Lambeth Palace

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On Monday the 13th, the morning after our big day here, I had to have an early meal in order to be in the car before ten to be on my way to London and Lambeth Palace for the licensing of the Revd Canon Mike Kavanagh as the new Chaplain General and Archdeacon to the Prisons. Despite the rain and occasional hold-ups we made pretty good time and got there shortly before noon, when the service was to begin. It took a a couple of minutes to persuade the ill-tempered gatekeeper to open the massive wooden doors into the palace courtyard and then once out of the car and in the palace itself another few minutes passed while I was escorted down a couple of huge corridors with portraits of former Archbishops beaming down from the walls on either side. When I arrived at the ancient Archbishop’s Chapel the service had just begun and the Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking. Unfortunately, from where I sat I could barely hear him and certainly couldn’t make out what he was saying. It was a bit like that for much of the twenty-five minutes or so that remained, some parts were audible and understandable and some were not. Whether it was the acoustics or the inability of the participants to project, I’m not sure. During the procedure, Mike had to swear his allegiance to HM the Queen and promise to obey the Archbishops of Canterbury, York and Wales. At the end the various Faith Advisers and Chaplains present were invited to recite together this Affirmation:

We come from many Faith traditions: together we care for all those people held in our prisons.
We commit ourselves afresh, as friends and colleagues, to provide opportunities for all to grow and develop into men and women of integrity who are strong and confident, learned, wise and truthful; free from crime, from the fear of crime and from anxiety.

We are united in our desire to work for the common good and to continue to work together in trust, in peace and in harmony, in a spirit of friendship and goodwill, in confidence that it will bear fruit in the lives of many.

Afterwards there was a buffet lunch, which, of course wasn’t much good to me but I enjoyed holding a glass of water and chatting to people while they balanced their plates and drinks and ate – and occasionally dropped a forkful on the carpet. At pudding time, a gong was sounded and Faith Advisers were invited to take their puddings in the Pink Drawing Room and sit round the table in conversation with the Archbishop to give him a sense of some of the key people supporting multifaith prison chaplaincy in England and Wales. When I had a chance to speak I told of my long involvement in prison chaplaincy and expressed my concern for the continuing development of multifaith prison chaplaincy. I explained that I didn’t see it as appropriate for Buddhist chaplains to be employed. I am happy for them to remain sessional and I see no reason why that should diminish their place within a chaplaincy team but I said that I have always felt that were I a prisoner I wouldn’t really be able to wholly trust a chaplain who was tied into the establishment of the prison. It was soon over and on the way back and since I’ve had much to think over of what I saw and heard in those couple of hours.

It doesn’t seem possible that thirteen years have passed since we last assembled in the Archbishop’s Chapel for the licensing of Mike’s predecessor, William Noblett. That was two Archbishops back as well!

End of the Rains Retreat, Robe & Requisites Offering 2014

Every year during the month following the Rains Retreat or Vassa, the Buddha has permitted what is known as the Spreading of the Kathina. What this means is the offering of cloth to the Sangha by lay devotees, which is then ‘spread’ by members of the Sangha who cut, sew and dye a robe. That robe, which has to be completed before the following dawn, the Sangha then formally gives to one deserving bhikkhu. Since the minimum number of monks required to form a quorum for the Sangha is four, it follows that for a Kathina to be enacted at least five monks must be present. In forest monasteries it’s generally understood that those five must have spent the Vassa together in the one place. Nowadays, in many temples it is a made-up robe that is offered and the Vinaya interpretation followed allows the necessary number to made up with monks invited from other monasteries – but that remains controversial. The Wat Pah Pong practice that I endeavour to maintain has always been that for a Kathina we must have at least five monks who have spent the Rains together. Unfortunately, that rarely happens at The Forest Hermitage, especially in recent years and so, as this year, we don’t qualify for a Kathina.

An alternative, which so far as the laity involved is concerned is almost the same, is for there to be an offering of robes and requisites, the robes being deemed ‘forest cloth’ – in other words, cloth that has been discarded and has no owner. And that is what happened again this year at The Forest Hermitage on Sunday, October 12th. Once again Khun Peter was the principal sponsor and thanks to him and his team and the two coaches that he organised from London, we were packed and had a wonderful day. Not only were there two coaches from London but another from Warwick Uni organised by the Thai Society along with members of the Warwick Uni Buddhist Society and naturally, plenty more people came by car. Mercifully, it was a dry day, albeit a bit misty and damp and not quite as warm as we would have liked, but no rain. These great Buddhist events should always express Dana, Sila and Bhavana and that day abundant generosity was on display, with people taking the chance to renew their Precepts as well as enjoying the opportunity to profit by listening to some Dhamma. And everything, it has to be said, was conducted in an atmosphere of fun and friendship.

