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The Day That Changed My Life

by Lokamitra

The Day that Changed my Life
Lokamitra



It was 25 years ago that I came to India with a small group of Yoga pupils
for a course with Mr. Iyengar in Pune, and at the same time to visit some

of the Buddhist holy places in North India, as well as Dhardo Rimpoche in Kalimpong. It was
during this trip to India that I decided to live and work here. For those who are interested I
am writing down some of my memories of that visit for this and the next issue of Articles
Shabda.

I had been practicing hatha yoga according to Mr. Iyengar's method since the end of 1970. I
had become very ill on a recent seven months' rather aimless, but none-the-less rewarding,
visit to India in 1969 and 1970 and yoga seemed a way to take responsibility for my health.

After my first class with Mr. Iyengar in London in 1973 I remember becoming very confident
that through yoga I could overcome ulcerative colitis which by now I had been diagnosed
with. I started to teach yoga within the FWBO in 1974 and soon built up an enthusiastic yoga
group with some serious practitioners. Since taking yoga seriously it had been my desire to
return to India to study more intensively with Mr.Iyengar. This gave me a reason to revisit
the colour and chaos of India which I very much wanted. Of course not all memories were
pleasant. Since my first visit two images had refused to go away. The first was of a leper in
Jhansi with only holes for his eyes, nose and mouth. The second was of a woman in the
street in Mangalore, who seeing a broken biscuit in the dirty gutter, snatched it and
swallowed it immediately. It was only after returning to India that these two images ceased
to haunt me.

On the previous visit I experienced for he first time a very different culture, freeing me from
some of my cultural conditioning and giving me a wider perspective on life. The more time
elapsed since that visit, the more I felt myself becoming submerged in British culture in a
way that I experienced as limiting. It was time to leave again. The opportunity came in 1977 when Pundarika, the North London centre, of which I was the chairman, was to be pulled
down. I resigned as chairman, took a summer retreat in the West country in preparation for
starting activities in Bristol, Bath, Gloucester and Cheltenham when I returned from India,
and spent some time working intensively with the yogis accompanying me. I also spent time
at Padmaloka where Bhante needed little encouragement to talk about India, especially
about his dream of having centres in the holy places. He suggested I might visit Sravasti
where his old friend Venerable Sangharatana had a vihara. I decided there and then that I
would try and do a retreat there. He also suggested that eventually it would be good to have
some Order Members as anagarikas in India as they would be taken more seriously in robes.
If he was hinting at me becoming an anagarika, I was not aware, but a few days later, from
Cambridge, I rang him up and said that I would like to become an anagarika for the trip to
India if he felt it suitable. He seemed very pleased indeed and a couple of weeks later he led
me through the new vow at Padmaloka in one of those very special ceremonies of which he
is a master in bringing just the right balance of joy and solemnity to.

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The Day that Changed my Life - Lokamitra page 1 of 8
Our group included Abhaya, Dhammadinna, Surata, Mike Scherk (Dhammapriya), Tony
(Anandjyoti), Annie Leigh (Varaprabha), and another woman whose name I do not
remember and whom I did not teach. On 28th September we boarded an Arian Afghan
Airways flight which seemed to make unscheduled stops in several towns in Europe before
reaching Kabul where we changed planes for Delhi. We spent a few days at the Singalese
Pilgrims Rest House, near the main railway station. I was now wearing robes full time (they
were my only clothes) and felt at ease and comfortable. Not only did they seem to simplify
life, but most people seemed to take one seriously because of them. The fact that I was so
obviously different from others, the nature of the robes themselves, as well as their
traditional significance all helped in the practise of awareness.

