Before my New Year resolution to make a better job of looking after this blog, I’d better bring it up to date. Apart from that hurried post with the ‘before and after’ photo to mark the thirtieth anniversary of The Forest Hermitage, my last entry was four months ago, just as we were about to enter the Vassa.
This year Asalha Puja, the anniversary and celebration of the Buddha’s first sermon, fell on the last day of July with the Entry to the Vassa, the three month long ‘Rains Retreat’, following the day after on the first day of August, so we celebrated both on Sunday, August 2nd. It was a great occasion with a grand group of people, including a large party from London who arrived in the coaches organised by Khun Peter. The sun shone and following the triple circumambulation we sat on the lawn for meditation and a talk from me. My only concern as the afternoon wore on was that I and perhaps some others might end up with a touch of the sun. As usual people were so generous and the temple wound up better off by around three thousand pounds. Anumodana!
During the Vassa, while we’re not permitted to spend even one night away, except for a few specific and serious reasons and then only for a maximum of seven nights, contrary to what many people believe, we can go out and even travel, so I maintained my prison visits and even managed a few other commitments such as TBSUK.
The Theravada Buddhist Sangha in the UK (TBSUK) , which I Chair, was formed at my suggestion in 2007. It’s really an attempt to link the fifty or so Theravada temples and to bring together the many monks and nuns from various parts of the world who are currently living in the UK. We share various difficulties and together we can help each other overcome some of them. We meet twice a year in different temples. In March we met at the Oxford Buddha Vihara and in August we met once again at Wat Mahathat in King’s Bromley. There, we spent some time developing the idea that had been discussed at the last meeting of a small conference in London to debate or discuss the problem Buddhists are having with the Muslims in SE Asia and Sri Lanka. After all, practically nothing has appeared in the media here about the murder of monks in Southern Thailand, nor the troubles in Bangla Desh which have spilled over into Burma. It was felt that finding a way to explain the concern could be useful. Then we turned to the progress being made to turn the TBSUK into a professional body. Gradually the vision for this is taking shape and its value as we build for the future is being appreciated. And almost inevitably – we never seem to get away from Immigration – concerns, complaints and difficulties were reported with Immigration.
On the prison front, as well as my regular prison visits I have made some to prisons that have no Buddhist chaplain and where we are having trouble finding a suitable person to perform that service; I have hosted and spoken to yet another gathering of prison personnel on the Prison Service’s World Faiths Course; and as the Buddhist Adviser to NOMS and the Prison Service I have attended meetings of the Prison Service Chaplaincy Council; also, here, we’ve had a couple of the quarterly Angulimala Workshops for members of Angulimala’s team of Buddhist Prison Chaplains, which have both gone well.
One day in September, the sixteenth to be precise, was for me a very unusual day. I spent most of the afternoon and evening in Soho. In the afternoon I had a meeting at the Groucho to discuss the possibility of my recording a reading of the Sutta Nipata. It’s the sort of thing I can do fairly well and I would love to do but after a very agreeable meeting and then later thinking it over I decided that this was a commercial venture that I really couldn’t participate in. It was also probably the least readable version of the Sutta Nipata ever that was wanted, so in a way it was a bit of a relief in the end not to do it.
The later part of that extraordinary day was spent a few doors further down Dean Street, in Royalty Mews at the Giles Foreman Centre for Acting, where I attended the launch of the long, long awaited book by Christopher Fettes on the Laban-Carpenter Theory of Movement Psychology adapted and brought to completion by the great and wonderful Yat Malmgren. I was taught at Central and then at Drama Centre by both Yat and Christopher. It was a really marvellous evening. I was early, one of the first to arrive, so I found myself a suitable and comfortable place to sit from where I could watch as people entered and greeted each other. The rain outside was atrocious and the traffic in places gridlocked and so Christopher was late arriving, which gave me time and opportunity to observe, to soak up the scene and to meet and chat with various people, some, like Simon Callow and Nicola Johnston, who I already knew, some who I didn’t but who had heard of me and at least one, Catherine Blatchley, who more than fifty years ago had taught me at Central and then at Drama Centre. Christopher eventually appeared and the launch got under way. Giles introduced things, Simon Callow made a brief speech and after one or two other contributions it was Christopher’s turn. Earlier he’d been heard to say he supposed he would have to say something – nothing very profound, of course. Well, when he started, at first no one could quite make out what was going on. What was he up to? Then all of a sudden the penny dropped, we were in a class. Christopher was giving a class. Fifty years melted away and like I suppose everyone else, I was on the edge of my seat! He may be eighty-six but I can tell you, the teacher is still present! Marvellous!
The next big event of the year for me was the Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration. Since it was built by prisoners in 1992, every year bar one, we have held an extraordinary celebration at Springhill Open Prison. As well as ceremonies at the Buddha Grove, a crowd of Thai people have invaded the kitchen to cook and offer a Thai meal for all the prisoners and staff. And with their customary amazing generosity they did it all again this year. In a letter to me afterwards the Governor described it as one of the highlights of the year at Springhill. I am so grateful to the Thai cooks and to the monks from several temples who joined me for the evening for the chanting and to lead the candlelit circumambulation.
In the month following the end of the Vassa, we can have the Kathina ceremony, that is, where five or more monks have spent the Vassa together. Needless to say, with only the two of us a Kathina at the Forest Hermitage was not possible. Instead we had a huge gathering – at least for us – at which robes and various supplies were offered. It was a tremendous occasion and of course, not only a celebration of the completion of the Vassa but of thirty years of being here as well. Yes, it’s thirty years since I came to live at The Forest Hermitage and, as they say, they’ve been interesting times! And I must say that not only for this event but for all the years we have been here we are so grateful for the generous support we have been honoured to receive.
At Amaravati in Hertfordshire it was a different scene. There there were many monks for the Vassa and their Kathina was, as it is every year, a Royal Kathina when the Kathina robe is offered by HM the King of Thailand. Once again I was invited and as a Chao Khun I was asked to recite the blessing for His Majesty. I was also asked to give a talk and so I took the opportunity to say a little about the importance of the Sangha, especially its role in the preservation of the Buddha Dhamma these many, many years. And following the murderous outrage in Paris a few days before and remembering the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry just the day before, I also spoke in praise of reconciliation.
And so, once again we arrived at Christmas, a time to celebrate and be reminded of Peace and Goodwill; and the New Year, a time for a fresh start and renewed determination. To help that along we had our annual New Year’s Eve sitting and a healthy crowd joined us to see out the old and see in the New Year. A Very Happy New Year to one and all!