‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I used to be asked when I was thirteen or fourteen. Sometimes it would be ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ Although I remember being asked these questions I cannot remember who asked them. I never thought about what I would be or do when I left school and went out into the world. What I did think about was what I wanted to do at the time. I wanted to write, especially to write poetry, and I wanted to draw and paint, as well as to read as much as I could about literature and the arts. At the time of which I am speaking I spent more time painting than writing. I liked to paint pictures of historical figures such as Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, Catherine de Medici and Marie Antoinette. I particularly liked painting pictures of women, for depicting their long, flowing draperies, with all their folds and creases, gave me a keen aesthetic pleasure. It also meant that I did not have to depict their bodies, especially their legs, which at this time was beyond my skill. The fact that I was spending much of my free time painting could hardly escape the notice of those around me, especially my parents and my sister and other members of the family. It was well known that Dennis painted and that he was perhaps going to be an artist when he grew up. There was even some talk about the possibility of my going to art school. It was not my ambition to be an artist. I just wanted to paint and draw. Although it was well known that Dennis painted, it was not so well known that he also wrote poetry. Indeed it was known only to the girl next door, a girl of my own age to whom I showed my first poems. ‘They are very good,’ she said. Despite this appreciation, I did not show her any more of my poems, nor did I show them to anyone else. It was as though writing, unlike painting, was something personal and private and it was some time before I showed anyone else anything that I had written. This does not mean that I wrote only for myself. I wrote for an audience, or at least for a potential one, but that audience did not include anyone around me. Eventually, when I was seventeen, it came to include Claire Cameron, editor of the Middle Way, who published not only a few of my poems but also my first articles on Buddhism. I was eighteen when these appeared.
By this time Britain had been at war with Nazi Germany for four years. During those years I had been evacuated, had worked for a year in a coal merchant’s office, and for two years had been a clerical assistant in the LCC’s Public Health Department at County Hall. Now I was conscripted into the army. I had not expected to be conscripted. I had assumed that with my long history of valvular disease of the heart I would be considered unfit for military service. This proved not to be the case and I have sometimes wondered how my life would have developed if I had not been conscripted at eighteen, had not experienced life in the army, had not been posted to India, had not become a Buddhist monk, had not written A Survey of Buddhism, and had not become the disciple of Tibetan lamas, all of which followed from the simple fact of having been found fit for military service. Thus the fact that I had been found fit for military service had led to my having for the next twenty years a life very different from what I would otherwise have had.
But what would that other life have been like? Where would I have lived? What would I have done? I would not have lived at home, for I had no home, my parents having separated a year or so earlier. Perhaps I would have lived with my grandmother, occupying the room that Uncle Charles had occupied before his marriage. Probably I would have continued to be a clerical assistant at County Hall, though I would not have known how long my job would last. I was no more than a temporary clerical assistant, having been recruited during the war, and would probably have been replaced sooner or later by someone returning from having served his country in the armed forces. In some respects, therefore, my life would have been an uncertain one, even a precarious one. Not that it would have been uncertain in all respects. I would have kept on writing whatever the circumstances. I would have continued to write for the Middle Way and would have kept up my friendships with Clare Cameron and Arnold Price, the translator of the Diamond Sūtra. I would have attended lectures and meditation classes at the Buddhist Society’s rooms above a tea shop in Great Russell Street, as I had been doing for some time, and I am sure that before long I would have been giving lectures there myself. I might even have succeeded Clare Cameron as editor of the Middle Way.
Not that all my activities would have revolved around the Buddhist Society. I would have sent off articles and poems to the editors of literary magazines, some of whom might have paid their contributors. Very likely I would have joined the PEN Club and met other writers, and I would certainly have continued to patronize the theatre and cinema, as well as to frequent museums and art galleries. Within ten or twelve years of my rejection by the army I would, I think, have published a slim volume of poems, have collected my Buddhist articles into a book, and have produced a substantial work on Buddhism. It would not have been A Survey of Buddhism, of course, but it would have been very much like it, for whether in England or in India, my understanding of the Buddha’s Dharma would have developed along similar lines. Even if that crowning work had not been well received I would surely have written more books and would have planned to write even more. The truth is that throughout my life there have always been books that I planned to write but which, for one reason or another, I never got round to writing.
