A Buddhist life

My Life in 2500 Words

I was (re?)born in 1950 in London. My parents were Bill and Christine McMahon – my father’s family came from County Clare in Ireland originally, and ‘McMahon’ means ‘son of the bear’ in Irish. So I became Tony McMahon. I feel very fortunate to have had very loving and generous parents. I was the eldest of three brothers, with Jim and Richard five and ten years younger than me respectively.

We were a Catholic family, and I went first to a convent school (where I remember having some quite blissful experiences gazing up at the blue ceiling of the chapel), then to a junior school in Wimbledon where I was very happy, and finally to a secondary school run by Jesuit priests, where I was often miserable.

As a child I was a real mixture: very energetic and with a quick mind, but also very sensitive. (My mother described me as the most introvert child she had ever seen.) The sensitive side didn’t go very well with the Jesuits’ disciplinarian ethos. But still I managed to do well enough academically to gain an exhibition (a kind of second-class scholarship) to go to Cambridge University. I studied English, but this was 1968-71, not a time when students tended to do much work, so my main ‘studies’ were playing sports and games, Left-wing politics and mind-altering substances. I somehow still managed to get a degree. My Director of Studies said I had the talent to get a first, but on the amount of work I did I should have failed. I emerged with a 2:2, a good British compromise.

My final year was very demanding, and I emerged from it in a pretty bad state. Looking for a lifeline, I took myself up to Samye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Scotland. Ever since my early teens I had been trying to ‘meditate’. When quite young I had discovered that by walking slowly and attentively I could enter an altered state of consciousness. Later in my teens I came across books on Yoga and then on Buddhism. Unfortunately the Buddhist books were very dry and unimaginative. I was rationally convinced, but not inspired to practise. Instead, at the age of 18, I began practising Transcendental Meditation – which was very popular because the Beatles had taken it up. It was only in my second year in Cambridge that I came upon a book on Tibetan Buddhism by John Blofeld and discovered that Buddhism had ways of engaging the heart and the imagination. That was what I had been looking for, so in my hour of need I headed for one of the first Tibetan Buddhist centres in Europe.

At Samye Ling I encountered both Akong Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche, and was thrown in the deep end, attempting to meditate up to twelve hours a day. That visit confirmed my interest in Buddhism. But I was living in London with my girlfriend, and Samye Ling was a long way to go. So at the beginning of 1973, I went looking for a Dharma Centre in London, and found the Triratna Buddhist Community (then called the FWBO) centre in Archway. It was a weird time to go along, as Sangharakshita, who had founded Triratna, had just gone off on sabbatical. But the Order members I met were mainly like me: young hippies, full of idealism, determined to live a Buddhist life. I quickly got very involved.

I continued going to Samye Ling when I could, and in late 1973 I went for refuge there, committing myself to the Buddhist Path. But although Akong Rinpoche was very helpful, I was still struggling with my western conditioning and he came from a very different background. Sangharakshita, on the other hand, was a westerner who had spent a long time as a Buddhist monk in India, and I felt his approach to the Dharma was addressing my life-issues more directly. So in August 1974 I became a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and was given the name ‘Vessantara’, which means ‘universe inside’. (You can read about my ordination, and the suspense that surrounded it here.)

Back in London I lived in a Buddhist community in Archway, while completing a professional social work qualification. Then in 1975 I moved to Brighton, and worked as a social worker in West Sussex. Because of the workload this didn’t offer a lot of job satisfaction, whereas teaching meditation and Buddhism was fulfilling. So when Buddhadasa, who had founded the Brighton Buddhist Centre, wanted to move on, I agreed to become Chairman. Running the Brighton Centre meant giving up my career, and I haven’t had a ‘proper job’ since.

After being in Brighton for a while, I moved to Aryatara, a community in Surrey, where I helped establish the Croydon Buddhist Centre along with various businesses to help support it financially and to allow Buddhists to work together. Then in 1978 I spent eight painful months on a building site – helping to finish the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green, which opened in November of that year. Then back to Croydon for a year or so, before moving to Vajraloka, a recently established meditation community in North Wales. There I did my best to plunge into meditation.

I suspect I would have been there for a long time, but after a year I was asked to become secretary to Sangharakshita. I decided that there would always be retreat centres, but that the chance to see a Buddhist teacher in action on a daily basis, to help his work, and learn from how he lived his life, was an opportunity that might not come again. So I accepted the offer, and moved to Padmaloka community in Norfolk.

I spent six years there as one of Sangharakshita’s two secretaries. (The other one was Subhuti.) Once Sangharakshita had decided that I was halfway competent, being his secretary grew into being involved in various aspects of the FWBO on his behalf. This included eventually becoming Chairman of Aid For India (these days called the Karuna Trust) a charity which raised millions of pounds to help socially-disadvantaged people in India.

Another task that Sangharakshita gave me was of organising three-month ordination courses for men. I organised these in Tuscany in 1981-2, and then took on leading them. I led four courses in Tuscany, and then a further three in Spain. Doing these nine 3-month retreats was a wonderful opportunity, for which I feel very grateful. I had the chance to deepen my meditation; I learnt a great deal about the Dharma, from listening to Sangharakshita and from leading study groups myself; and I watched about 150 men join the Order, some of whom are friends to this day.

In 1986 I became aware that Aid For India really required a full-time Chairman, and I was being lined up. I could see the next ten years of my life being devoted to management and administration. Although I can do that sort of thing, it isn’t where my heart lies. And at this stage although I had given slide shows of our work in India to the charity’s supporters, I had never actually been to India myself. So my emotional connection with the work wasn’t that strong. This led me to think about what I really did want to do with my next years. My inner response to that question was that I wanted to meditate more deeply.

