Here’s my December Newsletter. It repeats the account of the Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration in the previous blog but has some new stuff as well. It might not print very well but at least it should be readable on your screens.
Here’s my December Newsletter. It repeats the account of the Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration in the previous blog but has some new stuff as well. It might not print very well but at least it should be readable on your screens.
Twenty-four years ago I was sat in the boardroom at HMP Spring Hill, a Cat D prison near Aylesbury, with a group of prisoners complaining about having no dedicated place to meet and practise Buddhism. One of them observed that there wasn’t much space inside but plenty outside and from that sprang the idea to build a Buddha Grove – a Buddhist shrine set in a small grove of trees in the grounds, just a few yards from the main building and the Governor’s office. With men of all faiths and none pitching in it was completed in record time and at the rather grand opening one freezing November evening the men thoughtfully warmed their guests with soup, which I don’t think could have been described as delicious! So some Thai followers of mine who were there asked if they could do the catering next year. And so they did and so they have, the group changing and evolving as the years have passed, every year but one ever since.
This year, once again, on Sunday, September 18th, at what has become an established event in the Spring Hill calendar, the annual Buddha Grove Celebration and Re-Dedication, a coachload of Thai people turned up to feed everyone there that evening – the entire prison, prisoners, guests, staff and the few Buddhist prisoners in nearby Grendon as well. At what was for many of them their day off from another restaurant kitchen these good people gave of their time, their food and their joy in giving to cook a wonderful vegetarian Thai meal for over four hundred.
At the ceremony at the Buddha Grove that began the evening celebration we had monks from six temples chanting followed by short addresses from previous governors and myself. Sadly, one notable absence this year was Lord Avebury who died in February. He had never missed one of these until a couple of years ago when he became too frail to attend. Now this year we paid a special tribute to him and together with members of his family we planted a tree in his memory to one side of the Buddha Image. The inscription on the plaque reads, ‘In Memory of Lord Avebury. A friend to prisoners and of this Buddha Grove.’ Then everyone trooped down to the Dining Hall to queue up together and eat together, prisoners and guests alike. When that was done back we all came to the Buddha Grove to make a triple circumambulation with candles flowers and incense. And so the evening wound to a close with some presentations and a chanted blessing. An extraordinary evening in the life of an English prison!
As usual my thanks to everyone who helped to make this a wonderful evening, especially to Khun Peter, to Khun Ting and to all the good Thai people who gave so much and worked so hard. Anumodana!
This year I’ve been trying to revive my monthly newsletter, principally for the prisoners who, unfortunately, don’t have on-line access. So here’s the latest. It might not print very well but at least it should be readable on your screens.
Printed copies can be made available on request.
It’s traditional just before or in the early part of the Vassa for bhikkhus to go and pay respects and ask forgiveness of particular senior monks who may be living nearby or who are otherwise close and of the same tradition.
So, shortly before my birthday Ajahn Amaro came with a group from Amaravati not only to pay their respects and ask forgiveness but also to wish me a Happy Birthday.
Then yesterday, Luang Por Kampong came with his attendant monk to pay their respects and ask forgiveness and surprised me by being accompanied again by Ajahn Amaro and a small group from Amaravati. Luang Por Kampong is spending the Vassa at Bradford-on-Avon and I’ve known him for many years. When he first entered monastic life and was still in white prior to ordaining as a novice, Luang Por Chah sent him to stay at the remote forest temple on the shores of a huge lake where I was then living.
This year, Āsālha Pūjā, the anniversary of the first teaching the Buddha ever gave, fell on Tuesday, July 19th and the following day was the day of entering the Vassa, the annual Rainy Season retreat, incumbent on all bhikkhus and sāmaneras to observe for three months. As usual our public celebration had to be held on a Sunday when most people are free to attend and the nearest Sunday being the 17th, that was the day we chose. Now the 17th of July just happens to be my birthday, so, I’m afraid that was added to the celebration. Fortunately the weather was good, it didn’t rain, although to begin with it was a bit cloudy but around midday the sun came out and when we gathered outside for the offerings and the sermon that followed it was blazing.
