Monday, February 05, 2018

In Memoriam: Jane Browne

Jane Browne, a long-time supporter of Buddhism, passed away on Sunday 5 February 2017 at the age of 92. On the occasion of the anniversary I offer this little memorial.

Jane Browne offering dana (meal) to Luang Ta Maha Boowa, Wat Pah Baan Taad, Thailand, 1972
Jane Browne offering dana (almsfood) to Luang Ta Maha Boowa,
Wat Pah Baan Taad, Thailand, 1972

Jane’s contribution to the development of Buddhism in Britain spanned about 65 years — as I recall, she once told me that she had first started subscribing to The Middle Way, the journal of the Buddhist Society in London, in 1952. She was exceedingly kind and generous in her contributions, with a practical outlook and a discerning eye, though she could also be sharply critical if something wasn’t right. She was a little self-conscious about her relative lack of formal education, but I expect that as far as members of the Sangha were concerned this was considered a positive attribute for she really knew what was needed to support monastic organisations rather than overly theorising.

It seems that Jane knew early on the fundamental importance of establishing a suitable Buddhist community and was ready to support especially the embryonic developments of Sangha in the West. Hence she became involved with the English Sangha Trust and I imagine she would have participated in gatherings at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara as well as the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square.

She became a most loyal disciple and supporter of the Thai Forest Tradition, receiving teachings especially from Luang Ta Maha Boowa, at Wat Pah Baan Taad in Udon province, Northeast Thailand (ไทย | English). In the mid ‘60s she took with her Freda Wint to spend a rains retreat there and they continued to follow this famous teacher for many years. Jane also assisted and practiced under some Western disciples of Luang Ta, notably Ven. Ajahn Paññāvaddho, who for many years was the most senior English bhikkhu according to the number of rains retreats observed. Jane worked tirelessly to support him and other Sangha members to help spread Buddhist practice to Westerners.

It was in this capacity that (as far as I can determine) she co-founded the Hampshire Buddhist Society in 1966 following an initial talk at Southampton University. Regular meetings were subsequently hosted in a converted well house in the grounds of her home in Winchester, a fitting metaphor for the well-spring of Dhamma practice! And it was at the university gathering where Jane first met my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford. They hit it off immediately, becoming lifelong friends. Fuengsin was very impressed by Jane’s dedication and commitment, but most of all because it seemed like she had absorbed teachings with a clear understanding. So she joined the Society.

A characteristic of these early meetings was the ecumenical nature — there was input from Theravada, Zen and Tibetan traditions, with active help across the traditions. Jane hosted some of the first Western bhikkhus (she once showed me a photo of Sangharakshita in traditional robes meditating in the garden!). But it was the Thai Forest Tradition that Jane was devoted to and she proceeded to work with Fuengsin to disseminate Ven. Ajahn Paññāvaddho’s desanas (sermons). Then, at the passing of Luang Sarayutpitag, Fuengsin’s father, Jane was invited to contribute to his cremation volume and accordingly she wrote about the Society’s first meeting. In that volume Fuengsin herself wrote in glowing terms about the Society, remarking how the shrine was laid out just as it would be in Thailand (a spiritual home from home!). Later, in 1972, after my family had moved to Kent, my mother accompanied Jane on a visit to Wat Pah Baan Taad to pay respects to Luang Ta (which is when the above photo was taken).

I first met Jane in the late ‘60s, but I can’t remember it because I was a baby! She very kindly allowed my mother to visit her and her husband, Ian Browne, at their home in Winchester. After they moved to Cornwall in the early ‘70s, the Brownes very kindly invited us to spend summer holidays at Resugga, their farmhouse in St. Erme, near Truro. Over the years many Buddhist practitioners — ordained and lay — stayed there, in one of the annexes; and the shrine had moved from a well-house to a converted barn. Sometimes Freda would be there and no doubt the three ladies would have had much discuss about Buddhist matters.

Jane supported all the main forest monasteries, as far as I know, particularly Cittaviveka (Chithurst), and Amaravati, and just kept going, even returning to visit Wat Pah Baan Taad in 2010 less than a year before Luang Ta passed away. Afterwards she continued her support for propagation in the West: she was often ferrying items, such as piles of Buddhist books, latterly with the aid of the Internet. More recent examples were Uncommon Wisdom and Mae Chee Gaew, publications from the Forest Dhamma monastery, for which she had travelled in her mid ‘80s all the way to Virginia to assist Tan Ajahn Dick Silaratano, the Abbot in setting it up. Jane was truly a trusted Dhamma support and distribution channel.

As to her own writings, she did have a brief foray into the curious world of higher education, taking a course under the direction of John Peacock, for which she produced a richly informative essay, What is the Goal of Buddhism?. She wasn’t confident that such Dhamma was sufficiently ‘scholarly’ to receive many marks, but my website statistics indicate considerable interest in what she has written.

Furthermore her activities retained considerable breadth. In 2013 she came all the way from Somerset to Oxford to present a Buddhist perspective at an interfaith event on ‘Spirit of the Environment: Living sustainably with faith in our communities’. Jane spent a night at the Brahma Kumaris' Global Retreat Centre, which she found heavenly. A couple of years later she was back in Oxford to attend Freda’s funeral.

Jane suffered from shingles in her latter years, but was still getting out and about with the help of friends, attending important ceremonies such as the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Hampshire Buddhist society in October 2016. Fittingly she passed away during a recitation of the Mangala Sutta, the sutta about life’s blessings — in Jane’s case they were many.

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