Chairs' Letter – February 2022On Tue, 1 March, 2022 - 13:39
Dear Order Members and Friends,
As one of her deputies, Ratnadharini asked me to write this month’s letter from the College.
My month began with ‘landing back’ from a three week solitary retreat at the LBC’s retreat centre, Vajrasana. It was the first proper solitary I’d had since the start of the pandemic and it felt like balm. I emerged refreshed and energised in a way that I haven’t felt for a long time. The main theme of the solitary was trying to take deeper my reflections on seeing things in terms of the ‘maya way’ - trying to see the phenomenal world, as well as the ‘self’ that I think experiences it, as appearances in mind. I was reading transcripts of Vessantara’s retreats on ‘The Ocean of True Meaning’ and re-reading Bhante’s seminar on ‘The Shepherd’s Search for Mind’ as well as ‘Living with Kindness’ and ‘Living with Awareness’. There’s much further to go but I felt I made some progress - one of the effects of which seems to be realising that there’s much further to go. I felt a great deal of gratitude for my life and my friendships, and a tangible sense of Bhante’s blessings as well as those of his teachers. In particular Jamyang Kyentse Rimpoche seemed a more vivid presence, perhaps because I do the Manjughosha Stuti sadhana which Bhante received from him.
I returned to learn that Amoghavamsa had had a heart attack and Ashvajit a serious fall and bleed on the brain while in Mexico. I’m glad to say that Amoghavamsa is doing well and that Ashvajit’s condition seems to be improving, albeit slowly. I was moved by Mahamati’s response which was to fly out to Mexico to help care for Ashvajit. I was also moved by the Abhayaratna Trust and the Order responding so quickly and so generously to help with the medical costs, and with another fund to cover Mahamati’s expenses.
I also learned that Lee Walford, a mitra in Cambridge, had had a road traffic accident while cycling and that he was in a coma. Unfortunately his injuries were severe, and very sadly, some weeks later his parents had to make the decision to turn off the life-support machine. He died a few days later. Lee worked managing charity finances for both the Cambridge Centre and for Dharmachakra, who run Free Buddhist Audio and The Buddhist Centre Online. He was also for many years a much-appreciated member of the team at Windhorse Publications. I’m the president of the Cambridge Centre and although I didn’t know Lee very well, I knew him enough to know he was a gentle, kind and sensitive man who cared deeply about the work of Triratna. I wish him well on his journey.
Back in London I helped to launch the ‘Nature of Mind’ project. This new project is hosted by Adhisthana and supported by the Future Dharma Fund. Over the next six months, there’ll be interviews with a number of experts in different fields about the ‘mind’, as well as seminars exploring their ideas from a dharmic perspective. There’ll also be meditation teaching and retreats for newcomers as well as for Order Members. A number of Centres are participating with additional activities for their local Sanghas. It’s a bold and exciting project that I hope will attract more people to the Dharma.
I was launching it with an evening talking about the work of the psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher, Iain McGilchrist, and his thesis that the two hemispheres of the brain have different and opposing modes of attention, and consequently two different ‘world views’. He shows how both modes of attention are necessary, but that by allowing the left hemisphere’s world view to become dominant, we’ve created a culture that is self-centred, utilitarian, reductive and alienated from how things really are. McGilchrist is also a philosopher and a literary scholar. He’s a true polymath and his ideas have so much resonance with the Dharma. His book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ is I think a truly important work for our times. In particular I was keen to emphasise in my talk that perhaps despite being a scientist, he’s not a ‘scientific-materialist’. He believes that consciousness is primary and that matter is like a ‘state of consciousness’. It was a privilege to interview him online last year and I’m delighted to say that he’s going to be coming to the LBC in April. Maitreyabandhu and I will be interviewing him in person about his new two-volume book, ‘The Matter with Things’. So far I’ve not read very much of this enormous work but have managed to sprain my wrist - fortunately mildly - trying to pick up both volumes with one hand!
