Articles by Sangharakshita


1970 - A Retrospect


Introduction: After Contraction, Expansion

Throughout one's life periods of contraction tend to alternate with periods of expansion, either of which may last for months or for years. During a period of contraction one husbands one's resources, meets fewer people, reflects rather than acts, and follows well-trodden paths rather than striking out in new directions. During a period of expansion, on the contrary, a spendthrift prodigality is the rule, personal contacts are multiplied, reflection finds fruition in practical achievement, and unknown dimensions are explored. Coming as it did after a long period of contraction, the year 1970 was for me on the whole a period of expansion, or at least the beginning of expansion, both geographically and spiritually.

Visit to France

Lectures in Paris

At the invitation of French and Vietnamese Buddhists living in Paris, at the beginning of January I visited France, spending four days in Paris with my old friend Thich Chien Chau and two days at Luynes, in the Loire Valley, as the guest of Antoinette Willmot, who is translating A Survey of Buddhism into French. The object of the visit was both religious and cultural, 'official' and personal. In addition to lecturing on Buddhism, and meeting both foreign and native-born Buddhists and students of the Dharma, thanks to the kindness of Vietnamese friends I saw a good deal of Paris and visited a number of places of cultural and historical interest, including the Louvre, the Musee Guimet, Notre Dame, and Les Invalides. On the banks of the Seine, in the Latin Quarter, and in Montmartre, I felt particularly at home.

We visited Montmartre at midnight. It had been snowing, and a brilliant full moon cast black shadows across the narrow snow-covered streets, through which blew a chill wind. On our way to Sacre Coeur we passed the brightly lit windows of ancient taverns from which, despite the lateness of the hour, there came the sound of revelry and the rich warm smell of cooking. Our way led through a tiny square in which stood two or three small leafless trees. Despite the bitter cold, a few artists were still sitting by their paintings, or walking up and down in front of them, in hope of a sale. A number of visitors to the quarter were, in fact, drifting from one group of paintings to another.

At the Louvre I was disappointed by the Venus de Milo and failed to see the Mona Lisa. The Musee Guimet was much smaller and less rich in content than, from its reputation, I had been led to suppose; but the Khmer sculptures more than made up for any disappointment. The interior of Les Invalides seemed coldly pompous, lacking any true dignity and grandeur. From the Eiffel Tower, which I ascended on the day after my arrival, it was noticeable that the skyline of Paris, unlike that of London, was not rendered unsightly by blocks of flats or modern office buildings. Here culture had not been forced to yield to commercialism: the fact impressed me deeply.

With an old friend in Luynes

While staying with Antoinette at Luynes I spent an afternoon in the ancient town of Tours, associated with the names of Ronsard and Balzac, and visited the Cathedral. The stained glass, said to be the second finest in France, was magnificent. The building itself, however, was badly in need of restoration. Driving into Tours along the snow-filled country roads I noticed enormous bunches of mistletoe hanging from almost every tree. Next day, on our way to the railway station, I saw a sight of even greater interest. For a distance of several miles the limestone cliffs overlooking the River Loire were honeycombed with dwellings, apparently all inhabited. It was fascinating to speculate that some of them might have been under continuous occupation since prehistoric times. All the dwellings had brightly painted doors and window frames, which gave them a neat and homely look. Most were double-storeyed, and of roughly the same height, but having been hollowed out of the rock at different levels they presented a picture of pleasing irregularity. Antoinette's husband remarked that some of the excavations were enormous, with vaults going miles back into the hillside, and that the biggest of them was said to house a top secret military establishment. Even here one was not allowed to forget that one was in the France of Charles de Gaulle.

First Visit to the USA

Though more significant in every way, and though taking me much further afield for a much longer time, my visit to the United States was of the same general character as my visit to France. Strictly speaking, it was a visit to New England, as I spent most of my time in Newhaven, Connecticut, with brief visits to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York. The visit was organized by Tom Kasulis, a Senior of Berkeley College, Yale, who had attended my meditation classes in London the previous year, as well as participating in the Summer Retreat at Haslemere, and who had thought it would be a good idea if I could be "let loose on the Yale campus". With commendable efficiency, he had set up a Hall Seminar on 'Buddhism and the West' at Berkeley College and persuaded the authorities to invite me. I did not know it at the time, but a number of academic and administrative hurdles had to be surmounted before this could be done. Eventually, however, the official invitation was issued, was accepted, and on a crisp sunny afternoon in January I found myself, for the first time, in the United States of America.

From the first the visit was full of minor surprizes. Instead of being detained, possibly interrogated, I went through the Customs and Immigration Control in a matter of minutes. In the arrival hall of the airport I saw a white woman rushing forward and greeting a black woman with rapturous embraces. A less welcome sight was that of two beefy policemen swaggering through the crowd swinging their batons and looking provocatively from side to side as if in search of trouble. Despite surprizes, however, and despite certain differences between the American and the English way of life, I felt completely at home in America from the very first. On my return to England friends enquired, with solicitude, how long it had taken me to adjust. But there was really no question of adjustment at all. Admittedly, this was in great part due to the warmth and friendliness of my reception at Yale, or rather, at Berkeley College. The question of how and where I was to be accommodated had been the subject of anxious consultation between Tom and the College authorities, as well as correspondence with me, but soon after my arrival I was comfortably installed in the heart of the College in rooms overlooking the courtyard.

