Memories

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

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

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

Three Score years and Ten.

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

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

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

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

Khun Ting’s Birthday & the Day Before Mine.

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

Asalha Puja and Entering the Vassa.

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

Vesakha Puja

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

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

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

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

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

Week 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was the week that was!

The Queen’s Birthday

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

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

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

Songkran 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Admitting to a Mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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