Thailand again: Conference at MCU

The merry month of May, the month when we usually celebrate the anniversary of the Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Parinibbana, known traditionally as Vesakha Puja or Vesak, was for me this year a most unusual month. First of all I had to go to Thailand for a few days to speak at a conference on Mindfulness and then later in the month back here in England there was a five day meeting of the Elders of the Wat Pah Pong Sangha that I had to attend.

In February, on the last day of my visit to Burma and Thailand, I called at the Thai Buddhist university of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyaly (MCU), the university that a few years ago honoured me with a Doctorate. While I was there it was suggested that I might speak at a conference they were planning for May about my experience in prison chaplaincy. I was interested because although I have been doing this for forty years and Angulimala with its team of Buddhist prison chaplains has been active in British prisons for more than thirty years, the international Buddhist world has hardly heard of us. This conference was to be the third organised by the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) and was called, ‘Mindfulness: Traditions and Compassionate Applications.’ It was to have three main areas of interest: the first would look at the Texts, another the Meditation Traditions and the third, Contemporary Applications of Mindfulness. However, as the plans gathered steam my role switched from speaking on Chaplaincy in the Contemporary Applications section to talking on Ajahn Chah’s approach as one of the Meditation Traditions.

flew out on the evening of Thursday, the 4th, arrived the following afternoon and early on Saturday morning set off for MCU and the conference. Monks and nuns men and women lay Buddhists, scholars and students, from Buddhist and other countries filled the vast hall where the opening ceremony was being held. Once we had all taken our places, there was a pause while we waited for the guest of honour, the newly appointed Sangharaja, to arrive. The Sangharaja is the monk appointed by the King to head the Sangha in Thailand. As he entered the hall and made his way down the central aisle, he stopped several times to speak to a number of us before taking the stage, where, having paid respects to the Triple Gem he gave a short speech of welcome and formally declared the conference open. Then he left. The rest of the morning was occupied with more speeches and the inevitable photo call, which was a pretty impressive operation and a hot one out in the midday sun. After that there wasn’t much for me to do for the rest of the day. The next morning was an even earlier start for the opening of a new building before the conference’s three symposia got under way. Unfortunately, during the night we had had a massive electric storm and the outdoor preparations for that early event were mucked up. Setting it all right and restoring power and so on then took so long that the morning’s programme had to be shortened with the consequence that although Pa-Auk Sayadaw, who was first on, managed the whole of his prepared speech, I and the monk that followed me had only about 25 minutes each.

The gist of what I had to say was that Ajahn Chah’s method of encouraging mindfulness relied on certain structures. There was the physical layout of the monastery with its air of calm, logical serenity; then the structure of the day, the routine of morning and evening chanting and group meditation, the walk for alms to a nearby village, the ritual of the one meal, work and personal time to do one’s washing, memorise and meditate; then the backbone of our training was the observance of the Vinaya or monastic discipline which we had to learn and practise; and finally, the various duties to be performed for our seniors and other monks. All these structures were used as tools to develop and encourage a practice of mindfulness. I didn’t have time to do much more than give an outline but the synopsis introducing my effort, was included in the conference book where a number of the talks and contributions were published in varying degrees of detail.

On the third morning we all transferred to the UN Building in Bangkok to celebrate the UN Day of Vesak. Traffic around Bangkok can be a nightmare, especially early morning and so I had been told to take my time getting there as nothing of importance would be happening in the morning. I rolled in at about 10 o’clock and as I was being shown to my seat I was told that my speech – the first I’d heard of it – was due in about ten minutes! I think I did all right. In the afternoon, after yet another huge photo call and loads more photos – I had my picture taken so many times! – the popular Princess Soamsavali made an appearance and presented some of us with a very nice Buddha-Rupa each. Once the afternoon’s proceedings had wound to a close we all made our way by bus or car to Buddha Montone, a huge and beautiful park to the West of Bangkok dedicated to the Buddha. It’s set out as a mandala, which is what montone means, with a huge fifty-two foot high image of the Buddha at its centre and around it areas dedicated to the Buddha’s Birth, his Enlightenment, his First Sermon and his final Passing. Here we gathered, again with the Sangharaja presiding, for a ceremony of chanting. When that was over and the Sangharaja had left, we went in procession to the Buddha Image and circumambulated it three times. It was a very moving occasion.

And that was it. The next day I was on the plane back to England. In what was left of the week I managed to attend Buddha Day ceremonies in a couple of prisons, then on the Sunday was our public celebration of Vesakha Puja at The Forest Hermitage.

Towards the end of the month our meeting of Elders of the Ajahn Chah tradition and Wat Pah Pong was held at Amaravati. It was a big occasion over five days with a lot of monks from the various Wat Pah Pong branches throughout the world. There’s not much here to say about it other than it was a useful and enjoyable time.

As you can imagine, these two events rather disrupted my normal routine and if you will add to it the work being done to re-roof the Forest Hermitage I’m sure you will understand that my practice has had to adapt to unusual circumstances. But that’s all right, that’s how it should be because, you know, nothing stays the same and everything, well, practically everything, is uncertain and we never know quite what’s round the corner. We have only two certainties: that we will die and that everything else is uncertain! That’s it.
Be well and be happy.

