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Buddhist Dawn in the West

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 166: Buddhist Dawn in the West

Sangharakshita Order members, mitras, and friends, Kulamitra has referred to my last public talk, in London, which was, of course, The Glory of the Literary World. In fact it wasn*t so much a talk; I read a paper.

Nowadays I tend to favour reading papers. To be quite frank, I*ve rather gone off giving talks and giving lectures. In the course of seven or eight years I must have given several thousand talks and lectures, sermons, discourses,addresses, and so on. And perhaps you*ll understand if I have just a little bit gone off giving talks and lectures, so yes nowadays I do prefer to prepare papers and read them, and this is of course what I did last time I appeared in London on a public plalform when I read my paper on nineteen years old myself, and here*s the EWBO nineteen years old today, or practically today.

Nineteen years of the friends of the Western Buddhist Order. So as I sat there at my desk trying not to write a paper, I couldn*t, you know, help thinking back to those very early days, letting my mind, you know, go back nineteen years. And after all, I think you all know, nostalgia is in the fashion -- so why not, you know, be a little nostalgic, why not, you know, let my mind go back on this occasion to those very early days of the EWBO nineteen years ago, and as m.y mind goes back, what do I see? Well frankly I don*t see very much. Mainly I see just me. In fact, right at the beginning, even before the time of Secura, our first tiny centre, it was just me. I can remember, one may say, the very moment when one might say the FWBO was not born, but conceived, and it was conceived in Calcutta, and in order to explain how the EWBO came to be conceived in Calcutta of all places I have to go a little back further [sic], I have to indulge in a little more nostalgia, in a sense. Most of you know that I spent twenty years in India. I*ve written about the early years in India in my volume of memoirs "A Thousand-Petalled Lotus". So twenty years in India, quite a large slice of anybody*s life, and actually I had no intention of returning to the West. I was going to spend all my days in India, but then a call came, so to speak, and I felt, yes, I have to respond to that call, and after twenty years I came back to the West, to England, at the initiation of the English Sangha Trust and the Sangha Association, and for two years I worked mainly in London, but also around the country in the various little Buddhist centres and groups which existed in those days, and I functioned partly under the auspices of the Sangha Association, partly under the auspices of the Buddhist Society, and partly as it were independently, giving talks, teaching meditation, leading study and retreats and that sort of thing. So at the end of this two year period I felt that i ought to stay longer. There was quite a field ready and waiting in England, in Britain, for the seed of the Dharma, so I decided that I would go back to India, visit my Indian friends, explain to them what I was going to do, that I was going to transfer myself from India to the West, to England -- I was going to work there. My work in India, my Buddhist work had at that time reached a sort of impasse -- I couldn*t get any further and I had been feeling a little frustrated for some time for various reasons that I won*t go into now, so I decided that I would transfer my activities to the West, to England, and I*d carry on there, but first I had to go back to India for a few months, visit my teachers, especially Dardo Rinpoche, who I*m happy to say is still alive and well, and explain to them what I wanted to do, obtain their blessing and also visit my friends among the ex-untouchables, especially those in Pune, and Nagpur, and explain to them what I was going to do. So, so this I did. I left England, I explained to lots of people there what I as going to do so all my friends at the Sangha Association, my friends of the Buddhist Society.

