The Buddhist Channel

Monday, 8 August 2016

☸ Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project: The First Buddhist Nunnery in the UK ☸

Please visit Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project: The First Buddhist Nunnery in the UK for the Buddhistdoor Global version of the article online.

Beginnings of the first Bhikkhunī monastery in the UK.

This October, exciting steps are being taken towards establishing a monastery for bhikkhunīs (fully ordained Buddhist nuns) in the UK. Ajahn Brahm, abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia, will be lending his support to Anukampa Bhikkhunī Project and Venerable Candā through a jam-packed schedule and an unprecedented UK teaching tour entitled ‘Buddhism in the 21st Century’.

Compassionate actions and intentions

The aspiration of Anukampa Bhikkhunī Project, anukampa meaning 'empathic compassion', is to help people grow in the Dhamma; in spiritual qualities such as contentment, compassion, wisdom and peace. Anukampa's aims are to build a community of like-minded people wishing to practise the teachings of the Buddha and support women in the monastic life, to establish a bhikkhunī presence in England by responding to teaching invitations and offers of support, and primarily, to found and develop a harmonious training monastery for bhikkhunīs dedicated to the goal of awakening.

The visit of Ajahn Brahm, who is also Spiritual Adviser to Anukampa, is the first major fundraising project towards accomplishing these aims, providing the rare opportunity to welcome Ajahn Brahm in his homeland, benefit from his teachings and get involved in this exciting monastery project.


Reviving and strengthening an ancient lineage

The history of ordained women in Buddhism dates back to the time of the Buddha himself, when his own aunt and step-mother Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, requested bhikkhunī ordination directly from him and thus founded the order. From the very early days of the Buddha’s ministry, bhikkhunīs played an important and prominent role in the dissemination of the teachings and formation of the monastic community. Not only was there relative parity between bhikkhu and bhikkhunī worldly status but the Buddha also declared that women were just as capable of attaining awakening, or nibbāna, as men. At a time in India when women were advised that in order to progress spiritually, they needed to aim to be reborn as a man in the next life, the Buddha’s assertion that the path to spiritual awakening was open and available to women here and now was revolutionary!

Based on historical records, however, the various Bhikkhunī Sanghas of separate Buddhist countries died out at different times throughout history. This can be viewed not only as a setback for the spiritual aspirations of Buddhist nuns, but also for the future continuation of the Dhamma.  The Buddha taught seven things that are essential to the longevity of the Dhamma, and each one rests on having an inter-related community of bhikkhunīs, bhikkhus, laywomen and laymen, known as the fourfold assembly. As Bhikkhu Anālayo points out:
“A passage in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta also shows that the bhikkhunīs were considered integral to the Buddha’s dispensation. The passage reports the Buddha’s declaration that he would not pass away until he had accomplished his mission of having disciples from each of the four assemblies—including bhikkhunīs—who were competent, disciplined, self-confident and learned.”[1] It is pertinent to the bhikkhunī cause however, to bring attention to the fact that the Bhikkhunī Sangha may have continued right up to the 19thcentury in Burma. If this is confirmed by national records, there may be less distance between the modern Bhikkhunī Sangha and their earlier counterparts than is commonly believed.[2] Whilst many will be aware of the 10 precept ordination lineage of siladhara nuns established by Luang Por Sumedho, there has been a shift in perspective towards a more equal platform in terms of ordination status and there are three main reasons why bhikkhunī ordination is so important.[3]

In 1996, through the efforts of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, the Therāvada bhikkhunī order was revived when eleven Sri Lankan women received full ordination in Sarnath, India in a procedure held by Dodangoda Revata Mahāthera and the late Mapalagama Vipulasāra Mahāthera, with assistance from monks and nuns of the Jogye Order of Korean Seon. The first Theravādan bhikkhunī ordination in Australia was held in Perth on 22nd October 2009, at Bodhinyana Monastery. Four nuns from Dhammasara Nun's Monastery, Ajahn Vayama, and Ayya's Nirodha, Seri and Hasapanna, were ordained as bhikkhunīs in full accordance with the Pāli vinaya (the training rules for monks and nuns). Despite this, these ordinations stirred controversy and met with substantial resistance within the more conservative sectors of the monastic sangha, highlighting how far we have to go before the equality the Buddha worked hard to establish in terms of ordination and practice opportunities for female monastics, becomes a living reality in the modern day.

