This March is going to be remembered for being very cold. We’ve had snow and night after night of freezing weather. It’s Easter and the snowdrops are still out and there are no daffodils. Summer time begins tonight but there’s been practically no sign of Spring yet.
Despite the cold we’ve carried on as normal with prison visits and some school visits and everything else we do here. The new sewage treatment plant is finally in and working and the ground around it has been roughly sculpted. It just needs a dressing of top soil now and some grass seed to ready it for the warmer weather that we still hope for.
On March 13th I went to Wat Santiwongsaram in Birmingham witn Ajahn Manapo to attend the latest meeting of the Theravada Buddhist Sangha in the UK (TBSUK). There was a good attendance from the Thais and from English that as well as Manapo and I also included Ajahn Amaro from Amaravati and Venerable Bodhidhamma of Satipanya Retreat. But there were no Burmese monks and only Ven. Seelawimala for the Sri Lankans. As usual our agenda included a discussion about the problems with Immigration and I reported that Lord Avebury had got a meeting for him and I with the Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, that so far had had to be postponed twice but would now take place a week the following Tuesday. Then we moved on to discuss the imprisonment of the Head Monk of Thames Vihara who has been convicted of sexually abusing a child and been sentenced to seven years in gaol. I argued vigorously for us not only to do something about this but be seen to be doing something. Of course we have no power to disrobe him or anything much except to declare him persona non grata and make abundantly clear that what he has done is despicable, utterly unacceptable and as well as illegal, a very serious offence in Vinaya. Thinking about what to do has led me to consider upgrading the status of TBSUK to something like that of a professional body that all Theravada temples and all Theravada monks should be registered with. In the meeting there was a certain amount of opposition to making a strong statement public because of a suggestion that he might appeal and win his appeal. While that could in theory happen, the rude and inescapable fact is that he has been tried in a British court of law and found guilty. Well, we did eventually agree to begin the process of upgrading TBSUK and we did agree that the short statement that I included in my blog last year could be used in temple newsletters and the like. Unfortunately we don’t yet have a national Buddhist newspaper or even blog so how far this will go I don’t know. The statement I wrote last year, by the way, was this: While we don’t want to jeopardize his appeal, nevertheless the Head Monk of the Thames Vihara has been found guilty of molesting a child and is in prison and we cannot ignore it. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case we felt it important that we reassure our lay followers and supporters that behaviour of the kind of which he has been accused and convicted is totally unacceptable to us and as well as being against the law is a very serious breach of monastic discipline (Vinaya) from which neither age, seniority nor alleged attainment can absolve any bhikkhu.
On Tuesday, March 26th, with Luke driving, I went to London accompanied by our Thai nun here, Sister Khema, for the meeting with Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister. We were met at the Peer’s Entrance of the House of Lords by Lord Avebury and had time for a chat with him before proceeding through a maze of corridors to emerge eventually in Westminster Hall. Then down on the left, just past where the new stained glass window that was presented to the Queen last year is displayed, Lord Avebury led us through another door into a corridor of meeting rooms where Mark Harper was waiting for us flanked by three civil servants. It turned out to be a surprisingly useful meeting and when it was over and we went for a cup of tea we felt pretty pleased with our afternoon’s work. We didn’t get all we wanted but we got some and I’ll be reporting on this later after an exchange of correspondence. Afterwards Sister and I called at the Thai Embassy to brief the Minister, M.R. Adisorndej Sukhasvasti, and let him know how our meeting had gone.
Two days later I was in London again. This time it was prison stuff and I was attending a little conference about the National Prison Radio, a radio station run by prisoners for prisoners. It was a good afternoon with some interesting and entertaining presentations, notably an interview with Jonathon Aitken. He was very amusing and admitted that his imprisonment had been a great learning experience, so much so that when he got out and had to fill in his Whose Who form, for Education he put Eton, Oxford and HMP Belmarsh! The conference was held in the most amazing place, the home of The Magic Circle. That’s an association of professional and amateur magicians founded in 1908 and now with about 1500 members that includes many famous names including the Prince of Wales. Its HQ is down a grubby side street just off the Euston Road. It looks like an old warehouse, until you step through the door when you suddenly find yourself transported into a world of magic and illusion. There’s a pretty little theatre and a fascinating museum. I don’t know which I enjoyed more, the conference or the place.