A Buddhist and his Dad


Both my parents are, I am glad to say, alive and well, though they are in their eighties now. I don’t see them that often, as they live in Sydney. My brother Brian went there first, about twenty years ago. He got married out there, and had a daughter, you see, so my mum was keen to be near her granddaughter. My parents aren’t great letter writers. Me neither, for that matter. But we have a natter on the phone every couple of weeks, for as much as an hour and a half.

Sydney is a long way from Stepney. Stepney, in the East End of London, is where I was born. I never knew it well at firsthand, because soon after I was born we moved out to Ilford, a bit further from the smoke. But in a funny way, Stepney always seemed familiar to me: as a boy I was always hearing the names of people, roads, and pubs in Stepney. And in any case, until I was about five, my dad still worked near there, in Aldgate. He was a labourer at the Cooperative Society tea warehouse in Leaman Street, just lifting tea chests around. Later, he got a job with the Post Office, on the telecom side: doing line maintenance, going up and down poles, looking in boxes in the ground, stuff like that. He did that until he retired. He worked his way up to being in charge of a gang, a sort of foreman.

When I started work myself, dad was quite keen on me joining the Post Office too. In those days, the GPO was like the civil service: quite well paid, very safe, a nice steady number. He tried to get me in doing engineering. But that’s all cables, and I’m colour-blind: I can’t tell red from green. But eventually, after being an apprentice with a rubber mill for a few years, I got a job with the GPO as a draughtsman.

I haven’t always been dad’s biggest fan. There was a period in my teens when I saw him as the villain of the piece. You see, my mother and father used to have a pretty volatile relationship. When I was a kid they rowed a lot, and that used to drive my brother and me round the bend. We found it very painful listening to them arguing. In the end, that was one of the reasons why I moved out. I suddenly thought, ‘Why am I staying here, listening to this?’

The thing is, while it was all going on, I basically sided with my mother for some reason. I think I was her favourite. Her worst insult was, ‘Oh you’re just like your father!’ That used to sting. She wanted me to be different from him. The things she found irritating in him — well, she didn’t want me to be like that. For example, he is very easy-going, and not particularly ambitious.

Then again, he is very gregarious, while my mother is much less so. He is a bit of a ‘life and soul of the party’ type. I remember when I was in the Boy Scouts, we used to put on these dances — ballroom-type dancing. My dad always used to get up and dance with all my friends’ sisters. Mum would roll her eyes and say, ‘Oh, there he goes again. Look! He’ll dance with anybody!’ That was always one of my mum’s complaints: ‘Oh, he’ll talk to anybody on the street!’

Another thing was, when you’re a teenage boy you start to think your dad is a bit ridiculous. For example, dad used to wear these singlets. I couldn’t stand those, because that was what he wore. Anyway, for whatever reason, I went through a period when I didn’t appreciate him. Looking back, I can see that what changed all that was my involvement in Buddhism and the FWBO. To be honest, I never really gave much thought to my relationship with him, until I started practising the Dharma. That made me much more aware and sympathetic. Then gradually I began to see how much I resembled him, and how much I’d got from him.

There’s my passion for reading, for example. Considering he never had much education, dad was an amazingly avid reader. He was always reading: all sorts of things, but especially anthropology — stuff about the Belgian Congo, or the pygmies, or the South American Indians. Every other week, on Saturday morning, he used to take my brother and me up the library — which was quite a long walk for us (we were little boys then). Because of him, the book has always been a big symbol of something very positive for me, even though we didn’t have many around at home.

He very much encouraged us in our schoolwork, too. He even used to read our school textbooks at night, once we’d gone to bed. When I went to grammar school, for example, I had to do French. So he’d go through the French textbook, and make notes. Then afterwards he’d talk to me about it. And he did the same with the Maths and History textbooks.

