Should Buddhism be the State Religion of Thailand?

Sometime ago I was asked if I would give my support to the campaign to make Buddhism the State religion of Thailand. I was reluctant and did not believe that a State religion was a good thing. I thought that it damaged the religion that was chosen and that because of that favouritism for one and the resultant bias others would be discriminated against. But as I thought about it and began to write I realised that we in this country have discovered a powerful argument in its favour.

On the one hand, it can be argued that any religion is better off without the baggage of national, cultural or political ties; and that the ethnic and religious diversity within a nation is safer when there is not a dominant, national religion.

But on the other hand, it can as well be argued that a nation without a national religion is one bereft of moral compass and encouragement to virtue and integrity; and without a national religious commitment the diversity of faiths and the freedom to practise a religion of choice is neither understood nor protected.

Here in England the Church of England is the established religion headed by the Monarch and the latter of those two positions has been our experience. Religion has been protected, not only the national, established church but the various minority faiths as well. We are free to practise our religion of choice and diversity is respected. For example, in February I was invited to attend, along with the leaders of other faiths working in prison chaplaincy, a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is keen to understand and support our work.

Providing therefore that it is tolerant of other faiths, I have come round to supporting the establishment in law of a national religion.

Buddhism exemplifies and actively promotes loving-kindness and compassion, tolerance and understanding and has long been at the heart of Thai culture making a priceless contribution to its welfare and development. I believe, therefore, that it deserves to be recognised as the national religion of Thailand.

January in Thailand.

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This year my annual pilgrimage to SE Asia was in two parts, the first to NE Thailand and Wat Pah Pong for the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day and the second a short trip to Burma, to Pagan and the Shwe Dagon in Rangoon.

Every year but one since the passing of Ajahn Chah on January 16th, 1992, I have attended first the funeral and then the annual Ajahn Chah Memorial Days. Way back when these annual events first began I determined that so far as I could and for as long as they might continue I would be there every year. Since then I’ve only missed one year when I had the flu and couldn’t travel. I go to pay my respects, to remember Luang Por Chah and his extraordinary example and to go back to my monastic roots and to privately renew my commitment to do my best to practise the Buddha-Dhamma in the style and to the standards that Ajahn Chah taught. People sometimes, perhaps tongue in cheek, speak of this trip as my annual holiday, and yes, it is a break, but that’s not really what it’s about, really it’s a pilgrimage.

This year, having made sure I could be at the first of Warwick Uni Buddhist Society’s Monday meditation evenings, I flew out for Bangkok on Tuesday January 12th, arriving the following afternoon and then jumping in another smaller plane to go onto Ubon by the evening. Of course it was dark by the time I was met and driven to Wat Pah Nanachat where I was to stay for a few days but, nevertheless, it was good to be back. The following morning I only managed a short almsround to the people gathered outside the main gate and then after the meal I was driven to another large forest temple near the Cambodian border to visit my DSCF7014old friend Ajahn Nudang. Now in indifferent health following a couple of strokes, he’s a little bit older than me, a little bit senior and a very dear friend and teacher of mine. We’ve known each other for forty-five years. I spent the afternoon with him, watched him career around on the electric tricycle they’ve bought him to get about on and admired his new eating hall.

On the 14th I managed a longer almsround through the village of Bungwy and that day after

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the meal I went over to Wat Nong Pah Pong for a meeting of the foundation that looks after the publications and image of Ajahn Chah. And from there we went to have a cup of tea with another old friend.

The next day was the big day itself, the 16th, the anniversary of Luang Por Chah’s passing in 1992 at the age of 73. We went over from Nanachat to Wat Pah Pong at around midday. That was just in time for the Dhamma Desanas, one for the laity and another for the monks. DSCF7394DSCF7381

Immediately they were both over we quickly assembled in the main sala and prepared for the procession that then slowly wound its way out through the old main gate, along the path that skirts the old boundary wall, down one of the avenues that approaches the Ajahn Chah Chedi and then partially around the chedi until gridlock. DSC02589DSC02605

Then groups of us took up positions at the four chedi doors and the Acariya Puja in honour of Ajahn Chah was recited. Afterwards we placed the flower offerings we had been carrying, paid our respects and retreated to the shade of the outside sala for cool refreshment.

This year amongst the thousands gathered at Wat Pah Pong there was a group of Thai people from England, people associated with me who often come to the Forest Hermitage. They had organised one of the free food stalls and their offering had been egg and chips! They were joined by another group, mostly from Bangkok and after the 16th for a couple of days we went together to visit some of the more local branch monasteries of Wat Pah Pong. One of them was Ajahn Nudang’s and another the huge and beautiful forest monastery on the banks of a colossal man-made lake close the Lao and Cambodian borders where I had spent my second year as a monk in 1973. DSC02625And on the way back from there we called briefly at the small island wat where the great Ajahn Sao, the teacher of Ajahn Mun, had lived. Ajahn Mun had been an extraordinary monk who spent most of his life wandering in remote places practising meditation and teaching those brave enough and committed enough to stay with him. Almost single handed he revived the Forest tradition. For our group’s last day DSC02632we went to Sakorn Nakorn to visit Ajahn Mun’s museum and on the way back we spent the late afternoon and early evening at the DSC02707great chedi of Dhat Panom. While we were there I was privileged to be allowed to go inside the chedi and later I took great pleasure in being just outside the main compound, soaking up the atmosphere and listening to the birds roosting, the novices chanting and watching the light change as the evening drew in. DSC02742

After that I think I had a day when I didn’t go anywhere and then it was down to Bangkok, some old friends and a few days rest by the sea before – Burma. And I’ll tell you about that next time.

