The Life of Urgyen Sangharakshita

1925 - 2018

Dennis Lingwood (Sangharakshita) aged 3Sangharakshita addressing a public meeting in Patan, Nepal under the presidency of H.R.H. the Crown Prince of Nepal in honour of the sacred relics. November 1951.Sangharakshita conducting the ordination ceremony of Sumana in Padmaloka, 1978.

As with any life story, Sangharakshita's could be told in many ways, from many different perspectives.

Here, we've attempted to give a flavour of the key moments in his life through excerpts from a variety of media. As far as possible we've drawn on his own written and spoken words, as well as video clips and photos – primarily from the Triratna Picture Library.

We hope you enjoy these glimpses into Sangharakshita's rich legacy and are inspired to discover more by following the links to the sources.

Compiled by Suryanaga and Prajnaketu, with Mahamati.

1925
Dennis Lingwood (Sangharakshita) aged 3

Born Dennis Lingwood in Tooting, London

“Apart from my refusal to cry when born, the strangest circumstance of my most recent appearance in this world on 26 August 1925 is that it took place in a nursing home in south-west London only a few hundred yards from the spot where, two years earlier, had died Allan Bennett, otherwise Ananda Maitreya, the first Englishman to take the yellow robe in the East and return to teach the Dharma in his native land.”

- The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

Dennis was born into a working-class family in South London, in the time between World Wars

His father was a furniture polisher, his mother had been a waitress, and he had a younger sister, Joan

Dennis Lingwood (Sangharakshita) aged 5. 1930.
“I am by nature conservative. I have always loved what is old, whether old churches, old books, or old manners and customs.

Being conservative, I do not welcome change, especially sudden change, which tends to make me socially and politically a gradualist.  As befits a conservative, I am a collector of what used to be called curios and are now called collectibles. As a boy I collected cigarette cards, postage stamps, and old coins...”

- A Complex Personality: A Note

Aged eight, he was misdiagnosed with a heart condition and confined to bed

“I have more than once reflected that the two years I spent confined to bed, alone with a few books and the Children’s Encyclopaedia, must have had a decisive influence on my character and thus on the course of my whole life thereafter.

Until then, so far as I know, I had been just an ordinary boy, indistinguishable from other working-class Tooting boys. Like them I loved playing in the street, was not particularly fond of school, got into scrapes (and fights), and was overjoyed when I could go fishing with my father on a Saturday afternoon. The discovery that I had heart disease put a stop to all that.”

- Moving Against the Stream
Audio: 90 year old Sangharakshita remembers his time confined to bed.
9 Decades in Objects with Saddhanandi.
Kamakura Buddha in Japan. The first image of the Buddha that Sangharakshita saw.
The Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan. The first image of the Buddha Dennis saw. (Image: Wikimedia)
“As soon as I was free from invalidism and able to borrow books from public libraries, I started developing some of the interests I had formed in a more specialized way. …

I wasn't content with reading just one or two books: I wanted to study a whole lot – and that's how I have come to collect quite a few books about, for instance, Milton, Blake, D. H. Lawrence, John Middleton Murry, and the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Plotinus.”

- Conversations with Bhante

Aged fifteen, he realised he was not a Christian

“How shall I describe [Isis Unveiled's] effect on me? Though in itself almost entirely negative, it proved to be more far-reaching in consequences than any book I had previously encountered. Within a fortnight I had read both volumes twice from cover to cover.

Impressed, bewildered, thrilled, excited, stimulated as I was by their staggeringly immense wealth … on every conceivable aspect of philosophy, comparative religion, occultism, mysticism, science, and a hundred other subjects, the realization which dawned most clearly upon me, and which by the time I had finished stood out with blinding obviousness in the very forefront of my consciousness, was the fact that I was not a Christian – that I never had been, and never would be.”

- The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

A year later, he discovered the Diamond Sūtra in a London bookshop

The Diamond Sutra.Dennis Lingwood (Sangharakshita) as a teenager.
“At the age of sixteen I had my first real contact with Buddhism. That contact took place when I read two short but exceptionally profound Buddhist scriptures of great historical and spiritual significance.

These were the Diamond Sūtra, a work belonging to the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ corpus, and the Sūtra of Wei Lang, a collection of discourses by the first Chinese patriarch of the Chan or Zen school, who is better known as Huineng. Reading these two works and realizing that, although in one sense the truth they taught, or the reality they disclosed, was new to me, in another sense it was not new at all but strangely familiar. I certainly did not feel that I was accepting an Eastern religion, or a religion that was foreign and exotic. Rather I felt that contact with Buddhism was, at the same time, contact with the depths of my own being: that in knowing Buddhism I was knowing myself, and that in knowing myself I was knowing Buddhism.”

- The Priceless Jewel
Audio: 90 year old Sangharakshita reflects on his significant experience with the Diamond Sūtra.
9 Decades in Objects with Saddhanandi.
1941
Dennis Lingwood (Sangharakshita) as a teenager.

