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Saturday, 4th October

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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.

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(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…)

Mr Win

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.

Saturday 13th September

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In forest monasteries it’s normal for the daily routine to be periodically changed, often with no warning. For weeks on end the sound of the bell will resonate throughout the monastery every morning and evening, calling the monks, novices and lay-guests to gather for chanting and meditation. Then, all of a sudden, it will stop, and the residents will be left to meditate by themselves, forced back upon their powers of self-discipline (as well as their ability to not hit the snooze button). And so as we approach the end of the Rains Retreat all morning sittings at the Hermitage have been postponed, and, apart from the Monday, Wednesday and Friday open evenings, so have the evening meetings.

Two weeks ago, on Saturday 30th August, we hosted an Angulimala workshop, when Buddhist prison chaplains from all over the country gathered for meetings and to collect supplies. Taking Buddhism into the prisons can be demanding work (not usually because of the prisoners, I should add) and these occasions provide a nourishing atmosphere of support and understanding.

On the following day, Cormac, from Northern Ireland, took Anagarika ordination, thus taking his first major step on the path to becoming a monk. He joins Tobias as a white-robed postulant, and as they are both a staggering 6’6” tall we now have two precocious fruit pickers to help collect the Hermitage’s vast quantities of blackberries, apples, plums and damsons, as they make their way into one of Sister Khema’s crumbles. There are still many blackberries to be picked so if you’d like to lend a hand let us know.

Luang Por’s recent morning talks to the community have been focussed largely on the 75 Sekhiya rules, which apply to both monks and novices, and which anagarikas and nuns are also encouraged to observe. The Sekhiyas are minor but important precepts governing the way we eat, behave in public, and teach the Dhamma. In connection with these rules we’re often reminded of the Venerable Assaji, who, by his composed and restrained manner while collecting alms-food in a village, inspired Sariputta to approach and question him. Assaji gave a very brief summary of the Buddha’s teachings – but enough for Sariputta to reach the first stage of Enlightenment – and then directed Sariputta to the Buddha himself. When explaining the Sekhiyas concerning teaching the Dhamma, Luang Por drew our attention to their underlying principle, which is to ensure that the listener is in a respectful, receptive state of mind and so able to absorb the teachings for maximum benefit.

In his public evening Dhamma Talks Luang Por has been pressing home the need to stabilise the mind during meditation. Watching and investigating our experiences occupies a central part of the development of wisdom, but without a firm foundation in concentration we make little headway on our quest to understanding. In the same vein he also narrated a sutta where the Buddha lists five things that lead to the decline of Buddhism. These are: lack of respect for the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the Training, and Samadhi (the practice of concentration).

In one of his Dhamma talks during the last two weeks Ajahn Manapo spoke of the need to remind ourselves of the purpose of mindfulness. The Buddha would compare mindfulness to the probe used by a physician to investigate a wound in order to locate the poison. The probe, the Buddha said, is like mindfulness; the wound, our experiences; and the poison, ignorance. So mindfulness is that which investigates experiences – from our thoughts and feelings, to sights and sounds – in order to remove ignorance and see their true nature. It is much more than simply being here and now (though that is certainly a part of it); it is the key to unlocking the truth of our existence and freeing our minds from all greed, hatred and delusion. Ajahn Manapo has also been to visit the Banbury group, and will be seeing them again at Bhavana Dhamma next Tuesday evening to talk about Right Effort.

Last Sunday was another big day for us. Khun Peter, who recently retired from the restaurant business, brought up a coach-load from London. With about forty people, a marquee full of piping hot Thai food, and the practice of giving (offering food to the monks), morality (taking the Refuges and Precepts) and mental cultivation (listening to a talk) it was a bit like a mini festival. It was a great day and a lot of money was raised, so well done to Khun Peter for organising everything. It is likely that this will become a monthly event, taking the place of Luang Por’s visits to London that used to happen on the first Sunday of every month. You are always welcome to bring food on any Sunday (or on any other day for that matter), but these occasions will be particularly suitable for introducing you to the practice of giving alms-food to the monks. And, for those of you who are new to Buddhism but are considering making a stronger commitment, you would also have the opportunity to observe, and perhaps join in with, people taking the Refuges and Precepts. And, if you needed any more persuasion, there’s the rather fine Thai cuisine…

Luke, Luang Por’s devoted driver, took some time off the week before last for a well-deserved holiday. Yet again Khun Peter came to the rescue and stepped into Luke’s shoes. We’re also very grateful to Tom, who used to be a novice here, for lending his time and expertise. Over the next few weeks you should notice evidence of his landscaping skills at work in the grounds. And our master builder, Andy, has just installed a new waste-pipe from the back toilet, so you can look forward to using the facilities without it sounding like a machine gun is going off every time you flush.