Partly in connection with the ‘Nature of Mind’ project, but also out of personal interest, I’ve been reading about Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and watching various interviews with people who have had such experiences. I recently read a book called ‘After’ by Dr. Bruce Greyson. He’s a medical doctor who’s spent many years researching NDEs primarily through interviews with people who have had them. I recommend his book, particularly for sceptics. Another excellent book I’ve recently read is ‘In Love with the World’ by Mingyur Rimpoche in which he describes his own Near Death Experience and his resulting liberation. To a lesser extent the interviewees in Bruce Greyson’s book also talk of a transformation following the NDE. They lose a fear of death, feel at peace, experience a profound sense of connection with all life, become less materialistic and reorientate their lives to be more altruistic. There seems to be a recognition that all actions, no matter how small, have consequences, as well as an experience that we’re profoundly connected with each other and all beings, and a realisation that learning to love unconditionally is the only thing that really matters in life.
I’ve also just finished reading Satyadasa’s memoir ‘The Sound of One Hand’. It’s a delightful read - very honest and very witty. Subhuti says of it: “Satyadasa lays himself bare, revealing struggles, personal and spiritual that will be familiar to many of us, whilst also providing a truthful and inspiring account of a spiritual community as it matures. I hope this beautifully written and engaging book is widely read.” I feature in the book. It’s a rather strange experience seeing oneself as another saw me, but fortunately Satyadasa has been kind and generous towards me in his account of our friendship.
One consequence of doing the ‘Nature of Mind’ launch was that I missed the men’s Area Order weekend at Adhisthana. I was sorry about that, and sorry to not be there for Prakasha’s talks which I heard were excellent. I was however able to go on a week-long Preceptor’s retreat at Adhisthana. It was a particularly good retreat I think. I was pleased to give a talk trying to explore themes from my solitary, including how seeing things in the ‘maya way’ is the foundation for maha-maitri and how we can truly benefit all beings. Apart from just being on an in-person retreat with friends, the highlight for me was listening to Subhuti being interviewed by Maitreyabandhu on a buddhist perspective on the ‘nature of mind’. It’ll be available soon and I hope many people watch it.
A more difficult aspect of the retreat was being involved in the decision that recognised Bodhidharma as having excluded himself from Order. It’s a painful process for all concerned - certainly for Bodhidharma, but also very difficult for all those affected by his actions. Since joining the College in 2020, and then becoming a deputy to Ratnadharini and also joining the Ethics Kula later that year, I’ve had to be involved in a number of cases of serious breaches of the precepts. It’s been the most difficult and painful aspect of my work.
More positively I’ve been preparing to co-lead, with Paramabandhu, the Spring ordination course at Guhyaloka this year. It’ll be my first time conducting public ordinations and it’s been a pleasure inviting men on the course. There should be 17 retreatants including Sarvadarśin who has recently been ordained in Australia. I’m also due to be privately ordaining two of the men that I live with in Samaggavasa community, as well as another one publicly. All being well we’ll be heading off to Spain for an 11 week retreat at the beginning of May. Unfortunately the course has had to be shortened from the 16 weeks that it used to be because of restrictions following Brexit.
This past fortnight we’ve also had Vajrashura and Padmavajra staying with us in Samaggavasa. It’s been good to see them, and to have Padmavajra teaching again at the LBC - something he’s not done since the start of the pandemic. He gave two beautiful talks, one at our Parinirvana Day festival last week, and one the following evening at the ‘Dharma Night’ class. Then yesterday I gave a talk in Brixton, South London, at their sangha’s Parinirvana Day festival. I was struck by how, even by Triratna standards, they are an exceptionally friendly and welcoming sangha.
In England this week the last Covid restrictions were lifted. But this has been overshadowed by other news. As I write, Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine and president Putin is saying he’s putting Russia’s nuclear deterrent on ‘special alert’. This afternoon I’ve been meeting with a friend of mine who is Ukrainian. He’s a mitra who’s been invited on the ordination course where I’m due to be his public preceptor. He lives near the LBC but his parents and grandmother are in Ukraine. He’s just found out that the city in which they live is being bombed and that his parents are having to take shelter in the hallway of their apartment. I led him in some meditation, and we did a seven-fold puja to Green Tara in front of my shrine, during which he read the opening six verses of the Dhammapada. We sent metta to all those in the war including the Russian soldiers. It felt a tiny response in the face of a nightmarish situation, but I’m sure it’s not completely without consequence.