Realized he was a Buddhist and always had been

After realizing he was a Buddhist, Dennis had to find out what that meant for his life

“With the growth of my interest in the Wisdom of the East visits to, and purchases from, John Watkins [esoteric bookshop in London] became more and more frequent. To the study of Buddhism was annexed that of Taoism and Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam, Sufism and Christian mysticism. My enjoyment of literature was enriched by the discovery of Chinese and Persian poetry, in both of which fields I read as widely as my dependence on translations allowed. Next to Buddhism I was most attracted by Taoism, and among the Taoist classics it was the Dao De Jing for which I conceived the strongest admiration. This wonderful distillation of concentrated spiritual wisdom I read in six or eight translations, gaining from each one a new appreciation of its inexhaustible riches of meaning. To me the best translation was Chu Ta-Kao’s, which moreover led me, via an advertisement on its back cover, straight to ‘The Middle Way’ and eventually to the London Buddhist Society.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

At eighteen, he wrote his first published article: ‘The Unity of Buddhism’, for ‘The Middle Way’ (journal of The Buddhist Society).

“Buddhism is not only (I will not say “merely”) a system of ethics, it is also a philosophy, a religion, a science, and much more besides. It is not one road to Enlightenment, but many — although in a deeper and more hidden sense all ways (dharmas) are one. It is therefore suited to all sorts and conditions of minds; the youthful and the aged, the melancholy and the joyful, the simple and the profound; it is the universal way of salvation.”

The Unity of Buddhism

At the Buddhist Society, Dennis at last began to find others who shared his interests.

They continued to meet and meditate together, even while bombs fell

There he took the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from U Thittila, a Sinhalese monk, formally marking his conversion to Buddhism

“Throughout the Blitz U Thittila had worked as a stretcher-bearer, on several occasions risking his life to rescue people trapped beneath fallen masonry. Finding that the voluminous drapery of his robes hampered his movements he sensibly exchanged them for more practical garments. People who knew him said he practised what he preached.

I have always been glad that it was from him that I first took the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, with the recitation of which the meeting opened, U Thittila intoning them in Pāli and [Christmas] Humphreys leading the responses.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

But then, a doctor declared Dennis fit for active service and he was conscripted into the army.

While he was in training, a bomb struck his family home in Tooting (luckily no one was in).

“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. …

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. …

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.”

Colin Wilson Revisited
“Rumours began to circulate about the unit having been posted abroad. The married men fervently hoped they were unfounded; but in Ernie and me and the rest of the youngsters vague nomadic longings stirred. Though for security reasons our destination was not revealed, the rumours were at first tacitly then expressly confirmed, until the whole camp was restless, excited, and there was no talk save of our impending departure. Tom, who was on confidential terms with one of the officers, told Ernie and me that our destination was definitely India. But with such a buzz of speculation around us, some saying it would be Gibraltar, some Singapore, and some even America, it was difficult to feel sure. Besides, that I should be going to India, the land in which the Buddha had lived and taught, seemed too good to be true. For the first, though by no means the last time in my life, did I have an obscure sense of some mysterious Destiny shaping my ends.

I had thought the army would cut me off from Buddhism. What if it should now prove the means appointed to bring me closer to it than I had dreamed would be possible?”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong
1943

Sent to India during World War II

Stationed in India, Dennis read more about Buddhism (and Hinduism) and started to meditate

“At night, seated cross-legged inside the mosquito curtain while the other inmates of the room slept, I practised according to the instructions given in the book. [Aparokṣānubhūti by Shankara] ‘I am not the body, I am not the mind,’ I reflected, ‘I am the non-dual Reality, the Brahman; I am the Absolute Existence-Knowledge-Bliss.’

As I practised, body-consciousness faded away and my whole being was permeated by a great peaceful joy. One night there appeared before me, as it were suspended in mid-air, the head of an old man. He had a grey stubble on scalp and chin and his yellowish face was deeply lined and wrinkled as though by the sins and vices of a lifetime. ‘You’re wasting your time,’ he exclaimed with a dreadful sneer. ‘There’s nothing in the universe but matter. Nothing but matter.’

‘There is something higher than matter,’ I promptly retorted, ‘I know it, because I am experiencing it now.’

Whereupon the apparition vanished. Years later, during my second visit to Nepal, I saw the same Māra, as it must have been. I recognized him at once, and he no doubt recognized me.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

Looking for spiritual teachers, Dennis found the Hindu Ramakrishna Mission and began to feel drawn to a devoted spiritual life

“Years later, when my enthusiasm for the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature had waned, I was to wonder why they had attracted me so powerfully.

