I have recently published my memoirs – ‘Unfolding – how I became a Buddhist and what I did next’ – and here is a short extract from chapter 10:
The year is 1976. I’m 25 years old. I have recently returned from an overland trip from London to Kathmandu and have moved to Cornwall to train as a Midwife.In India I’d spent a few days at the Krishna Ashram outside Calcutta and I was drawn to meditation, something to do with inward-dwelling, a seeming peacefulness and stillness that held attraction.Not surprisingly, therefore, in my first weeks at Treliske hospital in Truro two posters on the general notice board drew my attention, both for meditation.
One was for T.M. (transcendental meditation), which was rapidly growing in popularity. It would cost £20 for a course and you’d be given a secret mantra. The other was for Buddhist meditation. A class was being held at the ‘People’s Palace’ in Truro and led by the Eastern-sounding and impossible to pronounce ‘Manjuvajra’. The Buddhist meditations were weekly drop-in classes, and free. Apart from liking the poster which was a simple, aesthetic outline of a Buddha on brown paper, the fact that it was free and didn’t involve a commitment was the deciding factor which made me choose the Buddhist one. In my mind’s eye ‘The People’s Palace’ conjured up some kind of exotic abode. I needed to check it out. I went on my bike down the hill from Treliske into Truro to take a surreptitious look. It took a while to find what was, in effect, a semi-derelict building awaiting demolition, and certainly not full of Eastern promise.
Because the building was so unsafe we had to sign a paper to say that we were entering at our own risk. The meditation, I discovered, was to be held in a top room of this hired wreck of a building. Over subsequent weeks I learned two meditations: the mindfulness of breathing and the ‘metta bhavana’, or development of loving kindness. Janet (now Ratnavanda) would drape a yellow, red or blue cloth over a small coffee table on which she placed a Buddha image, a posy of wild flowers, candles and lighted incense. I liked this ritual though I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the focus on the Buddha image. Then we’d meditate, sitting on cushions on the floor for around 40 minutes with very little instruction. At the end we’d mingle over a cup of herb tea, instant coffee or barley cup, then go home. But after a few weeks I was invited to join in with others listening to a taped lecture on Buddhism. ‘What the hell,’ I thought, expecting not to enjoy it. But I was captivated by the slow voice coming out of the tape recorder of a man with an unfamiliar accent talking about the Noble Eightfold Path, starting with Right Vision.
I’d found meditation pretty hard. I couldn’t get comfortable sitting cross-legged, and my mind was all over the place. I might have given up if Janet hadn’t introduced these talks. To my great surprise, it was Buddhism more than meditation that I felt drawn to. What I was hearing about the Eightfold Path not only made sense, for it accorded with my understanding of the world, but went very much further than anything I had remotely worked out for myself. It sounds a cliché but I had a very strong sense of ‘coming home’. It had a trueness about it. I had no idea who this man with the strange accent was. He too had an unpronounceable name, ‘Sangharakshita’, but he was known to most people as Bhante, which was a lot easier to say! I certainly had no knowledge in the beginning that he was English nor that he was the founder of a Buddhist movement to which Janet and some of the others felt a definite affiliation. I just assumed that he was probably Indian, that these Cornish folk had an interest in Buddhism and that he was some articulate teacher whose lectures they listened to.
Because I was doing shift work at Treliske I couldn’t always make the weekly class, but I would borrow the tapes I’d missed and listen to them alone in the nurses’ accommodation. Having surreptitiously lit a candle and incense, I would sit for fifteen minutes attempting to meditate, then lie on my bed and press the start button, hoping that nobody would come in and disturb me. As the classes continued the format changed: we’d meditate, then listen to the next lecture, have some discussion, then go to the pub. The pub bit, contrary to expectations, was helpful just to get to know the others on neutral territory. From that socialising I was invited to others’ homes, including going out to Janet’s caravan in the middle of a field where she lived with a number of scatty red setter dogs. We had conversations about our lives. I was keen to know what had attracted her to Buddhism, and she asked me the same. I was getting a sense of ‘sangha’. While there was nothing exceptional about anyone, it was almost the ordinariness of them, the friendliness and openness, that was really special. After a few weeks of attending the classes, Manjuvajra, whose name I’d first seen on the poster, turned up from London. By this time I’d heard of him from the others, and knew that he was the person who had formed this Cornish Buddhist group. I gathered that he now lived ‘up country’ in a Buddhist community in Bethnal Green, London, but would come back to Cornwall for regular visits.
When I met him, he wasn’t at all what I expected. Having heard that he was a member of an Order, and grasped that the Order he belonged to was founded by this ‘Bhante’ man whose lectures we were listening to, certain things were beginning to fall into place, but I was still imagining that with that foreign-sounding name, he’d in all likelihood be wearing monastic robes and have a shaven head. He’d probably be middle-aged and appear ‘holy’ and ‘distant.’ Whereas here was a very good-looking young man, hardly any older than me, tall and slim with shoulder-length dark hair, a droopy moustache, a striped hand-knitted sweater. He was friendly, engaging and to my mind dead cool! He led the class that evening and gave a talk on the life of the Buddha. While it all seemed clear and articulate, and I was impressed that he could talk at length without any notes and be completely engaged in subsequent discussions, I was perplexed by the knowledge that the Buddha left his wife and son to go in search of the truth. What about his family responsibilities, his duty to his wife, the fathering of his son? It cut no ice with me to know they were looked after by the extended family.
