A clipping from a Thai newspaper had for weeks been lying on my desk. It was about a Thai monk who had some unusual ideas. For me, the most unusual thing seemed to be that he was from Denmark.
I had tried without much success to find the telephone number to the temple, where he was supposed to live, when I finally one Sunday morning decided to simply drive out to Damnern Saduak in Rachaburi province to try to look him up at the temple mentioned in the article. If he was not there, at least I would get the right number – and then I could see the famous floating market in Damnern Saduak on my way back.
Walking up the stairs to the temple, I spotted him immediately. He was sitting in his bright saffron coloured monk robe in an armchair of solid teak wood in the middle of the spacious room offering guidance to the Thai visitors who came to pay their respects to the Buddha statue next to him.
“You must be Walter from Denmark,” I said and shook his hand.
“Yes,” he said. For a split second I guess we both thought about the cultural faux pas I had committed in shaking hands with a Thai monk. Then I introduced myself and asked if he would mind if I interviewed him.
“Not at all,” he said, seemingly not a bit surprised that I was speaking to him in Danish.
I was prepared to sit on the floor in front of him, but he suggested we moved to one corner of the room where I could sit more comfortably on a chair.
A clue from the Thai article about Phra Baitika Walter being originally a classical pianist gave me a starting point for the interview. My guess was that he had probably been a professor teaching music to high-school students back in Denmark before taking an early retirement.
“Oh, no,” he laughs.
“I haven’t lived in Denmark since I was about 23 years old!”
Over the next few minutes, Phra Baitika Walter turns out to be in fact the internationally successful celebrity Walter Troelsen, who for well over thirty years appeared on stages and in TV shows as a composer, singer, songwriter and pianist in a range of countries around the world.
When he left Denmark almost forty years ago, his first wife had recently died very young. She was the Danish musician Ilse Bronnley, known widely at the time as “The Girl with the Golden Trumpet”. Married to Ilse Bronnley, Walter Troelsen had mainly worked behind the scene as her composer and manager. Leaving Denmark, Walter Troelsen set out to build up his own career as a stage performing artist.
From his background in classical music he developed a distinct style composing more light music, which was more easily appreciated, singing songs for which he had often written the lyrics himself. He was especially successful in the Middle East and for eleven years he lived in Abu Dhabi in Dubai. During this time, he also performed in many other countries and among others recorded an album in Philadelphia in the United States, which remained for a long time on the top chart in several countries in the Middle East.
Taking his music to South East Asia, Walter Troelsen worked in Indonesia for two years. During this time, he had among others his own regular TV show. From there he moved to Singapore, where he worked for another year. Another year he spent in Hong Kong.
“I have studied 43 languages – I lived for instance also for some time in Venice – so it used to be one of the characteristics of my show, that I would speak to the audience in all the languages, which I was aware was present.”
Since his first contact with Thai Buddhism, Walter Troelsen developed an increasing urge to try – even if it was only for a year – to be a monk in Thailand. Finally he insisted that his agent should give him a full sabbatical year without any engagements.
“A Thai monk from Wat Saket, whom I met in a Thai temple in Sweden recommended me to contact Chao Khun Phra Bhavana Visuthikhun, the abbot of Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, who invited me to come to Thailand to ordain.”
“My agent was certainly not too happy about it, so to ensure my return he had lined up a full busy schedule from the day, I stepped out of the Thai monastery,” Phra Baitika Walter recalls with a chuckle.
Walter Troelsen dutifully fulfilled all the contracts, but his heart was simply no longer in it.
“I told myself that “the show must go on”. But my mind was already made up – I was going to return to Thailand to be ordained as a monk.”
To fully enter the Thai Buddhist monk hood – or Sangha – Walter Troelsen first had to be able to speak, read and write Thai fluently, so he first moved to Bangkok to study Thai language at AUA. Here, after only one year, he passed the examination equivalent to six years of primary school in Thailand held every year by the Ministry of Education.