And finally, expressing his appreciation for the training he received as a drama student (a training which led to his interest in Buddhism), and doing his duty to an old teacher, last Friday Luang Por travelled to London to meet up with Christopher Fettes in order to discuss recording the unusual circumstances that surrounded the founding of Drama Centre, London. They were joined by Simon Callow, a more recent student of Drama Centre who also used to sell the tickets to the shows in which Luang Por appeared during his time at the National Theatre in the Sixties.

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Thursday 28th August, 2014

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It seems like only the other day when we celebrated Asalha Puja and began this year’s three month-long Rains Retreat, yet last Saturday marked the half-way point. In his Dhamma talk to the resident community on Saturday evening Luangpor reminded us of this fact and urged us to use the remaining time as best we can. He also spoke of the importance of perseverance and of keeping our meditation practice fresh – essential when we’re doing the same, simple exercise over and over again. Last month was Luangpor’s 70th birthday, an occasion that was marked by an impressive gathering of about thirty monks, as you can see in the photo above. And two weeks ago we celebrated another birthday: our pagoda turned twenty-six. It took 8 days to build and was finished on 8/8/88.

As there are five of us resident here at the moment we have the luxury of being able to take it in turns to be on private retreat, with Anagarika Tobias ensconced in his kuti this week. Luangpor has also been giving short teachings after most morning sittings, concentrating particularly on the monastic discipline, as well as encouraging us to keep a simple and direct approach to meditation practice. The other day he reminded us that during his time at Wat Pah Pong, Ajahn Chah, knowing how attached to reading his Western monks were, made them promise to not read any books for at least a year. ‘The only book worth reading,’ he once famously said, ‘is this one.’ and he pointed to his heart. After all, most books on Buddhism tell us more about the author than the Dhamma, and so if we aren’t careful, instead of letting go of our views and opinions we only add to them.

In his Dhamma talk last Wednesday evening Ajahn Manapo focused on what it means to go for refuge to the Triple Gem, contrasting the secure Refuges of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha to the various pleasures, diversions and distractions that most people seek refuge in but which ultimately leave them unsatisfied and vulnerable to more suffering. Next Tuesday evening Ajahn Manapo will be off to visit the Banbury Buddhist Group to kick off their Autumn/Winter term.

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Coming to more mundane matters, we have just finished giving the woodwork at Bhavana Dhamma a much-needed lick of paint. Ajahn Manapo and Cormac scaled the heights to attend to the fascia and barge boards, with Dasith lending a hand to complete the garage’s woodwork on Saturday. Mae Chii Bhaddha – formerly Chanyaa – has proven to be a natural with the lawnmower and, with Maureen’s guidance, is keeping the Bhavana Dhamma gardens nice and tidy. Sarah and Sue from the Banbury Group popped by last week to lend their time and expertise in attempting to tame the flower beds.

We are also pleased to announce that we have just taken delivery of thirty maroon buckwheat meditation cushions, which we will begin to use once a satisfactory means of storing them has been devised (not just in a pile on the floor!). We have been in need of new cushions for a long time now and because of a number of very generous donations as part of our renovation appeal we have at last managed to get some. Thank you to everybody who contributed!

As far as the major projects on our renovations list goes, Andy the Builder is in the process of installing the new water system, which will include fitting a 200 litre pressure vessel into a large hole behind the shrine room. Better water pressure will be very welcome, particularly on our busy festival days when the toilet cisterns struggle to fill up in time. Peter Arch – a long-term friend of the Hermitage – very kindly trimmed our formidably large leylandii hedge last week, so thank you, Peter. Mark and Anne, BDF Treasurer and Ajahn Manapo’s mum respectively, are currently organising a car boot sale to help raise funds for the renovation appeal.

At the moment, while Luangpor conducts his usual prison visits, those of us not on retreat are busy preparing Buddha images, posters, books, incense holders and so on in preparation for this Saturday’s Angulimala Workshop.