Ven. Candā’s journey towards bhikkhunī ordination

At present, there are many monks’ monasteries worldwide, but very few for women and far fewer for those who wish to undertake training towards bhikkhunī ordination, which plays a large part in Ven. Candā's motivation. Her personal story testifies to the complexity of the situation for women seeking the fully renounce the householder's life and train according to the guidelines set down by the Buddha, in the same way as monks.
On first coming into contact with the Buddha's teachings in 1996 on retreat in India, Ven. Candā, then Lucie Stephens, was so profoundly moved that she made an inward resolution to devote the rest of her life to the path. For the next seven years she meditated and gave service on back-to-back retreats, mostly in India and Nepal, working along the way to support herself. As she witnessed inner changes, including a deepening of contentment, increased equanimity, and a growing fascination with the process of meditation itself, her aspiration to renounce lay-life intensified. However, ordination opportunities for women were so rare that she was unable to find a suitable monastery. Disheartened yet not resigned, she returned to England in 2002 to pursue a degree in Ayurvedic Medicine. Ironically, a year into her degree, she heard of a promising rural monastery in Burma which provided opportunities for women to ordain as eight-precept Burmese nuns (thilashin). After three months temporary ordination mid-degree it was tempting to stay on, but her sense of commitment required she complete her studies. After graduating she ordained for the long-term in 2006. She spent the next four years happily pursuing intensive meditation under the guidance of Sayadaw U Pannyajota and also encountered the Thai Forest Tradition through Ajahn Mahaboowa in Thailand, with whom she spent an inspiring six weeks. Thailand was more politically stable than Burma but monastery conditions for women were cramped and monastic visas extremely hard to come by for nun's, whose monastic status is not recognised by law.

Over the years, Ven. Candā became increasingly drawn to samatha practice (the development of calm still states of mind known as jhanas) as a means to developing deeper insight. By 2010, however, the ascetic lifestyle, climate and diet in Burma had taken a severe toll on Ven. Candā's health, leading to a return to the West. This happily coincided with the chance discovery of Ajahn Brahm's teachings. His emphasis on love, kindness and letting go, as a means to jhana and insight, resonated so deeply and immediately that learning directly from him became a new goal. Bhikkhunī ordination still seemed out of reach and did not really occur to her until the second time she met him:

“I had been living as a novice nun for five years, when Ajahn Brahm told me matter-of-factly about bhikkhunīs practicing in Perth. A wave of inspired joy swept through me and I knew instantly in my heart: if I had the chance for full ordination, I’d take it!” Consequently, after 2 years as a wandering nun in Europe, Ven. Candā finally had the opportunity to travel to Australia and has been living there since 2012. She joined the Dhammasara community in Perth and took bhikkhunī ordination in April 2014, with Ayya Santini as preceptor. In October 2015, Ajahn Brahm asked Ven. Candā to take steps towards establishing a monastery in the UK to increase equality in practice and ordination opportunities for women, in response to which Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project was born.

Recently, Ven. Candā has been undertaking a series of activities to raise enthusiasm and a community of supporters 'on the ground'. She was also fortunate to have the opportunity to visit America (sponsored by the Alliance for Bhikkhunis) and found it incredibly inspiring to meet other bhikkhunīs who have successfully established harmonious joyful communities of sincere practitioners. She was delighted when Ayya's Anadabodhi and Santacitta of Aloka Vihara agreed to be additional advisors to Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project!

In June, Ven. Candā undertook a very significant walking pilgrimage or ‘tudong’, from Bakewell in her home county of Derbyshire, to the city of Manchester. With the support of Laura Bridgeman en route, a former nun herself, they made their way over the lush green, and often wet, hills of the Peak District National Park sleeping in natural settings and trusting in human kindness and compassion along the way. These qualities were encountered in abundance as support came throughout the journey, culminating in a well-attended talk on the pertinent theme of ‘compassion' at the Manchester Centre for Buddhist Meditation, where some of the Samatha tradition's most committed long-term members warmly welcomed the pair. It was with the Samatha tradition that Ajahn Brahm took his first meditation retreat in the early 70's, so there was an added element of deep gratitude from Ven. Candā for linking up with processes begun long ago. Not only did the talk result in much lively discussion, but three new volunteers came forward to contribute their energy and skills to the project!

