He was tall and well built, with long back hair, and he wore buckskin leggings. The upper part of his reddish-brown body was bare. He reminded me of the Red Indians about whom I had read in boys’ weekly magazines when I was quite young, but he was not a Red Indian. He was an asura or anti-god, a denizen of one of the six realms depicted in the wheel of life. We met in 1962 or thereabouts, when I was on a visit to Bombay. The two of us would have to fight, he told me. We would have to fight with rapiers, and whichever of us drew blood from the other would be the winner. He fought very well, but so did I, and eventually I succeeded in drawing a thin red line diagonally across his chest with the point of my rapier. ‘You have won,’ he told me, ‘and I shall have to give you something. In a few days time you will be in danger from fire and I will give you something that will protect you from it.’ He then gave me the seed-syllable rang, which I knew to be the seed-syllable of the element of fire, whereupon he disappeared and I returned to my normal consciousness. It was not a dream, nor a vision. It was as though I had been with him in his own realm, the realm of the asuras.
Two or three days later I happened to be giving a lecture on Buddhism. This was nothing new, as I gave lectures whenever I was in Bombay. What was new was the fact that on this occasion I was giving it in a building recently acquired by my friend Dinshaw Mehta, the founder of the Society of the Servants of God. He had acquired it for the activities of the Society and my lecture was part of the inaugural festivities. I was giving my lecture in a room on one of the upper floors, and there were between thirty and forty people present. Dinshaw presided, and sat next to me on the platform. I had been speaking for perhaps half an hour when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, someone enter the room and quietly hand my friend a slip of paper. The latter glanced at the paper, then quietly left the room. As I was well into my lecture I paid scant attention to what was going on and continued speaking. Twenty or more minutes later Dinshaw returned as quietly as he had left, resuming his seat beside me, and it was not long before my lecture came to an end. He afterwards told me what had happened. A room nearby had been turned into a meditation room, candles had been left burning there, and curtains had caught fire. He had been summoned and with the help of two other people he had been able to put out the blaze. It was most fortunate, he added, that I had been holding people’s attention with my lecture. Had they known that a room was on fire only a few yards away they could have panicked and in the stampede for the exit people could have been injured or even trampled to death. I said nothing to my friend about the asura or about what he had given me.
It took me only an hour to get from London to Brighton by train, and in the 1960s I used to visit the Brighton Buddhist Society every month. There was a meditation class, and from time to time I would give a talk on Buddhism in a hired room above a tea shop. The meditation class was held at the home of an elderly married couple, the Wraggs. Usually I returned to London the same evening, but on more than one occasion I stayed overnight at the Wraggs, occupying their comfortable guest room on the ground floor, next to the shrine room in which the meditation classes were held. In this way I got to know Carl and Violet quite well and even came to regard them as friends. They had been Spiritualists for many years, becoming interested in Buddhism quite late in life. As a bookcase in the guest room testified, they had read widely in the fields of comparative religion and mysticism, and I was in the habit of dipping into one of their books before going to bed. I particularly remember dipping into the Sephar Zohar or ‘Book of Splendour’, the fundamental text of the Kabbalah in five volumes, which I had not seen before. One day I heard that Violet had died, and I went down to Brighton for the funeral. Carl showed no sign of distress. For him, Violet was not dead, and when his two sons-in-law turned up in black he told them to go home and change into ordinary clothes. The funeral was almost a merry affair and we must have scandalized the solemn-faced undertaker’s men with our lightheartedness.
On my next monthly visit to the Brighton Buddhist Society I stayed with Carl who was living alone, so to speak, on the upper floor of the house. He greeted me warmly, sat me down in the sitting room in my usual chair, and went off to prepare tea. I had not sat there for more than a few minutes when Violet entered the room and seated herself opposite me, as she usually did. We then talked for a while, as we always did, and she then left me. When Carl returned with the tea I told him that I had just seen Violet. ‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘she’s always around.’ I have more than once told friends about my experience of seeing Violet and talking with her when, in the ordinary sense of the word, she was dead. Each time I have emphasized, as strongly as I could, that it was not Violet’s ghost that I had seen and talked with. It was Violet herself.
