Colin Wilson’s The Outsider was published in 1956, and a few years later a friend of mine lent me the book with the comment that I would find it interesting. This friend considered himself to be very much an Outsider, as he had more than once told me, and the consciousness that he was an Outsider deeply rankled with him, making him feel bitter and resentful.
That was fifty or more years ago. Though I found the book interesting, I did not follow up the idea of the Outsider until some years later, when I was concerned with the nature of the difference between the individual and the group member, and between the group and the spiritual community. Neither was I then concerned with the question of whether or not I was myself an Outsider in Colin Wilson’s sense of the term. As I look back over my life it appears to me that even if I did not think of myself as an Outsider there were times when I was seen as one by others, at least in certain respects. For the first few years of my life the question of whether or not I was an Outsider did not arise. Indeed, it could not arise for I was born into a family of which I was a fully accepted member from the beginning. I belonged to it, and took the fact of my belonging to it for granted. This happy state of affairs came to an end, to an extent, when at the age of ten or eleven I went back to school after an absence of two or more years. I was absent because I had been confined first to bed and then to a wheelchair, and I was confined to them because I had been diagnosed as suffering from valvular disease of the heart. Even when I was back at school I was not allowed to play games or take part in PT, or even to walk fast, much less still to run. I was not allowed to stand during morning assembly, for it was thought that if I stood for too long it would put a strain on my heart. A classmate was therefore deputed to follow me into the hall carrying a chair, and on this chair I would sit during the hymns, prayers, and announcements. I sat on it even when the rest of the assembly sat on the floor, which made me a very conspicuous figure. In this way I came to be considered different from the other boys and perhaps even as something of an Outsider.
Being an Outsider, if such I was in those days, was not without its advantages. Because I could not run around in the playground with the other boys I stayed in the classroom during breaks and read. Sometimes I had a companion. This was a boy of my own age called Douglas Nicholas. He was fair-haired and green-eyed, with a yellowish complexion, and though he was quite a big boy he was very timid and was known as a cry baby. Since he was afraid of being set upon he did not go out into the playground during breaks and thus sometimes came and sat by me. Though he was timid, he had a vicious streak in his character and liked to pinch me in the leg quite hard so that I was not fond of his company. On leaving school one afternoon I found that Douglas Nicholas was being pinned against a wall by a group of eight or nine boys. They were punching, poking, and pushing him and he was blubbering. Without thinking I pushed my way through the boys, seized Douglas by the hand, and to jeers and catcalls led him away to safety, which meant taking him halfway home, though his home was in a different direction from mine. The incident made me realize that being an Outsider gave me a certain immunity, even a certain status, so that I was able to do things that I could not otherwise have done.
A few years later there came the war, and with the war there came the great evacuation of school children from London to places of safety in the countryside, for it was expected that London would be bombed by the Luftwaffe. The bombing did not come at once, but it did come later, when in 1940 the Luftwaffe rained bombs on London for fifty-seven nights in succession, killing 20,000 people and destroying much of the city, including sixteen Wren churches. I had been evacuated a few months earlier, travelling with my suitcase and my gas-mask to distant Devonshire in the company of several dozen classmates. At first I was made welcome, but in my second billet the landlady conceived an aversion to me eventually referring to me as a ‘’vacuee’ in tones that suggested that for her an evacuee was among the lowest forms of human life. To her I was an Outsider, not only because I was an evacuee but because I spoke with a different accent and had interests that were beyond her ken. My younger sister, Joan, had a more positive experience of evacuation. She had been evacuated the previous year to Sussex, being billeted with a farmer and his wife not far from Chichester. When she had been with them for a couple of months my mother and I paid her a visit. Mr and Mrs Ayling were both in their late thirties. They were childless, and it was soon evident that they treated Joan as their own daughter. Mrs Ayling was like any other housewife, but in his corduroy britches and leather gaiters Mr Ayling was the very picture of a farmer. I do not remember how long the visit lasted, but we stayed long enough to accompany Joan and Mr Ayling to a livestock auction, Mr Ayling having a cow he wanted to sell. It fetched only £2 and I shall not easily forget the look of disappointment, almost of anguish, that passed over his bronzed, handsome face. Back at the farm my mother chatted with the Aylings, while Joan snuggled up to Mr Ayling, and I picked up a book that was lying around. It bore the title My Life in Time, and it had been written by Mr Ayling’s aunt. As its title suggested, the authoress had a life outside time as well as in it, and I soon discovered that the work was of the occult or ‘mystical’ type, such as were soon to become known to me through the writings of Mme Blavatsky.
