The Buddha – his Birth

When the lockdown began I was asked to give a weekly talk for National Prison Radio. I decided to adapt the text of my talk for a weekly newsletter for Buddhist prisoners. This was my talk on April 29th with a pdf of it in the April 29th newsletter here.


 

Next week, here and in some Buddhist countries on Wednesday, and in others on Thursday, most of the Buddhist world will be celebrating an occasion known variously as Vesak, Visakha Puja, Buddha Jayanti, Buddha Purnima, Kason, Saka dawa, and Buddha Day. It’s a massive celebration, a contemplation and outpouring of love and devotion for the Buddha and it focusses in particular on his Birth, his Enlightenment and his Parinibbana or final Passing.

This week I shall focus on the birth.

Although it’s common to speak of the birth of the Buddha he didn’t become the Buddha until he was thirty-five when he achieved his Full and Perfect Enlightenment. Prior to that we refer to him as the Bodhisatta, that is a ‘wisdom being’ intent on becoming a Buddha. A Bodhisatta over successive births, develops and matures certain qualities known as the Parami or Perfections. So, although, by the time of his birth he had established a firm foundation from which to make that final bid for Enlightenment, nevertheless, he was born a human being, just like us, with a man’s normal desires and delusions.

He was born in the foothills of the Himalayas, into the ruling family of a minor state that straddled the modern borderlands of India and Nepal. The Queen, his mother, had in fact been on her way to give birth in her family home and had stopped to rest in the Lumbini garden when the child was born. Later, at the palace, an aged ascetic of high spiritual attainment named Asita came to see the child.  On being presented to him the old man first smiled and then wept. When the King demanded to know what this meant, Asita said that he’d smiled when he recognised that this child would be a Buddha but then wept when he realised that he, Asita, would not live to see it. At the young prince’s traditional naming ceremony he was called Siddhattha, which means ‘wish fulfilled’. Then eight learned brahmins were asked to predict his future. Seven of them said that should he take to the religious life he would become a Buddha but if he remained in the world then he would become a powerful monarch. The eighth and youngest confidently predicted he would achieve Enlightenment and be a Buddha.

The prospect of his son becoming a universal monarch fanned the flames of ambition in the King’s heart and so he determined to do all in his power to keep the boy’s mind well away from religion and spiritual matters. He was given all he desired and when he was sixteen married to a ravishingly beautiful princess.

The exact year of his birth is uncertain, although like the Enlightenment and his Passing, his Birth is supposed to have occurred on a Full Moon of the ancient Indian lunar month of Visakha, a month that usually corresponds roughly to our month of May. Which is why this festival always falls at about this time of the year. Traditionally, the year of his birth is believed to have been 623 BCE. Of course, a few modern scholars have disputed that but whenever it was, it was certainly a very long time ago.

Following the invasions that put paid to Buddhism in India, the location of the birthplace, with practically all of India’s Buddhist past was gradually lost and forgotten beneath the dust of centuries. But then throughout the nineteenth century, thanks to a few, mostly British, amateur archaeologists India’s Buddhist past was gradually rediscovered. Their researches were aided by the inscribed and polished stone pillars that Ashoka, India’s greatest Emperor and a Buddhist, had raised to mark the more prominent places of the Buddha’s life and ministry; and they were helped too by the written records of two Chinese pilgrims, one in the 5th Century and another in the 7th that gave detailed descriptions of their visits to the holy places.  In 1896, just across the border and a few miles inside Nepal the broken pillar that marked the birthplace was finally unearthed. In 1997 Lumbini was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then in 2013 the remains of a shrine which had apparently surrounded a tree was unearthed at the Buddha’s birthplace and carbon dated from the 6th Century BCE. Now Queen Maha Maya, the Buddha’s mother had given birth standing beneath, and grasping the branch of, a sal tree. We can only speculate but it seems likely that it was that tree around which this ancient and newly discovered shrine had been built.

Nowadays, there is a nearby town boasting well-appointed western style hotels and around the birthplace itself are many temples representing various Buddhist countries and styles of Buddhism; and daily come hundreds, if not thousands, of pilgrims to pay their respects at the foot of that ancient pillar.

It was so different when I first went there in 1971, I remember for the last twenty miles or so of my journey sitting in the back of a cycle rickshaw and crossing into Nepal at a border post that was marked by little more than a huge bamboo levelled across the road and raised when my passport had been duly inspected and stamped. When I arrived at the then only temple at Lumbini it was almost dark and I remember the resident monk saying that that evening he was going to light the lamp in the top of the temple because the Home Minister of Nepal would shortly be arriving – by elephant! Sure enough, as the evening drew in we could hear and feel the thud of those mighty footsteps as they approached.

Now what should you do on Buddha Day? Well, your options are limited but it’s still a very special day so dedicate the day and begin by sitting in front of your shrine with its image or picture of the Buddha. Never mind if you have no incense to offer or it remains unlit. Go over the precepts and see how you might work better with them in future. Read some relevant passages of scripture and remember to be especially kind and tolerant and in your meditation to recollect the Buddha and cultivate Loving-Kindness.

May you all be well and happy and at peace.