‘Would you mind taking over from me for a while?’ Terry asked me, putting his hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone. He had been on the phone for more than three hours, talking to a friend and trying to persuade him not to commit suicide. On my agreeing to take over, Terry spoke again to the friend. He was with a Buddhist monk, he told him, and he was sure the monk could help him. Would he like to speak to the monk? The friend agreed to do so, and I took the phone from Terry. I already knew the man’s history. His girlfriend had left him and he felt that as he could not live without her he had no alternative but to commit suicide. I must have spoken to him for about two hours, after which Terry took over from me and spoke to his friend again for an hour or more. By this time it was one o’clock in the morning and it seemed that between us, Terry and I had succeeded in persuading him not to commit suicide. Terry therefore went home and I went to bed. At five o’clock the man’s mother phoned to say that her son had just committed suicide. I was not really surprised. While talking to him I had the distinct impression that I was talking not to a human being but to a demon, a demon who had taken possession of Terry’s friend and driven him to commit suicide. I knew that should one allow oneself to be overwhelmed by a violent negative emotion such as craving, or hatred, or fear, one could eventually lay oneself open to possession by a negative psychic entity. In the case of Terry’s friend he had been overwhelmed by grief for the loss of his girlfriend and felt he could not live without her. An ‘evil’ non-human entity had been able taken charge of him and he had committed suicide.
Broom House Farm was located just within what may once have been a forest and was now a vast conifer plantation. It was conveniently near Thetford in Norfolk and in the early 1970s I used to run retreats there for a dozen or more people. One of these retreats was an ordination retreat, the ordination ceremony being held in the loft of the small barn that stood next to the farmhouse. I also once spent a few days at the farmhouse with a companion. One evening we happened to be sitting in the living room, he on one side of the fireplace, in which a log fire was burning, and I on the other. Suddenly my companion exclaimed, ‘What’s wrong? You look as though you’re being attacked.’ I replied, ‘Yes, that is what I feel, I feel as though I’m being attacked.’ The attack was not physical but psychical, as though I was being attacked by invisible non-human entities. The attack did not last very long. I realized that I had in my hand and had just been reading some literature that a friend had sent me from Findhorn, an intentional community in north-east Scotland, and that this literature contained references to what it called devas. Clearly, these were the non-human entities that were attacking me. I threw the literature into the fire, whereupon the attack ceased. In a sense I had brought it upon myself. The friend in question had been to see me before his departure for Findhorn and I had asked him to send me some of its literature.
The following morning I had much to think about during my solitary walk along one of the broad, straight tracks that ran through the plantation. Why had the devas attacked me? Had I done anything to offend them? Such were my thoughts as the track took me further and further into the plantation. There was no sign of animal or bird life, and it was eerily quiet. I became aware that the trees were very angry. They were angry because they were all close together and forced to grow upwards to where they had a small crown of greenery which alone ever saw the light. Perhaps it was the tree spirits that were angry rather than the trees themselves, and perhaps the tree spirits were related to the Findhorn devas, though why the latter had attacked me that evening at Broom House Farm I never knew.
One Christmas in the late 1960s, finding myself alone in the Highgate flat, I decided to spend the holiday reading The Lord of the Rings, the three volumes of which a friend had just lent me. I read the first volume on Christmas Eve, the second on Christmas Day, and the third on Boxing Day, and thus for a while found myself living in the mythic world of the elves and the ents, of Sauron and Gandalf, the hobbits Frodo and Sam, Shelob and Gollum, and the other creations of the writer’s fertile imagination. The Lord of the Rings and its cast of characters, both good and evil, soon became part of the counter-culture of the times and no one in the FWBO thought it strange that one of its country retreat centres should be called Rivendell, that being the name of the home of Elrond, one of the elves. The mythic Rivendell was hidden in a deep valley whereas the FWBO Rivendell was located in the flat Sussex countryside. In the 1980s I held there a ten-day ordination retreat for women, occupying a separate wing of the building. Though I led the meditation and gave talks, I still had enough time to write a chapter of Ambedkar and Buddhism, the book on which I was working at the time. One night I woke up at two o’clock in the morning and realized that there was somebody else in the room. As it was dark I could not see anything but I felt that quite near me there was a cold sinister presence that sent shivers up my spine. I recited a mantra and the presence slowly withdrew. It visited me on at least two more nights. I said nothing to the women about my nocturnal visitor, as I did not want to alarm them or spoil the atmosphere of the retreat. Later on I learned that years ago a woman had committed suicide in the house, it being then the rectory of the neighbouring church.