This was not the first time that I had picked up and read a book while visiting with my mother. Not long before our visit to the farm she had taken me to see Auntie Jessie, one of her elder sisters, who lived in a downstairs flat in Chiswick. The visit probably occupied the greater part of the day, for the two sisters had a lot to say to each other, and it was not long before I started looking around for something to read. There was nothing lying around, but in my aunt’s living room there was a glass-fronted bookcase and in the bookcase I could see several rows of books. Soon I had taken out three of the books – E. W. Hornung’s Raffles, and Marie Corelli’s The Mighty Atom and Jane – and by the time my mother and I had said goodbye to Auntie Jessie I had read all three. Raffles, the eponymous hero of the novel, is a gentleman crook and the book seemed to be an attempt to make crime look glamorous. Marie Corelli’s books were shorter and much more moral. Indeed, I remember them as being full of moral indignation. In The Mighty Atom the indignation is directed against those wicked people who thought that children should be brought up without being given any religious instruction. Here the eponymous hero is a dear little boy who hangs himself with his beautiful silk sash because he wants to find out whether or not there is a God. In Jane her indignation is directed against the frivolous, loose-living upper classes. The eponymous heroine inherits a fortune and decides to see what fashionable society is like. She buys a big house in London, entertains the highest aristocracy, including royalty, and one evening has the satisfaction of ordering everyone to leave her house at once. Young as I was, I well understood that in the person of her heroine, Marie Corelli was pronouncing the verdict of the virtuous middle-class on the doings of their profligate social superiors. Marie Corelli was a bad writer, according to the critics, but she was highly readable, which is probably why I remember those books to this day.
As my behaviour on these visits suggests, I was in the habit of picking up and reading any book that I found lying around. Whether young or old, at home or abroad, one of the first things I would do on finding myself in a new place was to see what books were there for me to read during my visit. One of the most memorable of such finds took place more than sixty years ago. I was in South India with a friend. We were wandering ascetics, having gone forth from home into the homeless life as the Buddha had done many centuries earlier. We had no identity papers, no possessions other than the gerua-dyed robes we wore and, in my case, a copy of the Dhammapada. We went barefoot, walking from place to place and relying for our food on the generosity of the people through whose villages we passed. We were Outsiders. We were in the world, but not of it, at least so far as externals went. We were celibate, had no family, and no worldly occupation. The occasion I am recalling finds my friend and me, footsore and weary, approaching an unpretentious building, being warmly welcomed, given food, and finally being settled in a bungalow nearby. We were in Anandashram, the abode of Swami Ramdas, and we stayed there for six weeks. We spent much of our time in meditation, but every now and then we went to the Bhajan Hall where we listened to the devotional songs and talked with Swami Ramdas. It was not long before we discovered that the ashram possessed a library, or rather a small, very miscellaneous collection of religious books. Among them, to my surprise and delight, was Suzuki’s translation of The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna. I had seen a version of it before, but I had not read it, and I therefore proceeded to copy it out into my rather fat notebook. This notebook I still have, and together with twenty-six other items it formed part of the Nine Decade Exhibition that was held in connection with my ninetieth birthday celebrations.
