600 years of solitude, by Michael Chaskalson (Kulananda)

On the Irish isle of Skellig Michael, Celtic Monks once pursued a tough life of meditation. Kulananda (Michael Chaskalson) feels a connection across the centuries with these vanished contemplatives, and senses a continuity between his own efforts and theirs.

I am traveling about the Kerry coast with the team that runs the Dublin Meditation Center. As the Center’s president, I visit from time to time, helping out where I can. We are getting to know one another better, getting to know Ireland together, adventuring around its glorious coastline on a kind of pilgrimage.

One evening we set out in search of a place to hold an impromptu meeting: three members of the Western Buddhist Order meeting to discuss our practice and our work. We find a quiet cove and start along a “mass path” to an old “mass rock,” where outdoor mass was said in the absence of a church during the time of the Penal Laws that suppressed Catholic church services.

Thirteen monks, living a life of prayer and contemplation in their tiny, round, rock-built huts 600 sheer feet above the rolling north Atlantic.

It is a golden evening, the sun setting softly pink into the still ocean as we scramble over rocks and through purple rhododendron glades. Rounding a corner, the two Skellig islands suddenly appear before us, like huge Gothic cathedrals, floating in yellow light upon a gilded sea, an eruption from another dimension.

Some time in the sixth century a small band of monks headed out into the Atlantic Ocean off the south-west coast of Ireland in a hide-covered coracle. Their destination was a peaked rocky outcrop, seven miles out to sea. Battered by the deep Atlantic waves, somehow they negotiated a landing against the island’s steep face of crumbling sandstone. They had come to stay here, a day’s perilous journey from the mainland, on a barren, storm-battered rock at the edge of civilization on the western-most tip of Europe. On their horizon the sun set over the very end of the world.

Thirteen monks, living a life of prayer and contemplation in their tiny, round, rock-built huts 600 sheer feet above the rolling north Atlantic. Unbelievably, a small community flourished on that rock for six centuries. They fished, kept a tiny garden and maybe an animal or two. On the southern pinnacle, above a chimney of rock, a solitary hermit once passed his days in complete isolation.

…when most of western Europe was plunged into darkness and illiteracy, the Irish Celtic monks preserved classical learning…

Skeilic means “rock” in Irish. and there are two Skellig Islands. Little Skellig is an uninhabited haven of seabirds; a mile and a half away is Skellig Michael, dedicated, like so many high places, to the archangel of that name. It is barren pinnacle of rock, less than half a mile long and nowhere more than 500 feet wide. It rises steeply to a peak 700 feet above the ocean.

Six centuries. Despite, cruel winter weather, despite the scarcity of food and fuel, for 600 years a monastic community clung to that rock. And ever since has been a place of pilgrimage, a place of awe.

A romantic picture perhaps, but here in the west of Ireland the mind turns naturally to romance — it’s in the air, in the radiance of the light, the greenness of the land. Awestruck, we stand and quietly stare, new Buddhists on an old mass of rock, bringing a new religion to a country where an old one was once so hampered; gazing at an illuminated haven of timeless contemplation.

The next day dawns gray and wet, and there is only just time to buy ourselves green plastic rain capes before heading off to join our boat. “You’ll not be needing those today, boys,” says the boatman, seemingly oblivious to the squalling rain. But as we approach the islands the sky clears, the wind drops, and we circle Little Skellig on a clear, calm sea.

Little Skellig is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of gannets. They jostle for space and fleck the rocks white. There soar flocks of razor bills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes: a multitude of seabirds. Seals bask in small inlets, and there I caught my first sight of a puffin: a childhood wish at last fulfilled.

The smallness of the buildings is accentuated by the vastness of the space all around. Man, on this rock, is but a little thing.

Landing on Skellig Michael, we climb an ancient rock-cut stairway. A thin layer of soil clings to gray, lichenous rock. Sea campion, plantago, scurvy grass: a few plant species scrabble out a desperate living. A sign put up by the Office of Public Works urges us to take care of the flora, not to throw stones, and to respect the “spiritual atmosphere” of the place

The monastic enclosure sits on a flat terrace at the edge of a 600-foot cliff. The windowless huts are shaped like beehive domes and are roughly rectangular inside, none more than 15 feet by 12. The smallness of the buildings is accentuated by the vastness of the space all around. Man, on this rock, is but a little thing. There are altars, prayer stations, and a few Celtic crosses — everything starkly laid out against a brilliant Atlantic sky.

There are no springs on Skellig Michael; rainwater, as well as dew and condensed mist from the rocks, was gathered in cisterns. And since there is nothing to burn, there can have been few fires, and little cooking. The monks must have lived on a few vegetables, grain from the mainland, wind-dried fish and raw seabirds’ eggs in season. Through the wet, freezing winter their rough woolen garments can rarely have been dry. This was no easy life.

