Group meets temple monks

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Morpeth Rotary Club

CLUB member Barry Swan arranged a visit to the Buddhist Monastery at Harnham near Bolam.

Everyone was welcomed in an anteroom and asked to take their shoes off before going into the Temple.

There were oriental statues and artworks near the entrance hall and in the Temple along with a strong smell of incense. The heating under the fine wooden floor was very cosy on the feet.

An experienced monk who had been there many years agreed to help members understand the way of life. Originally named Andrew and from Yorkshire, he had taken the Buddhist name of Punyo.

He had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, but later went to university to study Buddhism and Hinduism.

He arrived at the monastery to stay in 1991 and has been at Harnham for 12 years in total as he has spent some years in Thailand, the spiritual home of the order.

There is a sort of hierarchy with a novice, six or seven monks and an Abbot. There is a council of elders that meets about twice a year and a wider council above that which meets once a year.

There are 200 monasteries in the group. Three or four people become candidates for admission each year.

They wear white, shave their heads and attend at the monastery.

They are encouraged to visit other sites. Once a monk, it takes around five years to train. They do not actively recruit and have a rule against it.

Monasteries are usually organised around a charismatic teacher who attracts monks to learn meditation.

They tend to fade away when the teacher dies, although some have a strong following even then.

No one person takes over at the death of a teacher, but it is usually a group of disciples. The Abbot is elected by the other monks.

Monks would normally stay in the monastery, but if you have important business you may leave for up to six nights. They attend meditation groups in Edinburgh, Carlisle and Leeds, where they are invited to stay overnight. They must be back at the monastery at dawn in the rainy season.

In January, February and March they have their own retreat. There is a guest house that is well used between April and December.

Visitors can join in the monastic routine. There are services morning and afternoon, along with doing good works or structured talks and meditation. In meditation, they learn not to hang on to things but let them go and not be driven by disappointment.

They get up at 5am and meet together to meditate. Breakfast of porridge fruit and yoghurt is at 7am and the main meal at 11am.

First meditation is mainly on breathing and the body, then there is three hours of physical work on the three acres of land and garden. After 8am, people on retreat do household jobs.

In the afternoon there is walking, meditation and study. They meet at 7pm for meditation and have lights out at 10pm.

There are many visitors to the monastery, including students from Thailand at Newcastle and Sunderland.