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 his mistakes.

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, looked 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 your mistakes.

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.

End of Vassa Merit Making and Robe Offering

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We had a marvellous day with something like two hundred people here – three coaches and thirty cars, they say. Khun Peter from Two Point Restaurant was the main sponsor and he and everyone who came, they were so generous. And the weather too was good to us, the rain cleared and the sun shone. New robes were offered, and an assortment of supplies, there was plenty of good food and around £3,500 was collected – Anumodana!

There are more pictures here. And pretty much the same on Facebook, here.

TBSUK Committee Meeting

This afternoon a meeting of the committee of the Theravada Buddhist Sangha in the UK (TBSUK) was held at The Forest Hermitage. The purpose of the meeting was to take forward the proposal, agreed at our last General Meeting in August, to develop TBSUK as a professional registration body for Theravada Sangha members in the UK.

This was a well attended meeting with almost a full complement of committee members present. Only Venerable Seelawimala of the London Buddhist Vihara was unable to be with us.

For the benefit of Ashin Pannobaso who was not at the last couple of meetings and to remind other members, I briefly related the circumstances that had led us to consider the advantages of having all Theravada monks and nuns in this country properly and professionally registered with a responsible and known association or body, just as is the case with practically all other professions. I explained that this is not to be disrespectful of our various origins in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma, or wherever, but to develop for the UK a body not unlike what we have in those various Buddhist countries that registers, regulates and to some extent governs, represents and protects the Sangha. Furthermore nearly all our monasteries and temples in this country are small and it’s obvious, especially with some of the problems we have in common, that what each of us on our own can achieve is relatively limited but when we come together so much more can be done. A recent example has been the Immigration problem and I’m sure it made a difference when I was able to say at a meeting with the Immigration Minister that I was representing fifty temples. Registration will be voluntary and will take time and so I believe we should get on with it as soon as possible.

I’m pleased to say that we had a very useful discussion and now the work begins.

When our main business had concluded, Ven. Chao Khun Phrapanyabuddhiwithet (Ajahn Laow) raised two matters that he had brought from a recent meeting of Thai monks in Europe. The first concerned a so called work of art in Munich that features a large Buddha-Rupa on its side. This has caused a lot of offence and there’s been quite a bit about it I believe in the Thai press. But the protests have all been ignored. And the second was the refusal of Belgium to recognise Buddhism as a religion and in consequence of this there have been some difficulties put in the way of monks going to there. I don’t think there’s much we can do about the first matter but regarding the second I said I would make some enquiries about what EU law has to say about it.

All in all it was an excellent afternoon and I’m so grateful to everyone for going to the trouble of coming here.

A Few Days in September

Much of my fortunate and fascinating life, when I’m not at the Forest Hermitage, is spent in prison. I’m usually out about three days a week teaching Buddhism and meditation in up to five or six prisons. Some I go to regularly and some as the need arises. Lately I’ve been going back to the Isle of Wight, to a couple of prisons now clustered as one, that were amongst the very first I went to in 1977 when all this prison stuff began for me. It might seem a long way to go but it’s not a bad drive, then a pleasant cruise on the Solent, and an afternoon of agreeable company practising and discussing the Dhamma, before another cruise and the drive back. Not bad really!

There are naturally departures from this routine, for instance attendance at meetings of the Prison Service Chaplaincy Council and times when I’m teaching in other places, like Khun Peter’s restaurant on the first Sunday of every month and during term time, every Monday evening at Warwick University. I’m also the longest serving chaplain at Broadmoor Special Hospital and lately I’ve started going to Wellington College.

 

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I’m also occasionally reminded of my formative years at Drama School, that’s especially been the case in the last week or so because tomorrow, on September 30th, it will be fifty years to the day since we opened Drama Centre, London. By then I’d already been a drama student for two years. I’d been accepted at what is now the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama a week after my seventeenth birthday and there I spent two amazing years studying with the most extraordinary combination of teachers. We were utterly devoted to all of them but one of them, Yat Malmgren who is almost always known just as Yat, we held in special esteem. Then shortly before the conclusion of our second year, with one more year expected to go, we were dealt a cruel and unexpected blow. I can still to this day vividly remember the Principal, a rigid, unbending woman with one glass eye, which meant you could never work out who she was looking at or talking to, telling us that she had dismissed Yat and that John Blatchley, the Director of our Stage course and the rest of that extraordinary team had in consequence resigned. We were just expected to accept this and carry on with whoever else they managed to employ for the following year but we were having none of it. Furious, we met together and decided to ask Yat and John, if we could find the place and the means, would they give us our final year and they said, yes. So we left Central and set about the formation of what was to become Drama Centre, London. Since leaving a year later and since a small company that some of us formed collapsed, I have had practically no contact with my former fellow revolutionaries. Most of them I’ve never seen again. But two days ago I met one of them in London. A couple of years ago, Patricia Grant, was googling the people who had meant most to her in her life and came upon a piece about Yat, which I had written and published on my blog. And so she found me. Since then we’ve been in touch and now while she’s over visiting from Canada where she lives we’ve met again and on Friday we paid a nostalgic visit to the old building, the previous Methodist church in Prince of Wales Road, Chalk Farm, that used to house the Drama Centre.

 

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This weekend, yesterday and today, at Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon, there have been ceremonies and chanting to remember and honour, at fifty days after his death, the late Somdej Phra Buddhacharn (Somdej Kiew), the Abbot of Wat Saket in Bangkok and Chairman of the monastic panel acting on behalf of the Sangha Raja, the Supreme Patriarch. Somdej Kiew passed away on August 10th. He was 85. I had known him for almost forty years and he had been very kind to me so I was both honoured and pleased to be there yesterday and to be asked to say a few words as a tribute to him and the kindness he exemplified.

Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration

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In the second week of September, the glorious summer weather we’d been enjoying and which had appeared to be set to go on and on and on, suddenly, changed and that week the forecast for Sunday, September 15th was that we were to expect the first great storm of the autumn. High winds and lashing rain were supposed to sweep the country. This was not the news I wanted to hear for on that very Sunday we had chosen to hold our annual celebration at the Buddha Grove in HMP Spring Hill. This is when every year members of the Thai community come into the prison and cook for all the prisoners and for the Buddhist inmates and staff next door in Grendon Prison. First we have a gathering with prisoners, staff and invited guests at the Buddha Grove, which is of course in the open air, then everyone troops down to the dining hall where the food is served, and when that’s done we come back for a candle-lit circumambulation at the Buddha Grove, again outside. This has been going on for over twenty years and we’ve always been lucky with the weather but this year for the first time I began making contingency plans for an event indoors. On the day itself, the morning looked promising but as the day progressed the clouds gathered and when we drove into Spring Hill at a quarter to five that evening the promised storm appeared to be on its way, the wind was rising and at intervals flurries of teeming rain lashed the hillside. We waited and watched. I went down to visit the kitchen and admire all the good work being done there. I arranged for the serving of the food to be delayed as long as possible. Then I went back up to the main building and the Buddha Grove and we watched and we waited. Guests gradually arrived. And we waited – and the rain eased off – we decided to go for it. It was a bit damp, a bit blowy – we couldn’t light the candles, at least they wouldn’t stay lit, but we managed – the chanting, the speeches, after the food the circumambulation – everything! It was great.

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As he is every year, Lord Avebury was there, you can see him speaking to us in the right hand picture above. The current Governor and two previous governors were also present. And this year we were particularly honoured by the presence of the Minister from the Thai Embassy, Mom Rajawongs Sukhasvasti.

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And as always, thank you so much, everyone who helped – everyone, in small ways and big ways – to make this the great success it was. Anumodana!