‘Take a Good Order Member — And He’ll Do’

An interview with Mahamati

Madhyamavani: How did you become a Buddhist?

Mahamati: I first came into contact with the Dharma and the FWBO in 1976. I was twenty-one, and a student at the University of East Anglia. Before that, I’d had next to no interest in Buddhism. It came through being introduced to Devamitra by a Philosophy lecturer — who, by the way, was eventually ordained and is now Vipassi.

After the meeting, however, I didn’t think about it again for months. Then one day in the autumn of that year, I bumped into Devamitra in the street. He told me he had been trying to contact me; he had just opened the Norwich Buddhist Centre, and wondered if I’d be interested in learning meditation. I’d done two years at UEA, and had just started a ‘year out’ to pursue various interests, so I was open to new things.

I arrived a little late for the meditation class, and as I went into the shrine room Devamitra paused in the introduction he had just begun, and welcomed me. It made a difference to me that he was so obviously pleased I’d come. After meditation we all went into the reception area. There were about ten people or so. I remember catching the eye of one of them, and we both started laughing. I immediately made a connection with him. He later became Kulananda.

After a tea break, we listened to the tape of Bhante’s lecture on The Meaning of Spiritual Community. I had an immediate response to that, because during my time as a student I had done some therapy groups and encounter groups, and I’d become familiar with the idea of growth and change through communication with others. When I heard Bhante’s lecture, it suddenly dawned on me that, instead of just meeting the others for an evening or weekend, you could live your whole life with friends who wanted to change and grow.

So right from the start, for you, Buddhism was bound up with other people?

Very much so.

Not so much an ‘inward quest’?

I didn’t think in those terms. Before that, I hadn’t taken much interest in ‘spiritual’ things — I’d been more interested in these therapy groups and in left wing politics. Those two things had been my ‘paths’ I suppose, but I had begun to feel that both were limited.

Were you active in left wing politics?

Yes, on the UEA campus. In my second year I had personally instigated an ‘alternative UEA movement’, based on the idea of students sharing knowledge, and not just studying without helping each other — a critique of the ‘bourgeois ideology’ of education.

I think my interest in politics was partly because I was conscious of being privileged. I came from quite a well-to-do family. I’d had an elite education at a famous public school — Rugby. Since my mid-teens I’d felt very uneasy about the gap between the social elite and the less fortunate. I felt I had to do something that would contribute to changing society for the better.

I considered myself a Marxist. I was studying Philosophy, Economics and Sociology. So this was my ‘political path’. The problem was that the other people I knew who were into politics were not the kind I could relate to personally. They just used to sell Socialist Worker, and then head for the pub. The people I could relate to, and who were my friends, weren’t interested in politics — just in having a good time — although a few of them were interested in the therapy groups, as I was.

How had you got involved in these groups?

In my first term I’d seen an ad in a student magazine — ‘Do you want to change yourself, and so become able to help others?’ I thought, ‘Yes, I do!’ It was promoting a training course for people who wanted to become student counsellors.

So your motive in joining the groups was helping others, rather than sorting out psychological problems of your own?

Only once did I ever go to see a counsellor to get help with a problem of my own, and that was how to get a girlfriend. He did give me some good advice. Actually, I probably had plenty of inner difficulties, but they weren’t the reason I went along to the groups. I only discovered them afterwards! So I wasn’t looking for someone to solve my problems, or even for somebody to talk to about them. For me it was just about exploring how to take more responsibility for myself.

Through these therapy groups, I suppose I discovered that I could change. They helped me develop a greater sense of freedom to take initiative, and take responsibility for my own well-being. But I saw that further progress wasn’t possible through the groups: they just met intermittently, with nothing in between. So by my ‘year out’ it was becoming clear to me that a purely therapeutic or a purely political approach wasn’t going to work. They seemed to be two ends of a spectrum, without the middle. I had no idea that Buddhism would provide the answer, until I stumbled on it. But within a week of that first class with Devamitra, I felt that Buddhism was going to be very significant in my life. I was ordained ten and a half months later.

So it was ‘love at first sight’ for you with Buddhism and the FWBO?