As my friends and I crowd into a tiny drystone cell, the silence settles and a sense of awe arises. We know why those monks came there, 14 centuries ago. In our own ways we know that same yearning, the desire for peace and solitude that moves all meditators.

This is expressed by the Buddhist poet Shantideva, writing in India maybe 100 years after the founding of Skellig monastery

… one should recoil from sensual desires and cultivate delight in solitude, in tranquil woodlands empty of contention and strife.

On delightful rock surfaces cooled by the sandal balm of the moon’s rays, stretching wide as palaces, the fortunate pace, fanned by the silent, gentle forest breezes, as they contemplate for the well-being of others.

Bound to none, one enjoys that happiness and contentment which even for a king is hard to find.

During the sixth century, when most of western Europe was plunged into darkness and illiteracy, the Irish Celtic monks preserved classical learning in a project of voracious bibliophilia. Not only the Gospels, but Aristotle, Euripedes, Virgil, Ovid. Whatever they could find they copied, preserved and returned to the rest of Europe. The debt we owe them is immense. But I don’t see these Skellig monks as scribes. We know very little about them but surely they were contemplatives, upholding the more inward dimension of the Celtic Christian tradition.

I am humbled by the commitment of those monks, by their single-minded devotion to the contemplative life

On the saddle of the island, with the blue sky all around us and the myriad-colored Atlantic rolling beneath, I sit talking with a friend. Discussing his meditation practice and thoughts about life, I feel a strong resonance come upon me. Yes — this is it. It rolls on and on. The same searching, the same fundamental quest. The Skellig monks practiced for the sake of the life to come, for the glories in heaven. Shantideva, like all Buddhists, taught practice for the sake of radical change here and now. But for all their differences, they share a profound commitment to spiritual effort, a deep dedication to the inner life.

On the boat back to the mainland a still solemnity steals over me. As a western Buddhist in western Europe, it is not often that I experience a sense of continuity between my efforts and those of the ancients. I felt it once on the Acropolis and something like it, from a different dimension, in Florence. But on Skellig Michael the feeling is much more immediate. For six long centuries that barren rock was dedicated to contemplation. So our journey there seems fitting, for although we are bringing something new to that land, something clear and not heard before, it distantly resonates with something very old, and long buried. I feel it welcoming us back.

With that feeling comes humility and awe. I am humbled by the commitment of those monks, by their single-minded devotion to the contemplative life, which led them to live far out in the wild North Atlantic. That level of dedication is something to aspire to.

But omens abound on Skellig Michael and solemnity doesn’t last. As I emerge from my reverie, a school of dolphins surfaces around the boat. Leaping and diving, they are joyfully at home in their own true element, out here in the wild Atlantic Ocean.

KulanandaMichael Chaskalson (also known as Kulananda) is a leading teacher of mindfulness-based approaches to work and healthcare, training senior executives, executive coaches, clinical psychologists and others in this radical approach to creativity and personal effectiveness. With Dominic Houlder he is the author of Mindfulness and Money and has written several books on Buddhist themes. See for more information.

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A meditation on lessons of life (Movie Review) (Arizona Republic)

Richard Nilsen, Arizona Republic: Spring Summer Fall Winter . . . and Spring may be the antidote to Mel Gibson. It is one long, intensely beautiful Buddhist meditation on the passage of life and time, the acceptance of responsibility and the release of desire. It is as quiet as The Passion of the Christ is violent.

It is as quiet as The Passion of the Christ is violent.

It covers five seasons and five stages of life as a taciturn Buddhist monk raises his young apprentice from infancy to adulthood and teaches him the lessons of life.

We watch as the adolescent boy leaves his floating hermitage to follow the young woman he has developed a fever for, and we watch as the outside world gives our young apprentice nothing but stress and ashes.

Many years later – each season covered in the film skips a period of roughly 10 years — our apprentice returns to his lake, to pick up the meditative life after his master’s death.

Every scene in the film has the careful presentation and composition of a painting, and director Kim KiDuk keeps the film nearly as static as a painting. If the movie goes through the changing seasons, moviegoers used to American pacing may well feel they have sat in the theater for a full year.

Yet, if you can slow your emotional metabolism down to a more natural pace, the film has barely a moment that drags: It is completely involving.

There are a few odd missteps in the latter part of the film, as the monk is given “superpowers” you expect from a Hong Kong action film. Or maybe David Carradine.

They are completely unnecessary to the purport of the film and only distract the viewer, as will an extended bit of choreography with the apprentice practicing martial arts on the icecovered lake: His moves seem like a parody of Martin Sheen’s in Apocalypse Now.