From Anandashram my friend and I travelled to the ashram of the celebrated Ramana Maharshi. We stayed there for six weeks, occupying a cave at the foot of Mount Arunachala, the mountain of light. Every few days we would pay a visit to the ashram in order to have darshan of the Maharshi. One night I had a vision of Amitābha, the red Buddha, the Buddha of the West. I took the vision to mean that having spent two years as a freelance wandering ascetic I should now seek ordination as a bhikkhu. Not long afterwards, therefore, my friend and I were given the lower or sāmaṇera ordination by a senior Burmese monk, and more than a year later, my friend having left for Ceylon, I received the higher or bhikkhu ordination from a sangha consisting of monks from Burma, Ceylon, India, and Nepal. The Buddha had reminded his bhikkhu disciples that upon entering the sangha they left behind them their former names and social identities and henceforth were reckoned simply as Sons of the Buddha, but I soon found that in modern times this was not always the case. A Sinhalese monk for example, was often Sinhalese first and a bhikkhu afterwards. Moreover, many monks were keenly interested in politics, even to the extent of supporting one political party rather than another, and some years later this involvement of monks in politics culminated in a Prime Minister of Ceylon being assassinated by a Sinhalese bhikkhu. Far from being Outsiders, as the Buddha and his bhikkhu disciples were, such political monks were as much Insiders as were the laity.
But it is time I went into reverse and reconnected with the war years. Since I suffered from valvular disease of the heart, and was still supposed not to run or even to walk quickly, I had assumed that I was quite unfit for military service. At my Medical Board, however, I was classed as B2, while the cardiologist to whom I was referred, at my request, told me that there was nothing wrong with my heart. Thus, from being an Outsider who could not even run quickly I was transformed, overnight, into an Insider who, with two or three dozen other men, was drilled, went on route marches, and learned to handle a variety of lethal weapons. In The Rainbow Road the chapter in which I describe my early days in the army is headed ‘The Misfit’. In a sense we were all misfits, having been plunged into the army from various walks of life and at various ages from eighteen to forty-five. Though I did not realize it at the time we were comparatively lucky. We were lucky because on the strength of our knowledge of Morse code we had been posted to a semi-secret unit of the Royal Corps of Signals, and had to undergo only the most basic military training. Even so, after four or five months it became evident that the authorities wanted to get us off military training and into full-time technical training as quickly as possible. No more drill, no more guard duty, and no more route marches, and we were given as many weekend passes as we wanted!
In this more civilized atmosphere tensions relaxed, and we were able to take up the thread of interests that we had had to drop on entering the army. In my own case I had more time for walks in the countryside and for reading and writing poetry. Nor was this all. Living at close quarters with other men, especially those of my own age, I became more aware than ever that I was an Outsider. I was not an Outsider because I loved the poetry of Robert Herrick, or was exhilarated by Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, or even because I regarded myself as a Buddhist. I was an Outsider for deeper and darker reasons. I was an Outsider because I was sexually attracted to men, not to women, and I had been aware of this since the age of fourteen.
In subsequent years, thanks to my wide reading, I had become aware that there were, and always had been, men like me, among them being some of the brightest names in poetry, literature, music, and the visual arts. By the time I entered the army, therefore, I knew just where I stood, sexually speaking. I also knew what the majority of people thought of sexuality such as mine. Homosexuality was unnatural. It was wicked, sinful, and perverse and a homosexual was a moral leper. This was not the worst. In my own country, as in other civilized countries, any kind of homosexual activity was a criminal offence, and there were countries in which it was punishable by death. It therefore behoved me to be very careful what I did or said, or even how I looked at other men. This was not without its consequences for my emotional life. Keeping my feelings to myself became a habit, especially when those feelings were very strong and directed to another man. Many years were to pass before I was able to give expression to such feelings even to a limited extent.
