Newsletter: Thursday 5th July, 2018

On Monday afternoon we hosted two coach-loads of GCSE students from Cheltenham Ladies’ College. It’s become a tradition for them to visit every year, and, unfortunately, it’s almost as traditional for it to rain while they’re here. Thankfully, this year we were blessed with a fine day and so the group of over 60 girls was able to divide into two: one group with Luangpor in the shrine room, and the other with Ajahn Manapo in the shade of the weeping willow in the back garden.

Their RE course focuses almost exclusively on Christianity and Buddhism, and so, already possessing a good grasp of the fundamentals, they spent most of their time asking questions. After that they sat in meditation for a few minutes before looking around.

Left: Ready for the Ladies…
Right: Maureen receiving her homemade birthday cake from Wassana. She turned eighty-eight last Saturday.

With these precious long, warm evenings upon us we are holding some of the public meditation sessions outside. On Monday evening Ajahn Manapo led the sitting in the pagoda garden, to the accompaniment of rustling leaves, cooing pigeons and the occasional hoot of an owl. His Dhamma talk focused on craving and on how it is overcome by seeing things as they are. Let’s hope tomorrow (Friday) is as fair, so that we can sit outside again.

After a week of prison visits, which included Gartree and Stocken in Leicestershire and Rutland, Long Lartin in Gloucestershire, and Ryehill in Warwickshire, Luangpor will be off to Scandinavia this weekend. Ajahn Kampong, who stayed at the Hermitage for a few days last September, is in the process of setting up a monastery on the west coast of Norway and has invited Luangpor and other monks to attend the opening ceremony which will take place on Sunday. Luangpor will be leaving the Hermitage tomorrow morning and returning on Monday evening. It won’t be his first time in Norway – he was last there in 1963, when hitchhiking as a student.

At midday on Sunday Ajahn Manapo will be holding the monthly Sunday School class, and then in the afternoon we’ll be welcoming the Songkarn Chant School, which will be at the end of a whistle-stop day tour visiting nine Thai monasteries throughout the UK.

Apart from that, work on the back porch continues apace; and, after a brief hiatus, the rather laborious task of stripping the paint off the house’s brickwork has begun again (if you’re free this weekend, you’re welcome to lend a hand). We hope to see it all finished in time for the beginning of the Rains Retreat at the end of the month. Famous last words…

Bhavana Dhamma Retreats Update
The retreat taking place on the weekend of the 20th – 22nd July is full, but it’s worth joining the waiting list if you’re interested. There is one space available for a man on the 11th – 17th August 6-day retreat, and booking for the 14th – 16th September retreat will open next week. The retreats generally fill up very quickly, so don’t delay if you’d like to attend one.

Newsletter: Wednesday 27th June, 2018

Today is the full moon day, which means we have one month left before we enter this year’s Rains Retreat. On the subject of rain, it’s been several weeks since we’ve seen the wet stuff and everything is looking very thirsty. Even some of our giant rainwater butts are almost empty. On the plus side, because the grass has stopped growing and we’re not having to cut it, it’s giving all of the buttercups, daisies, clover and the like a chance to flourish.

On Monday evening Luangpor led the final Warwick University Buddhist Society meeting of this academic year. This year’s group has been a good one, with attendance regularly reaching 30 – 40 students. Luangpor has also been pleased with how well they’ve been sitting – barely moving a muscle for the duration of the sessions. Meetings will begin again in October and, as usual, they will be open to all.

Last night Ajahn Manapo hosted the 1st Stockton Scout Group, who are working on their World Faith Challenge Badge. They were quite an inquisitive bunch, asking lots of questions about Buddhism and the life of a monk. Thankfully they were also good meditators, sitting for almost ten minutes without too much wriggling. This Friday afternoon Ajahn Manapo will welcome a class of Year 2s from High Meadow Infant School in Coleshill.

If you have visited the Hermitage in the last 30+ years you will know Maureen. Since the late Eighties she has been a pillar of support here, and it was in part thanks to her generosity that we were able to purchase Wood Cottage exactly 15 years ago. Well, on Saturday she will turn 88, and we’re expecting a small crowd armed with plenty of cake to wish her well.

On Sunday morning Luangpor will go to London for a meal offering hosted by Khun Peter. After that he’ll be visiting an old Cambodian supporter who has recently moved to a nursing home, also in London. Then it’ll be a quick drive back up the M40 in time for the BDF and FHT committee meetings. The FHT (Forest Hermitage Trust) is in the process of being set up and, once established, will replace the BDF (Buddha Dhamma Fellowship) as the body which administers the Hermitage’s financial and material needs. If you’re interested in getting more involved and joining the committee, we’d love to hear from you.