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The Road Towards the Exit from the Prison of Hatred.

My  Dhamma Talk given at Amaravati’s Kathina 2015

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I quite confidently thought I was coming here for a fairly easy time. I’m at that age when I quite enjoy having an easy time. However, I am very pleased and honoured to be asked to speak to you for a little while. I’m not a great talker, so don’t expect too much. I won’t be keeping you for very long.

It is very nice to be here; I enjoy coming to these occasions – and I quite enjoy too the connection because, as Ajahn Amaro has told you, I came over here with Luang Por Chah and Ajahn Sumedho, on what was supposed to have been a two month visit. It took me nine and a half years to get back to Thailand. I well remember the day when Luang Por Chah called Ajahn Sumedho and me together and said that he, of course, would have to go back, but we would stay.

I must say I was quite pleased really. We were in the Hampstead Vihara , which was the place where I first discovered Buddhism. At that time, I had known and had been taught by Kapilavaddho, who founded the English Sangha Trust. Before I went to Thailand, I went to see him, and he said to me, “You got to promise to come back. They go out there and they never come back: that Panyavaddho is never going to come back. You make sure you come back.” So I said, “Yes.” I promised I’d come back. So, that’s what I did.

And because Buddhism had meant so much to me, I felt I wanted to make it available, or help to, or have some involvement in making it available in this country. In some small way I’ve done that, particularly in the prisons. I didn’t seek out to go to the prisons. But rather the Prison Service back in those days had the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara as their address for matters Buddhist. So it was in 1977 that suddenly we had some letters and phone calls from prisons asking for someone to go to visit their Buddhist prisoners.

I remember I was on a train with Luang Por Chah and I asked him what he thought. I was a bit nervous about asking him as I was wondering what he would say. But I asked him what he thought about my going to the prisons and he just said, ‘Pai!’ It means ‘Go!’ So that was it. And I’ve been going to prison ever since. It’s been a long sentence! So long that I keep seeing not only the same prisoners again and again on sentence after sentence, but I’m even seeing their sons. I sometimes fear that I’m going to die in a prison.

But I quite enjoy what I do in the prisons. There have been some great responses from people in prison. Most of the Buddhists in prison have come to Buddhism while in prison. Lately, of course, we’ve had an influx of Vietnamese, but otherwise most of the guys I see – I go mostly to men’s prisons – have come to Buddhism while in prison, and it’s meant quite a lot to them. Some of them have made enormous changes, at great odds too. They don’t have the luxury that you have of being able to come to a place like this (Amaravati) or go to a book shop and browse the many books that are now available on Buddhism, and all that kind of thing. They can’t do that or look on the Internet and see all the stuff that is available there. They can’t do any of that. And they don’t have the opportunity to encounter a kind of Buddhist culture, as you do. And often, of course, their peers and friends ridicule them for what they are doing. But such is their commitment that they keep at it. And that is marvellous. You have to admire the resolve of some of these people, their determination to practise, to improve themselves, and to make changes. And that, of course, is what we are supposed to be doing with the Buddhist practice, to make changes, some very fundamental and important changes in our lives.

Today we have come to celebrate the Sangha. It’s a great Sangha occasion. In the prisons, a few years ago – well it seems to me now quite a long time ago – the Prison Service asked me what Buddhist festivals could be permitted. As we have people of different schools of Buddhism, and all that, and they would only allow us three festivals a year, I decided that we would celebrate the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. So it was fairly easy, we chose Vesakha Puja for Buddha Day and Asalha Puja, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first sermon, for Dhamma Day. And then I decided to have Pavarana day, the last day of the Vassa, as Sangha Day.

Because of that I’m very conscious as I go through each year of celebrating and contemplating these three jewels. Lately as I’ve been going around the jails we’ve had some celebrations of the Sangha. So I’ve been talking to the men about the Sangha. About the Ariya Sangha, about the conventional Sangha and the huge debt we have to the conventional Sangha for maintaining and keeping alive the Buddha sasana for all these many years. It’s been no mean feat!

