I am sitting by the fire in a Norfolk cottage, opposite a man in slippers who I think can read my mind.
This is my first proper meeting with the Venerable Mahasthavira Sangharakshita – Bhante to me – and I am wondering what to make of it, him, and myself.
I had seen Bhante briefly the previous year, when I had attended a class at Pundarika, the FWBO Centre in Archway, North London. On coming downstairs after the meditation a man had been seated in one of the armchairs whom several people had greeted with excitement. I realised from photos that this was Bhante. But I had had no opportunity to talk to him then. He had been seized on by people who already knew him well. Then he disappeared again, back to his sabbatical. But several months later – I think in early 1974 – he was living in a cottage in Norfolk with Mark Dunlop, and was planning to move to another place. Subhuti, newly-ordained, suggested that I could go up to Norfolk in order to help Bhante to move. I gratefully took the opportunity that I was being offered of getting to know him personally.
I had written to him a little while before, saying that I felt that I was at a crossroads in my spiritual life, and would be grateful for some advice. In a way the phrase sounds rather grand to me now. I barely knew what the words ‘spiritual life’ meant, and I doubt that I had really travelled far enough along the spiritual path to arrive at any crossroads. But certainly I wanted to come to a decision about the context in which I was going to practise the Dharma. I had already made my connection with Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, had Gone for Refuge and was a Buddhist, but I wasn’t sure whether to pursue Tibetan Buddhism in the wilds of Scotland, or Western Buddhism in the wilds of North London.
I hoped that meeting Bhante would help me to decide. After all, he came from the same culture as me, whilst having had some of the most renowned Tibetan teachers of the twentieth century. Akong Rinpoche at Samye Ling, I felt, would be fine if I was wrestling with purely spiritual issues. But I knew myself well enough to see that a lot of what I was working with was my cultural conditioning. For instance, my mind was affected by the fact that I had watched four hours’ TV a day throughout most of my teens. Akong Rinpoche hadn’t even seen a TV until after he left Tibet. So I thought that a western teacher might be more effective in relating to some of the problems and issues that I was facing. (At this stage I didn’t know enough about Bhante to realize that he had probably hardly watched any more TV than Akong Rinpoche.)
The reply that I received to my letter from Bhante was measured and carefully worded. It also contained a bit of mirroring that, though I didn’t like it, was the kind of thing that I needed. The overwhelming impression of my letter, Bhante wrote, was one of extreme caution.
Presumably it was this exchange of letters that led to my invitation to Norfolk. So it was not long afterwards that I found myself travelling up the A11, being driven by Dhruva, one of the early Order members. He had rich wavy hair, glasses, and a bit of a stammer. He was easy to talk to, so the hours of our journey passed quite easily.
We arrived at the village of Tittleshall, where the Old Rectory was. I spent the night there, and the next morning, full of trepidation and excitement, I made my way to the cottage where Bhante was staying.
To say that I had unrealistic expectations would not begin to do justice to the enormity of my preconceptions. My knowledge of gurus was nearly all taken from reading about advanced tantric yogis. They all possessed miraculous powers, all dwelt in permanently blissful contemplation of Reality (with a huge capital ‘R’), and they were likely to cause their disciples to become enlightened by unpredictable actions, such as suddenly hitting them with a sandal, or throwing rocks at them.
I had not seen enough of Akong Rinpoche to contradict this impression, though I was aware that he did seem a little dour. But hadn’t he asked me to meditate for 12 hours a day, when I was virtually a complete newcomer? So any guru worth his prasad ought to be meditating at least 36 hours a day. So I made my way to the cottage expecting miracles. At the very least, Bhante would be able to read my mind.
I arrived to be let in by Mark Dunlop, who was Bhante’s ‘companion’. He had long fair hair, and was around my age. When I was first involved with the FWBO, I had assumed that Sangharakshita, being a monk, must be celibate. But it had come up one day in conversation at Pundarika, I think with Jonathan and Lizzie Brown, that in fact Bhante was gay. I don’t think that I really knew what to make of this. I had naturally assumed that Buddhist monks were celibate. But they assured me that Bhante was a Mahayana follower, and therefore the monastic Vinaya was not the driving force behind how he lived. I took this in my stride. It is hard to remember now, but I expect that I simply moved Bhante from the mental compartment that said ‘pure and holy’ into the one that said ‘exciting counter-culture’. I certainly didn’t know enough about the Buddhist tradition at that stage to wonder why he hadn’t disrobed, and was still calling himself a ‘Venerable Mahasthavira’. And certainly on a personal level homosexuality didn’t bother me. In fact, although I’m very definitely heterosexual no form of consensual sexuality has ever bothered me.