Teaching at Yale

Excluding the two weeks of the Easter holiday, for which I flew back to England to conduct the Easter Retreat, I spent three months at Yale. During this time all that was expected of me, in my official capacity as Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy, was that I should teach once a week for two hours, the way in which I organized the Seminar being otherwise left entirely to my own discretion. As much ground had to be covered in a short time, and as some of my students had no previous acquaintance with Eastern thought, I decided to devote half the time at our disposal each week to a formal lecture and half to a discussion. I also decided to divide the whole course into two parts. In the first part I dealt with The Three Jewels, with the triad of Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom, with the Development of Buddhism, and with Karma and Rebirth. Having prepared the ground in this way, in the second part, coming to the meat of the Seminar, I dealt with Archetypal Symbolism in the Biography of the Buddha, with Karl Jaspers and Buddhism, with Zen and Psychotherapy, and with Evolution, Lower and Higher. To me all this was of course familiar ground. To my students, however, it was not only unfamiliar, not to say strange, but for the most part highly stimulating, and after each lecture they bombarded me with questions so vigorously, and I responded with such zest, that discussion usually lasted for two hours instead of for one, while some of the things they heard struck certain of the students with the force of a revelation.

Extra-Curricular Activities at Yale:

Meditation Classes

With the seminar itself accounting for so small a portion of my week, I had ample time for extra-curricular activities, as well as for a limited participation in the social and cultural life of the Yale community. On Sunday evenings I held a meditation class in the Berkeley College Common room, which willing hands transformed into a temporary Buddhist shrine complete with image, lighted candles, and incense. Before many weeks had passed this class was attracting upwards of eighty people, the majority of them students, but including a sprinkling of faculty members and friends from off campus. Half a dozen enthusiasts also met in my study for meditation every afternoon. Due to the influence of Zen, as well as to a recent visit from the Maharishi and other factors, meditation was in fact rather in the air at Yale. Once I estimated that between five and ten per cent of the student population had at some time practised it in one form or another. Most of those who attended my class seemed to derive definite psychological benefit from the practise. A few made astonishing progress in a short time. Beyond a certain point, however, meditation seemed incompatible with normal student life. For several of my pupils this fact constituted a real problem.

Communication Exercizes

From meditation it was only a step to human communication. Having already conducted a number of mixed communication courses in England, I thought it might be a good idea to take advantage of the still predominantly masculine membership of the College and experiment with an all-male course. Friends to whom I mentioned the idea received it with enthusiasm. Twenty-six students enrolled for the course, which consisted of three sessions held late at night on three consecutive evenings of the week. The absence of women seemed to make no difference. The amount of negative emotion released in the exercizes was indeed so extraordinary, and the resultant uproar so loud, that at one point one of the College guards looked in to see what was wrong. As I remarked afterwards, I felt as though I was in charge of a herd of stampeding young bulls. Two or three pairs of students succeeded in breaking through into, and for a time experiencing, authentic human communication to an almost transcendental degree. On nearly everybody who participated the course had a highly tonic effect. Plans for a second course, this time a mixed one, were frustrated by stirring events inside and outside the University over which we had no control.

Sight Seeing in the USA

Since it was my first visit to the United States, the temptation to see as much of the country as possible while I was there was a strong one, especially as invitations reached me from as far afield as California. My commitments at Yale being what they were I could easily have spent the greater part of my time looking up personal friends (people who had visited me in India, or in England), inspecting Buddhist centres, and sightseeing. After thinking the matter over, however, I decided to stay where I was. Better to experience a small section of America in comparative depth than to skim the surface of a much larger area. Three months was in any case not too long a time to devote to a place like Yale, or even to Berkeley College. I therefore stuck to my rooms, cultivated the friendship of the students, got to know some of my colleagues, joined a Poetry Seminar, and in short tried to get as much as I possibly could out of life on the campus. A few short excursions, however, I did make. These were to Cape Cod, to Amherst, Mass., and to Freemantle, N.J. On my way back to England at Easter I also spent four days in New York.

Total Solar Eclipse at Cape Cod

Cape Cod lies at the end of a long peninsular that curves up from the coast of North America just below Boston. On this occasion I went not for the sake of seeing the marvellous natural beauty of the area, where iron suspension bridges link fairy islands in an archipelago of loveliness, but to watch a total eclipse of the sun, of which from that longitude one would be able to have an almost perfect view. On our arrival in the middle of the morning of March 8th (we had left New Haven by car the previous evening, and spent the night at the Fantastic Umbrella Factory, a rural hippy commune) we found the broad white sands covered with about two thousand people, all shivering in the brilliant winter sunshine and waiting for the eclipse to begin. Some of them were trying to warm themselves round bonfires of driftwood. Dan and Randy and I, and the friends who had accompanied us, soon had a bonfire of our own blazing, and while the rest improvised a game of baseball I prepared a kind of vegetable stew. Presently it grew dark. It also grew very much colder. Dogs howled. Pieces of smoked glass, or exposed film, were passed from hand to hand. It was shortly after noon, and a shadow had appeared on one side of the sun's disk, as though an enormous bite had been taken out of it. Within an hour the shadow had grown much bigger, had in fact almost totally obscured the sun. By this time everybody's eyes were fixed on the battle that was taking place, as it seemed, in the heavens. The sun appeared to be struggling in the grip of some gigantic adversary. It was being overpowered. It was appealing to us for help. Between the struggling luminary in the sky and the human spectators on earth flashed an electric current of sympathy. We knew that the sun was in danger, we wanted to help him, and he knew that we knew. Suddenly, at the very moment that the shadow covered him completely, and defeat seemed imminent, the sun seemed to wrench himself free from his opponent's grasp and leap in the air. On the side on which the shadow had first been there appeared a crescent of dazzling gold. The instant it appeared an inarticulate roar of relief and triumph burst from the throats of the crowd. The sun was free! The forces of light had triumphed over the forces of darkness. Life could go on.

