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in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
Thirty years from Hampstead
It’s 30 years since you came to England with Luang Por Chah. Why did
you leave Thailand?
In 1975 the Americans left Vietnam, Laos and
Cambodia – French Indochina – became communist, and there
was a ‘domino theory’ that everybody seemed to think would
happen: that once those countries started falling the whole of South
East Asia would go. There was a widespread fear that Thailand would be
next. We had established Wat Pa Nanachat for westerners. I was the head
monk and we had about 20 Western monks there at the time, and I
remember thinking, “What’s going to happen to us if
Thailand goes Communist?” So that was the catalyst that started
me thinking about the possibilities of establishing a Buddhist
monastery elsewhere. I’d never entertained such an idea, never
wanted to leave – but because of this notion that Thailand would
fall to the communists, this thought came into my mind.
Shortly after that I was invited home because my mother was very ill
and they thought she might die, and it seemed to coincide with having
that thought. So when I went back to see my mother and father I
thought, well, if people are interested maybe we could set something
up. I spent time with my parents in Southern California, and after my
mother seemed to get better I went on with Ven. Varapanyo (Paul
Breiter) to New York, and stayed with his parents. I went to Buddhist
groups in Massachusetts, where Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein had
just opened the Insight Meditation Society. It was clear that was not
to be a monastic place. So nothing much happened in the States in
respect to people being interested to start a monastery.
To get back to Thailand I had to go via London, and
that’s where I met George Sharp. He was the chairman of the
English Sangha Trust (EST) and he seemed very interested in me. I
stayed at the Hampstead Vihara, which was closed; he opened it up for
me. During the three days I was there he came every evening to talk to
me. Then he asked if I would consider living in England, and I said,
“Well, I can’t really answer that question, you’ll
have to ask my teacher, Luang Por Chah, in Thailand.” And this he
did; he came a few months later. Luang Por Chah and I were invited to
England, and we arrived on May 6th, 1977.
And your idea was that, in case Thailand fell to the communists it would be a way of preserving this monastic tradition? Yes. And the thing that impressed me was that the
English Sangha Trust had already been established 20 years before, in
1956, and though it had tried all kinds of things, it was essentially a
trust set up to support Buddhist monks in England – so it was for
the Sangha. There was a movement to try to make it more a trust
for supporting lay teachers. But George Sharp had this very strong
sense that the original purpose of the EST was to encourage Buddhist
monks to come and live in England. Several years before, he’d met
Tan Ajahn Maha Boowa and Ajahn Paññavaddho when they came
to visit London. He consulted with them about how to bring good monks
to start a proper Sangha presence in England, and Ajahn Maha Boowa
recommended they just wait, don’t do anything, and see what
happens. So George had closed the Hampstead Vihara until the right
opportunity arose. He wasn’t prepared to put just anybody in
there. I think he saw me as a potential incumbent. Ajahn Chah was very
successful in training westerners, and in inspiring Western men to
become monks. Wat Pa Nanachat was really quite a work of genius at the
time. There’s been nothing like it. That was Luang Por
What did he think about the idea of moving out of Thailand? When I went back to Thailand I told him about it,
and of course, he never signified one way or the other in situations
like that. He seemed interested, but didn’t feel a great need to
do anything with it. That’s why it was important for George Sharp
to visit, so that Luang Por Chah could meet him. George was very open
to any suggestions that Ajahn Chah had. He had no agenda of his own but
he was interested in supporting Theravadan monks living under the
Vinaya system in England. He’d seen so many failures in England
over the previous 20 years; all good intentions to establish something
but things just seemed to fall apart. They’d send some Englishmen
to Thailand for a couple of years to get an ordination and when they
came back they’d be thrown straight into a teaching situation or
something they weren’t prepared for. They had no monastic
experience except maybe a short time in a Bangkok temple.
So what impressed George was that by that time
I’d had quite a few years of training within the monastic system
of Thailand and in the Thai forest tradition, so I wasn’t just a
neophyte. Although, not in terms of the way we look at things now: when
I came to England I had only ten vassas. I don’t think any ten
vassa monk now would consider doing such an operation!