Thus during those ten or twelve years I may well have had a moderately successful career as a writer, at least as a writer of books and articles on Buddhism. But what would my emotional and spiritual life have been like? Some of it would have found expression in my poetry, but there would have been much going on that would have found no expression at all. This would have been especially the case with my sexual feelings, which, being a young man’s feelings, would have been very strong. What, then, would I have done? I find it difficult to say. Perhaps I would have acted upon those feelings, perhaps not. In any case I would have been faced by a serious problem for my sexual feelings were directed towards other men and in England acting upon such feelings was a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment. Had I simply repressed my feelings I might not have fallen foul of the law, but my whole sexual and emotional life would have been stultified. On the other hand, had I ventured to act upon them, even to a limited extent, I would have had to do so furtively, even secretly, with the consciousness that I was not only breaking the law but leading a double life. I would have been always anxious, afraid of being found out, and unable to be fully open even with those with whom I broke the law. But perhaps eventually I would have become careless, would have knowingly taken risks, or would have trusted the wrong person, with the result that one day I would have been caught and exposed, thus disgracing my family, alienating my friends, and losing whatever standing I then had in the world. Like others in the same position I would have had to decide between two alternatives: suicide or prison. But here my imagination falters and I return with relief from the possible fate of my hypothetical self to the subject of my unwritten books.
Some of these unwritten books were to have formed part of a series called ‘The Heritage of Buddhism’. There were to have been five volumes in all, but only The Three Jewels and The Eternal Legacy, the first and second volumes in the series, were actually written. Both were written in Kalimpong in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas where I was living at the time. Volume 4, on ‘Meditation in the Three Yānas’, and volume 5 on ‘Forms and Functions of Buddhist Art’ were never written. Of the ‘Patterns of Development in Buddhism’, the third volume in the series, I was able to write only the first three sections, also written in Kalimpong. All these volumes – the written, the unwritten, and the partly written – were the result of my having been invited to contribute the articles on Buddhism to the Oriya Encyclopaedia, one of the fourteen regional language encyclopaedias then being sponsored by the Government of India. I was more than happy to write the articles, and set to work on them immediately, putting aside The Rainbow Road, on which I had been working for some time. I wrote in the morning after breakfast and carried on until lunchtime. If I grew stiff, or if I came up against a doctrinal or a literary difficulty, I left my desk and walked up and down the veranda until the difficulty had been resolved. Within two years I had written, despite interruptions, up to 100,000 words – far more than the 14,000 for which I had been asked. Partly because my subject was Buddhism, and partly because the act of writing was so pleasurable, I enjoyed writing them and was sorry when I had to stop. The reason for my having to stop was that I had been invited to write the article on Buddhism for the new edition of the OUP’s The Legacy of India and the article was needed at once. By the time I had written this article it was 1964 and high time I fulfilled my promise to the English Sangha Trust, namely, that I would spend six months in England. I was never able resume my work on the articles for the Oriya Encyclopaedia and ‘The Heritage of Buddhism’ therefore remains incomplete. The Three Jewels was eventually published by Rider in 1967 and The Eternal Legacy by Tharpa in 1985.
One of my favourite unwritten books was planned but unwritten not in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas but amid the flat landscape of Norfolk. I was then living at Padmaloka, a men’s community on the outskirts of the village of Surlingham, some seven miles from Norwich. During my time there I naturally developed an interest in the area, especially as I was living only twenty miles from the village of Besthorpe, near Attleborough, where my paternal grandmother had been born and where my father had spent much of his childhood. Norfolk is one of the bigger English counties and in the Middle Ages Norwich was second in importance only to London as is testified by its forty-odd churches, including its twelfth-century cathedral. Where there is history there will be heroes and heroines, and as I thought about the ones who belonged to Norfolk, either by birth or domicile, five names not only stood out for me but seemed to form a constellation. These five I came to think of as my Five Norfolk Worthies, and before long I was planning a book about them. The five were Julian of Norwich, Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas Paine, Lord Nelson, and Edith Cavell. There was to be a chapter on each of them and these chapters would make a small book. Though the plan was clear enough in my mind, and though I liked thinking about my five worthies, my life at Padmaloka was a busy one and I was unable to write even a word about any of them. Five Norfolk Worthies thus became one of my unwritten books.
Though I never wrote about my five Norfolk worthies I did not forget them, and they continued to haunt the fringes of my consciousness. In the case of Julian of Norwich (1342–1416) I was able, during my stay at Padmaloka, to visit the cell where she had spent the greater part of her life. The cell was built up against the wall of the Church of St Julian in Norwich and it had two windows, one opening into the church, so that Julian could hear mass, the other opening onto the street, so that she could communicate with the people who came to see her. I saw the place at the invitation of a friend who belonged to a meditation group that met there regularly and once invited me to join them. Seven or eight people were gathered there, including my friend. I do not know what kind of meditation they practised, but the atmosphere was very peaceful and I enjoyed my visit. Years later I learned that the original cell had been destroyed by a German bomb and that the one I had seen was a reconstruction. I had heard of Julian of Norwich long before my time at Padmaloka and had read a popular edition of her book, Revelations of Divine Love. In this, the first English book to be written by a woman, Julian not only describes her sixteen visions of Jesus Christ but also comments on them at some length, as though she was trying to understand their meaning. Had I written my chapter on her I would no doubt have read this work again and may well have compared it with the writings of other Christian mystics. I may also have thought it necessary to discuss the question of whether the mystical experience was entirely subjective or whether the mystic really did encounter a higher transpersonal reality.