Perhaps it was because they demonstrated that the spiritual life, far from being practicable only in the remote past, could be, and in fact had been, lived in modern times – perhaps because they indirectly encouraged me not merely to study but actually to practise the teaching to which I was already committed, the teaching of the Buddha.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong
“During that period the signals unit to which I belonged had been ordered overseas, I had been stationed in Delhi, Colombo, Calcutta, and Singapore, had made contact with Chinese and Sinhalese Buddhists, had returned to India (for good, as I then thought), had been associated with various religious organizations and groups, both Buddhist and Hindu, and had taken up the regular practice of meditation. …

“Together with the Bengali friend with whom, on my return to India, I had joined forces, I had worked for the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture and for the Maha Bodhi Society. More recently, I had been involved in a project for the revival of the Dharma Vijaya Vahini, an organization for the propagation of Buddhism in India… . 

With all these organizations, as well as with the group that had formed round a well-known female ascetic [Andanamayi], I had been deeply disappointed, as had my friend. Working with such bodies was, it seemed, a hindrance rather than a help to spiritual development.”

The History of My Going for Refuge

When the War was over, Dennis was due to return to the UK.

Faced with the choice of going home or continuing his spiritual life in India, he deserted the army, burned his passport, and donned the robes of an ascetic

“For the last few months we had only sat hesitantly on the shore of the vast ocean of the spiritual life. Now, casting aside all fear, we would plunge boldly in.

Having made this resolution, we lost no time putting it into effect. With the help of a handful of gerua-mati, the reddish-brown earth used since time immemorial by Indian ascetics, we dyed our shirts and sarongs the traditional saffron of the world-renunciant. Suitcases and watches were sold, trousers, jackets, and shoes given away, identification papers destroyed. Apart from the robes that we were to wear we kept only a blanket each and our books and notebooks. …

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the appearance of a rainbow is one of the most auspicious of signs, and the biographies of their saints and yogis are replete with references to this phenomenon. Whether our ‘going forth’ on 18 August 1947 may be considered an auspicious event I cannot say, but it was certainly signalized by the appearance not of one but of scores of rainbows.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

He began to look for a Buddhist community to support his spiritual aspirations

“Thus the rainbow became for me a symbol of the spiritual path, the track of which I have followed, in one way or another, all my life.”

Rainbows in the Sky
1947

Two years as a homeless wanderer in India

Dennis adopted the name ‘Dharmapriya’ and – along with his friend Satyapriya –resolved to wander the length of India in the fashion of the Buddha

Buddha and Ananda, painting by Dh. Amitajyoti
“For the first hour the going was pleasant enough. But as the sun ascended we began to feel hot and tired. Our bundles, so small and light to the eye that morning, felt heavy as lead, and for the first time in my life I wished that I possessed fewer books. When my arm started aching, I slung the bundle over my shoulder, and when the heavy bamboo began chafing my collar bone I transferred the ever weightier bundle now to my right hand, now to my left. As, with each change of position, my arm started aching, and my collar bone paining me more quickly than before, I was soon shifting the bundle every few minutes. Meanwhile, my feet had blistered and I started to limp. Satyapriya, though stronger and sturdier than I, was also feeling the strain. In this sorry state we entered our first village.

It had been our intention to allow ourselves a short rest, but as we plodded wearily past the single row of mean huts, the inhabitants, who from their dress we recognized as Muslims, shouted and jeered at us with such obvious ill-nature that we did not stop.”

– The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

But finding the homeless life unhelpful for meditation, they settled in an ashram in Muvattupuzha

Photo of Muvattupuzha via Google.
Video excerpt from ‘Memories of the Road’ by Lights in the Sky.

After fifteen months there, they felt they had settled long enough and returned to the homeless life, staying in other ashrams and caves

Staying in a cave near Tiruvannamalai, he had an important vision

“One night I found myself, as it were, out of the body and in the presence of Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who presides over the western quarter of the universe. The colour of the Buddha was a deep, rich, luminous red, like that of rubies, though at the same time soft and glowing, like the light of the setting sun. While his left hand rested on his lap, the fingers of his right hand held up by the stalk a single red lotus in full bloom and he sat, in the usual cross-legged posture, on an enormous red lotus that floated on the surface of the sea. To the left, immediately beneath the raised right arm of the Buddha, was the red hemisphere of the setting sun, its reflection glittering golden across the waters.

How long the experience lasted I do not know, for I seemed to be out of time as well as out of the body, but I saw the Buddha as clearly as I had ever seen anything under the ordinary circumstances of my life, indeed far more clearly and vividly. The rich red colour of Amitābha himself, as well as of the two lotuses, and the setting sun, made a particularly deep impression on me. It was more wonderful, more appealing, than any earthly red: it was like red light, but so soft and, at the same time, so vivid, as to be altogether without parallel.