Nevertheless, this South Korean movie is a balm for the soul and a reminder that even in the frenetic city, the cosmos has its own steady pendulum.

Original article no longer available.

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I Gave Up A Life Of Riches With My Millionaire Love To Live In A Buddhist Hut (Daily Record, Scotland)

I gave up a life of riches with my millionaire love to live in a Buddhist hut; As her wealthy lover proposed, offering her a Venetian apartment as an engagement present, Scots teacher Gabrielle McGuire realised all she wanted was to become a Buddhist nun.

Samantha Booth, Daily Record, Scotland: As a Buddhist nun, Kelsang Machig leads a simple life. She shaves her hair, doesn’t wear any make-up and doesn’t have many material possessions.

She’s celibate, teetotal and loves to spend time on her own in empty huts meditating. A far cry from the life she could have had if she hadn’t chosen to become ordained.

If she had accepted the marriage proposal from her handsome, multi-millionaire boyfriend a few months before she decided to become a nun she could have spent the rest of her life jet setting while decked out in designer gear and dripping with diamonds.

But the mum-of-three from Glasgow chose the maroon and yellow nun’s robes instead.

The 53 year-old said: ‘There is a little story I tell which best illustrates why I made the choice I did.

‘I had spent a weekend on silent retreat in a hut with nothing in it except a sink and a bed. Weeks later my partner took me on holiday to the best hotel in Venice.

‘He proposed to me, offering a luxury Venetian apartment as a wedding present and wined and dined me in all the best restaurants, but, when I compared the two holidays, I made a realisation. ‘When I was on my own in the hut I was possibly the happiest I had ever been and that feeling came totally from within.

‘In Venice I was having a great time but my happiness was dependent on all the things we had – the plush hotel, the sumptuous dinners and the expensive champagne so I turned the lovely man down and became a nun.’

That was 18 months ago and Kelsang Machig was ordained last summer.

She is coy when asked about her former boyfriend and refuses to name him, or show us his picture, but she assures us that while he was a successful businessman he isn’t a well- known figure.

Back when they first met she had simply been Gabrielle McGuire, who worked as a remedial teacher in Glasgow Academy.

She admits she had always been looking for something else in her life.

An old hippy at heart and interested in alternative ways of living she had tried it all from crystal healing to Reiki, but it wasn’t until she was first introduced to Buddhism more than eight years ago that she began to have an inkling she had found what she was looking for.

She said: ‘I think it all started when I first took up karate 10 years ago. It is a martial art and the teachings, quite naturally, took me into Buddhism ‘Even then it wasn’t until I started classes by my current teacher, Kelsang Tarchin, four years ago that I really knew I had found how I wanted to lead my life.

‘He taught mehow to bring the teachings of Buddha into everyday life and once I started to try to do what he said I saw it worked. I was hooked and wanted to know more and more I became a devoted student.’

Machig had only been learning under Tarchin for a year when he asked her to pass on what she had learned to others by becoming a Buddhist teacher but the twinkly-eyed mum wasn’t sure she was ready.

Although she happily followed the ways of Buddha, instructing others meant taking vows, like giving up toxins, that she wasn’t sure she was prepared to take just yet.

But she also knew she wanted the chance to help people find the kind of life she had found.

She said: ‘I had learned how to deal with anger, how to banish guilt, how to watch for the moments in every situation which used to annoy or irritate me and how to stop feeling like that.

‘I knew the teachings could have the same affects on others who wanted to learn.’

Over the years Machig became more and more involved in her religion, passing a lot of her knowledge on to her three sons.

But it wasn’t until she and a friend meditated through the Bells at New Year in 2002 that she knew for sure she wanted to take it that one step further and become a nun.

She said: ‘I found such great peace in being a Buddhist I wanted to take it as far as I could.

‘The idea had been forming for a while but although it wasn’t a flash of lightning, meditating while everyone else was partying was a really poignant moment for me and helped me to make my decision.’

WITHIN 48 hours of asking for ordination Machig was told she could fulfil her dream. In June last year she shaved her waist length hair and put on her new set of robes for the first time and prepared to start her life as a nun.

She was no longer Gabrielle McGuire but Kelsang Machig and she admits she sometimes still forgets what she is and thinks: ‘My goodness, I am a nun.’

She said: ‘I am so happy now. It is something I love doing and I am glad I am taking it as far as I can.’

Her parents found her transformation hard to take but they soon saw how happy becoming a nun made their daughter. Her sons on the other hand took it all in their stride. The youngest, 17 year-old Tom thinks it’s cool to have a Buddhist nun as a mum, her middle son Peter, 23, doesn’t have a problem with it and her eldest son, 24 -year-old Robert, had a surprise in store for Machig. The musician had grown-up with his mum’s Buddhist beliefs and like his younger brother Peter took classes and went on retreat.

