Four Years at Madhyamaloka


I was the first to move into Madhyamaloka, at the end of November 1994. The building and refurbishing work was still going on, and it was some weeks before anyone else from the PCC joined me. I looked after security, kept great bunches of keys, locked and unlocked doors, and made sure windows were fastened at night. Something in this is peculiar to my astrological sign, or perhaps it's my karma. In my life, I have quite often been in at the very, very early stages of some project or other. I seem inclined to gravitate towards the uterine stages of things. My involvements in Vajrakuta, Vajraloka, Sukhavati, and West London all involved spending considerable time in the very, very early days of what obviously would — one day — be a large, successful and important project. Yet things have come about quite quickly in Birmingham. I think we have been very successful in bringing Madhyamaloka into the world, as a satisfying and inspiring spiritual community, over just four years.

If people ask, ‘What do you do at Madhyamaloka, Kamalashila?’ I’m sometimes rather at a loss to explain it. My life here has consisted of different phases arising against a background of rapid changes. Apart, of course, from being part of the community — which indeed is the main thing — I've done different things at different times. So maybe I can explain myself if I list what I have achieved since I moved in.

In the first eighteen months, I oversaw the fundraising drive that purchased the property and established the Preceptors’ College. It turned out that raising £400,000 for something like this was quite within the movement’s reach. I found it invigorating to be in contact with so much generosity. I also enjoyed being part of the interface introducing our radical new project to the FWBO in general.

Once I had left Vajrakuta (the study centre in North Wales,) I continued to meditate and to study, though I couldn’t manage it to the same extent as before. I found it harder to engage with meditation in the city. More recently, however, I have concluded that it is mainly a question of self-discipline. So to change the way I live, I did a solitary retreat in my room at Madhyamaloka over the Christmas season. For a month, the other community members helped me in bringing a daily meal to my room and not passing on telephone calls. This was a very inspiring retreat and I am still, even after nearly a year, reaping its fruits.

In my second year in Birmingham, after my mother’s death, I had the idea that social care could form the basis of a very good and much needed form of Right Livelihood. The Metta Social Care group started as a meeting of four interested friends and Order members. It has now made contact with hundreds of care professionals involved with the FWBO, formed a limited company, and is just about to start its first working operation in Manchester.

On the subject of death, an old friend who had also lived many years at Vajraloka died a year or so after I left. Vajrachitta was a Dubliner, a greatly enthusiastic practitioner of meditation, and deeply devoted to the sadhana of Green Tara. I felt privileged to be asked to lead his funeral proceedings at the LBC, which were attended by around 30 relatives, most of whom flew in from Ireland for the occasion.

During my stay at Madhyamaloka, I have several times been to Guhyaloka, the men’s ordination centre in Spain, where I lived in retreat and gave private ordinations to Aryadeva, Amrta, and Mahabodhi. I have visited Vajraloka, where I am President, and led several retreats there, all meditation retreats for Order members. On the most recent of these retreats I gave a series of six talks on visualisation practice, and wrote five pujas (this is a completely new form of expression for me!).

Until this year, I regularly led a ‘practice night’ at the local FWBO centre in Birmingham. I won’t be able to continue — new duties and projects are starting to claim more of my time. However, I very much appreciated the opportunity to meet and talk with people who are keen to meditate, instead of party, on a Friday night. We did all sorts of things together, from a Mindfulness evening starting with a tea ceremony, to a run-through of all four Brahmaviharas. Usually there would be general discussion of meditation. I found these discussions very interesting and stimulating.

Still on meditation, I led shrine room activities at the Order Convention, attended by several hundred Dharmacharis and Dharmacharinis, and have led two of our College Council meditation retreats here at Madhyamaloka.

Something else I do is write; it’s usually talks. Apart from the lecture series mentioned, I have given around thirty other talks during the last four years. Some of my other writing has been more considered: mostly research or first draft material for another book on meditation. I have a plan to write the recent talk series I gave in Manchester into a book on meditation principles. And of course there has been correspondence. My records of email correspondence only go back as far as May 1996, but since then I have sent 2,212 letters — and I will have received three times as much. I don’t need to reply to all the correspondence I receive, but there are often ten letters a day. If I don’t log on to my mail for a couple of days, there can be thirty of them waiting for me.

Last year I brought out a second issue of the Western Buddhist Review, which I edit.  [It is published on the Internet] and occasionally comes out as a paperback book. Publication is occasional because relatively few Order members have the time, the skill in writing, and the necessary scholarship or maturity of ideas to make a contribution. However, I do receive contributions from time to time, normally by email. Then begins a peculiarly intensive kind of activity. Articles are closely scrutinised and passed from one hand to another for checking and rewriting. I work with several other Order members, including a Board of Academic Readers able to assess any such material. The Western Buddhist Review is a religious rather than an academic journal, so its content is not limited to scholarly articles, but we try to produce material to an equivalent standard. We have not quite reached that standard yet, however. Having no previous experience in publishing or editing, I have had to learn everything from scratch. Again, it’s another case of being in at the very, very beginning of something which, long term, is extremely promising.