Newsletter: Wednesday 20th June, 2018

Luangpor returned safely from Thailand on Monday evening, having attended the annual meeting at Wat Pah Pong and to celebrate what would have been Ajahn Chah’s 100th birthday on the 17th June. Over 600 monks were present at the meeting – most of them from branch monasteries in Thailand, with a handful from the UK, Australia and elsewhere.

On the morning of the 17th, Luangpor, along with Ven. Ajahn Amaro – who had also travelled from England – and a contingent of monks from Wat Pah Nanachat visited the newly erected pillar at Ajahn Chah’s birthplace in Bahn Gor village. The pillar is in the style of the Ashokan columns of India, and is made from a giant piece of sandstone which weighed 100 tons before it was carved. Hopefully it will be around for many centuries to come…

The photo below shows a wooden carving of Ajahn Chah that Luangpor was given while he was in Thailand. It is one of a hundred that were cut from one of the giant mango trees under which Ajahn Chah first camped when he arrived in the forest that later became Wat Pah Pong but which was blown over in the wind last year. It is now hanging on the wall in the conservatory here. 

Ajahn Manapo, Matt and Ross looked after things in Luangpor’s absence. On Friday Ajahn Manapo led the public sitting, which included a Dhamma talk on the meaning behind the Buddha image and the increasing need to protect how it is used. On Sunday he led the monthly Sunday school class, talking to the children about the 5 precepts and in particular their counterparts: caring for living things and being generous and truthful. On Monday he filled in for Luangpor at Warwick University, guiding the meditation sitting and giving a talk.

We had a number of male and female guests staying to help over the weekend, and they all got stuck in with helping to paint the fencing at Bhavana Dhamma and the inside of the new back porch roof at the Hermitage.

Newsletter, December 2017

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Saturday 23rd December 2017

As we prepare to bid farewell to yet another year, we’d like to say thank you very much for all your support. It’s been quite a busy twelve months here at the Hermitage, but all that we’ve achieved has only been made possible by the generosity shown by many of you. The completion of the new roof and the purchase of a car were particular milestones, and both were financed almost entirely by donations made specifically for those projects. Without your gifts of time, food and money this place would not exist, and so for whatever you might have contributed – whether large or small, as a one off or every week – we say Anumodana! (Thank You and Well Done!). We hope we have lived up to your kindness.

We woke to a pleasant surprise on 19th December

Going back to important recent events, in mid-October we concluded the annual Rains Retreat with a robe offering. Several days before this, a face that will be familiar to anyone who visited here between 1999 and 2003 reappeared. Matthew, who was the driving force behind the acquisition of Wood Cottage (now Bhavana Dhamma) in 2003, has returned to help. We’re very pleased to see him back.

In mid-September, shortly after our last newsletter was released, Luangpor (accompanied by Ajahn Manapo and Ross) finally managed to make the long journey south to Tyneham, the famous Dorset village that was abandoned during the Second World War and which is now an open-air museum of sorts. For some years now, Luangpor has been meaning to return the old school clock which his mother inherited from relatives who once lived in the village. The clock – a large oak and brass contraption – was gratefully received by a friendly Colonel (the area is still controlled by the MOD – which has, it must be said, done a good job of preserving the site) during a brief and informal ceremony in the old school hall.

Two of Luangpor’s relatives from Tyneham were the sisters that often feature in his Dhamma talks on mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness has many facets, three of which are cleanliness, orderliness and caring for our possessions, and the sisters were exemplars of all three. Their gardening tools – which were used every day – were so clean and well-cared for that you could see your reflection in them, and had your dinner been placed on the floor of their shed you’d have been quite happy to have eaten it. Their approach to life brings a certain Ajahn Chah saying to mind: ‘If you want to know the state of practice in a monastery, look how clean the toilets are.’

Tyneham

The last three months have seen their usual share of prison visiting and associated events. On the 17th September Luangpor, accompanied by a group of about eighteen monks, led the 25th anniversary celebration of the Buddha Grove at HMP Springhill in Buckinghamshire. Khun Peter and his entourage commandeered the kitchen, ensuring that the 400 inmates plus guests were treated to Thai noodles, curries and spring-rolls.

On Saturday 28th November we hosted the fourth and last Angulimala workshop of the year. A crowd of just over twenty Buddhist prison chaplains from as far afield as Devon and Northumberland gathered here for a day of meetings, workshops and conversations, and to collect supplies such as books, Buddha images and meditation beads. Luangpor also distributed Angulimala’s calendar for 2018, the theme of which is the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts.