Oh yes, very much. And I was free to follow it through. I was young. I had no commitments. I didn’t bother going back to University to complete my course, and I’ve never had any cause to regret that.

What do you remember most vividly about your ordination?

...How can I put this? The public ordination was exciting and enjoyable, but for me the private ordination was much more significant. It happened in Bhante’s study at Padmaloka. The funny thing is that, at the time, I didn’t experience anything in particular. Buddhism was still new to me. On one level, I didn’t quite know what was happening. At another level, I must have known pretty well, because I’ve never had cause to doubt that step.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the more I’ve reflected on the private ordination over the years, the more significance it has assumed. So the significance was in what happened, and the way that unfolded in my subsequent life, rather than in what I felt at the time. I would say without a doubt that the private ordination was the most profound experience I’ve ever had in my life, but that has only become clear with hindsight.

Being given a sadhana [meditation practice received at ordination] was an important part of it. I had asked Bhante to choose a yidam [meditation deity] for me, and he chose Manjughosa. I didn’t know much about the bodhisattvas, and in any case it seemed appropriate to ask Bhante to choose. I don’t remember his exact words, but when he gave it to me I think that Bhante said that he had been given the practice twenty years before by Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche, and had practised it for many years himself. Then he gave me my name, and explained that ‘Mahamati’ is another name for Manjughosa. It has a literal meaning — ‘greatly intelligent being’, or ‘great spiritual intelligence’ — although I don’t often think of that. I have kept up the sadhana. In the early years I was erratic in doing it, but these days I do it very regularly. Through the mantra I can always go back and reconnect with what happened at my ordination.

You come from a Jewish family. Was there any conflict in making the transition to Buddhism?

My family was nominally ‘orthodox’, although in practice we were not all that strict — after all, we lived fifty miles from the nearest synagogue! We did observe major Jewish festivals, though, and the eve of Sabbath. I had a Bar Mitzvah and learnt to read Hebrew. At boarding school, I went to classes in Judaism with the Jewish boys while the others were at chapel.

But I never felt any conflict in leaving all that behind to become a Buddhist. I didn’t have any emotional pull towards Judaism. I don’t know why I was different: my four brothers and sister have all maintained some kind of connection with Judaism, and one of my brothers has in fact become a fully orthodox Jew since his early twenties.

Nowadays, when I am visiting my parents or my brother, I’m still quite happy to participate in things like the prayers on the eve of the Sabbath. I even put on a skullcap. It’s just a matter of joining in an act of family togetherness. It has no religious significance for me. Judaism as a whole never did.

So you had no ‘religious’ feelings at all before Buddhism?

Well there was a little bit, actually, because when I was at Rugby I did become conscious that the classes in Judaism I attended were not providing me with any emotional sustenance. I had some friends who were strongly committed, practising Christians; and it did go through my mind that perhaps I should try Christianity. Once or twice I went along with one of these friends to hear evangelical speakers in the chapel. But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to get involved... partly because I was a Jew, perhaps. For reasons I am not entirely clear about rationally, there is quite a strong inner sense that ‘Jews don’t become Christians.’

So at school there was a kind of unsatisfied religious yearning, but by the time I’d got to University, I’d forgotten about that, really. Whatever it was I‘d wanted, I‘d begun to look for it in politics and these therapy groups.

Did your conversion to Buddhism cause any tension between you and your family?

When I told my parents that I was living in a Buddhist community, they didn’t mind at all. In fact, they seemed to think it was an interesting thing to be doing. When I told them I was going to get ordained, however, they were extremely upset. They must only then have realised how serious I was. But then, at the same time, I also told them about my decision not to return to University, so the two things were combined in their minds. They had taken a lot of trouble over my education, and here I was, giving it all up.

It wasn’t difficult for me to go against them, although none of my older siblings ever had before (I was the fourth). There was a sense of being the black sheep but it only lasted for, at most, three years. After that, they started to become increasingly happy about what I was doing. These days, I have very good relations with my parents, who are now quite elderly, and with all my brothers and sisters, too. There is a lot of mutual respect, and we are all very close. In a strange way, I think my father is very proud of me as a Buddhist. I saw this when he was very ill in hospital last year. On several occasions when I was visiting, he would say to whatever nurse was passing by, ‘This is my Buddhist son.’

