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Samatha Meditation in the UK


The “reforms” and changes starting in the early 19th century that affected Buddhist practices in Southeast Asia, and already described, provide the bigger background to the developments in the UK described below. Although core Buddhist meditation practices across all traditions – Thai, Cambodian, Tibetan, Chinese etc. – have always included both samatha (tranquillity) and vipassanā (insight) components, the situation in the 1960s became confused by the appearance of the Burmese “dry” vipassanā practice that seemed to dispense with the samatha component. To be accurate, it dispensed with the need to develop the jhānas, the highly concentrated states of absorption that are the foundation for developing insight and wisdom in the samatha-vipassanā traditions. However, the Burmese system does still need to develop concentration to the level of access concentration – upacāra samādhi – as the foundation for insight in that method. The confusion introduced by the Burmese system did not affect the perception of, for example, Tibetan practices which were also being established in the UK during the 1960s; the tension was more apparent in the Theravāda traditions from Thailand, and, implicity in the background, Burma.

The 1960s brought a number of key influences to the development of meditation in the UK. A number of highly experienced Tibetan meditation teachers settled in England; the first Thai temple was established in London, bringing with it influences from the dry-insight Burmese vipassanā practice being promoted in Thailand; and a former Thai monk, Nai Boonman, also settled in England and began to teach samatha-vipassanā meditation including jhāna practice. This latter teaching which began in London and Cambridge in 1964, led to the formation of the Samatha Trust, a registered UK Charity in 1974. Some of the background and key figures relevant to these developments in the UK up to the present day are described here.

Anandabodhi

In 1956, a young Canadian, George Dawson (1931-2003) became a student of Sayadaw U Thila who he had met in London. U Thila was a contemporary of Mahāsi Sayadawin Burma, the originator of the “dry” vipassanā method, but he was skilled in both vipassanā and samatha meditation. Dawson ordained as Anandabodhi in Burma in 1958, and then practiced under both U Thila and Mahāsi Sayadaw in Burma, and Phra Rajasiddhimuni (the main proponent of the new Burmese method) in Thailand. From 1958-62 he spent time in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka, before returning to London in 1962, where he was invited by the English Sangha Trust to stay and teach at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihāra. Around this time on a visit to India, in Sarnath, he met a young Thai monk Phra Mahā Boonman Poonyathiro who was studying in nearby Varanasi, and who shared his interest in meditation. Anandabodhi was later instrumental in helping Nai Boonman settle in London and to begin teaching meditation.

Phra Mahā Boonman Poonyathiro

Nai Boonman, as he is now known as a layman, was born in Trat near the southeastern tip of Thailand near the border with Cambodia in 1932. His father was Cambodian and his mother (nee Samma) Thai. At 15 he became a temple boy at Wat Pailom in Chantaburi, further up the coast from Trat, and at 16 took Sāmanera ordination as Boonman Sammā (taking his mother’s surname), and at 21 full ordination as Phra Boonman Poonyathiro. By age 23 he became Phra Mahā as a result of achievements in Pali studies. At age 24 he decided to study further in India, but as a result of the highly regulated and politicisation of vipassanā at that time in Thailand (see “Reform” section), he was required to pass extensive examinations in the Burmese vipassanā method before being granted a visa, then leaving for India in 1956. His experience as a monk in Thailand, both as a sāmanera and fully ordained, took place from 1947-56 when he would have been immersed in the background of such key figures as Acaan Mun, Luang Por Sodh and other teachers from the Thai-Cambodian traditional meditation traditions, described here in the section “Reform”. By the time he left for India in 1956, however, his own temple Wat Pailom was already under pressure to institute the Burmese vipassanā method in place of the centuries old samatha–vipassanā tradition.



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Phra Mahā Boonman Poonyathiro
Wat Pailom, Chantaburi 1957

Phra Mahā Boonman studied in India from 1956-62. In his last year there, 1961/62, he met Anandabodhi while visiting Sarnath, who invited Nai Boonman to stay with him in London should he ever visit the UK.

1962

In late 1962, Phra Mahā Boonman disrobed to become Nai Boonman, and after an adventurous motor-bike journey reached London in December 1962. Soon after, he again met Anandabodhi who introduced him to Maurice Walsh, the then Chairman of the English Sangha Trust, who invited Nai Boonman to stay at the Hampstead Vihāra and teach meditation. Nai Boonman accepted, and began to teach ānāpanasati according to the samatha-vipassana tradition. (Anandabodhi also acted as guarantor to enable Nai Boonman to obtain a visa to stay in England.) Several months later, Nai Boonman took a job at the Thai Embassy where he subsequently lived for over 10 years in a basement flat. Anandabodhi, meanwhile, had been continuing his own meditation studies, including with Phra Rajasiddhimuni the senior vipassanā teacher at Wat Mahathat in Bangkok, who he invited to visit and teach at the Hampstead Vihāra. Partly because of new responsibilities at the Thai Embassy, but also because of the background of how the Burmese vipassanā practice had largely suppressed the age-old samatha practices in Thailand, Nai Boonman stopped teaching meditation at the Hampstead Vihara in May 1964.