Brian and I were both very interested in nature, and dad was well into that too. We were townies, but dad’s half-sister lived in Wiltshire, in a tiny little village on the way to nowhere: very quiet, very rural, not far from Salisbury Plain. When I was about eight, we started going down to stay with this aunt for our holidays. My brother and I loved being in the countryside. Dad saw it was good for us, and that mum liked it too. I remember them having long discussions about the pros and cons of moving somewhere like Wiltshire. So he started looking for farm labouring jobs. He was prepared to take a drop in earnings, but the trouble was, if he’d gone into farm work we would have lived in a tied cottage. That meant that as long as you stayed in the job you had the cottage, but if you left the job you had no home. That would have been a big sacrifice, because we were buying the house in Ilford. So that idea never came off in the end.

One of the things my mother and father used to argue about was the fact that, when we were in Wiltshire, he used to spend all day out with Brian and me. Sometimes, we’d go fishing; sometimes we’d take nets, and catch butterflies. But the highlight — the thing I remember and treasure most — was the evenings, when dad and I used to go off and just wander about, looking at things. We’d walk round the edges of fields, and through woods, looking at birds, trees — at everything, really. Not talking at all, just staying silent, because we’d see more when we kept quiet. He’d put me on his shoulder, and carry me through the nettle beds. Wonderful. And we’d just spot things, and collect things — feathers and stuff like that.

The reading and the love of nature sort of overlapped. I used to get these books on birds out of the library, and dad bought me a couple of bird books too. Years later, when I moved to our retreat centre at Padmaloka, here in Norfolk, I got back into bird watching. I was amazed how much I remembered, because I was only eight or nine years old when I read these books. But even now there aren’t many birds I can’t recognise.

Something else dad has always been interested in is drawing and painting. He always encouraged Brian and me. As far back as I can remember, he used to bring home reams of paper, and he’d give us pencils and paints, and we’d just dabble away happily. As I was interested in nature, dad used to do watercolour paintings of birds and animals, copies of things out of books. He was quite good, as far as I could tell. You know the drawing of the hare by Durer? (I think it’s in charcoal.) Well, one of the first things I can remember is dad copying that. He had a few goes at it. It has always stayed in my mind.

He must have quite a keen visual awareness, because he used to collect pictures from magazines and keep them in a file — things that interested him. I discovered it one day. I remember the picture on the top was a colour photo of a volcano erupting. I collect pictures, too, and I suppose that’s a legacy from him. Not so much any more, because things like that can easily be distractions.

Then again, dad’s very handy and practical: he can take things apart and put them together again. If anything was broken, he’d take it to bits to see if he could mend it: the alarm clock, electrical gadgets, and other things. And more often than not, he could mend it, quite easily. I seem to have picked that up from him. When I was in the community at the London Buddhist Centre, I’d do plumbing and other repairs. I’d never been trained, but I could do it. I can turn my hand to most things mechanical. Nowadays I usually keep that quiet. If people know, they ask me to do things.

In that practical way, dad was quite creative too. He was into fretwork, for instance, and he used to make things for us when we were little: some of our Christmas presents, things like wooden forts and boats. He’d make the whole thing from scratch, and it was usually quite spectacular. He’d do them in his lunchtime at work: cut all the bits out with the saw, nail them together, paint them, and rig them out with stuff. Then he’d keep them hidden at his mate George’s place, and bring them over to our house on Christmas Eve.

I suppose that something else I’ve got from him is being quite physically affectionate. Now that reminds me of the telly. Let me explain. When Brian and I were still quite small — four or five, I think — the family got a television set. I’m fifty-four now, so this must have been at the time when television was just beginning in this country. It was a little Morphy-Richards thing, with a tiny screen. Mum sat over near the fire, where it was warmer, but dad used to sit in this armchair in front of the telly, and he’d have my brother on one leg and me on the other. We would both sort of lie back and watch the telly in his arms. It went on like that till we were seven or eight. We just got too heavy for him in the end. He has always been, you know, sort of tactile: lots of hugging.

Another interesting thing is that dad must have some capacity for languages, because he is very fluent in German. I don’t seem to have inherited that, but it has always impressed me. Actually, the German connection is partly owing to his ancestry. The surname I grew up with was Warren, but dad’s original name was Kleinschmidt. He came from a German family, although they’d lived in London for a couple of generations. His grandparents — my great grandparents — used to run a pub called the Princess of Prussia, which is still there, around the back of the Tower of London. The East End has always been a great area for immigrants. Anyway, dad’s granny taught him German, and gothic script as well. He went to some classes, too: apparently, there were a number of German churches in Stepney, and they’d do these German classes, so he used to go along on Saturdays and Sundays.