It is in this spirit that the bhikkhunī revival has come about. The eventual location of the new monastery very much depends on wherever there is most interest and support! Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project is in the hands of supporters as much as the organisers’, and involves a process. According to UK law, £5,000 needs to be raised through fundraising, before charitable status can be acquired. Through the upcoming tour by Ajahn Brahm, Anukampa hope to get nearer to that goal. As this is such a rare and precious opportunity to have Ajahn in the UK for both public talks and retreats, an eventful schedule has been planned for his visit, including talks on the themes of forgiveness, contentment and letting go, spiritual friendship and community, befriending inner fear, dying and rebirth. There will also be two two-day retreats in both central and west London. There are a limited number of spaces for talks and retreats so those wishing to benefit from the teachings and be of benefit to Anukampa's project are encouraged to book their tickets as soon as possible at and follow ABP on Facebook at

With warm wishes in the Dhamma, Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project


Written by Paul Burton & edited by Venerable Candā & Alison French

[1] See Bhikkhu Anālayo, “The Revival of the Bhikkhunī Order and the Decline of the Sāsana,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 20, 2013, pp115
[2] See Ayya Tathaaloka, “Glimmers of a Thai Bhikkhuni Sangha History,”
[3] See Bhikkhu Sujato, “A conversation with a sceptic – Bhikkhuni FAQ,”

Monday, 20 June 2016

A personal perspective of being a member of the EU by Paul Burton:

I am sending this out as a respectful appeal as I feel it’s time to address and put out there a few of the main reasons why I believe we are stronger IN the EU. Why does my view matter? I’d say it matters simply because I am just one of the 64 million people resident on this island, based in the Ribble Valley near Blackburn in Lancashire, and as such, I wanted to present a personal angle based on my experiences through education, work and interests. Firstly, I’m a graduate of Modern Foreign Languages (French and Spanish). That’s to say, I spent four years at university studying and actively engaging in academic, cultural and linguistic exchange covering a variety of themes from contemporary media in France to the Far Right in Europe. The third year of my study was divided between university in Tours, France and Valladolid, Spain and this was fully funded under the Erasmus programme which enables EU students to study or work in any other EU country for up to a year. I have to say, this was the experience that has really defined my attitude towards the EU. There is no better way of getting full immersion in a language and culture than to be thrust into daily life at a young formative age and be forced to integrate in to it from the minute you arrive. I can still remember the excitement, the nerves and the anticipation of stepping out of the Metro in Paris and seeing the French streets with their quaint cafes and quintessential French charm. The same goes for Spain, I will never forget the bonds I made with people who I would never otherwise have come into contact with and the fact that I had a Spanish boyfriend within a month of arrival was the best thing for me in terms of my language practise. Consequently, having the opportunity to live abroad as a student is one of the greatest aspects of EU membership: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Greek, and Lithuanian et al can all move around and be immersed in their country and language of choice without worrying about money flow issues. This grant is a lifeline for those wishing to undertake such a period of study and development. Between 2012-2014, I lived in Switzerland (non-EU but part of EEA) whilst working as a language assistant in a college there. In 2014, the Swiss voted in a referendum to place quotas on EU migrant workers, in violation of Switzerland’s agreement with Brussels, this lead to the Erasmus programme being disrupted there and in turn having a negative impact on both Swiss and EU students wishing to participate.
Secondly, following graduation, I immediately decided to pursue my third language of Italian which I had begun at university. I did this by applying to do European Voluntary Service (EVS) which again is a fully funded placement for any EU citizen aged between 17-30 working in any other EU state on a project of interest to them. In my case, I chose an environmental agency called Legambiente based in Tuscany, Italy for seven months. There I worked with one Spaniard and two Portuguese fellow volunteers and we coordinated all our activities together with the Italian staff. The range of duties was extensive and nothing less than a valuable period of my life. Thanks to this wonderful opportunity literally thousands of young people across the EU can participate and experience voluntary work in a variety of fields; everything from youth and migrant work to agriculture, conservation, and disabilities etc. Further info at
This is the second great and unrivalled benefit of EU membership and it literally shapes people’s lives. I know this because I have friends I have met, both on my Erasmus year and EVS, who I continue to be in touch with and visit when possible. It has a lifelong impact.
Thirdly, the freedom of movement that all EU citizens are able to enjoy across borders to live, study and work in another EU country is a wonderful and life-changing positive side to the EU as well as being the envy of the world (no other bloc of countries has achieved this). The NHS needs workers coming in from other EU countries under the freedom of movement act. Without these essential members of staff, our NHS could simply not cope with the shortage of doctors and nurses currently facing the UK. Thanks to the EU, we can recruit from other EU states. This agreement not only ties into the Erasmus and EVS for young people but also into the working lives of anyone with the inclination or need to work overseas for short or longer periods of time. Thankfully, no time-consuming visas are required for our trips to Spain, France, Croatia, Greece etc making holidays, business trips, weekend city breaks, study visits, school trips, property purchases, and shopping trips to Calais all a doddle thanks to cheap flights with Ryanair and Easyjet etc, no roaming charges for using your mobile (the most recent benefit to be introduced) and the security of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which we all have. Remember that little card you used to get from the post-office but that’s now done mainly online? Yes, that agreement allows us to have reduced or free treatment to a whole range of health problems whilst in other EU countries (and Switzerland) as part of the European Economic Area (EEA). It is uncertain what will happen if Britain leaves the EU but if it seeks to limit immigration, which is one of the main points of the Leave campaign, then it will have to leave the EEA too in which case the EHIC will no longer be valid making health insurance much more expensive. See for more details about the possible outcomes.
Next, we come to trade. This is a big one as it’s bound up with the economy, jobs and people’s lives very directly. It influences the cost of goods, imports and exports, property on the continent, pensions and also immigration as people move around for work. I’m no economy expert let’s get that straight. However, I have looked at the list of people and organisations who endorse staying in the EU and those who want to leave and since they are the experts on the matter, I trust in their judgement to have a better idea of the impacts of EU membership than I do so here is the list and a link:
Here are a few that strongly believe the UK should remain a member of the EU:

• The Governor of the Bank of England
• International Monetary Fund
• Institute for Fiscal Studies
• Confederation of British Industry
• Leaders/heads of state of every single other member of the EU
• President of the United States of America
• Eight former US Treasury Secretaries
• President of China
• Prime Minister of India
• Prime Minister of Canada
• Prime Minister of Australia
• Prime Minister of Japan
• Prime Minister of New Zealand
• The chief executives of most of the top 100 companies in the UK including Marks and Spencer, BT, Asda, Vodafone, Virgin, IBM, BMW etc.
• Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations
• All living former Prime Ministers of the UK (from both parties)
• Virtually all reputable and recognised economists
• The Prime Minister of the UK
• The leader of the Labour Party
• The Leader of the Liberal Democrats
• The Leader of the Green Party
• The Leader of the Scottish National Party
• The leader of Plaid Cymru
• Leader of Sinn Fein
• Martin Lewis, that money saving dude off the telly
• The Secretary General of the TUC
• Unison
• National Union of Students
• National Union of Farmers
• Stephen Hawking
• Chief Executive of the NHS
• 300 of the most prominent international historians
• Director of Europol
• David Anderson QC, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation
• Former Directors of GCHQ
• Secretary General of Nato
• Church of England
• Church in Scotland
• Church in Wales
• Friends of the Earth
• Greenpeace
• Director General of the World Trade Organisation
• World Bank
• RSPB et al
Here are pretty much the only notable people who think we should leave the EU:
• Boris Johnson, who probably doesn’t really care either way, but knows he’ll become Prime Minister if the country votes to leave
• Michael Gove, The guy who was Education Secretary and every single teacher in the country hated with a furious passion for the damage he was doing to the education system
• Nigel Farage, Leader of UKIP
• Britain First
• Donald Trump
• Keith Chegwin
Vladamir Putin

• Katie Hopkins
• Rupert Murdoch
• The Daily Mail
• The Sun
• The Sunday Sport
• Marine Le Pen - Leader of the National Front in France
et al

