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So this first era of the Triratna movement has come to its end with the death of our founder and teacher, our contemporary ‘shower of the way’, Urgyen Sangharakshita. What difference will this make to the movement? Actually, the answer to that should be ‘none at all’. Sangharakshita was fully aware that his lifetime was brief, the continuation of the movement he founded depended on it functioning without him and took the necessary steps to ensure that it would.
Yet there is a change. Last week I watched the video of Sangharakshita’s body being brought home to Adisthana, borne from the hearse on a pallet wrapped in a shroud, and wondered if he would have liked an Indian style funeral, his remains delivered to the heavens in the flames of a pyre. The landscape as we approached the Centre on Saturday seemed to think so, the trees a blaze with autumn fire. As I stood with well over a thousand people at the funeral ceremony, I reflected on the fact that no-one will ever see or speak with him personally ever again. How many people did he see and talk to over his long life? Thousands, tens-, hundreds of thousands? How many of those people’s lives have been changed and profoundly redirected by that contact? I have already been asked any number of times by people who have not met him ‘What was he like?’. And now none of those people will ever have the opportunity to find out for themselves. I feel it is important for those of us who have met him, whether they have been his close companions for decades or just had one brief conversation, to write down what their experience of him was like for the benefit of those encountering Triratna in the future.
When I first started coming to the SBC in 2007 and realised what a powerful effect that initial contact with the Dharma was having upon me, I needed to know as much as possible about the the person whose spiritual guidance I was drawn to making a lifelong commitment to. It was a disturbing time for someone who had learned to mistrust religious leaders and traditions, yet was a broken person in desperate need of a spiritual home. This was what prompted me to take the opportunity, despite being severely ill at the time, to go to hear Bhante speak in Birmingham and shortly after, to arrange to see him personally. I was also present when he came to the SBC and visited him a second time in 2013. Not a lot of contact, granted, yet enough to have a totally transformative effect on my life’s path.
Above all, is the experience that I have had following each occasion I have been in his presence, one of intense spiritual connection, like those moments which sometimes occur in meditation when one feels one has stuck a finger into the spiritual mains socket of the universe. Although at the time I was apparently sat doing no more than either listening to a dharma talk (albeit a strong one) or in a particularly engaging conversation with an elderly man in an M&S cardigan and slippers, someone with whom I could have struck up a conversation on the bus and was like the grandfather I wish I’d had, afterwards I felt bathed in golden light, connected to some immense loving power and inspiration. In fact, after the last meeting I had with him I went into a kind of shock, shaken to my very core by the conviction that I had truly been in the presence of a Bodhisattva, the nearest thing I will ever encounter to meeting the Buddha himself.
And here he is, in a room cluttered with books and papers, a house-brick stamped with the word ‘Utopia’ on the desk, in a red armchair with a crochet antimacassar on the back, with his beige cardigan and failing eyesight, an ordinary, elderly gentleman (in the true sense of the word), highly educated, refined and intelligent, wicked sense of humour, wise and kindly.
We talk of his memories, my family, the nature of Reality, gardening, the future of humanity…our time has long run over, I quip that I don’t want to get him into trouble, a handshake becomes a hug and I ask him (not wanting to make Ananda’s error) to stay with us for a long time.
But don’t be fooled, behind that cardigan are the teeth of a tiger, piercing insight, tremendous power and an absolute, uncompromising dedication to the Buddhist path to a degree incomprehensible to most of us, sitting there, the twinkle in his eye daring you to join the dance.
Bhante has stayed with us for a long time, teaching and guiding us, not always perfect and making some mistakes along the way as all of us do. Yet he has given us everything he possibly could in a human body, his whole life and being, and for that I owe him an un-repayable debt of gratitude.