Thursday, April 20, 2017

Recollecting Wat Paknam’s contribution to the early UK Sangha

The latest issue of The Middle Way, the journal of the Buddhist Society in London, recently popped through my letter box. The title on the front page announces: 'Ten Decades to Celebrate'. Accordingly, it features key figures who played important roles in bringing the Buddha’s teachings to Britain since the founding in 1926; it recalls the message of early pioneers such as Anagarika Dharmapala, and recounts how the Society was established and came to embrace teachings and traditions from around the Buddhist world.

One of the most significant developments — at least in the universal characterisation of the Triple Gem (Buddha ratana, Dhamma ratana, and Sangha ratana) — was the taking root of the Sangha, the monastic community that undertakes the training according to the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct devised by the Buddha himself. In the Theravada tradition, which is most well known in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, this finally came to full material fruition on this island in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the establishment of Wat Cittaviveka (Chithurst Buddhist monastery) in Sussex and then Wat Amaravati in Hemel Hempstead. These two monasteries are identified with the Thai Forest Tradition, particularly the lineage of Ven. Ajahn Chah.

Their early origins, or the seed, may be traced through the formation of the English Sangha Trust in 1956, as mentioned on the Wat’s site. The prime mover was its founder, William Purfurst (later Richard Randall), who is mentioned by George Sharp in his talk in 1998 on 'How the Sangha Came to England – Interview (Part 1 of 3)', where it is related that the original trust deed of the EST is the one used at Amaravati today. However, very little is said about William Purfurst because, as the speaker explains, he doesn’t know his early background.

Coincidentally, that year I penned a review of Life as a Siamese Monk, Ven. Kapilavaddho’s autobiography, and concluded with the following wish:

… that the reader of this frank account will come to learn about Kapilavaddho Bhikkhu and the key role he played in laying the foundations of the English Sangha, successfully realised from the ’70s onwards by disciples of Ven. Ajahn Chah, particularly Ven. Ajahn Sumedho. I also wish readers to see how much support Kapilavaddho received from Luang Phor Sodh, his Upajjhaya, and other monks at Wat Paknam. Most Buddhists in the UK know about Amaravati and the Forest tradition, but there is [still] little mention these days of Kapilavaddho and his background in dhammakaya. So it is good that Aukana have salvaged his writings and kindly published it themselves!

In that review I mention an old cine film about the ordination of three Western disciples of Kapilavaddho at Wat Paknam in 1956: Robert Albison ordained as Saddhavaddho Bhikkhu, George Blake ordained as Vijjavaddho Bhikkhu, and Peter Morgan as Pannyavaddho Bhikkhu. It was Jane Browne who originally drew my attention to a copy on VHS that was inserted before a documentary on the founding of Wat Amaravati. My interest was piqued and so I was delighted when Ven. Jutindharo on behalf of Wat Amaravati granted permission for its digitisation, which was subsequently carried out at the Centre for Educational Development and Media at the University of Derby in 1999.

A couple of years later I was able to share this on CD along with some introductory information with Terry Shine, who included it in his tribute, Honour Thy Fathers : Venerable Kapilavaddho : Founder of the English Sangha Trust. This historical account fills in many of the gaps, describing how Purfurst developed an interest in Buddhism, becoming actively involved in its promotion nationwide, lecturing in Manchester and London, and proceeding to become Samanera Dhammananda, ordained by U Thittila in 1952, whence he continued expanding knowledge of Buddhism. The account goes on to describe how he eventually undertook bhikkhu ordination with Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni (Luang Phor Sodh) as his Preceptor, receiving the name Kapilavaddho at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Thonburi, Thailand. Shine’s book also indicates how his efforts there blossomed under the guidance of Luang Phor Sodh, particularly in Dhammakaya meditation, earning considerable respect:

“Under this great teacher at Wat Paknam he gradually became renowned as a highly skilled meditator and as a scholar in the Dhamma. He lectured throughout the length and breadth of Thailand to vast crowds, and with an ever growing reputation for his qualities as a teacher and for his rigid observance of the traditional bhikkhu life. As a result, he was given permission by the Lord Abbot to return to Britain with full authority to give instruction in meditation as well as the theory of Buddhism.”

On return to the UK, Kapilavaddho made great strides, teaching what he referred to as the solasakaya meditation method [which is somewhat curious because this literally means ’16 bodies’, when it’s more usually known at Wat Paknam as a method with 18 bodies], and achieving the milestone of the inaugural meeting of the English Sangha Trust. Everything was going swimmingly at this time, when early in 1956, he took three disciples with him to Wat Paknam to undertake the same training that he had received. It started with the bhikkhu ordination, which was captured on cine film, as described above.

Here is it on YouTube (I only recently uploaded it because - as far as I recall - when I first tried there was a 10 minute limit):

Terry Shine has described in some detail the response from the British Isles, but it omits an important episode; in fact, it largely lacks a perspective from Wat Paknam and especially the Dhammakaya tradition. So I will try to convey with reference to available materials and my own background the nature and significance of the contribution of Wat Paknam to Kapilavaddho’s training and hence the important contribution to the Sangha in the west.