This link shows which members of parliament support Staying or Leaving the EU:
We come to the EU impact on the environment. I don’t believe any of us are doing enough to curb climate change. That being said, what has been achieved by EU legislation has had positive and obvious results for much of our wildlife and habitats. The fact our seas and beaches are much cleaner since the EU forced us to stop pumping untreated sewage and chemicals out to sea has to be one of the most obvious factors (I remember Blackpool beach in the 90s with poop on the beach and dirty water) and the EU has banned two of the most harmful chemicals to bees as well as Genetically Modified crops, which are the norm in the USA, as well as a host of measures protecting agricultural animals and wildlife. I’m vegan so I believe a lot more could be done to improve the lot for animals but let’s stick to the middle ground for now. The RSPB, an organisation I credit in inspiring my love of birds and the natural world when I was a child, has jointly commissioned an impartial report with WWF and the Wildlife Trusts on the impact of the EU on the environment. It looks at the consequences for the UK of a departure from the European Union. :
Friends of the Earth have also done a very good list of 7 of the main benefits of the EU on the environment:
Science; the scientific advances this country is currently engaged in and has been engaged in thanks to much needed EU funding for research are well supported by eminent and influential people such as Stephen Hawking. In the last decade alone, the EU has provided 41% of public funding for cancer research in the UK.
Gay Rights, as a gay person I strongly believe our presence in the EU has a strong and powerful message to those countries within the bloc which have not yet achieved the rights enshrined in law that we now enjoy in the UK. Our presence applies a pressure to those countries where LGBTQ people haven’t got the freedom to be who they are and who live in fear and are prejudiced against. They deserve our support. Withdrawing from the bloc will weaken that vital link.
Food; apart from the fact that our biggest trading partner is the EU and that much of our food is imported from the Mediterranean year round, we also enjoy the protection of the European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), or Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG) on many of our regional specialty products such as Stilton Cheese, Yorkshire Wensleydale, Cornish Clotted Cream, Jersey Royal Potatoes, Scottish Wild Salmon, Cornish Pasties, Scotch Whisky and Newcastle Brown Ale amongst others. They join the likes of French Cognac, Champagne and Camembert, Italian Parma Ham and Gorgonzola and cannot be reproduced elsewhere thanks to this protection. See the full list of UK products here:
The European Regional Development Fund; this fund has paid for and continues to go towards regional development projects such as Blackpool Promenade and the Liverpool Waterfront. In the Northwest of England alone, £755 million was spent between 2007 and 2013. If this sort of funding were unavailable due to an EU departure, the UK would have a lot less investment for its infrastructure and upkeep. This translates as fewer jobs in the industries required for such projects. The fact that the EU pledged £21.5 million to rebuild Manchester following the IRA bomb in 1996 compared with just £450,000 from the UK government is an instance in which local people have directly benefited from being an EU member.
We mustn’t forget the EU’s founding principle of PEACE. Following the wreckage and immense suffering and loss of life, the leaders of the European nations sought to prevent any such barbarity from ever resurfacing on the European continent. Our own close ancestors fought bravely alongside our European allies against hatred and intolerance. We must do everything in our power to uphold the principles of peace and understanding and actively disarm the tendencies towards fear and hatred that often underpin many of the arguments for leaving the EU by focusing on immigration. The Far-Right is never far away and we must never sympathise with its proponents, whether they be political party leaders who seek to divide or outright terrorists who are the manifestation of this hatred in action. The likes of Anders Breivik, the terrorist who brutally hunted down and murdered 69 people in Norway in 2011 or the murderer of MP Jo Cox in June 2016 calling out ‘put Britain First’ as he shot and stabbed the mother of two on the street as well as others who work to divide people from people. We should work for concord and unity not fear and separation.
Indeed, this referendum has allowed us to voice many points of view and be animated and passionate about our convictions…what a wonderful expression of a democratic process! It is within this framework that we are able to choose the outcome of this referendum and for that I am sincerely grateful.
So this a general list of the main reasons I see EU membership as a positive force for a better future and why I am convinced our continued membership and influence within the bloc is vital for a more stable world and a more united stance on all aspects of our interactions as both a British island nation and as European citizens. Our identities are complex and run deep but as the late MP Jo Cox rightly pointed out, “we have far more in common with each other than that which divides us” and on that note I encourage you to VOTE REMAIN for a better future and for PEACE. Thank you for taking the time to read this. Paul.
I have a final very balanced and learned article by farmer, author and well-respected archaeologist (of Time Team), Francis Pryor: Full article below:

Britain and Europe: The Long View

Posted on  by Francis Pryor
Followers of this blog will know that one of my pet hates is the obsession modern politicians have with short-termism. And hence the name of this blog: In the Long Run. Over the past few months my posts have mostly been about my new books, our farm and our garden, with the occasional foray into reviews and the like. Meanwhile, out there in the supposedly real world of British politics, the EU In/Out Debate has become more shrill, personal, unpleasant and BORING! It has got so bad that whenever I hear that predicable, manufactured word ‘Brexit’, I turn the radio off. So why has it all gone so horribly wrong?
The Debate has lost its way quite simply because the journalists and politicians who populate the Westminster Bubble are only concerned with five-year parliaments and anything more distant than the next, or indeed the last election, is irrelevant. But surely, the EU Referendum is about the long-term? It has been in existence for over half a century and, with luck, should continue for at least that time, or longer. Even politicians have said that In/Out is the decision of a lifetime, or a generation. And yet they behave like it’s a change in customs rates, or taxes – and nothing else. Can’t they understand, any of them, that it’s far more important than that? The existence of the EU has links to everything, from farming, to academia, from terrorism, to geo-politics and Russian ambition, to the migrant crisis and world trade. Quite simply, the EU is about the way we govern ourselves and government is what distinguishes human beings from other animals. So we should take it seriously.
I think we have all heard Out campaigners declare that the EU is like the Roman Empire. One or two slightly more informed pundits have compared it to Charlemagne or the Holy Roman Empire and I’ve even heard Napoleon’s name bandied about. Of course all of these are wide-of-the-mark. The empires of the past came about by conquest or dynastic take-over. None of them was even remotely democratic – although in the later Roman Empire some provinces did manage to acquire a degree of autonomy. Are the United States a closer parallel? Yes, they are, but they began with three unifying factors: a wish to leave the British Empire, the English language and Christianity. They were also blessed with some extraordinary leaders and thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, both of whom took the Long View, of history and the future.
In perhaps over-simplified historical terms, the EU arose out of the ashes of not one, but two, closely-linked, World Wars. At the heart of both conflicts was the age-old rivalry of France and Germany – albeit rather reluctantly aided and abetted by Britain. When the fighting stopped, the people of the original nations of what was to become the EU, had had enough of conflict that resolved nothing and merely fuelled old resentments. Their politicians realised this and some of them had the intelligence and foresight to appreciate that something altogether different was now needed. And they also had the good sense to start slowly, with a customs union; then the rest followed from that. By the time Britain joined, in 1973, the institutions of the EEC were well-developed. And they’ve continued to grow since then. Of course many regard the modern EU as far too bureaucratic – which it undoubtedly is. But we can address this problem through the ballot box. We do not need to destroy the entire system.
Taking a long view, it seems to me that the EU is a completely new form of governance. True, it is still far from perfect, but its presence on the world’s stage is enough to frighten the likes of Putin. On the other hand its constitution is sufficiently flexible to accommodate countries as diverse as Italy, Romania, Germany and Britain. More to the point, it works. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that it was Britain who played a big part in laying out the European Convention on Human Rights. Such concerns were not a major feature of the empires I mentioned earlier. The point I’m trying to make is that the modern world is complex; people are better educated and they are aware they have rights. It seems to me that the EU is a form of governance that has its roots in the modern world. It respects national and individual interests, while providing the other services (education, infrastructure, defence and security) that we all expect of government. In other words, the EU is about far, far more than trade and commerce alone. Yes, such things are, and have been, central to its creation, but they no longer dominate. Today the EU is becoming more rounded and balanced as an organisation. And that brings me back to where I began: namely, the Debate and what it says about British politics.
Frankly, sensible debate has stopped and has been replaced by a slanging match, mostly centred around a very right-wing agenda which is almost entirely based on xenophobia. Immigrants and migration are the only two issues that the Brexit camp seem to care about. Indeed, talking to friends and colleagues I get the impression that they, too, are now heartily fed-up with the trivial way this highly important Referendum is being discussed. There is also a strong feeling that the debate has been taken over by loud-mouthed men in suits, and I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t felt patronised by those ghastly battle-busses – the creations of highly-paid PR consultants. I’m not a member of the Green Party myself, and I find some of their ideas impossibly naïve, but their MP Caroline Lucas was absolutely right when back in January she pointed out that the voices of women and younger people simply weren’t being heard in a Referendum that is supposedly about everyone’s future. If anything, the situation since then has got even worse.
Sadly, I don’t suppose for one moment that the loud-mouthed Westminster MPs (plus hangers-on, like Farage) will suddenly start to focus on the long-term implications of the Referendum. They are too deeply rooted in what is essentially a Victorian party-political and Parliamentary system, which is itself in far more urgent need of reform than any EU institution. So my appeal is to younger voters, who in my experience often share the views I have expressed here. And my message is simple:
Please, please VOTE!