Amherst and Buckminster Fuller

In Amherst I spent two days as the guest of Joe and Teresina Havens, with whom I had become acquainted in London two years before, when they were enjoying a sabbatical, and who had invited me to accompany them to the Victoria and Albert Museum to look at the Tibetan Mandala paintings there, in the symbolism of which they were both deeply interested and which they wanted me to explain. Joe, a Jungian analyst specializing in work with groups, also spent a few days at one of our Retreats. By the time I visited Amherst Spring had come and it was warm and sunny enough for us to be able to have lunch in the garden. Sitting in a deck-chair, I inhaled the perfume of the violets that looked up at me from the long grass. But I was not allowed to sit there for long. Teresina, a woman of the indefatigable New England breed who taught Comparative Religion and English Literature, was determined that I should get as much as possible out of Amherst and that Amherst should get as much as possible out of me. Besides giving the four lectures that had been arranged for me at the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, and elsewhere, I visited museums and art galleries, met a number of Teresina's friends, students and colleagues, listened to some young jazz musicians, explored the beautiful riverside campus with its green lawns and flowering trees, and attended a lecture by Buckminster Fuller when the old gentleman spoke for two hours and twenty minutes without stopping and ended up fresher and livelier than he had begun. After the leisured pace of Yale I found this whirlwind of activity quite exhilarating. We even had time to sit by a waterfall listening to the roar of the water as it fell and feeling the cold spray on our faces. While others drowsed, Teresina practised Tai Chi Chuan movements on the grass.

New Jersey and Geshe Wangyal

On my visit to New Jersey I was accompanied by a member of the American Buddhist Order, a student at Yale. After World War II a number of Kalmuck Buddhists, originally refugees from Soviet Russia, had found refuge in the Garden State and had settled down there as farmers. Their spiritual head was Geshe Wangyal, a Mongolian Lama whom I had known in Kalimpong in the early 'fifties. Now well stricken with years, being over seventy, he was delighted to see me. For my part, I was happy not only to meet him once more but to see the Buddhist monastic centre which, almost single-handed, he had created in the heart of rural America. Standing in the shrine, with its painted scrolls, images, prayerful atmosphere, and special throne for the Dalai Lama, one was immediately transported to pre-Communist Tibet. Unfortunately Geshe Wangyal was a disappointed man. His efforts to ensure the survival of the centre and the continuation of the work after his death had failed. Young refugee monks whom he had brought from India, he explained, had no interest in Buddhism and the spiritual life; as soon as they had learned English they got jobs, left the Order, and married. All that he wanted to do was to retire to a hermitage he had built eighty miles away, in an isolated spot, and tell his beads in peace. With tears in his eyes he begged me to stay and take charge of the centre. Almost with tears in my own I had to refuse, explaining that I was in the United States only on a visit, and that having started a new Buddhist movement in England I had there responsibilities which it was impossible to abandon.

A Week in New York

Due to the imposing height of its principal buildings and the enormous length of its broad avenues, like Rome and New Delhi, but unlike London, New York had about it a faintly imperial air. Contrary to what I had been told, even in the heart of the megalopolis traffic was no faster, and the crowds no more dense, than in Central London. Many of the huge apartment buildings were in a semi-derelict condition, garbage flowed from rows of unemptied dustbins (there may have been a strike that week), while even main roads were paved with cobbles, as in Paris. All the same New York was New York. Everything was on a bigger scale than anywhere else. There was more space in which to move - as it were more air to breathe. Life was real, life was earnest, and a sense of excitement, of exhilaration, filled the air. Until I was able to find my way round on my own, Dan, with whom I was staying, acted as my companion and guide. In the four days at my disposal I saw places of interest of all kinds, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to MacSorley's, and from Wall Street to Greenwich Village. At the Metropolitan, Rembrandt's paintings in particular arrested my attention, especially Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, recently acquired, which seemed to have an unfathomable depth of meaning, and from which I had difficulty in tearing myself away. On my last evening Dan and his brother Steve and I spent a couple of hours sitting on a rock in Central Park. It was strangely silent. In the black waters of the lake at our feet sparkled the lighted windows of a row of inverted skyscrapers. On the other side of the Park, looming up against the blackness of the sky, stood the skyscrapers themselves, brilliant with ten thousand eyes. Gazing up at them, I saw that America is not just another continent, but a new civilization, alien to that of Europe as the stars are to the earth.

