You wouldn’t have thought it, but the photograph above was taken inside a prison – HMP Spring Hill near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to be precise. On the evening of Sunday, 14th September we gathered there to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the opening of the Buddha Grove. The shrine, which is nestled inside a stately area of trees close to the former Grendon Hall, was the first of its kind in the UK.
We were joined by monks from Amaravati, Wat Santiwongsarang, and Wat Mahataht, as well as by many lay supporters who took over the prison kitchens for the afternoon to cook for, and offer food to, the 400 inmates and guests. The evening began with chanting and speeches, before we descended on the canteen to enjoy (or watch others enjoy) the freshly prepared Thai food. Afterwards, once the sun had gone down, we returned to conclude the evening with a candlelit circumambulation around the Buddha Grove.
The practice of dana – of giving with no strings attached – was on full display, and that combined with the warmth and wisdom that suffused the occasion clearly had an effect on all involved, especially the prisoners. One particularly burly, rough-spoken inmate, who in many people’s eyes would deserve a wide berth, came up to Luang Por at the end to thank him. But his words were put in the shade when he imitated what he saw the Thais doing and knelt down on the gravel and bowed. It was a wonderful, moving occasion. Luang Por gives his sincere thanks to Khun Peter and the London group, to Khun Ting from Nottingham, to all the monks who came and chanted so magnificently, and to everyone who made the evening possible. If you can spare 17 minutes, you will find Luang Por’s speech online here.
(Left: Luang Por inspecting the prison kitchen. Right: Service with a smile!)
Back to the monastery, we are now only days away from the end of the Rains Retreat. Our celebration will take place from 10am on Sunday, 12th October and you are all invited. Just to clarify why it’s called the Rains Retreat: it coincides with the Indian Monsoon, when, during the Buddha’s time, monks were told to stop their wandering and remain in one place. The tradition continues to this day even though the original purpose is redundant, and it has instead become a time of increased formal practice and instruction inside forest monasteries. The Rains Retreat is also important for lay people, who in Buddhist countries see it as a sort of Buddhist lent. So it’s a time to give up something, to do more daily formal practice, and to generally try to make that little bit more progress on the path.
The concluding day of the Rains is called Pavarana Day. This is an occasion when we monks make pavarana (an invitation) to our fellows, asking them to offer any advice and criticism they may have regarding our conduct. Naturally it should all be done in a spirit of loving-kindness and compassion, with an aim to help each other develop wisdom and understanding.
With this unseasonably good weather we have been able to complete many much-needed jobs at both of our properties. The path in the corner of the monastery has been relaid, and the old and decrepit greenhouse at Bhavana Dhamma has finally been taken away. Ajahn Manapo and Will carefully removed the glass (much of which was broken) and then dismantled the frame. They then set to creating a foundation for a new greenhouse-shed combination that will be arriving in about a month. It was no small job, with a deep trench to be dug in the afternoon, and over 3 tons of concrete to be mixed the following morning. We look forward to seeing flowers and fresh salad flourishing within it’s glazed walls in the near future. And just last week we relocated Luang Por’s fish pond to a sunnier location. (We hope he will not be inspired by his favourite part in The Life of Milarepa when Marpa tells the young apprentice to build a house, before telling him it’s in the wrong place and asking him to build it somewhere else, before telling him the new one’s also in the wrong place…)
Finally, we’re sorry to report that U Nay Win, a long-term Burmese supporter of the Hermitage, has died. He was a very dedicated Buddhist and a man of great energy and enthusiasm. Only the other week he was here visiting with his family, filling the place with his warm, contagious laughter. But an undetected cancer became apparent shortly afterward and within a week or so he had passed away.
May Mr Win eventually attain the secure peace of Nibbana and be free from all suffering.