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Twenty Years in the UK - Interview

by Sangharakshita


Interview with Nagabodhi

20th Year in the U.K.

Nagabodhi: ... so I'll start. In the lecture, "The Nucleus of the New Society", one of the Brighton
talks, you say that until you receive the invitation from the English Sangha Trust you had no plans at
all of returning to the West. Is that really true? You'd never thought of returning ...

Sangharakshita: Yes. Not only had I never thought of returning. I'd quite consciously and
deliberately and definitely made up my mind that I would be staying in India. This is what I wanted
to do. So that being the case, no I didn't have any plans for returning to England at all or to the West
at all.

Nagabodhi: Did you never miss England or the West?

S: I can't say that I did. I certainly never felt homesick for England at any stage. If I did miss
anything I missed certain cultural facilities. Access to libraries and books.

Nagabodhi: When you say you quite deliberately decided to stay in India was that because you had
formulated a definite life plan which was set in India, for example your work with the ex-

S: I think it was mainly that I liked India and I liked the Indians and it was after all the original
homeland of Buddhism and I was quite happy with my whole way of life there, and what I was
doing, except perhaps to some extent towards the very end, but I might be able to say a little about
that in connection with another question.

Nagabodhi: So you did come back originally on a just a visit and then ...

S: Originally it was to be just a four month visit but I was talked into this. I was talked into it by
Bhikkhu Kantipalo, because when I received the Sangha Trust's invitation, or when I received
perhaps some intimation that they would like to invite me, my initial response was to say no. I hadn't
even thought in those terms. But it was Kantipalo who put it to me that perhaps I did have a sort of
responsibility, even a duty, towards the Buddhist movement in England. At that time there were
quite serious differences among Buddhists in, I was going to say England, but perhaps I should say
simply London.

The Buddhist movement in London was divided into two camps one might say which were not on
very friendly terms. There was a lot of tension between them and Kantipalo put it to me that a visit
from me could perhaps help to heal the rift that had developed and he moreover put it to me that I
had a sort of duty to do what I could. So in the end I allowed myself to be convinced. Well, I felt
that I hadn't been back for so many years perhaps it would be a good idea to pay just a visit. So
initially I was going simply for four months because I didn't really want to be away from India any
longer than that.

Nagabodhi: And had you been kept closely in touch with developments in the West? Had you
pursued an interest?

S: I had been kept in touch. I did receive for instance 'The Middle Way'. They sent that to me
regularly, so I was reading that year after year. I was in correspondence to a limited extent with
Christmas Humphreys and a few other people like Jack Austin. Also Christmas Humphreys had been
out to India twice. I met him when he had been up to Kalimpong. I was in correspondence with Dr.
Conze, with Mrs Bennett. So I had these contacts though I thought at the time that they gave me a
quite good picture of what was happening in England but after my return I found in fact that wasn't
the case at all.

Nagabodhi: What were the main variations?

S: My main source of information was very definitely 'The Middle Way' and from this I got the
impression that the Buddhist movement in Britain was very much bigger and more vigorous than it
actually was. In other words 'The Middle Way' was, for its time one might say, quite a good
Buddhist magazine, quite a good English Buddhist magazine. There were good articles and so on.
But I discovered after my return that 'The Middle Way' was not really the product, not really the
organ of the British or the London Buddhist movement at all. It gave a quite false impression. It
drew on a much wider range of talent than was actually contained within the active Buddhist
movement. For instance people like Dr. Conze had virtually nothing to do with the Society or with
the active Buddhist movement. Nonetheless he, like other scholars, contributed quite good articles.

Nagabodhi: Did you feel when you returned to England and found the situation was other than
you'd been led to believe, did you feel a bit put upon to have been invited?

S: No, no, it wasn't that anybody deliberately misled me. This was just my own reading of the
material that I'd received especially 'The Middle Way'. I did feel disappointed but I can't say that I
felt put upon. I certainly didn't feel that it was anybody's fault. If it was anybody's fault, well it was
my own for sort of misreading the signals. But they couldn't be blamed for that. But I certainly didn't
feel put upon, though definitely disappointed that the Buddhist movement in Britain was no bigger
and no stronger than it actually was.

Nagabodhi: Just leaving the Buddhist world for a moment, did you feel that England, that the West
had changed a lot when you got back? Did you feel able to adapt, fit in to the West just culturally on
your return?

S: Well, I think to a great extent the question didn't arise because I was staying at the Hampstead
Buddhist Vihara and I was operating almost exclusively within the confines of the British Buddhist
movement with a few excursions out into the Theosophical Societies and spiritualist groups and so
on. So I can't say that I really came very much into contact with the West. I was aware of some
changes. After all I had left England during the war or towards the end of the war and I certainly
noticed a very big difference between England as it was when I left and England as it was when I
returned. And also a very big difference between England and India, mainly in respect of its
prosperity. When I returned everybody seemed much more prosperous than they'd been when I left
and also of course much more prosperous than people who are in India. This I think was the thing
that struck me most, or struck me most immediately. And when I started visiting my own relations
everybody's standard of living seemed to have gone up several notches in the interval.

Nagabodhi: You didn't feel that you were leaving the, you have this cliche, comparison with the
spiritual East and the material West. Did you feel any ...?

S: I didn't feel that at all because I've never felt that India was especially a spiritual country in the
way that they like to think that they are. I'd never been under any illusions about the spirituality of
Indians as a whole even though, yes, there are very strong spiritual traditions there but Indians are no
less materialistic really than most people in the West.

Nagabodhi: When you came to England and you immersed yourself into the Buddhist world did
you find that the rifts and the difficulties were as serious as you'd been led to believe? Was that side
of your impression at least true?

S: I don't find it very easy to recall. I think what I found was that the rifts were much more
complicated or the rift was much more complicated. It was not that there were two bodies divided
over a certain, very clear-cut, definite issues. There were on the whole sort of two camps. One
based on the Buddhist Society and the other based on the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara but there were
several people who had a foot in each camp as it were without necessarily always even agreeing
among themselves. And also there were complicating factors like the Chiswick Vihara, that is to say
the Maha Bodhi Society's centre and also the Thai bhikkus. So it wasn't a question of a rift over one
clear-cut issue. There were quite a number of rifts over a number of issues, some of which
overlapped and sometimes it was quite difficult to get to the bottom of things and find out what
actually was the matter, what had gone wrong. Personalities seem to play quite a part. But very
broadly speaking the two main camps really were the Buddhist Society and the Hampstead Buddhist
Vihara. Very broadly speaking the Buddhist Society stood for a more ecumenical approach to
Buddhism and the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara stood for an exclusively Theravadin approach.

But of course to complicate matters there were some people connected with the Buddhist Society,
and in a sense belonging to that camp, were quite strongly sympathetic towards the Theravada and
there were one or two Theravadins who had Zen sympathies in a rather inconsistent sort of way and
of course there were people sort of involved with psychological approaches of various kinds. And I
also found, this is perhaps one of the things that surprised me - that the people who seemed to be
most sympathetic towards Christianity and who seemed to resent most any criticism ...

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