1964

During 1963, the then Chairman of the Cambridge University Buddhist Society, Lance Cousins, who had already met Anandabodhi, attended Nai Boonman’s meditation classes in London, along with several other Cambridge University students. When the Hampstead class ended, Lance invited Nai Boonman, on behalf of the University Buddhist Society, to teach in Cambridge which he did from mid-1964. The Cambridge Samatha meditation class has continued to this day. It was a deliberate choice to name the class as a Samatha meditation class, to distinguish it from the by then increasingly pervasive Burmese vipassanā influence, even though, in fact, Nai Boonman’s teaching follows the core samatha-vipassanā tradition of anapanasati. Also at that time, the Thai Embassy was beginning to prepare the ground for establishing the first Thai Temple, at East Sheen, in London, a project that Nai Boonman necessarily became involved in as part of his Embassy role.

It was also during 1964 that three accomplished Tibetan meditation teachers, Trungpa, Akong and Chime Rinpoches, settled in England, first in Oxford. 

1965-66

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Anandabodhi 1967
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Anandabodhi rediscovered as Namgyal Rinpoche ~1979


During 1965, Anandabodhi established a meditation centre in Eskdalemuir, Scotland, named Johnston House. He had also by then established links with the Tibetans, Trungpa, Akong and Chime Rinpoches, and important relationships developed between the Tibetans, Anandabodhi and Nai Boonman. Some of Nai Boonman’s first students, in particular Lance Cousins and Paul Dennison, both former Chairmen of the Cambridge University Buddhist Society, attended intensive meditation retreats with each of these teachers in those early years at Johnstone House. Anandabodhi was a very controversial figure during the early 1960s, but was undoubtedly a great facilitator. By this time he was planning to return to his native Canada, but before doing so, in 1965/66, he arranged transfer of ownership of Johnstone House to the Tibetans, Akong and Trungpa Rinpoches, who later established it as the now well-known Tibetan Centre, Samye Ling. Chime Rinpoche established his own Centre in Saffron Walden.

Two years after leaving England, it is claimed that Anandabodhi was recognised by the 16th Karmapa in 1968 as a reincarnated Vajrayana master, and in 1971 he was given the name Namgyal Rinpoche. In 1970, Trungpa moved to the US and later founded the Shambala movement, while Akong continued as Head of Samye Ling until his death in 2013.

Meanwhile, preparations for the first Thai Temple in London, at East Sheen, were nearing completion, and it was finally inaugurated by the King of Thailand on 1st August 1966. Nai Boonman played a key role, and the Cambridge University Buddhist Society was represented by its then Chairman Paul Dennison. Ironically, the first Abbot of the Temple, Phra Vichitr, was a practitioner of the Burmese dry vipassanā method, and for a while in 1966/67 he taught a vipassanā meditation class in Cambridge in parallel with Nai Boonman’s Samatha meditation class. (The Thai Temple relocated to Wimbledon in 1976, as the Buddhapadipa Temple .)


Other background 1960s-70s

1964   The Sinhalese Chiswick Vihara was opened with Ven. Saddhatissa as senior monk.
1966   The first UK Thai Temple was formally opened in London by the King of Thailand.
1967   The former Johnston House, Eskdalemuir, was formally established as Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, with Chogyam Trungpa and Akong Rinpoche as the senior incumbents.
1967   Robert Jackman ordained in Thailand as Bhikkhu Sumedho.
1970-71   Peter Betts was introduced to jhāna practice in Nai Boonman’s Cambridge University Buddhist Society meditation class.
1973   The Samatha Trust was established as a registered Charity.
1973   Chime Rinpoche established Kham Tibetan House in Saffron Walden.
1974   Peter Betts ordained as Bhikkhu Brahmavamso in Thailand.
1977   Bhikkhu Sumedho moved to Hampstead Buddhist Vihara.
1979   Chithurst Buddhist Monastery was established with Ajahn Sumedho as Abbott.


The Samatha Trust

By late 1967, Nai Boonman and his pupils were already considering how to work towards establishing a meditation centre to continue the samatha tradition. However, Nai Boonman married his first wife Julia in 1967, who he had met in Cambridge, and two other key figures took up their first academic posts; Lance Cousins in Manchester, and Paul Dennison in Adelaide, Australia. Plans were put on hold for a few years, until 1973, when Paul Dennison returned to the UK, and soon afterwards the Samatha Trust was established as a Charitable Trust. The founding trustees were Nai Boonman, Lance Cousins, Paul Dennison, Richard Wallis and Chris Gilchrist. Richard Wallis died in the 1970s in the US.


