How I Became Suvajra

Madhyamavani: Were you already a Buddhist when you encountered the FWBO?

Yes, I was a Buddhist from the age of sixteen. Looking back, the whole process of becoming one was quite mysterious. All that happened was I read a book on somebody’s recommendation: it was Christmas Humphreys’ Buddhism — almost the only one that was widely available then. This was in about 1969. I was in the last year of school, in Dundee. I remember very clearly lying on my bed one afternoon, starting to read Humphreys, and then abruptly announcing I was a Buddhist. I was very clear about it. I’d only been reading the book for about twenty minutes, and maybe ten of those were spent looking at the photographs; so I don’t know what I’d actually read — or seen — that convinced me so quickly, although I’ve looked at the book again many times to find out. All I remember is being fascinated by some of the pictures: the photographs of Alexandra David-Neel and D T Suzuki; the great stone Buddha at Kamakura in Japan; and a sandstone Buddha from Sarnath.

I think I’d already felt some attraction to Buddhist images, when I was younger. My great aunt was married to the captain in a shipping line. She had lived in Bombay and she’d brought back many things from the East. One was a fat, laughing, Chinese Buddha. You were supposed to put a coin in it and make a wish — which I would never do: I thought that was quite wrong. But I loved it. The other was a porcelain statue of Kuan Yin, which sat on my great aunt’s mantelpiece. I always used to ask her, when I visited, ‘Who is that?’ And my aunt would reply, ‘That�s Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy.’ I would then ask, ‘What is mercy?’ I can’t remember what she used to say in reply: somehow it never stuck in my mind. But the goddess was fascinating. I would always ask again, the next time I visited: ‘Who is that?’ And she would go through it again.

So there were a few things like that early on. But it was Christmas Humphreys’ book — or the pictures in it — that made me decide I was actually a Buddhist.

Once you knew you were a Buddhist, did you follow it up?

I pursued it as actively as I could. There was no Buddhist group in Dundee, so I tried to join the Buddhist Society based in London. They solemnly informed me that the nearest meditation teacher to me was in Oslo. More helpfully, though, one of the secretaries at the Society recommended some books, all of which I bought, over a period of months. A lot of them were useless — full of silly things like. ‘imagine yourself sitting on top of a tomato.’ Other books had things like mystical diagrams and numbers. I tried quite a number of these books, but of course I didn’t get anywhere on the basis of instructions like that.

Eventually I got Christmas Humphreys’ book Concentration and Meditation. Then I knew I’d found the proper approach. And when I came to the section on the Mindfulness of Breathing, I though ‘That is the meditation to do!’ So I started doing it as he described — follow the in-breath and be aware it is ‘in’, follow the out breath and recognise that as ‘out’. If it’s a short breath, be aware that it’s short, if it’s long, that it is long, and so on. I did that, off and on, for four or five years, until I was twenty-one. I used to sit meditating in front of the Buddha statue I’d bought, and I felt very happy, and very fortunate to have got some guiding force in my life.

Apart from the Buddhist images in your great aunt’s house, was there anything else in your early life that pointed to an interest in spiritual things?

Well in a sense, I feel I was on a path before Buddhism. That was Astronomy, which was really a passion in my early life. I don’t remember exactly how, but it began back when I was seven or eight, just being fascinated by the sky and the planets — the beauty and wonder of the whole thing. I can recall the feeling I had then. I would even say that feeling is still driving me now. In a way, it was similar to the feeling that I have for Buddhism.

When I was nine or ten, my grandmother gave me a tiny telescope, which I used in the back garden, faithfully, every clear night. I remember looking at Jupiter and seeing its moons, and seeing the craters in our moon, which are fascinating.

Later, when my family moved to Dundee, there was a public observatory in the park at the end of our road. It was the only public observatory in the UK at that time. The telescope was a ten-inch refractor — quite a big machine. Through it I saw things I’d never been able to see in my small telescope at home: for example, nebulae — vast clouds of gas and dust. I remember seeing the Orion Nebula — the one that’s shaped like a horse’s head — for the first time. Even in those days, when Astronomers didn’t know as much as they do now, it was thought to be a sort of matrix in which new stars could be born. It was extraordinarily beautiful. Since then, I’ve seen it through other telescopes — larger ones — but it has never seemed quite so beautiful as then. I remember looking at galaxies, too. It just fascinated me to look at these swirls of mist in the darkness, and know that they were whole universes, millions and millions of light years away.

As time went on, my enthusiasm for Astronomy started to get caught up in photographing, measuring and analysing. I think in the end, after about ten years, I drove some of the wonder of it away through too much analysis. At that point, I gave it up. But since then I’ve come back to it in its more primal form — just appreciating the beauty of the night sky, and sometimes turning binoculars or small telescopes on it.

