25/11/2014 06:50 GMT | Updated 25/11/2014 12:59 GMT

The Monk Who Gave Up Acting With Laurence Olivier To Lead Buddhism In British Prisons

Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is featuring its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.

A large, golden Buddha smiles serenely behind the Venerable Ajahn Khemadhammo, as we meet in his forest hermitage in rural Warwickshire.

Slight, shaven-headed and with with dark hairs adorning the bare shoulder not covered by his brown robe, the 70-year-old ordained monk is a leading force in British Buddhism, who works with some of the faith's most desperate followers, in prisons.

Seated in front of a shrine and framed by smaller Buddhas, model tortoises and foliage, he looks almost theatrical. It’s an apt reflection of how Khemadhammo may have appeared in his 20s. Then named Alan Adams, he gave up a budding acting career at the National Theatre that saw him auditioning in front Laurence Olivier, to live a strict monastic life with no possessions, few comforts and certainly none of the glamour of London’s Old Vic.

Khemadhammo has many names: Ajahn is not his first name but a Thai word meaning ‘teacher’, and he is also called Chao Khun Bhavanaviteht, after he was granted a monastic peerage by the King of Thailand in 2004. We settle on Luang Por, a title used for respected Buddhist monks that means "venerable father".

Khemadhammo played William in As You Like It at the National Theatre in 1968

We don’t discuss the other name, the one he’ll only reveal to me several days later, the name that can be found in the National Theatre’s archives, and evokes warm memories from its photographer when I dig up pictures from Khemadhammo’s brief career. The 20-something actor appears handsome and roguish, with a floppy hat and eyeliner in one shot from Shakespeare's As You Like It.

Today, in the hermitage surrounded by damp gardens filled with fruit trees, ponds and meditation huts in the Thai forest monastery tradition, Khemadhammo is at home. He and the other monk who lives with him sleep on the floor. Most rooms are bare, save statues of the Buddha and pictures and models of skeletons, “to remind us” of human mortality, he explains.

The monk is well-spoken, with the range of expression you’d expect from a former actor. At times solemn, with a considered, almost sleepy voice, he suddenly lurches into a mischievous chuckle.

His days are varied, but he often takes a meditation class at 6am and then walks with his two rescue dogs; Ben and Jimmy. He owns nothing but three robes and a bowl. I conclude the ‘golden oldie’ mug and Quality Street sweet tin near the shrine must be gifts.

Photo gallery Forest Hermitage See Gallery

At 10.30am, he eats his only meal of the day, vegetarian food that is donated and prepared by local Buddhist volunteers. I’m reminded that monks aren’t allowed to buy things or prepare food. “We’ve never gone a day without, but there have been some narrow squeaks,” he admits. “It makes us dependent,” he adds. “We can’t shut the gate and put up a great big wall and live apart from the lay community.”

But it’s within "great big walls" that Khemadhammo does some of his most important work. I’m reminded that even in discussing sacred subjects, we are not completely free from bureaucracy: as Khemadhammo is now the spiritual leader for more than 1,600 Buddhist prisoners in England and Wales, leading around 50 chaplains, our meeting has to be approved by the Ministry of Justice in London.

His physical vulnerability – Khemadhammo wears glasses and his feet and pale legs are exposed – makes me think how out of place he must look when he visits prisons around the country to lead meditation sessions, or advises besuited ministers on policy.

Many prisoners embrace Buddhism for the first time while behind bars, and it is the fastest-growing practice in British jails according to the latest figures. Since 1985, Khemadhammo’s pioneering work has helped to develop a forward-thinking multi-faith approach in British jails, and led to him being awarded an OBE for services to prisoners in 2003.

Receiving his OBE from The Queen in 2003

Born in 1944 in Gosport near Portsmouth, the young Alan Adams had a testy relationship with religion in his childhood. His parents, especially his mother, were passionate Anglican Christians. “It was usually church twice on a Sunday when I was a kid. I hated it all really,” he says. “I remember one day falling down on the path and grazing my knee. I was let off going to the service on the Sunday afternoon and it was such a relief. It was worth hurting myself, I tell you,” he laughs hoarsely.

Christianity was soon abandoned when he went to Central School of Speech and Drama aged 17. “I tried desperately to keep it up for the first couple of weeks, you know, I really did,” he says, smiling whimsically at what was obviously a futile attempt. “But it gradually dawned on me that I just didn’t actually believe it. I soon discovered I could live quite well, and be quite happy without it.”