Student Riots at Yale

During the second half of the term the peaceful life of the campus was disrupted, and the town disturbed, by the same stirring events that made it impossible for me to hold a second communication course. So far Yale had not been touched by the wave of violence which, in the course of the last few years, had swept so many American universities, but it seemed that now it was about to engulf us. The immediate cause of the trouble was the trial, in New Haven, of the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale on a charge of murder. As Seale was a negro, and moreover the leader of a paramilitary organization that did not disbelieve in violence, it was widely felt that he would not receive a fair trial. Demands were therefore made that the trial should be called off. This the authorities refused to do. Demonstrations accordingly took place outside the court-house, a huge neo-classical building whose pillared façade fronted the Green, only a couple of hundred yards down the road from Berkeley College, and a potentially explosive situation developed. Most student and faculty members only wanted justice to be done, and to be seen to be done; but for a handful of extremists this was the opportunity for which they had been looking, and they collaborated with Black Panther Party workers in trying to stir up trouble. For two whole weeks the trial, and the implications of the trial, were the sole topic of conversation. Each day brought its teach-ins, its Dining Hall meetings, its propaganda films, and its shower of printed matter. Classes were boycotted, students and faculty members went on strike, and the academic life of the University came to a standstill. But for the tactful way in which the situation was handled by the President of Yale, Kingman Brewster Jr., things could have been far worse. As it was, one student was killed, and several others injured, while thousands of books were burned when, in a senseless act of incendiarism, the Law School Library was set on fire.

With the approach of May Day, for which a huge demonstration had been planned, rumours multiplied and tension greatly increased. Demonstrators were reported to be pouring into New Haven from all over America., and the extremist leaders predicted a turn-out of at least a hundred thousand, possibly a quarter of a million. A thousand Weathermen were on the march, it was said, and two thousand Minutemen, and an armed clash between the two groups was expected that would lead to general violence and drench the whole campus in blood. At their downtown headquarters, members of the Black Panther Party and their extremist white supporters devoted several hours a day to revolver practice. Across the corridor from my bedroom, a right-wing Senior oiled and cleaned his own weapon in readiness. I remained aloof. The negro community undoubtedly had ample cause for complaint, but the tactics of the Black Panthers seemed calculated to alienate, rather than to conciliate, the sympathy and goodwill of the white American majority with whom, after all, they had to live as fellow-citizens. Throughout the disturbances, I therefore held my Seminar as usual. When I asked my students why they did not boycott my classes they replied that they were not classes in the ordinary sense of the term. My sole concession to the situation was to allow my students to discuss it one evening in class after we had disposed of the lecture. Some of them were puzzled and confused, not sure what was the right thing to do in the circumstances, and beginning to tire of all the excitement. When they asked me for my opinion, I replied that I was not on principle opposed to external action, including political action, but that I gravely doubted the value of any such action that did not proceed from awareness. So far as I had observed, the majority of the activists were quite unconscious of their real motives. The Black Panthers, in particular, seemed blinded by hatred of a quite pathological degree of intensity. Indeed the student body as a whole seemed to be influenced much more by emotion than by reason. At a meeting at which I had been present, the four thousand strong audience had applauded enthusiastically when the Chaplain of the University, a noted liberal, appealed to them to make the demonstration a non-violent one. They had applauded with equal enthusiasm, and apparently equal conviction, when subsequent speakers made a no less impassioned plea for violence. I was reminded, I said, of the fickle behaviour of the Roman mob in Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'.

By the time May Day week-end came, special security arrangements were in force in all the colleges. In Berkeley, two thirds of the students had left, or been withdrawn by their parents, while of the fellows and faculty members only the Master, the Dean and I were left. Casualties being expected in large numbers, hundreds of medical orderlies had been recruited and hastily trained. In New Haven, police were very much in evidence, and gangs of negro youths roamed the streets. Four thousand National Guards had been stationed on the outskirts of the town and an unknown number of troops held in reserve. The great day itself, which fell on a Sunday, dawned fine and clear. Demonstrators in colourful garb, some of them gentle young women with babies, started arriving at the College, where arrangements had been made for their reception. At about noon I strolled down to the Green with the Master's wife and a few other friends to see what was happening. Thousands of youthful demonstrators were lying on the grass, some of them sunbathing. Tape-recorded speeches, interspersed with announcements, blared from the loudspeaker-system. Black Panther buttonhole badges and Party literature were being hawked about, as well as Coca-Cola, ice-cream, and coloured balloons, and a festive, almost a holiday atmosphere prevailed. On the way back to College I saw a pleasant-faced youngster sprawling on the steps. He was wearing buttercup-yellow flared pants and a bright pink shirt and was barefoot. On his head, tilted at a rakish angle, was a wreath of white flowers. As I passed him, we could not help smiling at each other. That night thirty thousand people took part in the demonstration. There was no violence. Scuffles were immediately suppressed by the student marshals, and the police had to intervene with teargas bombs only twice. Next morning, with a sigh of relief that it was all over, the University went back to work. Apparently the fine weather had saved the situation. Angry and disappointed, the extremists complained that the students, seduced by the sunshine, had treated the occasion as a picnic rather than as a demonstration.

Back in Little Britain

What with preparations for departure, and the inevitable leave-takings, my final week at Yale passed quickly. On the last night, Dan and Randy took me down to the beach, where we made a bonfire of driftwood and sat round it till two o'clock in the morning. In New York I went to the Ballet Joubert and saw an impressive performance of Petroushka and other works. Late that night Dan and I climbed up to the flat roof of the twelve-storey apartment house where we were staying. All around us, like petals around the calyx of a gigantic flower, half a dozen skyscrapers, brilliantly lighted up, rose hundreds of storeys above us into the sky. Next morning I said goodbye to America.

