At 3pm on August 7th at Wat Pah Santidham, The Forest Hermitage, we held the latest biannual General Meeting of the Theravada Buddhist Sangha in the UK (TBSUK) under my chairmanship. Present were sixteen monks representing Wat Mahathat UK, Wat Santiwongsaram in Birmingham, Wat Sanghapadipa in Wales, Amaravati, Wat Phra Singh UK in Cheshire, Sri Saddhatissa Temple in Kingsbury, Wat Sri Ratanaram in Manchester and of course Wat Pah Santidham, the Forest Hermitage.
I had emailed notice of the meeting to all the temples for which I have email addresses and posted notices to those I haven’t, in all fifty Theravada temples. I have had one posted letter returned, addressee gone away or address incomplete, from Wat Santiranaram in Kent. And one email to Saraniya Meditation Centre in Manchester bounced. I had had one apology from Venerable Bodhidhamma and another from Sister Candasiri in Scotland. Concern was expressed that again we had no Burmese monks present and only one Sri Lankan temple represented. There was a short discussion about how we might remedy this in future and widen and improve the representation of the Burmese and Sri Lankan Temples.
Every year at our August meeting it is necessary for one third of the membership of our Committee to stand down and either stand again for re-election or be replaced. This year it was the turn of the Burmese monk, Ashin Pannobaso, and the committee’s Thai secretary, Phra Bhatsakorn Piyobhaso, and both were unanimously re-elected.
Next on the Agenda was the ever present Immigration problem and I took questions and commented on the report that I had already circulated of a meeting I had with Mark Harper, the Immigration Minister, in March. The main points from that were that there can be no change to the English language requirement for Tier Two and no movement from Tier Five to Tier Two. Tier Five must remain by its nature temporary. It was confirmed that there is no requirement for the resident labour market test to be met when applying for a visa under Tier Two and no need to report authorised absences or to keep copies of passports for unsponsored residents. And it is possible for Buddhist monks and nuns here under Tier Two (Minister of Religion) to claim settlement and they will be exempt from the £35,000 threshold which will apply to workers in other Tier Two categories from 2016.
Then we talked briefly about the conviction and imprisonment of the Head of the Thames Vihara for sexually molesting a young girl. He has appealed and the appeal has not succeeded. The extreme seriousness of such matters both within the framework of the law and of the Vinaya was emphasised and no matter how shameful if might be temples should not even think of trying to cover up behaviour of this kind. It cannot and must not be tolerated. The problem of the lay supporters not knowing and not understanding monastic rules was also spoken about.
This led onto a discussion on the upgrading of TBSUK to become an authorising professional body. In Buddhist countries the Sangha has some sort of governing body but here we have nothing of the kind and I said that I felt that it was time for the Sangha here to grow up and begin to take care of itself rather than be endlessly referring back to Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. I went on to quote the late Venerable Saddhatissa who when we came to England in 1977 Luang Por Chah told Ajahn Sumedho and myself to respect as we would the Sangha Raja. Venerable Saddhatissa once made the point to me that it is incorrect to refer to the Thai Sangha and the English Sangha and so on, properly there is just the Sangha and within that we should drop all worldly conventions of class, caste, rank and nationality. I have just registered with the UK Board of Healthcare Chaplaincy which is seeking to promote and raise the status of chaplaincy in healthcare and I believe it would be advantageous for Buddhist monks and nuns to be similarly registered. I believe it would be a support to Sangha members, it would give a recognised and proven authority as to who and what we are, it would expose fake monks and fraudulent activity, it would help us to maintain and even improver standards, it would enable us to deal effectively with bad behaviour and it would help justify the faith and confidence that our lay followers expect to have in us. I do not see this as another religious power block but as a simple and effective way of ensuring the growth and stability of the Sangha in this country far into the future. Obviously to begin with it will have to be voluntary and I recognise that it will take time to develop and I believe the sooner we get on with it the better.
So then we decided that the Committee should take this further and for that reason meet here on October 16th at 3pm.
Next concerns were raised about the recent reports in the media of the Buddhist attacks on the Muslims in Burma and the video of a certain Thai monk living it up on a private jet that had gone viral on the Internet. My answer was that these are more good reasons for upgrading TBSUK. If we were properly established and well known we would be able to answer our critics and publish statements that would make the position of the Sangha clear. When things like these happen the media would learn to come to us and we wouldn’t have to remain silent and put up with all this damaging publicity.
Our next General Meeting was then set for March 5th next year at 3pm at Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon.
Our amicable and productive afternoon then wound up with the Asking Forgiveness ceremonies and the all important photo calls.