His first taste of adventure came on a four-month, £14,000 tour of America with a theatre company he helped to found aged 20. “We had our own Greyhound bus with all the seats taken out at the back for our set. We drove sometimes 500 miles a day, unloaded, set up, did a show, went to the inevitable party afterwards, tore it down, went to sleep and got up the next day to do it again.”

The company came to a swift end after the first night of a show in New York was attended by the FBI, who served them a summons in the interval for not having work permits. “Our lawyers got us off, but we had to swear on a Bible, one by one, that we would never perform in the United States again without permission, which we couldn’t do anyway so that seemed a bit pointless,” he grumbles.

Khemadhammo only remembers one thing about auditioning for Laurence Olivier, then the world’s most famous actor and the director of the National Theatre. “I suddenly realised I didn’t know what he looked like. He was regarded as the greatest actor in the world, but of course he did tend to change his appearance quite a lot. In day-to-day life, he looked more like a bank manager than a great actor. I can’t remember anything more about it, other than that I got the job.”

As he performed in Shakespeare and Chekov, Khemadhammo became fascinated with Buddhist meditation, which he says complemented the Stanislavsky acting method he was taught, involving rigorous mental training to draw on realistic emotions.

“Life as an actor is a meditative life, because you investigate what is going on in a character’s mind, and your own mind," he says. "To be truthful, I don’t think I necessarily always rationalised it quite like that, but that’s in effect what I was doing.

“What became important was to try to understand myself, to understand life and what it’s all about. I wasn’t interested in being peaceful and happy, or anything like that – people come [to my hermitage now] wanting peace and happiness sometimes, but that never occurred to me. I didn’t feel that I wasn’t particularly happy. It was that knowledge and insight that really gripped me.”

Khemadhammo (left) as Alfred in Rosencranzt & Guildenstern Are Dead with Edward Petherbridge as Guildenstern, in 1967.

But he had “no wish whatsoever” to become a fully committed Buddhist, as his resentment from his enforced Church of England upbringing was still fresh. “I remember being clear in my own mind that I had had enough of religion to last me a lifetime, I was sick to death of it,” he says, stubbornly.

Yet, against his own wishes, something drew him in and he began to visit the Hampstead Vihara temple in London’s Camden - on the same road as his first bedsit. He reluctantly accepted that he had become a Buddhist. “I just got fed up with not saying I was a Buddhist when people asked me what my religion was, when I was practically there. I was fed up with mucking about.”

I notice that he actually gets fed up a lot: “I was always well known for it. My mother used to say that,” he beams. “And I wasn’t very good at disguising it either.”

After rejecting Jesus, does he now believe in Buddha? “Not really, because Buddhism isn’t a belief system, which is why it’s so refreshing,” he says. “I wasn’t required to believe something I didn’t understand. We don’t believe in God. It’s lovely. But I don’t like people keep saying it’s just a lifestyle. Anything is a lifestyle. Being a journalist is a lifestyle,” he gestures to me in the chair opposite him. “No, no, no, it’s more than that. It’s a way of training yourself and developing yourself. It’s a way of, ultimately speaking, changing yourself.”

Olivier – then in his 50s and plagued with illness – disliked Adams at first, but things changed after a party in Olivier’s seafront house in Brighton. Adams had then committed to not drinking, the fifth of the five Buddhist precepts for lay people. This proved problematic when Olivier – not a man you refused an offer from – tried to serve him some home-made punch and the young actor refused.

“He did not take it too well at all,” the monk recalls. “I remember a woman grabbing a bottle of fruit juice and sticking it in my hand, and then I disappeared into the crowd quickly. But I suddenly found myself in the front again, and again he offered, and again I refused.

“And it had an extraordinary effect, because the next day I was standing by the stage door, and he came in with the casting director for one of the major television companies, and immediately introduced me and was all friendly. I just think that standing up to him was such a rare thing that it impressed him. His relationship to me after that was much, much better.”

But favour with Olivier was of little value, as Buddhist ideas fueled his growing impulse to leave the theatre. In one story, the Buddha tells an entertainer, Talaputa, that he will be reborn in an unhappy state after death because actors encourage people to feel anger, greed and delusion that isn’t real. “That hit me," explains Khemadhammo. "I thought wow, it's all a delusion. I had never thought about my responsibility to an audience before.”

“And then, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - have you ever seen that? - I had to spend about 20 minutes in the third act stuck in a barrel. To entertain ourselves, we had a spyhole bored in the barrel so we could have a look at who was in the front row. It also made you very aware of your audience,” he laughs.

