September 27, 2023

APUS Alumni Stories: Guiding Others toward Happiness

Author: Melanie Conner
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Start an arts and humanities degree program at American Military University.

By Melanie Conner, ​APUS​ ​Alumni Affairs Liaison and Ricardo Ortega, AMU Graduate

Lion’s Roar Magazine, the foremost Buddhist magazine in North America, ​recently interviewed Ricardo Ortega​, who now goes by his monk name, Sanathavihari Bhikkhu​. He is an AMU graduate who completed a bachelor of arts degree in religion in 2017.

Since his graduation from AMU, Sanathavihari has started a ​Spanish-language Buddhist meditation community​, Casa de Bhavana. This group meets once a week to meditate via video conference and once a month, he holds an online course on early Buddhist teachings.

Ricardo Ortega alumni rally
Sanathavihari Bhikkhu at the 2018 Alumni Rally during Commencement weekend.

Sanathavihari has participated in the Los Angeles City Mayor’s National Prayer Day event for the past two years. In addition, he has taken an interest in his local neighborhood by attending the North Hollywood (NOHO) Neighborhood Council and raising concerns to the council about issues that affect both the local Buddhist community and the local Latino community.

We connected with Sanathavihari Bhikkhu to learn more about his career as a Theravada Buddhist Monk and what interested him in this field.

What inspired you to pursue a career as a monk?

I was looking for a way to combine both my love for meditation and my instinct to help others be happy. As a monk, I can practice and instruct others in meditation, which increases my own happiness and I also assist others in cultivating their own happiness. It is a perfect way to serve the people of my community and myself at the same time.

How did you prepare to enter this field?

I did extensive research on Buddhism and the Theravada tradition in particular. Interestingly enough, I found that my nine years of service in the U.S. Air Force Reserve had already provided me with the dedication, discipline, and self-motivation that I needed to go into this field of monasticism.

Additionally, the core courses from my bachelor of arts in religion gave me a broader understanding of how religion works. They also showed the influences that religion has on other fields and institutions, such as economics, politics, and art.

How has the knowledge you acquired for your bachelor’s degree assisted you in the field?

Upon completion of my degree, I gained a broader understanding of the variety of dimensions that religion branches into. I was able to find multiple intersections between Buddhism and Christianity, which is extremely important since I live in a predominantly Christian community.

Moreover, I obtained the tools to efficiently communicate with people of various faiths and with people of no faith due to the classes I completed. Examples of those classes were Black Religion in America and Religions of the Middle East.

What are the biggest challenges that you face in your role?

The biggest challenge that I face in my role as a monastic is to remain a neutral party in peoples’ affairs including their domestic, political, and communal affairs.

For example, I have to be careful not to interject my opinion on political issues, not to take sides in domestic disputes and to remain non-judgmental with private information that people share with me. Overall, I would say my biggest challenge is to remain unbiased and to see all issues with equanimity.

What advice do you have to give to people seeking a career in religion?

My advice is that you truly have to be willing to sacrifice everything that you previously cared about. Religious work is for someone who can put his or her own desires aside for the welfare of others and for one’s own spiritual progress.

Working on becoming more selfless is a good habit to cultivate for those who plan to have a career in religious work.

What is your greatest accomplishment to date?

I would have to say that my greatest accomplishment to date is that I translated my meditation teacher’s book, “Return to Tranquility” by Bhante Punnaji into Spanish (“Volver a la Tranquilidad”) earlier this year. I was never good at grammar or composition, and my Spanish was average at best.

Thanks to AMU, I was able to improve my grammar and composition skills. That assisted my translation process.

I am a Mexican-American who learned Spanish from my mother in the United States. I would have never dreamed of writing a book in Spanish until I embarked on the journey at the request of my meditation teacher.

What is your life motto and why?

Everything is subject to change. Strive on with diligence and life is unpredictable and harsh at times.

As Charles Darwin said, life is a continual “struggle for existence.” A brief life can be a fulfilling life. We need to be diligent; we need to carry on and to push through the storm.

No matter what life throws at us, we have to remain on course. Otherwise, we will regret not having done what we must have done.

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