Finding Buddha in the woods
PUBLISHED: 11:47 12 July 2014 | UPDATED: 11:47 12 July 2014
Sandra Smith visits Britain's largest Buddhist monastery and finds a peaceful part of Thailand in quintessentially-English Great Gaddesden
In a typical Hertfordshire village on the edge of the Chilterns and at the heart of Middle England, what might you expect to find? A collection of rural properties? Most probably. An ancient church and historic pub? Perhaps a thriving cricket club to complete the traditional scene?
While in many ways the parish of Great Gaddesden doesn’t disappoint these idyllic expectations, this seemingly- conventional countryside community isn’t as predictable as you might expect. For the village is home not only to quintessentially-British landmarks, but something far more unusual – the nation’s largest Buddhist monastery.
Having wound my way along narrow lanes to the village, an early arrival provides opportunity to explore. Passing huts built by the Canadian Air Force to house children on summer camps, I head for a striking temple, the centrepiece of the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, opened officially 15 years ago by the sister of the king of Thailand. The tiled floor inside is welcomingly warm, given that shoes are not permitted. Quiet inner doors lead into a large sanctuary where incense, wooden beams and rows of meditation cushions await contemplators. A golden Buddha provides a focal point in a room otherwise devoid of the usual trappings of religion. There’s a tangible peacefulness here, as refreshing as it is serene, and I vow to return later.
But now it is time to reclaim my shoes, for Abbott Ajahn Amaro is waiting for me outside. He is shaven- headed, and wearing ochre robes and a broad smile. I have a chaperone, as monks and nuns are not allowed to speak privately with anyone of the opposite sex. As physical contact is also prohibited, we use the anjali greeting: raising the hands palm to palm at chest level. The abbott leads us to his kuti, a modestly-sized cottage overlooking what used to be a swimming pool during this site’s original incarnation as a school but which has since evolved into a pond.
Ajahn Amaro is engaging and keen to share his spiritual journey. He was born to a farming family in Kent and had a nodding acquaintance with the Church of England. By the age of 10, he was buzzing with inquisitiveness about religion. ‘I had questions about God which nobody could answer. Through my teens I tried to figure it out for myself. There was a certain amount of mystical spirituality in the air, a psychedelic counter-culture, but I couldn’t talk to most of my friends about it. The parents of one friend belonged to a Hindu meditation group and I enjoyed meaningful conversations with them,’ he explains.
He went on to study psychology and physiology at London University, but felt that teachers there experienced no more than an academic spirituality. ‘I had a clear understanding that whatever job I did would make no difference, I’d still be miserable inside. But then I travelled to Asia, and in Thailand I cut away from the western tourist scene and went off to the remote north-east provinces and stumbled into a Forest Meditation Monastery.’
This was, he reflects, exactly what he’d been seeking and, although he confesses to a dislike of rules, institutions and structure, he instantly felt at home with his new calling.
Our discussion continues, covering the symbiotic process of communal living, the role of Buddhism in counterbalancing anxiety and the importance of appreciating silence and solitude. But 11.30am is approaching and the monks and nuns are allowed to eat only between dawn and midday. I accept an invitation to lunch and we make our way to the sala, where a generous selection of dishes is on display. The monks choose first and then, with numerous other lay people, I help myself to delicious roast vegetables, fragrant rice, salads and fruit while trying not to be tempted by cakes and chocolates.
My hunger soon sated, I return my plate and spoon to the kitchen before my chaperone and I retreat to a smaller room. There I’m introduced to senior nun Aj Sundara, a French-born dancer before a search for a new perspective on life led her to embrace Buddhism.
‘Materially I was quite happy but there was an inner reality that I hadn’t tapped into,’ she says. This most approachable woman has been a member of the monastery since 1979 and enthuses about the mentality that Buddhism has opened up for her. ‘This life is more exciting than anything I’ve lived before because the world inside you is so rich.’
She explains that Buddhism’s emphasis on meditation provides the opportunity for mindfulness, a sense of feeling the present moment and attending to what is useful or helpful. The present, I learn, is crucial to the faith. Aj Sundara says, ‘Your past is a memory and the future hasn’t yet happened. In the present moment you have the ‘knowing mind’. It is the only time when things are real.’
I also discover that evangelising is not part of the monastic remit. And as mendicants, Buddhists cannot, for instance, sell their many publications, or request food or donations. Instead, these are provided freely by offerings and alms. Yet these people are not disconnected from the outside world. ‘There are ways we integrate into the community. We go to local towns to receive food and attend local events. We also hold weekly meditation classes which are open to the public,’ says Ajahn Amaro. The Saturday- afternoon sessions regularly attract scores of people.
For now, however, the monks and nuns must return to their study time, leaving me to walk back through the 32-acre site and reflect on my morning at Amaravati. The residents I have met are inspiringly bright, gracious and articulate. More importantly, their single-minded dedication confirms the abbott’s belief: ‘Meditation doesn’t neutralise your feelings but gives peace of mind. It draws upon your own potential, providing a base of clarity and contentment.’