As I watch the film, I notice how Luang Phor Sodh is very happy, smiling, even though his health in his final years was poor. It’s a joyful occasion, the crowds are huge; interest among the Thai people was considerable, not least because Kapilavaddho had already established quite a reputation. Wat Paknam was witness to many ordination ceremonies, but I think this one meant so much to Luang Phor and everyone at the temple. Its significance is evident from the selection of archive material that I’ve seen for this period, as they frequently depict the three Westerners, as below:

(Incidentally, I later sent a copy to Phra Peter .Thitadhammo at Wat Pah Baan Taad, who informed me that he showed it to Ven. Ajahn Pannyavaddho, who enjoyed it.)

Kapilavaddho’s commitment and training was certainly known to Ajahn Gaew Potikanok, with whom he became friends in the mid ‘50s. Ajahn Gaew often talked fondly about his fellow monk to my mother, whom he taught at or from Wat Paknam from around 1960 until his passing in 1986, but all along he never revealed his Western identity. But he did remark: “Mara had a go at him.”

Shortly after their ordination, things did not proceed to plan. They really didn't. I first learnt about this from reading the first edition (1996) of The Life and Times of Luang Phaw Wat Paknam, produced by the Dhammakaya Foundation (currently can be downloaded from [‘Luang Phaw’ is just an alternative spelling of ‘Luang Phor']. Its description of the three newly ordained bhikkhus surprised me because it was rather cool, probably because of what happened at a fateful meeting:

“… a misunderstanding arose between Luang Phaw and the foreign monks… [who] got up in the midst of the assembly and deliberately walked out… Walking out of the meeting was seen as the height of bad manners. They were misunderstood as having trampled their respect for Luang Phaw, their teacher”

It gradually dawned on me that this was a momentous disagreement, and I started to ponder what had happened, but it took quite a few years before I learnt anything. Towards the end of 2001, I contacted George Blake and sent him a copy of the ordination footage. We had some wonderful communication - leading me, inter alia, to discover his audio recording Jataka Tales Vol. 1 at the Buddhist Society. However, I didn’t ask directly about the incident and was left none the wiser about it.

A scholarly analysis was later undertaken by Andrew Skilton in Elective affinities: the reconstruction of a forgotten episode in the shared history of Thai and British Buddhism – Kapilavaḍḍho and Wat Paknam. In his paper, which recognises the significance of the event, particularly its deleterious effects on the English Sangha Trust, Skilton provides useful contextual clues to help draw attention to how “an unexpected inheritance of the situation was a prejudice against the Wat Paknam meditation method (the solasakaya meditation).” It also highlights how actually the junior bhikkhus had wanted to get along - so the circumstances were highly unusual.

Separate to Skilton’s investigations, I made my own enquiries and received a simple explanation that involved a third party, which, I believe, led Kapilavaddho to become very protective of Thitavedo, who had been friend and mentor of Kapilavaddho, and, I expect, prompted him to walk out. They, along with Luang Phor Sodh and the three bhikkhus, were victims of a deception. Sadly, it seems just as in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, where the Buddha was asked about how the Vajjians could be conquered. The only way, the Buddha explained, was to create dissent within their society.

“No harm, indeed, can be done to the Vajjis in battle by Magadha's king, Ajatasattu, except through treachery or discord.”

From that point on, I think, Kapilavaddho’s task became inordinately more difficult, not least because of the demerit of walking out on his teacher, and no ordinary teacher at that. I think this puts into context the ‘warning’ given in Shine’s book on page 43 from a later disciple: “Dr M. Clark, who in 1967 was a disciple of the Venerable Kapilavaddho said that at that time he taught the Mahasi method, because he had found that the “Wat Paknam” method could have an adverse effect on people’s minds." Yet in Life as a Siamese Monk there is no such criticism from Kapilavaddho about the method of meditation. In view of the situation, it's reasonable to suggest that the “Wat Paknam” method was not innately at fault, but rather the karma tied to this incident.

As Skilton describes, it had a far-reaching impact, delaying the establishment of the Sangha in the west and leading to a forgetting or confusion of the significance of Wat Paknam and the contribution by the Dhammakaya tradition. I can illustrate this with reference to the following slide:

These are all those who trained at Wat Paknam after Kapilavaddho. If he had remained with his charges, I think the cohesion would have grown and drawn more practitioners, so that successively Terry Magness and then Ananda Bodhi would have joined. Hence there could have been a thriving Western Sangha practising the Middle Way (Dhammakaya) meditation method. As it was, for about 20 years from the mid-1960s onwards there was no one left among them who appeared to openly practice or teach the Dhammakaya method.

However, as illustrated by that slideshow, there was someone who did practice and teach openly: Fuengsin Trafford, whose life I have celebrated in Thursday’s Lotus.