Next he went on a pilgrimage to India to pay his respect to the four most holy places, where The Lord Buddha was born, enlightened, held his first sermon and passed away. From here, he continued around the world to say goodbye to friends and tie up all loose ends in his previous life. Among others he had to part with his second wife, a British woman whom he had married ten years earlier.
Finally he held a last Farewell Concert in Lanzarote, on the Grand Canary Island, where an impressive number of devoted fans joined him from a range of countries. Then he returned to Wat Luang Phor Sodh where he ordained as a monk on May 30, 2541 with the full name Phra Baitika Walter Uttamapanyo.
Studying hard to advance in the ranks of Thai Buddhist Sangha, he passed three years ago the final Nak Tham 2 exam. Currently, he is pursuing more advanced studies in Pali, the ancient language in which the teachings The Lord Buddha were written down. If in another three years he will pass this advanced examination, Phra Baitika Walter will possibly be the first foreigner to obtain the high rank of Phra Maha in the Thai Buddhist order.
At Wat Luang Phor Sodh, Phra Baitika Walter is today the assistant to the abbot of Wat Luang Phor Sodh which is revered in Thailand as the most important place, where the original teachings of abbot Luang Phor Sodh of Wat Pak Nam, who re-discovered and developed the meditation technique known as Vijja Dhammakaya, is followed.
“The essence of the Vijja Dhammakay technic is that you have to envision a crystal or a bright sphere in the centre of your body which is in the middle of your stomach two fingers above your navel. This is where you concentrate on moving your mind inside of this crystal and stand still within the crystal,” Phra Baitika Walter explains.
“Even if you at first only manage to do this for a few seconds, the intensity of the feeling of happiness is quite overwhelming.”
From talking about his past, our conversation jumps into a completely mind absorbing conversation about meditation and Buddhism and for one and a half hour of the interview, I frankly forgot to take any notes. And should you really want to know, what we talked about, then you are much better served by going to the source yourself – or second best to the website of the temple, www.concentration.org – and not take my incomplete understanding of his teaching.
Waking up to my duties, I asked Phra Baitika Walter if he participates in all general activities of the monks in the temple.
“Yes. In the morning, I walk around in the villages near the temple as we all do to offer the local people the opportunity to give us food and thereby do merit and if we are asked to go to bless a wedding in a home or the opening of a company, I participate as well,” he says.
Phra Baitika Walter often explains to the people on these occasions and when people come to see him at the temple, how privileged they should perceive themselves.
“In the first place, to be born a human is the greatest privilege. Most people will not be reborn a human being. I would estimate that of all the people living in our modern world today, at most only about five percent will be a human being in their next life. To be one in this life is a huge chance wasted if you do not advance in insight and wisdom.”
“Secondly, I point out to them how fortunate they are to be born in Thailand in close contact with Buddhism. “Look at me,” I tell them, using myself as an example. “I had to take a detour of forty years! You are born with the opportunity to take this chance from childhood!”.
Trying to contribute to the Thai society, Wat Por Luang Sod also offers an extensive teaching program in meditation technique. Twice a year retreats from May 1-14 and December 1-14 are organized. During the May retreat, 300-400 monks and novices and approximately the same number of lay people and nuns attend the course. During the December retreat there are usually 400-600 monks and novices and a similar number of laity and nuns present. Teams of officers from the Royal Thai Armed Forces and the Royal Thai Police are frequent participants in these retreats.
But also school children and students at higher level attend courses at the temple.
“Working with young people is so rewarding,” Phra Baitika Walter says.
“They have in general fewer hindrances to overcome, their minds are still pure and unattached to external objects and they often make progress very fast.”
About what the future activities, he would like to undertake, Phra Baitika Walter says building on his present and past strength comes natural. Recently, he has for instance become the webmaster of the website of the temple, which is in Thai as well as in English.
“I hope to be able to contribute by teaching foreigners – possibly in English as my Danish has becoming somewhat rusty over the years. There is certainly a great need for this.”