It was Tuesday, 30 January 1990. Paramartha and I were having breakfast in our flat above the London Buddhist Centre when I suddenly knew that I had to see my mother that very day. She was then in hospital in Southend-on-Sea and I had seen her only a few days before, and on leaving had promised to see her again in two weeks’ time. But now I had to see her that very day. Paramartha did not question my intuition, and we set out for Southend-on-Sea as soon as we could. Having arrived in the town before visiting hours, and wanting to get some exercise, we walked along the front in the direction of Leigh-on-Sea. The sky was overcast, a cold wind was blowing, and although it was midday one would have thought that it was already four o’clock.
On arriving at the hospital we went straight to the ward where I thought I would find my mother, on the way passing through a room in which there were four beds. The bed in the corner was empty and the thought struck me that that bed might have been occupied by my mother. The ward sister of whom I enquired where I would find Mrs Wiltshire wanted to know who I was and I said, ‘I’m her son.’ For a moment or two she was silent, then she said, ‘I am sorry to have to tell you that your mother died at two o’clock this morning.’ I was stunned by the unexpected news, but all I said was, ‘Is it possible to see her?’ The ward sister said she would find out, then ushered us into a waiting room, gave us tea, and left. We talked a little about what had happened and I was glad that Paramartha was with me. An hour later the ward sister returned. ‘You can see her now’, she said, whereupon we were taken through a series of rooms to the mortuary chapel. My mother’s body lay covered with a white sheet except for her head, behind which was the altar. She looked very dead. Though there were the same sunken eyes, now closed, the same large, prominent nose, and the same small mouth, they looked as though were carved in wood and had never been made of flesh. Paramartha seated himself on the other side of the body while I seated myself on this side so that we faced each other across it. I took my mālā from my pocket and Paramartha, with a little smile, took out his. We then chanted the Vajrasattva mantra in unison for about half an hour. All this time we were aware that a foot or more above my mother’s chest there was an area within which there was some kind of electrical or psychic vibration. We left the chapel quietly, closing the door behind us, and soon we were out of the hospital and on our way back to London.
There were three unusual things about our experience. While having breakfast that morning I had known that I had to go and see my mother that day. There were only two previous occasions in my life when I had been visited by a similar experience, both of them connected with the death of someone I knew. Then, I had never before taken my mālā with me when I went out and neither had Paramartha, yet before we left the flat we had both slipped a mālā into our pocket without knowing that the other had done so. No wonder Paramartha had given me that little conspiratorial smile as he took his own mālā from his pocket. Finally, there was the strange phenomenon of the area above my mother’s chest in which there was some kind of electrical or psychic vibration. Did this mean that my mother was not really as dead as she seemed to be? If what the ward sister had told me was correct, when we saw my mother she must have been dead for a little over twelve hours. But I knew that according to some Buddhist traditions it took rather longer than that for the consciousness to sever its connection with the body.
The sound of the voice did not wake me up, for I was already awake, listening to the faint sound of traffic on the Aslacton Road. It was a soft, warm, friendly voice, and it was quite near. ‘Hello Bhante-ji,’ the voice said. It was an Indian voice, as I knew from the intonation. And though it was dark in the bedroom and I could not see anything, I knew that there was someone with me. One of my Indian Buddhist friends must have died, I thought, and had come to pay me a final visit. The sound from the Aslacton Road grew fainter, and soon I was fast asleep.