism?
I feel like I haven’t shared nearly half as many quotes or stories that I would have liked to yet, so here are a few things that I hold dear and would love to share with you.
For an ever increasing population that is now aware of the sheer volume of people struggling with mental health, I was in the same boat. After thinking that I was doomed to sink in the same ship forever, I found the answer was in myself the whole time.
You don’t need a temple or to become a Buddhist to help yourself. You simply need to learn to understand yourself in a world where we are told who we should be rather than embracing what we are. There is nothing wrong with you. You are not broken or damaged – you are beautiful. By focusing on helping others you will find that you have helped yourself in the best way possible.
Secondly, change is the only thing in the world that doesn’t change. The more we fight it, the more we back ourselves into a corner. I remember this great quote that I repeated whilst teaching a meditation class one day. I told the guests, in my broken german: ‘To try hard you will fail, simply stop trying and you will find peace’.
Impermanence is the key thing to remember. Nothing lasts forever and the sooner we stop battling with ourselves, the sooner we will find harmony.
I read so much zen poetry and haikus when I was at the temple, and some of them had me thinking for days, so it would only be fair that I share some with you.
Here’s a zen poem I wrote and I hope you enjoy;
‘Sat atop the mountain
There is clarity in the void
I float down the spring on a breath
and climb back up again’
What advice would you give people who are interested in Buddhism or want to make changes in their life?
As I mentioned previously, change is necessary to develop. It can be in any way, shape or form.
If you are interested or want to know more then simply dive into the world of Buddhism! There are books by fantastic authors and monks such as Ajahn Brahm, Thich Nhat Hahn or Lao Tzu.
At first it may seem complicated, so if you’re starting with little to no knowledge of Buddhism just simply google ‘what is Buddhism?’. There are fantastic videos on YouTube that start from a basic understanding of the history and who the Buddha was. You may find that a little research could stem into a whole new world of understanding, or you might simply not.
The Buddha himself said a great quote along the lines of ‘Do not simply listen to me because I am the Buddha’. If Buddhism is not your cup of tea then that is no worries. You do not have to be a Buddhist to become enlightened – it is simply a term that we use to represent a state of being.
Lastly, for those who would like to know more about my experience, want some advice or have any questions, then please do not hesitate to send Hannah a message and she will pass them directly onto me. I would love to help those on their path in any possible way I can.
Thank you. Amitofu.