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.

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.

The Ajahn Chah Memorial – his Centenary

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As many of you will know it’s been my habit for over twenty years to disappear to Thailand every January for around three weeks to attend the Ajahn Chah Memorial on the anniversary of his death. What hasn’t been my habit was to plan and book my trip well in advance but this time, since it was to be Ajahn Chah’s centenary year and a lot more people would be going, I thought I better had, so I did. But then as I’d always feared and why I don’t like planning too far ahead, the unexpected happened and I heard that on January 12th there was to be a ceremony at his birthplace where a gigantic stone pillar had been erected to mark the spot just a mile or so from Wat Pah Pong, his main temple. That was the day I was due to fly out but as soon as I heard this news I decided that I just had to be there for that. So, thankfully, I managed to change my booking to leave on the 10th – and then something else unexpected happened, I caught a very bad cold. So, it was all a bit touch and go. But never mind! I made it and on the morning of January 12th I took my seat at the ceremony marking the opening and the offering of this very special memorial at Venerable Ajahn Chah’s birthplace.

The three weeks that I was away fell into three distinct parts: first there were the few days in the NE of Thailand for Ajahn Chah’s Memorial; then five days in Burma, first in Mandalay, then a day on the Irrawaddy followed by Bagan and Rangoon; and finally, a week back in Thailand with a day or two in Bangkok and a rest on the coast at Ch’aam. For now, I’ll concentrate on the Ajahn Chah Memorial and report on the rest next month.

So, having arrived in Thailand in the afternoon of the 11th, I then flew on to Ubon and by the early evening I was safely settling in at a temple near Wat Pah Pong and being briefed about the programme for the following day. Next morning, soon after first light, we left to drive the few miles to Bahn Gaw, the village in which Ajahn Chah was born almost a hundred years ago. Arriving at the outskirts we left the cars and walked the remaining hundred yards to the site of his birthplace. There, now instead of the house in which he was born and the buildings that followed, there stands a twelve metre or forty foot high solid sandstone pillar with its crown fashioned to resemble a lotus bud.

Around it are sculpted stone railings with cement and stone friezes that depict scenes from Ajahn Chah’s life. 27500389_10215046912677121_6005404411821749273_oThe obvious inspiration for this impressive memorial ‘garden’ have been the huge stone pillars and stone railings erected by the Emperor Ashoka two thousand years ago in India to mark places of significance in the life of the Buddha. Those polished sandstone pillars, most of which have been broken, although one still stands at Vesali, were about fifteen metres tall. For this Ajahn Chah pillar, I was told it took three attempts by the quarry to extract an unbroken piece of stone large enough and then three days to transport it on the only vehicle in Thailand large enough for the job. Once erected and in position stone masons have spent the last four years working on it. Various monks have helped with the surrounding area and one, Luang Por Anek, has sculpted and crafted some of the stone work, particularly the two slabs you can see in the picture on either side of where I and the group are sitting. I think it’s a wonderful and hugely tasteful memorial to Ajahn Chah and like those Ashoka pillars I’m sure it will last for hundreds of years. And perhaps just like those Ashoka pillars, at some time in the distant future it will provide for future generations a clue that will lead them to learn of a remarkable man who rose from humble beginnings to live the Buddha’s message and in his own way teach and transform the lives of thousands all over the world. That’s what the Buddha’s teachings – and the example of people like Ajahn Chah – do, they change people utterly and for the better.

The birthplace ceremony was also the beginning of the five day event in remembrance of Ajahn Chah, for which thousands had gathered from all over the world. From the birthplace to Wat Pah Pong, the principal temple founded by Ajahn Chah, the road was lined with sunflowers and there were plenty more at Wat Pah Pong itself and around the Ajahn Chah Stupa. They were there to provide colour and decoration and in time, of course, an income for the good locals who had grown them.

Remember, I was still recovering from a nasty cold, so for the next three days I took it easy. On one day I did nothing much at all, on another just a drive and an easy walk through a large, wild forest temple where I lived for a year in 1973, and on another, first a visit to the free food stall sponsored and run by followers of The Forest Hermitage before a drive out to see an old friend and mentor who is in indifferent health but still manages to go on a long alms round every day in his electric wheelchair. I should have mentioned that to feed the thousands of devotees and hundreds of monks gathered at Wat Pah Pong, dozens, perhaps hundreds of food stalls dispensing free food were operating at all hours of the day and night.

   

   

Then came the 16th, the big day and the anniversary of Ajahn Chah’s passing in 1992. Every year since his funeral in ’93, the anniversary has been marked by a procession from the main meeting hall out to the stupa that houses his relics and then once the leading group have circled it and gridlock been achieved a tribute to Ajahn Chah is recited before we all place the symbolic offerings we’ve been carrying in or around the stupa. This year was much the same, only bigger because this year would have been his centenary and so the numbers were swollen with even more devotees from all over the world. It was, as always, a very moving occasion. Then in the evening that followed and through the night Dhamma talks were given in Thai and in English. Mine was in English.