 

The Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan

When the lockdown began I was asked to give a weekly talk for National Prison Radio. I decided to adapt the text of my talk for a weekly newsletter for Buddhist prisoners. This was my talk on April 22nd with a pdf of it in the April 22nd newsletter here.


 

By the summer of 1971, my obsession with Buddhism had reached a point where I decided to put my career on hold and go East. I had no clear plan but felt that my journey should be done in the spirit of pilgrimage. I sold my little house; told my agent I would be away for a bit and on September 1st set off. A month later I was in Afghanistan. I can’t remember now whether I knew of the of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan before I reached Kabul or not. I rather think I’d heard of them, then the largest Buddha Images in the world, the two of them hewn out of the cliff face, the larger standing 180 feet and the other 125,  but it was when I was in Kabul that I first seriously thought of visiting them. I don’t now know when or why, all I know is that I was soon going back and forth to the tourist office in a state of suspended indecision desperate for reliable information. What I discovered was, that, yes, it was possible to get to the Bamiyan Valley and it wasn’t really very far, certainly not as the crow flies, but the terrain was very difficult and the road awful, which meant a very long and uncomfortable bus ride that took from the early hours of the morning almost all day. The alternative was to fly, but the planes didn’t appear to be too reliable and they only flew twice a week, which meant being stuck there for at least three days – and that depended on the next flight actually happening and then getting a seat on it back. Added to all of this, no one seemed able to tell me if there was anywhere there where I could stay. None of the photos of the Buddhas showed any sign of there being a village, let alone some form of hotel or guest house. So back and forth I went, questioning and yet again questioning the lady in the tourist board and being none the wiser. The bus, I was told, was cheaper and went from somewhere in downtown Kabul at about three or four in the morning. I decided to check it out and one afternoon wandered down to where the bus was supposed to leave from. Well! What a place! There were all these murderous looking, moustachioed, bandit like chaps strolling about with bandoliers of bullets strung across their chests and cutlasses stuck in their belts – and little me was supposed to come down there at three in the morning by myself! I mean, I’m not very big and the idea of risking going down there in the early hours of the morning seemed absolute madness. Later I met someone else keen to see the Buddhas and we discussed going together – but then I was offered a ride all the way to New Delhi. And fool that I was, I thought, ‘I’ll go to see the Buddhas next time.’ And I took the lift.

Well, there never was a next time. And now there never will be. In 2001 the mighty Buddhas of Bamiyan that had stood there for 1,400 years, in a feat of supreme vandalism were blown up and destroyed. Their destruction hit the headlines, never mind that hundreds of people there and in other parts of Afghanistan were existing in almost unendurable conditions, cold and starving or that hundreds had been killed in desperate struggles for power, for a little while the world stood still, mesmerised by the image of those unique and ancient images being blown to smithereens.

Since then occasionally someone has kindly said to me how sorry they were that it happened, expecting, or believing, I suppose, that I was upset and mourning their loss.

Well, I wasn’t. Instead, I asked myself what there was for me to learn from this. What had it to teach me?

First of all, I’d made a mistake. I’d had the chance to go to Bamiyan and I hadn’t taken it. Basically, don’t put off to tomorrow what can be done today. Remember, that in a sense tomorrow never comes. Or at least, if it does, it’s never a hundred per cent quite what you expected. Really and truly we can’t be certain of the next minute, never mind the next day. I’d had my chance and I should have taken it. The risks were slight and had I flown there and had to stay three days; I would have managed. So, don’t pass up your opportunities, you may never get the chance again.

Next, don’t things change? Those Buddhas probably didn’t look anything like they had when they were first completed. It’s a pretty exacting climate in which they’d stood for 1,400 years and they’d obviously aged and deteriorated. Isn’t that what happens to most things, us included? And don’t we and just about everything else eventually die? Isn’t Impermanence what the Buddha taught as the first of the Three characteristics of all conditioned things?

I imagine that all those hundreds of years ago when these Buddhas were created, that was a thriving Buddhist community. As well as the Buddhas, the cliffs are honeycombed with caves in which monks lived and there must have been a sizeable and prosperous Buddhist population to support them and to make and care for these huge images. I wonder if it ever occurred to them that in just a few hundred years Buddhism there would be supplanted by another religion and disappear from that part of the world entirely. There’s a lesson for us, as generation by generation people, especially young people, take for granted the democracy, the freedoms, the rights that previous generations fought so hard for and were prepared to defend with their lives. Don’t be complacent. Don’t take those freedoms and rights for granted, they might just disappear if you don’t watch out.

Of course, it’s perfectly natural to be upset and to be angry when things you cherish are threatened, insulted, damaged or destroyed. But is that right, is it any use? Doesn’t it defile and spoil your mind and your life bringing no peace and happiness. Don’t you harm yourself more? So, what did the Buddha have to say? Over and over again, whatever the circumstances, the Buddha counselled against holding onto anger and resentment. Don’t feed it, don’t go on and on thinking about whatever it was, there’s no need to be offended, don’t be upset, let it go, let go.

My absolute best wishes to you all.

May you all be well and happy, may you all be free from suffering, may you all be at peace.

Goodbye.

 

 

 

 

Songkran

When the lockdown began I was asked to give a weekly talk for National Prison Radio. I decided to adapt the text of my talk for a weekly newsletter for Buddhist prisoners. This was my talk on April 15th with a pdf of it in the April 15th newsletter here.