Feelings of wonder and a sense of beauty... Was there any other connection in your mind between Astronomy and Buddhism?

I used to think that Astronomy might help me find out what the universe was about. When I took up meditation, it was the same force that was driving me. Later on, I discovered that science only describes the universe in a more detailed fashion. Now I think the mind can only learn from itself what the universe is about, or ‘Why it is about�’... well, you know what I mean.

For me, the other important thing that came out of Astronomy was friendship.

The curator of the Dundee Observatory was a leading light in the Dundee Astronomical Society, and he introduced me into that circle of friends. Really, we had a sort of a sangha: that’s the only way I can describe it. We were a very odd collection of people. There were about seven or eight of us at the core of the Society. There was Harry, the curator, who was thirty-six, and his friend who was one or two years older (they’d been school chums). There was one man in his late forties, and two or three who were around my age — fifteen or sixteen. This gave me an experience of having good friendships with people of different ages. For a youngster, that is quite unusual but very valuable.

We were all from different backgrounds, but we had in common that sense of wonder at the universe. That was what brought us all into astronomy and it was the overarching principle that held us together. If there were any difficulties (although I don’t really remember any big ones) that always kept us united. So when I later joined a Buddhist group, and later still the Order, I’d had some preparation for the experience. I knew what it was like to be with people of different ages, backgrounds and so on, but bound together by one overarching principle — a love of something higher.

How did you first come into contact with other Buddhists?

When I was twenty-one, the curator of the observatory pointed out to me to an advertisement in the newspaper, proposing the formation of a Dundee Buddhist Group. I got in touch with the chap who had placed the advertisement, and a few weeks later we started the Group. That was in 1973. As a Buddhist, I had been on my own before that. Now I had some peers. There were six of us. It never really got much bigger than that, although some people would go, and some would join. I was in that group for about five years.

Ray (the chap who had placed the ad) arranged for us to visit various places. One was Samye Ling, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland. Samye Ling was wonderful. After visiting it for the first time, I became vegetarian, as they were vegetarian there. Then I remember visiting it on a weekend when Kalu Rimpoche was there. I never spoke to him, but just seeing him had a very big effect on me. Here was this wizened old man, who had been meditating and teaching disciples for years. To me, he represented the ultimate guru. Seeing him, I could feel it was possible to be wise.

What was happening in your daily life at this point? Were you working?

I’d got a job in the hospital in Dundee as a microbiology technician. So I was looking down through microscopes during the day, and up through telescopes at night. That was my life. I loved both, but my social life was increasingly with the Buddhist group.

Another of our trips was to visit the Edinburgh Buddhist group, from which I borrowed two tapes of talks by someone called Sangharakshita. As soon as I listened to those tapes, I knew that man was my teacher. I didn’t yet know he was the founder of the FWBO. In fact I didn’t know anything about him: where he lived, or even whether he was alive or dead. But I knew he was my teacher. His teaching was so clear.

One of the taped talks was called The Path of Regular Steps and the Path of Irregular Steps. That was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. My meditation practice was not yet regular: one day on, one day off... one month on, two months off! The tape clarified my sense that, while my irregular practice was having a good effect on me, I really needed to establish meditation on a much more regular basis.

Had you been looking for a teacher?

I’d been looking around Buddhist groups, as far as I could, to find something to join or someone to follow. Of course, I already had some peer contact in Dundee, but I knew that wasn’t enough.

I’d seen various Tibetan teachers visiting Samye Ling, but I never really felt I wanted to join up with them, much as Kalu Rimpoche had impressed me. For me, his appeal was archetypal. I never thought of actually following him. When I visited the Buddhist Society in London, they had mentioned, among other things, something called the FWBO, but it had disappeared from its address (in Monmouth Street), and the phone numbers I was given were out of date.

Soon afterwards, though, my Dundee Group visited the Glasgow Buddhist group. We found it had stopped being Glasgow Buddhist Group and had become an FBWO Centre, and the chairwoman, Kay Turpie, had been ordained as Mallika. I met her on that first visit, and Vajradaka was there too. They impressed me, and I had a sneaking suspicion: ‘Oh, I might end up with them!’ All these things happened within about three or four months of each other, in 1973.

What happened after that?

Despite my enthusiastic response to Bhante on tape, and my positive impression of the Glasgow Centre, I wasn’t ready to give my life completely to Buddhism and the FWBO at that point. I was involved in studying for a Diploma I needed for my technician work. I also was doing lots of other things: going on Astronomy weekends, for example. I’d also taken up sub-aqua diving!