Though it was on account of my particular type of sexuality that I was an Outsider, one could be an Outsider for all sorts of other reasons, as Colin Wilson made clear. One could be an Outsider for reasons that were political, or religious, or cultural, or commercial, or purely social. Whatever the reason, there were advantages as well as disadvantages to being an Outsider, as I had discovered when at school. One advantage was that as an Outsider one had a sharper sense of separation from the group to which one belonged. It gave one a heightened awareness of one’s individuality and, therefore, of the possibility of a development that went beyond group values to the higher values of philosophy, religion, and the arts. Another advantage was that as an Outsider one was unusually sensitive to subliminal signals coming from other people. In certain situations, the ability to read those signals might be a matter of life or death. A political dissident living under a totalitarian regime, or a homosexual living in a country where homosexuality was a criminal or even capital offence, needed to be constantly on the alert. Like some animals he would have to sleep with one eye open. Any talk of the advantages of being an Outsider is likely to have a hollow sound in the ears of one who is himself suffering from being an Outsider. Such suffering is of two kinds, external and internal. The former includes ostracism, torture, imprisonment, and death. The latter occurs when the Outsider introjects the values of the group and condemns himself because the group condemns him. If the Outsider is homosexual he will feel shame and guilt on account of his sexuality. He may even try to deny it. In extreme cases he may commit suicide. As George V famously said, ‘I thought men like that shot themselves.’
Again I must go into reverse and reconnect with my time in India as a Buddhist monk. In 1956, 400,000 men and women renounced Hinduism and embraced Buddhism under the leadership of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. I was then living in Kalimpong, a small town in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, and it was not long before I became involved in the movement of mass conversion that had been thus inaugurated. The converts were ex-Untouchables. They were Outsiders in that they were outside the Hindu caste system and were systematically treated in a humiliating and degrading manner by the caste Hindu majority. I met Dr Ambedkar several times, and after his untimely death spent much of my time travelling among the new Buddhists and teaching them the fundamentals of the Dhamma. This I did for seven or eight years, in this way winning their confidence so that even after my departure for England in 1964 they did not forget me. Some of my non-Buddhist friends wondered how I could have so much influence with the new Buddhists. I was not an Indian. I was British, and as such an Outsider, a mere mleccha or barbarian. To this I replied that I was indeed an Outsider, not only because I was not a citizen of India but because I was a Buddhist monk, there being very few bhikkhus in India at that time. It was because I was an Outsider that the new Buddhists trusted me. Like them, I was outside the Hindu caste system. We were Outsiders together.
In 1962 I was invited by the English Sangha Trust to spend six months in England. As I wanted to finish the book on which I was working, and had moreover undertaken a nine-month tour among the new Buddhists, it was not until 1964 that I was able to leave India. At that time there were two Buddhist organizations in London, both of them quite small. There was the Buddhist Society of London and there was the English Sangha Association, the trustees of which had invited me to make the visit. Membership of the Buddhist Society was open to all. One did not even have to be a Buddhist to be a member, or a practising Buddhist if one happened to be Buddhist at all. Membership of the English Sangha Association, on the other hand, was open only to those who wanted to see a branch of the Buddhist monastic order established in England and who were committed to its support when established. The Buddhist Society, which had originally been the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Society, functioned as a common platform for different forms of Buddhism, though the dominant form was a Zen deriving mainly from the writings of D. T. Suzuki. Committed as it was to the establishment of an indigenous monastic order, the English Sangha Association naturally favoured Theravāda Buddhism. As I soon discovered, the four or five hundred English Buddhists were more or less evenly divided between the Society and the Association, though a handful belonged to both. Though I was based at the Hampstead Buddhist Vihara, which belonged to the English Sangha Trust, I gave lectures and led meditation classes for the members of both the Association and the Society. In this way I sought to bring the two Buddhist organizations together. This did not please everybody, and eventually I saw that a new form of Buddhism was needed in England, perhaps in the West. As was not the case with the Society, all the members of this new form of Buddhism would be committed Buddhists, though unlike the Association they would not be committed to any one form of Buddhism. Two years later, after I had paid a brief farewell visit to India, this new Buddhist movement came into existence in London as the Friends of the Western Sangha. Yet it did not emerge fully formed all at once, like Pallas Athena from the head of Zeus. It was not a blueprint but a seed, and like a seed it needed time for its development.