 

It’s eerily quiet! This week we should have been celebrating the South East Asian and Sri Lankan New Year, when even small forest temples like this would normally be seeing an increase in those coming to bring food, to make offerings and to pay respects; not to speak of the crowds that would normally flock to temples in Buddhist countries like Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka with the streets there full of people in celebratory mood showering each other with water.

Songkran, the sun moving into Aries and thus signalling a New Year, falls from April 13th to the 15th. However, in England we usually choose a Sunday, either just before or just after April 13th, for our main celebration. Of course, during the actual days of Songkran a few people do still manage to come to the temple but it’s a practical expedient to have the main event on a Sunday.

At the Forest Hermitage, which is a Thai style forest temple with Burmese connections, on the chosen day, from about ten to ten-thirty in the morning, a crowd gradually gathers of people from all over the country. Most are Thai with a smattering from other Buddhist countries and there are friends and husbands who are English with children of course who have been born and brought up here. Most of the Thais will be in traditional costume. Since good Buddhists wouldn’t dream of coming to a temple without things to offer, they bring with them food and all sorts of supplies they think we might need or find useful. The cooked food that everyone will enjoy shortly before twelve is set out on warmers in the marquee and the rest of the offerings are assembled in our main Shrine Room where everyone gathers. The day proper begins by chanting and bowing to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The congregation next chants the request to receive the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts. These are given by my reciting them one by one and the people repeating them after me. Just to remind you, the Three Refuges mean going for refuge to the Buddha, to the Dhamma and to the Sangha; and the Five Precepts are the undertakings to abstain from killing, to abstain from taking that which is not given, to abstain from sexual misconduct, to abstain from false speech and to abstain from alcohol and drugs. For more than two thousand five hundred years people have been declaring their commitment to the Triple Gem by the Going for Refuge and undertaking to observe these precepts. This is how one formally becomes a Buddhist and nowadays at practically all special occasions it’s usual for people to retake and reaffirm their commitment.  This is how our festivals usually begin. Next comes the alms-round, an attempt to replicate what happens every morning in these Buddhist countries. The people line up to put rice in our bowls as we monks walk slowly along the line. At the end of it various vegetarian curries and dishes are offered to add to the rice and then we eat, and everyone eats. After the meal and when the clearing up has been done, we all assemble again in the Shrine Room and the things that have been brought and the money that’s been collected are all formally offered. Then as part of the blessing for the food and all that’s been given, I give a short talk. The Buddha made the point that while we monks are dependent on the lay community for all material needs and support, the laity should expect from us spiritual inspiration, encouragement and instruction.

My talk will be on the meaning of Songkran. How it’s a time when, traditionally, families come together and respect is given to the elders of the family, to parents, grandparents and to the elderly in general. This is the meaning of Songkran, respect. It’s a time to remember our debt to those who have gone before, to those who have brought us up and cared for us, who have taught us and whose efforts in the past have laid the foundations for the privileges and prosperity and freedoms that we have inherited and should never take for granted. Showing respect too makes for humility and challenges our pride and arrogance. We’re encouraged to bow often, when we enter the Shrine Room, when we leave, and as well as bowing to our senior monks, to place our hands palm to palm when speaking to them. I remind them that the Buddha said that to respect those worthy of respect is a great blessing. And I tell them that Songkran is also a time to spread good wishes for the coming year and the chance too to pick oneself up and to make a fresh start.

By the time my talk’s over and I’ve chanted the blessing, things will have been set up outside for the bathing ceremony. This is when as a token of respect first the Buddha Image will be bathed and then the hands of the monks, then the elderly will be sprinkled and after that everyone’s fair game, that’s when the fun begins. So, at the large Buddha in the garden I begin by splashing it with water. Then when I’ve taken my seat, the next monk does the same but before he sits, he pours water over my hands. Then the next will do the same and bathe the second monk’s hands as well before sitting. And so it goes on, then the lay people begin, bathing first the Buddha and then each of us, coming down the line, one by one, pouring water over our hands. This is all done with great care, reverently and mindfully. Finally, they turn to each other, sprinkling the elderly and seniors amongst them first and then whoever happens to be nearest, taking pleasure in being together and wishing each other a Happy New Year. But then it’s not long before the fun begins and by the end of the afternoon quite a few are queuing up to change into dry clothes. It’s all very good natured.

That’s how it has been but this year as we know has been different and it remains here still eerily quiet. However, after a dull, cold winter, now with the sun shining, the blossom coming out, the bluebells in flower we can feel refreshed and go forward with a spring in our step and with hope.

May you all be well and happy, may you all be at peace.

 

 

 

Five Questions

When the lockdown began I was asked to give a weekly talk for National Prison Radio. I decided to adapt the text of my talk for a weekly newsletter for Buddhist prisoners. This was my talk on April 8th but this did not appear in a newsletter.


 

Good morning. It’s Ajahn Khemadhammo again.

First of all two of my favourite verses from the Dhammapada.

‘Mind precedes all things, mind is their chief, mind made are they. If you speak or act with an impure mind, then suffering follows as the wheel the hoof of the ox. Mind precedes all things, mind is their chief, mind made are they. If you speak or act with a pure mind then happiness follows like your shadow that never leaves.’