As I’ve got older, so tears have come more readily to my eyes and as I watched people streaming in through the gate with their bags bulging with food and all manner of things to offer and share, and taking such pleasure, such joy, in coming all this way to spend a few hours doing what was good and wholesome, I couldn’t help myself, my eyes moistened and the tears began to flow. You wonderful people! In a world that can be so ghastly, you showed where it can be so good. Anumodana!

Watch a video here or take a look at some pictures here.

An Unusual Evening in the West End.

A fortnight ago I was driven down to London and into the West End, to the heart of theatre land. I was dropped off in front of the Coliseum and promptly disappeared down a little passageway at the side, the narrowest alleyway in London. As we’d turned into Monmouth Street and approached St Martin’s Lane I commented that this had once been familiar territory to me but that was around forty-five years ago. Forty-five and nearly fifty years! I can hardly believe it. It seems almost like yesterday. Of course there have been changes. Monmouth Street looks much more prosperous than I remember and there seem to be so many more people around. Most of them, sadly, spilling out of the pubs and bars and standing with glasses in hand, drinking and crowding the pavements. It looks awful. You never used to see this. It was like it even down that narrow alleyway where with some care I had to thread my way through the throng and discover the door and doorbell of where I was to meet with two eminent men of the theatre.

As nearly everyone reading this will know, a very long time ago I used to be an actor. What you might not know is that I had the privilege of training under an extraordinary team of gifted and creative people, first at the Central School of Speech & Drama and then at Drama Centre, London, which I helped found. I was just seventeen when I went to Central and quite unaware of what I was letting myself in for but within weeks I had become one of a loyal and devoted band of students of that unusual group of teachers. Leading them as Director of what was known as the Stage Course was John Blatchley and with him on the team was the great Harold Lang who taught Stanislavsky’s method, and the jewel in the crown, the wonderful Yat Malmgren who taught Action and the Psychology of Movement. Each had their assistants and with Yat there was Christopher Fettes, who, when Drama Centre opened, was to emerge as not just a teacher but easily as the most intelligent and creative director that I ever encountered. The performances he could draw out of young and inexperienced students were unbelievable. At the end of my second year at Central when I was barely nineteen, Gwyneth Thurburn, the Principal of Central, dismissed Yat, and then the rest of the team resigned. When we students were told we were furious and we went too. And out of that little student revolution, Drama Centre, London was born. It was to talk over how we might tell that story that that evening I met with Christopher and another former student of Drama Centre, Simon Callow.

I had never met Simon and although I’d heard of him I’ve never seen him on stage. I knew that he’d studied at Drama Centre and I believe that was nearly ten years after I left. I knew too that during my time at the National Theatre, he’d worked there in the box office. He’s also in that book on Olivier that I get a mention in. So we had some common ground and quite a few memories of bygone days to share and get us talking. And then we got onto the beginnings of Drama Centre and the student revolution that succeeded. The three of us talked non-stop for nearly three hours and at the end agreed that this was a story that had to be told. So, the plan is that later this year or early next, we will film some conversations with Simon, probably in Christopher’s flat.

Now, you might ask why am I involved with this. The theatre is after all a world I walked out of long, long ago. But you see, it can’t help but remain part of me and that early training has informed and affected all that I have done since. Yat’s extraordinary work on the psychology of movement still surfaces in my thinking and perception. And Buddhist investigation into the nature of being is echoed in Stanislavsky’s approach to analysing and portraying a character. For example, Buddhism speaks of the volition or intention that lies to a greater or lesser extent behind what we say and do and Buddhists are encouraged to be aware of that and to investigate those intentions. Similarly, Stanislavsky requires the actor to continually ask of the text, what is the character trying to do? Then, Yat had an interest in Buddhism. I think the first Buddhist book that I ever thumbed through was one I found in his flat. Ten years ago, after Yat’s death, Christopher wrote to me and said of Yat that, ‘Buddhism had affected him profoundly at various stages in his career; never more so than towards the close of his life, when he had lost the school and with it an active career as a teacher.’ So, you see, this story is a part of my story.

We’ll have to see what comes of it but at the very least, it was a great evening.