But once he had seen his mum ordained he decided he too wanted to swap his rock band for monk’s robes.

He was ordained a month after his mum and as an ordained nun herself Machig was in the unique position of being able to attend her own son’s vow taking and was with him as he took his new name, Oche.

She said: ‘It was an incredibly special moment for me and a very moving ceremony. I was really excited by it all.’

Machig was also certain about something else. She knew she wanted to keep teaching even after she was ordained but did wonder what the reaction of the school, the pupils and their parents might be.

She said: ‘I tried to prepare them all in advance and include everybody as much as I could.They were all fantastic about it but I still think it was a bit of a shock for everyone when I first turned up with my hair all shaved off in my robes.

‘Especially as they all knew how much I loved my clothes, make-up and jewellery.’

But the newly-ordained nun knew she wouldn’t miss any of her material possessions andhad already given most of them away.

And what impressed Machig more than anything was the ease with which her pupils accepted her.

She said: ‘They were full of questions about my hair and my robes, but they really did take it all in their stride.

‘I told them it was now my job to be happy and they ask me all the time if I am happy today.’

Machig believes it is good for the world to see her out and about in her robes.

She doesn’t believe in ramming her beliefs down anyone else’s throats but thinks it is good for people to become accustomed to the diversity she brings.

And she says since she has been out and about in Scotland wearing them she has never had a negative reaction.

She said: ‘People look and smile andsome even come up and ask mewhy I am wearing them, but that’s all good.’

She might have turned down untold material riches and luxuries to become a nun but Machig is adamant she is far richer as she is.

[Original article no longer available]
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New seasons, new lessons and a nod to Buddhism (via Buddhist News Network)

Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING (Unrated) ***½

Transcendental, humorous, occasionally grim and above all wise film about the journey of life. An elderly monk teaches his young pupil some hard lessons in this intriguing reflection on the cyclic nature of life.

The South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk is known to many as a maker of violent films with a radical and often shocking view of Korean society. People who gave up watching The Isle, can however this time enter the cinema without fear to see Kim Ki-Duk’s serene and breathtaking meditation about the essence of life.

No one is immune for the power of the seasons and their yearly cycle of birth, growth and decay. Not even the old and the young monk who live as hermits in a floating monastery on a lake surrounded by mountains and trees. In the spring, the young monk in his cruel innocence binds stones on the backs of fishes, a frog and a snake. For punishment, he has to carry a stone on his own back as he looks in the stream for the frog and the fish he mistreated. When the boy is 17 (in the summer), a girl comes to the monastery.

The young monk soon experiences the meaning of love and obsession. In the third episode, autumn, the boy returns from the mountains as a 30 year old. The old monk finds him when he wants to commit suicide in front of the statue of the Buddha.

See also: A meditation on lessons of life (film review)

He makes him carve the Prajnaparamita Sutra in the wood to rediscover his tranquillity. As an adult man, the monk (now played by Kim Ki-duk himself) returns to the deserted monastery. A woman leaves her newly born son with him. In the last part of the film, it is against spring and we see an old monk and a child…

Nearly all of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring takes place aboard a floating monastery on a pond surrounded by picturesque trees and mountains. An oasis of serenity and beauty, the locale is far enough removed from civilization to feel like another planet — a perfect place for an old monk (Oh Young-soo) to raise his young disciple and educate him in the principles of Buddhism.

With the onset of each of the seasons, which leap ahead several years in the characters’ lives, the pupil learns a new lesson. In spring, while still a boy (Seo Jae-kyung), he discovers the price of casual, mischievous cruelty. In summer, now a teen (Kim Young-min), he experiences sexual longing when a young woman (Ha Yeo-jin) visits the temple for healing. The boy’s lust causes a rift between him and the monk that will take years to repair.

An entrancing cinematic poem, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring was written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, an accomplished South Korean filmmaker whose work remains largely unknown to American audiences (this is the first of his movies to receive wide distribution in the United States).

Kim, who also edited the film and appears as the adult pupil, leavens the movie with the tenets of Buddhist principles: Animals, meditation, man’s relationship to the natural world and spiritual penitence all factor strongly in the plot, which has the circular structure and resonant wisdom of an ancient fable. But this delicate, transporting movie, which keeps dialogue to a minimum to tell its story primarily through images, is also a triumph of sheer cinematic craft that mirrors its characters’ contemplative natures while extolling the virtues of lives simply led.

Cast: Oh Young-soo, Seo Jae-kyung, Kim Young-min, Kim Ki-duk, Ha Yeo-jin.

Writer-director: Kim Ki-duk.

Original article no longer available…

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Setting captives free (Buddhist News Network)

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.”

Original article no longer available…

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