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Dreams and Rebirth

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by Sangharakshita

Recollections of my early life - and some reflections on rebirth

A talk at the Sheffield Buddhist Centre
8th July 2008

This evening I was having dinner with the Sheffield Evolution shop team and they were telling me and telling me rather proudly, that they were one of the five remaining Evolution shop teams in the FWBO which were manned entirely by members of the sangha. I was very pleased to hear that because team based right livelihood has always been very close to my heart and I was very glad to know that it is flourishing here in Sheffield along with the other FWBO activities.

In the course of the conversation over dinner somehow the subject of South London came up and, of course, I am from south London. I was brought up in Tooting. A lot of people laugh when they hear the word Tooting. I don’t know quite why. But that is where I was brought up. I wasn’t actually born in Tooting. I was born in Stockwell which is even worse. When I look back, how extraordinary it was, how extraordinary it is that someone whose life has been devoted to the Dharma and ended up founding a new buddhist order should have first seen the light of day in south London of all places. I was brought up in Tooting in a very ordinary working class family. My father was just a French polisher who was sometimes out of work and my mother was just an ordinary housewife. So it seems very strange that someone like me should emerge from those sort of surroundings.

From the very beginning there was a very definite direction of my life, of the whole force of my being. I remember I first learned about the Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, when I was about eight or nine and confined to bed. I learned about him from the pages of an encyclopaedia. I also learned about other founders of religions. I learned about Mohammed and I learned about Zarathustra as well as about the Buddha. Mohammed didn’t appeal to me particularly and I don’t think even Zarathustra did but the Buddha certainly appealed to me. The pictures of the Buddha or rather images of the Buddha which I saw in my encyclopaedia stuck in my mind. A few years later I happened to be in Brighton with my family on holiday. I happened to see in the window of a bric-a-brac shop a small brass image of the Buddha. I think it must have been a very tiny replica of the famous Kamakura Buddha of Japan. I went into the shop and bought it with my pocket money. I must have been twelve or thirteen at the time. Not only did I buy the little image but I bought at the same time a few sticks of incense – which I later came to know as Indian incense – very black and very sweet. When we got home, I remember I used to put this little image on a table and I used to burn one of my precious incense sticks. I did this without really understanding the significance of what I was doing. My parents must have seen me doing it but they didn’t make any comment. They were used to me having strange interests and strange ideas so nothing was said.

During the next few years I immersed myself in literature and philosophy and as a result of that reading I came to realise that I wasn’t a Christian. I had attended a Christian church for a while but it hadn’t made much impression on me. So, I think it was when I was about fourteen or fifteen at the latest that I realised ‘ I definitely am not a Christian! ’ That was quite clear in my mind. What was I? I didn’t know. Not yet. But a time did come when, in the course of my reading, I came across books on Buddhism and, more important still, I came

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across actual Buddhist texts or rather translations of buddhist texts. In particular I came across translations of the Diamond Sutra and the sutra of Wei Lang, the Platform Sutra as it is usually called, and when I read these, especially the Diamond Sutra I at once felt that ‘ This is what I really believe. This is what I have believed all the time. I have always believed what this sutra teaches.’ That was my actual experience, my actual realisation at that time.

I had not as yet met any other Buddhists. I was all on my own. I don’t think I talked about my reading or my interest in Buddhism with anybody that I knew. Eventually I came to hear of the London Buddhist Society and I started corresponding with the editor of their magazine and I started going along to their classes. This must have been in 1941/2. I made friends there and it was there that I started to meditate after a fashion. I can’t remember what sort of meditation we did but I do remember that the Buddhist Society had published a book called ‘Concentration and Meditation’ which I must have read. I also remember that Mr. Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society, used to recommend that we started off with learning to concentrate on a matchbox – which, of course, some of us duly did. Of course by this time we were in the midst of the war and I was living in London still so I caught part of the blitz. I remember that on one occasion I was at the Buddhist Society’s premises, which were situated above a tea shop in Great Russell Street. We were just sitting on our chairs, not on our cushions of course, no one sat on cushions in those days, everyone sat on chairs, and we were meditating, at least our eyes were closed and we were inwardly concentrated – perhaps on a matchbox perhaps on something else. Anyway we were quiet. When suddenly there was the noise of a tremendous explosion. A bomb had fallen quite near and the windows were rattled but we didn’t move, So we weren’t doing so badly for beginners: we didn’t move.

Then along came the army. I was conscripted and I was sent to India. I wasn’t at all pleased to be in the army. I had not expected that they would take me in view of my medical history. Perhaps they were getting desperate so they took me. I didn’t like the army at all and ignored it as much as I could and pursued my own interests as best I could. I certainly continued to read books on Buddhism whenever I had the opportunity. I was very glad to be sent to India because it was the land of the Buddha. Many of my friends in the unit were dismayed when we heard that we were going to be sent to India. India was like going to the ends of the earth, so far away from their families. They weren’t at all happy but I was very pleased. Not that I was pleased to be separated from my family but I was pleased with the idea of actually being in India, the land of the Buddha. In those days there were very few Buddhists in India. Very few indeed. Hardly any. It was difficult to meet a Buddhist for some years so I carried on with my study of Buddhism in books. For about a year I was in Singapore, still in the army, and in Singapore I made friends with a number of Chinese Buddhists so I got to know something about Chinese Buddhism at that time.

Then, after four years in the army, I left and, as some of you know, those of you who have read my memoirs, I took up a sort of wandering life in India – not as a tourist. I did it properly so to speak : I became a wandering, freelance ascetic, shaved my head, shaved off the beard which I had grown by that time and donned the saffron robes of the wandering monk. So, with a companion, a Bengali companion, I spent a couple of years wandering around India, sometimes staying in ashrams sometimes staying in caves and devoting myself to meditation and to the study of the Dharma.

I came into contact with many, many Hindus. Of course Hindus were all over the place. Most of the people I came into contact with were Hindus. I came into contact with some

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famous teachers and spent time with them. Though I came into quite close contact with some of those teachers my faith in the Dharma never wavered. I was always quite clear that it was to the Dharma that I wanted to devote my life. A sort of turning point came when I was staying in a cave on the Arunachala mountain and one night I had a vision, ( which I have described in my memoirs ) a vision of the red Buddha, Amitabha. It was a rather unusual vision I thought at the time because this red Buddha was seated on a red lotus and the lotus was floating on the waters of the ocean and this Buddha, in his right hand was holding a red lotus and behind him, to one side, the sun was setting and the light of the setting sun was glittering on the waves. This was a very vivid experience and I took it to mean that it was time that I should take monastic ordination in the formal sense. I thought that the kind of Buddha figure I had seen in this vision was not very traditional. I had never seen a picture of a red Buddha holding up a red lotus so for many years I thought this was something not quite traditional but not so many years ago someone sent me a picture postcard from Nepal. The picture was part of a thangkha and there was the red Buddha with a red lotus in his hand, holding it up just as I had seen in my vision. So I realised that my vision wasn’t as untraditional as I had thought. Not only that but somebody else, one of our friends, told me that when they visited Kalimpong and went to see the temple built by Dudjom Rimpoche they saw, amongst the murals, the paintings on the walls, again a figure of the same red Buddha holding up the red lotus flower. It seems as though my vision wasn’t as untraditional as I had originally thought.

As I have said, I took this vision to mean that it was time I got myself properly ordained and joined the monastic sangha. I was ordained as a sramanera at Kusinara and subsequently as a bhikkhu at Sarnath. I was very fully on track so to speak. Then I spent some time with bhikkhu Kasyap studying Pali. He took me up to Kalimpong and left me there, exhorting me to stay ...

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