During my absence from England the responsibility for conducting regular meditation classes had devolved on a few of the more active and experienced members of the Order. On my return I was pleased to find that, far from there having been any falling off while I was away, attendance at these classes had actually increased, each of them now containing a sprinkling of faces that to me, at least, were entirely new. Indeed, I was not only pleased by this fact but enthused, for one of the main reasons for my accepting the invitation to Yale had been that this would give me an opportunity of finding out whether or not the movement in London, to which I had devoted three years of my life, was capable of standing on its own feet for three months. Being now assured that it could not only stand but even walk, I returned with renewed enthusiasm to the accustomed routine of meditation classes, meetings of the Order, public lectures, Council meetings, seminars and retreats. No sooner was I back in harness, however, than I became aware that, in comparison with what I had experienced in the States, everything seemed smaller in scale and driven by a less dynamic impulse. People seemed less interested in things, less enthusiastic, less alive. At first I thought that this prevailing dullness and lethargy was a malaise afflicting the entire British people, perhaps consequent upon their losing their dominating position in world affairs. But then I thought that perhaps it was peculiar to English Buddhists, some of whom did seem to be below rather than above the average in liveliness and intelligence. Eventually I came to the conclusion that there was something to be said for both views, and that the general lifelessness of most of the people with whom I was associating was due to both social and individual factors. Nevertheless, I did not despair, and by way of both precept and example strove to infuse new life and energy into the movement. In the case of a few of those most closely associated with me, I knew that their lifelessness represented a definite stage in their development and that as such it was more apparent than real. Increased awareness had dissolved the old unconscious, conditioned motives for action, but new ones - freer, more spontaneous - had not yet emerged.

Lectures on the Higher Evolution

Among the most important of the activities to which I again devoted myself were the Autumn lectures at Centre House and the two annual Retreats at Haslemere in Surrey. Ever since my original return to England in 1964 it had been becoming increasingly clear to me that all my lectures, but more especially the different series given since 1967 under the auspices of the Friends, together constituted not only a systematic exposition of the fundamentals of Buddhism, interpreted from a non-sectarian point of view, but at the same time a total synthesis of traditional spiritual wisdom and modern scientific knowledge as represented, in particular, by Biology, Anthropology and Psychology. The fullest and most detailed exposition of this synthesis was contained in the eight lectures on 'The Higher Evolution of Man' which I gave in the Autumn of 1969. In this series I dealt with the subject in a very general manner, that is to say, in terms of Biology, History, Art, Comparative Religion, Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism, and Modern Thought (Nietzsche.). In the Autumn of 1970 I gave a corresponding series of eight lectures on 'The Higher Evolution of the Individual'. Here the subject was dealt with in terms of the psychological and spiritual development, here and now, of the individual human being, with special reference to various problems arising in the course of this process. This series was consistently well attended, from seventy to eighty people being present at every lecture. Several members of the audience were on occasion in a state of evident shock, having only now realized that the light-hearted spirit in which they had taken up Buddhism, or the spiritual life, or the Higher Evolution, was in no way justified by the seriousness of the enterprise. It was as if they had awakened from a dream and now saw, for the first time, how precipitous was the ascent, how lofty the peaks they proposed to scale, and how terrifying the abysses that yawned on every side.

Between Life and Death

For some Friends the Easter and Summer Retreats arc the most important event of the year. With the help of meditation, lectures, discussion, communication exercizes, and chanting, those present try to create for a few days, or even a few fleeting minutes, the nucleus of a spiritual community. This year's Retreats not only fulfilled this purpose but had, as usual, a character of their own. The Easter Retreat, indeed, fell in the middle of the Spring Term at Yale, and I flew specially back to England to take part in it. My evening in Central Park with Dan and Steve, as well as a short walk through the rain from Grand Central to the air terminal next morning, had given me however a severe chill. The fact would not be worth mentioning but for its consequences, which brought me nearer to death than I had ever been in my life. Indeed, it would almost be correct to say that I died.