Perhaps he sees it as like having a son who’s become a rabbi in a slightly unconventional and interesting way!

Perhaps, but I think he had other reasons, too. I developed a very good rapport with my father whilst he was in the hospital, and I was able to give him a lot of emotional support, especially when he was in intensive care. And I think that he sort of understood intuitively that my ability to do that came from my Buddhism. I was able to give him metta and to be calm at times when he was very distressed. Thankfully, he has now fully recovered from his illness.

Since becoming involved, you have worked only for the FWBO. Tell me something about the jobs you have done.

My first job was running Dharmachakra — producing and distributing tapes of Bhante’s talks. That was for a couple of years. Then I lived at Padmaloka for a year, in a small workshop that made candles. After that I moved to London and became the manager of Friends Foods [now known as Friends Organic] for about two years. Then, in the summer of Eighty-two, I worked as a fundraiser for Aid for India. After the appeal was finished, I helped out in their office as a volunteer.

The upshot of that was I was appointed as the first Director of Aid for India, which later was renamed as the Karuna Trust. It had been going for two years by the time I took over, and had become quite a substantial organisation that needed to be administered and developed. I was asked to do that — having no relevant experience or training! There was nobody else to do it. I saw a tremendous opportunity to take on a big challenge. So that is what I did for the next ten years. It was very demanding. I was really stretched. I had to learn everything ‘on the job’. Plus, there were so many different aspects of the organisation to keep in contact with — the trustees, other administrators, the fundraisers and those working in the projects in India. I also did a lot of fund-raising myself — running appeals. That also was challenging.

You must have grown a lot through the experience.

Yes, although it has to be said that, in some ways, my spiritual life over those years was one-sided. Work was the main thing. I did do other things: study leaders’ retreats, for example. And I attended a Guhyaloka course in Eighty-nine — my first long retreat. But really the emphasis in those ten years was on work. I would not say I was always incredibly happy. But I did develop a lot of confidence. I didn’t have much of that at all when I first came to the Movement.

During that time, I also formed the basis of a lot of friendships that have endured with people who worked at the Karuna Trust — trustees in the UK and people working on the projects in India. I formed a very strong friendship with Lokamitra, who throughout that time was the prime mover for our work in India. It is odd to think he and I became such good friends, when for most of the time I was in England and he was in India! For ten years, each of us was the other’s main correspondent, I think. We met in person only occasionally, when I visited India or he came over here. We developed a very strong bond just through me wanting to support his work in India, and him being very encouraging and appreciative of our efforts in Britain to help him.

In 1992, you moved to India and stayed for almost seven years. Why?

One reason was that, having worked for ten years organising financial support for the projects in India, I was interested in actually seeing those projects from the inside, so to speak. Plus I knew there was a strong need for someone from the UK wing of Karuna to work out there. It seemed natural that it should be me, as I had a detailed knowledge of the work, and knew some of the Indian Order members from my visits.

What was the actual nature of your work in India?

In my first few years out there, a lot my time went into reporting to Karuna, and liaising between Karuna and the Indian Trusts. Once I was in India, another aim emerged from discussions with Indian Order members, which was working with members of the Trusts to make their experience of the work more spiritually effective for them personally — to make it right livelihood in the fullest sense. We also wanted to make the work more practically effective, of course, but we felt that would come out of making it more spiritually vital.

How did you try to make the work more like a spiritual practice?

In the UK, some Order members, especially Ruchiraketu at Windhorse Trading, had gone quite deeply into this whole area. We invited Ruchiraketu out to India twice to do workshops. Afterwards, I worked with the Indian Order members to follow up his ideas. We put a lot of effort into helping people develop the capacity for teamwork. For example by holding workshops on Right Livelihood — getting people to think about it, discuss it, and have more of a vision of what they were doing, and why.

As part of this, I tried to change some of the cultural factors that I saw as obstructing the development of communication and friendship through work. No doubt there are obstacles to this in every culture, but as an outsider to the Indian culture, maybe I was able to see more clearly the particular barriers that exist there. It seemed to me that one of the main ones was an exaggerated sense of hierarchy that made people — even Order members — tend to be very formal or deferential in their communication ‘up and down’ the hierarchy. It was meant well but it wasn’t really in the spirit of sangha.