My talk focussed, as you might have expected, on the Buddha’s first sermon. I reminded my listeners of what had led up to it: the Buddha’s Enlightenment, then his observation that the world and the people in it were obsessed with attachment and unlikely to heed him but how he had been persuaded by Brahma Sahampati that there would be some with but little dust in their eyes and therefore, reflecting that people, like lotuses in a pool, are at different stages of development but all seeking the light, thankfully, he decided to speak. For the first to hear him he sought out the five ascetics who’d been his companions when he’d been fasting and who had left him when he gave up that practice. And so two months after the Enlightenment there he was with them in the deer park where they were staying. Had you passed by you would have seen six weather beaten men, men who had lived rough without house or home for many years. They would have been poorly dressed and had it not been India where holy men and ascetics have always been revered, they would probably have been condemned and avoided. Had you crept closer you would have seen that one was speaking while the other five listened and what you would have heard would have been the Buddha outlining his message of the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the very same profound message that he was to teach for the remaining forty-five years of his life. At the end of the first teaching one of those five had a major awakening and became a Sotāpanna, which means he had entered the stream leading certainly to
Following my talk we circumambulated the Buddha Rupa three times carrying candles flowers and incense. And then I sat while, to celebrate my birthday, people queued to ceremonially bathe my hands.
It was a great day and I am thankful to everyone who helped make it so, including all the two hundred and more people who turned up on the day. Anumodanā!
The Memorial for Lord Avebury was held at the Royal Institution in London’s Mayfair on Thursday, June 30th at two o’clock in the afternoon. It was a terrific afternoon.
We drove down from Warwickshire and on our way did a loop off and back onto the M40 to pick up Jim who was a great fan of Lord Avebury and had corresponded with him for years. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and a smooth and trouble free journey. The only awkward bit was the last bit, finding our way through the oneway streets of Mayfair to the Royal Institution. We made it in plenty of time and were very courteously made welcome and taken to our seats in the lecture theatre where the main event was to take place. Unsurprisingly, there were so many of the great and the good mostly from the world of politics and the realm of human rights. You might spot in the photographs below Bianca Jagger in the same row as us and Jeremy Corbyn in the one behind us. He was one of the speakers and despite his current troubles sat through the whole afternoon.
This was what I had to say:
More than thirty years ago a certain prisoner told me that Lord Avebury, with whom he was corresponding, was a Buddhist. Then one evening I was sitting in another prison cell and the man I was talking to told me that he had complained bitterly that there were no books on Buddhism in the prison library. He said he’d written to Lord Avebury. ‘And look,’ he said and he pulled out from under his bed a box of Buddhist books that the local library had sent in for him – all because of a letter from Lord Avebury.
I thought I’d better get in touch with this man and so I did and over the years we became close friends and frequently fellow conspirators.
And now he’s gone!
When someone close to us, someone we love and admire dies we find ourselves face to face with the stark reality of Change. Change that waits for none of us, whoever or whatever we might be.
The Buddha once asked his disciples if what they experienced, what they were conscious of seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and thinking about was permanent or impermanent. Unsurprisingly they answered, ‘Impermanent.’
Then the Buddha asked them if what was impermanent and forever changing was satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Obviously what we cannot grasp or keep is bound to be a source of frustration and discontent and therefore the answer was ‘unsatisfactory.’
The Buddha went on, ‘Can it be said, of what is impermanent and unsatisfactory, that this is mine, this am I, this is myself?’ No.
And so we come to the true nature of our existence that the Buddha said we must see and understand if we are ever to learn to let go of greed and attachment and free ourselves of suffering. Our true nature that the Buddha described as being Impermanent, Unsatisfactory and without self, soul or substance.
Eric, I believe, derived great inspiration from these three characteristics. They were the driving force behind what he did. He saw that if the self was a delusion then the terms we use to separate ourselves and which generate greed and aversion are mere conventions, as such there is no reason for separation and no justification for the oppression of one by another. With the letting go of self, loving-kindness, for which Eric was well-known, blossoms. And if all is change, it means things can be changed and so whatever is unsatisfactory, whatever is a source of suffering, can be changed and changed for the better. As we all here know very well, that’s what Eric was dedicated to, to changing things for the better.
