Thailand & Burma in January

By now it’s pretty well known that I’m away every January. I go to attend the memorial day for Ajahn Chah, held every year at his forest temple, Wat Pah Pong, in the North-East of Thailand on January 16th, the anniversary of his passing twenty-five years ago. It’s an amazing occasion, hundreds of monks gathered from the many branch monasteries all over Thailand as well as various far flung parts of the world, and thousands of white clad lay devotees, also from all over Thailand and all over the world. In the afternoon, following sermons, one for the laity and another for the monks, there’s a procession that wends its way out and around until it encircles the Ajahn Chah Chedi. Once gridlock is achieved and everyone is still, a dedication to Ajahn Chah is read out and then everyone surges forward to lay their offerings in and around the chedi. Far from diminishing as the years go by the crowd seems every year to get bigger and bigger and I expect that next year it’ll be even bigger as then it will be Ajahn Chah’s centenary.

In the three weeks or so that I am away I usually also visit friends and one or two other places that mean something to me. One of them is a charming little forest temple on a small island not too far from Wat Pah Pong. Its importance lies with the fact that here there once lived an extraordinary monk about whom we know very little, except that it was from him that the great Ajahn Mun, he who revived the forest and wandering tradition and inspired Ajahn Chah, learnt meditation. The silence that surrounds this monk, the fact that he wrote nothing and lived back in the days when there were no recording devices, not only adds to the mystique but reminds us that the silence he cultivated was the silence of a still and penetrative mind, a mind that cuts through to the very heart of wisdom and understanding. On that island they have preserved the hut in which he lived and in a chedi, specially built and dedicated to his memory, a few glass fronted show cases display his coarse hand-woven and hand-sewn robes, his almsbowl and a few simple, personal requisites. Monks like him, like Ajahn Mun and later Ajahn Chah, were extraordinary. They lived simply, had little and few expectations, could walk and wander for miles without map or compass and whatever their austere life threw at them, they could put up with it and learn from it. They had no audience and their aim was to leave no trace. Their’s was a way of discipline, contentment with little, endurance and the ability to watch their mind.

Inside Ajahn Sao’s Chedi

How times have changed. Even when I was a young monk living in the forest, we had no phones, nothing very special to eat and sometimes not much of it, practically nothing to read, letters went out only once in a while and took forever and you know, it didn’t matter. Well, we have to accept the world has changed and there’s no going back to that simplicity but there’s nothing to stop us drawing inspiration from the past and admiring the sheer courage, determination and tenacity of those great monks.

After a few days in North-East Thailand it was time to fly down to Bangkok and there board another plane for Mandalay in Upper Burma, described in the guide book that a Burmese couple in Warwick had thoughtfully provided us with, as not only the cultural heartland but also the spiritual hub of Buddhism in Myanmar. In and around Mandalay and across the mighty river on the Sagaing Hills are so many beautiful temples and ancient pagodas. They say that almost two thirds of the many thousands of monks in Burma live in and around Mandalay. And of course there are the nuns too, resplendent in their pink robes. We were so lucky, that same Burmese couple in Warwick had laid on for us a car and driver and so we spent two and a half days touring the many temples, the old royal palace, and climbing up and down countless steps. Then on our last day, as the dawn was breaking we embarked on a rough old boat to travel that great river, the Irrawaddy, immortalised by Kipling as ‘The road to Mandalay, where the flyin’-fishes play.’ We, of course, were leaving Mandalay, going back down that mighty river that flows the length of Burma to Rangoon and the sea but our destination was Bagan. For ten hours, from sunrise to sunset, we were on that boat, tacking back and forth across this tremendously wide but not very deep river, the captain faithful to a navigable channel. You might have thought it would have been boring after a while but not at all. It was absolutely marvellous.

When we disembarked it was already getting dark and by then we were tired but before us we had a day and a half to explore the crumbling ruins of Bagan, this magical place that teems with ancient brick built pagodas, many of which house huge and extraordinarily inspiring Images of the Buddha. You have some in this year’s calendar. Again, it was a lot of walking with many steps to climb up and down, and it was so hot.

Then lastly, there was a short flight to Rangoon and straight to the wonderful Shwe Dagon. This must be one of the most remarkable places on earth, a place that you just can’t get enough of. It’s a huge pagoda dedicated to the last four Buddhas and covered in gold, surrounded by all sorts of lesser temples and smaller pagodas and where you go just to be there. Some people are meditating, some telling beads, some are simply strolling and chatting but everyone is cocooned in a great cloud of respect and devotion.

Respect was the theme of our pilgrimage: respect for the Buddha and for the Dhamma that can lift us and enable us to purify our minds. Respect too for Ajahn Chah who dedicated his life to living the Dhamma and making it available.

My December Newsletter

Here’s my December Newsletter. It repeats the account of the Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration in the previous blog but has some new stuff as well. It might not print very well but at least it should be readable on your screens.