Ajahn Manapo has continued to lead the monthly retreats at Bhavana Dhamma (the 2018 programme is now online here) and has also spent numerous afternoons teaching Dhamma to schoolchildren both here and at various primary and secondary schools in the area.

Ajahn Manapo with St John’s Priory School from Banbury

During October he made three visits to the Heart of England secondary school in Solihull, and in that time managed to see its Year 8 pupils – all 200+ of them. The response was excellent and the school hopes to repeat it next year.

One monastery visit of note was made by All Saints Primary in Warwick. It was memorable not so much for what happened on the day but for the children’s thank you letters (complete with colourful drawings of the Buddha), in which a number of them proudly stated that they are now meditating all the time.

The short documentary for schools called the Day in the Life of a Buddhist Monk that was mentioned in our last newsletter has now been released. It features Ajahn Manapo talking about his life, as well as Buddhist teaching in general, and is accompanied by scenes of him going about his business at the Hermitage. If you like, you can watch it here.

In late October we marked the one-year anniversary of King Bhumiphol of Thailand’s passing. Luangpor made two trips to Wat Buddhapadipa (the Thai temple in Wimbledon) – both for the anniversary, and for the funeral. The latter was a massive affair, with about 3000 people gathering to say their last farewells to their beloved former King. Although a man of prodigious wealth, in private the King lived in relative simplicity, and he devoted much of his time to helping improve the lives of Thai people. He had also been a keen meditator, and was a great patron of the Thai Forest Tradition, often visiting the forest meditation masters of the day. On Saturday 28th we held our own small event for Warwick University’s Thai Society (photos below).

As for what’s next: we will be holding our regular New Year’s Eve meditation next week. It will begin at 8 pm, with chanting, meditation and a Dhamma talk. Following that we’ll break for tea, before returning to the shrine room for the last time this year. We will then see in 2018 with our eyes closed and minds concentrated. At midnight, the monks will chant the Parittas (verses of blessing and protection) while those in attendance will be invited to light an incense stick at the shrine as a symbolic gesture of letting go of the past and determining to make the most of the future. Anyone is welcome to join.

On New Year’s Day there will be another small event here. Khun Peter and Co. will be coming up from London to offer the meal, and we hope to be joined by many local monastery friends. It’s going to begin at about 10:30 am, with those present taking the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, and will be followed by an alms-round for the monks and then a Thai buffet for everybody else. After that there will be a chance to make offerings, practise meditation and listen to a Dhamma Talk. If there’s a better way to start 2018, let us know!

On January 3rd, the day after the New Year retreat finishes at Bhavana Dhamma, Ajahn Manapo will fly off to Thailand. Luangpor will follow a week later, just in time to celebrate the 26th anniversary of Ajahn Chah’s passing on the 16th. Next year would have seen Ajahn Chah’s 100th birthday, and so Wat Pah Pong – the monastery he founded and the home of our tradition – is preparing for an especially large gathering. Luangpor and Ajahn Manapo will return on 1st February, in time to relieve Ajahn Cittagutto, who will be monastery sitting while they’re away.

That’s it from us for now. May 2018 bring you good health, success and happiness.

Happy New Year

Newsletter, Tuesday 12th September 2017

Since our last newsletter (eight months ago!) many things have happened here at the Hermitage, as you might have guessed.

Perhaps most significant of all has been the completion of the roof renovation project. Work started at the beginning of May and was more or less completed by the end of July. Andy the Builder led the project, with ongoing assistance provided by Hermitage residents and guests. We also had several work days where many of you showed up to lend a hand, helping to remove tiles (and later put them back on), strip off the old baton, pull out rusty nails, cut insulation… It was a real team effort and we’re very grateful indeed for the effort made and time given.

Of course it all had to be paid for, and we’re pleased to announce that this has now been done thanks to many donations both large and small. According to Andy it was a £30,000 job, but we managed to do it for just under £23,000, largely thanks to saving on labour costs. We now have a ‘warm roof’, with eight inches of insulation (compared to little over zero inches before), which should make quite a difference to the warmth and energy efficiency of the property. The fascia and barge boards are all rosewood-effect PVC (matching the new windows) and will therefore require minimum maintenance.

And so, from Luangpor and everyone at the Hermitage, Anumodana! (Well Done and Thank You!) to everyone who contributed with your money and time.

