My Dhamma Talk given at Amaravati’s Kathina 2015
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.