But now he is gone and all that remains is for us to love him, to remember him and to let him go.
When I last saw him he asked for some chanting at his funeral, which we did, and today as well. So to conclude, I’m going to recite one short verse that is usually chanted on occasions like this.
Aniccaa vata sa”nkhaaraa — uppaada vaya dhammino
Uppajjitvaa nirujjhanti — tesa.m vuupasamo sukho.
Impermanent are all conditioned things, Their nature is to rise and fall:
Having come into being, they pass, Release from them is bliss supreme – Nirvana.
After the speeches we were invited for refreshments and to view a little exhibition of memorabilia from Lord Avebury’s long and varied life.
Most generously it had been his wish that the donations in his memory should be made to Angulimala, the Buddhist prison Chaplaincy of which he was the Patron. Donations are still trickling in but so far well over a thousand pounds has been given.
At this year’s Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration in September we are going to plant a tree in his memory at the Buddha Grove.
I usually only go to Thailand once a year, in January. That’s my normal habit. But every year in June there is a big Sangha meeting at Wat Nong Pah Pong and I know I really ought to try and go to that sometimes. The trouble is not only the expense but the fact that I love the long, light, summer evenings here and I’m reluctant to be away and miss them.
This year I heard that there was something to be discussed at that annual meeting that I felt I should lend my support to and I was encouraged to go, so I went. It was only a short trip. I flew out from London on the midday flight on Tuesday, June 14th and I returned the following Monday, arriving back at the Forest Hermitage in the evening.
Having left here on Tuesday, it meant I arrived in Thailand early Wednesday morning. I was met and taken immediately to Yod’s place to eat and from there on to Don Meuang Airport for the domestic flight to Ubon. At Ubon I was taken first to Wat Pah Pong to join a meeting of the Maradoc Dhamm, the organisation that looks after Ajahn Chah’s books and image. I didn’t stay too long. Then I went over to check in at Wat Pah Nanachat where I had a quick shower and rest before going back again to Wat Pah Pong for a preliminary meeting in preparation for the big meeting the next day.
Thursday morning I went for alms in Bahn Bungwy and then later on, shortly before midday, we went over to Wat Pah Pong for the big meeting. The opening chanting was already under way when we got there so we had to quickly find our places and join in. It all went as well as could be expected and after about four and a half hours of sitting there without a break, all the time hot and sticky, it was over.
The next day, Friday, June 17th, was Luang Por Chah’s official birthday. We’ve worked out that he was probably born on May 17th, 1918, so I suppose June 17th was when his birth was registered. Anyway, the Friday was his official birthday so a few of us went over to Bahn Gawr to have a look at the huge stone pillar that’s been set up on the site of the home in which he was born. The idea for this pillar originated with the stone pillars that the Emperor Ashoka set up in various places in India that were closely associated with the Buddha. Like those this one is one solid piece of sandstone and something like 45 feet high. They’re still busy working on it, sculpting it and so on and the whole thing with the area around it surrounded with Ashokan style stone railings and murals is supposed to be ready in two year’s time, which will be Luang Por Chah’s centenary.
From there we went up the road to Wat Pah Pong and to the Ajahn Chah chedi to pay our respects at his relics.
That evening I flew down to Bangkok and from there I was driven to Cha’am for a couple of days quiet by the sea. And that was very nice with on both the days I was there some very welcome visitors. Then on the Monday it was an early morning drive to Bangkok, where I had a meal, got ready and then it was off to the airport for a very comfortable flight back to England.
Following on from a previous posting about January in Thailand I must tell you about our trip to Burma also in January.
After the big Ajahn Chah Memorial event at Wat Pah Pong and having shown some of our followers around a few forest temples, Ajahn Manapo and I went South and had a few days rest by the sea. Then in the evening of January 27th we were driven back to Bangkok and early the following morning were on a plane making the relatively short hop over to Yangon (Rangoon). There we had a little wait in the old colonial style terminal, now Domestic only in a rapidly expanding airport complex. When I first went to Burma in 1987 and was stranded unable to leave, I spent nearly a day in that building which then was the entire airport terminal but not anymore! Next we were loaded onto an old prop driven plane of doubtful vintage for the final leg of our journey to Bagan. This is where I’d wanted to go and very fortunately and very kindly someone had made it possible.
