Sangharakshita Diary

January–June 2001

Bhante had intended, during the first few months of the year, to continue work on the latest volume of his memoirs, with a few outings to participate in launches of Through Buddhist Eyes, and then travel extensively in Europe through the late spring and summer. In the event, the first part of this period went according to plan, but after his return from Italy in early June, the deterioration in his eyesight that had started in May caused him to cancel the rest of his plans for further travel abroad.

In late January, Bhante travelled to London, stopping off on the way to meet Paramartha in Beaconsfield. Over the next few days, while staying with Prasannasiddhi in his flat at the London Buddhist Centre, Bhante had individual interviews with several people, participated in the launch of Through Buddhist Eyes both at the L.B.C. and at the West London Buddhist Centre, and made trips into central London to visit places of cultural interest. He also dined out at the Samaggavasa and Amritakula communities, as well as dining with Chintamani and Paramabodhi.

The book launches at both venues were well attended, and on each occasion Bhante read extracts from the book, and was kept busy signing copies at the end of the evening. Visits to exhibitions and art collections included the Blake etchings at the V & A museum, the Genius of Rome exhibition at the Royal Academy, the Courtauld Gallery, the exhibition Treasures of Catherine the Great at the Hermitage, and the Wallace Collection. Accompanied by Prasannasiddhi and his son Ziya, Bhante also visited (by way of contrast) the London Aquarium in the old County Hall building, where he once worked.

Having driven from East London to Brighton, Bhante undertook a bracing walk along the promenade in wintry conditions, before being entertained to lunch at the men's community in Bigwood Road, where he stayed throughout the visit. Having had afternoon tea with the Women's Evolution shop team, Bhante participated in another launch of Through Buddhist Eyes, the Brighton Centre being packed for the occasion, and Bhante was asked to sign many copies. The following morning he was guided by Karunavira to some of the choicest of Brighton's bookshops, before joining the team at Evolution Arts for lunch.

Throughout February, Bhante stayed at Madhyamaloka, continuing work on his current volume of memoirs. Nonetheless, there was a steady flow of visitors coming to meet him, and he also had evening meals with the Order Chapters attending seminars at Madhyamaloka. As a consequence of the connections he has developed with the Catholic Inter-Faith Commission, Bhante was a guest at the high mass held at the Birmingham Oratory in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Cardinal Newman. At the end of the month, Through Buddhist Eyes was again launched, this time at the Birmingham Buddhist Centre, but instead of reading extracts from it, Bhante spoke at length about one of his own poems, Sri Pada.

March followed a similar pattern to February, with even more visitors. Excursions included an afternoon in the local botanical gardens with Maitreyabandhu, and a visit with Kovida to Sutton Park, the largest municipal park in the country. Padmavijaya joined Bhante for a showing on video of Derek Jarman's Caravaggio. At the end of the month there were further book launches in Bristol and Nottingham, again successful, even though by this time the book had been on sale for several weeks.

April heralded the change from Bhante's winter routine. The Aranya team of Vajradevi and Sandra Greenway entertained Bhante to afternoon tea at their community, and a few days later he attended part of FWBO Day at the University of Birmingham, where he launched a new edition of Subhuti's book The Buddhist Vision. Subhuti in turn launched the first edition of Bhante's translation of the Dhammapada. Over three hundred copies of the latter were sold, and Bhante was kept busy signing copies for some two hours. Paramartha came to visit Bhante over this weekend, as did Prasannasiddhi and Ziya, who stayed on for a few days and joined Kovida and Bhante on another outing to Sutton Park.

On the 19th April Bhante flew to Brussels and stayed for a few days with Dhammaketu and his wife in Ghent, where he was to open the new Buddhist Centre. On the day of his arrival, Bhante attended the meditation class at the Centre, and afterwards took part in the discussion.

The following morning and afternoon, Dhammaketu took Bhante sightseeing in Ghent, where he saw, among other things, Van Eyck's Adoration of the Lamb in the cathedral. That evening, Bhante had a meeting and discussion with Frans Goedghebeur, the President of the Belgian Buddhist Union, and his wife. The next day was spent sightseeing in Bruges. On the 22nd, Bhante participated in the celebrations for the opening of the new Centre, where he led a meditation and sevenfold puja, and addressed the hundred or so people present, among whom were guests from Amsterdam, Essen, and Paris.

Returning from Ghent on 23rd April, Bhante was at home for a few days, in which time he continued to meet people for personal interviews, had supper with the nearby men's community at 12 Park Road, and attended, along with several members of the Preceptors College and Council, a performance of King John at Stratford on Avon.

