Dharmachari Kamalashila

am a lifelong member of the Triratna Sangha or Buddhist community. My parents were both English and I was brought up in the southeast, not far from London. I met my teacher Sangharakshita there in 1972. In 1974, at age 24, he ordained me into the Order and I have been a full time practitioner ever since. I feel extremely fortunate to have met such an erudite, insightful, inspiring and above all friendly teacher, who has shown me the way to Enlightenment. Access to the world of the dharma I esteem as a great and rare privilege, something I enjoy more than anything else in my life, though to appreciate this one must understand that Dharma refers to the nature of things, the way everything really is. Before my ordination I was a somewhat individualistic and introverted youth with artistic aspirations, having been at Croydon art school in the late 60s; these basic conditionings have not changed, but I have worked with them throughout my life. So though I am naturally attracted to solitary creative work, I soon realised that for my spiritual development I need to work with others. Over my life I have therefore occupied myself with creating various institutions for spreading the Dharma, and helping others to do so. I lived in communities with other practitioners, at first doing maintenance or building work; after a while I began teaching and eventually with others founded a Buddhist Centre in West London.

Over the eighties I co-founded two country dharma centres: a meditation centre and a study centre, both in North Wales with residential communities and a programme of retreats and other events. In the situations I have described I became the administrative chair, a post I found fraught with internal and external struggle as I was pressed to learn my true capabilities and weaknesses in relation to my responsibilities and the Order members I was working with - who were of course similarly learning (or not) about themselves. At the same time I was for those decades in a country retreat centre where I was able to meditate deeply and reflect on the Dharma. It was, I think, spiritually productive, and though such learning is always hard, I did change to some extent. I wrote a comprehensive introduction to Buddhist meditation and, with the others in our community, evolved an independent approach to teaching meditation. In the mid eighties Sangharakshita, my teacher, chose me along with two others to perform ordinations on his behalf in India, the first time he did not do so personally. Later he asked me to join a community of senior disciples he formed around him in Birmingham, where I stayed for about six years, learning, teaching, writing, leading retreats, raising funds and helping set in motion livelihood projects.

In Birmingham I gradually became dissatisfied with my privileged position, wondering if I had been prematurely promoted to be an 'elder' of our movement, feeling that a comparative immaturity extended to all of us senior disciples, while knowing that there was no one else able to shoulder our task. I felt we had to accept the responsibility, yet saw clear disparity between our actual experience and that being increasingly projected upon us by others. I felt this was causing me to fall behind in my practice, and began seeking ways to fill out my experience of the Dharma. The grounding in both study and practice we all received from Sangharakshita was extensive and profound, and I had no doubt of its value. But I was of our first generation, and at that point could learn little from my peers (twenty years later, all that has changed as so many have made substantial progress). Sangharakshita himself was doing little meditation teaching in these years, and in any case hands-on instruction has never been his style; his great gift lies in clarifying the view of practice and setting it in context of our western culture.

From the early nineties, before the move from Wales to Birmingham, I had been exploring new avenues in meditation. I had become especially interested in the Just Sitting meditation in relation to Mahamudra, an approach to Buddhist ethics and meditation from the late Indian phase of Buddhism, developed especially by the Tibetan yogin Milarepa. Along with a number of Order members I became fascinated by a short book by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, a scholar and yogin in the Tibetan Kagyu-Nyingma tradition who also practised homelessness. Its title was 'Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness', a good summary of its content. It was a meditation manual, its instructions pithy and expressed in very direct, accessible English by its translator, Shenpen Hookham. I and several others studied this with Subhuti, a leading member of our community of senior disciples, and tried to put it into practice. The instructions consisted first of reflections on a particular level of sunyata (a metaphorical term for the entirely confected nature of experience literally meaning 'emptiness'), followed by a period of letting go, in sitting meditation, into the actual experience indicated. To me and I am sure others too, it was a revelation that it could be as simple as that, first to struggle one's best to understand, then to give up the intellectual struggle and just open to the reality of things, fueled by the momentum of those efforts. It was such a straightforward transition from cintamayi prajna to bhavanamayi prajna. I continued throughout the 90s to meditate on emptiness this way, until on meeting Shenpen Hookham on one of her visits to Sangharakshita, I was moved to ask for further instruction.

This led to a long period of friendship during which I learned not only about meditation on sunyata in depth, but also the complexities of being a western teacher. I also learned from Shenpen’s inside experience about what it is like to have to function, as a westerner, within a tradition-bound approach to Buddhism. This was illuminating for someone who has grown up exclusively, and in some ways inevitably narrowly, within a new tradition. Shenpen was setting up her own movement and was very interested in how we had tackled various tricky issues in our Order.