Some years ago, I was invited to a meeting about chaplaincy in hospitals. They assumed I knew something about chaplaincy because I had been going to the prisons for all this time. So I went along to this meeting, I sat through it, and they started talking about what criteria they should put in place when deciding whether a person was fit to be a Buddhist chaplain or not. They eventually turned to me and said, “What do you do?” So I said, “Well we have a form, people fill in a form, and on that form, on the back of it, there are some questions, like: How long have you been a Buddhist? What kind of Buddhist are you? Would you be willing to facilitate schools of Buddhism other than your own?” Then I said, “There are a couple questions about the precepts.” Suddenly, and this was an ad-hoc group of people of different Buddhist traditions, there was this kind of eruption. This woman I remember wittering on about, “There are a lot of Buddhists who eat meat and drink alcohol.” All I had said was “precepts,” and I hadn’t gone any further than that. I was a bit, sort of, taken aback. Eventually it simmered down and I was able to carry on. Then someone said to me, “What do you do if someone drinks alcohol?” I said, “I don’t appoint them.” MAYHEM! There was a guy from the Buddhist Society in London going on about some famous Zen poet who wrote the most magnificent verse and was drunk all the time. I don’t know what that had to do with precepts.

I came out of that meeting really quite shocked. I’ve been around a lot, and I’ve mixed with some of the most infamous criminals in the country and so it takes quite a lot to shock me but I came out of the meeting quite shocked. I thought, “My goodness, Buddhism has only been in this country five minutes and here we are wanting to ‘not bother’ with the precepts.”

So you see, what a tremendous achievement it has been, by the Sangha, to keep Buddhism alive for 2,500 years. It has not been easy. But the Sangha has done a marvellous job. I know that in some places the Sangha is not in as perfect condition as it could be. Inevitably there has been decline. Originally of course, the Ariya Sangha and the conventional Sangha were one. Those first followers of the Buddha who requested the going forth were already Ariyas. They were already Sotapannas. And so in those days the standards were much higher than we have now. There has been an inevitable decline, but that’s the way of it. That’s the way of all that is born, it declines, our bodies decline and eventually pass away. Everything, as the Buddha himself said, when he was near the point of death, and his follower Ananda was weeping, “How could it be otherwise, than that which is born should die?” And so it is that there is this inevitable decline. But still, the Sangha has maintained for this long period of time, the Buddha’s sasana. We can benefit, we have it, we have the opportunity that it affords to make changes in our lives, to improve our lives, to be better people. And I’m happy to say that people in prison pick up on that very quickly because, believe you me, having made terrible mistakes they are very anxious to put those mistakes right, and to somehow change themselves and change their lives. There is much more of that than you would imagine. And I’m happy to do what I can to help them along that way. And so we celebrate the Sangha; we celebrate the Sangha as the conventional Sangha and as the Ariya Sangha.

I remember Luang Por Chah saying to us on one occasion that at the very least you ought to expect to become Sotapanna. I thought, “Oh my goodness!” I hadn’t really considered very much at that point, attainments and so on but there it was, that’s what he said, “You should expect to be at least a Sotapanna.” I think it’s important that we do remind ourselves of the goal, of the purpose of where all this should be taking us, otherwise we can just get lost in the ceremonies and the lifestyle and not really do what we’re supposed to be doing.

I’ve been thinking too about the effect of the Sangha. Kapilavaddho was very keen, back in those far off days, that the Sangha should be established in this country. That’s why he founded the English Sangha Trust. He wanted a Sangha here. You know the presence of a good temple, the presence of the Sangha has an effect because you have there men and women, you have people who are doing something very unusual. That unusual work is an inspiration, and it changes the people who come to that place. It has an effect in that area. I noticed that in Thailand, you know. Occasionally I did some short walks, tudongs, I didn’t do very much of that, but I did a little bit, and it was noticeable when you went through a village where there was a good temple, the village was different. It was cleaner, tidier, and the attitude of the people was better. When you went through a village where there was no temple or there was no temple activity, the whole place seemed sloppier, dirtier and not as tidy. It makes a difference to have the presence of the Sangha. It makes a difference.

You know we live in a very imperfect world. A world which is constantly expressing those defilements of greed, hatred and delusion, and sometimes in terrible ways. Everyone here is, I’m sure, pretty conscious of what’s happened recently in Paris. A terrible expression of those poisons which invade and spoil the minds of all of us. When you have the Sangha, when you have the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha near you, things begin to change and change for the better. When people say to me, “What can we do when this sort of thing is happening, when this sort of violence and warfare is around us, what can we do?”

“What can we do?” Well, if you are Buddhist, there is a lot you can do. You can do some work on yourself: that’s a major contribution. And to support the presence of the Sangha is another major contribution. It makes changes, it alters the atmosphere, and it gives an inspiration to what is good.

People often come together for pretty unskilful purposes. It’s rare that people come together for what is skilful. I’ve thought about this particularly when I was in Thailand a couple years ago and I was at Luang Por Chah’s memorial day. Thousands of people gathered because of something good, fine and inspiring. Marvellous! And today you all have come here for something good. Marvellous. If you didn’t have the Sangha here, you wouldn’t be doing this. You’d be off at a football match or somewhere, or watching television or reading something which would be doing no good to your mind. But here you are doing something which is improving, beneficial, not only to you personally, but of course once you are improving yourself, you are improving your society, you are improving your family, you are improving everything! Marvellous!