Like Julian, Sir Thomas Browne (1605–82) had a close connection with Norwich, but there the resemblance between them ends. She was an anchoress and a mystic, he a doctor, a scholar, an antiquarian, and a busy professional man. Above all he was the author of Religio Medici, a work remarkable for its beautiful, baroque style. I came across it when I was fourteen and was so fascinated by its style that I strove to imitate it in an essay of my own. So far as I remember, Sir Thomas Browne was the only writer whose style I ever wanted to imitate. Had my chapter about him been written, I would have discussed the question of literary style in detail and no doubt would have had something to say about the immense variety of English prose styles. Sir Thomas Browne lived through the Civil War, in which he took the Royalist side, for which he was knighted by Charles II when the king visited Norwich after the Restoration. He lies buried in the Church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich.
Julian of Norwich is known only to students of mysticism, and Sir Thomas Browne is known mainly to lovers of English literature, but Thomas Paine (1737–1809) is much more widely known. He was involved in both the American and the French Revolutions and his book The Rights of Man is a classic of political literature. I do not find him a sympathetic character and had I written about him I would probably have said little about his life and much more about the whole question of ‘rights’. As long ago as 1951 I wrote an article on ‘Rights and Duties’ in which I argued that the two were, in fact, not only complementary but inseparable, and that the emphasis should be on duties rather than rights. As I then put it, ‘But just as, in the case of a walking-stick, although its two ends are inseparable, so that one is unthinkable without the other, nevertheless it is the handle of the stick that must be grasped, not the tip, so in human relationships it is duties that must be performed, rather than rights demanded, even though the two in fact are inseparable so that the one necessarily follows from the other.’ Since I wrote those rather uncompromising lines there has been in many parts of the world, including Britain, a disturbing change. Rights and duties are no longer seen as being inseparable and complementary. Rights are separated from duties, so that duties come to be neglected, and social and political discourse is dominated by the concept of rights. Rights are of many kinds and the number seems to be constantly on the increase. There can also be a conflict between different rights, as when the mother’s right to do what she pleases with her own body conflicts with the right of the foetus to live. The confusion that has been generated by the one-sided emphasis on rights can be resolved by a greater emphasis on duties. The Buddha spoke of duties, not of rights. According to him duties are complementary: parents have duties towards their children, and children have duties towards their parents, and so on through the whole gamut of human relationships. Members of a Buddhist community will therefore think in terms of duties rather than rights, and act accordingly. They will take hold of the right end of the stick. In Thomas Paine’s time, in both England and France, the emphasis was on duties rather than rights, especially where the common people were concerned. It is therefore understandable that throughout his career Thomas Paine should have preached the gospel of human rights. His statue stands in the marketplace of Thetford where he was born.
Lord Nelson (1758–1805) belongs not just to history but to legend. Perhaps he belongs more to legend than to history, at least in the collective memory of his fellow countrymen. The principal facts of his life were known to me from an early age, but it was the legend that appealed to me, and had I written about Nelson it was probably on the legend that I would have dwelt. I would perhaps have begun by emphasizing the fact that his was an extremely attractive personality, and that as an admiral he was as popular with his subordinates as he was unpopular with some of his superiors in the service. He did not hesitate to disobey orders, as when he put his telescope to his blind eye when he did not wish to see a signal with whose orders he disagreed. His relationship with Lady Hamilton, whom he met in the romantic setting of Naples, is very much part of the legend. He is as much the Hero as Lover as he is the Hero as Victor, and although the legend speaks of one great love, the victories were many. Nelson’s greatest victory was at Trafalgar when he destroyed Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet and established Britain’s naval supremacy. The victory cost him his life. He was struck down by a bullet from a marksman stationed in the rigging of a French ship and died in the arms of his faithful Hardy. His last words were, ‘Thank God I have done my duty.’ Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column were familiar sights from my boyhood, serving to remind me of the man and his legend. Had I written about him, I think I would have had something to say about his connection with the sea. The land for which he gave his life is an island, as the BBC’s shipping forecast reminds us every Saturday evening. One is never more than seventy miles from the sea and it has been said that the sea is in an Englishman’s blood. I have not spent much time at sea and sometimes wish I could have spent more, especially as I have happy memories of short trips by ferry. One of these was from Harwich to Götheburg. It was a brilliantly sunny day and the sea, calm as a lake, reflected the cloudless cerulean sky. Another trip took me from Brindisi to Igoumenitsa. As I have written elsewhere, ‘It was a fine, clear morning, the sea could not have been more calm, and we were sailing between the mainland and some four or five small, widely separated islands. Despite the muffled hum of the ship’s engines, and the occasional muffled shout coming from the swimming pool, there was a breathless hush in the air, and as I gazed out over the dark blue waters it was as though time stood still, as though nothing had changed, and that I was seeing what Homer – had he not been blind – might have seen three thousand years ago.’