In 1973 following a divorce from his first wife, Nai Boonman married his second wife Aramsri, and in 1974 returned to live in Thailand where he started a business career. Paul Dennison continued to teach the Cambridge class, while Lance Cousins forged ahead with developing meditation classes in Manchester, which in 1977 led to a Manchester Centre being established in a former Chapel. Nai Boonman’s parting instruction was that Lance and Paul should take meditation retreats together, which became the pattern for almost 20 years.

Fund-raising towards the longer-term aim of establishing a national meditation centre finally led to the purchase of a Welsh hill farm with 88 acres in 1987, and after several patient years of heavy and voluntary renovation work, carried out almost entirely by meditators, the Centre was formally opened in 1996. Nai Boonman returned to the UK after a gap of 22 years to officiate at the opening, and in following years has visited the Centre to take retreats each year. 


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The Samatha Centre, Greenstreete Llangunllo, Powys, Wales, UK.
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Nai Boonman, Paul Dennison & Lance Cousins at the opening of the shrine hall in 1996


On the 1st of May 2000, the Samatha Trust received the unprecedented honour of a gift of Relics of the Buddha from Thailand. This was a distribution of Kusinaran relics to Buddhist temples worldwide, made in a 3-day ceremony in Bangkok sponsored by the King of Thailand.
The Samatha Trust was represented by Nai Boonman and Paul Dennison, the then Chairman of the Trust. Among some 80 temples and meditation centres worldwide, the Samatha Trust was the only lay organisation to receive this honour.

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Nai Boonman, Paul Dennison & King’s Representative waiting to formally receive Relics.
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The Relics being carried with military honour guard

In parallel, a group of Buddhists in Bangkok, associated with the Royal temple Wat Phra Ram IX, offered to have made a magnificent Buddha Rūpa as an act of dāna for the Centre’s main Shrine Hall that was nearing completion.

The large bronze Buddha (62 inches across at the base) is in the style of the Dhammacakra teaching mudra, and was designed by Acaan Vichai, Professor of Fine Arts at Silapakorn University, Bangkok, and the leading authority on the design and styles of Buddha images in Thailand. The statue was cast on 4th April 2001 in a ceremony attended by senior Thai Sangha, a representative of the King of Thailand, and a number of UK Samatha meditators who had travelled to Bangkok to witness the casting. The statue bears the King’s seal.

Later that year, on 23 June 2001, in a historic event attended by senior Thai monastic representatives from both Thai sanghas, the Mahānikāya and the Thammayuttikanikāya, as well as monks from Chithurst and Amaravāti monasteries in the UK, and the Burmese, Sri Lankan and Thai temples also in the UK, the Shrine Hall with the now named Phra Buddha Dhammacakra, along with the Relics of the Buddha, was formally inaugurated in the presence of Nai Boonman.

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Pouring the molton metal into the mould, Bangkok 2001
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Phra Buddha Dhammacakra, installed at the National Samatha Meditation Centre, Powys, Wales
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Nai Boonman in 2015, age 84
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Lance Cousins. meditation teacher and world authority on Buddhist Pali texts and Abhidhamma, receiving an honorary PhD from Mahamakut Buddhist University in 2013. Lance died in 2015.

As of September 2019, The Samatha Trust continues to foster the development and understanding of samatha and samatha-vipassanā meditation. There are now over 50 local meditation classes nationally in the UK, with over 100 teachers. There are branches or affiliated organisations in Ireland, and in the US. The National Meditation Centre in Powys, Wales, has developed into a wonderful and magical venue for practicing meditation on intensive retreats, and its 88 acres including woods and a wetland are home to an ever-increasing range of wildlife. The Manchester Centre founded in the 1970s has been extended as a major regional centre for the North, and a Southern Centre located in Milton Keynes has been established to serve London, Oxford and Cambridge and other southern areas.

A number of members over the years have spent varying periods from weeks to a year as ordained monks, in both the Mahānikāya and Thammayuttika Nikāya sects of Thailand, adding to the richness of this developing UK tradition. Some members have also developed a deep interest in Pali chanting  to the extent of being invited to chant at events in Thailand. During the last 20 years experienced meditators within the organisation are rediscovering elements of the ancient Yogāvacara practices, notably the “wax taper practice”, while another group has been carrying out detailed EEG studies of the brainwave activity of experienced meditators, recently published  here.

And Nai Boonman continues in his mid-late 80s to annually visit and teach at the National Centre in Wales.

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A
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some chants 

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The evocative wax-taper practice.

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