– The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong
Amitabha rupa by Dh. Chintamani

He felt this vision was a sign it was time to end their homeless wandering and seek their next step: Ordination as Theravādin monks

At the Maha Bodhi Society in Varanasi (northern India), their request was harshly rejected

But then, a local monk-scholar, Jagdish Kashyap, told them about someone in Kusinara who might ordain them

Jagdish Kashyap, Triratna Picture Library
“Having listened in sympathetic silence, Bhikkhu Kashyap pondered deeply for a while.

Then, rolling the words up from the depths of his enormous frame with a slowness that gave them a special emphasis, and speaking with evident warmth and sincerity, he advised us to go to Kusinara, the place where the Buddha had passed away into final Nirvāṇa. There we would find U Chandramani Mahāthera, the seniormost Theravādin Buddhist monk in India. He had many disciples. In fact, he was well known for the generosity with which he gave ordinations. Provided we were able to convince him of our sincerity, there was no reason why he should not give us ordination too.”

– The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

They walked a further 211 kilometres (131 miles) from Varanasi to Kusinara in blistering heat

Then, on 12 May 1949, they were finally ordained as śrāmaṇeras (novice monks) and given new names – Sangharakshita and Buddharakshita.

“While U Chandramani was much concerned that I should pronounce the words of the Refuge-going formula with perfect correctness, both in Pāli and in Sanskrit, and took a great deal of trouble to ensure this, he had absolutely nothing to say about the meaning of those words or about the significance of the act of Going for Refuge itself, so that in one respect, at least, I was no wiser after my śrāmaṇera ordination than I had been after taking pansil from U Thittila.

[However,] I felt delighted, thrilled, exhilarated, and inspired, as well as intensely grateful for all the kindness I had received at the hands of U Chandramani and his little band of followers. Like my taking pansil and my Going Forth, my śrāmaṇera ordination was not just part of a process but was of value and significance on its own account.”

The History of My Going for Refuge
1949

Ordained as a Theravādin monk

After their śrāmaṇera (junior monk) ordination, Sangharakshita and Buddharakshita begged for alms food in the traditional manner

“Our main preoccupation next morning was to find a place where we could start putting our begging-bowls to the use for which they were intended and go for alms. Now that we were śrāmaṇeras we were resolved to do this in strictly traditional fashion. We would beg from door to door until we had obtained enough cooked food for our one meal of the day, not skipping so much as a single house. We would not accept people’s invitations, nor would we even sit down inside a house in order to eat the food that we had collected.

After walking from 5.30 until 10.30, with only a little chatua to sustain us on the way, we were feeling rather hungry. But at the first township to which we came we found the atmosphere so forbiddingly commercial that our courage failed us and tired as we were we decided not to stop there. Luckily there was a village only a mile further on. Before reaching the village proper, which was called Barspar, we halted at a well and asked a woman who was drawing water there to pour some into our lotas or brass pots. Respectfully she refused. She belonged to the Chamar or leather-worker caste, she explained, and for high-caste holy men like ourselves contact with anything that she had touched would mean pollution. Buddharakshita and I could hardly believe our ears. The woman at the well was saying exactly the same thing as the Mātaṅgī woman had said to Ānanda, cousin and personal attendant of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago, and saying it in exactly the same circumstances. History was repeating itself. Making exactly the same reply as Ānanda had done, we told the woman that what we wanted was water, not caste. Whereupon she gladly filled our lotas. India had not changed much since the days of the Buddha, it seemed.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

When the rainy season struck, Buddharakshita decided to go and study in Ceylon.

Sangharakshita, still without identification papers, was offered a place to stay by Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap at the Benares Hindu University

“In less than a week I was feeling perfectly at home in my new surroundings, and had embarked on a course of study that was to keep me busy – almost without interruption – for seven of the quietest and happiest months I have ever known.[...]

Our day began at dawn. After we had breakfasted on tea and toast (the latter saturated with ghee and sprinkled with sugar) I read Pāli, Abhidhamma, and Logic with Bhikkhu Kashyap, then returned to my room and did the exercises he had set me. This kept me busy until noon, when we had the usual rice-and-curry lunch. Bhikkhu Kashyap, mindful of the Indian equivalent of ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ always rounded off the meal by chewing a couple of cloves of raw garlic. In the afternoon, having enjoyed a brief siesta, I either studied on my own, referring to my teacher occasionally if necessary, or engaged in literary work. …

When I entered his room (the communicating door was always left open) it was generally to find him stretched out on his string bed like a stranded whale, sound asleep… On my coughing, or murmuring ‘Bhante!’ a single eyelid would twitch, whereupon I would put my question, which was generally on some knotty point of Pāli grammar, or Abhidhamma, or Logic, which I had not been able to unravel by myself. Without opening his eyes, and without moving, Kashyap-ji would proceed to clear up the difficulty, heaving the words up from the depths of his enormous frame and rolling them around on his tongue before releasing them in slow, deliberate utterance. Sometimes he rumbled on for only a few minutes, sometimes for half an hour. Whatever he said was clear, precise, and to the point. If I asked about a particular passage of text, he always knew whereabouts it came, what had come before, and what followed. Yet all the time he had hardly bothered to wake up. As I returned to my room I would hear behind me a sigh and a snore and before I had settled down at my table Kashyap-ji would be sound asleep again.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

