College of Public Preceptors

Chair's Letter – May – A Pilgrimage from Tooting to Adhisthana

On Fri, 2 June, 2023 - 08:37
ratnadharini's picture

Dear Order members and friends,

The decision to walk from Tooting to Adhisthana seemed spontaneous but obvious. I still don’t really know what it will mean, but alongside the practical preparation, themes are beginning to emerge – and no doubt there will be more. But before I go on to share one of these in particular, I will just mention a couple of other recent highlights.

The most recent of which is that there will soon be two new Order members returning from Guhyaloka to Adhisthana: sadhu to Prakashamitra and Lalitanaga!!

The second dates from my most recent trip to Sweden, as president of the Stockholm Centre. I arrived late evening in a snow storm and electronic black hole, went right instead of left, and got lost in deserted snowy suburbs. Fortunately I managed to find my way to the men’s community, who have kindly always hosted me for part of my visits. There are currently only two members of the community: Viryabodhi and Achaladaya (Lalitanaga having recently moved to Adhisthana) and I’d like to rejoice in their commitment to their friendship and to the community – which is exemplary – as well as all the teaching and translation work they do. They have experimented with holding small retreats there, and I hope there may be more ways for other men to benefit from that environment, even if they are unable to move in permanently.

I’ve been saving Nagabodhi’s book, as pilgrimage reading material, but started re-reading Bhante’s memoirs. The original first chapter of ‘Learning to Walk’ was heavily edited in the first edition, but in my copy has been added in full as an appendix, and I found some of the material that had been deleted particularly interesting.

The first paragraph of the original first chapter includes ‘..the strangest circumstance of my most recent appearance in this world on 26 August 1925 is that it took place in a nursing home in south-west London only a few hundred yards from the spot where, two years earlier, had died Allen Bennett, otherwise Ananda Maitreya, the first Englishman to take the yellow robe in the East and return to teach the Dharma in his native land.’

According to Wikipedia, Bhikkhu Ananda Mettaya/Maitreya had ill-health and a strong sense of the suffering involved in life. He terrified himself as a young boy, by reciting the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ backwards in order to summon the Devil – and something did appear. He became agnostic at 16, as he couldn’t accept a God who had made such a bad job of aspects of humanity. At 18 he read the ‘The Light of Asia’ and declared himself a Buddhist, and had a spontaneous experience of arupa dhyana that informed the rest of his life. After being seriously involved in the occult, he turned away from it. He moved to Ceylon, studied yoga, Pali, and Dhamma, and then sought ordination in Burma in order to take Buddhism to the West. He co-founded the International Buddhist Society known as Buddhasasana Samagama, and was a key editor of ‘The Buddhist Review’ – the publication of The Buddhist Society (with a bookshop near the British Museum in London). He comes across as an inspiring individual and influential teacher; one of the practices he taught was how to remember past lives – in order to see clearly the suffering inherent in samsara.

A second deleted paragraph tells of young Dennis’s favourite game for rainy days, when he and his best friend Frances played ‘dressing up’. He describes ‘..searching in vain for my true vesture. The only times I felt satisfied was when, with the help of a Red Ensign [a red flag], I achieved, more by accident than design, a toga-like effect which, though not exactly right, was to some extent what I desired. Then, gravely holding my grandfather’s silver-mounted amber cane, I would stand gazing at my reflection with solemn pleasure for several minutes.’

What did survive into the new Chapter One, was the description of the hall in his grandmother’s house, with the Tibetan ritual handbell that ‘rarely could I refrain from ringing; the Chinese Buddha picture that he called ‘the Giant’ and that drew his attention most of all; the Kwan Yin rupa, that rattled when he shook it; and the mysterious dragons coiled around cloisonné vases. 

There’s also a description of his earliest memory, of being lulled to sleep by the pattern cast on the ceiling by the headlights of passing cars.. although the additional recollection of later years, of ‘the sensation of being whirled round and round into a great golden light which gradually engulfed me, until I knew no more’, was edited out.

None of which is presented as ‘proof’ of previous lives, of course, and there are plenty of other kinds of early recollections. I was reminded, however, of the book ‘Life after Life’, by psychiatrist Raymond Moody, in which he presents accounts of the experience of people who had clinically died, but came back to life. I came across this book by chance in my early 20s, when I was travelling, and it awakened the possibility of something other than the rather nihilistic views I held at the time. The foreword was by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (who wrote ‘On Death and Dying’, where she presented her theory of the five stages of grief). 

I should read the book again sometime, but as I remember it, Moody asserted that he wasn’t trying to ‘prove’ anything, but wanted to share the stories as there were striking similarities between them. People were grateful not to have their experience dismissed as being due to anaesthetic etc. Some struggled to find language to express what had happened to them; others used whatever expression came to hand; but there were striking similarities. Some of these have become more generally accepted – although still mysterious – such as: out of body experiences; being drawn through a tunnel; being met by familiar people and/or a compassionate radiant presence; and seeing one’s life flashing before one’s eyes. It often appeared to be altruistic motivation that had propelled them back into their lives. Most found it a remarkably positive experience and were no longer afraid of death. I remember being especially struck by someone describing seeing their life like a speeded up movie, with the opportunities that has been taken or missed being pointed out in a compassionate and non-judgemental manner; and one woman (it might have been the same person) saying she now knew that life was about learning love and wisdom.

In September 2018 Sangharakshita wrote what was to be his second-to-last article, ‘Rebirth Revisited’, sparked off by reading Bhikkhu Analayo’s publication ‘Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research’ in which Analayo writes: ‘The doctrine of rebirth is an integral and essential component of early Buddhist thought..’ Bhante makes the point that rebirth is fundamental to both early and later Buddhism, with the bodhisattva seeing himself ‘as working towards the attainment of Buddhahood not simply in his present existence, but for aeons upon aeons of lives’. When visiting Bhante, not long before his death, Vajratara asked him ‘Can I always be your disciple throughout future lives?’ To which he replied: ‘Does that mean I have to remain in samsara?’ Vajratara: ‘Yes!’ Bhante: ‘Samsara is a very difficult place, but the Order is some consolation’. 

I was recently involved in a series of rituals to temporarily dissolve Dhardo Rimpoche’s stupa at Tiratanaloka and store it at Adhisthana until it can be rebuilt at the new – larger – Tiratanaloka. Many thanks to Rupadarshin – who built the stupa – for being willing to take it apart and put it back together again when the time comes. It felt weighty and intimate to remove the terracotta container containing the relics, with its dharmachakra emblem, in the specially prepared box in the shrine room. Bhante revered Dhardo Rimpoche as a living Bodhisattva, and Rimpoche apparently didn’t make any distinction between his own disciples and those of Bhante’s.

As well as reflecting on the more significant elements of pilgrimage, I’ve been anxiously watching the weather forecast; as the dry sunny spell continues in the UK, the prospect of rain in the coming weeks seems more and more likely, and my sense of what to pack changes. Akasajoti is setting up the electronic means for me to keep people posted on my progress through video diaries, so if you would like to be included please follow on and there’s still time to sponsor me at I’ll be ending at Adhisthana in time to join in with the final hour of 108-hours of circumambulation as a part of their Pilgrims Week, so perhaps I will see some of you there.

With Metta,



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