In the light of this violence and unpleasantness, the Sangha is an inspiration. And what the Buddha taught, don’t lose sight of that. It’s very tempting when there is violence, when there is unpleasantness, when people are threatened and hurt, to respond in a similar fashion. Already we’ve heard people saying, not only in France but in this country too, that the perpetrators of that, and Muslims in general, should be shot, murdered and terrible things done to them. And it’s in a way understandable, people get hurt, angry and frightened.

You just heard from Ajahn Amaro that I live in Warwickshire, in Shakespeare country. It’s real Shakespeare country. Shakespeare used to walk the lane that I live on. He is alleged to have shot a deer just down the road from me. It’s a very nice place. But around me, as I walk, and I walk quite a lot, I have a personal trainer, he’s a four-legged personal trainer, he takes me out every day exercising. As I go on these training walks, every day, I am aware of the bomb craters, the old bomb craters in the fields. We are quite close to Coventry and seventy-five years ago yesterday morning, Coventry woke up to utter devastation, after 11 hours of aerial bombardment. The city was wrecked. It was a terrible thing. And there around me are these memorials, these old bomb craters left by bombs that were dropped, let off as the Germans were fleeing the scene. I think about it quite a bit.

I was born near the end of the Second World War and I grew up with bomb sites in another part of the country. So I think about it from time to time. But you know, Coventry has been rather marvellous because it suffered in that terrible way, and yet, although of course, inevitably the first thoughts were to fight back, but then later – reconciliation! They have made a really big point in Coventry of working for reconciliation and for friendship. And that’s a marvellous thing. Because no amount of violence and treating “like with like” in that way, will bring anything good.

I remember when I was about 8 years old, not long after the end of the war, my father ran a football team and his football team suddenly invited a German team to come and play. So I’d grown up with this aversion for the Germans, and the only words of German I ever learned were in my comics, where of course the English soldiers were always beating the Germans, and the Germans were saying things like “Achtung” and “Himmel.” That’s all I ever learned. I remember sitting at the dining table one day and these Germans were coming to play my father’s football team and I made some ‘not very nice’ comment about the Germans, which I suppose I thought was clever of me, and my father, I don’t think he actually hit me, but he certainly put me down, “Shut up, enough of that. We don’t want any more of that!” That stayed with me you know. I really respect him for that, that’s one of my best memories of my father. Quite right, it’s over, and you have to repair, and the only way to do that, to deal with this hatred and aversion is by ‘not hating’. Sometimes asking people to love is a bit much, but you can not hate, not get caught up in more aversion, more dislike and disharmony. Let’s do what we can to bring peace into this world.

It will never be a perfect world, we have to acknowledge that. But we can do what we can to make it better, and doing what you are doing here today makes it a bit better. Supporting the Sangha makes it a bit better. Ensuring that the Sangha has a place and a presence makes it a bit better. Practising, yourself, makes it even better. Keeping the five precepts makes it better. Take them seriously, because they are so very important.

I go on all the time, with especially the young people who come to me, about that fifth precept. Because it’s very popular now to break the fifth precept. People don’t like much keeping that fifth precept. Society condones it and thinks that it’s part of ‘what you’ve got to do’. I used to be an actor and actors break the fifth precept pretty regularly I can tell you. But, there is a terrible danger in breaking that precept: go around our British prisons like me and you see the harm and damage that the breach of that fifth precept has done. People’s lives ruined in one night, one minute, because of overindulgence in alcohol or drugs or both. So be careful! Keep those precepts, you make the world a better place. Keep the precepts, develop loving-kindness and you make the world even better. Do it not just one day but several days. Try to keep the precepts with you all the time. Try to keep your mind focusing on virtues like loving-kindness and compassion and you change the world. This is the way. This is the way to defeat all the darkness and unpleasantness.

I won’t go on too much, there are other people you want to hear. But thank you very much for inviting me and I hope what I’ve said may be of some use to you and of some benefit, and do just keep coming here and keep practising and do your very best to make life better for yourself and for all those around you.

Sadhu, sadhu. sadhu…

With thanks to Ajahn Jotipālo who kindly went to the trouble of transcribing this talk.

Lord Avebury died today, Sunday, 14th February.

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Today I had intended to write up and with a few photos publish an account of my recent trip to Thailand and Burma. Only last Sunday I spent some time at the bedside of my great friend and Patron of Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy, Eric, Lord Avebury, and showed him some photos of the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day and the three days that Ajahn Manapo and I had spent in Burma last month. Eric was very frail but quite lucid and we discussed what he would like at his funeral and the memorial to mark his passing, which he well knew to be imminent. ‘It’s all right, it can’t be helped,’ was how he viewed it. Earlier, with Lyulph, his eldest son, I had been to visit the family burial ground where his body will be interred. He was pleased to know that the snowdrops were in bloom.

