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.’

Songkran 2014

SDC11266

Songkran, the Thai, Burmese, Cambodian and Sri Lankan New Year was celebrated at The Forest Hermitage (Wat Pah SantiDhamma) on Sunday, April 13th. And the day before in Nottingham at Khun Yod’s YodSiam Restaurant.

The 13th dawned bright and sunny and we had a marvellous day with an impressive and international turnout of people from all over the country. Yod and Nid had flown in specially from Thailand, first to host the Songran at their restaurant the day before and then to be with us on the 13th. And Khun Peter not only organised most of the food but also most generously provided a coach from London.

As I had the day before in Nottingham, in my talk I explained that the bathing of the Buddha Rupa, the monks and elders and then of each other was really meant to be a sign of respect and I emphasised the importance of respect. After all, without respect there can be no harmony in society and our individual ability to learn, to grow and to develop is seriously impeded.

As always, people were very generous and as well as various supplies and food for the day, £3,177.82 was collected and offered. The day before at Yod Siam another £605 was raised. For that and all the hard work of preparation and cleaning up afterwards, Anumodana.

I doubt whether my powers of description can possibly do the day justice and so I’d rather refer you to this video.

Admitting to a Mistake.

Any day now I ought to tweet a reminder about our Songkran next Sunday, which reminds me that last time I tweeted a reminder about an event here I made a mistake. For several days no one commented, or perhaps even noticed, that I’d given the wrong date by a whole month, until one of our neighbours kindly sent me a text pointing out my error. Now I could have tried to cover it up and perhaps even suggested it was a teaching and demanded to know why everyone had been so unobservant and unaware and why it had taken so long for anyone to notice. Covering up and not admitting to errors is what small minded people often do but a long time ago I learnt how a big man handles a mistake.

It was when I was a young actor and in my second year at the National Theatre. I was really excited when the legendary Sir Tyrone Guthrie joined the company to direct two productions and I was cast, albeit in a small way, in one of them, in Volpone. I remember one day I was in the rehearsal room, I suppose waiting to get to a scene I was in, and idly watching Guthrie work with the two actors playing Volpone and Mosca. It soon became apparent that there was some difficulty with the scene they were rehearsing and that Colin (Volpone) and Frank (Mosca) were cautiously trying to suggest that it was Guthrie’s interpretation that was at fault. Now remember, Sir Tyrone Guthrie was one of the great men of the theatre, a director of immense experience and international renown, and he had already been responsible for umpteen productions of Volpone and these two were trying to tell him that he’d got it wrong! Imagine. Suddenly, Guthrie caught on to what they were trying to tell him, stared at the text and without missing a beat exploded, ‘Good God! You’re absolutely right. Change it!’

That’s how to do it. That’s how to admit to a mistake.

Back to prison and what’s been up at the Wat.

So it’s about two and a half weeks since I returned from Thailand and over the last couple of weeks I’ve begun to resume my prison visits. In each of those two weeks I’ve managed two days out and three prisons visited. I’m pacing myself. My medical condition and my age are good enough excuses for doing a bit less running around now. But I’m not stopping, just reorganising and being a bit sensible with my time and energy. At least that’s the idea.

One of the exciting things I look forward to when I get back every year from Thailand is the re-emergence of my two tortoises after their winter hibernation. I was reckoning on it being today or tomorrow but then suddenly, just a week after I’d returned I heard a noise that for a little while I couldn’t place. Then it hit me. It was the tortoises moving about in my loft where they’d been asleep. I got up there and sure enough they were both wide awake so the next day, down they came and into their heated home, where they’ve been pretty active.

Having not done very much to maintain our property for years, over the last few months we’ve been having some much needed repairs and refurbishment done, mostly to the roof, the conservatory and the bathroom. And there’s still more to be done. But last week the latest improvement was the replacement of our old, rather pathetic and expensive to run, oil fired AGA with a newer, second-hand electric model that heats up overnight on Economy 7. We’ve only been trying to do something about the old AGA for about the past ten or twelve years so it was quite a relief when it all suddenly fell into place: we found what we wanted, supplied by a chap we liked and someone came up with a hefty anonymous donation. Anumodana!

Of course nearly all our attempts to improve things cost money and so it was a bit of a blow this week when walking back from my night time stroll with my dogs I noticed the silhouette of one of our leylandii fir trees bordering the lane leaning at an awkward angle across the road. I could see this could cost us a bit! It turned out it had split but it’s fall had been arrested by other trees so it was being held just clear of the telephone cable that supplies us and all the other properties further down the lane with phone and broadband. Very fortunately the tree surgeon we know responded very quickly and the day after we phoned him he and his assistant were here to deal with it. It was six hours hard work in wet and not very nice weather. But they did well and I’m so glad they got it done because the day after there blew a gale and that tree would never have stayed where it was. So we were lucky, very lucky, but it’s still going to set the temple back about five hundred quid. Never mind, that’s life, no one was hurt and it could have been a lot worse.

Reminiscing.

Yesterday, I read it was the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral and I saw that on Monday, Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were performing together in a concert to celebrate 50 years ago when the Beatles took the States by storm. So that all means it’s 50 years since I first set foot in the US with Theatre Group 20 for a four month tour. I remember it was at our first stop out of New York, at a hotel in Maryland, that Churchill’s funeral was on television. I didn’t watch it but I remember my friends who did being pretty shocked with the interruption, ‘Now a word from our sponsor – Winston cigarettes!’ Can you imagine? I’ve never forgotten arriving at that hotel. I got out of our coach – well a big Greyhound type bus that carried all our gear, props and scenery, as well as us – and as I strolled to the hotel entrance a group of teenage girls started screaming. I couldn’t quite believe it, so I quickly thought of an excuse to go back out to the bus – and they screamed again. And again when I went back into the hotel! I found it was to happen quite often on that tour but pretty modest compared to the Beatles. Another thing I remember at that hotel was seeing our advance manager open his suitcase and there was his gun. I’d never seen anyone wandering around with a loaded pistol before. Fifty years! Hardly believable.