Having tried to make up for my initial neglect of the infection by spending two days in bed, I arrived at 'Keffolds' on the Friday evening, and despite a painful cough felt well enough to conduct the Puja and deliver a short address. At ten o'clock, thinking discretion the better part of valour, I retired for the night. At eleven o' clock however in response to an irresistible inner compulsion, I got out of bed and sat up cross legged in an armchair. I knew that if I continued lying down, or dropped off to sleep, I might well never open my eyes again. Kevin, who had wrapped me in blankets, and who was sitting up with me, lit a stick of incense, and for some reason gave it to me to hold. As I sat holding it, something strange in my expression, or attitude, made him ask me what I was thinking. I said I was thinking of the Tibetan custom of mourners carrying sticks of incense in funeral processions. This alarmed him, and he went and roused Brenda and asked her to come and take my temperature. It was 104. Brenda looked thoughtful, and said we would have to call the Doctor in the morning. After making me comfortable she returned to her room. It was by that time about one o'clock. Kevin continued sitting up with me, and at intervals I told him how I felt. Though feeling physically very unwell, I was in a deeply meditative mood. Body and mind seemed to have separated and the latter to have withdrawn to a distance of thirty or forty feet. Observing this (I seemed to be neither the body nor the mind), I noted that so far as my experience at that moment went, the old dualistic way of speaking of death as a departure of the soul from the body seemed perfectly in accordance with the facts. Though I saw that I could easily die, this consideration did not disturb me in the least. Like the two empty pans of a scale, desire for life and desire for death hung exactly balanced, without even the shadow of turning in either direction. My mood was one of profound tranquillity. Though aware of work unfinished, and friends who still depended on my guidance, I viewed the prospect of departure from it all with absolute unconcern. My usual attitude being one of wanting to finish whatever I had begun, I could not help noticing the difference, though without surprise. Strangest of all, I felt no need whatever for any kind of religious support or consolation, and my mind did not once advert to the Buddha or Buddhism, or to spiritual principles or symbols of any other kind. I felt perfectly self-contained and self-sufficient. When I tried to give Kevin some idea of my state of mind, he not unnaturally became upset, and I asked him to put his arms around me. As he did so, crying You mustn't go away yet, I need you too much! it was as though a hair had been placed in the pan of life, so that, by an infinitesimal fraction, desire for life outweighed desire for death. From that instant I felt energy beginning to flow into me. A slight perspiration came on, and by two o'clock I felt well enough to send Kevin to bed. After sitting up alone till four o'clock, still in a meditative mood, I went back to bed and slept soundly.

When the doctor came next morning he diagnosed bronchial pneumonia, and said that I had had a lucky escape. Whether on account of the medicines he prescribed, or because of what happened that night, I recovered rapidly, and a few days later was well enough to conduct the communication exercizes. The experience left me with permanent impressions. I am convinced that dying is, or at least can be, a pleasant rather than an unpleasant experience. I also feel that I may not have as much time in which to finish my work as I had, perhaps, previously supposed, and that it therefore behoves me to make the best possible use of every hour still remaining to me.

A Psychedelic Experience

The experience of physical death, whether complete or only partial, resembles not only the state of heightened consciousness loosely termed meditation but also, to some degree, the 'psychedelic' condition, and of this too I had some experience in the course of the year. On the eve of my departure for Yale Kevin and I, and another friend (one other being present who did not take the drug) swallowed a moderate quantity of a blue powder and awaited results. It was my second such experience, the first having occurred ten months earlier. Though simple curiosity had also played a part, my principal reason for undertaking the experiment was that with so many people asking me what I thought of the use of drugs, and even looking for personal guidance on the subject, I had come to feel, with increasing clarity of conviction, that it was incumbent upon me to speak, if I spoke at a11, from experience rather than from hearsay.

About half an hour after our ingesting the drug, and before it had properly taken effect, Kevin suggested that the two of us go out for a walk. It was a fine day, cold, but with sunshine and blue sky. On Hampstead Heath, to which we directed our steps, a number of people were taking the air. As we skirted Highgate Ponds, passed through a grove of leafless oaks, and climbed the westward slope of Parliament Hill, the drug started taking effect. Rainbows appeared at the edges of gnarled trunks and along the branches and delicate twigs of trees, and I began to feel as though I was losing control of my limbs. There was also, I think, a slight sensation of nausea. Kevin placed his hand against the trunk of a tree. The rough texture of the bark, and its mottled greens and browns, stood out with extraordinary vividness. Corrugations seemed like mountain ranges; vertical cracks had the mysterious depth of ravines. On the top of the hill, which commands a view of practically the whole of London, men and boys were launching kites into the stiff breeze, and we sat down on a bench for a few minutes and watched them. Descending the hill on the other side, and passing through the gloom of more trees, we made our way back to the main road. By this time my legs were moving mechanically, and I felt as though I was floating rather than walking. Faces loomed upon us with frightful intensity. Colours flashed and exploded. When a clergyman with a ghastly yellow face and grin of utter insanity shot past us with his wife and five children the realization that this bundle of neuroses was actually functioning as a religious teacher had a nightmare quality about it. People seemed caricatures of themselves, except that the caricatures were the people.

Having crossed the main road, as Kevin wanted to buy some tobacco, we were faced with the problem of crossing back to the Parliament Hill Fields side so as to be able to proceed homewards up Highgate West Hill. The effect of the drug was nearing its peak. Objects were now not only unbearably brilliant in colour but fast losing their solidity. Everything was floating, transparent, diaphanous, like soap-bubbles. We could pass through everything; everything could pass through us. Stepping off the pavement as cars were speeding past, Kevin remarked that it was as though there was no danger of being run over, as even if he walked straight into a car it would simply pass through him. Seizing his arm, I steered him across the road to the pavement on the other side. With the fast vanishing remnants of my practical consciousness, I realized that we ought to get home without delay. My legs were functioning quite smoothly without me. We floated rather than walked up West Hill, floated in through the front door and up the stairs, floated into the sitting room of my second floor flat, where our friends were waiting for us (we had been out half an hour) and where I at once stretched out full length on the divan. The face of one of our friends loomed up close to my own like some gigantic billboard face. Behind the billboard was another, behind that another. There was a whole series of billboards.....Presently a voice seemed to come from somewhere behind them. It came from the depths, and every word had the resonance of infinite space and lasted for ages.....