This development has now been going on for forty-eight years and it will continue to develop and expand after my death. To begin with I gave all the talks, led all the meditation classes and country retreats, and conducted all the ordinations within the Triratna Buddhist Order, as the Western Buddhist Order eventually became. Soon the seed was quite a tree, a tree with several big branches, a number of twigs and innumerable leaves. So many twigs and leaves were there that sometimes it became difficult for people to see the structure of the tree. I therefore started speaking in terms of the six distinctive emphases of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community and gave more than one talk on them. This is not the place for me to summarize those talks. I do, however, remember an interesting coincidence. The Triratna Buddhist Community was founded in 1967, membership being open to all, including homosexuals. It so happened that it was the same year, 1967, that homosexual acts between consenting adult men in private were decriminalized in England and Wales. A homosexual was no longer a complete Outsider, at least officially. When I started speaking in terms of the six distinctive emphases of Triratna, senior members of the Order were already running most Triratna activities, and before many years had passed they were running them all.
At the time of writing I am living at Adhisthana. It is autumn, the poet’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, and there have been mists enough and much mellow fruitfulness in the form of the loads of apples that have been carted away from the neighbouring orchards. Though I have visitors, it is a long time since I paid any visits, and a long time, therefore, since I have had the experience of picking up a book that happened to be lying around and reading it on the spot. This does not mean that from time to time I do not come across a book of which I have never heard but on which I am willing to spend a few hours. I am a member of Calibre and of the Royal National Institute for the Blind, both of which supply talking books to blind and partially-sighted people. When I joined those organizations I asked for works on religion and on philosophy, but since hardly any works on these subjects were available I changed to biography and classic fiction. Thus it was that I came to be listening to novels by Anthony Trollope, and finding in two of them characters that were reminiscent of Colin Wilson’s concept of the Outsider. Ferdinand Lopez, in The Prime Minister, is definitely an Outsider, being of Portuguese descent, probably Jewish, and not a gentleman in the English sense of the term. Having neither profession nor a regular income he speculates on the commodity market and the reader is not surprised that eventually his speculations fail and he commits suicide. Dr Thorne, the eponymous hero of the novel of the same name, is an Outsider in the eyes of other doctors, for he is his own apothecary. His niece Mary, who lives with him, is an Outsider of another kind, for she happens to be illegitimate. When Mary unexpectedly inherits a fortune the titled lady who has treated Mary with great cruelty and done her best to keep her away from her son is now happy to welcome her as a daughter-in – law despite her illegitimacy. Thus from being an Outsider Mary, overnight, becomes an Insider, a not unusual development where money is concerned.
Whether listening to Trollope or any other novelists I listen in the living room of the Urgyen Annexe where I have now lived for more than two and a half years with Paramartha. I usually listen sitting in a comfortable armchair that belonged to my mother and which I inherited when she died twenty-five years ago. All around me are mementos and memorabilia of my long and eventful life. There are paintings and photographs, images and artefacts, gifts from groups and gifts from individuals. Among the last are things that Paramartha has given me over the years. They include a wall plate from Morocco, a silver statuette of Milarepa, and a replica of an ancient Greek vase depicting Hercules. As I look at them or handle them I think of my friend and remember the times we have spent together, whether on retreat at Guhyaloka, or travelling, or studying the Dharma together in the conservatory here at the Annexe. As I write these words Paramartha is in New Zealand, looking after his mother who has cancer. He left Adhisthana more than two months ago, and does not know how long he will be away. We exchange emails every week and talk on the phone. I have been sending him my recent writings, and I will send this one too, as soon as I have a title for it.