Sanitsuda Ekachai, Bangkok Post: Prisoners can’t go to the temple, so for the past three decades, Phra Khemadhammo has been taking the temple to them. Each week, the British-born Buddhist monk travels more than 960 kilometres to prisons in various parts of Britain to give spiritual guidance to inmates.
Prisoners can’t go to the temple, so for the past three decades, Phra Khemadhammo has been taking the temple to them. Each week, the British-born Buddhist monk travels more than 960 kilometres to prisons in various parts of Britain to give spiritual guidance to inmates.
He does not call it social action or activism, though. “It’s dhamma work,” said the monk matter-of-factly during his recent visit to Thailand.
“What I do in prisons is more or less what I do in the temple where people come to see monks, talk about their problems, seek advice, learn how to meditate.
“But prisoners cannot come to the temple, so I have to take the temple to them.”
The soft-spoken, smiling monk’s eyes glistened kindly through his spectacles.
Phra Khemadhammo, who belongs to the forest monk tradition of northeastern Thailand, was honoured last year with an OBE royal decoration from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his longstanding service to prisoners.
Spiritually trained by the late Luang Por Chah, a revered meditation master and visionary monk, Phra Khemadhammo is among Luang Por Chah’s Western-born disciples who are now helping Thai Theravada Buddhism take root in the West.
Born in 1944 to a middle-class, conventional Christian family, he was 27 when he turned his back on a promising acting career and the lure of fame to live a monastic life.
At 60 – and now referred to as Luang Por himself – he talked about his past, about appearing in National Theatre, television and radio, working alongside renowned actors and actresses, as if all of that had been some other life.
“I never give my full name,” he said gently. “I left it all behind.”
The decision seemed drastic, one that his family still does not accept, but to him it was a natural move once he realised only intensive spiritual practice could bring true peace within. He owes it to his own curiosity.
Meditation practices from the East, being in vogue in the ’60s, made him curious and “want to investigate”, said Luang Por Khem, as he is affectionately called.
To investigate the mind in the same way that actors must deeply investigate and understand the characters they play, he started going to a Thai temple in North London and found to his surprise that meditation did make him feel better and work better.
Meanwhile, he started to see the acting career in a different light. He remembered watching his boss, the illustrious Sir Lawrence Olivier, during a rehearsal. “What I saw was an unhappy looking man. So I could see that, with all that fame, it does not really bring happiness. But it brings concern. You have to hold on to it when you are famous.”
A retreat in 1968 changed his life, he said. “It had a very big effect on me. After that, I found nothing else I wanted to do, except be ordained. The question was how to do it.”
Suddenly balancing an acting career and spiritual practice became impossible. “I wanted to live a reclusive life, which I did for two years,” he recalled. But not being a person who does things half-way, he undertook a pilgrimage to see Buddhism at work in Asia. He landed in Thailand in 1971.
Chance took over. Not knowing where to go, he told the taxi driver to take him to Thon Buri so that he could meet an old friend, Buddhist scholar Sathianpong Wannapok. The driver dropped him instead at Wat Mahathat, which is where he was ordained as a novice.
Then came another coincidence that changed his life. While walking down the street one day, Phra Khem ran into a friend who had also become a monk. “He told me that the only place for us to learn was Wat Nong Pah Pong in Ubon Ratchathani,” he said, referring to the forest monastery run by the late Luang Por Chah.
In May that year, Luang Por Chah had him ordained as a monk, making him the master’s first British-born disciple at Wat Pah Nanachat, a special forest monastery for foreigners.
It was tough, what with the change of food, climate, language and culture. Though caring and compassionate, Luang Por Chah usually left his monks pretty much alone to practise and to learn the Vinaya or monastic codes of conduct; he would take them aside only occasionally if he sensed there were some problems to be solved.
Interestingly enough, the young monk found that the strict discipline of his acting career had prepared him well for this iron test of will. “I was used to strict self-discipline and working on my own. I knew it was important for one’s advancement. I didn’t expect anyone to look after me.”
The cultural gap created much misunderstanding among Luang Por Chah’s local and foreign disciples. But the cultural problems did not bother him. “My mind was focussed on meditation.”
Luang Por Chah, he added, stressed mindfulness practice through breathing so that one is constantly aware of every thought that, in turn, triggers emotion and action.
“He was also strict with the Vinaya, not for the sake of strictness but so that you knew yourself and learned to be ever mindful.”
Such practices made him realise that one can turn everything one does into an extension of dhamma practice. But hopping from one prison to the next was not the life he had imagined for himself. As with several other important incidents in his life, this, too, happened by chance.