Everything now seemed not only diaphanous, not only bubble-like, but in movement. It was like the waves of the sea. The waves were all rising and falling, rising and falling. Every wave was a flower, a flower with a million petals, a flower that was the universe, and every flower was opening up from a centre, unfolding from infinite depths, unfolding in a timeless explosion of stars, lights and jewels..... Everything was rising and falling, flashing and shining, opening and flowering, and now, from the heart of everything in the universe, as it unfolded, came a wondrous sound, the sound OM, came with absolute inevitability, came like music, came sonorous and infinitely prolonged, yet at the same time rising and falling, expanding and contracting, coming and going....OM was coming from the depths of our being too, we too were unfolding, we too were chanting OM. Om, Om we said softly, with incredible satisfaction and delight, as we moved about the room, Om, Om, Om,..... All ordinary sense of time had disappeared, but when, by the clock, about an hour had passed, Om changed to Yes ....."Yes, yes," we said, slowly and wonderingly, in one long continuous blissful affirmation of existence, Yes...yes...yes...yes...yes...yes...

Eventually I became aware that I was again lying on the divan. Four or five hours had passed. There seemed to be a disturbance in the corner - the friend who was tripping with us was crying, and Kevin was having to talk to him. Presently I heard Kevin telling me that they were going in to the other room.....later, when the trip was drawing to a close, we turned on the radio. Someone was being interviewed about his life and career. Both questions and answers seemed so unspeakably fatuous, so stilted and pompous and empty, that at every few words all four of us burst into roars of laughter. Next came some classical music, but it seemed tinny and artificial.....At two o'clock our two friends went to bed, while Kevin and I lay down fully dressed on the divan with my cloak over us, and remained there talking, and occasionally dozing, until nearly five. During our walk on Hampstead Heath we had passed near Boadicea's barrow, and we were now two Roman soldiers on guard duty. At five o'clock, when it was still dark, we went out for a walk on the Heath. We felt fresh and calm, and the air was cold in our faces.

Painting, Colour Photography and Literary Work

Whether a psychedelic experience helps unfreeze the springs of human creativity I do not know but as far as literary work is concerned 1970 was a more productive year for me than any other since my original departure from India in 1964. I also took up painting and colour photography. For a long time I had been haunted by the ghost of my unfinished autobiography, laid aside when I started writing 'The Three Jewels', and wanted to bring it to a conclusion as soon as possible. So big a responsibility once discharged, I would be free to devote myself to more important projects. Not only was the whole subject of the Higher Evolution of Man, in all its aspects and ramifications, increasingly claiming my attention, but there was an enormous backlog of lecture-notes waiting some kind of reduction to literary form. I have never found it difficult to write, only difficult to begin writing, and after so long a period of inactivity it was proving more difficult than ever. The visit to Yale, I hoped, would give me an opportunity of getting started again.

Before my departure from England Kevin and I agreed to correspond regularly, and at some length. This would enable him to give expression to his thoughts and feelings, in this way coming to a better understanding of them, besides obliging me to exercize myself in what I had begun to feel was for me the hopelessly intractable medium of prose. Both of us kept to our agreement. So well did the arrangement work, indeed, that in addition to showering Kevin and other friends with accounts of my life at Yale I wrote out for publication one of the most popular of my lectures, on 'Mind - Reactive and Creative', and for good measure produced half a dozen poems. After my return to England, I was, of course, kept busy by classes and other activities of the Friends, but towards the end of the Summer, after moving from Highgate to Muswell Hill, I at last got back to the unfinished autobiography and in a couple of weeks wrote practically a whole chapter. Though perforce interrupted by the Summer Retreat and the two series of lectures, the momentum gained will not, I think, be lost. In the course of the year I also translated three more chapters of the 'Dhammapada' for publication in the FWBO Newsletter. In November Doubleday brought out 'The Three Jewels' as a paperback in their Anchor Book series, while December saw the appearance of my poem 'On Glastonbury Tor' in a private edition of three hundred copies.

My reasons for taking up colour photography and painting were not, at first, aesthetic. They were practical. In the case of colour photography, all I wanted to do was to take a few pictures of Yale that would give friends in AmateurishEngland some idea of what the place looked like. Terry's Yashica-Mat was still lying in a drawer, unused since his death, so that when I returned to the States after the Easter retreat I took it with me. The results were so much better than I expected that my interest was aroused and I felt encouraged to explore the medium for its own sake. Painting, or rather colour-drawing, I took up at the Summer Retreat. Kevin had found that by doing a spontaneous drawing whenever he felt possessed by a particular mood he was able to objectify the mood, thus not only coming to a better understanding of it but also freeing himself from it to some extent. Most of the pictures he produced in this way were of human faces and these, we soon noticed, fell into three or four distinct groups, each representing a similar type of 'person' or mood. One day, at his suggestion, I tried my hand at the same technique.though they were, especially in comparison with Kevin's accomplished work, the results werep3 not without interest. Besides awaking my long dormant feeling for the visual arts, they helped me to realize how atrophied my colour sense had become since my return to England. A few days after the Retreat we left for afortnight's holiday in Cornwall. Both at St. Mawes, where we eventually took refuge from our rain-sodden tent in a trim bed-and-breakfast bungalow, and at Millbrook, where we hired a caravan, we devoted a good deal of time to working on our colour drawings, besides doing a certain amount of colour photography.By the time the flow had dried up, which was not until after our return to London, I had produced about thirty such drawings and Kevin more than fifty. Both of us learned a lot from doing them, though probably in different ways.

