Glimpses from my Year & In Memory of a Dear Friend


Glimpses from my Year

January. A hot winter in India. I didn’t make it to Aurangabad. Ten years and I still haven’t been to Jnanasuri’s home. Maybe next time.

I was ill for a week when I got back to England. A bardo. Time for reflection. I’ve been living in Park Hill in Birmingham for one year now — my new life. Unsettled. There’s something I’ve got to do before... Before what? Gathering up the threads of my responsibilities and engaging with them fully. Slipping into a space that is waiting to be filled. Something like that. But first, I have some writing to do. Another step away from home. Another step towards my goal.

I’ve only just got back to my new community and I’m planning to go away again. A house in the south of France is available — how can I resist? My friends don’t want me to go — we need time together. But more pressing is my solitary need.

March. I surround myself with pink geraniums and gaze across the lagoon into the stormy sky. Sometimes, when the light is right, I can see the snow-capped Pyrenees from my roof-top room. I wander along the seashore and pretend to be an artist — a writer. I sit at my desk, overlooking orange tiles, white-washed walls, and blue sky and I dream. In my dream everything has its place and I am happy.

Back in Birmingham the Preceptors’ College Council is ‘at home’, for April. I report in on my dream, in a poem, to my brothers and sisters. The reception is mixed. Those who know me well understand, others ask questions. Some have had similar dreams. They warn me of escapism but encourage me in my struggle to fit together the jigsaw pieces of my life. I need a deeper understanding of what I have got myself into, and a deeper commitment to it. The desire to escape drops away, but still I need to go and write. Letters to my daughters, that’s what I’m writing — trying to explain to them what it means to me to be a Buddhist, why I live the life I do. The decision to go is mine, and I know that my community would rather I stayed.

Mid-May is probably the most glorious time to be at Caffoulens — just a mile or so from the house I stayed in to write my first book. I’m hoping this will be my second. I start my sojourn by buying geraniums — this time I get petunias too — to hang from the wooden balcony. I spend a delightful time preparing to write, cleaning up after the last inhabitants — flies, spiders, mice — and the peacocks, the over-night residents on the balcony. There’s work to be done in the garden too. Weeding and planting, cutting the grass, ripping back the ivy and disentangling the roses, picking the cherries; and at last I get down to work.

I live out my dream but I am not always happy. I keep coming up against myself. It trips me up like a stone on my path. It turns into a brick. More bricks gather. And before long I have built a wall. The wal l stands between me and my words. I need help to melt the cement and remove a few of the bricks. Just enough to see ahead. Just enough to encourage me on. I wonder how many words I can gather in the remaining two weeks.

Then my lovely daughters arrive to spend the last few days with me. I leave my letters to be with them. I’m happy to be Mother. It’s different now — a holiday.

A hot and wet July in India. We discussed conditioning, natural and conventional morality. Hot, sleepless nights. Stimulating and gratifying days, full of affection, concern, and strenuous efforts to understand and rise above the confusions and hardships of life. No time to go to Aurangabad.

Back in Birmingham I determine to be more disciplined. I have planned more time to write. The house at Caffoulens is free but this time I won’t go. I have to thread my dream into the jigsaw-puzzle of my life.

My room is ready. I’ve finally made my curtains — from Indian bedspreads, in red and black and cream. They add a warm and vibrant glow to the quiet calm. On my desk, a pink geranium from the south of France, with a Buddha and Bhante beneath it. Angels on the wall. My windows a gallery of shimmering, golden leaves. My room becomes my castle, sometimes my prison.

I work well and then Shanti goes away. She sets off on her travels at last. I am glad. And yet I am very deeply affected. Another step away from home for us both. Like a death, she is gone. She doesn’t belong to me. I cannot identify with her. I must loosen my attachment.

I struggle to write. The superficial layer of life becomes even more transparent. The Wheel spins round in the tight grip of Impermanence. But I cannot look the monster squarely in the face. A wall of bricks is before me once again, and when I meet with my brothers and sisters in November, ‘at home’, I acknowledge my frustration and rage. I wanted my words to flow. I tried so hard to find them in my beautiful room, in my angels, and in the shimmering golden leaves. But, raw and exposed, wild and turbulent, embarrassed and humiliated — these are my November words.

