Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Few Days in September

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

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

 

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

 

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

Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration

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

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

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