After acclimatising we left for Sarnath where we stayed at the Mahabodhi rest house. As
everywhere I received a very warm welcome from the Singalese monks, one of whom, the
secretary (and now the General Secretary of the Society) insisted on me sharing his room,
and giving up his bed for me when I got ill. I was really happy to be in Sarnath, as I think we
all were. Bhante had brought the holy places to life in his seminars on the early Buddhist
texts, and I had been looking forward for a long time to visiting them. Now I was grateful
just to be there. It was quite easy to imagine the Buddha together with his first disciples in
the lush green of the end of the rainy season. The area around the Deer Park was pervaded
by a very strong peacefulness which was continually being added to by the devotions of the
inhabitants of the many nearby temples. The only disturbance was the very noisy and
incessant gambling of the Tibetan pilgrims.

From Sarnath, Surata and I left the others and set out for Bodh Gaya, where we arrived in
the middle of a Hindu ancestor worshipping ceremony which centred on the Maha Bodhi
temple itself. This was then, as is now, managed by a committee of eight, half of whom are
Hindus, and presided over by the local District Magistrate who has to be a Hindu. We were
so upset by the filth, noise, confusion and general lack of reverence for the temple, that we
would have left that same afternoon if we had been able to get a bus out. One Hindu
purohit (Brahmin priest) even tried to chant the Refuges on my behalf at one of the many
shrines. This was too much for me. It seemed to me that very little had changed since
Bhante's visit with Ven. Sangharatna 27 years previously, as recorded in "The Thousand
Petalled Lotus". However, we found a place nearby to sit for the Order metta, and the noise
and confusion immediately melted away. Even I seemed to melt away, absorbed by all-
powerful waves of metta which seemed to radiate out from the depths below the
Vajrasana.

The next day we left for Nalanda, 60 miles away. We found Dharmajyoti (a Malaysian born
Chinese, ordained as an Upasaka and immediately after as a sramanera by Bhante in New
Zealand in 1974) living with a Laotian monk in a small Chinese vihara not far from the Nava
Nalanda Mahavidhyalaya. He was obviously happy in his studies and the simple life, and
delighted to meet us, the first members of the WBO he had met since leaving New Zealand
almost three years earlier. We stayed two days at the Chinese Temple, relaxing properly for
the first time since arriving in India. Dharmajyoti showed us around the Mahavidhyalaya
founded by Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap, and the vast ruins of the Nalanda vihara. It was awe
inspiring to imagine thousands of monks there, studying, living and meditating in the same
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The Day that Changed my Life - Lokamitra page 2 of 8
place. And apparently only a small proportion of the ruins had been excavated so far, and
those were impressive enough!

We walked up to the vultures' peak, the name expressing the place very well; it was
probably still almost as isolated as when the Buddha stayed there, if not more as apparently
the town of Rajagriha used to be in the hollow of the hills below, whereas now there is only
jungle there, the town having moved a few miles north. Unfortunately the peace was
shattered by the noise of the air lift to the near-by Nichiren Shanti Stupa near by, and the
incessant drum beat so familiar to those of us from Balmore Street (where Pundarika, the
North London Centre was situated) and Sukhavati (as the London Buddhist Centre was
known then). Returning to the vihara I had my head shaved for the first time, in a roadside
one-seat barber shack.

Dharmajyoti guided me through it reciting the words that a monk is supposed to
contemplate at the time. It was certainly a shock to my image of myself (shaved heads were
not at all fashionable in the West at the time), and completed the outward transformation
started by the wearing of robes.

From Nalanda we set off for Kalimpong. We left at 10.30 am, the same time that
Dharmajyoti and his fellow monk had to leave for a lecture. At 7.45 am we were each
presented with a very large and heavy wheat pancake and hot milk. This would have lasted
me until late in the afternoon in the normal course of things. However we found that the
two bhikshus were soon busy cooking again. Because they could not eat after 12.00, and
because they would still be out then, the second and main (meaning massive) meal of the
day was prepared for 10.00 am, less them two hours after finishing the first meal! I
struggled to get through half of what I was expected to although Dharmajyoti was obviously
well accustomed to such a life, and Surata proved a very enthusiastic novice.

Until now travel had been fairly straight forward and finite along major routes with
timetables. Now however we set off into the infinite, having to get a series of ...

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