Throughout his life, Sangharakshita had been a keen poet

But now, a tension grew between the aspiring monk-scholar and the poet within

‘Above me broods…’ (1948)

Above me broods
A world of mysteries and magnitudes.
I see, I hear,
More than what strikes the eye or meets the ear.
Within me sleep
Potencies deep, unfathomably deep,
Which, when awake,
The bonds of life, death, time and space will break.
Infinity
Above me like the blue sky do I see.
Below, in me,
Lies the reflection of infinity.

Complete Poems

The Poet's Reply (1949)

‘With your holy vows,
Your shaven head,
And your stitched-stuff robes
Ensaffronéd,
How can you sing still?’
The people said.
They pointed fingers
Of scorn at me.
‘A true ascetic
He cannot be;
For his lips are stained
With poesy.’
‘Poor fools’, I replied,
‘These songs of mine
Are the rapturous lilt
Of the life divine;
But yours are tainted
With lust and wine.
‘If a song-bird caged
Can sing merrily,
With its wings close clipped
(And such are ye),
Oh how much sweeter
’Twill sing when free!

Complete Poems

One day this tension dramatically came to a head

“The conflict was … between Sangharakshita I and Sangharakshita II. Sangharakshita I wanted to enjoy the beauty of nature, to read and write poetry, to listen to music, to look at paintings and sculpture, to experience emotion, to lie in bed and dream, to see places, to meet people. Sangharakshita II wanted to realize the truth, to read and write philosophy, to observe the precepts, to get up early and meditate, to mortify the flesh, to fast and pray.

… What they ought to have done, of course, was to marry and give birth to Sangharakshita III, who would have united beauty and truth, poetry and philosophy, spontaneity and discipline; but this seemed to be a dream impossible of fulfilment. For the last two and a half years Sangharakshita II had ruled practically unchallenged. …

Angered by the encroachments of Sangharakshita I, who was reading more poetry than ever, and who had written a long poem which, though it had a Buddhist theme, was still a poem, Sangharakshita II suddenly burned the two notebooks in which his rival had written all the poems he had composed…

After this catastrophe, which shocked them both, they learned to respect each other’s spheres of influence. Occasionally they even collaborated, as in the completion of the blank verse rendition of the five paritrāṇa sūtras that had been started in Nepal. There were even rare moments when it seemed that, despite their quarrels, they might get married one day.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

Soon afterwards, Sangharakshita decided to take drastic action to “get rid of, or get beyond” the egoistic will...

“In Seeds of Contemplation [by Thomas Merton] I found what I wanted, or at least a clear enough indication of it. The disciple should surrender his will absolutely to the will of his spiritual superior. In small matters as in great he should have no will of his own, not even any personal wishes or preferences. This was the secret. This was the way to subjugate the ego, if not to destroy it completely.

Though the idea was certainly not unfamiliar to me, it had never struck me so forcibly before, and I resolved to apply it forthwith to my relations with Kashyap-ji. In future his wishes would be my law. I would have no wishes of my own. Whenever he asked me if I would like to do something, as in the goodness of his heart he often did, I would reply that I had no preference in the matter, and that we would do just as he wished.

For the remainder of the time that we were together I faithfully adhered to this resolution. As a result, I had no troubles, and experienced great peace of mind.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong

...which led him to take his guru's words very seriously.

“After weeks of indecision, Kashyap-ji had finally made up his mind not to return to the Benares Hindu University. Instead, he would spend some time meditating in the jungles of Bihar, where a yogi whom he knew had a hermitage. Perhaps, as he meditated, it would become clear to him what he ought to do next. Meanwhile, I was to remain in Kalimpong. ‘Stay here and work for the good of Buddhism,’ he told me, squeezing himself into the front seat of the jeep that was taking him to Siliguri. ‘The Newars will look after you.’

There was little that I could say. Though I did not really feel experienced enough to work for Buddhism on my own, and though I doubted whether the Newars were quite so ready to look after me as Kashyap-ji supposed, the word of the guru was not to be disobeyed. Bowing my head in acquiescence, I paid my respects in the traditional manner, Kashyap-ji gave me his blessing, and the jeep was off.

I was left facing Mount Kanchenjunga.”

The Rainbow Road from Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong
Mount Kanchenjunga, Kalimpong, 1950
1950

Left alone in Kalimpong to “work for the good of Buddhism”

“Stay here and work for the good of Buddhism…’

As the jeep that was taking Kashyapji down to Siliguri disappeared round a bend, I was left standing at the side of the road with my teacher’s parting words ringing in my ears. I was twenty-four years old.

