Some of you will have had personal contact with me, others will have known me only through my books and recorded lectures, while yet others may not have heard of me before.
I was born in London in1925, of working-class parents, and grew up largely self educated. After a year in the retail coal trade and two years in local government service, I was conscripted into the Army and sent, at the age of 19, to India. Having realised that I was a Buddhist three years earlier, after reading the Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei Lang (Hui Neng), I was delighted (unlike some of my fellow conscripts) to find myself in the land of the Buddha.
After a year in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and a year in Singapore I returned to India, where I spent two years as a freelance ascetic, wandering from place to place, often on foot, living on alms, and meditating in caves and ashrams. During this period I met, and spent time with, a number of famous Hindu teachers, including Ananda Mayi, Swami Ramdas of Kanhangad, and Ramana Maharshi. Contact with Hinduism served to confirm and deepen my faith in Buddhism, and in 1949 I was ordained as a samanera or novice monk in Kusinara. In 1950 I became a bhiksu or fully ordained monk in Sarnath.
Early in the same year the venerable Jagadish Kashyap, with whom I had been studying Pali, Abhidhamma, and logic in Benares, took me up to Kalimpong, a small town in the eastern Himalayas, and told me to stay there and work for the good of Buddhism. I stayed there for fourteen years, founded a Buddhist organization and a Buddhist magazine, and engaged in literary work, A Survey of Buddhism being published in 1957. I also had the good fortune to come in contact with a number of eminent Tibetan lamas. From some of them, including Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche, Dudjom Rimpoche, and Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche, I received initiations and teachings.
With my monastery in Kalimpong as a base, I went on regular preaching tours in the plains, visiting every State in India except Kashmir. From 1959 I was involved in the movement of mass conversion to Buddhism inaugurated by Dr. Ambedkar, the great leader of the former Untouchables, now known as Dalits. Together with meditation and literary work, my work among the New Buddhists was a major preoccupation for many years.
In 1967, after a preliminary visit, I returned permanently to England, where I established the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (1967) and the Western Buddhist Order (1968)*. The former conducts city centres, retreat centres, residential communities and team-based right livelihood businesses in many parts of the world, while the latter comprises some 1,500 ordained members of a score of nationalities.
In the year 2000, at the age of 75, I handed on my responsibilities as Head of the WBO to a group of senior disciples, and despite periods of ill health continue to take an active interest in the Movement I had founded.
During 2002 I suffered from chronic insomnia, amounting to sleep deprivation. This resulted in severe debility, from which it took me more than a year to recover. In July of 2005 I suffered a heart attack, spent a week in hospital and had an angioplasty. Though I continue to see people, and to do a certain amount of literary work, it was not until 2007 that I was again able to take a more active interest in the affairs of the WBO and the FWBO.. During that year I visited FWBO centres in Stockholm, Paris, Dusseldorf, and Essen, as well as those in London, Colchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the course of these visits I had discussions with members of the WBO and gave talks about my teachers and my life in Kalimpong for the benefit of the local sangha. I also visited the Taraloka and Padmaloka retreat centres, spent a day at the Buddhafield festival, and attended the Biannual convention of the WBO.
Besides periods of actual illness, there has been the problem of the gradual deterioration of my eyesight. The deterioration began quite suddenly, in the spring of 2001 when I was on retreat at Ill Convento in Tuscany. On my return to the UK ‘wet’ macular degeneration was diagnosed and I underwent laser treatment in both eyes. Two years later I was again able to read and write, but the improvement did not last. Around the middle of 2007 the macular degeneration returned to one eye and since then I have had a series of 4 injections into that eye. At the moment I am unable to read or write and am faced by the prospect of not being able to do so again.
Partly because I was receiving treatment for my eye, December 2007 and January 2008 were quiet months and I did not travel outside Birmingham. I continued to see people, however, and with the help of an Order member started work on the editing of a new Spoken Word book. Being unable to read, I have had recourse to audio books, and a few weeks ago was so fortunate as to come across a new translation of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara. It is in a 4 CD set and is unabridged, and the translation is by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso the founder of the NKT in collaboration with an English disciple. I have very much enjoyed listening to this version of Shantideva's famous work, which the translators have entitled Guide to the Bodhisattva's way of life, and I strongly recommend it to all Buddhists and students of Buddhism. It may be usefully compared with the Crosby-Skilton translation of the Bodhicaryavatara, made from the original Sanskrit and published by OUP and by Windhorse publications. This translation has an introduction to the text by the translators besides, many useful endnotes which naturally are lacking in the other version.
Over the years I have authored more than fifty books and have given hundreds of lectures, many of which are available as recordings. Together with my commitment to Buddhism, I have always been deeply interested in Western philosophy, comparative religion, literature (especially poetry and drama), the fine arts, classical music, and history.
* In 2010 the name of the WBO was changed to the Triratna Buddhist Order, and the FWBO to the Triratna Buddhist Community.