It’s a sunny English spring morning in the Midlands, and the Dharma Centre I live in looks bright and cheerful. The building is a three-storey, rambling red-brick house set on 40 acres of lawns with some truly huge trees here and there. It’s a 19th Century country getaway that somehow ended up full of 21st Century Buddhist wannabes. I’m sitting behind a desk in the reception office overlooking the car park, waiting for any visitors who may have questions to ask.
I came here over a year ago for a working holiday at this Dharma Centre.
‘Dharma’ is what Buddhists call the teachings of Buddha. This Centre was home to a ‘Sangha’, a community of people trying to put those teachings into practice. The working holiday was a chance to see what living in a Sangha was like. In exchange for doing some gardening work in the enormous grounds I was given a bed, meals and as much Dharma as I liked. There was plenty of Dharma to be had, and I liked it very much.
There were weekly beginner classes, as well as advanced classes on the intricate details of Vajrayana Buddhism, and beginner level weekend courses catering to relieve the stress and anxiety of people from the surrounding area. I was like a sponge in a sea of Dharma and I gleefully soaked up as much as I could.
I enjoyed being part of a community that was trying to bring awareness into their daily lives.
There were earnest conversations over cups of tea about escaping ‘samsara’, the life of suffering that our insane mental habits, the delusions, condemn us to. At meal times we talked about how we ended up on the Path and compared notes about the things that we didn’t understand. There were senior meditators to ask technical questions of. The meditation rooms were full of exotic Tibetan statues and paintings. I was in Buddhist geek nirvana, training in turning my problems into the path to enlightenment.
Being on a working holiday gave me a taste of Sangha life. It was fun working outside in the English summer and having no responsibility except to destroy weeds. There was a special atmosphere to this place that felt like a sanctuary, a bubble of wisdom, in a world of increasing madness. Sometimes the place felt like Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school for wizards, except we were learning another kind of magic, one of transforming our lives by transforming our minds.
After a couple of months I signed on as a resident at the Dharma Centre. Not a monk, but I lived there and paid rent and tried to help ‘flourish the Dharma’. I greatly enjoyed living somewhere without television, and in the early days of the internet there were no online movies or TV shows. My interest in the outside world dwindled even more. Inner work was where happiness was to be found, and I dove into my introspection with gusto.
My fervour was noticed by the people in charge and they were quick to find a use for all that energy. Despite being completely inexperienced I was given a sponsored role to work full time at the centre, helping organise the endless classes and teachings. I didn’t have to pay rent anymore, because I wouldn’t have time to go out and earn money. My life became doing whatever needed to be done around the Centre. I rarely left because I was so busy, which meant there was no time to be bothered by pesky emotions. I settled into enjoying my eccentric existence as a 21st Century Buddhist.
Saying yes to a role that I knew nothing about might sound crazy. It was. It was my job as a Buddhist, I firmly believed, to say yes to things like that and then deal with the consequences. ‘Accepting and working with whatever comes up in my own mind’ was the whole point of the system of meditation I was enrolled in.
By trying to be still and witness what happened when I hit some discomfort I hoped to find out more about my nefarious enemies, the delusions, those unhealthy mental habits that were ruining my life. This was how I was going to beat them.
In our Dharma Centre community there were the usual irritations and challenges of living with other people. We were all there trying to live by the Buddhist principles of compassion and wisdom. Sometimes that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
The Centre Teacher told us once that simply living in our Buddhist community, our Sangha, was a great practice of training the mind. He used the analogy of the Jeweller’s Tumbler. This is a small barrel into which a jeweller puts rough, uncut gem-stones, as well as some grit and water. The barrel is sealed. It is placed on tumblers that very slowly turn the barrel, over and over, again and again, for a very long time. The rough rocks rub up against each other, again and again, and slowly they lose their sharp edges. Slowly the stones are polished and made smooth.
The Dharma Centre was the Jeweller’s Tumbler and we residents were the unpolished stones, rubbing away each other’s delusions with the roughness of our confused minds.
A year after I had first turned up for a working holiday, I asked to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. I decided that if I was going to do this meditation thing I wanted to do it properly. I knew that it would take a lot of time and effort, but I was in a good position; thanks to a life of being socially isolated by depression I had no annoying relationships or commitments to get in the way.
Becoming a monk meant I was making Enlightenment my priority over everything else. There was a huge sense of delight, too, in becoming a new person. Finally getting rid of my old self by taking the Vows! I’d be free of me! At last! Had I finally done it?
The new haircut was a bit of a shock, a buzz cut that reduced my shoulder length curls to a smooth head with a zero-blade stubble. I was seriously impressed, though, when I put on my robes for the first time. There was the sleeveless yellow-and-dark-red waistcoat called a ‘dhonka’ and then the ‘shamtab’, a long dark-red skirt. It was a measure of my determination to become enlightened that I was prepared to wear this in public.
I’d dreaded flouncing around in my big dress but when I tried on the robes they felt so good! It was one of the most comfortable things I’d ever worn. I may have even spun around to make my big red skirt twirl, like Julie Anthony in the Sound of Music.
Over the next six years, no matter how bad things got, I never lost that physical delight in putting on robes and feeling like I was wearing my vows.
I was ordained on a lovely Summer day, and when I emerged from the temple I had a new name: Kelsang Dandul. My monk name translated to ‘Controller of Delusions’, and it was the perfect, over-the-top job-description for the zealous, impatient monk I would become.
I followed the instructions in the books and was ruthlessly optimistic. One of the great things about Dharma is that, even for someone as emotionally oblivious as I was then, it can still effect deep inner change. I didn’t realise it at the time, but an unintended result of all my meditating was that it was opening me back up to emotions I had been avoiding since childhood. This was absolutely necessary if I was to ever have any long-term inner peace, but it would be a huge shock when it all boiled over in a few years time.
Years later, after I had finished as a monk, I was to find all that Buddhist theory came in very useful when I found myself in a long-term relationship for the first time.
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