However, the people in Glasgow — especially Vairocana and Ajita, who got ordained around that time — kept up contact with me in Dundee. Sometimes they would come and visit our group. Sagaramati also came, as he had connections in Dundee and visited every year. He’d heard from the Glasgow Centre that there was now a Buddhist group and an enthusiastic young Buddhist there, so he came to see me.

I often got postcards from Ajita, urging me to come on retreats run by the Glasgow Centre. For some time, I put it off, pre-occupied with my other interests. Things went on like this for a few years, but as time went on I was less and less satisfied with Astronomy and with my work, and more fascinated by Buddhism. I was also trying to practise more seriously. I’d learned the Metta Bhavana from Vajradaka, and though I couldn’t remember exactly what he’d taught me, I was doing a sort of version of it regularly. So eventually, I decided to take up this invitation to go for a weekend retreat.

What was your first experience of being on retreat?

The very first one was rather strange! In fact, it wasn’t really a retreat. The Glasgow Centre had booked a castle as the venue for a weekend retreat, but the owner had got muddled and booked two events for the same weekend, so ours got cancelled. Nevertheless, I spent the weekend with some guys from the Glasgow and Edinburgh Centres — Ajita, Danavira and a couple of others. I liked the guys, although I thought they were rather mad! (In Dundee, we’d already begun to call the Glasgow fellows ‘the sangha gang.’) Anyway, when we realised we couldn’t use this castle, we spent the weekend together, mainly in Edinburgh. But we drove out into the country, meditated in the middle of an ancient stone circle, and chanted the Tara mantra. It was the first time I’d heard it, and I thought it was wonderful. Then there were some antics in the botanical gardens in Edinburgh and later, a party (which I didn’t go to). It was an odd weekend: highly unorthodox but very positive!

I’d had a great time, so I decided I would definitely go on the next proper weekend retreat. It was held on the isle of Little Cumbrae. We studied a section from the Bodhicharyavatara on �the ‘ideal man’�. On that weekend, it became clear to me that I had the Buddha Jewel and the Dharma Jewel, but no Sangha Jewel. And I knew I wanted a life that included all three Jewels. So that weekend made up my mind for me: I had to get ordained.

But I was still trying to get my qualifications as a technician. I made a four year plan for myself: first, continue working for another two years to qualify, then join a Buddhist community for two years, get ordained and learn how to set up a Buddhist Centre. But I was underestimating my own enthusiasm. A few weeks later (this must have been in the winter of 1977–78) I went on another retreat organised by the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. This one was held at a place on Loch Lomond. Well, that really was the beginning of the end of my worldly life! When I got back, I tried to re-involve myself in my life in Dundee, but my heart wasn’t in it any more.

At the age you were then, most people dream about finding — and probably living with — an ideal romantic partner. Didn’t that figure in your hopes for the future?

Well of course, I sometimes fell in love, but I never wanted to set up a home with anybody. No, that was never an attractive notion to me. What appealed to me was the monastic ideal.

Which reminds me of another experience of my early days. In about ’73 or ’74, I saw two programmes on TV, both documentaries on Buddhist monastic life. One was about Theravada forest monks in Sri Lanka. I was very struck by this monk sitting in his forest kuti, or treading up and down the forest meditation path he’d made. The last shot of the programme was his feet, seen from the level of the ground, treading very mindfully. I very much wanted to live that lifestyle. The fact that it was a strictly celibate lifestyle was not, at that point, foremost in my thoughts. But it was a monastic lifestyle.

The other programme showed a different kind of monastic life. It was a documentary about the headquarters of Soto Zen in Japan. The temple was built on a cliff over the sea. The monks were not solitary like the Theravadin in his forest kuti: they were living and working together. Their energy was just amazing. I can still see images of buckets of water being sloshed out on to the wooden floors, and these young monks running along the corridor, pushing their scrubbing brushes. So these two different dimensions — the sedentary, contemplative life of the Theravadin, and the energetic, communal life of the Japanese monks — both attracted me.

You must have come across references to Christian monasticism long before that, and seen images of it. Had they ever appealed to you?

Right from the start, it seemed to be only Buddhist images that spoke to me, even if I encountered them in a crude or commercialised form. It’s funny: I remember seeing — probably when I was around twelve — a film called The Abominable Snowman, which I thought at the time was profoundly mystical! In this film, they are looking for the abominable snowman in the Himalayas, and the team is based in a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery. The abbot is a Tibetan monk. He lingered in my mind as my image of the ideal monk!

