The Sound of One Hand by Satyadasa: Review by VishvapaniOn Tue, 5 April, 2022 - 16:12
The Sound of One Hand
Yakhorn Press, 2022
Like Satyadasa I’ve been a part of the Triratna Buddhist Community for the whole of my adult life. He’s about a decade younger than me, but many of the Triratna experiences he describes in The Sound of One Hand are shared. Like me, David (as Satyadasa is called up to his ordination) grew up in the middle-class South London suburbs and had an Oxbridge education before pitching into communities, Team Based Right Livelihood businesses and the ordination process. We’ve been friendly over the years, but our paths have never crossed for long enough to make us proper friends.
It’s natural for someone like me to be interested in a book about life in Triratna, and I think many others in Triratna will find it both familiar and revealing. But even those who who have never packed a bag of lentils or spent long evenings ‘reporting in’ will find much to appreciate in this beautifully written memoir, which goes surprisingly deep because it is so exceptionally honest.
Satyadasa is a talented story teller, consistently funny and a wry, astute and witty observer. He grows up in Purley at the southern tip of the London suburbs (as it happens, just a couple of miles from Coulsdon, where I grew up), but two things qualify its ordinariness. The first is Satyadasa’s grandfather, a quasi-Buddhist intellectual who teaches reverent students in the Cheam Eastern Philosophy Group and eventually writes a book entitled An Existential-Ontological Approach To Contemplative Experience. This is a work of such fathomless obscurity that when Satyadasa later inspects the British Library copy he finds that it has been virtually untouched in three decades.
Grandpa tries to teach the young David to meditate and asks him ontological questions about whether the table at which he is sitting really exists. Whatever the merits of such questions, David understands that his grandfather is habit-bound and emotionally limited. His daughter–Satyadasa’s mother–had felt as a child that ‘the basic trouble with Buddhism was that its scriptures didn’t, it seemed, actively encourage birthday presents or family outings or her choosing any nice things at all.’
The second disruption to conventional life is the ‘stump’ where his left hand should have been with which David/Satyadasa was born. It makes enough of a difference to prompt an underlying unease, but it’s sufficiently unobtrusive that the unease needn’t be confronted. He writes, with characteristic precision, that: ‘The stump was an odd companion, an unpleasant partner that no one acknowledged. Concealing it too obviously would draw attention to it, but subtly hiding it was obviously obvious as well. I smudged the whole problem in my mind by believing it wasn’t a big deal.’
The stump is established at the start of the book as a clue to David’s emotional complexities, and I found myself expecting it to return in his later life, like a Chekhovian rifle which is mentioned in Act One and must therefore be fired in Act Three. He does come back to it but not as a dramatic resolution; and his reflections at the end of the book are a good example of how Satyadasa explores his experience. He can see that he has told himself a story minimising the stump’s significance and that his story has suppressed discussion by others. ‘This odd silence allowed me to function happily, just to one side of my feelings about it all.’ By the book’s conclusion he has gradually unpicked the story with the help of the Dharma, and now wants to drop it. His friend Maitreyabandhu wonders if the missing hand was ‘a necessary glitch, giving me an extra dollop of difficulty to bring out the good stuff.’ Satyadasa agrees, but also reflects that he will keep the old story as well, alongside the new one.
Satyadasa is very good at locating the messiness and complexity of experience and the moveable boundary between its conscious and unconscious dimensions – all that smudging, standing to one side and holding multiple stories. The seemingly direct bloke-ishness of the writing often dovetails with layers of irony; and perhaps the most enjoyable feature of The Sound of One Hand is that Satyadasa takes himself seriously enough to recall and reflect on his experience, while observing it so honestly that he can’t really take himself seriously at all. It’s not so much that he laughs at himself, which could be wearing, as that we laugh with him in shared recognition of the incongruities of our common experience. After he’s moved into a men’s community above the London Buddhist Centre one of his Oxford friends, now on the civil service fast-track, comes to visit. Satyadasa reflects that it would have been easier to tell his friend “Look mate, I’ve been hiding it, but I’m gay” than to reveal the actual truth: “Look mate, I’ve been hiding it, but I’ve been worshiping the Buddha.”’ Swap Oxford for Cambridge and that was me!
As well as an account of Satyadasa’s stumbling progress on the spiritual path (or at least the path to Triratna ordination) The Sound of One Hand is an account of Triratna itself in these years. ‘By 2008,’ Satyadasa writes, ‘the Order had turned 40 and was starting to wonder what it had done with its life.’ He pinpoints very accurately some broad trends that touched many people in often unconscious ways. In the 1970s the early generation of Order members had ‘wanted to bring a new society into being. They were fired up by Bhante’s* vision and basked in the glow of is meaning and purpose.’ But now at least some of those people ‘were experiencing regrets about lives that had not been lived.’
It wasn’t just the founding generation. Around this time, having turned 40 myself, I stopped living in Triratna communities, married, became a father and commenced a long struggle to earn a living by teaching mindfulness and writing about Buddhism. I like to think that my decisions have been my own, but I recognise that they mirror similar changes in the lives of many friends. Satyadasa also discusses some of the spiritual trends that have drawn Triratna people who felt dissatisfied with Sangharakshita’s version of the Dharma, including ‘pure awareness’ and enquiry-based approaches to insight. Whatever their intrinsic merits, Satyadasa evokes the forces that led him to explore them, which include muddle, frustration, self-doubt and doubt in other people, teachings and institutions, along with spiritual curiosity and unmet needs. One chapter is splendidly entitled ‘It Made Sense On Every Level Except The One On Which I Lived’. In another entitled ‘We Are Where We Are’ he writes that, as life at the London Buddhist Centre started to go wrong for him, he found that ‘Instead of a shinier version of me, an angry, depressed one was emerging in a quagmire of self-doubt.’
Satyadasa’s unsparingly honesty about his own imperfections is the source of much of his humour, as when he visits Tunisia just as the Arab Spring breaks out and his girlfriend remarks that his negativity may have tipped the balance. But this honesty is also important in how his struggles are eventually resolved (at least so far as anyone’s struggles are ever entirely resolved), along with friendships, his girlfriend and simply getting used to the mess.
Reading The Sound of One Hand was a delight for me, and a relief. For many years when people wrote about Triratna they did so in terms of the ideals it espoused. I waged a long campaign against that sort of writing because it evaded a much messier reality. Over the last two decades we’ve had a great deal of polemic against Triratna, including both troubled testimonies and outright campaigning. The problem is that this creates a portrait of Triratna that is so different from the movement I’ve experienced for over forty years, and yet so vehemently expressed, that I don’t even know how to start discussing it. Satyadasa cuts through all this by being observant, unflinchingly honest and subtly aware of the gaps between the stories–both positive or negative–that we tell about our lives and their multifaceted and sometimes elusive reality.
At long last, towards the book’s conclusion David goes on a four-month ordination retreat at Guhyaloka in Spain and becomes Satyadasa, “Servant of the truth”. That, let me tell you, Satyadasa, is Not The End Of Anything! But he already knows that. The book ends with Satyadasa back home with his mum, accidentally staining his shirt and hoping it will come out in the wash.
Personally, I’m glad that Satyadasa is still impure. Someone less imperfect, or perhaps just less truthful, could never have written The Sound of One Hand.
* “Bhante” is the affectionate title sometimes used by members of the Triratna Buddhist Community for our founding teacher, Urgyen Sangharakshita.