Ajahn Khemadammo came a couple of weeks before, and then Ajahn Chah and
I came together, arriving on May 6th. Later, Ajahns Anando and
Viradhammo dropped in, because they had gone to visit their families in
North America. During that time I suggested they stay, and Ajahn Chah
agreed, so they stayed on with me and there were four of us.
Did Ajahn Chah make a decision at some point, that yes, OK, it would work? Well, when George Sharp came to see him in Thailand
Ajahn Chah put him through a kind of test. He was looking at George,
trying to figure out what sort of person he was. George had to eat the
leftovers at the end of the line, out of old enamel bowls with chips in
them and sitting on the cement floor near the dogs. George was a rather
sophisticated Londoner, but Ajahn Chah put him in that position and he
seemed to accept it. I didn't hear him complain at all. Later on we had
meetings and George made a formal invitation and Luang Por Chah
accepted, agreeing that he and I would visit London the next May.
I was curious because Luang Por Chah was so highly
regarded in Thailand, that I wondered how he would respond to being in
a non-Buddhist country. There’s no question of right procedure in
Thailand in terms of monastic protocol, but you can’t expect that
in other countries. What impressed me during the time in England was
how Luang Por responded to the situation. Nothing seemed to bother him.
He was interested, he was curious. He watched people, to see how they
did things. He wanted to know why they did it like this or that. He
wasn’t threatened by anything. He seemed to just flow with the
scene and be able to adapt skilfully to a culture and climate
he’d never experienced before in his life; living in a country
where he couldn’t understand what anyone was saying.
He could relate well to English people, even though
he couldn't speak a word of English; his natural warmth was enough. He
was a very charismatic person in his own right whether he was in
Thailand or in England, and he seemed to have pretty much the same
effect on people, whoever they were.
Every morning we went out on almsround to Hampstead Heath. People would
come, Thai people – and Tan Nam and his wife, that’s where
we met them. They’ve been supporting us all these years.
Generally, our reception was excellent. George Sharp’s idea was
to develop a forest monastery. He felt that the Hampstead Vihara was a
place that could not develop. It was associated with a lot of past
failures and disappointment, so his idea was to sell it off in order to
find some place in the countryside that would be suitable for a forest
monastery. Luang Por Chah said to stay at the Hampstead Vihara first,
to see what would happen. And it was good enough in the beginning. But
the aim was always to move out of there, to sell it off and find a
Did you feel confident that it would work? What were your feelings at that time after Luang Por Chah left? I didn't know what was going to happen, and I
wasn’t aware of the kinds of problems I was moving into, with the
state of the English Sangha Trust. I was quite naïve really. But I
appreciated George Sharp’s efforts and intentions, and the legal
setup seemed so good: a trust fund that had been established for
supporting the Sangha. George seemed to have a vision of this, rather
than seeing us as meditation teachers, or just using us to spread
Buddhism in Europe. I never got that impression from him; in fact he
made it very clear that if I just came and practised meditation
they’d support that without even any expectation of teaching. So
right from the beginning it was made clear that I wasn’t going to
be pushed around, or propelled by people to fulfil their demands and
expectations. It seemed like quite a good place to start outside of
Thailand. But when Luang Por Chah left – he was only there for a
month – he made me promise not to come back for five years. He
said, “You can’t come back to Thailand for five
So he believed in the project at that point? He seemed to. He was quite supportive in every way. So I said I would do that, and I planned to stay.
During his stay at Hampstead, Ajahn Maha Boowa was
quite emphatic about one thing – to simply wait for the right
bhikkhu to come along. And that is exactly what happened.
I think it was in June 1976, when the phone rang and
it was Ajahn Sumedho. He had been given my telephone number in Thailand
by Ajahn Paññavaddho, who suggested he should give me a
ring me if he needed any assistance. Principally he rang to say:
“Could you give me a place that is suitable for me to stay in for
a few days?” I said: “Okay, I’ll send a taxi
for you”, which I did, and he arrived in no time. He was there
altogether about three days.