As a result, with Sangharakshita’s agreement, I moved out to Spain, to Guhyaloka, to a piece of land which Triratna had purchased as a retreat centre, in which the men’s ordination courses were to be held. I spent two and a half years there, dividing my time between meditation, leading the ordination courses, and writing. It was at Guhyaloka that I wrote the first draft of my book Meeting the Buddhas. This is about Buddhist visualization practice and the different figures that are visualized. Writing that book in a small plaster hut in that remote mountain valley was one of the highlights of my life.

During that time my father became ill with cancer back in England, and in 1989 I moved back to the UK, and stayed in Brighton with my friend Sanghaloka. At that time I was also in the middle of a 13-year relationship with Vidyasri (another member of the Order). She lived in Brighton, and was very happy to have me in the same town rather than up a Spanish mountain.

While I was at Guhyaloka I had spoken to Sangharakshita about my meditation, and we had agreed that I should take up a new visualization practice. As he didn’t have it himself, Sangharakshita suggested that I contact one of his Tibetan teachers, Dhardo Rinpoche. He in turn passed me on to Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche, an eminent lama based in Germany. So in 1988 I began a connection with Dagyab Rinpoche, which I have benefited from greatly. At that time it was unusual for Order members to have other teachers, but all this was done with Sangharakshita’s agreement.

In 1990 I went to India to meet Dhardo Rinpoche, but when I arrived at the school he ran for Tibetan refugee children, I discovered that he had just had a stroke. (You can read my article about that visit here.) I carried on with what was planned to be a three-month trip to India and Nepal, but shortly afterwards I heard that my father had died back in the UK. I went back for the funeral. A few days later Dhardo Rinpoche also died.

Those two deaths took a lot of assimilation. I stayed in Brighton, and set up a small travel agency to support myself while I finished Meeting the Buddhas, which was published in 1993. In that year my mother also died of cancer, with only a month from her diagnosis to her death. It was the most intense month of my life. In Spring, with new life bursting out around me, I watched her liver cancer advance rapidly, so that she turned yellow like an autumn leaf. That summer was a dark winter for me.

Before I knew that my mother was ill, and having finished my book, I had taken on a lot of responsibility within Triratna. I became president of three UK centres: Birmingham, Brighton and Bristol. I also became Order Convenor, a loosely-defined job which included overseeing the running of the various practical arrangements of the Order: finances, Shabda (a monthly compilation of communication within the Order), organization of International Order Conventions, etc, etc. But it went wider than organisation. The general brief was to help the Order around the world to be in communication and harmony.

So I began several years of intense activity, and a lot of travel. I paid regular visits to Australia and New Zealand, India, the States and Europe. Then, on top of that, Sangharakshita brought together a group of 13 of us and told us that he wanted us to help him to pass on his remaining responsibilities. This involved first fundraising and house-hunting for a suitable large property, then moving into the place we bought in Birmingham. I had been at full stretch before this new responsibility, but at least I had had a quiet base in Sanghaloka’s house in Brighton. Now I was living in a large community of people who were all as busy as I was, and I was part of the College Council, which had been given central responsibility for the future of the FWBO. I was completely overworked, my mother was not long dead, and Vidyasri and I had also recently brought our 13-year relationship to a close by mutual agreement.

At this point I did six months of the hardest work and travel I had ever done. After Australasia and the USA, I finally keeled over in India, at the beginning of a whistle-stop tour of the Order in various cities there. I lay in bed in Pune for 12 days, then cancelled the tour, flew back to England and headed for my doctor. Her tests showed that I had had glandular fever six months earlier.

So I had done all that travel, given all those talks, talked to those hundreds of people, while suffering from glandular fever. I had to admire my body’s resilience in keeping going that long. But it had taken a terrible pounding, and as a result my health and energy were very poor for several years. In fact ten years later I still have to be careful not to overdo things, and have occasional short relapses.

Although the description above is a perfectly reasonable explanation of what happened to me, I can’t help feeling that there was more going on. All through my life I had had a strong pull to meditate, and my life had become so busy with people and meetings that my meditation practice was on subsistence rations. I was a Vessantara – a ‘universe within’ – who was obliged to spend nearly the entire time on external activity. So I can also see getting glandular fever as my psyche’s way of forcing me to rebalance my life.

As a result of my illness, I moved to live on my own in a flat in Birmingham, and gradually passed on my responsibilities. During this period I also wrote another book Tales of Freedom, which is based on stories from different Buddhist traditions. That was published in 2000, and since then I have produced several more books.

The one responsibility that I have taken on in the last few years is to be a private preceptor. This involves helping people to join the Triratna Buddhist Order, witnessing their commitment to the Buddhist path at ordination, and keeping up contact with them once they are Order members. I recognize that, whilst I’ve done my share of organisational work for the Dharma, I’m much happier working directly with people. Being a private preceptor has been a joy – watching people stepping onto the Buddhist path and following it with increasing confidence. I’ve also gained some good friends.

Over recent years I have made contact with some other teachers who have added further depth and richness to my Buddhist practice. Through contact with Dagyab Rinpoche and his sangha, I had the opportunity to receive more teaching on Chöd (a meditative ritual that stems from the great Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön) from Lodrö Rinpoche. In addition, through a series of unplanned circumstances, I came into contact with the Tibetan Mahamudra  teacher Lama Shenpen Hookham and her teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. Then from 2008-2011, I did a 3-year meditation retreat with the help of Lama Tilmann Lhundrup. 

Since then I have been living  in Cambridge. I spend my time writing, meditating, and leading retreats and courses on Buddhism and meditation. I feel very fortunate. I am living a life that is devoted to my deepest ideals, and I have excellent teachers, good friends, relatively good health, and a supportive living situation in a beautiful old city.