Our little party consisted of Ajahn Manapo, Ant who was once one of the leading lights at Warwick Uni’s Buddhist Society and is now Dr Ant and teaching at Naresuan University in Thailand, and Ken, a very generous Thai man who was once a student in London and Warwick and who generally looks after me when I’m in Bangkok.
Once we’d safely landed, located the car and driver sent to meet us, been driven to the hotel, checked in, tidied up and had a cup of tea, we set off out to explore. We only had that afternoon and the next day and before us lay 16 square miles of historic devotion that included some 2000 pagodas and temples built in the 11th to 13th centuries when Bagan was the capital of the Myanmar dynasties. We spent practically all the daylight hours at our disposal padding round these ancient, dusty and decaying monuments. Most contained huge and wonderful images of the Buddha and in at least one that we visited, the last four Buddhas. Nearly all were in desperate need of conservation but without an army of experts and a colossal budget there’s obviously not much more can be done than the occasional crude attempts we saw to keep them safe and accessible. Our last evening was spent in the temple pictured below, where we watched the sun gradually dipping behind the distant mountains, while on the river below a fisherman messed about in his boat and further upstream a large riverboat lay at its moorings.
Then the next morning we flew back to Yangon. We were met by a young man who had helped look after me last year when I was honoured with the Aggamaha Saddhamma Jotikadhaja title. He took us to his family home for the meal and from there to our hotel where we were given a room with a wonderful view of the Shwe Dagon, the colossal and amazing pagoda that dominates the city.
That same afternoon we went first to a smaller pagoda near the river where we were to meet a young woman who used to be one of my students at Warwick and from there with her as our guide we first took a look at the river, the mighty Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River, the same river that we had seen at Bagan and that flows from north to south through Myanmar, before making our way to the great Shwe Dagon. Although you hardly realise it, as clustered around it are numerous smaller pagodas and ornate building, it’s built on the crest of a small hill that you ascend through a long walkway sheltering successive sets of stairs and escalators that gradually take you up and up. There as in all the pagodas we’d visited you go barefoot. At the top, surrounding the main colossal structure and bounded by temples and pagodas, is a space where you may walk, sit and meditate, tell your beads, stop and chat or look about you, or just be; all the while enveloped in an extraordinary atmosphere of respect and devotion. It’s intoxicating. We spent hours there and early next morning went back for more.
The next day after an early morning at the Shwe dagon, it was back to the hotel for our meal, then a short time with cold drinks by a lake followed by a brief tour of the building that housed the last great Buddhist Council before boarding our flight back to Bangkok. There, in Thailand, I had a couple of days left to visit a friend’s monastery before the long flight back to London and winter!
Sometime ago I was asked if I would give my support to the campaign to make Buddhism the State religion of Thailand. I was reluctant and did not believe that a State religion was a good thing. I thought that it damaged the religion that was chosen and that because of that favouritism for one and the resultant bias others would be discriminated against. But as I thought about it and began to write I realised that we in this country have discovered a powerful argument in its favour.
On the one hand, it can be argued that any religion is better off without the baggage of national, cultural or political ties; and that the ethnic and religious diversity within a nation is safer when there is not a dominant, national religion.
But on the other hand, it can as well be argued that a nation without a national religion is one bereft of moral compass and encouragement to virtue and integrity; and without a national religious commitment the diversity of faiths and the freedom to practise a religion of choice is neither understood nor protected.
Here in England the Church of England is the established religion headed by the Monarch and the latter of those two positions has been our experience. Religion has been protected, not only the national, established church but the various minority faiths as well. We are free to practise our religion of choice and diversity is respected. For example, in February I was invited to attend, along with the leaders of other faiths working in prison chaplaincy, a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is keen to understand and support our work.
Providing therefore that it is tolerant of other faiths, I have come round to supporting the establishment in law of a national religion.
Buddhism exemplifies and actively promotes loving-kindness and compassion, tolerance and understanding and has long been at the heart of Thai culture making a priceless contribution to its welfare and development. I believe, therefore, that it deserves to be recognised as the national religion of Thailand.
