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.

Lambeth Palace

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On Monday the 13th, the morning after our big day here, I had to have an early meal in order to be in the car before ten to be on my way to London and Lambeth Palace for the licensing of the Revd Canon Mike Kavanagh as the new Chaplain General and Archdeacon to the Prisons. Despite the rain and occasional hold-ups we made pretty good time and got there shortly before noon, when the service was to begin. It took a a couple of minutes to persuade the ill-tempered gatekeeper to open the massive wooden doors into the palace courtyard and then once out of the car and in the palace itself another few minutes passed while I was escorted down a couple of huge corridors with portraits of former Archbishops beaming down from the walls on either side. When I arrived at the ancient Archbishop’s Chapel the service had just begun and the Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking. Unfortunately, from where I sat I could barely hear him and certainly couldn’t make out what he was saying. It was a bit like that for much of the twenty-five minutes or so that remained, some parts were audible and understandable and some were not. Whether it was the acoustics or the inability of the participants to project, I’m not sure. During the procedure, Mike had to swear his allegiance to HM the Queen and promise to obey the Archbishops of Canterbury, York and Wales. At the end the various Faith Advisers and Chaplains present were invited to recite together this Affirmation:

We come from many Faith traditions: together we care for all those people held in our prisons.
We commit ourselves afresh, as friends and colleagues, to provide opportunities for all to grow and develop into men and women of integrity who are strong and confident, learned, wise and truthful; free from crime, from the fear of crime and from anxiety.

We are united in our desire to work for the common good and to continue to work together in trust, in peace and in harmony, in a spirit of friendship and goodwill, in confidence that it will bear fruit in the lives of many.

Afterwards there was a buffet lunch, which, of course wasn’t much good to me but I enjoyed holding a glass of water and chatting to people while they balanced their plates and drinks and ate – and occasionally dropped a forkful on the carpet. At pudding time, a gong was sounded and Faith Advisers were invited to take their puddings in the Pink Drawing Room and sit round the table in conversation with the Archbishop to give him a sense of some of the key people supporting multifaith prison chaplaincy in England and Wales. When I had a chance to speak I told of my long involvement in prison chaplaincy and expressed my concern for the continuing development of multifaith prison chaplaincy. I explained that I didn’t see it as appropriate for Buddhist chaplains to be employed. I am happy for them to remain sessional and I see no reason why that should diminish their place within a chaplaincy team but I said that I have always felt that were I a prisoner I wouldn’t really be able to wholly trust a chaplain who was tied into the establishment of the prison. It was soon over and on the way back and since I’ve had much to think over of what I saw and heard in those couple of hours.

It doesn’t seem possible that thirteen years have passed since we last assembled in the Archbishop’s Chapel for the licensing of Mike’s predecessor, William Noblett. That was two Archbishops back as well!

End of the Rains Retreat, Robe & Requisites Offering 2014

Every year during the month following the Rains Retreat or Vassa, the Buddha has permitted what is known as the Spreading of the Kathina. What this means is the offering of cloth to the Sangha by lay devotees, which is then ‘spread’ by members of the Sangha who cut, sew and dye a robe. That robe, which has to be completed before the following dawn, the Sangha then formally gives to one deserving bhikkhu. Since the minimum number of monks required to form a quorum for the Sangha is four, it follows that for a Kathina to be enacted at least five monks must be present. In forest monasteries it’s generally understood that those five must have spent the Vassa together in the one place. Nowadays, in many temples it is a made-up robe that is offered and the Vinaya interpretation followed allows the necessary number to made up with monks invited from other monasteries – but that remains controversial. The Wat Pah Pong practice that I endeavour to maintain has always been that for a Kathina we must have at least five monks who have spent the Rains together. Unfortunately, that rarely happens at The Forest Hermitage, especially in recent years and so, as this year, we don’t qualify for a Kathina.

An alternative, which so far as the laity involved is concerned is almost the same, is for there to be an offering of robes and requisites, the robes being deemed ‘forest cloth’ – in other words, cloth that has been discarded and has no owner. And that is what happened again this year at The Forest Hermitage on Sunday, October 12th. Once again Khun Peter was the principal sponsor and thanks to him and his team and the two coaches that he organised from London, we were packed and had a wonderful day. Not only were there two coaches from London but another from Warwick Uni organised by the Thai Society along with members of the Warwick Uni Buddhist Society and naturally, plenty more people came by car. Mercifully, it was a dry day, albeit a bit misty and damp and not quite as warm as we would have liked, but no rain. These great Buddhist events should always express Dana, Sila and Bhavana and that day abundant generosity was on display, with people taking the chance to renew their Precepts as well as enjoying the opportunity to profit by listening to some Dhamma. And everything, it has to be said, was conducted in an atmosphere of fun and friendship.