Edith Cavell (born 1865) was executed by a German firing squad on 12 October 1915. Her crime was that she had helped Allied prisoners-of-war and others to escape from occupied Belgium to Holland. I have often wondered what were the feelings of those young German soldiers as they shot a defenceless woman. They were, of course, obeying orders, and had they done otherwise out of pity for their victim they would in all likelihood have been court-martialed themselves and been shot by a firing squad of their own comrades. Edith Cavell was born in the village of Swardeston, where her father was vicar, and had her schooling in nearby Norwich. After five years as a governess, she trained as a nurse and worked in hospitals in different parts of England, including London. In 1907 she became matron of a newly established nursing school in Brussels and a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium. When Germany occupied Belgium, Edith Cavell’s clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross and she continued working as a nurse. This brought her into contact with wounded Allied soldiers and it was for helping many of these escape that she was sentenced to death by the German military. Her last words were, ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ These words are inscribed on the pedestal of her statue in St Martins, near Trafalgar Square. I have often passed that statue and have wondered how many of the tourists and other passers-by know her story. Had I written about her, I would have had quite a lot to say about those famous last words, which reminds me of Dhammapada verse 5: ‘Not by hatred (vera) are hatreds (verani) pacified. They are pacified by love (avera).’ The remains of Edith Cavell were finally buried in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral.
As I think of my Five Norfolk Worthies, and try to imagine what I might have written about them, I regret that the book of which they were to be the subject should be one of my unwritten books. Other books that were planned but not written included one on the relationship between Neoplatonism and Buddhism. Neoplatonism has fascinated me since my teens, when I dipped into the Enneads and read Dean Inge’s The Philosophy of Plotinus, to both of which I returned years later. Indeed, I have a small library of works on Neoplatonism and related subjects. At the centre of my book there would probably have been a comparison between the three hypostases of Neoplatonism and the three svabhāvas of Yogācāra Buddhism. I also very much wanted to write a biography of the Buddha. Not that I planned it in any detail but from time to time I thought about it quite a lot. In particular I wanted to bring together the historical Buddha and the legendary or archetypal Buddha in such a way that the reader would see and feel them as the mundane and transcendental aspects of a single undivided personality. My approach would have been both philosophical and devotional.
Another unwritten book was my autobiography. Friends might protest that I have in fact already written my autobiography, and written it not in one volume, but many, but this is to confuse memoirs and autobiography. As the word itself suggests, memoirs are what one remembers of one’s life as one looks back on it. Some events and experiences will be remembered more clearly than others, and some may not be remembered at all. Thus in memoirs there will inevitably be gaps. Moreover, one may mis-remember certain events and experiences and one’s account of them may differ widely from that of others who were present at the time and who have different memories. An autobiography, on the other hand, is an auto-biography. It is an account of one’s life by oneself written in the first person, and it draws not only on one’s own memories, but on letters, diaries, and other documents. It also contextualizes one’s life with regard to other people and to the public events of one’s time. In my own case, for example, I have described in my memoirs my arrival in India in 1944 without reference to the political situation that existed there at the time. In my autobiography, had I written it, I would have given an account of that situation and perhaps of my own reaction to it. Be that as it may, I mourned my unwritten autobiography as I mourned all my unwritten books. It is too late in life for me to think of writing any of them now and they must remain unwritten for ever.
Though my autobiography must remain unwritten, I can at least look back over my life and reflect upon its vicissitudes. I can reflect on the establishing of a new Buddhist movement in London, on my work among the ex-Untouchable Buddhists of India, on the founding of the Triyana Vardhana Vihara in Kalimpong, on my ordination as a bhikkhu, on my life as a freelance wandering ascetic, on my life in the army, and so on back to the time when, as a teenager, all I wanted to do was to write, especially to write poetry, as well as to draw and paint, and to read widely. I did not want to be or do anything when I grew up, nor have I wanted to be or do anything since.