Just last weekend, on Saturday 2nd September, we hosted the third Angulimala workshop of the year. Luangpor had managed to secure Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, as the guest speaker, and we therefore had an unusually large turn-out of 30 Buddhist prison chaplains who were eager to hear him speak. Because of the expected larger numbers, the majority of the day’s meetings were held in one of our festival marquees, which, as you can see below, was situated in the field and incorporated the main Buddha image. Thankfully the weather was fine and the marquee a great success.

At the end of the afternoon Luangpor took the opportunity to present everyone with a copy of the new book, Common Buddhist Text – Guidance and Insight from the Buddha, which was launched by Thailand’s Mahachula’ University when he was there in May. This is a book he believes will be of enormous help to everyone in the prisons – both inmates and chaplains.

As always, the hunt is on for new prison chaplains to accommodate the ever-growing number of prisoners throughout the UK. If you are interested in the challenging yet highly rewarding role of Buddhist Prison Chaplain, please read this and get in touch.

On Sunday 17th September we will be making our annual trip to HMP Springhill for the Buddha Grove ceremony. It will have been 25 years since the opening of this special place (the first of its kind), and we expect to be joined by up to twenty monks from various monasteries, as well as a good crowd of our supporters. As usual, Khun Peter will commandeer the prison kitchen for the afternoon, and, assisted by his gang of helpers, will ensure the 320 inmates plus staff and guests are well fed with Thai food and kindness.

Back in May Luangpor attended a conference in Thailand, as part of the Visakha Puja celebrations, where he spoke on Mindfulness in the Ajahn Chah Tradition. Unfortunately, owing to a spectacular electrical storm, the programme was somewhat disrupted and he ended up speaking for only twenty minutes. However, it was still very well-received and he was able to provide an insight into Ajahn Chah’s unique approach to practice. Following that he was invited to the UN building where it was announced that, to his surprise, he would be giving another talk. And then, only four days after having arrived, it was again time to board the plane.

With the start of the school year Ajahn Manapo’s calendar is beginning to fill up, not only with school visits but local cub group visits, too. As mentioned in previous newsletters he has been involved in the production of a new RE syllabus for Coventry and Warwickshire. This has now been launched and we hope the teachers will find the Buddhist content both helpful and meaningful. He has also been working with a non-profit organisation called TrueTube, which produces free RE video resources for schools. They are in the process of creating a series of day-in-the-life videos, and Ajahn Manapo features in the Buddhist one.

Just before the beginning of the Vassa, in early July, Ajahn Manapo embarked on another tudong – this time with a difference: he began at the monastery gate and just walked, following no particular route and with little notion of where he was going. He did all of this without money or food, depending solely upon the generosity of people he met on the way. Five days later he ended up just east of Bristol. It was a remarkable experience which was capped off quite unexpectedly with him teaching meditation to the Vicar of Badminton on the front lawn of the vicarage. An account of his adventure is hopefully on the way.

The monthly retreats at Bhavana Dhamma continue to be popular and as such fill up pretty quickly. We are now taking bookings for the New Year retreat, and so if you’d like to apply please go ahead. There are a few spaces left for men on the October retreat and spaces for both men and women on the early December retreat. We are very grateful to everybody who helps to support these retreats, and in particular, Benyapa. The photos below are from the August bank holiday retreat.

While working on the roof we had to re-point some of the cement between the brickwork, and as we’ve often lamented the fact that the brickwork was ever painted (long before our time), we took the opportunity to try to strip off the paint. After some experimentation we’ve found the right product and method, and so we are now in the process of revealing the bricks in all their old-fashioned glory. As you can see from the photos, it should be worth the effort. If anyone would like to lend a hand in the coming months we’d be very grateful!

Another imminent project is the resurfacing of the Bhavana Dhamma (Wood Cottage) forecourt. Within the next few weeks it will be tarmacked, which will solve the perennial problems caused by the rain and mud. It won’t be cheap, but it needs to be done.

And finally, now that it’s the middle of September, and only a few days past the full moon, we are just over two-thirds of the way through the annual Rains Retreat (the Vassa). The Vassa (or Pansa, in Thai) is what monks use to count their years in robes. Consequently, this will be Luangpor’s 46th and Ajahn Manapo’s 17th. Also in residence for this period have been Samanera Pannyavuddho, the novice, and Anagarika Ross, who is both back-up chef and Luangpor’s driver. The Rains Retreat will end on Thursday 5th October, and our public celebration will take place on the following Sunday, being the 8th. More details to follow in the next couple of weeks.

That’s it from us for now. May you be happy and free from suffering.

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