Memories

The other evening, after a long meeting of the Prison Service’s Chaplaincy Council, I was visiting Christopher Fettes, one of the remarkable men who taught me over fifty years ago, first at the Central School of Speech and Drama and then at Drama Centre. I told him that among the presents I got for my recent 70th birthday was a copy of a new biography of Laurence Olivier that the monks of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery gave me. One evening I happened to be leafing through it and glanced at the Index and to my amazement saw my old name. I quickly went to the page and there there were a couple of lines quoted from a letter that Olivier had written to me on May 30th, 1969. I’d never kept the letter and had completely forgotten about it. Well, that led on to us talking a bit about my life long ago at the National Theatre with Sir Laurence and Christopher’s remark that I’d had such an interesting life. And I have, and I’ve met and worked with some wonderful and remarkable people, and so people do say to me from time to time that I ought to write it all down but I’m not much of a writer and anyway I rather deplore the modern passion for recording everything instead of living it.

But inevitably I have memories and the death the other day of Lauren Bacall took me back to one evening sometime in the summer of ‘69 when I went to see Sir John Gielgud in Alan Bennett’s play ‘Forty Years On’ at the Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue. It was marvellous and a joy to see Sir John reborn and enjoying himself after that dreadful and wholly uncreative experience of Peter Brook’s production of ‘Oedipus’ at the National that he and I and others had had to endure through the summer of ‘68. Afterwards I went round to see him in his dressing room. He received me with his customary courtesy and I remember him saying that the year before at the National he thought he just couldn’t do it anymore. We chatted for a few minutes and then the door opened and in stalked Lauren Bacall. Sir John introduced us and we shook hands. She had her daughter, Bogie’s daughter, with her. She was icy and imperious and after a few minutes and with the likelihood of more visitors for Sir John, I said goodnight and withdrew.

I was pleased she left plenty of money to ensure her little dog will be looked after.

Three Score years and Ten.

Well I made it. July 17th finally arrived and I was seventy.

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There’s nothing much to it really, all you’ve got to do is hang around and thanks to the inexorable march of time, the birthdays notch up. But for all that, it was a great day and people were so kind and thoughtful. I had lots of greetings, some lovely things said about me. I had birthday cakes and presents and I had a lot of monks come to see me in the afternoon. The next day I was exhausted.

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In the evening we planted three trees to mark my seventieth. They are now part of the Great British Elm Experiment. One is in front of Bhavana Dhamma and the other two are in the grounds of The Forest Hermitage. They are young elm saplings from trees that have survived the scourge of the Dutch Elm Disease that wiped out millions of our beautiful elm trees fifty years ago. They are part of a hope that one day the great elms of England will rise again.

My thanks and anumodana to everyone who helped make my seventieth birthday such a special and moving occasion.

Khun Ting’s Birthday & the Day Before Mine.

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Early on Wednesday morning of the 16th, we set off for West Bridgeford on the outskirts of Nottingham for a Merit Making organised by Khun Ting at her restaurant to celebrate her birthday and mine. It was a beautiful morning, lovely food, good company and over a thousand pounds was raised towards our renovations appeal. Anumodana!

Asalha Puja and Entering the Vassa.

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On Friday, July 11th, it was Asalha Puja, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first sermon when he set rolling the Matchless Wheel of Dhamma. The day after we entered the Vassa, the annual Rains Retreat. And the day after that, on Sunday the 13th, we held a modest celebration in honour of both occasions.

Vesakha Puja

Vesakha 2014 Poster v2We celebrate our most important Buddhist festival, known variously as Vesākha Puja, Wesak, Buddha Jayanthi or Buddha Day, annually on the full moon of the ancient lunar month of Vesākha, which falls usually in May or some years in early June. This year it will be on May 13th and we will celebrate at The Forest Hermitage on May 18th.

Traditionally at Vesākha Puja we celebrate the Birth, the Enlightenment and the Passing of the Buddha. Early Buddhist scriptures state that all three occurred on various Vesākha full moons. However, it is probably the Enlightenment that remains the principal focus since it was that that transformed Gotama the ascetic, known prior to his Enlightenment as the Bodhisatta, into Gotama the Buddha, the One Who Knows, the Awakened One. In the days and weeks leading up to Vesākha Puja, it can be useful to contemplate why he did what he did.  How he woke up to the awful realities of life, of ageing, sickness and death, and as a consequence felt compelled to renounce and leave behind his wealth, position and family to seek the unborn, the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme surcease of bondage, Nibbāna.

The Enlightened state, achieved first by the Buddha, alone and unaided, and then through his example and teaching by many disciples since, is known as Nibbāna (Pali). It is achieved when in the mind of a person, through seeing the true nature of all things, attachment is let go of and all greed, hatred and delusion extinguished, which means that for the Enlightened there will be no more rebirth.

The precise year of the birth of the child who was to become the Buddha is uncertain but is believed to have been 623 BCE and the Buddhist Era commences eighty years later, counted from the year of the Parinibbāna or the Buddha’s Final Passing.