Looking back over this development, I cannot help recalling how in my early 'teens I was as much interested in the visual arts as in literature. Indeed, I wanted to be an artist. Probably it was only the War, evacuation, and the Armythat finally stifled this ambition. Pens, pencils and writing paper were easily available; artist's materials were not. I became exclusively a writer. During the years that I spent in Kalimpong my colour sense was satisfied, at least deeply gratified, by the brilliant hues of the Himalayan landscape in the midst of which I lived - by deep blue skies, gleaming white snow-ranges, blue wood-smoke over the mottled sage green and Indian red of precipitous mountain sides, as well as by emerald ricefields, orange bamboos, crimson poinsettias, yellow and purple orchids, black-white-and-blue butterflies and the blaze of the multi-coloured zinnias that environed the house for the greater part of the year. When I settled in England it was as though the colour had gone out of my surroundings. Perhaps it was this lost ingredient of my existence that I recognized in painting and colour photography.

The Red Desert and Other Films

Perhaps I recognized it in the art of film as well. At any rate, during 1970 I saw more films than during the whole of the rest of my life. As a Buddhist monk in India my attitude towards the cinema had been negative and ascetic, not to say puritanical. In view of the poor quality of Indian films this was probably not surprizing. Only after I had seen Antonioni's 'The Red Desert' in 1968, at the instigation of a friend, did my attitude really change. I saw at once that film was a major art form, and that it could be an important vehicle for psychological, even of spiritual, insight. At Yale, where every college had its film society, I had the opportunity of seeing a number of outstanding films, including Ken Russell's 'Women in Love' (which at Dan's insistence we sat through twice), and since my return to London I have tried to see at least two or three films every month.

The Meaninglessness of Words

That I had succumbed to the glamour of the visual arts did not mean that I had become less susceptible to the magic of the written or spoken word. For a considerable period prior to 1970 I had been overwhelmed by a feeling that words had no meaning whatever. It was not simply that they were imprecise, or clumsy, or inept to express eternal verities, but quite literally that they were devoid of any meaning. Besides making the writing of letters virtually impossible, this feeling made it difficult for me even to speak. When asked a question about, for example, Buddhism, I would see quite clearly that the question was utterly meaningless, that in reality nothing had been asked at all, and that all that had happened was that, activated by certain psychological conditionings, someone had produced a series of completely meaningless sounds. During 1970, however, this feeling of the meaninglessness of words diminished in intensity - or perhaps I was able to cope with it better. Not only did I write more during this period than for some time previously, but I read more as well. At Yale, where I had a good deal of leisure, I made extensive use of the University library, besides buying between fifty and sixty books, a number of which were not readily obtainable in England. Among my new discoveries were the stories of Anais Nin and the poems of Cavafy. Revealing as they do a literary individuality distinctively feminine, the former struck me as being without parallel in Western literature, though I suspect that the East may have a parallel in Murasaki Shikibu's 'The Tale of Genji'. Besides being enjoyable for its intrinsic poetic value, her delicate and sensitive writing makes one more deeply aware of the extent to which women writers have tended, as writers, to express themselves in terms of masculine psychology rather than in terms of their own feminine mental makeup, thus falsifying their experience and stultifying their creativity. Much of my reading had a bearing, in some cases a rather indirect one, on my preoccupation with the subject of the Higher Evolution of man. Indeed I seemed to discover connections and illustrations in all sorts of unlikely places. J. Middleton Murry's 'Son of Woman', a study of D. H. Lawrence, threw a great deal of light on the role of sex in human development, while the first chapter of H. G. Wells' fascinating 'Experiment in Autobiography' provided a trenchant statement of some of the more general aspects of the process. Towards the end of the year I became deeply immersed in a study of the life and writings of Goethe, who, ever since I first read the 'Conversations with Eckermann' in 1960 or thereabouts, had increasingly impressed me as one of the noblest examples of self-discipline and self-development in the history of Western culture. From 'The Italian Journey', in particular, I gleaned a number of remarkable passages illustrative of the degree of awareness with which the great poet addressed himself to this greatest of all human enterprises.

My First Community

The year did not close without a change not only in the direction of my interests but also in the outward circumstances of my life. Having lived in the same flat for more than three years, I wanted a change. At the beginning of August, therefore, I removed from Highgate, with its associations with Bacon, Marvell, Coleridge, A. E. Houseman and John Betjeman, to Muswell Hill, which so far as literature is concerned seems to be virgin territory. As previously arranged, Kevin moved in with me after ten days, Graham after five or six weeks. By the Autumn the three of us had settled down in our new abode and were living as a mini-community. Kevin, a third year art student at St. Martin's College of Art, attended classes during the day and worked on his thesis on 'Art and the Higher Evolution' in the evening and at weekends. Graham divided his time mainly between a part-time hospital job and classes at the North London College of Further Education. As for me, besides taking meditation classes three evenings a week at Sakura, I was working on my lectures on 'Aspects of the Higher Evolution of the Individual'. Our relationships with one another were also explored. While we were thus engaged, Christmas came and went, and in the silence of the night the Old Year expired and the New Year was born.