Spring Hill Buddha Grove

buddha-by-night

Twenty-four years ago I was sat in the boardroom at HMP Spring Hill, a Cat D prison near Aylesbury,  with a group of prisoners complaining about having no dedicated place to meet and practise Buddhism. One of them observed that there wasn’t much space inside but plenty outside and from that sprang the idea to build a Buddha Grove – a Buddhist shrine set in a small grove of trees in the grounds, just a few yards from the main building and the Governor’s office. With men of all faiths and none pitching in it was completed in record time and at the rather grand opening one freezing November evening the men thoughtfully warmed their guests with soup, which I don’t think could have been described as delicious! So some Thai followers of mine who were there asked if they could do the catering next year. And so they did and so they have, the group changing and evolving as the years have passed, every year but one ever since.

This year, once again, on Sunday, September 18th, at what has become an established event in the Spring Hill calendar, the annual Buddha Grove Celebration and Re-Dedication, a coachload of Thai people turned up to feed everyone there that evening – the entire prison, prisoners, guests, staff and the few Buddhist prisoners in nearby Grendon as well. At what was for many of them their day off from another restaurant kitchen these good people gave of their time, their food and their joy in giving to cook a wonderful vegetarian Thai meal for over four hundred.

At the ceremony at the Buddha Grove that began the evening celebration we had monks from six temples chanting followed by short addresses from previous governors and myself. Sadly, one notable absence this year was Lord me-with-treeAvebury who died in February. He had never missed one of these until a couple of years ago when he became too frail to attend. Now this year we paid a special tribute to him and together with members of his family we planted a tree in his memory to one side of the Buddha Image. The inscription on the plaque reads, ‘In Memory of Lord Avebury. A friend to prisoners and of this Buddha Grove.’ Then everyone trooped down to the Dining Hall to queue up together and eat together, prisoners and guests alike. When that was done back we all came to the Buddha Grove to make a triple circumambulation with candles flowers and incense. And so the evening wound to a close with some presentations and a chanted blessing. An extraordinary evening in the life of an English prison!

As usual my thanks to everyone who helped to make this a wonderful evening, especially to Khun Peter, to Khun Ting and to all the good Thai people who gave so much and worked so hard. Anumodana!

My July Newsletter

This year I’ve been trying to revive my monthly newsletter, principally for the prisoners who, unfortunately, don’t have on-line access. So here’s the latest. It might not print very well but at least it should be readable on your screens.

July p1cc

July p 2c

 

Printed copies can be made available on request.

Vassa Visits

It’s traditional just before or in the early part of the Vassa for bhikkhus to go and pay respects and ask forgiveness of particular senior monks who may be living nearby or who are otherwise close and of the same tradition.

1-DSCF7163

So, shortly before my birthday Ajahn Amaro came with a group from Amaravati not only to pay their respects and ask forgiveness but also to wish me a Happy Birthday.

13640801_1768336706770944_6220893244358460536_o

Then yesterday, Luang Por Kampong came with his attendant monk to pay their respects and ask forgiveness and surprised me by being accompanied again by Ajahn Amaro and a small group from Amaravati. Luang Por Kampong is spending the Vassa at Bradford-on-Avon and I’ve known him for many years. When he first entered monastic life and was still in white prior to ordaining as a novice, Luang Por Chah sent him to stay at the remote forest temple on the shores of a huge lake where I was then living.

Āsālha Pūjā and My Birthday

This year, Āsālha Pūjā, the anniversary of the first teaching the Buddha ever gave, fell on Tuesday, July20160717_111935abc 19th and the following day was the day of entering the Vassa, the annual Rainy Season retreat, incumbent on all bhikkhus and sāmaneras to observe for three months. As usual our public celebration had to be held on a Sunday when most people are free to attend and the nearest Sunday being the 17th, that was the day we chose. Now the 17th of July just happens to be my birthday, so, I’m afraid that was added to the celebration. Fortunately the weather was good, it didn’t rain, although to begin with it was a bit cloudy but around midday the sun came out and when we gathered outside for the offerings and the sermon that followed it was blazing.

sermon

My talk focussed, as you might have expected, on the Buddha’s first sermon. I reminded my listeners of what had led up to it: the Buddha’s Enlightenment, then his observation that the world and the people in it were obsessed with attachment and unlikely to heed him but how he had been persuaded by Brahma Sahampati that there would be some with but little dust in their eyes and therefore, reflecting that people, like lotuses in a pool, are at different stages of development but all seeking the light, thankfully, he decided to speak. For the first to hear him he sought out the five ascetics who’d been his companions when he’d been fasting and who had left him when he gave up that practice. And so two months after the Enlightenment there he was with them in the deer park where they were staying. Had you passed by you would have seen six weather beaten men, men who had lived rough without house or home for many years. They would have been poorly dressed and had it not been India where holy men and ascetics have always been revered, they would probably have been condemned and avoided. Had you crept closer you would have seen that one was speaking while the other five listened and what you would have heard would have been the Buddha outlining his message of the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the very same profound message that he was to teach for the remaining forty-five years of his life. At the end of the first teaching one of those five had a major awakening and became a Sotāpanna, which means he had entered the stream leading certainly to
Enlightenment.
Following my talk we circumambulated the Buddha Rupa three times carrying candles flowers and incense. And then I sat while, to celebrate my birthday, people queued to ceremonially bathe my hands.