There are some slight cultural and local differences in how the various Buddhist groups and nations celebrate but broadly speaking devout Buddhists try to attend their local temple for at least part of the day with some remaining for the whole day and the night. The occasion will be marked with ‘the making of merit’, which means engaging in doing good and skilful things guided by the Buddhist principles of Giving, Virtue and Cultivation. It is said that one should not be slow to engage in merit since doing merit cleanses the mind.  Giving usually involves bringing food to the temple to offer and share, as well as supplies and symbolic offerings for the Shrine. Virtue is observed by reaffirming commitment to the five moral precepts, and for some, for the day and the night, the eight.  And the practice of Cultivation includes participating in chanting, meditation and listening to sermons.  Buddhist festivals are generally cheerful and happy occasions, expressive of loving-kindness and support in the Buddhist life and training.

Week 17

Three months ago when I was relatively new to this unusual medical condition that I now have to manage, I thought that semi retirement or more was pretty definitely on the cards and I prepared myself for that. I certainly thought that by now I would be doing much less than what I am. Although I am still sometimes disappointed to feel so tired and below par and have to remind myself that I am not as well as once I was, I’m still doing all right and I appear to be getting better. By Friday and Saturday this week I was pretty done in but I’d had a busy few days and a good time and squeezed in much more than I would ever have managed a few weeks ago.

Monday was relatively quiet but on Tuesday I was off to Gartree and Stocken prisons. For these two I have to leave at around two o’clock in the afternoon and I get back soon after nine at night. Both are enjoyable groups and the drive, especially at this time of the year as we begin to enjoy the long, light evenings, is a pleasant one.

On Wednesday morning I was interviewed on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire local radio about the Coventry woman who was arrested and deported from Sri Lanka for having a tattoo of the Buddha on her shoulder. Of course i said it was a bit over the top of the Sri Lankans but it gave me an opportunity to speak about respect and what I call the growing culture of disrespect, and our concern at the way the Image of the Buddha and the word Buddha itself are so often misused and abused.

Wednesday afternoon and evening again involved me with two prisons but with the first there was a difference. Some prisoners manage to make something of their sentence and seize the opportunities to address their offending behaviour and improve themselves, not only by practising Buddhism and meditation, but with education. Some, even manage a degree with the Open University. And that, I may say, is a considerable achievement because prisons are generally far from being ideal places in which to study. And for some the path to that degree has had to begin with fairly basic studies that most of us have taken for granted but which they for some reason have missed out on. So, on Wednesday at the invitation of a chap I’ve been seeing for a few years now I went to Grendon Prison to attend his Graduation ceremony. He had gained a BSc in something to do with Pure Maths. I can’t remember the details because it was all a bit beyond me. It was marvellous to see him in his gown and to hear his short speech, which carried a powerful message, because he spoke about how in another prison, some years ago, he had been inspired by someone who had talked about lifelong learning. Academic learning was what was meant but the idea that you should keep on learning resonates with me because I go on all the time about the need to keep on growing and never to stop, with the understanding that everything is teaching us.

On Thursday I was off again to another two prisons. Well, officially they’re now one, HMP Isle of Wight, but actually they’re two separate sites, Parkhurst and Albany, and they were both amongst the first prisons I ever visited back in the summer of 1977. People think it’s a long way to go and it is a long day but I always say it’s a pleasant drive and then a little cruise on the Solent. The weather was good and I had an enjoyable time with both groups.

On the way back we called at my parents’ grave. My father died fourteen years ago and my mother seven years ago and on Thursday my mother would have been a hundred, while my father’s hundredth birthday was a week before on Thursday the 17th. As my mother used to say, ‘I’m not a cemetery person.’ But I thought that for their hundredth anniversary I ought to take some flowers and tidy up the grave a bit, so that’s what I did.

And that was the week that was!

The Queen’s Birthday

It was the Queen’s eighty-eighth birthday last Monday and I felt I’d like to pay a tribute, particularly for her part in bringing peace to the relationship between this country and Ireland.

After centuries of violence and discord between England and Ireland and between Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland, three years ago the Queen went to Ireland. There she paid her respects at the memorial to those killed in the independence movement and to the amazement of her listeners, at the formal banquet in her honour she took the trouble to open her address with a sentence and greeting in Irish. And then this year she not only welcomed the current President of Ireland to Windsor but also shook hands with a man who is believed to have been seriously implicated in the IRA’s campaign of violence against this country. A campaign that murdered her own second cousin and uncle to her husband.

There comes a time when the hating has to stop. As the Buddha said, ‘Hating doesn’t stop with hating, hating stops with not hating.’