Since becoming Kashyapji’s disciple seven months earlier I had not been separated from him for more than a few days, and now, barely three weeks after our arrival in Kalimpong, he had suddenly decided to leave me there. It was a brilliantly sunny day in March. Above me was the fathomless blue of the sky. Around me were the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, the great jagged ridges running together from all directions. In front of me, far away to the north, rising behind the exact middle of a gigantic saddleback, were the dazzling white peaks of Mount Kanchenjunga.

For the first time in my life I was on my own.”

Facing Mount Kanchenjunga
“…in the weeks following Kashyapji’s departure, I grew accustomed to the idea of working for the good of Buddhism – even started to accept it.

‘Behind me the old/Gate shuts,’ declared the haiku. ‘Before me opens/A new gate of gold.’ For the last three years, perhaps longer, I had been concerned with the needs of my own spiritual life. That was the old gate that was shutting behind me. It was now time for me to start paying attention to the needs of others. That was the new gate that was opening before me – the new gate of gold.

But what would I have to do before I could go through that gate? Would anyone be willing to go through it with me? What would I find on the other side?”

Facing Mount Kanchenjunga

Before long, Sangharakshita founded a new organisation: the Young Men's Buddhist Association (YMBA)

He also founded a magazine

“Some kind of loose organizational framework was clearly essential… Out of the discussions that took place between Swale, Dhammajoti, and myself, the idea of starting a Young Men’s Buddhist Association in Kalimpong eventually was born and hovered above our heads like a beautiful iridescent ball…

I would bring the beautiful iridescent ball down to earth. I would embody it in an organization through which I would work for the good of Buddhism – work for the benefit of others – not only in Kalimpong but throughout the district, perhaps even beyond.
At the beginning of May, therefore, a meeting was convened at the Dharmodaya Vihara, the iridescent ball was invited to descend, and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, Kalimpong, came into existence.”

Facing Mount Kanchenjunga
“[Stepping-Stones would be] a monthly magazine of Himalayan religion, culture, and education. It would not be just another scholarly publication but a journal of living Buddhism.

It would be imbued with the all-embracing spirit of the Mahāyāna and would include articles on the Buddhist traditions of Tibet, of Sikkim, of Bhutan, and of Nepal. There would be poetry and short stories, extracts from the great Mahāyāna sūtras, and news of YMBA activities. We would send it out not only all over the district, but all over India, all over the world.

Thus above the beautiful iridescent ball that was the idea of the YMBA there hovered a second ball, in some ways even more beautiful and iridescent than the first – a ball that would send out even more brilliant flashes and be seen even farther afield.”

Facing Mount Kanchenjunga
“For Lama Govinda, Buddhism was not to be identified with any particular conceptual expression. Buddhism was a matter of spiritual experience, and spiritual experience was something that could be put into words only to a very limited extent…

To cling to outmoded forms of spiritual life and thought was disastrous. Spiritual things could not be ‘fixed’…

Having understood that spiritual life was a process of organic growth, we would cease to judge the various phases of Buddhist history as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We would develop genuine tolerance for all schools of Buddhism, even though we might be more strongly attracted to one school than to another. Just as the real nature of the tree lay in the organic development and relationship of all its parts, so the essential nature of Buddhism could be found only in a development in time and space that included all its different schools.”

Facing Mount Kanchenjunga

On the 24th November 1950 he received full Bhikkhu ordination at Sarnath

But Sangharakshita was broadening out from his individual practice as a Theravādin monk to embody the altruistic emphasis of the Mahāyāna

His friendship with Lama Anagarika Govinda affirmed this ecumenical approach

While his friendship with Dhardo Rimpoche gave him a clear vision of the Bodhisattva Ideal

“I knew that he had been born in Dhartsendo, in eastern Tibet; that his father was a merchant; that at an early age he had entered Drepung Gompa, the great Gelug monastic university near Lhasa; that he had passed all his examinations with great credit; that his teacher was strict but kind; that a breakdown in his health had prevented him from completing his studies at the Tantric College, where the routine was demanding and conditions harsh; that in 1947, at the age of twenty-nine, he had come to India in search of health; and that on his return, after he had been back only eighteen months, the Dalai Lama’s government had appointed him abbot of the Tibetan monastery at Bodh Gaya, thus obliging him to make the long and arduous journey to India for the second time.

