A well-respected former Theravada monk, Phra Khantipalo originally from Norfolk, England, died aged 89 in a care home in Melbourne, Australia on 5 July 2021,
In his early 20s, he joined the British Army referred to as national conscription. In 1956, soldiers in the British, French and Israel army attacked Egypt to regain control over the Suez Canal.
During this period, Lawrence Mills (later Venerable Khantipalo), a tall, gaunt figure, read a book on Buddhism. The book changed his life.
After military service, he travelled to Kalimpong, two hours on the road from Darjeeling in the Himalayas of north-east India. He spent time there with Venerable Sangharakshita, an English monk of the same generation. From there, Khantipalo travelled to Thailand to take full ordination as a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition.
Starting in the 1960s, Phra Khantipalo wrote books and booklets on the Buddha’s teachings .including Buddhism Explained, Buddhist Monks Discipline and Travels of a Buddhist monk.
I first met him in 1970 in his room in Wat Borwonives in Bangkok. Aged around 40, he came across as a serious minded individual emphasising the importance of observing all 227 rules of the monk and a strict daily discipline. I left after an hour remembering that he did not smile remaining polite and aloof. Highly intelligent and a natural scholar, he also displayed at times an intimidating persona. In the early 1970s in Thailand, (former Bhikkhu) Vimalo, 89, from Germany famously described him as “Britain’s last remaining Victorian.” Vimalo abides in a home for the aged in Germany.
Years later, Khantipalo went to live in Australia and disrobed several years later. It came as a surprise to many of his students. He co-founded Wat Buddha Dharma Monastery, near Sydney and also the Bodhicitta Buddhist Centre in Queensland. He lived for years in Cairns offering teachings and retreats in New South Wales and Queensland.
Australian culture, Western Buddhists and those living in communities in Northern Rivers in NSW softened his austere persona. He starting sharing his personal experiences, grew a ponytail and offered precious teachings grounded in the Buddha-Dharma.
In Australia, Khantipalo underwent a kind of conversion experience to Dzog Chen, a Tibetan tradition emphasising clear awareness and the radiant light of being. He moved away from the strict forms and constructs of the Theravada Buddhism to the expansive awareness of Dzog Chen. In Buddhist language, he changed his priority from form to the formless and with this change came much appreciation from many who witnessed a much warmer persona in Khantipalo.
Despite major health issues for years, he continued to write Buddhist texts and receive guests when health permitted.
We appreciate his important contribution to the Buddha-Dharma in the West and his dedication to making significant changes in his life when necessary.
A life well-lived.
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Thank you so much for letting me of the beneficial influence of the teacher and history upon Phra Khantipalo. The lessons certainly had a deep impact on the young man.
Concerning your obituary of Phra Khantipalo, you say that
“During this period, Lawrence Mills (later Venerable Khantipalo), a tall, gaunt figure, read a book on Buddhism. The book changed his life.”
This is not quite correct.
I knew Phra Khantipalo when I was a teenager in the 1970s – I was in fact taught by him at Thetford Boys’ Grammar School in Norfolk which is the school he also attended as a schoolboy. I don’t think he was from Norfolk originally – something tells me that he may have come from Essex but his family moved to Norfolk where he went to Thetford Grammar.
History was taught in a somewhat unusual way at the Boys’ Grammar school during the mid 20th Century, from the end of the War up until the end of the 1970s. The history teacher, Mr CGV Taylor, had an unusually wide-ranging approach to the subject that saw him teach well beyond the national curriculum to include the history of North Africa, the Middle and the Far East and which included extensive instruction as to the religions of those places. The impact that this had on generation after generation of TGS schoolboys was such that after Lawrence Mills left school, he eventually became a Buddhist monk, acquiring his new name of Phra Khantipalo, largely due to the effect that the history lessons of CVG Taylor had on him. When I was in the fourth or fifth form, he became a familiar sight around the school with his saffron robe, sandals and shaven head, having returned to teach history there for a few terms, in acknowledgement of the formative influence that studying history at Thetford had had on his personal journey.
That is extremely interesting Andy. I was one of Laurence’s friends and helpers in the last years of his life, as well as being one of his students in the 80s. I had heard that there was an important history teacher in his life but had forgotten his name, but I had never heard that Laurence came back to the school to teach history after he had ordained. Thanks for all that.
My pleasure Jane. Given that the events I described took place before mobile phones and digital cameras, there has to be a measure of uncertainty as to whether any pictures exist. However I could put the word out to see if anyone did take any photographs, if that would be of any interest to you or anyone else here?
I dusted off his long neglected Life of the Buddha yesterday thinking I ought not waste this lockdown. Last lockdown I did much needed home renovations. But yesterday I decided it was time for another kind of renewal, quite unaware that the man who so inspired me at WBD decades ago had recently died. I would never have known, but I just Googled Khantipalo. Now I can’t help thinking he’s still at work. I feel inspired to get back on the job myself.
I know I’ve already commented about this but I’m really very grateful to you Christopher for getting this out to the Dharma community. I was getting pictures of him on FB a few days before he passed so he was in my mind. There wasn’t any posts that I got to say he had passed however, so thanks for that.
He was involved in the Forest Meditation Centre for many years as well and I spent time with him there on retreats. I saw him bushbash his way through the forest to try find a water source in the days when we didn’t have much water up there. He also conducted these full moon meditations that went all night. We would do sitting and walking in a line around the meditation hall. I couldn’t remember if they did go all night but Mark verified that they did and they drank coffee to keep going.
Thank you for this. I read his book, “The Splendour of Enlightenment, a Life of the Buddha,” when I was staying at Burken Forest Monastery in Western Canada in 2003. It my introduction to the story of the life of the Buddha. The inspiration I derived from it is still with me today. Thank you Laurence.
Thank you Christopher for this. I happened upon Phra Kantipalo in late 1974. I was looking to learn mediation and knew nothing about Buddhism. It was great that he came to Nimbin to teach the hippies. That retreat was held in an old cowbails with camping in tents in the paddock outside. There was a big storm one evening and we all huddled in together to hear him speak. For all his British upbringing he was a great metta teacher. I can see how he fitted in with the hippies as he was quite wacky. Forever grateful to him.
Thank you for this. I had my first meditation retreat at Wat Buddha Dhamma, in around 1981, where Ven. Khantipalo was resident. Actually he hadn’t disrobed at that point, that occured several years later. He was rather a forbidding personality in some respects, tall , gaunt and austere, and a voice with rather a military cadence still. But he imparted the wisdom of the Theravada with grace and skill and was really my initiating teacher in Buddhism. Peace unto him.
Thank you. His life, perhaps like the life of so many of us, shows how much we can change over the course of a lifetime.