He changed his name to Warren when he got into the army, just before the end of the war. He joined up at seventeen, and went straight into Europe on D Day plus four. He started out as an ambulance driver, but they were soon using him as an interpreter, he was so fluent in German. Anyway, just before he was due to leave the country, a sergeant said to him, ‘Kleinschmidt? Get rid of that name mate. Because when you get over the other side, you could be in trouble. If you get split off from your unit... well, you’ve got a German name and you speak German: that’s going to get very complicated.’ So he became Warren.

But he has never lost the language. Nowadays, in Sydney, he’s got in with a whole bunch of men of his age who speak German (some are Czechs or Poles). He meets up with them in the shopping centre in South Sydney, and they rattle away in German together.

I started getting involved in the FWBO in about 1973. I met Subhuti in the summer of that year. I moved into number three Balmore Street, in Archway, and Subhuti was living at number five. When I told my parents that I’d become a Buddhist, their main concern at first was I might be getting caught up in some cult, and that I’d give this cult all my money. (‘All my money’ — what a laugh.) But they gradually came to approve of Buddhism in my life because they saw it was having such a positive effect on me: including on my relationship with them. Not that the relationship had ever been bad. I think they’ve noticed lots of positive changes in me, over the years, so they’ve got no doubt that it’s done me the world of good.

In the early days, they visited me a couple of times at Sukhavati, the men’s community at the London Buddhist Centre, where I was living. The LBC opened in about ’78 or ’79. Their visit must have been earlier than that, because it was still a bit of a building site when they came. On one visit, they met Sangharakshita on the stairs, accidentally. They were very pleased to meet him, because they’d seen him on the television. The fact that Bhante had been on telly greatly impressed them: it meant you had to take him seriously.

As for my dad, he really loved Sukhavati. It was right up his street. He liked the atmosphere, and he liked the idea of lots of young blokes together. I suppose it reminded him of the army. He was very taken with it all — so enthusiastic! And he met people there that he’s never forgotten. He still remembers Atula and Subhuti, and still asks after them. I remember my mother saying at the time, ‘If he wasn’t married to me, he’d be in there like a shot!’

At that time, although he loved Sukhavati, he never asked me much about Buddhism. I am not sure why, because even in those days he was quite interested in religion; it was one of the things he used to read about. Years before that, when I was getting confirmed in the Church of England (at the age of about twelve) various people used to come around to our house: the vicar and some of my friends’ parents, who were actively involved in the church. Dad used to have very lively discussions with them all about Christianity. When I was in my early teens, we watched a play on TV — The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which is about puritans having witch-hunts in New England. That had a strong effect on me. Dad already knew the story — he’d read it. I asked him, ‘Is this what Christianity is like?’ He said, ‘Well, it can be, son; it can be like that.’

I also remember him saying that, when he’d been a young teenager, before he went in the army, he had wanted to be a Wesleyan preacher, because they toured around everywhere, preaching the gospel. It seems he was really taken with that idea. Actually, I think my memory of his saying that was one of the things that made me feel free to go into Buddhism in the first place. Yet he has never really been a church-goer.

Anyway, despite his interest in religion, his enthusiasm for Sukhavati, and his approval of my lifestyle, he didn’t ask me much about Buddhism at first. And I never expected that he would get particularly interested in it. So what came later was a bit of a surprise.

It began with me sending him Sangharakshita’s book Travel Letters when it first came out in the mid-Eighties. I remember somebody saying, ‘Oh this is a really good book to give your parents.’ I suppose that’s because Bhante combines talking about the Dharma with descriptions of his travels, so the book is quite colourful and easy to read. Anyway, I gave mum and dad a copy of Travel Letters, and they both read it. My dad expressed an interest in knowing more. I gave him The Thousand Petalled Lotus, the first volume of Bhante’s memoirs, and he liked that too, and still wanted more. So eventually, I started giving him Bhante’s Dharma books. By this time, they’d moved to Australia, so I had to send them to him. I can’t remember what the first one I sent was. The whole process started off slowly, but he began to read them faster and faster.