“…the better I knew him the more I liked and respected him. I saw how unassuming he was, how kind, and how mindful in everything he did. Later, in Kalimpong, I had many opportunities, over the years, of observing his great and noble qualities. I saw how helpful he was to visiting Western scholars, how utterly devoted to the welfare of the pupils of his school, how patient with his irascible old mother, and how independent in his dealings with Tibetan officials, most of whom expected from other Tibetans only subservience. In short, Dhardo Rimpoche manifested in his life to a high degree the ‘perfections’ (pāramitās) of generosity (dāna), ethics (śīla), patience (kṣānti), energy (vīrya), concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (prajñā), the practice of which for the benefit of all beings made one a bodhisattva”

Precious Teachers
“[It was a] friendship that lasted for the rest of my time in India, and which did not cease with my departure for England. It was a friendship in the course of which Dhardo Rimpoche and I worked closely together for the good of Buddhism, especially in Kalimpong. ”

Precious Teachers

On making contact with the scheduled caste leader, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, he was further encouraged

“I had written to him expressing my appreciation of his article ‘The Buddha and his Religion’, and telling him about the formation of the YMBA. About ten days later I received an encouraging reply…

‘Great responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Bhikkhus if this attempt at the revival of Buddhism is to be a success. They must be more active than they have been. They must come out of their shell and be in the first rank of the fighting forces. I am glad you have started the YMBA in Kalimpong. You should be [even] more active than that.’

Precious Teachers
Click or tap to view the letter.

Sangharakshita was becoming more concerned with practising the “breadth and depth” of Buddhism

In 1954, he gave voice to this wide-ranging vision in a series of lectures which were later published as “A Survey of Buddhism

“The Mahāyānists, their spiritual life dominated by the absolute altruism of the bodhisattva ideal, are on the whole much more deeply aware of the instrumental character of ethics, and when circumstances demand it do not hesitate to augment, modify, and even to abrogate the minor rules, particularly if the promotion of the spiritual welfare of beings seems to require it.

…the rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism was from one point of view a protest against the increasingly negative attitude of the Hīnayānists and an attempt to recapture the spirit of the Original Teaching.

…Supreme Wisdom does not consist in the knowledge of an Absolute but in the understanding of the true nature of dharmas.”

A Survey of Buddhism
90 year old Sangharakshita reflects on the writing of “A Survey…”

The Maha Bodhi Society - five years after rejecting his śrāmaṇera ordination - now respected Sangharakshita enough to hire him as editor of their Maha Bodhi journal, the leading English-language Buddhist journal of the time

But the Society (the only Buddhist institution in India) still held little spiritual inspiration for him

In 1955 he met Dr Mehta, a mystic, and former physician for Mahatma Gandhi, whose “guidance from God” inspired a turning inwards

Read more about this friendship in ‘Dear Dinoo
“I made a special effort to deepen my meditation. Though I had been meditating for a number of years, my achievements in this field were far from commensurate with my aspirations. There were experiences of the bliss and peace of the lower dhyānas; there were visions, usually of the Buddha or Avalokiteśvara; there were flashes of insight, not always in connection with the meditation itself: and that was about all. What I now had to do, I felt, was to achieve a level of meditative experience which would enable me to receive whatever might be the Buddhist equivalent of Dr Mehta’s ‘guidance’, for much as I rejected the possibility of guidance by God (a being in whose existence I did not believe) I was well aware that for real spiritual progress to take place the ego, or ‘defiled mind-consciousness’ (as the Yogācāra termed it) needed to open itself to the influence of what I was later to call ‘the transcendental outpourings of the Absolute”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel

But one day while staying with Dr Mehta's ‘Servants of God’, he felt an overwhelming desire to leave...

“Though the pasturage at Mayfair was indeed green, and though I could happily have grazed on it for a while (Dr Mehta wanted me to go on a meditation retreat there), I knew that it was essential for me to be on my way and that I could not spend more than a few days with my Bombay friends.

How I knew this I was unable to say, any more than I was able to say why it was essential for me to be on my way. I did not hear an inner voice, neither did I have a sudden intuition. It was simply that I knew, clearly and certainly, that I had to be on my way, and accordingly fixed my departure for 5 December.”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel
1956
A young Sangharakshita teaching a crowded room in India.

Taught 100,000s of new Buddhists after Ambedkar's death

While with friends in Bombay, Sangharakshita had a strong feeling that he “had to be on his way”

He went to Nagpur where, weeks earlier, Dr Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism along with 400,000 Scheduled Caste followers

When Sangharakshita's train arrived in Nagpur, there were 2,000 new Buddhists waiting for him – eager to learn more about their new religion

Photo used to illustrate the event described in 1956 (actually from 1967)
“On the occasion of that visit, more than two years earlier, my arrival in Nagpur had attracted little attention. Only Kulkarni was waiting on the platform to receive me, and he had taken me to his – or rather his brother’s – house in Dharampeth by taxi with a minimum of fuss. This time it was very different.

As the train came to a halt I saw that the platform was a solid mass of excited, white-clad figures. There must have been 2,000 of them and I realized, with a shock of astonishment, that they were all new Buddhists and that they had come to receive me. Kulkarni was also there, and on my emerging from the carriage he and the office-bearers of the Indian Buddhist Society (which Ambedkar had founded a year or two earlier, and which had been responsible for the organizing of the mass conversion ceremony) pushed their way through the crowd towards me. I was profusely garlanded, and then to repeated shouts of ‘Victory to Baba Saheb Ambedkar!’ and ‘Victory to Bhikshu Sangharakshita!’ was led to the waiting car…”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel

But just hours later, Sangharakshita received terrible news

“…there was a sudden commotion in the yard outside and a few seconds later three or four members of the Indian Buddhist Society burst into the little outhouse.