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Now he’s gone. He passed peacefully away shortly before 2am this morning.

Eric, so sorry you had to go but that’s the way of it and as you so often said, it can’t be helped. Thank you so much, for all you did for Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy, of which you were the Patron for so many years, for all you did for prisoners and the oppressed, for being such a shining example and not least for turning me onto computers and modern technology. I’m so glad we were able to have some time together last Sunday and that I was able to speak to you on the phone a couple of days ago. All the very best for a good rebirth and may you attain the ultimate and secure peace of Nibbana.

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A Roundup of the Old Year and a New Year Resolution.

Before my New Year resolution to make a better job of looking after this blog, I’d better bring it up to date. Apart from that hurried post with the ‘before and after’ photo to mark the thirtieth anniversary of The Forest Hermitage, my last entry was four months ago, just as we were about to enter the Vassa.

This year Asalha Puja, the anniversary and celebration of the Buddha’s first sermon, fell on the last day of July with the Entry to the Vassa, the three month long ‘Rains Retreat’, following the day after on the first day of August, so we celebrated both on Sunday, August 2nd. It was a great occasion with a grand group of people, including a large party from London who arrived in the coaches organised by Khun Peter. The sun shone and following the triple circumambulation we sat on the lawn for meditation and a talk from me. My only concern as the afternoon wore on was that I and perhaps some others might end up with a touch of the sun. As usual people were so generous and the temple wound up better off by around three thousand pounds. Anumodana!

During the Vassa, while we’re not permitted to spend even one night away, except for a few specific and serious reasons and then only for a maximum of seven nights, contrary to what many people believe, we can go out and even travel, so I maintained my prison visits and even managed a few other commitments such as TBSUK.

The Theravada Buddhist Sangha in the UK (TBSUK) , which I Chair, was formed at my suggestion in 2007. It’s really an attempt to link the fifty or so Theravada temples and to bring together the many monks and nuns from various parts of the world who are currently living in the UK. We share various difficulties and together we can help each other overcome some of them. We meet twice a year in different temples. In March we met at the Oxford Buddha Vihara and in August we met once again at Wat Mahathat in King’s Bromley.  There, we spent some time developing the idea that had been discussed at the last meeting of a small conference in London to debate or discuss the problem Buddhists are having with the Muslims in SE Asia and Sri Lanka. After all, practically nothing has appeared in the media here about the murder of monks in Southern Thailand, nor the troubles in Bangla Desh which have spilled over into Burma. It was felt that finding a way to explain the concern could be useful. Then we turned to the progress being made to turn the TBSUK into a professional body. Gradually the vision for this is taking shape and its value as we build for the future is being appreciated. And almost inevitably – we never seem to get away from Immigration – concerns, complaints and difficulties were reported with Immigration.

On the prison front, as well as my regular prison visits I have made some to prisons that have no Buddhist chaplain and where we are having trouble finding a suitable person to perform that service; I have hosted and spoken to yet another gathering of prison personnel on the Prison Service’s World Faiths Course; and as the Buddhist Adviser to NOMS and the Prison Service I have attended meetings of the Prison Service Chaplaincy Council; also, here, we’ve had a couple of the quarterly Angulimala Workshops for members of Angulimala’s team of Buddhist Prison Chaplains, which have both gone well.

One day in September, the sixteenth to be precise, was for me a very unusual day. I spent most of the afternoon and evening in Soho. In the afternoon I had a meeting at the Groucho to discuss the possibility of my recording a reading of the Sutta Nipata. It’s the sort of thing I can do fairly well and I would love to do but after a very agreeable meeting and then later thinking it over I decided that this was a commercial venture that I really couldn’t participate in. It was also probably the least readable version of the Sutta Nipata ever that was wanted, so in a way it was a bit of a relief in the end not to do it.

The later part of that extraordinary day was spent a few doors further down Dean Street, in Royalty Mews at the Giles Foreman Centre for Acting, where I attended the launch of the long, long awaited book by Christopher Fettes on the Laban-Carpenter Theory of Movement Psychology adapted and brought to completion by the great and wonderful Yat Malmgren. I was taught at Central and then at Drama Centre by both Yat and Christopher. It was a really marvellous evening. I was early, one of the first to arrive, so I found myself a suitable and comfortable place to sit from where I could watch as people entered and greeted each other. The rain outside was atrocious and the traffic in places gridlocked and so Christopher was late arriving, which gave me time and opportunity to observe, to soak up the scene and to meet and chat with various people, some, like Simon Callow and Nicola Johnston, who I already knew, some who I didn’t but who had heard of me and at least one, Catherine Blatchley, who more than fifty years ago had taught me at Central and then at Drama Centre. Christopher eventually appeared and the launch got under way. Giles introduced things, Simon Callow made a brief speech and after one or two other contributions it was Christopher’s turn. Earlier he’d been heard to say he supposed he would have to say something – nothing very profound, of course. Well, when he started, at first no one could quite make out what was going on. What was he up to? Then all of a sudden the penny dropped, we were in a class. Christopher was giving a class. Fifty years melted away and like I suppose everyone else, I was on the edge of my seat! He may be eighty-six but I can tell you, the teacher is still present! Marvellous!