Since meditation plays such a central part in Buddhist training and the training and purification of your mind and I know that several of you are practising meditation, I thought this morning I would share with you some advice that I give my own students and which I have found helpful myself. What I suggest is that occasionally, once you have settled either to do walking meditation or sitting and have assumed a good and alert posture that you briefly ask of yourself these five questions.

So, let’s begin. Ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to do?’

You’re sat there on your cushion or standing very formally at one end of your meditation path, now what is it you are about to try and do? The answer that should come ought to be on the lines of, “I am trying to develop my mind, I’m trying to keep my mind on one thing. I am trying to concentrate and still my mind.” Something like that.

Next, for the second question, ask yourself, ‘For whom am I doing this?’

The answer to this one isn’t always a very comfortable one because generally we’re brought up to believe that we should put others first and although we often act selfishly, we don’t like to admit it. Nevertheless, the answer to this question has to be that you are doing this for you, for yourself. This isn’t necessarily selfish, rather it’s a sensible and wise thing to do. Look after yourself, then if you wish you might be able to look after others but if you don’t look after yourself you might not be much use to anyone, neither yourself nor anyone else.

Then we come to the question, ‘By what means?’

So now, what precisely is your meditation exercise? For a start, are you walking or sitting? In fact, you can practise meditation in any posture but generally it’s best to keep to one that maintains alertness, hence either walking up and down or in a circle, or sitting, preferably cross-legged and with a straight back. Usually we alternate walking and sitting. In the traditions within which I’ve practised the walking has either been very slow, up and down a relatively short path – ideal within a small cell – concentrating on being mindful of the precise details of each step; or the pacing up and down has been at a more natural rate and sometimes even quite fast, with the mind focussed either on the walking itself or on the internal recitation of a mantra word like ‘Buddho’. With sitting, again there are a variety of different things that you might concentrate on but by far the commonest is the breath. Known as Anapanasati, mindfulness of the in and out breath, it’s a practice that the Buddha himself used in the run up to his Enlightenment and it stretches across the traditions. I can even remember visiting Samye Ling, the famous Tibetan monastery in Scotland, just over fifty years ago and meeting there a young man who had obviously come to this exotic place expecting unusual and amazing esoteric experiences, only to be told to sit in the corner and watch his breath – he was very disappointed. Well, mindfulness of breathing does sound pretty mundane but when you try it you usually find it’s not so easy. You have to keep your mind on the breath, either at the nostrils or at the abdomen and whenever you notice your mind wandering, note and bring it back. The object is to build concentration and to make your mind still.

Now we come to the fourth question, ‘Against what resistance?’

It’s always advisable to know your enemies, to know what might oppose or hinder you. It’s especially the case when you are trying to develop and concentrate your mind, when you are trying to make your mind fit.

So, what are the likely resistances?

At a very mundane and external level you might have trouble keeping to a good posture and remaining still. I know that some of you have had motorbike accidents and injuries that trouble you and make it difficult to sit properly. I’m afraid you’ll have to experiment and do the best you can. Some of you might have a cell mate who can be a bit awkward and wants the tele on all the time or a noisy neighbour. Again, you’ll have to do your best but polite requests for a quiet time might work. I must say I have often admired the patience and resolve with which some of you who I’ve known have kept up your practice in the face of difficulties unimagined on the out.

Then there can be other more profound and important obstacles, and these come from within. The Buddha drew attention to five that are common and that together are known as the Five Hindrances. I should think everyone who’s taken up the practice of meditation has met at least one of these and possibly all five, although unlikely all at once. You may find yourself distracted by thoughts of comfort and pleasure, including, like the Buddha did, sexual temptation; or when you sit you might suddenly feel angry and irritated; then again you can find yourself bored, feelings of tiredness overwhelming you and even nodding off; or your mind is just buzzing and refuses to settle, and lastly, you may find yourself overcome with doubt. When any of these affect you, you will have to deal with them. Broadly, you can either suppress them or you can observe and investigate them.

Whatever your practice is, it’s important to be devoted to it and to keep at it and work through your difficulties. Don’t be like the man digging for water who hit a rock, gave up, started again somewhere else. Again, hit a rock, started again somewhere else. Hit a rock – and so it went on until he had a field full of shallow holes and no water.

Now for the last question, ‘In order to what?’

Where is all this leading, what is the ultimate purpose, what is your super objective? Why are you doing this?

The way this is answered can vary depending on your Buddhist tradition, but I would say you’re doing this to overcome greed, hatred and delusion, to purify your mind and to realise the secure peace of Nirvana.

May you and all beings be well and happy, may you all be free from all suffering, may you and everyone achieve that secure peace of Nirvana.

Goodbye.

 

Angulimala

When the lockdown began I was asked to give a weekly talk for National Prison Radio. I decided to adapt the text of my talk for a weekly newsletter for Buddhist prisoners. This was my talk on April 1st with a pdf of it in the April 6th newsletter here.