By now it’s pretty well known that I’m away every January. I go to attend the memorial day for Ajahn Chah, held every year at his forest temple, Wat Pah Pong, in the North-East of Thailand on January 16th, the anniversary of his passing twenty-five years ago. It’s an amazing occasion, hundreds of monks gathered from the many branch monasteries all over Thailand as well as various far flung parts of the world, and thousands of white clad lay devotees, also from all over Thailand and all over the world. In the afternoon, following sermons, one for the laity and another for the monks, there’s a procession that wends its way out and around until it encircles the Ajahn Chah Chedi. Once gridlock is achieved and everyone is still, a dedication to Ajahn Chah is read out and then everyone surges forward to lay their offerings in and around the chedi. Far from diminishing as the years go by the crowd seems every year to get bigger and bigger and I expect that next year it’ll be even bigger as then it will be Ajahn Chah’s centenary.

In the three weeks or so that I am away I usually also visit friends and one or two other places that mean something to me. One of them is a charming little forest temple on a small island not too far from Wat Pah Pong. Its importance lies with the fact that here there once lived an extraordinary monk about whom we know very little, except that it was from him that the great Ajahn Mun, he who revived the forest and wandering tradition and inspired Ajahn Chah, learnt meditation. The silence that surrounds this monk, the fact that he wrote nothing and lived back in the days when there were no recording devices, not only adds to the mystique but reminds us that the silence he cultivated was the silence of a still and penetrative mind, a mind that cuts through to the very heart of wisdom and understanding. On that island they have preserved the hut in which he lived and in a chedi, specially built and dedicated to his memory, a few glass fronted show cases display his coarse hand-woven and hand-sewn robes, his almsbowl and a few simple, personal requisites. Monks like him, like Ajahn Mun and later Ajahn Chah, were extraordinary. They lived simply, had little and few expectations, could walk and wander for miles without map or compass and whatever their austere life threw at them, they could put up with it and learn from it. They had no audience and their aim was to leave no trace. Their’s was a way of discipline, contentment with little, endurance and the ability to watch their mind.

Inside Ajahn Sao’s Chedi

How times have changed. Even when I was a young monk living in the forest, we had no phones, nothing very special to eat and sometimes not much of it, practically nothing to read, letters went out only once in a while and took forever and you know, it didn’t matter. Well, we have to accept the world has changed and there’s no going back to that simplicity but there’s nothing to stop us drawing inspiration from the past and admiring the sheer courage, determination and tenacity of those great monks.

After a few days in North-East Thailand it was time to fly down to Bangkok and there board another plane for Mandalay in Upper Burma, described in the guide book that a Burmese couple in Warwick had thoughtfully provided us with, as not only the cultural heartland but also the spiritual hub of Buddhism in Myanmar. In and around Mandalay and across the mighty river on the Sagaing Hills are so many beautiful temples and ancient pagodas. They say that almost two thirds of the many thousands of monks in Burma live in and around Mandalay. And of course there are the nuns too, resplendent in their pink robes. We were so lucky, that same Burmese couple in Warwick had laid on for us a car and driver and so we spent two and a half days touring the many temples, the old royal palace, and climbing up and down countless steps. Then on our last day, as the dawn was breaking we embarked on a rough old boat to travel that great river, the Irrawaddy, immortalised by Kipling as ‘The road to Mandalay, where the flyin’-fishes play.’ We, of course, were leaving Mandalay, going back down that mighty river that flows the length of Burma to Rangoon and the sea but our destination was Bagan. For ten hours, from sunrise to sunset, we were on that boat, tacking back and forth across this tremendously wide but not very deep river, the captain faithful to a navigable channel. You might have thought it would have been boring after a while but not at all. It was absolutely marvellous.

When we disembarked it was already getting dark and by then we were tired but before us we had a day and a half to explore the crumbling ruins of Bagan, this magical place that teems with ancient brick built pagodas, many of which house huge and extraordinarily inspiring Images of the Buddha. You have some in this year’s calendar. Again, it was a lot of walking with many steps to climb up and down, and it was so hot.

Then lastly, there was a short flight to Rangoon and straight to the wonderful Shwe Dagon. This must be one of the most remarkable places on earth, a place that you just can’t get enough of. It’s a huge pagoda dedicated to the last four Buddhas and covered in gold, surrounded by all sorts of lesser temples and smaller pagodas and where you go just to be there. Some people are meditating, some telling beads, some are simply strolling and chatting but everyone is cocooned in a great cloud of respect and devotion.

Respect was the theme of our pilgrimage: respect for the Buddha and for the Dhamma that can lift us and enable us to purify our minds. Respect too for Ajahn Chah who dedicated his life to living the Dhamma and making it available.

My December Newsletter

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.

Spring Hill Buddha Grove

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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 me-with-treeAvebury 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!

My July Newsletter

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.

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Printed copies can be made available on request.

Vassa Visits

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.

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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.

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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.

Āsālha Pūjā and My Birthday

This year, Āsālha Pūjā, the anniversary of the first teaching the Buddha ever gave, fell on Tuesday, July20160717_111935abc 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.

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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
Enlightenment.
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.

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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!

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Lord Avebury’s Memorial

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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.

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This was what I had to say:

Good afternoon.

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.

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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.

Back to Thailand again!

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.

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From there we went up the road to Wat Pah Pong and to the Ajahn Chah chedi to pay our respects at his relics.

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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.

Burma in January

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!