At the heart of this Buddhist movement is an Order: men and women putting the Buddha’s teaching at the centre of their lives. What does that look like in 2017? Interviews by Vidyasakhi
I grew up in Kent – Medway Towns, Gillingham to be precise. Predominantly a working class place, a lot of heavy industry traditionally, though Thatcher and her lot put paid to that. That’s why I joined the army: I needed a job. It’s freaky to think about – I was only sixteen. When I see a sixteen-year-old now, I realise I was just a boy.
They control your life to an extent that can barely be imagined if you haven’t experienced it. So after seven years I bought my way out, £700, which was a lot of money back then, 1988, but it was money well spent.
The plan actually was to take more drugs and have more fun. But within a year I was tired of that life too. I got really interested in Buddhism – I came to Buddhism through books initially, then began to get involved at the LBC.
Then the first Gulf War happened. I was called up, so I became a conscientious objector. It was a very, very traumatic time for me. I was reflecting a lot on my mortality. I was absolutely terrified. Then one day I was in the bath, I remember, when I had a moment of insight into impermanence, and I entered a whole different level of consciousness. It’s very difficult to put into words, but immediately I was in tears because I’d been in this very isolated, painful space, and all of a sudden, doof! The complete opposite. I sensed the interconnectedness of everything. I had no clue what had happened. I had no reference point whatsoever. But somehow, on some level, after that I couldn’t go on as I had before.
So I moved to the LBC, which I had been travelling to, quite a long way, twice a week. Maitreyabandhu was saying there might be the possibility of a new community so I kept badgering him … He was a key figure for me, a mentor, and he’s still a friend. So I was one of the founder members of Samaggavasa, the men’s community that’s now upstairs at the LBC.
When I got back from being ordained, I remember doing my best not to get involved in teaching – I was scared of it and I was definitely being nudged in that direction, so that did cause a bit of internal conflict. But I was so delighted with my name, I was overjoyed; I couldn’t quite believe that there wasn’t already a Vajrabandhu. It means ‘adamantine kinsman’.
And now I’m the caretaker of the LBC. I do the traditional duties of a caretaker: a bit of cleaning, minor maintenance. I also do the flowers, which is lovely, it’s one of my favourite jobs. And I have volunteers – that’s one of the best bits, because obviously we’re keeping the centre clean and beautiful, but it’s also Sangha-building, if you like: it’s a gateway for people to get more involved in the centre. And volunteering isn’t consuming – I mean, if you’re coming to the centre for the classes in a sense you are a consumer, but this is an opportunity to relate to the centre in a different way. So it’s an opportunity for people to give.
Coming to Canning Town when I was six, having been sent to the Caribbean to live during my very early years, was a shock. You can imagine it: after the lush beauty of Antigua, the high-rise blocks, racist slogans scrawled on the concrete. I remember coming home from school, suddenly being aware of the ugliness. I wondered, how do you create beauty in such a world as this? Even my name didn’t seem to belong to me. I decided that one day I’d change it.
I’d first encountered Buddhism when I was at university in Bristol. Around that time I had a near-death experience which made me question everything. I was on an aeroplane coming back from the Philippines and suddenly the plane was plummeting; the passengers, even the stewardesses were panicking. Most people being Catholic, they got their rosaries out and started praying. I thought, Wow, this could be the end of me – and I noticed I didn’t have anything to pray to. At that point I looked out of the window and saw these amazingly intense colours and one huge star in the middle of it all. I was transfixed, looking at the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The moment was quite unearthly and I remember turning back to where everyone was still panicking and praying, but I was completely relaxed.
Two months later, I realised I was a Buddhist – on an introductory meditation retreat. I felt a change. Someone on the retreat invited me to an event that was happening in London – the anniversary of Dhardo Rimpoche’s death. Even today I recall that experience and that event and know that it was the defining moment for me: so much energy in the room. Sangharakshita was there and I enjoyed his personality, his dry sense of humour. He spoke in a way I could completely understand: there was a depth I hadn’t experienced before in anybody. I was struck by the fact that Dhardo Rinpoche was so strongly compassionate to all people – he had a school and he was very connected to children, but also to his own practice.
