UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Because I Care ~ AND NOW, TO ME

ALTHOUGH I WOULD PREFER not to write about this, as it concerns things that others cannot verify, I am so often asked about it that it would save me much time and repetition to explain a little bit about what led me to become a monk, insofar as I can perceive a pattern in it all looking back. Let me say, though, that I tell my story here only that some of it might be useful to others, and inspire some to look into their own unique stories.

As might be supposed of me as a European, I was born into a Christian background, and raised a believer of that religion. I was taken to Sunday School, although I didn’t always like to go, as I had a rebellious nature from the beginning, it seems. But I did believe, read the Bible, pray and considered myself a Christian, if not actually a follower of Jesus; at that age, I didn’t know there were alternatives. I’m willing to admit, however, that my knowledge and understanding of the teachings of Jesus was scanty, and I do not claim to have applied them in my life; perhaps, at that time, I didn't know that religion was meant to be practiced, as it wasn’t— and still isn’t— commonly done.

My childhood ended and I entered my teens still believing in Christianity. This continued until I left school when, like so many young people when they discover the big wide world beyond school walls, I found other things of interest, and my religion just ‘fell away’; it was not that I deliberately discarded it or converted to another religion, but that it ceased to interest me. I remained in this state for some years, not thinking about religion.

My working-life in England was as unsatisfying as had been my school days; I felt I didn’t belong in the land of my birth, and was a stranger or an alien there. Reasons—or possible reasons—for this will become apparent as I go on with this account.

So, because of my alienation, I left England, and began to hitch-hike around Europe, not knowing where I was going nor why. All I knew was that I had to go, and couldn’t stay. It was hard to leave and set off into foreign parts, knowing no language other than my native tongue, with little money, no friends, no place to stay except where night found me—in woods, parks, empty houses, under bridges, in upturned-boats on beaches, etc.; I was often hungry, lonely, wet, cold and afraid. This was in 1965, and I was 18 years old.

This first trip, however, though it wasn’t long before I returned to England, gave me the confidence to go again; I had found my wings and could fly, and the world was henceforth open to me.

Subsequent travels took me to many strange and wonderful places, and my horizons were pushed back. I wandered farther and farther, reaching the history-soaked city of Istanbul, with its unique and unforgettable setting on the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, and the Sea of Marmara. With splendor and beauty all around, and an omnipresent feeling of antiquity, it was easy to overlook the squalor that also abounded there.

Crossing the Bosphorus, I stood for the first time in Asia, with undreamed-of adventures ahead. My path ran through Eastern Turkey to Iran, or ancient Persia, which at that time, was still under the rule of the Shah; the ayatollah had not yet seized power. Passing through Tabriz and Teheran and skirting the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, I reached Afghanistan, where the people were living much as they had done for centuries, little touched and influenced by Western civilization, until devastation descended on them from the north, when the Soviet Union invaded but never defeated this proud and fiercely-independent nation.

Afghanistan, too, I left behind, and plunged through the Khyber Pass down to the searing heat of Pakistan’s plains, but there was little there to hold me, and so I pressed on, to enter the land that had beckoned me from afar for so many years: Hindustan: INDIA.

But the country I was drawn to, as if by a magnet, was not modern India, with its teeming millions, the blight of urban sprawl, and the garishness with which it tries to hide the poverty, filth and degradation, as that is like a nightmare; no, what had called me was ancient India, and it took some adjustment on my part before I discovered this through and beyond post-independence India.

My story must needs be shortened and condensed, or it will become a book in itself. Suffice it to say that while wandering around India in 1970, visiting ancient places— some of which date back 2000 years and more—I came to the cave-temples, or rather, monasteries, of Ellora, north-east of Bombay in rugged and dry countryside. This complex comprises Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain caves, carved out of a cliff-face over a period of maybe a thousand years, and renowned, worldwide, for their size, splendor, and art. As monasteries, they are deserted now, but are preserved as national monuments, open to the public.

I already knew something of Hinduism at that time, as it is the majority-religion of India, and was impressed by its scope and concepts of Karma and Reincarnation; compared with what I had been taught of Christianity, it was like standing on a mountain-top looking at the world below in all directions, while before, it had been like looking at the world through a key-hole; the single-life-on-Earth belief is very narrow and unsatisfying, raising more questions and doubts than it answers.

At Ellora, I felt a thrill, as if something had awoken in me. As yet, I knew nothing of Buddhism, had met no Buddhists, and though I had with me a book on Buddhism, I had not read it. The only thing I thought I knew about Buddhism was that the Buddha was a great fat man who sat beneath a tree, waiting for people to come along and feed him; where I got this erroneous idea, I don’t remember. So, it cannot be said that I was looking for Buddhism, or that I found it; it might be better to say that it found me. At Ellora, therefore, I was first stirred by Buddhism, but this was not the beginning; I can trace it further back from there, as I will presently show.

From Ellora, I went to Ajanta, a group of thirty caves—all Buddhist—100 kms away. It was late when I reached the access-road, however, so I spread my sleeping-mat under a tree, oblivious of the fact that this area is inhabited by tigers, and went to sleep.

When I awoke, I felt a sharp pain on the sole of my right foot, and upon investigation in the pre-dawn half-light, discovered a white spot about the size of a ten-cent coin, which was hard and extremely sensitive. Because I’d been walking barefoot, I must have trodden on a thorn the day before, but I didn’t recall having done so; maybe, at the time, I thought it was just a sharp stone. (Some days later, my left foot was pierced by a thorn, with a similar effect, so I guessed the first wound had been caused that way. Thorn-hedges are common in India, and the thorns thereon are very long and poisonous).