Early in May, Bhante spent five days in Hamburg as the guest of Nirmala, Dharmapriya and Dhammaloka. The first full day included visits to an art gallery in Hamburg and the Haus de Stille, a retreat centre, where they met the director. On the same day, Bhante attended a performance by a string quartet, at the College of Music in Hamburg, of compositions by Haydn, Schubert and Berger. The following day saw a visit to Lubeck, including its cathedral and the novelist Thomas Mann's family house, now a museum, which features as 'Buddenbrooks' in the novel of that name. Later that day the party visited Travermunde, a seaside resort not far from Lubeck. Much of the following day was spent at Worpswede, an artists’ village associated with Rainer Maria Rilke, and in the evening Bhante had a meal (followed by discussion) with local Mitras and pre-Mitras. The last full day was spent on a steamer trip up the River Elbe, in the company of Nirmala, Dhammaloka and Dharmapriya, and in the evening Bhante conducted the Kalyana Mitra ceremony for Sabine Konrad with Dhammaloka and Khemasiri.

It was during the visit to Hamburg that Bhante had the first intimations of problems with his eyesight.

Three days after returning from Hamburg, Bhante once again set off on his travels, this time to London, en route for Rome and the reunion retreat in Tuscany. On the way to London, Bhante was able to meet Paramartha in Beaconsfield, and together they visited nearby Hughenden Manor — for many years the home of Benjamin Disraeli. On Saturday the 12th May, Bhante had his evening meal at Aryatara community, and then went to the Croydon Buddhist Centre to participate in an Aranya fund raising event ‘Desert Island Discs’ in which he answered questions about his life (put to him by Sue Bolton) and played eight of his favourite pieces of music. The event was well attended and raised a substantial sum for Aranya. While still in London, Bhante also visited (with Prasannasiddhi) the Victorian Exhibition at the V & A museum.

On 15th May Bhante flew with Prasannasiddhi to Rome, where they stayed with Arcismati, Karmabandhu and Karunavajra at the community flat for two days. In the course of this time they visited the Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museum, St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel) and the Pantheon. Bhante also met members of the local AOBO group one evening for two hours of discussion. The next destination was Il Convento in Tuscany, the venue of a reunion retreat for men Bhante had ordained there in the early 1980s. By the time of his arrival at Il Convento, Bhante was unable to see well enough to read or write. A week later, accompanied by Arcismati and Dhirananda, he visited an Italian ophthalmologist, who prescribed eye drops and medicine, saying that there should be an improvement within fifteen days. During his time on the retreat each day, Bhante had walks and meetings with individuals, and also met and conversed with different groupings of five or six men at each mealtime. Being unable to read or write, Bhante spent more time than usual in this way, as well as in reflection and meditation. On four occasions, Bhante joined the retreatants for the evening, and spoke at length about his early childhood and about his experiences with the newly converted followers of the late Dr. Ambedkar in the late fifties and early sixties. With three members of the support team, he also visited Nomadelfia, a nearby Catholic lay community of some three hundred members, which seeks to follow the lifestyle of the Early Christians.

Rather than improving, Bhante's eyesight deteriorated further, so he decided to return home to seek further advice and treatment, flying into Gatwick accompanied by Satyapala on the 8th June – nine days earlier than originally planned. Over the course of the next few weeks, Bhante was seen by doctors and specialists, and was diagnosed as suffering from wet macular degeneration in both eyes. At the time of writing, Bhante has undergone the first of a possible six sessions of photodynamic therapy treatment, aimed at inhibiting further deterioration.

The condition of Bhante's eyes and the investigations and treatments he has undergone have not caused him much physical discomfort. Nonetheless, the impact on his life of the blurring and distortion of his vision have been considerable, and he is devoting himself to the task of setting up conditions that will enable him to carry on with his current volume of memoirs, and other literary projects. While Bhante can see well enough to perform many day-to-day and household tasks, he needs assistance with anything that requires detailed vision. His reading, correspondence and literary work now require the assistance of others. As a consequence, he now spends much more of each day working with and through others. In addition, the flow of visitors continues unabated.

Before his eyesight deteriorated, Bhante read and reviewed for the Times Higher Education Supplement Asian Commitment: Travels and Studies in the Indian Sub-Continent and South-East Asia by David Snellgrove. He also read The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, translated by A. Charles Muller, along with a commentary thereon by a Korean Master, and started to read Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, edited by Robert E Boswell Jr. His non-Buddhist reading included George Sands' The Master Pipers and Victor Hugo's Notre Dame of Paris, as well as a biography of Benjamin Disraeli by Hesketh Pearson. During this time, Bhante's work for Windhorse Publications included proofreading his own translation of the Dhammapada.

Since then, various people have been reading to Bhante, including Devamitra, who read the whole of Maitreyabandhu's Thicker Than Blood: Friendship on the Buddhist Path, which Bhante will be launching on the Combined Convention. Khemavira and Srimala, along with Devamitra, have been reading to him his correspondence and Shabda. Neal Warren, an American Mitra, has been reading to Bhante The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, another translation of the Sutra already mentioned, as well as writing letters to his dictation.

See more articles by Sangharakshita on the FWBO website. Visit Sangharakshita's personal website and see his essays on Nietzsche and Buddhism and Art and the Spritual Life

Originally published in Madhyamavani 5: Summer 2001 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2001).