And that was it. On the 17th it was all over, and people were rapidly dispersing to wherever they’d come from or to wherever they were going to next. For Ajahn Manapo and I it would be Burma next and so that afternoon we set off by car for Bangkok to be ready for our flight to Mandalay the next day.

The Sangha

In the Buddhist lunar calendar, each month ends on a full moon, and so on the full moon of Thursday, October 5th, the last of the three months of this year’s annual Vassa or Rains Retreat came to an end. On that full moon day each bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) so long as there is a quorum of five or more monks, must invite admonishment from the Sangha, or otherwise, if less than five, from however many monks are present. It’s an annual formality that reminds each monk that he’s in training and therefore will sometimes need help and correction. Because this is an important day for the Sangha, it’s the day we have chosen on which to celebrate the third of the Three Jewels, the Sangha; the other two, of course, being the Buddha and the Dhamma. In the suttas the word sangha, which literally means a group or community, is usually used in one of two ways: either it refers to the Samutti or conventional Sangha of ordained monks and nuns bhikkhus and bhikkhunisor to the Ariya Sangha of Noble Ones — persons who have realised one of the four stages of Awakening that commence with Stream-Entry. Those four stages are in fact a gradual and progressive peeling away of the ten fetters that bind us to the round of rebirth and perpetual suffering. Should you be fortunate enough to Enter the Stream that leads certainly to Enlightenment it will mean that the first three of those fetters, that include a belief in a self or personality, doubt and superstitious attachment to rites and rituals, have been overcome and discarded and you are bound within seven lifetimes at most to attain Enlightenment. Next comes the stage of Once Returner when a further two, sensual desire and ill-will, have been weakened and then you have only one more rebirth to endure. Thirdly, comes Non-Returner when those last two have been finally overcome and abandoned, then there is no more rebirth as a human. That leaves just five left to go, these are regarded as the higher fetters and therefore the more difficult to break free of. They are: the attachment to the realms of form and the formless realms, then conceit, agitation and ignorance. When they’re all gone, that’s when a person becomes an Arahant, an Enlightened One. These stages are clearly great achievements, not easily arrived at and therefore merit our admiration. Not only that, they are an inspiration and a reminder of what we could be doing. And so, whenever we recite a puja we recite not only the qualities of the Buddha and his Dhamma but also the qualities of this Noble Sangha. But let’s not forget the Samutti Sangha, the conventional Sangha, and its achievements and meaning for us. First of all, it is a source of stability and provides leadership and guidance. It has been in existence for a very long time, it stretches right back to the Buddha’s very first sermon. It was set up by the Buddha and during his lifetime he was constantly working with it and as things happened, refining and shaping it, and ensuring it remained fit for purpose – that of enabling one to make it from the hither shore to the farther shore, from Samsara to Nirvana, from bondage to freedom. And over the centuries the Sangha has guarded, cared for and against extraordinary odds maintained unadulterated, unspoilt, the Buddha’s essential message so that some 2.500 years later it is as clear as when first it was given. To this day, the Sangha continues to offer the opportunity for full-time training and practice. Yes, I know, it has had its ups and downs, and inevitably many of the ordinary mortals involved have lost and keep on losing their way but while the Sangha as an institution continues to exist, its great body of knowledge and experience along with what it stands for is not lost and remains to be used and regenerated. In both its forms the Sangha is a fabulous phenomenon and should be cherished.

An Angulimala Workshop with the Chief Inspector of Prisons

You may not know this but all the Buddhist prison chaplains are members of Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy and four times a year we have a day together at The Forest Hermitage. Not all come every time but usually twenty or more spend the day here with me. We meditate together, some rather fine Thai food is provided by some of the Thai ladies who regularly come here and we have a chance to discuss both prison and Buddhist matters. For our meeting in September we were blessed with a lovely sunny day and held our meeting outside in our small marquee. That gave us the extra space we needed to comfortably accommodate a slightly larger gathering than usual attracted, no doubt, by the presence of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, who joined us for the afternoon. He’s a very nice man and generously gave us a good talk and answered a range of questions. When it was over I presented him with a copy of a new book that had been launched at a conference in Thailand that I had spoken at in May. Published by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University Press, it’s called Common Buddhist Text – Guidance and Insight from the Buddha and is an anthology of texts from the three main traditions of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. It’s rather good and I’m hoping it could provide a basis for a general Buddhist curriculum within the prisons. I brought back a few copies and I’ve had some more sent so I could let all the chaplains present take a copy too. So, there we all are in the photo clutching our respective copies.