Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1996

End of Rebirth; Ajahn Viradhammo
The Wisdom of Samadhi; Ajahn Pannavaddho
Elements: Funeral of Luang Por Jun; Venerable Asabho
Sutta Class 36: Buddha's Advice to Meghiya; Sister Candasiri
The Magic and the Muck; Harnham Monastery
Foundation of Sangha; Sister Candasiri


The Magic and the Muck
The following article outlines the history of Harnham Monastery and presents an update on its current legal difficulties as an appeal for funds toward a settlement. It has been prepared by trustees of the Magga Bhavaka Trust which was established fifteen years ago under Ajahn Sumedho's guidance to provide stewardship for the monastery.

Most people who know the Sangha in England know the story of Harnham Hill, Farmer John Wake and how the monastery in Northumberland came about. It has a magic to it and it's the kind of story that people take delight in re-telling.

There were three of us originally who were keen to find somewhere we could offer as a vihara. We had a lot of enthusiasm, but as two of us were students and the third a post lady, we had little money. Others joined us but they too had little money so we put an advert in the local paper for a "cottage to rent as a retreat house. Rural, any condition, we can undertake repairs", and we got two replies. One of them was withdrawn when the owner found out we were Buddhist, which left John Wake and the cottage on Harnham Hill.

It was an unbelievably beautiful position, on a small hill looking south over rolling farmland; it was only a ten minute walk from a main road with a bus route, and just seventeen miles from Newcastle. If we had sat down and worked out the ideal place (not that we knew then what we needed), this was it. John let us have it for ten pounds a week and we set about fixing it up. Ajahn Sumedho had told us that all the vihara needed was "a roof, a toilet and running water".
There were no modern amenities, not even a window in the toilet so that they had to brush the snow from the seat before using it.

We had everything but the toilet, but we had to put the plumbing and a new floor in first. We did that over six months, doing the work as two teams that came alternate weekends, each starting from either end of the house. It was our first lesson in working together: when the two floors met they were at different heights and one had the pipework set in concrete while the other had it left out!

Ajahn Sucitto, then only a monk of four years, moved in as our first Abbot. It was good to start with someone who could appreciate the austerity of the place - there were no modern amenities, not even a window in the toilet so that they had to brush the snow from the seat before using it. He was later followed by Ajahn Viradhammo, Ajahn Anando, Ajahn Thiradhammo, and then Ajahn Pabhakaro: Harnham seemed to be where monks were sent to practise being abbots.

During this time the relationship between John Wake and the Monastery grew. John often expressed his delight at "religion being on the hill" and was very supportive of the Sangha, providing them with practical assistance in many ways. Wanting to see a secure future for them at Harnham, John offered the trust a fifty year lease on the cottage, saying this was effectively "for ever", with a covenant that it only be used as a Monastery.

Unfortunately, the seed of the present difficulties was sown in the negotiation of that first lease. For six months we had had no response from John's solicitor to our letters, and so John decided to not go through his solicitor. He refused to follow our advice that he instruct a different solicitor for just this transaction, even though we offered to pay his legal costs - we even tried the legal impossibility of ourselves instructing a separate solicitor to act on his behalf. The Trustees were faced with a dilemma. On the one hand we could have continued occupying the cottage without any formal lease, but that would have made impossible any long term commitment to building a Monastery there. On the other hand we could, which in fact we did, enter into a lease on very beneficial terms to us - signed without independent advice, by a man who was then over 80 years old; leaving ourselves open to subsequent accusations that we had pressured him into this.
By this time John had also offered us the cottage next door for visitors to stay in, this time with the proviso that one day he would like to retire there himself. Later we asked him if we could buy a derelict cottage further down the hill to renovate as an eventual replacement for this, but it was difficult to agree on a price. Instead, with his estate agent's advice, John put this cottage on the open market, offering to let us match the best offer. But, when a large offer came in from people from outside the area, he changed his mind and accepted that. A few days later John offered to sell us some other property on the hill. The Sangha suggested the barn next door as a Dhamma Hall, and one of the trustees asked for a derelict cottage, which could be renovated for nuns to live in. After some thought, John offered them to us at a very generous price and we agreed to leases with an option to purchase, to give us time to raise the money. For these leases again, John refused to go through his solicitor or land agent, but his solicitor did conduct the eventual sale, a year later.

The transformation of these properties into the elegant simplicity of the Harnham Dhamma Hall and the sturdy monastic accommodation adjoining it, took place because many people trusted a vision of what could happen at Harnham. That trust was to be severely tested by the events which followed.

It started when John said he wanted to make the field at the top of the hill into 'common land', so that the monks and laity would always be able to use it. Hence a meeting was arranged between ourselves, John, John's land agent and his new solicitor, his previous solicitor having recently died. It was clear at this meeting that neither the land agent nor the solicitor knew much about the long history of our dealings with John. The papers handed on from John's previous solicitor had not contained any record of these transactions, neither his client's copies of the conveyances nor his correspondence with our solicitor. The land agent particularly was understandably very angry at what he saw as suspicious transactions which were to the financial disadvantage of his client. Needless to say, no progress was made on the original purpose of the meeting.
After a year of increasingly non-productive correspondence between solicitors, John's solicitors eventually started legal proceedings against us, claiming that all our transactions with John were the result of us applying 'undue influence' on John, and hence should be set aside. They demanded that we return all the property on the hill. That would have meant closing down the monastery and handing back properties on which we had by then spent a lot of lay supporters' money. The claims were unfounded, and, following the advice of the English Sangha Trust, we appointed an extremely good but very expensive firm of London solicitors to act on our behalf. They prevented the case going to court by having the writ thrown out by the presiding judge. Then just, over a year ago, John changed his solicitors and he is now in dispute with his previous solicitors about the costs charged by them for pursuing the litigation - which had resulted in great expense both to John and ourselves. Since then, the litigation has remained in abeyance, and an out-of-court settlement has been proposed.

Ajahn Munindo, Harnham's abbot during these four years of adversity, has consistently encouraged the rest of us to keep a perspective in all this, reminding us to remember John's past generosity rather than allowing ourselves to be swamped in reaction to the more recent events. This attitude is reflected in our agreement to the proposed settlement which we believe will resolve the grievances, while at the same time honour the purpose for which the Magga Bhavaka Trust holds the property. In outline: both parties would pay their own legal costs, and we would pay John fifteen thousand pounds; this sum being based on the difference between the prices we paid for the properties and what would have been their true market value. Furthermore, we agreed to implement a long-standing informal agreement with John that we would replace the joint sewage system which, as recent visitors to Harnham will know, is so inadequate that the Sangha has to clear it every week.

All of that comes to approximately UKL60,000. If we can raise more we will put it towards buying and developing other properties some of which we still lease and rent, to secure the monastery for the future.

Harnham hill is the most ideal spot for a monastery, everyone tells us that. There was something magical in the way the Sangha got to be there, but now we have to earn the right for them to stay. We need the wider community of supporters to help us achieve this. If you would like to send us something or want more information, the address is:-
Harnham Legal Appeal,
Ratanagiri Buddhist Monastery,
Harnham, Belsay, Northumberland,
NE20 0HF, England.

So far donations totalling UKL20,000 have been offered towards the above appeal. Since preparing this article Farmer Wake has reclaimed our guest cottage and there is yet another solicitor operating for him.