We would talk about it a bit, and in the beginning, he almost purposely made a mess of the Pali and Sanskrit words. For instance, he’d deliberately mispronounce Bhante’s name and other words, almost as if he was sending the whole thing up. At first, because of that, I didn’t always have the patience to answer his questions properly. It was almost as if he was testing me a bit. But fairly soon, he was asking intelligent questions.

He seemed to soak up everything I sent him enthusiastically, so I just kept sending more. The trickle became a torrent! He’s read absolutely everything now — everything Bhante has ever written. That includes all the books based on lecture series and seminars. In fact, he is more up to date than I am. He’s read all of Bhante’s poetry, too. He’s been through the Survey of Buddhism a couple of times, and written notes on the bits he found most interesting. I recently sent him the new edition, so he went through it again. He always reads Dharma Life.

He’s into the Buddhist scriptures now. He’s read the Majjhima Nikaya, and I think he’s working his way through the Digha Nikaya at the moment. He makes surprising comments sometimes. For example, after he’d read the Majjhima Nikaya he said he thought that it built to a crescendo! I’ve no idea if that’s true: I’ve dipped into it extensively, but I’ve never read it from cover to cover. But he has. That’s the way he reads books: he starts on page one and just goes through to the end.

Eventually, he started meditating. At least he says he meditates. Mum says he just falls asleep in the chair, so it is difficult to know, really. One of the CDs I’ve sent him is the one of the sevenfold puja. I don’t know if he actually does puja, but he has asked me for information and pictures of Manjughosha. He chants the Manjughosha mantra to himself. He seems to be keen on Manjughosha (who is my yidam, though I am not sure whether dad knows that). He has read all about the Refuge Tree, and at his request I sent him one of those big colour photos of Aloka’s painting of it.

I think if he could, he would go to the FWBO Centre in Sydney. Unfortunately, he can’t really leave my mum on her own. She had a major operation some years ago, and that took the wind out of her sails. Dad has to look after her: he does all the shopping and a lot of the housework. In any case, the Centre is quite a long way from where he lives, and he doesn’t drive a car any more. But he’s acquainted with some of the Order members out there. They’ve talked a bit on the phone.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is my dad’s feeling for friendship. It was obvious to me early on that he set a great store by his friendships with other men. When I was out with him — for example, when he took us to the library — we often used to meet his friends, and he’d stop and talk with them in the street, perhaps for quite a long time. He was obviously really pleased to see them — and they him.

His best friend was my uncle George, who was married to one of my mother’s sisters. They lived near us. George worked in the office at the tea warehouse in Aldgate, and for as long as dad worked there they used to meet up every day. They had lots of friends in common. Looking back, I remember George as a little bit slow and conventional, compared to dad, but they obviously really liked each other.

At the weekend, Dad and George would get under the bonnets of one another’s cars. That sparked off one incident I remember well. My uncle needed a part for his car, and they thought they could get it from a place in South London. Well, we all piled into my dad’s car (they took my brother and me, as well) and drove off to South London, where we got hopelessly lost for a while. Eventually we found this place. In total, it must have taken about five or six hours to drive all the way there, get hold of this part, and then drive back again.

When we got back my mother went berserk. She had obviously been worried, and the dinner was spoilt. But my dad was having none of that. It didn’t cut any ice with him at all. As far as he was concerned, it was quite simple: George had needed the part for his car; my dad had a car and could take him: that was all that was important.

All his friends in this country are dead now, but while they were still alive, he used to phone them up from Australia. George died a long time back. It must have been before my parents left the country, because I remember going to the funeral with them. At one point dad walked off because he couldn’t stand it any more; he was crying very freely. I went with him: he didn’t like crying in public, but he didn’t seem to mind my being with him. I said, ‘Are you all right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but I’ve just lost the best friend I ever had.’ That made a strong impression on me.

By the way, the trouble with my saying all this is that my dad is going to read it. He always reads Madhyamavani. I send it to him.

Originally published in Madhyamavani 7: Autumn 2002 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2002).