The next big event of the year for me was the Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration. Since it was built by prisoners in 1992, every year bar one, we have held an extraordinary celebration at Springhill Open Prison. As well as ceremonies at the Buddha Grove, a crowd of Thai people have invaded the kitchen to cook and offer a Thai meal for all the prisoners and staff. And with their customary amazing generosity they did it all again this year. In a letter to me afterwards the Governor described it as one of the highlights of the year at Springhill. I am so grateful to the Thai cooks and to the monks from several temples who joined me for the evening for the chanting and to lead the candlelit circumambulation.

In the month following the end of the Vassa, we can have the Kathina ceremony, that is, where five or more monks have spent the Vassa together. Needless to say, with only the two of us a Kathina at the Forest Hermitage was not possible. Instead we had a huge gathering – at least for us – at which robes and various supplies were offered. It was a tremendous occasion and of course, not only a celebration of the completion of the Vassa but of thirty years of being here as well. Yes, it’s thirty years since I came to live at The Forest Hermitage and, as they say, they’ve been interesting times! And I must say that not only for this event but for all the years we have been here we are so grateful for the generous support we have been honoured to receive.

At Amaravati in Hertfordshire it was a different scene. There there were many monks for the Vassa and their Kathina was, as it is every year, a Royal Kathina when the Kathina robe is offered by HM the King of Thailand. Once again I was invited and as a Chao Khun I was asked to recite the blessing for His Majesty. I was also asked to give a talk and so I took the opportunity to say a little about the importance of the Sangha, especially its role in the preservation of the Buddha Dhamma these many, many years. And following the murderous outrage in Paris a few days before and remembering the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry just the day before, I also spoke in praise of reconciliation.

And so, once again we arrived at Christmas, a time to celebrate and be reminded of Peace and Goodwill; and the New Year, a time for a fresh start and renewed determination. To help that along we had our annual New Year’s Eve sitting and a healthy crowd joined us to see out the old and see in the New Year. A Very Happy New Year to one and all!

30th Anniversary

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We have just completed the thirtieth vassa of The Forest Hermitage (วัดป่าสันติธรรม).

I have spent all of those thirty vassas here. It hardly seems possible! But, there you are, time flies and rolls for ever onward.

‘Life hath but one direction and time’s its only measure!’

Latest News, Sunday, July 26th.

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The last two or three weeks at the Forest Hermitage have been something of a departure from the norm.

We lost Luke who had been my regular driver for the last three years. He decided he’d had enough of driving all over the place and spending hours hanging around in prison car parks waiting for me. This has been quite a blow and since then I’ve been struggling to make my regular prison visits. If anyone knows of a man – it has to be a man – who might be able to take on this driving job, three days a week, usually afternoons or evenings, please get in touch ASAP.

20150630_110537-1SDC11757Then there have been a flurry of birthdays. Maureen was 85 at the end of June. Then Khun Ting had her birthday in the same week as mine, so on the 16th July it was off to Nottingham for a celebration at Khun Ting’s restaurant and the next day there was quite a crowd here at the Forest Hermitage, and the day after that, bearing cards (see at the top of the page for the selection), cakes and goodies for my 71st on the 17th.

A week ago Ajahn Manapo set off on a tudong walk around the Peak District. Not sure when he’s due back but it has to be sometime this week because on Thursday it’s Asalha Puja and the following day it’ll be time to enter another Vassa.

Asalha Puja is the anniversary of the Buddha’s first sermon, known as the Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma, in which he expounded the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path as the way out of Suffering. That’s on the Full Moon of the ancient Indian month of Asalha and the last day of that lunar month. The next day the Rainy Season commences and with it the Vassa, the three month period when all bhikkhus have to remain resident in one place. This was ordered by the Buddha in response to complaints from farmers whose rice crops had been damaged by so many bhikkhus wandering here and there. In modern times it’s become more of a retreat period and a time too when many lay people join in by increasing their commitment to precepts and the practice of meditation.

As usual, our celebration of these significant events, occurring as they do on inconvenient weekdays, will take place on the nearest Sunday, that is next Sunday, August 2nd from around 10 o’clock in the morning. Do come if you can.

AGGAMAHĀ SADDHAMMA JOTIKADHAJA

Shortly before I left for Thailand in January I was told that on Burmese Independence Day, January 4th,  U Thein Sein, President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, had conferred on me the religious title of AGGAMAHĀ SADDHAMMA JOTIKADHAJA.