 

We launched Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy, early in 1985 and we decided to call it after a great and amazing disciple of the Buddha. It is said that his name was originally Ahimsaka, which means the harmless one and he was the son of a high caste and well to do family. He went to study at Taxila, the then Oxbridge of India, where he excelled. But other students soon became jealous of his accomplishments and decided to spoil his reputation and set their teacher against him, which they did. The result was that the teacher demanded of his erstwhile star pupil a graduation fee of a thousand human right-hand little fingers. We can only suppose that he thought the boy would never be able to pay and that would be that. However, this lad was an exceptionally devoted and diligent student, who always did his best to please his Teacher, so off he went in search of fingers, only to discover that people are somewhat reluctant to part with their little-fingers and he had to resort to violence and to murder. Thus, in a short space of time a brilliant young man transformed into a formidable and terrifying, serial killer. And his collection of little fingers grew. But then, out there in the forest, miles from anywhere, how and where was he to store them? He tried hanging them in the trees, but the birds pinched them. Finally, he resorted to stringing them on a cord and hanging it round his neck and as this wreath of bloody fingers grew so people started calling him Angulimala, Finger Garland.

One morning, after his meal, the Buddha set off, walking in the direction of the great forest where Angulimala was living. Various people working in their fields seeing him going that way called out to warn him, but he ignored them and eventually entered the great forest. That day, Angulimala had just counted 999 human, right-hand, little-fingers on his garland! He needed only one more! Then all of a sudden, he spotted the Buddha. Pausing only to grab his weapons he dashed out to attack and kill the Buddha and get that last finger. But then strangely, try as he might, this powerful athletic man couldn’t catch up with the Buddha, who appeared to still be walking quite calmly and serenely. Angry and frustrated he called out to the Buddha to stop, to which the Buddha, bothering neither to turn nor pause, quietly replied, “Angulimala, I have stopped, now you stop too.”

Angulimala didn’t get it, “How can you say, when you’re still walking, that you’ve stopped?”

“Angulimala, I have stopped forever.” said the Buddha. “I have stopped killing and harming. Now it’s your turn to do the same.”

Angulimala couldn’t take this. He was used to people being frightened of him, used to them being angry and fighting him. But this was something else, this man, alone, unarmed had no fear, no anger; on the contrary he simply radiated stillness and loving-kindness. All the good buried deep in Angulimala’s psyche for so long suddenly rushed to the surface and casting aside his weapons he fell at the Buddha’s feet and begged to be allowed to be a disciple and become a monk. The Buddha accepted him and Angulimala followed the Buddha back to the monastery.

Meanwhile, back in the city the crowds were gathering in front of the King’s palace clamouring for something to be done about Angulimala. They, of course, didn’t know what had just happened. Finally, the King rode out at the head of his cavalry determined to deal with Angulimala once and for all. Passing by the monastery, the King, who was very devoted to the Buddha, decided to call in and pay his respects. He found the Buddha seated in front of a great company of silent monks. He knelt down, bowed three times and then explained to the Buddha that he was in search of Angulimala, intent on capturing him and executing him. The Buddha then said to the King, “What would you do great King, what would you say, if I told you that Angulimala was here?” Well, such an idea seemed to the King to be utterly preposterous, but he dutifully said that of course if it were so he would pay his respects and make offerings. And then, the Buddha stretched forth his right arm and pointed. “Here Sire, here sits Angulimala.” The books state that the King’s knees knocked, and he suddenly remembered he had urgent business elsewhere. But before he left, he went and spoke to Angulimala and then said to the Buddha, “It is wonderful, it is marvellous! What we have failed to do with weapons and violence, you have achieved with neither weapons nor violence!” And he left, leaving Angulimala to work out his own salvation, which he did, by eventually becoming one of the Enlightened Ones.

Now this is a very remarkable story with very important messages for everyone. It’s not just a Buddhist story about a murderer who came good. That’s a part of it and certainly one of the reasons we chose Angulimala as the name of the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy.

Yes, he changed. That is true and that is the first important thing to register. We’ve all heard it haven’t we – “They never change!” Well, you and I know that isn’t true. People can and do change. And that means there is hope. If change is possible, there is hope. You don’t always have to be what you are now.

You know we’re all a mixture of good and bad. We’ve all done good things and we’ve all done bad things and a heck of a lot somewhere in between. I know that many of you who’ve ended up in prison and who I’ve met and known over the years, whatever you’ve done, you’ve shown me consideration, kindness, generosity. I’ve seen you helping others, looking out for each other. I’ve seen good people. You all have it in you. This precious human birth gives you the potential for Enlightenment, for true and lasting freedom. Don’t waste it.

May you and all beings be well and happy. May you and all beings be free from all suffering. May you and all beings realise the secure peace of Nirvana.

The Three Divine Messengers and the Human Condition.

When the lockdown began I was asked to give a weekly talk for National Prison Radio. I decided to adapt the text of my talk for a weekly newsletter for Buddhist prisoners. This was my talk at the end of March with a pdf of the newsletter here.


 

For a long time, I’ve believed that as you – prisoners – cannot come to the temple, we must take the temple to you. Now, sadly, I can’t come in and be with you and conduct meditation groups and speak to you directly as I used to but at least we can meet briefly once a week on Wednesday mornings at around 7:25, repeated again at 11:25, on National Prison Radio. My first talk, in case you missed it, has been on the Three Divine Messengers and the Human Condition.