So in all sorts of small ways, I tried to break this down. For example, I noticed that in India, sitting behind a desk is an important way of creating a sense of authority. So, to subvert that, I never sat behind a desk. I always put my desk against the wall, so there was no barrier between me and whoever came to see me. When we had meetings in my office, I often used to ask somebody else to sit in my chair.

Were there any other aspects to your work in India?

I was involved in a variety of forms of Dharma work from the beginning. I often had invitations to give talks at festivals — they have so many in India. I travelled around the country to give talks. I also led retreats. During the last couple of years I was also part of the Indian ordination team, so I used to participate in going for Refuge retreats. I was very keen on working with Mitras, although I kept coming up against the limitations of my ability to communicate in Hindi. I was far from fluent although I could get by in most situations.

In fact one of the most notable experiences of living in India was frequently being in groups where my understanding of what was being said was limited, because of the language barrier. I found that, as I result, I began to learn how to pick up more directly on people’s states of mind. If you can’t understand what people are saying, you have to tune in to them at a different level. Interestingly, that capacity seems to have stayed with me. I think that I am more sensitive to the feeling coming from a person than I used to be.

What was it like, in general, being a westerner living in India?

I’ve got to admit in some ways it was pretty stressful. I’m thinking of the material conditions. A lot of the time I found it quite difficult to eat the food, for example. Then there was the noise and the crowded conditions. And travelling. Having to wait hours for buses to come. Most of the time there was a sort of undercurrent of strain. I find it very noticeable that since I’ve been back in England all that stress and strain has just gone. Everything seems incredibly easy.

Usually, I managed to avoid showing irritability. Indians used to tell me that I adapted very well, but inwardly I felt this strain. I lost my patience sometimes. Not usually in personal communication, but reacting to things like power cuts, or phones not working, or difficulties with motor—rickshaw drivers. There would be a flash of anger. In England, that never happens to me.

But the point I really want to make is that, actually, the discomfort in India was not a negative thing for me, because it was constantly throwing me back on why I was there. So it wasn’t as if I was thinking ‘I don't want to be here.’ It was more like ‘Well, this is what I have to put up with in order to be here, and I do want to be here.’

And why was that?

Well, in some ways I enjoyed living in India. I enjoyed the sunshine, the friendliness of people, the adventure of being there. But all that wouldn’t have been enough on its own. The reason I was there was that I cared a lot about our sangha, and I felt I could make a worthwhile contribution to it. Another reason was that, precisely because of the discomfort, it was an opportunity to go for Refuge more deeply, and learn not to worry about personal likes and dislikes. So I took it as a challenge. Even what I mentioned about losing my patience — I took that as a challenge, too. And I got better at it; I did become more patient.

I have to admit that in the last year or so I started to lose some of that patience. Perhaps a bit of me had been stretched as far as it could go, for the time being. I also started to miss things. For the first six years, I didn’t really miss England much. But at the end, I found more and more I wanted to be able to talk about... well, it’s got something to do with things like being able to go to concerts, and discuss books and ideas. Of course, as it worked out, I ended up in a fantastic situation for that here at Madhyamaloka, living with Bhante and all the members of the Madhyamaloka community, who are so interested in reading and western culture.

What do you appreciate most about your Indian friends?

...I know what I want to say but I am not sure how to put it in a way that does justice to it. It is basically to do with positivity...lack of cynicism, and keeping up good spirits despite very adverse conditions. I saw many of my Indian friends facing a lot of difficulties, and most of the time being very positive: deaths in the family, financial insecurity, family frictions, and so on. You have to remember the difference between their situation and ours. In India, even the people working full time for the Movement are all married and have families to support. And often in India you are not just responsible for your immediate family circle, you have obligations to a wider family, too. Sometimes, for example, a wife might want an Order member to earn more money, or might just not be supportive of his work. I've been talking about my problems, but the fact is that most of my Indian friends had far more difficulties in life than I had, even if they were living in their own culture. They managed very well and generally didn’t complain.