I had work to do but in the evenings we would talk
for hours. He told me something about the tradition. I was very
interested, and in the end he said: “I invite you to come to
Thailand and meet my teacher”. I said I would, and in November of
that year I got on a plane and went.
I thought Ajahn Chah might agree to having a go at
starting a branch in England, and I suspected he had a great deal of
confidence in Ajahn Sumedho. In fact, on one occasion when Ajahn
Sumedho was translating I said to Ajahn Chah: “This is really
quite a venture and, quite frankly, Venerable Sumedho is going to have
a very tough time at getting this started.
Now I don’t know anything about Venerable
Sumedho. He comes to me without any reputation whatsoever. But, on the
other hand, Ajahn Chah, you are a great teacher, you have a
considerable reputation and with such a reputation this venture might
have the chance of getting off the ground. What can you tell me to give
me confidence in the Venerable Sumedho?” Ajahn Sumedho had to
translate all this. Ajahn Chah said, “I don’t think
he’ll get married”. That was terrific, because that is what
all the previous bhikkhus had been doing at the Hampstead Vihara.
I came home knowing that Ajahn Chah was coming over
and that he was going to bring with him four bhikkhus. So what he was
effectively doing was bringing a Sangha to England. They were going to
have a look at Haverstock Hill, and he was going to make up his mind
whether it was worth a go or not. That is more-or-less what happened.
He simply came in and took over the place. In the end, he apparently
said they were to stay.
I started cooking at 8 am
in the kitchen of the Hampstead Vihara, to serve the main meal at
10.30. Anagarika Phil (Ajahn Vajiro) and Jordan (Ajahn Sumano) watched
me prepare my favourite dishes and gave me clues on how to go about in
a place that was for me still very strange. I was quite intent on my
cooking, I wanted it perfect! After presenting the whole meal to the
monks, I felt so nervous and self-conscious that I just ran downstairs
and left! I had no idea of the Buddhist customs of chanting a blessing,
sharing food, etc.
When I first heard Ajahn Sumedho talk about his life
as a forest monk in Thailand I was stunned, because for a long time I
had imagined a way of life that would include all the qualities he was
describing: where intelligence and simplicity, patience and vitality,
humour and seriousness, being a fool and being wise, could all happily
coexist. During a later conversation he said, “It is a matter of
knowing where the world is, isn’t it?” The penny had
dropped: “I am the world!” I had read and heard this truth
many times, but I was truly hearing it for the first time. That’s
when I decided to give monastic life a try, not motivated by the desire
to become a nun, but to learn and put into practise the teaching of the
Buddha. I had found my path.
“Forest bhikkhus in
London”, that’s what I heard. I was excited by the news. I
bicycled from south of the river, up Haverstock Hill to number 131. A
terraced house opposite the Haverstock Arms. The shrine room on the
second floor was as big as could be made from one floor of the house.
When Ajahn Chah was there the room was over-full, cramped and stuffy.
The talks were long, and riveting. Tea was served in the basement
I was particularly struck by the way the bhikkhus related to each
other, and especially how they related to Ajahn Chah. There was a
quality of care and attention which I found beautiful. I can remember
thinking, “I’ll NEVER bow”, and within a few weeks of
watching and listening, asking Ajahn Sumedho to teach me how to bow.
When I went to live at the Hampstead Vihara in early
1978, the place was physically cramped, crowded and chaotic. It was not
unusual for six men to be sleeping in the shared anagarika and
laymen’s room on the top floor. There were two WC’s in the
main building, one shower, a tiny kitchen and the small basement room
next to the kitchen served as the dana sala. What kept us there
enduring the physical conditions was the quality of the Dhamma. The
pujas were early in the morning and included a reflection nearly every
day. And with the evening pujas, talks again were almost daily.
The main reflection was on uncertainty. There was a
confidence that things would change and a trust that if the cultivation
of paramis was sincere, the change would be blessed.
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