Bade me farewell, urged me to come back as quickly as possible -- I promised I would, and off I went to India, visited Delhi, Pune, and Nagpur, and then I reached Calcutta, and in Calcutta I received a letter. This letter was from the trustees of the English Sangha Trust, and the gist of it was, we don*t want you back. Now I*d told people I was coming back. I*d promised to come back, but the people who wrote this letter had thought of that - they suggested that I announced that I*d changed my mind. But of course I hadn*t changed my mind, and despite the letter I came back, but when I received that letter I understood at once the significance, and I said to the friend who was accompanying me after I read this letter, "do you know what this letter means?" He said no. I said, "this letter mean there*s going to be a new Buddhist movement in Britain." So I went back, I found that the authorities of the Sangha Trust, the trustees, didn*t want me back, the Buddhist Society didn*t want me back. The doors of the existing Buddhist groups and societies were closed to me for several years, so with faithful friends and followers who*d been attending my talks, my classes, at the Hampstead Buddhist vihara, friends who belonged, many of them, to the Sangha Association, we started up the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, nineteen years ago. One day I hope to write a volume of memoirs giving the full story of how the EWBO was set up, the circumstances leading up to the setting up of the FWBO. I*ve given you this afternoon, this evening, the merest sketch -- but this is the background -- this is what led to the founding of the FWBO nineteen years ago. So how did we start? Where did we start? We started in London -- we started in central London, of all places, because if one is going to do anything in Britain, one might as well start in the centre of things, one might as well start in London. So we started in a little basement underneath a shop, a Japanese shop, which afterwards became a Buddhist shop, in Monmouth Street. I don*t know if any of you have ever passed down Monmouth Street. Monmouth Street is roughly between Charing Cross Road and Drury Lane, and it*s quite a well-known street in English literature, believe it or not.

I*ve encountered references to Monmouth Street going back to the seventeenth century. Dickens refers to Monmouth Street -- in Dickens* time Monmouth Street was a famous street; it was famous because it consisted entirely of shops selling second-hand clothes and shoes. Well, when we started up our activities in Mon mouth Street, things had changed a little bit, and here was this, the Japanese shop run by a friend of ours who formerly had been a member of the Sangha Association, and when we all got together we decided to start up activities and start the EWBO. He said, "well, you know there*s this basement underneath my shop; it*s only about...* what was it, twelve, fourteen square feet, no, twelve by fourteen feet, I think. He said, "if you like I*ll approach my landlord and let*s see if we can use it. So, yes, to cut a long story short, we got use of this basement, twelve by fourteen feet, underneath this, this Japanese shop in Mon mouth Street, and it*s to that little basement that my thoughts go back as they did this evening. I think I functioned there for about five years, we had, exactly nineteen years ago, I think virtually today -- the actual anniversary is on the seventh -- what is it today, the fifth -- the actual anniversary is on the seventh, so in two days* time it will be exactly the nineteenth anniversary, and I remember it very well because just a few days before I*d been composing a special dedication ceremony, so these friends, the owner of this little Japanese shop and a few other friends, they set to work and they turned this little basement into a Japanese-style Buddhist shrine with a little image, a little altar and some very very small chairs. The chairs had to be very small because even with very very small chairs you couldn*t really accommodate more than twenty people, putting absolutely side by side, so we had these twenty very small chairs because in those days, don*t forget people couldn*t sit cross-legged for meditation. They nearly all sat on chairs, and we had chairs in a basement shrine for many many years. Chairs have only disappeared from EWBO meditation centres comparatively recently. Even now we do keep a few chairs at the back for newcomers who can*t sit on the floor. That was the situation there so that is what I remember.

I can remember sitting cross-legged on my sort of raised seat at the far end next to the shrine. I had to be sort of squeezed in. I*d have people just sitting here right in front because it was, it was so small, and I had to be very careful not to bend over because here was a curtain behind me, yes, but behind this curtain there was a hole. That was originally a sort of cal hole, you know, leading into another little space right underneath the road where the coal used to be tipped in the old days, so I had to be very careful I didn*t lean too far back because if I went through that curtain I*d go into the coal hole, so we had the dedication of what we call the tri ratna meditation centre and shrine, exactly nineteen years ago the day after tomorrow. We invited our friends, those who were to form the nucleus of the FWBO. We squeezed some twenty-three or twenty-four of them into that tiny room, it was probably twenty-four with me. I remember that we used to go down into this little basement, down a winding staircase and then part of the back of that tiny basement room had been curtained off. There was a space about three times the size of this lectern where bante used to give private interviews to people, and where we used to keep the cups and saucers. We had to pretend, we had to pretend that these were private interviews because every word that was spoken behind the ...

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