So Many Roads ~ A TRYING TIME

“No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half-asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind”.

~ Kahlil Gibran: The Prophet ~

While in India, I’d decided to return to Australia, and so, after my stay in Bangkok, I took the road south, as I’d done before, and stopped off to see Dhammaviro in his canyon again; by this time, he’d built himself a sizeable and substantial kuti, as he intended to stay there, period. I spent some time in Penang and Taiping, before going to Singapore. My idea to fly from there to Darwin, but for some reason, changed my mind and went to Sydney instead, and lucky that I did, as on 25th December ~ when I might otherwise have been there ~ Darwin was hit by Cyclone Tracy, which practically flattened the town; it was a national disaster!

In Singapore, I met Venerable Narada for the second time at Sri Lankaramaya. He’d just made what was to be his final of 17 visits to Vietnam; henceforth, he would go to Indonesia each year.

Ray Seibel and his family had returned to Australia from Penang, and were living in Sydney. We’d kept in touch, and I sent him a telegram, asking if he could meet me off the plane, and giving him the time of my arrival. He was there when I flew in late, and took me to his home for the night, and beside my bed had placed a Bible, still hopeful that I might reconsider and ‘return to the fold.’ Little did they know that I’d gone further away from Christianity than they could imagine, and ~ just as the universe is expanding outwards ~ was still moving away.

The next morning, Ray took me to the recently-established Thai temple in Sydney, where I met Khantipalo, an English monk who I’d heard of while in Bangkok. He was notorious among Western monks, and generally disliked for his strict adherence to the rules ~ and not just strict, but meticulous and nit-picking. I was somewhat prepared for him, therefore, and it wasn’t long before he started to jump on me for some very minor and irrelevant infringement of the rules ~ more about which later ~ but I soon learned how to deal with him in a way that other monks obviously hadn’t: instead of allowing him to browbeat and intimidate me, I would make a joke and laugh, and he would then come down off his high horse; I saw through his strict and serious facade to his more-human side, and got on with him quite well after that. We kept in touch by letter intermittently, as he, like myself, was an inveterate letter-writer, and at one point, I wrote to him that his way was his way and my way was mine, but that was no reason why we should not respect each other and agree to differ where necessary; he did not object to this.

I joined a week-long retreat he conducted outside Sydney before flying on to Adelaide to visit my parents; this was January, 1975, and by then, they had retired and bought a little cottage on the Yorke Peninsula, at a place called Moonta, 100 miles NW of Adelaide; at the same time, Sheila and Frank had built a house on a hill near Gawler, 30 miles north of the city, in its own block of land. Mum and dad met me at the airport and took me to visit them before driving home to Moonta.

Although it was quite old, with a few cracks in the stone walls caused by subsidence, their cottage was cooler in summer ~ as it was then ~ than most modern houses, and not as cold in winter. It had not only a large garden, with some sheds, but a sizeable paddock at the back; we were a mile out of the town, and the nearest neighbors a hundred yards away, so we were not overlooked.

I’d been there some weeks when I was informed that Khantipalo would soon be visiting the fledgling Buddhist Society in Adelaide, so I went down to join him. The Buddhist Society consisted of no more than 25 members at most, and met once a week in someone’s home, so this is where we stayed, and where I met Tim and Jill again, who were to help me a lot over the next year or so. Khantipalo conducted South Australia’s first-ever Buddhist retreat in the home of another member. During his two weeks’ stay, he said some memorable things to me, one of them that I should brush my teeth before 12 noon in case any food that might be lodged between them slipped down into my stomach afterwards, constituting a breach of the rule not to eat after midday. I wondered, but didn’t say ~ as I was a junior monk, remember ~ whether the Buddha would have said such a preposterous thing. Then, one day, I had a towel draped over my shoulders for extra warmth ~ an orange-hued one, too ~ and he told me it was disrespectful to drape anything extraneous over one’s robe. Following this, because someone had offered him a sweater, of the appropriate color, he told the donor that he couldn’t wear it until the right sleeve and shoulder were removed. The sweater was duly cut diagonally from the left shoulder to the right armpit, and only then did he wear it. Now, while I’ve told these things of him, I should add that he mellowed a lot over the following years and became more human; but more of this later.

Well, he left Adelaide, and I stayed, unfortunately, because I was totally unfitted to deal with such a group, and must share responsibility for what subsequently happened. Most of the BS members knew nothing about monks, and had certain expectations, and I guess I expected to live ~ and to be treated ~ as monks did in Asia; it was a recipe for disaster, and that year was ~ as Q.E. II later called one of hers ~ an anno horribilis. The venue of the B.S. meetings shifted ~ as did I ~ to someone else’s house, and the group soon showed signs of splitting into different factions (something so common with Buddhist groups, I later observed, that it was almost normal).

Someone else of that early Buddhist group who I was to maintain contact with over the years was a Sri Lankan lady named Wilanie. She’d married an Englishman named John Wright, and was soon to give birth to their first child; she asked me to visit her in hospital for that event, and chant a blessing for her, which I did, several times. She later had two more sons, but her marriage was to break up, leaving her quite distraught.

Because I didn’t want to impose myself on the people I was staying with, and couldn’t stand staying with this group full-time, now and then I’d go home to spend time with my parents, and it was then my handyman abilities began to emerge (I’d been rather inspired by Dhammaviro in Thailand, who was very talented, but I would never equal his skills). I found so much to do to improve the place, and was soon hard at work in the garden, around the house and in the house itself. I really should have stayed there and continued non-stop instead of going back to town for more punishment.

Certain things redeemed the situation. Someone arranged talks for me in numerous Adelaide schools, from primary to high-school, and the response from the students was generally positive; I still have a bundle of ‘thank-you notes’ among my stuff in Melbourne, from the students of one primary school; I have discarded many things over the years, but these notes I kept, as they were so heart-warming. Tim and Jill often drove me to these schools.

With my limited knowledge and repertoire, I soon ran out of things to talk about at the BS meetings, and was ~ and still am ~ wary of repeating myself in case I bored people. Bore them or not, I soon felt I’d stayed too long and should move on, but was not in a position, financially, to do so. Tim and Jill offered me accommodation in their cottage in the hills, and while there, would still come into town now and then to conduct or participate in any lingering activities.

Sometime in ’75, my mother, who’d been visiting an old lady by the name of Mrs. Jones in hospital, decided to bring her home and care for her there. She was already in her mid-80’s and had no relatives, the beloved husband she had come out to Australia with from Wales in their youth, and their only son, had died long before, leaving her alone. She was a lovely old lady, with an amazing memory, but was crippled with arthritis and could not even walk unaided. For my mother, herself almost 65 at the time, to take her in and care for her in every way, was really a tremendous undertaking, and perhaps she shouldn’t have done it, as it really restricted her; she couldn’t go further than the town for a few minutes and leave her on her own. We soon came to call her Gran, as I’d never had a Gran to call my own, mum’s mother having died giving birth to her eighth child when my mother, the eldest, was just 12 years old, and dad’s mother, although still alive when I was young, I didn’t remember; she had been in a nursing-home for several years until she died at the age of 96, and one time, when dad had gone to visit her there, she had said, “I don’t like it here, George; they’re all old people!”

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