As I’ve got older, so tears have come more readily to my eyes and as I watched people streaming in through the gate with their bags bulging with food and all manner of things to offer and share, and taking such pleasure, such joy, in coming all this way to spend a few hours doing what was good and wholesome, I couldn’t help myself, my eyes moistened and the tears began to flow. You wonderful people! In a world that can be so ghastly, you showed where it can be so good. Anumodana!

Watch a video here or take a look at some pictures here.

An Unusual Evening in the West End.

A fortnight ago I was driven down to London and into the West End, to the heart of theatre land. I was dropped off in front of the Coliseum and promptly disappeared down a little passageway at the side, the narrowest alleyway in London. As we’d turned into Monmouth Street and approached St Martin’s Lane I commented that this had once been familiar territory to me but that was around forty-five years ago. Forty-five and nearly fifty years! I can hardly believe it. It seems almost like yesterday. Of course there have been changes. Monmouth Street looks much more prosperous than I remember and there seem to be so many more people around. Most of them, sadly, spilling out of the pubs and bars and standing with glasses in hand, drinking and crowding the pavements. It looks awful. You never used to see this. It was like it even down that narrow alleyway where with some care I had to thread my way through the throng and discover the door and doorbell of where I was to meet with two eminent men of the theatre.

As nearly everyone reading this will know, a very long time ago I used to be an actor. What you might not know is that I had the privilege of training under an extraordinary team of gifted and creative people, first at the Central School of Speech & Drama and then at Drama Centre, London, which I helped found. I was just seventeen when I went to Central and quite unaware of what I was letting myself in for but within weeks I had become one of a loyal and devoted band of students of that unusual group of teachers. Leading them as Director of what was known as the Stage Course was John Blatchley and with him on the team was the great Harold Lang who taught Stanislavsky’s method, and the jewel in the crown, the wonderful Yat Malmgren who taught Action and the Psychology of Movement. Each had their assistants and with Yat there was Christopher Fettes, who, when Drama Centre opened, was to emerge as not just a teacher but easily as the most intelligent and creative director that I ever encountered. The performances he could draw out of young and inexperienced students were unbelievable. At the end of my second year at Central when I was barely nineteen, Gwyneth Thurburn, the Principal of Central, dismissed Yat, and then the rest of the team resigned. When we students were told we were furious and we went too. And out of that little student revolution, Drama Centre, London was born. It was to talk over how we might tell that story that that evening I met with Christopher and another former student of Drama Centre, Simon Callow.

I had never met Simon and although I’d heard of him I’ve never seen him on stage. I knew that he’d studied at Drama Centre and I believe that was nearly ten years after I left. I knew too that during my time at the National Theatre, he’d worked there in the box office. He’s also in that book on Olivier that I get a mention in. So we had some common ground and quite a few memories of bygone days to share and get us talking. And then we got onto the beginnings of Drama Centre and the student revolution that succeeded. The three of us talked non-stop for nearly three hours and at the end agreed that this was a story that had to be told. So, the plan is that later this year or early next, we will film some conversations with Simon, probably in Christopher’s flat.

Now, you might ask why am I involved with this. The theatre is after all a world I walked out of long, long ago. But you see, it can’t help but remain part of me and that early training has informed and affected all that I have done since. Yat’s extraordinary work on the psychology of movement still surfaces in my thinking and perception. And Buddhist investigation into the nature of being is echoed in Stanislavsky’s approach to analysing and portraying a character. For example, Buddhism speaks of the volition or intention that lies to a greater or lesser extent behind what we say and do and Buddhists are encouraged to be aware of that and to investigate those intentions. Similarly, Stanislavsky requires the actor to continually ask of the text, what is the character trying to do? Then, Yat had an interest in Buddhism. I think the first Buddhist book that I ever thumbed through was one I found in his flat. Ten years ago, after Yat’s death, Christopher wrote to me and said of Yat that, ‘Buddhism had affected him profoundly at various stages in his career; never more so than towards the close of his life, when he had lost the school and with it an active career as a teacher.’ So, you see, this story is a part of my story.

We’ll have to see what comes of it but at the very least, it was a great evening.

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.