You’ll remember that before his Enlightenment the Buddha was a prince. All his life he’d had whatever he wanted, he’d been spoiled rotten and lived in the lap of luxury. At sixteen he’d married a beautiful princess and by the time he was twenty-nine, with a beautiful young wife, a new-born child and everything he could possibly wish for, he appeared all set to live happily ever after. But then came the Three Divine Messengers.

We are told that one day he went out in his chariot for a drive through the countryside and it was then on what was supposed to have been a pleasure jaunt that he saw a very, very old person, a very, very sick person and a very, very dead person. Each of these three sights he had to have his charioteer explain to him, for he had never seen anything like them before. Channa, the charioteer, patiently spelt out for him that in each case this is what happens to human beings, these are all part of the human condition. We’re all ageing by the minute and if we live long enough, we become old, very old and it’s painful and unpleasant. Then, at any time we can become unwell and some may become very sick indeed. And all of us are bound to die. It’s one thing we can be absolutely certain of. None of us are going to get out of this alive! Having encountered these three divine messengers we know that the Prince also saw a holy man and the sight of him inspired the Prince to do something about understanding and transcending the ordinary human condition. The result: The Prince eventually became the Buddha.

These three, ageing, sickness and death, known as the Divine Messengers in Buddhist literature, remind us of the reality of our human condition that we usually don’t want to know about nor really face up to. But there it is, we must learn to take nothing for granted. we are subject to all three and really ought to get used to them, then there are no surprises when you realise your hair is turning grey, or your nearest and dearest becomes terminally ill. Not only that but when we fail to heed the warning signals of old age, sickness and death we’re inclined to think that none of this is going to happen to us, and become negligent, behaving recklessly, being selfish and unkind and living only for ourselves. Just look at what’s been happening in the last few days: in spite of the threat of coronavirus and powerful advice to maintain social distancing, people have been crowding into markets, visiting parks and beauty spots in droves and riding in packed underground trains. But human beings will follow their desires and delight in their attachments and remain blind and deaf to the Three Divine Messengers. This is not good and will never be the path to a happy destiny and a good rebirth.

There was once an occasion when the Buddha was in conversation with a certain King and he asked the King what he would do if four messengers, one from the north, another from the south, another from the east and yet another from the west all came to him with identical messages: that from each of these directions a great mountain, as high as the clouds, was rolling in upon him. What would he do? ‘What else should I do,’ replied the King, ‘In the face of such a calamity, such a terrible destruction of human life, but live by the Dhamma, live righteously and do good and meritorious deeds.’ ‘Even so,’ said the Buddha, ‘Ageing and death are crowding in upon you.’ The King admitted that none of his tremendous resources, neither his armed forces or his fabulous wealth or his wise and brilliant advisers could possibly defeat ageing and death, and replied, ‘As ageing and death are crowding in upon me, what else should I do but live by the Dhamma, live righteously and do good and meritorious deeds.’

I’ll say more about living by the Dhamma, the precepts and the practice of meditation in the weeks to come, but let’s get back to where we came in, the coronavirus, the Divine Messengers shouting at us, and with the country in lockdown, warning us to pay attention and use our precious human birth wisely. Try to do no harm to yourself or another, quieten, still and investigate your mind.

May you and all beings be well and happy and at peace.

Thailand & Burma Jan – Feb 2020

I’m not usually exactly what you would call a great traveller, that is unless you take into account the mileage I clock up every year visiting prisons and away on Buddhist related prison business. But last year was different. As usual I was away in January for the Ajahn Chah memorial event, and that was followed by a week in Burma and then another week back in Thailand. In May I was invited as a speaker to the UN Day of Vesak in Vietnam, and that was followed by a short conference on Mindfulness and another Vesak celebration at the UN building in Bangkok. In June every year at Wat Pah Pong there is what is known as the June Meeting, a huge Sangha gathering of monks from the various Wat Pah Pong branches mostly in Thailand but also from all over the world, and I went to that too. Then later in the year I was invited to an event at a new forest temple in Norway and in December I went to Slovenia to conduct the first ever novice ordination of a Slovenian in Slovenia.

Now this year, I’ve once again been on my annual trip to Thailand and Burma. The main reason for this is the Ajahn Chah Memorial Day on the anniversary of his death, January 16th, twenty-eight years ago.

I’ve written about the Ajahn Chah memorial event before and every year it follows much the same format but with the crowds never diminishing, but if anything, increasing, although as time passes and we all age it’s inevitable that practically every year there are one or two familiar faces missing from the front line of elder monks. It remains an extraordinary tribute to a monk who rose from very humble origins to become a teacher and inspiration to millions across the globe simply by being true to his monastic discipline, practising what the Buddha taught and talking about it in ways that spoke directly to the hearts and minds and experience of those who heard or have read what he said. As every year, in the afternoon there was a procession of many hundreds of monks followed by thousands of lay followers that from the main meeting hall then wound its way all the way out to and around the Ajahn Chah Chedi where his relics are kept, until with the entrances and steps packed with monks and the whole area gridlocked and covered in devotees the Acariya Puja was read out and we each made our offering of flowers, candles and incense.