Apart from that blip, I really enjoyed the evening. A day or two later Manjuvajra came around to the nurses’ home, just on spec, to visit me. I was chuffed. He was so relaxed and interested in me and what I was reading (a fat tome on Sigmund Freud, as it happened). This familiarity and sense of being at ease I later got to see as a hallmark of sangha in the FWBO (Triratna). There was very little written about Buddhism in English at that time, and the books by Sangharakshita – A Survey of Buddhism and The Three Jewels – I found dense and hard to understand, very different from his lectures, which felt accessible. So it was mainly through the lectures, and the Mitrata magazine published by the FWBO, that I began to get a theoretical understanding of what Buddhism was about. However, it was through, and with, sangha (the community of Buddhists) that I began to live it.
After I’d attended the classes for about three months there was a weekend retreat held at an old run-down cottage, Lancarrow. The property was down a long, overgrown track on the edge of an inland village, unimaginatively but accurately called Four Lanes, near Redruth. Janet had her caravan in one field adjacent to the cottage, and Manjuvajra’s caravan was in a second field. Manjuvajra came down to lead the retreat, bringing with him another Order member, a young medical student called Kularatna.
It was bitterly cold, and the five or six of us on the retreat divvied up sleeping in caravans or house. We cooked and washed in the caravans, breaking the ice – literally. The upstairs cottage shrine room had the chill taken off it by a paraffin stove, and downstairs was a cosy sitting room with an open fire where we congregated on shabby sagging chairs and cushions on the floor. A huge and intriguing Tibetan ‘Wheel of Life’ thangka dominated one wall. When I picked up a copy of the FWBO newsletter, I was surprised to find out that this was a dynamic international Buddhist movement of men and women and that there were public centres in cities, and urban communities, and one retreat centre in the countryside. There were building projects and small co-operative livelihood ventures. It was all beginning to fall into place. This little Buddhist group in Cornwall was part of something far bigger than I had imagined, which involved young people doing all sorts of activities together. That was deeply attractive to me. That weekend, I thumbed through all the back copies of the newsletters that were lying around.
We did triple meditations before breakfast, wrapped in blankets, seeing our own breath. Sitting meditation was interspersed with deep chanting and slow walking round and around the shrine-room. We listened to uplifting yet challenging taped lectures, a series called ‘Transforming Self and World’ which drew on a well-known Buddhist text, the Sutra of Golden Light. We went out for walks, and had interesting discussions, periods of silence and more meditation: all these activities are still characteristic of any FWBO (now Triratna) retreat 40 years on. And we performed ritual and devotion – puja. Up till this point all the Buddhist activities hadn’t conflicted with my still considering myself a Christian, but Buddhist ritual was a step too far. During the sevenfold puja I felt fine to listen and watch but not join in. Likewise with the chanting: I was happy to listen but not join in. But bowing to the admittedly beautiful Buddha image and giving offerings to the Buddha made me uncomfortable – wasn’t this worshipping idols? Graven images and all that? And yet, and yet … it was that full-bodied puja of devotional verses with chanting and offerings of candles and incense and people bowing before the Buddha image in the candlelit room, performed on the Saturday evening of the weekend, that had me rapt. Something was going on which was way beyond my usual comprehension, and it wasn’t rational. When everyone else had left the candlelit shrine room, I sat on, looking at the shrine, with blood pulsing in my ears and quivering body. I sat for I don’t know how long, alone, hearing happy-sounding voices coming from the sitting room down the stairs. Eventually I stood up and, ensuring nobody was left in the candlelit room, I shyly gave a little bow to the shrine myself, blew out the candles and went downstairs to join the group. Some turned to look at me as I entered but I couldn’t speak. I was handed a mug of Barleycup. Inwardly I knew that whatever this Buddhism was, I would be compelled to follow it up. I think I can say in all honesty that I have never looked back from that moment.
On the Sunday night I drove home in the dark and found I couldn’t drive at more than about twenty miles an hour and kept having to stop. Everything felt surreal, larger than life, intense – a similar feeling to when I once took magic mushrooms. That night, while I found it hard to say what had gone on during my retreat, I told my midwife flatmate that I was going to become vegetarian. I began the next day. In the early hours of Monday morning, unable to sleep, I sat up in bed and wrote to Manjuvajra something along the lines of, ‘I don’t really know what Buddhism is all about but I want to look into it more. I want to know more, understand more. Something is propelling me.’ I’d had an experience on that short weekend retreat which was unfamiliar to me, though there were echoes with moments leading up to my confirmation back at school, resonances with times mulling things over in churches in Florence, and vibrations with the palpable silence of an Iraqi desert night.
While the first Concorde commercial flight took off, and England had its worst drought in recorded history, 1976 was an important year for me. I was exploring the outer world of of cliff paths, of creeks and coves. I gathered seashells, fossils and sprigs of heather. I was also investigating the inner world of meditation, and starting to scratch the surface of a Buddhist path to liberation. And along the way I was helping to aid many new human lives into the world.
If you want to know what happened next, the book should be available from your local Centre bookshop, or contact me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org