Letter from the College – JuneOn Fri, 30 June, 2023 - 15:42
Dear Order members and friends,
My experience this month has been dominated by preparing for, and enacting, a 150 mile pilgrimage from where Sangharakshita was born in Tooting, London, on 26th August 1925, to Adhisthana, Herefordshire, where he lived the last – and some of the happiest – years of his life, dying on 30th October 2018. Having had the inspiration for the pilgrimage, I realised I could share the experience with others and open it up as a fundraising initiative for Tiratanaloka Unlimited (the existing Tiratanaloka Retreat Centre being too small and therefore limited in terms of what it can offer women training for ordination). Thus I would be giving tangible expression to my feelings of gratitude to my teacher, as well as contributing towards his deeply held wish that more and more people would have access to the Dharma and the opportunity to deepen their Going for Refuge to the point of making the commitment of ordination – and beyond.
Some of the people I first mentioned the idea to were so enthusiastic, I realised I could end up organising a large group expedition – which would be wonderful – but I realised early on that I had been imagining something relatively simple, and would walk alone. When I shared my plans with other Public Preceptors in March, Satyaraja immediately offered to stand in and complete the walk for me if anything happened! Akasajoti, as assistant to the College, got inspired about the project with me and would create video updates as I went along. I wouldn’t be able to carry Bhante’s memoirs with me – let alone have time to re-read them – but Nagabodhi’s book ’Sangharakshita: the boy, the monk, the man‘ would be the perfect accompaniment.
First there were a few basic decisions to make. For those of you who are interested in details… someone put me onto the komoot app, which – given a start and end point – quickly plots a route that can be tailored to walkers (or cyclists etc.) and once I’d tweaked that to make the most of the flat route of the Thames Path out of London, it registered 150 miles (128 miles on various kinds of paths and 22 miles on mainly very minor roads). The last time I did a serious walk was way before Covid, and 150 miles is neatly divisible into 10 days of 15 miles; my only concession to being a lot older was to add a rest day! I also acknowledged that I wasn’t up to camping and backpacking that distance anymore, so each section needed to start and end somewhere I could get accommodation and food; and if I pulled the route slightly south, my mum’s house was exactly halfway and I could have my recovery day there. Finally I mapped the whole thing onto up-to-date Ordnance Survey maps, and from there onto my phone (although I took cut-down paper maps as backup).
I broke in a new pair of boots, and started fitting in 15-mile treks, either from Adhisthana up and along the Malvern Hills and back, or along the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal. Unfortunately on one occasion I wasn’t wearing good socks, and limped back with deep blisters on the bottom of each heel. Two months later they were just reaching the surface, so I did the walk in carefully researched socks and Compeed blister plasters (which merged into each other during the day and had to be teased apart each evening).
Finally the day came to set out from Adhisthana, and I circumambulated Bhante’s burial mound before setting off for London. It was surreal being waved off from outside Tooting Broadway tube station, by Akasajoti, Vajratara, Dhammarati and Dhammagita (who brought rose petals) and heading off along the High Street… I’m an inveterate paper map user and it was the first time I’ve used a phone to navigate, but it worked well most of the time. The video diaries are available on The Buddhist Centre Online, so I won’t repeat a day-by-day account.
In retrospect, it took me a couple of days to adjust to being in a very different mode: being outside and active most of the time, rather than sitting in front of a computer. As I left London behind, there were fewer and fewer people on the footpaths or bridleways I was following, and I began to feel more and more as though on solitary retreat. I got less concerned with timekeeping and stopped looking at my watch; I was starting early and there was plenty of daylight… but it was more than that. How fast I was going was much less important than how I got there.
I’ve always loved following old tracks as they are so embedded in the history of the landscape, and some of my route followed Neolithic ways. I wasn’t going to be able to remember or record all the intricacies around me, but I could get an overall sense of the way architecture changed along the route. The beauty of the churches in each village gave me a sense of how positive it can be when everyday life is informed by the aesthetic, ethical and mythical.
There was also the joy of simplicity. When you have to carry everything you need, you discover how little that actually is. The day I forgot to pack lunch and had to ’survive’ on emergency rations of two Naked bars and a handful of peanuts, I discovered that was actually enough. And even then the universe provided – in the sense that the next church offered tea, coffee and biscuits to visitors, on a dana basis.
I enjoyed most the paths I could follow relatively easily – without having to fight my way through nettles / brambles / herds of inquisitive bullocks / electric fences etc., or find detours when the footpaths didn’t exist (usually because they’d been ploughed up). Then I could relax into a rhythm out of which mantras began to arise, and they often remained in the deep background for hours at a time. That, and reading Nagabodhi’s book in the evenings, meant I was travelling in the company of the Buddha and Bhante.
Nagabodhi’s book was a boon companion. I was already familiar with most of the material from Bhante’s memoirs, but it was different reading a third person perspective and overview – especially from someone who was there from the very earliest days of the Movement and Order. It certainly refreshed my sense of Bhante’s depth of practice and perspective on the Dharma, and how strongly that inspired the first generation.
At the end of each day I sent a motley collection of photo clips and short videos to Akasajoti, which she then turned into a coherent narrative – often working into the night – and I gather many people enjoyed looking out for this daily instalment. She also forwarded to me video messages of support from friends, which tended to arrive just when I needed them most. You can see all of this here. I felt unexpectedly connected to the many people I knew were bearing me in mind, and it started to feel that although I was walking alone, I was walking on behalf of many others too.
As I rounded the last corner to Adhisthana I’d counselled myself not to assume anyone would be there to meet me, but a couple of people had been tracking the progress of my phone and many of the community – and people on the Pilgrims’ Week – were there, with the Shakyamuni mantra and more rose petals. It was quite overwhelming and brought home to me how much I had been in solitary retreat mode. After rehydrating on ice-cold drinks and lollies, I completed the pilgrimage by circumambulating Bhante’s burial mound. I felt strongly in touch with having dedicated my life to contributing in whatever way I best can, to keeping Bhante’s vision alive and flourishing. The next morning I took over from Khemabandhu and Lokeshvara to complete the final of 108 hours’ continuous circumambulation of the burial mound, that had been taking place during the Pilgrims’ Week.
I’m already aware of two other, slightly different, pilgrimages that have been made from London to Adhisthana, and believe there have been others from different starting points; I’m sure there will be more. Creating Adhisthana was an act of faith; we were building something new, and couldn’t predict exactly what it would become. I still remember that when Bhante revealed the name of the project, it evoked a sense of what we would be growing into. ‘Adhiṣṭhāna’ refers to the ‘grace’ or ‘blessings’ that emanate from an authoritative place, guru or lineage, and Adhisthana has naturally become a place of pilgrimage for many people associated with Triratna. The more pilgrims and practitioners, the more blessings…
This particular pilgrimage also inspired blessings of a more tangible nature. Donations are still coming in, but have probably exceeded £17,000 + gift aid – which is a wonderful demonstration of generosity and support for the Tiratanaloka Unlimited project. You can still give here for another week, and beyond that there are many other opportunities to keep contributing to Tiratanaloka Unlimited and support them to reach their target. Having been part of the Tiratanaloka community for 15 years myself, as well as being a Public Preceptor and president of the current Tiratanaloka Retreat Centre, I would love to see it become possible for all those wishing to train for ordination, to get on whatever retreats would be helpful. Thanks again to everyone who is supporting this venture.