Being English, he was chosen to accompany Luang Por Chah on a two-month trip to England in 1977. But the master decided that Phra Khemadhammo should stay on. Then letters and calls from prisons began coming in, asking that someone visit the inmates as a Visiting Minister.
Not knowing how to respond to the requests, he asked Luang Por Chah for advice.
“He answered with one word: `Go!’ And I’ve been going to prisons ever since.”
It became a real-life testing ground for his spiritual training, for while reverence is automatically accorded to monks in Thailand, many prison officers treated him rudely.
“You have to learn to take it, to be extremely diplomatic, to be constantly aware of what you say and do, in short to be mindful,” he said.
In the process, he found that his jai rawn – his impatient, quick-tempered self – was gradually disappearing.
He recalled that during his training in Thailand, he used to wonder why his master “wasted” so much time on people who were visiting the monastery. When asked, Luang Por Chah said that people taught him a great deal. “Now I feel the same way,” he said.
While the difficulties one faces strengthen the spirit, learning to listen to and understand others helps one to understand oneself better, he said.
He also found that many prisoners were eager to learn the art he has to offer. “They experience great suffering and they want to do something about it. They want to change.”
His service is not limited to Buddhist inmates, but to every prisoner interested in Buddhism. With empathy, he sees monks and prisoners as sharing some common ground. “As a monk, I spend quite a lot of time shut away in small spaces. I, too, have to face myself in that solitude.”
Inmate or not, all humans are imprisoned by greed and aversion, by ignorance, prejudice, attachments, he said.
“But I believe that Buddhist techniques enable us to escape this imprisonment so that we can be free to enjoy secure peace.”
In 1985, he founded Angulimala, the Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy Organisation. The name is derived from an enlightened monk in the time of the Buddha who used to be a murderer. “The story of Angulimala teaches us that the possibility of Enlightenment may be awakened in the most extreme circumstances, that people can and do change, and that people are best influenced by persuasion and above all, example.”
Angulimala is recognised as the official representative of Buddhism in all matters concerning the Prison Service in England and Wales. By not favouring particular schools of Buddhism and focusing on the core teachings, it has received backing from most major Buddhist organisations. The foundation now has a team of 45 chaplains working in about 120 prisons in England and Wales.
His principle is to make Buddhist teachings and practice available as much as possible so that when people choose to investigate more deeply, they can do so. “I believe this availability will create a huge change.”
There will be obstacles ahead, but he welcomes them as crucial spiritual exercises to help him work more earnestly with likes and dislikes.
The dangerous thing for a monk, he said, was having it too easy at their temples. “You tend to get weak and fat that way,” he said.
“Monks should seek ways to `exercise’, not necessarily ways to their liking, because they will only strengthen one’s kilesa,” he advised, referring to greed, aversion and delusion.
Another danger, he added, was for monks to lose the goal of monkhood and Buddhism itself.
With a good-natured smile, he likened Buddhism to a Mercedes. “If you keep polishing it to make it look beautiful on the outside without learning how to drive it, it won’t take you anywhere and soon the engine will start to rot.”
While many feel that better education and a governing body could solve the problems plaguing Thai Buddhism, Phra Khemadhammo sees it differently.
“The real purpose of being a monk is to attain nirvana,” he said emphatically.
Unfortunately, not many monks think about this, he added. Monkhood, in essence, is merely a workshop for one to do some work in pursuit of the total eradication of greed, aversion and illusions.
“Temples are where monks do this workshop and Phra Vinaya [monastic discipline] is what enables the work to take place,” he said.
They are “vehicles” to be used to take one to secure peace. But if monks treats them as only holy forms that deserve respect, “then they’ll just sit there doing nothing”.
Modern consumer culture, which values speed and convenience, is a minefield for monks. Following Luang Por Chah’s footsteps, Phra Khemadhammo is a strong believer in strict adherence to the monastic codes of old.
But how is it possible for monks today not to touch money? Or to not drive? Should monks always rely on others?
“I’ve managed it for the past 40 years. I don’t have money. I don’t have credit cards. I don’t have access of any kind to money,” he answered.
In a spirit of giving and dhamma practice, people buy him tickets or drive him to prisons, he said.
Time pressures and the do-it-yourself mentality led to laypeople preferring to give money to monks, rather than help them. Affluent modern culture, which has weakened our endurance threshold, has also weakened the monks’ belief in the monastic codes of conduct.
Yet he believes that adherence to the codes will help monks stay on the route to nirvana – the only goal of ordination.
“If we want to help monks, we must help them to be good monks,” he said. “And monks must know why they are monks in the first place.”