The merry month of May, the month when we usually celebrate the anniversary of the Buddha’s Birth, Enlightenment and Parinibbana, known traditionally as Vesakha Puja or Vesak, was for me this year a most unusual month. First of all I had to go to Thailand for a few days to speak at a conference on Mindfulness and then later in the month back here in England there was a five day meeting of the Elders of the Wat Pah Pong Sangha that I had to attend.
In February, on the last day of my visit to Burma and Thailand, I called at the Thai Buddhist university of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyaly (MCU), the university that a few years ago honoured me with a Doctorate. While I was there it was suggested that I might speak at a conference they were planning for May about my experience in prison chaplaincy. I was interested because although I have been doing this for forty years and Angulimala with its team of Buddhist prison chaplains has been active in British prisons for more than thirty years, the international Buddhist world has hardly heard of us. This conference was to be the third organised by the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) and was called, ‘Mindfulness: Traditions and Compassionate Applications.’ It was to have three main areas of interest: the first would look at the Texts, another the Meditation Traditions and the third, Contemporary Applications of Mindfulness. However, as the plans gathered steam my role switched from speaking on Chaplaincy in the Contemporary Applications section to talking on Ajahn Chah’s approach as one of the Meditation Traditions.
I flew out on the evening of Thursday, the 4th, arrived the following afternoon and early on Saturday morning set off for MCU and the conference. Monks and nuns men and women lay Buddhists, scholars and students, from Buddhist and other countries filled the vast hall where the opening ceremony was being held. Once we had all taken our places, there was a pause while we waited for the guest of honour, the newly appointed Sangharaja, to arrive. The Sangharaja is the monk appointed by the King to head the Sangha in Thailand. As he entered the hall and made his way down the central aisle, he stopped several times to speak to a number of us before taking the stage, where, having paid respects to the Triple Gem he gave a short speech of welcome and formally declared the conference open. Then he left. The rest of the morning was occupied with more speeches and the inevitable photo call, which was a pretty impressive operation and a hot one out in the midday sun. After that there wasn’t much for me to do for the rest of the day. The next morning was an even earlier start for the opening of a new building before the conference’s three symposia got under way. Unfortunately, during the night we had had a massive electric storm and the outdoor preparations for that early event were mucked up. Setting it all right and restoring power and so on then took so long that the morning’s programme had to be shortened with the consequence that although Pa-Auk Sayadaw, who was first on, managed the whole of his prepared speech, I and the monk that followed me had only about 25 minutes each.
The gist of what I had to say was that Ajahn Chah’s method of encouraging mindfulness relied on certain structures. There was the physical layout of the monastery with its air of calm, logical serenity; then the structure of the day, the routine of morning and evening chanting and group meditation, the walk for alms to a nearby village, the ritual of the one meal, work and personal time to do one’s washing, memorise and meditate; then the backbone of our training was the observance of the Vinaya or monastic discipline which we had to learn and practise; and finally, the various duties to be performed for our seniors and other monks. All these structures were used as tools to develop and encourage a practice of mindfulness. I didn’t have time to do much more than give an outline but the synopsis introducing my effort, was included in the conference book where a number of the talks and contributions were published in varying degrees of detail.
On the third morning we all transferred to the UN Building in Bangkok to celebrate the UN Day of Vesak. Traffic around Bangkok can be a nightmare, especially early morning and so I had been told to take my time getting there as nothing of importance would be happening in the morning. I rolled in at about 10 o’clock and as I was being shown to my seat I was told that my speech – the first I’d heard of it – was due in about ten minutes! I think I did all right. In the afternoon, after yet another huge photo call and loads more photos – I had my picture taken so many times! – the popular Princess Soamsavali made an appearance and presented some of us with a very nice Buddha-Rupa each. Once the afternoon’s proceedings had wound to a close we all made our way by bus or car to Buddha Montone, a huge and beautiful park to the West of Bangkok dedicated to the Buddha. It’s set out as a mandala, which is what montone means, with a huge fifty-two foot high image of the Buddha at its centre and around it areas dedicated to the Buddha’s Birth, his Enlightenment, his First Sermon and his final Passing. Here we gathered, again with the Sangharaja presiding, for a ceremony of chanting. When that was over and the Sangharaja had left, we went in procession to the Buddha Image and circumambulated it three times. It was a very moving occasion.
And that was it. The next day I was on the plane back to England. In what was left of the week I managed to attend Buddha Day ceremonies in a couple of prisons, then on the Sunday was our public celebration of Vesakha Puja at The Forest Hermitage.
Towards the end of the month our meeting of Elders of the Ajahn Chah tradition and Wat Pah Pong was held at Amaravati. It was a big occasion over five days with a lot of monks from the various Wat Pah Pong branches throughout the world. There’s not much here to say about it other than it was a useful and enjoyable time.
As you can imagine, these two events rather disrupted my normal routine and if you will add to it the work being done to re-roof the Forest Hermitage I’m sure you will understand that my practice has had to adapt to unusual circumstances. But that’s all right, that’s how it should be because, you know, nothing stays the same and everything, well, practically everything, is uncertain and we never know quite what’s round the corner. We have only two certainties: that we will die and that everything else is uncertain! That’s it.
Be well and be happy.