That is all that matters. And tell your friends, too. I firmly believe that if we in Britain are ever to change our creaking, non-representative political system, it will be from within, not outside, Europe. Despite what some would have us believe, Brexit wouldn’t mark a return to a glorious past, so much as a dismal future, where our principal legacy would be the destruction of a truly innovative system of multi-national government. 

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Memoirs of Thailand 2010 - 2012

Memoirs of Thailand

2010 - 2012

“There is a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtuesays Edmund Burke. I begin my ‘Thai Memoirs’ with this quote quite simply because I have come to realise that whilst forbearance is an essential quality of the heart for anyone living in a foreign land, it is by no means a positive stance when certain elements of what one must ‘forbear’, so to speak, is plain ignorance of another’s culture, race or language. This is said with reference to my experiences of living in the Isan town of Surin; a largely rural part of Thailand situated in the Northeast of the kingdom close to the border with Cambodia and where agriculture dominates the local economy and way of life.

Now, coming to teach in Thailand is rarely as rosy as it is made out to be by online recruitment agencies or volunteer organisations plugging it to fresh graduates in search of a ‘new experience’ but it does have its rewards. Please don’t assume at this stage that I consider myself one of those people, for it was after more than a decade of correspondence with my dear Thai pen pal Nui that ultimately brought me to the shores of the “land of smiles” as the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) likes to trumpet. It was not without prior knowledge of Thai culture that I came here, although admittedly, it was indeed the first time I had ever set foot in the country. Rather, thanks to the gracious manner in which Nui presented Thai culture, heritage, religious belief and etiquette I was relatively well armed with information prior to arrival.
I came with my then partner Richard Holme of Wigan (a relationship which within a year had ended, all be it reasonably amicably). It really is thanks to his continued support and friendship that sustained my will to complete the two year term; it was through the challenging classroom environment, the many frustrations of ‘the Thai way’ of doing things and of course the numerous wonderful road trips to all corners of the country that he became my loyal companion. Whilst these memoirs are written by me alone perhaps I’ll also try to capture a sense of Richard’s presence within them as it really has been a joint venture throughout.

Like any other country in the world, Thailand has its own ways of doing things, its own contradictions and hypocrisies and its own sense of national pride. There are also certain restrictions, or perhaps more diplomatically expressed as sensibilities, that foreigners (particularly Western) should be aware of and at least attempt to observe for the sake of harmony and ‘integration’, as much as that is possible for a foreigner in Thailand. Living in this country bordered by the Mekong River and the other soon to be member states of ASEAN is an eye-opening experience and, if one has the chance to visit Thailand’s neighbours, allows for a most insightful comparison to be made. Furthermore, being an English teacher and interacting with young people and local teachers presents a fertile ground of experience that is simply not accessible to the occasional traveller who just passes through observing everything as if a pleasant dream. Becoming part of (or not as the case may also be at times) the local community thrusts one into the direct firing line of a barrage of opposing forces.

Happily, the majority of those educated people with whom we worked were the epitome of kindness and generosity. It is really outside of my range of perception how many times little words of comfort, a warm smile or a gift of fruit brightened my day. Even the country folks, who are quite unused to interacting with foreigners, demonstrate an earthy form of hospitality, that to the untrained eye may well seem like mocking but, I’ve come to realise, is in fact their own down to earth way of saying “maa gin khao” or “come and have lunch”!

If I were to compare Thailand with some other countries, I’d say the attitude and mentality is laid back and relaxed. There are not many countries which are still developing where you can be gay and live in relative ease, wear skimpy clothes and not be admonished (that happened to me in France!), celebrate Valentine’s Day and it actually be encouraged (look at the Muslim world) and generally not fear for your life just for being a British caucasian. Despite these aspects of Thailand there is a lot of racism even towards other Asians, particularly if they have darker skin. They consider white skin to be very beautiful and seem to look down on Indians, Africans etc. Their hubris is sometimes very ugly. Towards westerners, many people have a tendency to be unnecessarily rude. There has not been a single day in Thailand that I have not been yelled at, laughed at or stared at just for being cuacasian. I think they impose on us whatever pre-constructed opinion they have of westerners and assume we are all the same. Try speaking to me in a polite and respectful manner and they may learn that I’m a Buddhist Englishman teaching their own children because I wanted to make a difference locally whilst practising meditation in a Buddhist country. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ would be a very apt thing to say at this point.