This year my annual pilgrimage to SE Asia was in two parts, the first to NE Thailand and Wat Pah Pong for the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day and the second a short trip to Burma, to Pagan and the Shwe Dagon in Rangoon.
Every year but one since the passing of Ajahn Chah on January 16th, 1992, I have attended first the funeral and then the annual Ajahn Chah Memorial Days. Way back when these annual events first began I determined that so far as I could and for as long as they might continue I would be there every year. Since then I’ve only missed one year when I had the flu and couldn’t travel. I go to pay my respects, to remember Luang Por Chah and his extraordinary example and to go back to my monastic roots and to privately renew my commitment to do my best to practise the Buddha-Dhamma in the style and to the standards that Ajahn Chah taught. People sometimes, perhaps tongue in cheek, speak of this trip as my annual holiday, and yes, it is a break, but that’s not really what it’s about, really it’s a pilgrimage.
This year, having made sure I could be at the first of Warwick Uni Buddhist Society’s Monday meditation evenings, I flew out for Bangkok on Tuesday January 12th, arriving the following afternoon and then jumping in another smaller plane to go onto Ubon by the evening. Of course it was dark by the time I was met and driven to Wat Pah Nanachat where I was to stay for a few days but, nevertheless, it was good to be back. The following morning I only managed a short almsround to the people gathered outside the main gate and then after the meal I was driven to another large forest temple near the Cambodian border to visit my old friend Ajahn Nudang. Now in indifferent health following a couple of strokes, he’s a little bit older than me, a little bit senior and a very dear friend and teacher of mine. We’ve known each other for forty-five years. I spent the afternoon with him, watched him career around on the electric tricycle they’ve bought him to get about on and admired his new eating hall.
On the 14th I managed a longer almsround through the village of Bungwy and that day after
the meal I went over to Wat Nong Pah Pong for a meeting of the foundation that looks after the publications and image of Ajahn Chah. And from there we went to have a cup of tea with another old friend.
The next day was the big day itself, the 16th, the anniversary of Luang Por Chah’s passing in 1992 at the age of 73. We went over from Nanachat to Wat Pah Pong at around midday. That was just in time for the Dhamma Desanas, one for the laity and another for the monks.
Immediately they were both over we quickly assembled in the main sala and prepared for the procession that then slowly wound its way out through the old main gate, along the path that skirts the old boundary wall, down one of the avenues that approaches the Ajahn Chah Chedi and then partially around the chedi until gridlock.
Then groups of us took up positions at the four chedi doors and the Acariya Puja in honour of Ajahn Chah was recited. Afterwards we placed the flower offerings we had been carrying, paid our respects and retreated to the shade of the outside sala for cool refreshment.
This year amongst the thousands gathered at Wat Pah Pong there was a group of Thai people from England, people associated with me who often come to the Forest Hermitage. They had organised one of the free food stalls and their offering had been egg and chips! They were joined by another group, mostly from Bangkok and after the 16th for a couple of days we went together to visit some of the more local branch monasteries of Wat Pah Pong. One of them was Ajahn Nudang’s and another the huge and beautiful forest monastery on the banks of a colossal man-made lake close the Lao and Cambodian borders where I had spent my second year as a monk in 1973. And on the way back from there we called briefly at the small island wat where the great Ajahn Sao, the teacher of Ajahn Mun, had lived. Ajahn Mun had been an extraordinary monk who spent most of his life wandering in remote places practising meditation and teaching those brave enough and committed enough to stay with him. Almost single handed he revived the Forest tradition. For our group’s last day we went to Sakorn Nakorn to visit Ajahn Mun’s museum and on the way back we spent the late afternoon and early evening at the great chedi of Dhat Panom. While we were there I was privileged to be allowed to go inside the chedi and later I took great pleasure in being just outside the main compound, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to the birds roosting, the novices chanting and watching the light change as the evening drew in.
After that I think I had a day when I didn’t go anywhere and then it was down to Bangkok, some old friends and a few days rest by the sea before – Burma. And I’ll tell you about that next time.