Then two days later, I was off to Bangkok and from there to Mandalay. This too is becoming a habit. Our little party numbered five in all: me, Ajahn Manapo and three lay followers. From the same hotel as every year we went out each day to various beautiful and inspiring places.

We went twice to U Bein’s Bridge, an extraordinary affair, almost three quarters of a mile long, made of teak and spanning a huge lake that at this time of the year is partly dried up and cultivated, some of it already planted and some still being tilled by elegant high stepping white oxen. On our second day we were treated to a fabulous day out by a young lady who used to be at Warwick Uni and apart from when a certain football team was playing was a regular every week at Warwick Uni Buddhist Society and was its President for one year. She took us into the hills north of Mandalay to a magnificent cave that following a stream wound its way deep into the hillside. A cave made even more magnificent by the dozens, if not hundreds, of Buddha images placed here and there throughout its length. In some places these were grouped with other images to form tableaux illustrating events in the Buddha’s life. So, for example, there is the Buddha subduing Angulimala with, in the background, Angulimala’s mother who he was about to kill when he spotted the Buddha.  Then the same evening we paid a visit to the Jade Pagoda, a favourite now since we were introduced to it last year, a pagoda covered entirely with jade of various colours and types, the gift of one man. In the evening when all lit up and when most of the people there are Burmese it’s at its best. The almost casual but deeply rooted devotion of people in Burma at these sacred places is indescribable. There’s no forced or false piety, instead a moving, deep and abiding trust and affection that is almost tangible. The next morning, once again, we made our boat trip to Bagan down the mighty Irrawaddy. This colossal river absolutely captivates me. I’d love to spend more time exploring it. This year we were on the same boat as last year and again looked after by a young and very helpful Burmese woman keen to improve her English. A feature of the trip was a stop at a village where the local industry was the production of rather crude but practical earthenware pots. Last year when I was there, I wandered away from the main party and stood for a few minutes in a dusty pathway. Just then two women turned the corner bearing impressive loads on their heads. They had to pass me but one of them was wearing sandals. To her and the culture she comes from it would have been the height of disrespect to have walked past me with her sandals on, so she performed the impressive feat of bending and removing them without dislodging the load from her head before, still politely lowering herself, she passed by. That was the most unforgettable gesture of respect I’ve ever seen and would be a real lesson for modern Britain where the principle of respect seems to have had its day.

Yangon followed Bagan and here, as it is every year, it was the great Shwedagon that was the highlight of our visit. We deliberately stay in a certain hotel because of the perfect view we have of it, especially at night. This is the mighty Pagoda that dominates Yangon and has to be one of the most remarkable and holy places on earth. I well remember in 1987 a Burmese lady passionately insisting I must go there and how sceptical I was. But when I went, I was enchanted, and all these years and many visits later I remain enchanted. The effect, the atmosphere is indescribable.

By the time I flew back to Thailand, and a few days rest by the sea before my return flight to Heathrow, the coronavirus was beginning to hit the headlines. At Suwanabhumi Airport masks and concern were already visible. Nothing at Heathrow. But now the lockdown and a new and different world.

A PDF of my News & Musings as published is available here.

Springhill Buddha Grove Celebration

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For many years now, September has meant for me one very important and unusual occasion, the Spring Hill Prison Buddha Grove Celebration. The Buddha Grove in HMP Spring Hill was built by prisoners for prisoners in 1992 and formally opened on a bitter October evening. After the ceremony the prisoners dispensed some soup that they had thoughtfully made to warm their guests. I, of course, didn’t have any but I suspect, though hot it might have been, delicious it probably wasn’t because some of the Thais present immediately asked if they could do the catering next year! And so they did and so they have ever since, with every few years a different group taking it on and only one year missed, right up to and including this September. Once again on Sunday the 16th we had a marvellous evening for our annual celebration of the Buddha Grove at HMP Springhill. Monks from five temples attended and contributed to the chanting. And as usual many Thai people gathered to offer the food, to give of their time and their culinary and flower arranging skills and to cook a Thai vegetarian meal for the entire prison and guests. We began the evening at the Buddha Grove with chanting and speeches.  Then after everyone had been to the dining hall and the food was over we returned to end the evening, as we always do, by processing three times around the Buddha Grove with candles, incense and flowers.

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Burma in January

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Kuthodaw Pagoda – containing the largest book in the world.

Now back to Burma. We left Ubon on January 17th immediately after the Ajahn Chah Memorial and drove down to Bangkok where we spent the night before flying to Mandalay the next day. There, our first stop once we’d checked in was a temple that proudly displays what it calls the largest book in the world, an extraordinary collection of 729 marble slabs on which were engraved over an eight year period from 1860 to 1868 the entire Tipitika, that is all the books of the Pali Canon, the oldest and earliest account of the Buddha’s life and teachings. It’s all in the Pali language and in Burmese script, and each slab is housed in its own mini temple, the whole collection covering 13 acres.

From there we drove out to a famous wooden bridge, U Bein’s Bridge. It’s almost three quarters of a mile long, rather peculiarly constructed and entirely of teak. It spans a huge lake which gradually dries up as after the rains the hot season advances. It’s one of several places in Burma to view spectacular sunsets and tourists armed with hugely expensive and complicated photographic paraphernalia flock here every evening to snap away. I’m afraid I deplore this craze to record everything instead of just being there. Time is a precious commodity, you know, and when you try to capture it, you miss it.