It has without doubt been a difficult two years, this cannot go unsaid. The Thai education system is in dire need of reform and if the country is to open up and integrate successfully with the ASEAN Community from 2015, then some serious changes need to be made soon. During the entire period of my two year contract at Surawittayakarn School (the main provincial high school of Surin) I have witnessed great disinterest in the English language, a totally chaotic system of grouping students (they are not grouped according to ability in each subject!) and a lack of self-discipline with regards to learning what is presented in the classroom (nothing new amongst teenagers anywhere). These negative factors combined with a preference for shows and entertainments over academic achievement in school as well as a reinforced attitude of racism towards the Western teachers contributes to the most bizarre situation I have ever come to witness.

Of course, the situation in which the unfortunate students and Thai teachers find themselves (i.e. ridiculously oversized classrooms, low salaries & poor facilities) only exacerbates the problem. Nonetheless, hope is not lost and indeed many of the students who are in the upper classes of each year tend to benefit more from the resources which are available. For example, during our first year the status of ‘World Class Standard School’ was bestowed upon us. This lead to investments in improvements to the school and a lot of funds going towards Surawittayakarn School’s first ever British style pantomime of Cinderella, adapted and directed by Richard as well as an increase in available laptops and sports facilities. Despite this windfall for the school, most students remain in classrooms without any technology. The prestige of the ‘world class’ status is, sadly, in name only.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Buddhist Pilgrimage to India

When embarking on any kind of journey far from one’s homeland and into unknown territory, there is without doubt a certain amount of trepidation and anxiety surrounding the thoughts of what may or may not transpire. Moreover, the mind itself tends to work overtime with its imaginings and concerns. On this occasion the pilgrim, me, was already reasonably well travelled and at ease with Indian customs having previously spent a limited but insightful period working voluntarily in the Himalayan region of Northern India. This journey however, would unlike that previous one so well documented in 2009, be totally motivated by a deep appreciation for that sagacious teacher & His dispensation we refer to as the Buddha and the Dhamma.

By paying my last respects to the late Luang Ta Maha Bua (a highly revered and accomplished meditation master in the Forest Tradition of Northeast Thailand) on the day preceding the cremation presided over by Queen Sirikit, I was in a suitably gladdened state of mind to begin the trip to India; the land of the Buddha. On arrival in Delhi & following a sleepless overnight stay in the terminal for the connecting flight to Patna (the capital of Bihar) I was keen to make my way towards that place where, sat under a ficus religiosa tree around 2600 years ago, a great being penetrated the cloud of dust obscuring the sight of all humanity and beyond. That place is known presently as Bodh Gaya (ancient Uruvela) and is about two and a half hours or so south (depending on your mode of transport and pot luck) from the sprawling Bihar State capital of Patna. This particular bus journey took five hours due to various unforeseen circumstances such as a bag tumbling from the roof and causing a great commotion between local villagers and the distraught owner who was unable to retrieve it and also the untimely loosening of a wheel, no doubt due to the enthusiastic and adventurous driver. Nonetheless, I was in my element and the presence of a small TV playing local Indian music and the sights and smells of Bihar passing by were all setting the scene quite nicely.  

Noting the dry, rocky hills at Gaya I started to feel that I was approaching or indeed passing right through an area that must have seen a great ebb and flow of human history over the ages. It just has the look of being well-used, rugged & almost severe in the baking sun of the Ganges plains. Taking an auto rickshaw for the final leg of the journey to the holy site proper, one is transported to a place quite unlike any other.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Stay at Wat Pah Nanachat

So there I was, after many years of reading stories and accounts, on the train towards Wat Pah Nanachat in Ubon Ratchatani Province, northeast Thailand. “It had been a long time coming” I thought to myself. Would it live up to the hype and expectations or would it just be another place, to at least try, to practice? My slight anxiety kept my mind ticking over imaginations of what it would be like whilst periodically being distracted by the ever more forested countryside we were now passing through.

On arrival at Ubon station, I quickly searched out a low cost guesthouse (with the aid of the holy book that is The Lonely Planet guide to Thailand) and settled down my things in my modest but perfectly adequate room; at 120 Baht per night (about £2.40) anything is perfectly adequate, and headed into the city centre to find food and explore the general scene. Following an interesting fair-type atmosphere in town (the infamous Ubon Candle Festival was building up momentum) I tuktuked back to the guesthouse and settled down for the night with a Dhamma book conveniently left by a previous postulant on his/her way to the wat; I think the same person had also drawn the likeness of the Buddha on the wooden wall beside me; I felt a connection with the process building up already.