Sangharakshita Among the Birds
Go, said the bird, for the leaves are full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
T.S.Eliot, The Four Quartets
Abhayavajra and I were painting the mural outside the London Buddhist Centre. The Windhorse which had adorned the LBC courtyard since its opening was badly faded; the clouds the Windhorse rode upon with hooves of fire, dull and blighted. Bhante, who was living at the LBC at the time, had often asked for it to be repainted, ‘And with an earth image this time’, he said, ‘not a sky image’. I showed him a sketch I’d done of a lotus pond with lotuses. He said it was ‘not very imaginative’ but it would probably do. We set to work in what the Met Office assured us was the wettest winter in a hundred years. Bhante took a keen interested in how the mural was progressing. ‘Are you going to include some birds and bees?’ he asked. Then, twinkling slightly, continued ‘Oh no, that might be misunderstood!’ Another time he asked me ‘Why don’t you paint a duck in it?’ Then mimicking my dropped vowels continued, ‘So when people walk past they can say: ‘Oh luk a duck!’
I was living in Sukahavati. Bhante was living in the flat next-door. He’d sometimes pop in for milk or pass through when he was coming back from his walk around Victoria Park. Once I was checking a poster for a gay men’s retreat I was running. The strapline ran ‘Get away from the stress and strain of London!’ ‘Yes.’ Bhante said ‘And all those gay bars!’
Another time he came into the kitchen holding Micky. Micky was looking guilty. Micky was a large tabby cat who’d joined the community with Nagaraja. Micky had taken to getting himself let into Bhante’s flat so he could curl up at Bhante’s feet while he wrote Protestant Buddhism. Now Micky was in the dog house. Bhante explained that Micky had caught a bird on the flat roof outside Sukhavati. The bird was still alive. Bhante asked us to make sure that Micky didn’t go onto the roof until the bird had recovered and flown away.
I went to visit Bhante at Madhyamaloka. He suggested we drive to Canon Hill Park. It felt strange driving with Bhante sitting in the passenger seat wearing his tweed jacket and careful boots. Even then he seemed incredibly old. Beyond the ticket barrier was a floor to ceiling aviary. As soon as we paid our entry fee, Bhante, quickening his step, walked over to stand in front of it. It was full of exotic songbirds – red ones and yellow ones, dappled ones and striped ones, all chirruping away, fluttering from roost to roost behind the wire netting. I stood beside him and watched the birds and watched Bhante watching the birds, sometimes saying ‘Oh look Bhante, look at those!’ and he’d said ‘Oh yes!’ appreciatively and quietly before pointing out another bird or pair of birds with that distinctive half-pointing gesture I’d grown to love. As we stood together it seemed that Birmingham and Moseley and Canon Hill Park disappeared. All that remained was this bent, elderly man, like St Francis among the birds or like an eight-year-old standing rapt and gazing at the many-coloured birds.
Bhante’s sight had suddenly deteriorated. At a meal we were sharing in the community, Jnanavaca asked him how much he could actually see (Jnanavaca was sitting with the light behind him at the time). ‘I can’t make out your features’ Bhante replied, ‘but I can see your ears.’
The LBC had purchased a farm in the Suffolk countryside which we converted, thanks to the Ajjavin’s genius and Ratnaghosa’s vision, into a new retreat centre, replete with a circular haybale shrine room nesting in the largest barn. Bhante was particularly keen to visit. We drove from London with Nityabandhu and Khemavira. We stopped at a Happy Eater en route. It was a cold autumn day. The car crunched up the gravel to the farmhouse door and Bhante carefully stepped out. Supported by his stick, he paused for a moment, gazing. The cold wind was blowing leaves around the drive. ‘Are those small birds or leaves?’ he asked me. ‘They’re leaves, Bhante’ I replied, taking his arm.