Transcribing the oral tradition...

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Walking Into the Forest

by Vessantara

Walking Into the Forest

by Vessantara

Given in Birmingham, UK, at Madhyamaloka, 2002

It is the 21st of August 1974, and I am on retreat at a Sufi farm in Surrey, south-west of
London. I am not a Sufi; this place has been rented by the FWBO for our two-week
summer retreat. As I am doing a social work course, I have only been able to attend the
second week.

Today, myself and five others are to receive our private ordination into the Western
Buddhist Order, and I am pretty nervous about it. Nor am I the only one suffering
butterflies in the stomach. The Sufi farm is a community with children, and has an
outdoor playground. At one point, I and Ray – another of the six to be ordained – can be
found in the playground, rocking each other up and down on the seesaw, its rhythmic
motion calming our nerves.

The private ordinations take place in the evening, in the context of a Metta Bhavana
meditation, during which everyone directs loving kindness to the world, and especially to
those being ordained. Before we begin, Bhante Sangharakshita, in robes but with quite
long black hair, warns us that as he has six private ordinations to perform, the meditation
will be a protracted one. He says that some people may need to move, get up and go out
to stretch their legs. But, he adds, some may not. ‘Order members sit like rocks.’ I’m not
sure if this is said with a touch of humour or not. Nobody laughs, so as someone about to
join the Order, I resolve not to let the side down, but to turn my knees to granite for the

The Metta Bhavana starts, and after about ten minutes Bhante gets up from the leader’s
place, and mindfully navigates his way through the seated figures facing the shrine. (We
don’t sit in rows; that practice will not be introduced until the early ’80s.) He leaves the
room, making for a small wooden hut in the grounds where the ceremonies are to take
place. A few minutes later, the person designated to be ordained first walks out to join

At this point I realise that, even if my knees are granite, the rest of me is jelly.
There are three reasons why I am in a state of high nervous tension.

The first is that I am about to take a momentous spiritual step. However, unlike the rest of
those being ordained, I am not about to go for Refuge to the Three Jewels formally for
the first time. Some while previously, feeling myself to be a Buddhist and wanting to
make that fact as real for myself as possible, I have gone for Refuge formally, witnessed
by Akong Rimpoche, at Samye Ling Tibetan Centre in Scotland. But I made it clear to
the Rimpoche that I was not necessarily taking him as my teacher. Strong as my feeling
for Tibetan Buddhism was, I even then suspected that I would prosper spiritually more
easily and quickly with the guidance of a teacher from my own culture. So I subsequently
asked for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order. Thus the momentous step I am
taking is intended not just to acknowledge once again that I am a Buddhist, but also to
have that commitment to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha witnessed by Bhante, the
teacher under whose guidance I have decided to follow the Path, and thereby to take half
a step into the Order that he has founded.

I say ‘half a step’ because the ordination consists of two parts. First comes the private
ordination, which, as its name suggests, happens between just you and your Preceptor.
During it you recite the Refuges and Precepts, receive the mantra of a Buddha or
Bodhisattva, and are told the new name that you will use as an Order member. Then,
usually within a few days, follows the public ordination, in which you are formally
acknowledged by the Order as a whole as someone who is ‘effectively going for Refuge’.
At that public ordination, you actually become an Order member at the point at which
you receive a kesa – the strip of cloth that Order members wear. In future, the kesa will
bear the symbol of three flaming jewels set on a red lotus and a white moon mat, but
now, in 1974, it displays Dharmachakras – wheels of the Dharma – embroidered in gold.

The second reason why I am all nerves is that I have read everything I can lay my hands
on about Buddhism, and some of it has rather overheated my ever-vivid imagination. In
1974, Buddhist books tend, with a few honourable exceptions, to divide into two
categories: the dry as dust, and the exotic and starry-eyed. Much preferring the latter, I
have absorbed all kinds of tales of strange, miraculous and terrible happenings at the time
of initiation. One story that has stuck in my mind concerns a Tibetan disciple who, on the
way to the place of initiation, finds the path to his guru’s door blocked by a massive
wrathful deity.

Earlier in the day, the six of us have been given a short briefing about the ordination
ceremony, and what happens in it. Nobody mentioned anything about encountering
wrathful deities. But then they wouldn’t, would they? So I am sitting with copious
adrenaline coursing even through the granite of my knees. I am prepared to do or die, if
need be, in order to receive the ordination. Who knows what might await me in the
darkness on the short walk to that hut?

The third reason why I am largely gelatinous is that I do not know when my time will
come. Usually, if there are several people to be ordained privately, they are told
beforehand who will be first, second, and so on. Often the order is decided by what is
rather grandly called ‘natural seniority’, i.e. age. But on this occasion, for some reason,
Bhante has decided to follow another procedure. We only know who will be ordained
first. Bhante will tell that person who to tap on the shoulder as the signal that he or she is
next. I have great respect for Bhante’s acumen, and doubtless he has his reasons for doing
things in this way, but I don’t think that this is one of his better ideas (and it is not a
procedure that he will ever use again, to the best of my knowledge.) For the effect, on me
at least, is terrible. I have never been present when private ordinations have taken place
before (I have only been around the FWBO for twenty months), but I have heard that
private ordinations tend to last about twenty to twenty-five minutes. So I sneak
surreptitious glances at my watch. After about twenty minutes have passed, I become
worked up to fever pitch, in case I am second.

The door opens; the first person has returned. Out of the corner of my eye I see someone
else receive the shoulder tap. I relax somewhat, and try to direct metta to the person going
out to be ordained. Twenty minutes later I am at fever pitch again.

As things turn out, I am not third; nor am I fourth. I watch people returning from the hut
closely for signs that they have been wrestling apparitions, but they all look quite calm.
Kay Turpie, who has just become Mallika, is always very presentable. When she returns
there is still not a hair out of place. She simply looks radiant. But although she obviously
hasn’t been doing any wraith-wrestling, that doesn’t mean that I may not have to....
Finally, after over two hours of meditation, with my granite knees somehow afire, and
having sat through three nervous crescendos and letdowns, there are just myself and a
young girl called Debbie Lobstein left. I am bound to be before her! Fifteen minutes pass,
twenty, twenty-five. The door opens. Right, here goes. Think of the Buddha. Think of
Bhante. Remember what it says in The Tibetan Book of the Dead: whatever appears
between here and that hut, know it to be your own thought-forms. Here they come...

And then the fourth person veers off course and gives Debbie the call. She goes off into
the night to become Khema. After that I am emotionally spent. Twenty minutes later,
when Debbie gives me the inevitable summons, I disentwine my legs, which take a little
time to become usable again. Then I stroll quietly out of the shrine room, stop to use the
toilet (after more than two hours, I need to), and then walk calmly into the night.
There is the hut, not very far away. I can see the welcoming glow of the candles on the
shrine, by which Bhante is waiting. There is nothing blocking my path.

I go into the hut to find Bhante seated holding a flower. He passes it to me and I offer it
to the shrine, followed by a candle and a stick of incense. In this way I make the three
offerings to the Buddha in the same way that countless people have done, for over two
thousand years. I feel as if symbolically there is only one flower, one candle and one
incense stick, each of which has been handed down through the centuries, from teacher to
disciple. Then I sit down, and Bhante leads me through the ceremony. When it is over, I
emerge from the hut deeply happy, chanting the Padmasambhava mantra to myself,
alternating it with trying out the word ‘Vessantara’. When Bhante told me that all six
names had come out in Pali, I was initially disappointed, as I had rather set my heart on
being called something like ‘Vajravajravajra’. But when he explained that my name
meant ‘universe within’, and that there was ...

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