I didn’t know what my path was going to look like; I’d need to take it one step at a time, get to know some other Buddhists, get to know this teacher, Sangharakshita, work out what a Buddhist lifestyle is. It actually turned out that at twenty-nine, already an Order member, I became a mother, and my vision of parenting was very much inspired by Dhardo Rimpoche.
As for that quest to change my name … Suryagupta means ‘she who is protected or guarded by the sun’. I love it. It’s like an ongoing reminder about where true protection comes from – from love, metta, wisdom.
I’m a doctor, and I’ve started to use my new name at work. I’ve changed it legally – a lot of paperwork! So I’m now Dayanatha on the medical register. It can be a bit awkward; I’m apprehensive about telling colleagues. But if I’m confident about it, then so is everyone else.
It means Lord, or Protector, of Kindness. I was given that name at Ordination because that quality of kindness and helping is a strong feature of my life – as a doctor I can’t help but help! I take people’s suffering seriously. And I put myself on the line a bit. What I’m seeing is that even amongst doctors there’s a lot of negativity, especially at the moment. People do a lot of blaming – of the medical regulator, or Jeremy Hunt. I have tried to speak up a bit, but the group pressure is strong, especially the negative group pressure. My Buddhist name actually helps with that though.
Judy, my old girlfriend, wanted a Jewish family life, children and all that. I knew that wouldn’t work; yet asking for ordination would break her heart. I came back from a retreat one day and I had to say to her, ‘I’m really sorry, this isn’t making us happy’. It was really painful for both of us, she was saying, ‘What have I done?’ But she also understood. Once we’d broken up there was nothing to stop me, if you know what I mean. I moved into a Buddhist community shortly afterwards, it just felt right.
I’ve studied Buddhism since I was fifteen, when I went to the Manchester Buddhist Centre. I used to do the Mindfulness of Breathing before bed, that sort of thing. Then I did a gap year in Israel, living on a kibbutz, working on peace projects. But without working directly on hatred, we got nowhere.
It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised that my life just wasn’t working. I felt I was on a treadmill. I was expected to party at uni and then go and get a good job. I was thinking, ‘This is really shallow’.
A way I could get more meaning in my life was by becoming a doctor, so I applied and I didn’t get in, which was actually quite devastating. It meant I had to move back to my hometown, Manchester. I became very anxious and I wasn’t enjoying life at all. So at that point I remembered the Manchester Buddhist Centre and I had a sense that that was where I needed to go; that meditation was one of the answers. The people there – they were the people I wanted to be with. So then I applied again to do medicine. Second time around I got an interview for King’s College, London. I remember just before the interview, I sneaked off to the library and did the Mindfulness of Breathing. All the questions in the interview were about ethics, and I remember I answered as a Buddhist, really. Lo and behold, a couple of weeks later, I got a letter – I was offered a place.
When I encountered Buddhism I was quite young. I was nineteen, and I’d just gone off to Uni in Newcastle, where I was studying Fine Art, and I was exploring Buddhism at the same time, eventually finding Newcastle Buddhist Centre. So the two things, art and Buddhism, have always gone together for me since then. Actually, also at that time my sister was very ill; she had attempted suicide for the first time. I was very affected by that and I think being in a new city and having to face the pain of that, my mind was very open … Very naturally I was asking questions about what life was about.
All through my youth, particularly in my teens, I would have long discussions with my grandparents about religion and life – we’d really argue sometimes, which was quite funny! But it was obviously very meaningful for all of us. My grandfather had always been very philosophical, having been brought up in a (Christian) school in India, not far from the Himalayas. He definitely opened my mind up to the wonders of life.
My first experience of dhyana [meditative absorption] happened when I was walking home from their house. We’d been talking about everything – geology, astronomy – and I was looking up at the stars and I just felt the expansiveness and mystery of what was out there. I remember a long time afterwards thinking, Oh, that was an altered state of awareness.
Then there was this devastation about my sister. It really tore me apart that she had tried to take her life. I was young and I was on this new art degree course and I was quite excited by it, but I also felt slightly out of my depth. Somehow I had to put myself back together. I’ve always been a very disciplined person, but I also had a rather compulsive aspect to my nature, so those two things combined created a tension in me. If I hadn’t found Buddhism I would probably have had to find something else to support that aspect of my experience, to connect to a bigger picture. ■