6 thoughts on “Vishvapani (formerly Simon Blomfield), member of the Triratna Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order)

  1. It’s always seen as a popular move to have a pop at Victorian ‘institutions.’ But this cheap trick is to ignore the fact that it was the Victorians who – with the best intentions – set up asylums for the mentally ill. They made mistakes, there would have been abuses, and knowledge of mental illness and its treatment has now advanced enormously. But the Victorians made the first move towards understanding the mentally ill, giving them asylum in the real sense of that word, and removing them from the horrors of Bedlam, and from the eyes of the public who sought amusement from going to look at the antics of the lunatics.

    If any proof were needed that the Victorians were committed to giving the mentally ill some dignity and a chance to live a meaningful life, the one glance at the Royal Holloway Asylum (now a ruin) should convince the sceptic. Rainbill and Winwick hospitals near Liverpool had workshops, gardens and farms where ‘inmates’ could find therapeutic occupation; in some respects they were like religious communities, protected from the ravages of the outside world. Of course they weren’t the perfect solution, but when such places were closed down in the ‘80s, under the ‘care in the community’ policy, a lot of those displaced people got lost rather than cared for ‘in the community’

    Perhaps we could hear from Vish just how Buddhism cared for the mentally ill in the 19th century.

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    1. My uncle, Peter Nunn, was for many years the chaplain at Winwick Hospital (*), and it was exactly as you describe it. He lived in a large house, more of a Victorian villa really, standing in its own grounds, right alongside a large, typical church. As a child, the presence of twenty or so horse chestnut trees in the garden, and the absence of any competition for their offerings, meant a stash of conkers for me that was the envy of the school. A large cricket ground (Uncle Peter opened the batting), parks and paths, a sports hall, a gym – and yes, a church – meant that the patients and staff had everything they might need for as good a life as possible.

      At evening roll call, any missing patients were often found in the Swan at the top of the road, where the landlord kept a compassionate eye on them. We came out from a visit one time to find a patient had locked himself in our car – a bit scary for my ten-year-old self, but part of the routine for my uncle and his colleagues. The man was extracted, with gentleness, in a few minutes or so.

      For sure life would have been hard, but the asylum provided exactly as its name suggests – a refuge away from the difficulties of the world. As such the patients could try to cope with the difficulties they had themselves, without the additional troubles. The mistake we make these days, I think, is to see a life in normal society as necessarily the best option for everyone. Unfortunately, for some this is simply not the case. The asylums of Victorian Britain provided a way for both society and the patients to get on with life.

      (*) My dad used to tell people that he had a brother-in-law in Winwick Hospital who thought he was a vicar.

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      1. Thanks for that, Steve, that’s how I remember Winwick. There was much lamenting when it was closed – it also proved to be occupying a piece of prime real estate; who’d have thought it?!

        I worked for a while in Rathbone Hospital in Liverpool, which was for a long while a half-way house for people from Winwick, whilst they were found ‘homes’ in the community. Many of them told me they were terrified of life ‘outside,’ and of using buses and being responsible for money. They probably got used to that, many of them, but they also complained that people stared at them and treated them like imbeciles. The site of Winwick hospital is now occupied (as you surely know) by large ‘executive’ homes in a pleasant leafy, semi-rural setting.

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  2. ‘The Buddha said, “If you want to care for me, you must care for the sick'”. No doubt many Christians would react by asserting that this sentiment is rather like similar comments attributed to Jesus, and therefore that the Buddha was “really” a Christian without knowing it.

    The likely truth, which is much more interesting, is that Christianity absorbed some of the teachings of Buddhism, just as it absorbed various aspects of Greek and Egyptian philosophy. Buddhist missionaries were active in the Middle East from around 250BCE, and are thought to have influenced many local faiths and sects, including Gnosticism. As so often happened, Christians have nicked someone else’s philosophy while pretending to have invented it themselves.

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  3. I worked in a very similar place for years, and while the original thinking behind them was enlightened for the time, we shouldn’t get too nostalgic. On some “rehab” wards it was difficult to tell who was the more institutionalised, the staff or the patients. Yes, many led reasonably happy and often low- stress lives. But many didn’t need to be there ,and it was a form of infantilisation.

    The original care in the community was done cheaply and could have done better, but the principle that mental illness* be more part of mainstream life was sound.

    As much as it was a humane change , they were also a shocking waste of resources . Hospital is much dearer than all but the most intensive community set- up, and many had no clinical need to be in-patients, if professionals also moved out, as they did.

    and learning disability-many long-term residents had no mental illness. A lot were brain damaged (often by meningitis.)

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