All this comparison greatly renewed my appreciation of what I have received from Sangharakshita. Still, my disquiet about the depth of my personal practice continued and in 2001 I decided I needed a complete break from my life so far. I gave away most of my acquisitions (not my books), raised funds from donations, and went into retreat in the wilderness - or at least, to the nearest affordable equivalent in the UK. This was a wooded hillside abutting the moorland at the borders of an anarchistic community occupying a large area in SW Wales. The elders of Tipi Valley welcomed me with great friendliness and, solely on a friend's recommendation, allowed me to live solitary and uninterrupted on their land over the period I envisioned. I will never forget their generosity and, so important was this juncture to me, I feel the pricking of tears as I write this. This situation felt spacious and secluded, yet set right at the edge of human society. The location was remote, wild and vast, with endless views in all directions. In retrospect, it could not have been better for what I needed. I set myself up in the inspiring location they offered me, with a large dome tent, a wood stove and a supply of dry food. One man supplied firewood, there was abundant water, and each month a local organic farm delivered vegetables to a hedge over the moor. This allowed me to be completely free to live in solitude for eighteen whole months. I will report about the retreat elsewhere but as you may imagine, it was to be the most deeply transformative and happy time of my life.

After the retreat ended I stayed based in my hut over some years, going out to do teaching but always returning for a few months' retreat. However the teaching tours started getting longer and longer, until I was starting to neglect my hermitage. One Christmas I was about to lead a retreat in California when I received an email headed 'There's a lake in your dome' attaching photos of a devastated tent looking more like a half eaten boiled egg than a geodesic dome. The upper poles had broken, and the canvas now held a huge volume of rainwater that slowly dripped through upon my bed, books, shrine, paintings and other possessions. I got generous help and eventually the mouldy canvas, carpets and volumes were dried out and repaired, but it was obvious that I could no longer sustain a hermit's life.

I left a little later and joined a friendly community in the west country called Buddhafield who organise Buddhist retreats and festivals, hoping that with some of them I could form a land based community like the one I had left, based on Buddhist practice. In my last year I had also decided no longer to live as an anagarika or homeless celibate practitioner, as I had for nearly all my thirty years in the Order. My reflections and meditations in solitude had been giving me the consistent message that a celibate life was no longer helpful or necessary for me. The decision was similar to the one I mentioned at the outset of my Order life, when I deliberately worked with other people rather than go along with my tendency to solitary creativity. I now felt completely fulfilled in my need for solitude, and it seemed time to look outward. This had also been one of the outcomes of the experiences that arose in my meditation and reflection practice at this time. Accordingly, I began to look for a partner, and after various dire and delightful adventures that can probably be imagined, I was fortunate enough to encounter Yashobodhi, a woman Order member who has shared with me an unfailing love, intimacy and affection since we met in 2006.

Unfortunately, though my time with Buddhafield was pleasant and fulfilled to some extent my desire to live in community, there were insufficient numbers of people interested in doing so permanently. My own interest in a land based spiritual community sprang partly from my personal practice, which had for years nurtured an interest in nature, in the elements, and from this, to some extent, in an ecological approach to Buddhism. Around this time I participated in a group of Order members known as the Redwoods whose special interest was exploring 'Eco-Dharma'. Guhyapati, one of its members, was developing a community in the Spanish Pyrenees based on his own ideas in this field, to which he eventually gave that name. One winter Yashobodhi and I did a three month retreat at EcoDharma in one of his amazing Mongolian yurts, such an inspiring retreat that afterwards we asked if we could live there. I would be able to live a life of meditation and help people with their long retreats. Long retreat was something I had a lot of experience of; moreover I was developing a friendship with a German monk called Lhundrup who headed a monastery specialising in traditional three year retreats, and was enthusiastically discussing with him the possibility of some kind of mentorship in this respect. Sadly for both Yashobodhi and I the idea did not work at all and after two years of hard work and tension between certain community members, together with the collapse of the long retreat vision, I felt forced to leave. Though the turn-around was both humiliating and deeply inconvenient, I am an adaptable soul. I focused on the advantages of being in the swim of the movement and of offering the Dharma to others rather than exploring it in solitude. Yet again I was able to choose an outwardgoing approach rather than inner explorations of the Dharma, to put it simply.
I now live back in London where I started, still with Yashobodhi, where I am renewing a deeply felt practice, and teaching the Dharma to so many interested people at a time when there seems a unique potential for establishing its radical ways of transformation in our society. I have a garden and many friends. I feel fortunate and life seems rich.