I also travel quite a bit these days. Over the years I have paid annual visits to Finland, Estonia and, latterly, Russia. My history with Finland goes back about a decade. I have been acting President there for some years and enjoyed very much getting to know Helsinki and the Finnish Sangha. Since 1990 (and the final days of the Communist government) I have visited St. Petersburg three times and led retreats and meditation events for interested friends. We now have translations of the Guide to the Buddhist Path in Russian, and the Introduction to the FWBO. A collection has been started to fund travel to Russia, and publications in the Russian language. One day, perhaps, there will be some regular activities, as have grown up in Estonia.

Early this year I spent three months in USA. Over nearly two months from early January, I stayed in the men’s community at Aryaloka on the East Coast, sometimes travelling out to do retreats in New York and Boston. Before a tour leading retreats on the West Coast, during which I visited San Francisco, Seattle and Missoula, Montana, I returned to Madhyamaloka for just two weeks.

At Madhyamaloka I led a seminar for practitioners and teachers of Hatha Yoga, studying a Yoga text to see what, if anything, is useful from a Buddhist point of view. Yoga is something that interests me quite deeply. It was soon after my arrival in Birmingham that I took the practice up again. I began yoga in the seventies, with Lokamitra. I even taught yoga in London for several years. Unfortunately my practice gradually declined between 1979 and 1994, my period in Wales. In my last two years there I began to experience arthritis in my shoulders and arms to the extent that I had to sleep in a completely new position. Thanks to a renewed yoga practice, that’s all completely gone. I have always been something of a natural contortionist, but after these four years of practice, I am now able to do yoga positions, which I could not achieve even in my twenties. As an anagarika, I find Hatha yoga provides a particularly satisfying physical and aesthetic pleasure. I also find it makes me more outward going — a result, I think, simply of increased pleasure and wellbeing. I also find some yoga ideas interesting from a Buddhist point of view; I find yoga stimulates reflection on the nature of mind, physicality and embodiment.

While I was travelling in the States, I conceived the idea that I’d like to be homeless. What would it be like if I didn’t have always to refer back, in my mind, to another place, somewhere else, where I ‘live?’ How strange that we say ‘this place is where I live’, as though we do not do so while we inhabit some other place. Why do I ‘live’ somewhere where I am not? What if my life could simply take place wherever I happen to be? I am an Anagarika, vowed to chastity, meditation and, supposedly, homelessness. But in what sense am I homeless? Only in the sense that I do not have a wife or a dependent family. (I want to make sure my father is provided for, but I don’t have any other relations that depend on me to any extent.) I am also homeless in the sense that I live in a spiritual community, which is not really a ‘home’ and in the sense that I try not to accumulate a surfeit of possessions. It is here that I feel partly compromised, though I could not easily say why. On the whole, I do not feel that I am ‘settling down’ here in Birmingham, in the sense of becoming increasingly dependent upon my place of residence. It is just that I think I have glimpsed a way of life which would enable me to live the spiritual life more fully and I’d like to try it out before I get too much older (I’m 50 next birthday). Since this way of living must, at present, include plenty of contact with other members of the Preceptors’ College Community, I will in fact need to maintain some kind of base at Madhyamaloka. Nevertheless, once I’ve had a chance to change what I have at present, it’ll be a simple one.

It might seem that such an experiment would tend to cut down my social life. I like to think, however, that I would find more time to visit friends. On the whole, I have not found it easy to persuade friends to visit me in Birmingham, though the opportunity is open most of the time, and I often invite people here. Sometimes I hold seminars on aspects of the Dharma, and friends attend these. For example, last year I held a seminar for the West London men’s Evolution shop team, with all of whom I am on friendly terms. All in all, over a year, I usually have a number of visitors staying here at Madhyamaloka, but on the whole the way I keep my friendships alive (and barely so in some cases) is through my travels, and through correspondence.

Now I have reminded myself of all the above (it’s been a useful exercise!), I feel that, over this whole period, my most important achievement has been in helping establish the Preceptor’s College Community itself. Sangharakshita’s great idea was to pass on his responsibilities for the continuing spiritual vitality of the movement to a community of trusted men and women. This struck us all as exciting, original, and (looking at the history of the succession of religious movements) likely to succeed. All we needed to do was create that community, and this has been our great testing ground. Of course we inevitably found that to develop friendship and mutual respect amongst people like ourselves, used to having wide ranging responsibility, stretched to the limit our resources of time, patience and energy. We seem to have come through the test very well so far, and I am very proud to be part of the resulting community.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 1999 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).