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I was asked to present myself in Burma towards the end of February in plenty of time for the investiture ceremony on March 4th in the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw. I had to think what to do. I was due to return to the UK from Thailand at the beginning of February and I was obviously hoping to catch up with my prison visits and my Monday evening meetings at Warwick Uni. Then on Sunday, March 1st we had scheduled a Magha Puja celebration here at the Forest Hermitage and for the following Saturday, on March 7th, I had planned an all day workshop for Angulimala’s Buddhist prison chaplains. Neither of these could be cancelled or moved and I had to be at both. So I worked out that I could fly out on the evening of March 1st and return early the following Saturday. I checked with Ven. Dhammasami at Oxford with whom I was liaising and when my plans were approved the tickets were booked.

Unfortunately, a week after I got back from Thailand on February 4th I went down again with the same flu-like bug I’d had before and bronchitis again. It took two courses of antibiotics and a lot of care to make sure I was fit in time for that long-haul flight on March 1st but I just made it.

So, according to plan, on Sunday, March 1st, we had a marvellous Magha Puja day here in the morning and early afternoon and then when everyone had gone I quickly packed my bowl and robes and various bits and pieces and made for Heathrow. At Bangkok I was met off the plane by a very dignified gentleman from the Burmese Embassy who was there to look after me while I waited for the flight to Rangoon. Unfortunately, he could speak neither English or Thai and as my Burmese is practically non-existent our communication was limited, to say the least. At Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport I was joined first by Ken, who was to be my attendant for the trip, and then by Ven. Dhammasami, who had been attending a meeting at MahaChula University.

We landed at Yangon (Rangoon) a few minutes before 7pm on Monday, March 2nd and after being greeted at the airport we were driven to a nearby hotel for the night. Waiting for me at the hotel was a retired Burmese woman doctor who, when she was working at the hospital in Newport, used to come and see me at the little vihara I had on the Isle of Wight. That was thirty-two years ago and I hadn’t seen Dr Thet Thet Nwe since! A happy reunion. Thankfully my room had a bath and blistering hot water so before I slept I was able to soak away some of the aches and pains of my long journey. It wasn’t long though before I had to be up and back at the airport, this time to fly to Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital, where that morning the President was offering the lunch meal of the day to all of us monks who were receiving various titles and awards. It was only a thirty-five minute flight before we landed at this brand new, state of the art, international airport. Mind you, the international bit isn’t open yet and there aren’t many flights in and out but as with practically everything in this new, well planned, oriental garden city they have had the sense to think ahead and plan for the future. Thus the roads are extremely wide, even though there’s not much traffic yet. But I bet it’ll increase and when it does they’re ready for it. We were driven to the hotel and then almost immediately decanted into a small coach and taken to the massive hall where U Thein Sein offered the dana meal.

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The hotel was a sort of upmarket motel with each of the several large bungalows comprising a pair of semi-detached suites. Ken and I had two large rooms, a hallway and a good sized bathroom, again with a bath and piping hot water. My meal the next day, that is on Wednesday, March 4th, the day of the investiture, was served in my room and soon after a buggy was at the door to take me down to the coach. Burmese monks invariably carry a large fan that they hold in front of them. DSC02108.JPG AThe previous day for the President’s dana we had been equipped with bright yellow fans but now for the investiture it was deep red fans. I don’t know why nor do I know what was inscribed on them. The little coach, led by a motorcycle outrider, took us to the same hall as on the day before but this time we processed in through a fairly packed congregation. Glued to my red fan was a number in Burmese numerals, which of course I couldn’t read, and that was the number of my seat and generally my place in the proceedings. Next to my seat there was a box with above it a sign bearing my name and new title, a large framed certificate and a flag. It turned into a long afternoon, and much of the time I hadn’t a clue what was happening. At one point someone came along and presented the certificate and later on there was a sudden flurry of activity, chairs were pushed aside, young men appeared and off we went in a procession with several of these young men walking ahead bearing one’s flag, box, name plate and certificate and another following holding aloft a multi-tiered umbrella.

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The procession went back down through the hall, then outside and onto the road, before rounding a corner and then proceeding along to where a line of tented stalls began, the first of which belonged to the President who made the first offering. The stalls mostly seemed to belong to Government ministries and various companies and contained the offerings they were to make, but it wasn’t only them, on both sides as we walked for what seemed ages our path was lined with crowds of people showering us with things they wanted to give us. Thank goodness for the small band of young men following me with large sacks. I don’t know now how many sackfuls were collected but it was several and a lot of stuff, which later we left to be distributed to some poor local monasteries.

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The day after, Thursday, Ken and I were given a whirlwind tour of Nay Pyi Taw. We glimpsed from a distance the magnificent new parliament building and we paid a brief visit to the precise replica of India’s Mahabodhi Temple, the original built by Asoka at the site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Replicas of the other major Buddhist holy places were also to be seen nearby but for these we had time only to drive past for time was running out and we still had to eat, pack and make it to the airport in time for the afternoon flight to Yangon (Rangoon).

