Litanies, Refuge Trees and Vietnam Vets: Ajahn Anando and paying attention

Litanies are not much in fashion these days. But I love the sense of repetition, the fervent supplication, the piling up of images or phrases. The litany of saints is especially powerful; personal litanies of favourite saints are also a sign of connection, of spiritual heritage. Who would it be for you?

 

St John the Beloved: Pray for us.

St Augustine of Hippo …

St Benedict …

St Francis …

St Thomas Aquinas …

St Charles Borromeo …

St Ignatius of Loyola …

St Catharine of Siena …

St Teresa of Avila …

St John of the Cross …

St Louis de Montfort …

St Francis de Sales …

St Peter Chanel …

St Therese of Lisieux …

St Silouan …

St John Bosco …

Well, that would be a start for me .

But there are, of course, many others who have fed the narrative of my life. Including poets, politicians, philosophers, musicians and people of other faiths. Finally, there are those people who have been significant in my life and that I have actually met.

In some Buddhist communities, there is a tradition of ‘Refuge Trees’ showing the

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teachers through whom the community has inherited the tradition. In others, a litany of teachers showing the transmission of teaching over the generations is chanted as part of

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Ancestral lineage in the liturgy of Zen Mountain Monastery

the daily liturgy.

 

 

If I did a personal transmission list, or refuge tree, I would have to include some individuals who have shaped me in ways that they could not have possibly known about. I have blogged before about one of these – the poet Alan Brownjohn. Later in my first year as an undergraduate, I met another person who made a significant impression on me. He was Abbot at a Buddhist monastery in West Sussex. Ajhan Anando was an American born monk in the Thai forest tradition of Buddhist monasticism. Charismatic, handsome, a Vietnam veteran with the scar of a bullet-wound visible on his shaved head, he made an impression on many people not least on this impressionable nineteen year-old.

I made several visits to the monastery at Chithurst (Wat Pa Cittaviveka), participated in the meditation, chanting and work programmes. Then, in the summer of, I think, 1985 spent several weeks staying there.

The monastery was still in relatively early days and had a makeshift feel about it, none of the new buildings which are now so beautiful had been put up and once passed the smart shrine room and reception rooms downstairs there was a definite roughness to the whole place. Accommodation was on mattresses on the floor in shared dormitory type rooms, with bathrooms shared by monks and guests alike.

The rough quality enhanced Ajahn Anando’s military style leadership and he was clearly the commander of the place in every way. But alongside the formality of the hierarchical Thai monastic tradition Anando brought an American egalitarianism and an almost military sense of leading from the front and everyone mucking in together.

ananAnando was an extraordinary meditation teacher, he taught with great energy and intensity. It is no surprise to read later that he was nervous and anxious about teaching; that nervous energy expressed itself in the intensity of his teaching. Young as I was I was aware that he was a complex person, playing with his roles and personality, restless, energetic and exploring.

Monastic life in the Thai tradition is already full, with chanting and meditation, formal meals and teaching, Anando added to it other exercises, particularly in my time, the practice of Tai Chi on the lawn in front of the monastery in the early dawn before the morning chanting and meditation session. Attending those sessions was just a matter of following/copying him with little practical instruction. Nor did it seem to be a choice for those he thought should attend, a simple instruction to be ready at the front of the house at a certain time.

He was generous with attention, and spent many hours talking to me, teaching me basic Tai Chi moves and meditation, about the mind and about his interest in awareness of the unseen. I used to walk down to the stunning little medieval church, a few hundred yards down the lane, twice a day to say my prayers. He seemed to be fascinated by this and by why I walked to the church when I could have used a corner of the monastery or sat outside in the woods. I have always had a strong sense of unseen presences, good and evil, and he too seemed aware of that. On a couple of occasions, he walked to the church with me and meditated on the ground while I said or sang the Office. When I prayed for him by name, as Ajahn Anando, he corrected me, ‘Greg’, although I never dared call him that.

After that summer I saw him a few times again at Chithurst and once or perhaps twice at Amaravati, the north London community that the Forst Sangha established at about that time. He was always generous with attention and careful to remember what he had been told. My own interests were moving on and I didn’t stay at any of the monasteries after the late 80s.

I didn’t hear of Anando again until someone told me that he had disrobed and married, developed a brain tuma, from the wound in his head from the Vietnam war, and died. Calling in at the monastery I was able to place flowers on his grave and give thanks for the brief connection.

So it was good this week to be staying in the area and be able to make a visit to Chithurst. GraveThings are much developed and changed since I was last there. I found the unobtrusive spot near the main gate where his plaque was and remembered that it had his full name on ‘Greg Klein (Ajahn Anando)’, but a new plaque is there now: ‘Greg And Mali Klein’, his wife too, presumably, having now died. It was good to pray for Greg and for Mali by name.

Mali wrote about her husband here, and Ajahn Sucitto, another senior monk, writes frankly and powerfully about him here.

A transcription of a simple loving kindness meditation is available here.

I had cassettes of some of his teachings for many years, and often used his guided meditations. Even now when I am teaching prayer/meditation to individuals or groups I use a meditation/visualisation practice on light which is drawn directly from him.

Most of all I draw from Ajahn Anando the gift of attentiveness and try to offer that to those I meet and work with. I hope he is now bathed in that ‘golden light’ which he brought to others.

 

 

 

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