Update

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sitting here in Thailand with practically nothing to do I‘ve looked at my blog. Well, I knew it was ages since I wrote anything for it but I hadn’t quite realised how long. So, now for a long overdue update.

It’s pointless trying to remember everything that’s happened since the last posting in October and then deciding what of that’s worth writing about or needs to be included. I’m not even going to try, I’m just going to tell you where I am now and what that might mean for the future.

Yes, I’m in Thailand and as I write this I am by the sea with sound of the waves in the background at Cha’am. In a little over an hour we leave for Bangkok where we are to eat at Khun Yod’s factory. Then Ajahn Manapo will leave for London and I will remain in Bangkok for another night. On Monday evening I will attend the chanting for Somdet Phra Sangharaja who died recently. Then shortly after midnight on Monday I too return to the UK.

I have had a marvellous two weeks. I flew out of London a fortnight ago tonight and on the following Tuesday I was received with much ceremony at Mahachulalongkornrajavideyalaya University where I was presented with an Honorary Doctorate. Then Ajahn Manapo and I were driven at some speed to Ubon where we were to stay at Wat Pah Nanchat for a few days. On the Thursday it was the big day at Wat Pah Pong, the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day, and there I took part in the annual circumambulation of the Ajahn Chah Chedi. After that I had the chance to visit Peter and Tipawan and to see my old friend and mentor, Luangpor Dang, before flying back to Bangkok and driving South to Cha’am. While in the North East for some of the time we were in the enjoyable company of Ant and Joob and when we went for tea at Peter and Tipawan’s we surprised them by turning up at their house with Matthew and his wife. And throughout our trip, from time to time and much of the time, we have been looked after by the loyal and admirable Ken.

Throughout I have been shown care and kindness and I’m afraid I’ve needed it. In fact I‘ve been lucky to have made it here this year and in the procession circumambulating the Luang Por Chah Chedi I was almost shedding tears of joy.

You see, in December I became rather unwell and was eventually diagnosed with Temporal Arteritis or Giant Cell Arteritis. Fortunately my GP was onto it pretty sharpish and there has been no damage to my sight. I am being treated. It is incurable but does sometimes go into remission and I am optimistic. I’m all right. But I shall have to take things easy, or at least easier and do less than before. But I don’t mind that, after all I’m not exactly in the springtime of life!

So there you are. Now you know. And I’ll try in future to reform and update this blog more often.

Contrasting Meetings in London

This week began for me like most with little to do on Monday until the evening. Then I had to teach at Warwick Uni Buddhist Society and immediately after our Monday evening group at The Forest Hermitage, for which I’m afraid I was rather late. For the last few Mondays Ajahn Manapo has been away at Bradford on Avon, so I’ve been on my own here. Tuesday was out to prisons as usual but then Wednesday was rather different – I had to go to London.

That meant an early start and an early meal. I had to be at the MoJ building in Petty France by 1:30. The reason was a meeting of the Prison Service’s Chaplaincy Council. That sounds rather grand but the reality was an assorted group of people of different religions crammed round a table in a sort of glorified and airless cupboard, which I believe they call a meeting room. I was stuck in there for three hours and I wasn’t in the best of shape by the time I escaped. It’s this strange addiction to air and breathing that I have that was the trouble! And the content of the meeting didn’t help. I suppose it was all necessary stuff – some people seemed to be able to get quite enthusiastic about it – but you could never have called it creative.

Once I’d escaped, Luke appeared to pick me up and run me over to Soho, to Dean Street. Had you been strolling through the heart of Soho on Wednesday evening you might have glimpsed this Buddhist monk, quick as a flash, disappearing down a darkened alley next to Quo Vardis. Had you followed you would have found yourself in a little Court and seen me disappear into a studio run by Giles Forman. Until that evening I had never met Giles, although we had spoken a few times over the phone. His studio is where he trains young actors and Giles himself was taught at Drama Centre where I went fifty years ago. I was received by Giles with great courtesy and introduced to some of his young students as having been in Group One at Drama Centre – they all seemed to know what that meant. And for anyone reading this who doesn’t know what it meant, well there are previous entries to this blog that will inform you. Coincidentally, Christopher Fettes, who taught me at Drama Centre, was there that evening and still teaching at eighty-four. The purpose of my going there had been to meet Giles and to talk about how we might in this fiftieth anniversary year of the founding of Drama Centre honour it and the teachers who taught there and especially the great and wonderful Yat, who died eleven years ago. So Giles, Christopher and I had a brief discussion until Giles had to go off and take a class.

I’ve never forgotten how one day, around fifty years ago, I heard Christopher describing Yat as a creative man. I suppose I knew that already but I hadn’t heard it said. I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone called that before and it struck me then as such a wonderful thing to be, to be a creative person. It’s stayed with me. And that evening with those two people and their young students I was reminded of that and the contrast between what I sensed there and what I’d been through that afternoon was almost overwhelming.

What is done in that studio and what I used to do over forty odd years ago and what I do now is all linked. Yat’s work is described as the Psychology of Movement and what I learnt as a student and as an actor with Yat and Christopher and all the rest has a great deal to do with what I do now, and with what Buddhism has to say about the human condition, our suffering and the cause of our suffering. Life and living and dealing with our difficulties has to be a creative process. You must try to be a creative person. I do and if ever I’m called that it will be for me one of the greatest of compliments.