A two-week Buddhist retreat was the turning point, despite its unpleasant conditions. “It was cold and damp and I was plotting my escape within hours of getting there. But for some reason, I stayed. And I came away thinking, really and truly, there is nothing else worth doing than pursuing this.”

Khemadhammo moved to the countryside and tried to combine meditation with trips to London for television and radio work. “I thought I’d be a kind of part-time monk, but it was very unsatisfactory, I didn’t like it.”

So aged 27, he travelled to Thailand and became a monk and a disciple of the highly-regarded teacher Ajahn Chah, spending six years confined to a small hut with few distractions from his own mind.

A young Khemadhammo with his influential teacher Ajahn Chah, who set up two major monasteries in the Thai Forest tradition

In a twist of fate, he then travelled back to England with Chah – to the very temple in Hampstead he first visited.

It was then that the letters from prisons started. The chaplains of Pentonville, Holloway and Parkhurst prisons needed someone to see their Buddhist prisoners, and there was no provision for them currently. “It was down to me,” says Khemadhammo, who had never visited a prison.

To start with, he just listened. “My approach initially was simply to respond. We weren’t in a temple, just in a room, or sometimes in a cell.” This developed into meditation classes and teaching, as he followed prisoners around the country when they were transferred. It led to the launch of the Angulimala, the UK’s Buddhist chaplaincy, named after a ruthless killer in Buddhist scriptures, who collected his victims’ fingers, and was then reformed by converting to Buddhism.

But his prison work is about helping people, rather than offering redemption, Khemadhammo explains: “Forgiveness isn't really mentioned in Buddhism. After all, what's done is done and can't be undone. And who's going to be doing the forgiving when we don't believe in God? But we recognise that everyone does many things, some good, some not, and criminals haven't only committed crimes. We try to draw out and encourage the good and skillful.”

He makes a point of not thinking about the crimes his students have committed. “Inevitably you find out, sometimes they tell you, sometimes it comes out in other ways. I’ve always felt I want to treat people as people, not as what they’ve been labelled.”

Khemadhammo won’t be drawn on his view on whether prison in itself is right, wary of the Ministry Of Justice which is anxious of what he might tell me, but he has previously argued that prison as a deterrent has been proven not to work.

The UK’s prisons are undergoing a crisis of understaffing, poor conditions, overcrowding and self harm, I point out. Can his work help with this? “Well I think it must do. Because all that, it puts people under a great deal of stress, not just the prisoners but the staff too, it’s bound to. So I think anything, especially mediation, is going to help you to deal with that.”

There’s a wider issue though, which the mental training of Buddhism can offer solace from, he believes. “The Buddha taught that this ordinary life of ours is a life of suffering, and immediate cause of suffering is craving and discontent. Prisoners can’t go home when they want to. They can’t go and see their child, or their wife or husband. They are restrained all the time.

“Some prison buildings are pretty awful, some are better and some are ok. But they are just buildings. They keep the rain out and keep you warm. It isn’t that that’s the suffering, it’s not being able to do what you want to do. People can go on about prisons and whether they are comfortable or not, but if you can’t do the things you want to, if you are kept somewhere then that is bound to be uncomfortable, and that’s what I suppose we work with. Middle class people don't understand suffering, prisoners do.”

Prisoners have never responded badly to his practices, but he has encountered hostility is at Warwick University, where he has led the student Buddhist society for many years. At a meeting with the Christian Union, he was heckled and aggressively challenged. “It was the usual thing you get from the rather extreme Christians who think they know it all. The Thai students I was with were very offended.”

With his friend, the Welsh actor Victor Spinetti who appeared in Beatles films, before his death in 2012

K hemadhammo has only started speaking open about his acting days in the last few years, as though age has softened the need to renounce them.

He stayed in touch with friends like the Welsh actor Victor Spinetti, who had a five-decade career and is best remembered for his appearance in three Beatles films, including Hard Day's Night. Spinetti died in 2012 and Khemadhammo was surprised to be asked to conduct his funeral, despite Spinetti not being Buddhist.

And how does he look back on his life in the theatre all those years ago? “I don’t think it’s evil, but I do agree that the profession of actor is unskilled. Because you are controlling people’s minds.”

Yet, paradoxically, he talks with huge affection of those early years, and reconnected with old colleagues for the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary last year. “What hit me, seeing all those old men, was the real professionalism that I was part of in those days, because my life now is different. If I miss anything, that’s probably it.” It seems aptly poetic that, 50 years later, he has examined his own mind enough to feel at ease with the man he was in a past life.