‘Baba Saheb’ was dead.

… The bearers of these dire tidings were not only in a state of deep shock but utterly demoralized. They were barely able to tell me that the Society’s downtown office was being besieged by thousands of grief-stricken people who, knowing of my presence in Nagpur, were demanding that I should come and speak to them. … I therefore told my visitors to organize a proper condolence meeting.”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel

Sangharakshita was called to respond to the crowds of mourners

“About 100,000 people had assembled. … Though some five or six of Ambedkar’s most prominent local supporters one by one attempted to pay tribute to their departed leader, they were so overcome by emotion that, after uttering only a few words, they burst into tears and had to sit down. Their example was contagious. When I started to speak the whole vast gathering was weeping, and sobs and groans filled the air. In the cold blue light of the petromax I could see grey-haired men rolling in agonies of grief at my feet.

“Though deeply moved by the sight of so much anguish and despair, I realized that for me, at least, this was no time to indulge in emotion. Ambedkar’s followers had received a terrible shock. They had been Buddhists for only seven weeks, and now their leader, in whom their trust was total, and on whose guidance in the difficult days ahead they had been relying, had been snatched away.

“… faced by the unrelenting hostility of the caste Hindus, they did not know which way to turn and there was a possibility that the whole movement of conversion to Buddhism would come to a halt or even collapse. I therefore delivered a vigorous and stirring speech in which, after extolling the greatness of Ambedkar’s achievement, I exhorted my audience to continue the work he had so gloriously begun and bring it to a successful conclusion. ‘Baba Saheb’ was not dead but alive. To the extent that they were faithful to the ideals for which he stood and for which he had, quite literally, sacrificed himself, he lived on in them.”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel

The revival of Buddhism in India was almost lost, but Sangharakshita's presence in Nagpur was seen as a ‘miracle’

“In the course of the next four days I visited practically all the ex-Untouchable ‘localities’ of Nagpur, of which there must have been several dozen, and addressed nearly thirty mass meetings, besides initiating about 30,000 people into Buddhism … When the time came for me to be again on my way I had addressed altogether 200,000 people and forged, incidentally, a very special link with the Buddhists of Nagpur, indeed with all Ambedkar’s followers.”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel
“Dr Ambedkar’s followers told me that they felt my being there at that critical juncture was a miracle and that I had saved Nagpur for Buddhism. Had I not been there, there is no knowing what might have happened.”

Dear Dinoo
“‘Chattrul’ meant something like ‘without affairs’ or ‘without concerns’ and the sobriquet had been bestowed on him on account of his complete indifference to such things as organized monasticism and ecclesiastical position. It was not even clear whether he was a monk or a layman. He roamed freely from place to place, no one knowing where he was going to turn up next or how long he would stay. He was an accomplished yogi, having spent many years in the solitudes of eastern Tibet, meditating; and if popular report was to be believed, he possessed many psychic powers and was a great magician.”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel

On his return to Kalimpong, he heard Chattrul Sangye Dorje was in town

Chattrul told Sangharakshita that his yidam was Green Tārā, the Bodhisattva of spontaneous compassionate activity and initiated him into her visualisation practice (sādhana)

“Though unable to accept Dr Mehta’s ‘guidance’ on his (or its) own terms, [see 1950 chapter] I had taken very much to heart his insistence that in the spiritual life the best and most reliable guidance was that which came from beyond one’s ego. For me it could not come from God, but perhaps it could come from one or other of those transcendental beings who according to the Buddhism of Tibet (as of that of China and Japan) were the different, infinitely various, aspects of the Buddha’s sambhogakāya or ‘body of glory’ – the supra-historical ‘body’ in which he communed with advanced bodhisattvas and they with him.

Chattrul Rimpoche showed no surprise at my request. In fact he seemed rather pleased, and after a moment of inner recollection told me that my yidam was Dolma Jungo or Green Tārā, the ‘female’ bodhisattva of fearlessness and spontaneous helpfulness, adding that Tārā had been the tutelary deity of many of the great pandits of India and Tibet. In other words, I had an affinity with Green Tārā, in the sense that she was the transcendental counterpart of my own mundane nature and that I could, therefore, more readily come to a deeper understanding of myself through devotion to her.”

In the Sign of the Golden Wheel

Chattrul also predicted that Sangharakshita would soon have his own monastery

Six weeks later he received funding from a friend to buy one

Sangharakshita's monastery in Kalimpong, named by Chatral Rinpoche the Triyāna Vardhana Vihāra: “Vihara Where the Three Yānas Flourish”

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