What friendships did you form in India?

So many... It’s difficult picking out individuals. I would certainly mention the Ordination Team chapter — a superb chapter, very harmonious. Sudarshan, Chandrasila, Jutindhar and Yashosagar, Kumarajiv, Adityabodhi and Amoghasiddhi: they are all outstanding Order members. And I received a great deal of kindness from all of them while I was in the team, and before.

In fact, saying that makes me remember how much support I received from so many other Indian Order members, throughout my time there. And perhaps that was the most important reason of all why I could stay there for seven years. On one level the culture is so different but on another level we are all Order members doing basically the same thing. Although I was in India, and even though I did ultimately start to feel a bit homesick, in the most important sense I was always at home.

Who are your most important friends here in the UK?

Most important? ...In a funny sort of way, I don't know. ...I mean, up until a few weeks ago I was meeting virtually every day with Vishvapani, so I suppose at that point he was my most important friend because he was the one I was most in contact with, day to day. Now he’s left Birmingham. Since then, Cittapala has suggested that he and I meet up regularly. So I suppose he could become my most important friend. To some extent, for me, friendship is ‘contextual’. What I mean is there are a lot of Order members I can trust and express myself to. I am not that choosy, actually! It might be that there are levels of friendship that I haven't explored. But my experience is — take a good Order member and he’ll do!

I suppose, when I think about it, there are certain caveats to that. Many of the people I’m thinking of I’ve known for an awfully long time. That applies to everyone here at Madhyamaloka, for example. Take Kulananda: he and I have a very good friendship, which has built up over about twenty-five years. We were Mitras together. I know he understands me very well, partly because of the kind of man he is, but also just because he has known me since I was ‘a baby’ in Order terms.

Recently you have become UK Men’s Order Convenor. How did that come about?

As a result of my experience on the Ordination Team in India, I was thinking in terms of joining the UK Team, and living at Padmaloka. But as it happened, they didn’t need another team member just then. Subhuti suggested that I come to Madhyamaloka. At that time, Kovida needed help with his Order Convening work, and I took on organising WBO Day 2000. I started getting involved in some of the chapter retreats. We began to feel there was a long-term role I could play. The PCC was thinking of having an Order Convenor in each ‘Zone’. So we decided I should offer to do that for the men in the UK, and that was agreed.

What does the job entail?

One part of what I want to do is develop good contact with all the men’s chapter convenors, and through them to keep in touch with how all the men's chapters in the UK are functioning. I would also like to have at least some acquaintance with all dharmacharis who live in the UK, which I feel is still possible at the moment, although obviously it will become more difficult as the Order grows.

I want to keep in touch with the ordination process, too, and get to know some of the Mitras working towards ordination. I think it’s important for my role to understand the preparation that men are having for joining the Order. For that reason, I am hoping to attend at least one going for Refuge retreat at Padmaloka each year.

I'm also concerned to keep an awareness of those Order members who are not in chapters, for whatever reason — circumstance or choice.

Another important part of my task is to be somebody that men Order members in the UK can communicate with about matters of concern in their relations with the Order and Order members — their fellow chapter members, or whoever. There are other people they can talk to in that way — Preceptors, PCC members, chapter convenors, and so on — but I provide one more channel.

Are you enjoying your new job?

I’m very happy, actually. I feel I’ve taken on this role at a good time because of the efforts and creativity put into Order convening by Subhuti and Kovida. In a way, I’m coming in on a wave they have created. They began the chapter retreats, and Subhuti has given a lot of talks about how chapters can function, at their best. I want to capitalise on all that, and help the men’s Order in the UK to go further and deeper with the practice of meeting in chapters.

The work does involve quite a bit of administration, and I have to be careful not to let that predominate. The bit that matters most — and satisfies me most — is personal communication. I am very interested in Order members, and very happy if I can help Order chapters to be more and more satisfying for their members. My own experience is that my chapter at Madhyamaloka... well, it probably is the high point of my week, actually. Which of course is what Bhante suggested, many years ago, a chapter could be for Order members. I'd like as many Order members as possible to have a similar experience to me in that way.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 6: Spring 2002 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2002).

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