Mark took me in and introduced me to Bhante. He would have been 48 at the time of our meeting, with lank and rather greasy-looking hair, a lot of missing teeth, glasses, dressed in a jumper and casual trousers, and yes those slippers. The armchair in which he sat, and the slippers, somehow clashed horribly with my guru fantasy. It was hard to imagine becoming enlightened if Bhante were suddenly to hop out of his comfy chair and slap me with one of those slippers. They had ‘mundane’, if not Marks & Spencer, written all over them.
I was invited to a chair by the fire, Mark produced tea and then disappeared, and Bhante and I were left to talk. At this stage of my life I was still horribly shy, and this reticence was abundantly added to by the fact that I was sitting in the presence of someone who I decided, despite his taste in footwear, was still a Guru, and could presumably read my mind. This produced in me a hyper self-consciousness that made the two days that ensued something of a torture. I suspect that I would have been like this even if I had relaxed all my fantasies and expectations. Whilst not telepathic, Bhante was certainly very mindful and concentrated, and my experience is that whenever one is in the presence of such a person their inner silence amplifies the sound of one’s own thoughts.
Bhante and I spent several hours sitting by the fire together over those two days. Despite my fantasies, we had some very helpful conversations. But we also spent time sitting in silence, gazing into the flames of the coal fire, usually with me thinking that I ought to be making conversation but with a head empty of anything intelligent to say. (Part of my reticence was that I set very high standards for myself in communication, and felt that all discussion with a Buddhist teacher had to be Deep and Meaningful.)
I had decided to keep a diary of this meeting, so at night I retired to the room I had been given in the cottage, and tried to sum up my impressions. Bhante was unfathomable for me. He was clearly very intelligent and learned, in Buddhism, literature and many other things. He was also very aware. But he, Mark and I had only meditated for one hour together, and despite sitting within three feet of him his samadhi power had not transported me into another realm. And then there were those slippers, to say nothing of the cooker…
Not much had been made of me ‘helping Bhante to move’, and I quickly realised that this had been largely a pretext to enable us to meet one another. But I had done some cleaning about the place, and had had to devote much time and elbow-grease to the top of the stove, which clearly hadn’t been cleaned in all the time that Bhante and Mark had been in residence. In fact the whole place was pretty filthy. I gathered that Mark objected to cleaning, and presumably Bhante didn’t see it as his job, or perhaps as a good use of his time. I had never had the idea that ‘Cleanliness is next to Buddhahood’, but still it jarred with me that someone who talked about awareness, beauty and aesthetics should be living in a pigsty. So overall I wasn’t deeply impressed by my first day, and I summed up my experience of Bhante in my diary with the phrase ‘Can there really be a mountain hiding under this molehill?’
Lying on my mattress in the cottage at night, I could hear Bhante through the wall talking to Mark. He was relating a dream in which he had seen the universe laid out beneath him. That was more like it! Tales of wonders, if not actual miraculous events, were what I had come for. I fell asleep, hoping that my second and last day would bring something out of this world.
In the event, my second day brought no wonders. I was still uneasily wondering if Bhante was registering my every thought. At a certain point I was wondering about tea, and he offered me a cup. My hair stood on end a little. But then it was 11 o’clock, and we hadn’t had anything to drink since breakfast. Perhaps it was just a coincidence…
Looking back at that meeting, I can see that whilst I didn’t get the rainbow visions that I wanted, Bhante did give me what I needed at the time, which was some very common-sense advice. Our talks ranged over all the areas of my life, including meditation, my Dharma reading (I had brought with me Charles Luk’s translation of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, which I was unable to make head nor tail of, yet Bhante was kind in seeming to ignore my inability to penetrate its meaning), sexual relationships, my social work studies, my living situation, and my psychological difficulties. On the latter, he was very helpful to me about the phobia of high buildings which had bothered me since childhood. As I remember he said: ‘Either it’s something psychological, in which case it will be resolved in the course of your practice, or it’s not, in which case when you’re enlightened you still won’t like high buildings but they won’t bother you any more.’ This neatly sidetracked my concern about having a phobia, as well as giving me a glimpse of what it might be like to be enlightened. (And he was right, years of meditation practice gradually dissolved it away.)