Now, with a sigh of relief, we have slipped into silence. A week of meditation. Each morning I walk from home to home, in the still night. Everything has its place, and I am happy, in this secret time of day.

In mid December I go to India again. This time I must get to Aurangabad.

In Memory of a Dear Friend

On 26th August a young woman mitra, Chandan Dhawele, was on her way home from the Nagaloka Centre in Nagpur, India, when she was knocked off her moped by a lorry. She died instantly. She had been celebrating Bhante’s birthday, giving a talk to an audience of four or five hundred people.

I want to write about you, Chandan. I want others to know what a special young woman you were. I want your influence to pervade our hearts and continue to affect us, now that you are gone.

My words will not be adequate. I was one friend among so many. You were dear to us all — men, women, and children. Perhaps between us we will do you justice.

The last time I saw you was in July. We were on retreat together. You had stopped asking me when you would be ordained. I think we both knew that you were ready, but we had to wait. Did you know how much I loved you, Chandan? I hope you did.

When I suggested we should all go for a walk on the last day of the retreat, you glowed with delight — like a young puppy you could hardly contain your excitement. You reminded me of my daughter, Shanti, who would cry, ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait,’ at the prospect of a treat ahead. I wanted Shanti to meet you, but now she can’t. Did you know how much I loved you, Chandan? I hope you did.

Khemaprabha and I had walked across to the river the day before. We got a bit damp in the misty rain and we had to tread very carefully through the mud where the path was steep and well-used. You thought that Pratibha should stay behind. She’d already had a miscarriage. Now she was pregnant again and you were concerned about her. You wanted me to forbid her to come, and you frowned at me in your cheeky, defiant sort of way. I only just managed to stand my ground — I couldn’t deny the nature-loving Pratibha this treat, and she promised to take care.

You walked ahead with your friend, Babita. Such good friends you were — I’ve never seen the like. I walked on to join you. We discussed the vegetation and reminisced about other walks on previous retreats. Last time the river bed, winding down from the hills, was dry, except for a few patches of stagnant water. Now, in the distance, where once we’d climbed, a waterfall gushed and flowed down a winding staircase of deep and shallow pools. I waited for the others while you two, like mischievous fairies, skipped off to climb and chase and splash each other. You were having such fun, and very soon you had infected us all with your playful spirit.

Your mother called you Chandan, sandalwood, a sweet perfume. Fragrance of the perfect life, you influenced us with your playfulness, your sincerity, your determination, your kind heart, and your common sense. Did you know how much we loved you?

On the way back to Pune we had a little accident. I’d been warned that the station was coming soon and I must push myself to the front. I couldn’t believe there wouldn’t be time for us all to get off before the train started moving again, but there wasn’t. I stretched out my arms to Mrs Nagabodhi to help her jump and we tumbled to the ground. Later on you explained how it should have been done. You knew, you told me, because as a small child you used to play, jumping on and off the moving trains.

I knew so little really about your life. I wanted to know more. I was waiting for you to become a Dharmacharini, then we would spend more time together. I was counting on you as my next translator, my companion, my friend. But now you’re gone, out of my reach.

Your mother called you Chandan, a sweet perfume. She was very proud of you. And so was I. Sometimes I felt like your mother. You were twenty-seven, two years older than Shanti. It was soon to be my turn to give you a name. I would have called you noble, precious, a jewel, a spiritual treasure, a daughter of the Buddha.

But a lorry knocked you down and you died instantly. Suddenly you were gone. We couldn’t believe it. How cruel, how unfair, how tragic, we cried. And the question ‘Why?’ arose in our minds. But there was no reason for your death. You didn’t deserve it. It was dependent on conditions. Asking why will not help. We are forced to acknowledge more deeply that conditioned existence is painful, impermanent, and insubstantial.

Your mother called you Chandan, a sweet perfume. Fragrance of the prefect life. Perhaps I wouldn’t have found a name more suitable, a name ‘sweeter than incense’.

Did you know, Chandan, how much we loved you?

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Autumn Issue Two (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 1999).

Srimala is the author of Breaking Free, available from Windhorse Publications