The next morning saw us at the old Royal Palace and once again I climbed the circular tower from where it is said that in 1885 Burma’s last Queen watched the British invading forces sailing up the Irrawaddy. Then in the afternoon we visited a few of the hundreds of temples clustered around the Sagaing Hill before a brief return to U Bein’s Bridge for the sunset and finally, as darkness fell, the Mahamuni Pagoda with its famed Mahamuni Image of the Buddha, the most revered in Myanmar.

Our third day was spent sailing down the Irrawaddy, previously known to the British colonialists and to Kipling as ‘the Road to Mandalay’. This is an enormous and majestic river and it’s a wonderful experience. We were on a smarter and faster boat than last year and it was only late afternoon when we pulled in to Bagan, home to a colossal number of ancient and mostly crumbling pagodas, just in time to check in to our hotel and walk down to a favourite riverside temple for yet another sunset. We stayed there as darkness fell and small oil lamps were lit along the terrace overlooking the river and around the pagoda. Unfortunately, on our boat down the river we’d been rather over exposed to the sun and I’d got badly burnt. I’m one of those fair skinned persons who can be cooked like a lobster and it’s not all that much fun when it happens. So, the next morning I was not at my best but on that, our fourth day, we did manage visits to some of the more prominent of Bagan’s two thousand odd pagodas before being dropped off at the airport in time for our flight to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon and until a few years ago, the capital.

Here we stayed as in previous years at an hotel with a view of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. This is a massive chedi, covered entirely in gold that sits on a small hill from where it dominates the entire city. It’s dedicated to the last four Buddhas and at each of the four cardinal points there is a temple and image of one of these four great beings. As you climb the stairs at one of the entrances it draws you on and as you emerge onto the piazza that surrounds it, it welcomes you. There you find all sorts: monks and nuns, lay people, tourists, children – all sorts – some walking and looking about them, some sitting telling their beads, some chanting, some meditating. It has a serenity and a life that’s addictive. We went there as soon as we’d arrived and stayed until closing time and early the next morning we were back there again.

Our five few days in this golden land were over all too soon. All that’s born must pass and our visit too had to come to an end but I hope we’ll be back again next year.

 

Magha Puja

March, this year, began with a full moon. It was also the full moon that concluded the ancient lunar month of Magha. On another Magha full moon, more than two and a half thousand years ago the Buddha was staying on the Vulture’s Peak near Rajgir. Below him was the Bamboo Grove, the very first piece of land offered as a place where he and his disciples might stay. Suddenly, without any kind of prior arrangement, a great company of monks began to gather at the Bamboo Grove. Within a short space of time one thousand, two hundred and fifty monks had arrived and were sitting there. Every one of these monks was not only a personal disciple of the Buddha and had been ordained by him but was also an Arahant, that is Enlightened. Once they were all assembled the Buddha came down from the Vulture’s Peak and joined them and together they sat silently meditating into the night. Eventually, the Buddha addressed them and recited for them what is known as the Ovada Patimokkha.

Only three short verses long, this summary of the Buddha’s Teaching contains one particular verse that I want to draw your attention to and ask you to remember and often bear in mind. In translation it goes something like this: ‘Avoid all evil, cultivate the good and purify the mind; this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.’ I hope its meaning is clear. Do your best to control what you say and do and try to make sure that your actions and words do no harm. Keep well away from what is unskilful and brings no peace or happiness and do your best to promote what is good and productive of happy results. Then reflect, is that really good enough? It’s all very well but if your control slips or you forget, what then? Well we all know what happens. It doesn’t take much for bad words to escape your mouth or for you to do things that later you regret. And why is this? Isn’t it because your mind is not yet pure and still harbours greed, hatred and delusion? So, then there can be nothing else for it, you have to go further, to the very root of your bad behaviour, to the very place where all suffering begins. You still mustn’t neglect to be careful of what you say and do, that foundation in virtue is enormously important – it’s just that it’s not enough. But the peace and stability morality brings does enable you to gradually still and watch your mind – and so begin to gain insight into how things change, and how unsatisfactory and insubstantial they are. Thus, by seeing and knowing the true nature of things, the mind is eventually cleansed of greed, hatred and delusion.

At the celebrations of events like Magha Puja and at any important occasion the lay people always ask for and then receive and reaffirm the Three Refuges and Five Precepts. Having only a moment ago been speaking of avoiding evil and cultivating what is good, to help you do just that I recommend those precepts and suggest that you recollect them frequently and make sure they’re with you always, wherever you go and whatever you’re doing. And especially the least popular, the fifth, abstinence from alcohol and drugs. I know some people say it’s intoxication that you must avoid and therefore a small amount socially is alright but that’s not what the texts say. You don’t have to be unable to walk – even a sip is a breach of the precept. There is a saying, ‘First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man!’ We don’t say of the other precepts that a little bit of killing is alright or a little bit of stealing. No! In this practice it’s vital that you make your mind clear – how else can you begin to really see things as they are? That’s why we meditate and so if you’re determined to develop your mind there should be no place in your life for drink or drugs.