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Later, back in Yangon, we spent the late afternoon and early evening walking around the magnificent Shwe Dagon, the huge Cetiya that is dedicated to and believed to house the relics of the last four Buddhas. Our small pagoda at the Forest Hermitage was named after it and called the English Shwe Dagon and has inside soil from this great Shwe Dagon in Yangon as well as images of the last four Buddhas all of which were presented to me when I visited during my short stay in 1987. With me and the group with me at the Shwe Dagon this time as we walked and talked was a young Burmese woman who two or three years ago was President of Warwick Uni Buddhist Society. All the while she was at Warwick, every Monday Neelam would be there for meditation, sitting bang in front of me. Every week, that is, so long as there wasn’t an important football match involving Barcelona!

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On Friday, on our last morning in Burma, we dashed out very early to visit Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung, the monastery where I’d stayed in 1987 and whose abbot, Ven. Sayadaw U Thila Wunta otherwise known as Aung Min Gaung Sayadaw, had stayed at the Forest Hermitage in 1988 and supervised the building of our English Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Afterwards, back at the hotel, it was time to eat, then pack and get ready and after a last look at the views of Rangoon from the hotel roof, we were driven to the airport in time to board Thai Airways’ afternoon flight for Bangkok.

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At Bangkok I had a seven-and-a-half hour wait for the midnight-plus flight to London. So I escaped from the airport and went to the kuti where I usually stay in Bangkok and spent the time in relative comfort, showering and rearranging some of my baggage to accommodate some Buddhist rosaries that I wanted to bring back for our Buddhist prisoners. Then Ken took me to the airport and I was on my way back to England.

And I made it back to Warwick and The Forest Hermitage in time for the day-long Angulimala workshop.

Now looking back it seems almost like a dream – it was over so quickly. But it was a marvellous few days and I am so grateful to everyone who contributed in so many different ways to enable me to be there and for the honour that was bestowed upon me.

Thailand in January

At the end of last year I came down with some kind of flu type virus and bronchitis. The plan had been for Ajahn Manapo to go on ahead of me to Thailand and so for our New Year celebrations I was on my own and not at all well. Fortunately, by Monday, January 5th I was on the mend and able to go to Khun Ting’s restaurant in Nottingham for an occasion that not only celebrated the New Year but also remembered her father who had recently passed away. There were still a few days left before my own departure for Thailand and by the time I left on the Tuesday of the following week I was feeling all right but looking forward to the warmth and a rest.

Because I’d been anxious to teach Warwick Uni Buddhist Society’s first meeting of the term I had to fly out on January 13th, arriving in Bangkok the following afternoon and then flying straight on up to Ubon where Ajahn Manapo was waiting for me. I needed to be in time first for a meeting on the 15th of the committee that oversees the publication of Ajahn Chah’s talks and the media use of his image and then, naturally, for the big day itself, the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day on January 16th, the twenty-third anniversary of his passing.

All went smoothly enough and around midday on the Friday I and other Western monks staying at Wat Pah Nanachat made our way through the crowds and the traffic to be in Wat Pah Pong in time for first of all the sermons, one for monks and another for the laity, and then the procession and partial circumambulation of the Ajahn Chah Chedi. As usual it was an amazing occasion and I frequently think how rare it is for people to gather in such large numbers for something so good. In the evening I was persuaded to get up in the sermon seat and give a talk in English. Although I wasn’t really on form I did speak at some length about the fifth precept and the harm that comes when it’s broken.

Our remaining few days in the North East were spent visiting old friends and then Ajahn Manapo and I flew down to Bangkok and from there were driven to Chantaburi for a couple of days. On our second evening I was persuaded to talk to an enthusiastic group of followers of a very old and well-known monk. Of course I had to speak in Thai and thankfully managed well enough.

Then it was back to Bangkok and the next day after a meal at Khun Yod’s factory we were driven to Cha’am and a few days rest by the sea.

At the end of that week it was time for Ajahn Manapo to return to Warwickshire and at the weekend I went back to Bangkok and then on the Monday flew to Udorn for the day to attend the funeral of Khun Ting’s father.

Tuesday and my last day was spent in Bangkok, part of it at an exhibition where Ant and Joob and their team were showing off their latest apps, then it was time to pack, get ready and steam off to the airport. And another trip was over.

There’s an album of photos here.

Louise, The Huffington Post and I.

On November 17th, a young lady called Louise came to see me. She had graduated from Warwick and was now working for the online newspaper, The Huffington Post. Her purpose in coming to The Forest Hermitage that day was to interview me for a series she was doing called Beyond Belief, which was intended to chronicle the remarkable lives of Britons who’ve taken on their faith to create a force for change.

The result of our meeting that afternoon was published in the Huffington Post a little over a week later, first under the heading From Stage to Sage and then later as The Monk Who Gave Up Acting With Laurence Olivier To Lead Buddhism In British Prisons.

As well as the chat, some stories and a few fairly recent shots of me it contains, published for the first time in nearly fifty years, a couple of old black and white photos of me with the National Theatre at The Old Vic in the sixties.

If it’s still live, you can find it here.