It was difficult to stand and walk on my pierced foot, so, thinking to alleviate the pain, I cut open the spot with a sharp knife to let out the pus, applied some ointment, bandaged it with a strip of cloth, and set off to walk the remaining distance to the Caves; I must have looked like a leper hobbling along in pain with my bandaged foot. But perhaps because of the pain and the effort needed to walk, when I got there, I was ‘high,’ and entered the caves with mindfulness and awe. Proceeding from cave to cave, many with images, frescoes and long-abandoned monks’ cells, I had a strong feeling—a conviction, even—that I was coming home again after being away for a long time. Did I bring this upon myself, did the pain in my foot have anything to do with it, or was it something welling up from my subconscious? I cannot say for sure, but it was a great turning-point in my life, and I felt that whatever had caused men to carve these magnificent sanctuaries out of the cliff-face, this was it for me. From wandering around without a direction in my life, I now knew which way to go; I had a light to guide me. Because of this, Ajanta, even more than Ellora, is a place of great significance to me.

Two days later, with my foot still bandaged and in pain, I went to Sanchi, in Central India, which is the site of several well-preserved Buddhist stupas, or reliquary monuments, the largest of which was constructed to enshrine the bodily-relics of the Buddha’s two chief disciples, Sariputra and Moggallana. I felt awed by the atmosphere of sanctity that lingers at this place, but was also appalled at the lack of respect of Indian visitors to the place, some of whom I saw clambering on top of the main stupa to have their photos taken. Perhaps it is because India has an abundance of ancient and holy places, and people have grown used to them and take them for granted, without understanding or appreciating them.

Walking down the road from the sacred hill of Sanchi, trying to catch a ride to Bhopal, suddenly, I ‘disappeared’—that is, my body was there, as normal, but the ego, or the sense of ‘I, me, mine,’ was not, and my consciousness exploded or expanded (though these words are inadequate as they imply time, and the experience was something timeless), to infinity (and this word is also unsuitable, as we can’t really talk about infinity, being so finite ourselves). Knowing nothing, as yet, of such things, even by reading, I saw, felt, or experienced life as a whole, with no barriers or limits, and knew where the center of the Universe was/is: HERE. This was accompanied by an intense feeling of joy and love such as I had never known before; I felt at one with everything, and that I could have communicated with even a blade of grass. It was a most illuminating experience, and I wanted so much to share it with someone, but there was no-one there to share it with, and even if there had been, would they have been able to understand if they had not had the same experience? I am not saying or implying that I became enlightened thereby, and it should not be thought so, but it was definitely a transcendental or enlightenment experience. It didn’t last, of course—maybe because I couldn’t sustain it—and I fell back; but it left me with an unshakable conviction about what I had seen: that we are not this small and narrow thing that we call ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ but something much, much more.

Soon after this, I read the book that I had been carrying around with me, entitled simply: Buddhism, by Christmas Humphries, and I must here acknowledge my gratitude to the late founder-president of the London Buddhist Society, as his words and explanations made complete sense to me, and left me in no doubt whatsoever that what I had stumbled upon just a short time before was the way which I should henceforth try to follow. It wasn’t a matter of belief, for I had seen and experienced it.

From there, it was not much of a choice to make to become a monk; it seemed the logical thing in order to realize what I had glimpsed. But it didn’t happen immediately, because I wished first to visit my parents who had recently migrated to Australia, to see how they were settling into their new country, and inform them that I would be returning to India to become a monk, for that is where I thought it would take place.

It didn’t turn out as I expected, however, for though I did visit my parents in Australia, told them of my intentions, and got their consent, I got only as far as Malaysia, on my way back to India, before ordination overtook me, and I must express my gratitude to the Venerable Phra Kru Dhammabarnchanvud, of the Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Center in Penang, for his kindness to me before and after he ordained me. May he be well and happy, wherever he now is! (I have mentioned him in another article in this book— an article that I wrote later than this one— telling how things had changed for him).

I must backtrack many years, to my childhood, where two things of significance stand out, and which seem now, looking back, to throw some light on what happened later: One, in a family of meat-eaters, I never liked to eat meat. By itself, this is not remarkable, as many kids don’t like to eat meat. But, combined with the second factor, it is significant: I always wanted to go to India—where vegetarianism is widespread—although I consciously knew nothing at all about India, and none of my family had ever been there (nor did I know anyone who had). Yet India never ceased to call me over the years, until I finally answered its call and went, and that is where I stumbled across the Buddha’s Way and knew that it was right for me. Surely, it was not an accident. Was I meeting something I had known in a previous life? It would be easy to say that, but I cannot, because I have not seen the link, clearly and directly. Yet neither do I reject the possibility, and in fact, find it quite a reasonable explanation. All I can say is ‘maybe,’ Was I pulled out or pushed out of England, or both? Until this moment, I don’t know; all I know is that I could not stay, but had to go, and set off in search of something, even though I didn’t know what I was searching for, or even that I was searching! Only when I found it did I realize that I had been searching. And on the way, I encountered many difficulties; it was not an easy search.

So, these were the conditions—or some of them—that brought me into contact with the Buddha’s Way, and I have many people to thank for helping me in ways both big and small, before, during, and after that time; many I remember, most I do not, as there were just so many. And I am even grateful to a thorn, for the part it played in my life.

And now, my purpose in life is to help others expand their consciousness beyond the narrow confines of self, and discover that life is to be lived not just for ourselves, but with the awareness that we belong, and should live with love and care.

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