I did respond to going into churches. I thought the architecture was very moving. I sometimes visited cathedrals or churches with my friends. Oddly, after I became a Buddhist, I started to get the impulse, on these visits, to genuflect, or dip my fingers in the font and cross myself. I couldn’t understand why, having become a Buddhist, I wanted to do this. I’d never wanted to before.

It was Sagaramati who helped me to work out what that was about. The first time he came to visit me in Dundee, he taught me how to chant the Refuges and Precepts, and how to bow and make offerings to the shrine. I am so grateful to him for that. The thing was that, having connected with Buddhism, I’d wanted to express feelings of devotion. But as I didn’t know any Buddhist forms, the feelings had been coming out through the Christian — in fact Catholic — forms that I did know (even though those forms weren’t part of my conditioning: my family was Presbyterian.)

But when Sagaramati taught me to bow and chant, I realised ‘Oh, yes! That’s what I’ve been looking for!’ I now had the proper means of expressing my Buddhist devotion. After that, I never felt the urge to cross myself or genuflect when I was in a church.

Sagaramati was a strong influence on me in those days. Every year, he would come and visit me. We used to have great conversations. He, more than anybody else, even more than the Glasgow sangha, influenced me to move towards the FWBO. He was such an inspiring figure: energetic, enthusiastic and understanding.

So I suppose it is not surprising that when I felt I didn’t want to continue in my work, I thought about going to join Sagaramati in Manchester to start up a Centre there. The one in Glasgow had already been established for quite a while, and so had London activities. So I thought I would join Sagaramati, and learn how to set up a new Buddhist Centre. At that time, I imagined I would eventually take what I’d learned back to Dundee.

But first I wanted to go on an FWBO retreat — a proper one, not just a weekend. So I went on a one-week retreat at Padmaloka, and there I met Sangharakshita in person for the first time. I said to him I felt a bit nervous about meeting him. He said, ‘Is it like meeting a headmaster?’ I said, ‘Oh no, not at all, Bhante. I can’t quite think what it’s like’. Afterwards, I realised that for me it had been a bit like meeting royalty: you know a lot about their lives, but they know little or nothing about you. And he was a big personality, and even quite famous in some ways.

Anyway, I told him I was thinking of going to Manchester to help Sagaramati and Ratnaguna in setting up a new Centre. He thought it was a very good idea. So I wrote to them that night, before I went to bed, and asked them whether they would like me to come to Manchester. They replied that they would. So I then looked in New Scientist, and saw a job advertised in Manchester — a medical technician in kidney transplant work. I applied for it and got it. A month later, in June 1978, I moved there.

I lived in a community with Sagaramati and Ratnaguna, and I attended their classes at the Centre. At last, I really felt I was fully practising the path of regular steps.

You’d asked for ordination by this point?

Yes, I asked before I left Dundee. Ever since that weekend retreat on Little Cumbrae, I’d known that I wanted to be ordained, but I’d thought it was too early to ask. But when I’d gone for an exploratory visit to Manchester, Rataguna had persuaded me to ask. I’d said, ‘Why ask now, when nobody really knows me well enough?’ He said, ‘No. If you feel this is what you really want, you should ask.’ So I did.

Having asked for ordination, I went back to see Sangharakshita again, and told him I was very serious about my request. He said, ‘Good! Well, I’ll ask the people who know you.’ I said, ‘That’s good, Bhante. But I am serious and if I thought I could twist your arm, I would!’ He said, ‘I don’t mind.’ I said, ‘OK then, I’m twisting!’ He said, ‘Good!’ After that, he saw me on retreat one more time. Then, within a couple of months of my moving to Manchester, I got a letter from him saying, ‘I’d be happy to ordain you in October’.

The ordination took place on a retreat at Padmaloka, led by Sona. The retreat started one year to the day after that retreat with the Glasgow Buddhist Centre, on which I’d decided I wanted to be ordained. My private ordination was on the Friday evening, and the public one on the Saturday morning. After that, there was a little seminar with Bhante for the rest of the weekend. I was back at work on the Monday.

In those days, there was no ordination process. Bhante just asked the Order members who knew you, and then made a judgement about where he thought you were. I am grateful he put his trust in me. But there was no system of preparation. After asking, you just continued, ad hoc, at whatever Centre you were attending. In my case, I went on living with Sagaramati and Ratnaguna, and attending their classes. That was all the training I had.

Presumably you immersed yourself in Sangharakshita’s writings?