13718177_10209764132128919_1403560763_o

It was a great day and I am thankful to everyone who helped make it so, including all the two hundred and more people who turned up on the day. Anumodanā!

cards3

 

Lord Avebury’s Memorial

20160716_233546

The Memorial for Lord Avebury was held at the Royal Institution in London’s Mayfair on Thursday, June 30th at two o’clock in the afternoon. It was a terrific afternoon.

We drove down from Warwickshire and on our way did a loop off and back onto the M40 to pick up Jim who was a great fan of Lord Avebury and had corresponded with him for years. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and a smooth and trouble free journey. The only awkward bit was the last bit, finding our way through the oneway streets of Mayfair to the Royal Institution. We made it in plenty of time and were very courteously made welcome and taken to our seats in the lecture theatre where the main event was to take place. Unsurprisingly, there were so many of the great and the good mostly from the world of politics and the realm of human rights. You might spot in the photographs below Bianca Jagger in the same row as us and Jeremy Corbyn in the one behind us. He was one of the speakers and despite his current troubles sat through the whole afternoon.

2016-06-30-P1000329      2016-06-30-P1000363

2016-06-30-P1000357      2016-06-30-P1000386

This was what I had to say:

Good afternoon.

More than thirty years ago a certain prisoner told me that Lord Avebury, with whom he was corresponding, was a Buddhist. Then one evening I was sitting in another prison cell and the man I was talking to told me that he had complained bitterly that there were no books on Buddhism in the prison library. He said he’d written to Lord Avebury. ‘And look,’ he said and he pulled out from under his bed a box of Buddhist books that the local library had sent in for him – all because of a letter from Lord Avebury.

I thought I’d better get in touch with this man and so I did and over the years we became close friends and frequently fellow conspirators.

And now he’s gone!

When someone close to us, someone we love and admire dies we find ourselves face to face with the stark reality of Change. Change that waits for none of us, whoever or whatever we might be.

The Buddha once asked his disciples if what they experienced, what they were conscious of seeing, touching, tasting, smelling and thinking about was permanent or impermanent. Unsurprisingly they answered, ‘Impermanent.’

Then the Buddha asked them if what was impermanent and forever changing was satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Obviously what we cannot grasp or keep is bound to be a source of frustration and discontent and therefore the answer was ‘unsatisfactory.’

The Buddha went on, ‘Can it be said, of what is impermanent and unsatisfactory, that this is mine, this am I, this is myself?’ No.

And so we come to the true nature of our existence that the Buddha said we must see and understand if we are ever to learn to let go of greed and attachment and free ourselves of suffering. Our true nature that the Buddha described as being Impermanent, Unsatisfactory and without self, soul or substance.

Eric, I believe, derived great inspiration from these three characteristics. They were the driving force behind what he did. He saw that if the self was a delusion then the terms we use to separate ourselves and which generate greed and aversion are mere conventions, as such there is no reason for separation and no justification for the oppression of one by another. With the letting go of self, loving-kindness, for which Eric was well-known, blossoms. And if all is change, it means things can be changed and so whatever is unsatisfactory, whatever is a source of suffering, can be changed and changed for the better. As we all here know very well, that’s what Eric was dedicated to, to changing things for the better.

But now he is gone and all that remains is for us to love him, to remember him and to let him go.

When I last saw him he asked for some chanting at his funeral, which we did, and today as well. So to conclude, I’m going to recite one short verse that is usually chanted on occasions like this.

Aniccaa vata sa”nkhaaraa — uppaada vaya dhammino
Uppajjitvaa nirujjhanti — tesa.m vuupasamo sukho.

Impermanent are all conditioned things, Their nature is to rise and fall:
Having come into being, they pass, Release from them is bliss supreme – Nirvana.

After the speeches we were invited for refreshments and to view a little exhibition of memorabilia from Lord Avebury’s long and varied life.

Most generously it had been his wish that the donations in his memory should be made to Angulimala, the Buddhist prison Chaplaincy of which he was the Patron. Donations are still trickling in but so far well over a thousand pounds has been given.

envelope

At this year’s Spring Hill Buddha Grove Celebration in September we are going to plant a tree in his memory at the Buddha Grove.