Well, in what was available at that time, which was much less than what there is now. There were a lot of tapes, of course, and I used to take notes on those. I listened to some of them many times. Within a year of being in Manchester, I’d taken notes three times on the Noble Eightfold Path series. Sagaramati used that series in the courses he taught at Manchester. He didn’t use the tapes: he just delivered Bhante’s lectures in his own style — and delivered them wonderfully! I heard him three times, and got to know the material very well. So in that sense I did get some preparation for ordination, or rather my preparation was still going on, with Sagaramati, when I was ordained.

What was it like, in those days, to join the Order so quickly and without the benefit of a ‘process’?

One disadvantage was that I didn’t feel myself part of a peer group: people who were training alongside me, and entering the Order with me. Another was that I had only a rudimentary sense of some important things — principles that nowadays are covered systematically in the ordination process. For example, the significance of the precepts, and how the precepts are an expression of going for Refuge. Or the whole question of what a sangha is, both in theory and in experience. Since then, of course, all these things have been made more explicit — for example in Subhuti’s series of talks on What is the Order? But those talks didn’t appear until the early Nineties. In the late Seventies, most people hadn’t begun to think about those questions much.

Fortunately, I did get a chance to catch up later on. Four years after I was ordained, I was invited to go on the second of the three-month Tuscany ordination retreats. A lot of these important themes emerged in our study with Bhante on that retreat. I was there as a team member, but to me it was also my own — belated — ordination process. I remember saying at the end of it, as I was reporting out, that I felt as if I’d entered into the Order properly at last. Not that I hadn’t felt I was an Order member before, but I was now more fully integrated into it. A whole lot of things I’d missed had become clear to me; and I was glad that happened in a situation where I was with other people who were in their ordination process.

So later on, when I joined the ordination team at Padmaloka along with Subhuti and Sona, I understood very well the importance of an ordination process. I’d been happy to be ordained quickly, but with hindsight I wouldn’t have regretted having to go through a preparation that took three or four years. In fact, it might have been better that way. But we just didn’t have such a system in those days. I had to do my learning on the hoof, as it were.

What do you remember about your Ordination ceremony?

I was publicly ordained with Susiddhi, who was my contemporary in Scotland. Order members came down to Padmaloka from Glasgow for it, which I appreciated very much.

I remember the preceding private ceremony very vividly: me sitting before Bhante’s shrine in his room, reciting the Refuges and Precepts after him, and asking him to give me the practice of meditation on Amitabha. He said, ‘Amitabha — the Buddha of love.’ That was news to me, because I’d thought of Amitabha simply as the red Buddha. It was his colour that attracted me. Actually, until just a few days before the ordination, I hadn’t known that I was supposed to choose a particular meditation practice. Once I knew, I quickly looked through the Mitrata magazines and found a description of Amitabha that referred to his deep red colour. I thought, ‘That’s the one’.

Bhante gave me the mantra, and then told me my name would be Suvajra. I was overjoyed that it was a name with ‘vajra’ in it! I had very much wanted that.

Why was that so important to you?

There were various reasons, but an important one was to do with my background in Astronomy, and with one of my mentors in the previous few years — Dr Charles Bruce. He was an Astrophysicist. When I met him he was already in his seventies. His astrophysical theory introduced the idea of lightning in cosmic atmospheres. And vajra, of course, means the thunderbolt — in other words, lightning.

Was he one of the group at the Dundee Observatory?

No, but on retirement he’d gone to live near Dundee, and he made contact with our Astronomical Society there. I formed a very warm personal connection with him. I was very sad that, soon after I met him, he became very seriously ill and almost lost his eyesight. For a while, I became his eyes — and his fingers for typing. For five years I used to visit him in his house and look after him, and help him and his wife.

Quite a lot of his ideas have now gained acceptance in Astronomy and Astrophysics, but in those days, most people in Astrophysics were very reluctant to consider them seriously. He was frustrated. I could understand what he was trying to get at. My imagination was caught by this idea of lightning flashes.

What did he have to say about them?

Well, wherever you have gas and dust (which is almost everywhere in the universe!) you are bound to have an electrical charging process — arising, for example, from the friction of the dust particles with one another. And where that happens, the charge will inevitably break down eventually, through discharge in the gaseous atmosphere. Hence the lightning flashes. He had grasped all this, and had predicted various phenomena that would appear, which could be looked for as evidence for the theory — things in the solar atmosphere, or in the atmosphere of gaseous planets like Jupiter, or in stellar and galactic nebulae. A number of these signs had already been observed, and subsequently others were found.

As for me, I was very taken with the thunderbolt on the astrophysical level, but also with its symbolic meaning on the spiritual level. Before my ordination, I hadn’t told anyone I wanted ‘vajra’ in my name. When Bhante said ‘Suvajra’, I nearly fell off my cushion.

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