A MEMOIR OF ABHAYARATNA
Abhayaratna was the first friend I made when the North London Buddhist Centre opened to the public. It was October 1992. The previous week Bhante had come along for the official opening and the rented studio off the Holloway Road had been packed with Order members wearing kesas, and friends and mitras from all over London and the South East.
The week after the opening, the number of people who came along to the centre for the Friends’ evening was in single figures. I began a conversation with the only other man in the room.
He was a wiry looking fellow of about 50 with short hair and a serious look on his face. After introducing himself as Chris (as he was then called) he had little to say – except that he was determined to commit himself to the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.
We joined a study group that started to work its way through the then mitra study programme under the leadership of Devapriya. At first, Chris struck me as a very quiet man, but as study progressed he began to become more open about himself. Although naturally reserved, that Dharma study enabled him to develop in a way that had not been possible before. Chris loved the study material and took on the job of copying the cassette tapes of Bhante Sangharakshita’s lectures that we listened to as preparation for each week’s meeting. Quite soon Chris began to regularly give the rest of us an introduction to the week’s topic. More than once Devapriya delegated to him the task of leading the group discussion for the whole evening.
Chris came from a working class Irish family living in the Home Counties and had had a traditional Catholic upbringing. He had not done well at school and had left as soon as he could, with few if any qualifications. Chris and Devapriya had met each other in the counter-culture of the early 1970s. (Chris was proud of the fact that he had been to the very first Glastonbury festival.) He joined a group of young squatters in a Victorian apartment block called Stanley Buildings right next to St Pancras Station. The squatters had managed to fend off attempts by the local authority to evict them and after winning a court case had formed a housing co-op and become licensed tenants. At about the same time, Chris had taken a City & Guilds course in gardening. One handwritten notice in Hampstead Public Library had secured him a few clients and word of mouth soon got him many more.
At the same time Chris was actively working towards ordination into the Western Buddhist Order. He loved going up to Padmaloka for the training retreats and would return buzzing with enthusiasm for more study and practice. He had tremendous respect for senior Order members and the Ordination team in particular.
On one particular occasion he came back full of excitement about a talk he’d just heard about the Blue Cliff Record of Zen koans and invited me round to his flat in Stanley Buildings to listen to a cassette recording of it. The flat was spacious and tidy with his gardening tools stacked away in a back room. The living room was full of books mostly on Buddhism and vinyl albums mostly of the 60s folk variety. There was a large exercise book where he had written out chords and lyrics for his favourite songs and a well used acoustic guitar.
As we sat and listened to the talk we could also hear the station announcements from St Pancras station and see the faces of people standing on the platform only a few yards away. It seemed as if the people on the platform could look right into the living room and I wonder what they made of us.
Chris progressed steadily through the ordination process but it was only possible to be ordained if you had completed the entire mitra study programme. Devapriya’s approach to mitra study was not characterised by a sense of urgency, but once Chris got his invitation to attend the four-month ordination retreat at Guhyaloka (in Spain), the pace of study began to speed up. We finished before Chris got on the plane – just.
He was still on the four-month retreat at Guhyaloka when we learnt of his new name, ‘Abhayaratna’. The meaning, ‘Jewel of Fearlessness’, suited him well, a fitting tribute to a man who had overcome a difficult start in life to achieve a great deal. When he returned, Abhayaratna threw himself back into the life of the North London Buddhist Centre. He taught classes, lead meditations and pujas and took over from Devapriya as men’s mitra convenor.
At sangha parties, Abhayaratna would reveal his alter ego – a redneck country and western singer called Randy Buck. He would appear in front of the audience with his guitar, wearing a cowboy hat and check shirt, and announce: ‘Hi! I’m Randy!’ before launching into a song. Buddhafield suited him down to the ground and he went to the festival many times.
About this time my parents became old and frail and could no longer cope with the large garden of their house in Highgate. I enlisted Abhayaratna to help out. My mother and he soon became good friends. He was happy to do odd repair jobs around the house as well as tidy the garden. As soon as he arrived, Mum would get the coffee and biscuits out. Sometimes, he said, it was difficult to get started on work because Mum was so hospitable. She grew very fond of him and placed a huge amount of trust in him. Her recommendations got him other customers in the same street.
The day after my father died, Abhayaratna was due to come to do the garden. He arrived at the house, not knowing what had happened, to find my mother, my sister and I huddled round the telephone in a state of shock. When I told him what had taken place he offered to leave. I asked him to stay on and do the job he had come to do. He went out into the garden and got on with the work. It was a huge comfort to my mother to know that the garden was being cared for and that some sort of normal life was carrying on while we sorted out the funeral arrangements.
Plans were afoot to redevelop the Kings Cross area, which had acquired a nasty reputation. Abhayaratna and the other residents of Stanley Buildings were offered generous sums of money to leave. The amount Abhayaratna was finally given was not enough to buy a house in London but more than enough to buy somewhere in Birmingham. At this time FWBO headquarters were at the big house called Madhyamaloka in a Birmingham suburb, with Bhante living next door, and the Birmingham Buddhist Centre, in an old synagogue, had a large sangha.
Abhayaratna asked me for some tips about dealing with mortgages and estate agents, came round to my house (in North London) to borrow the computer to check out a few neighbourhoods on the internet, and then, all of a sudden, he was gone. We mostly kept in touch through Pauline, a mutual friend and long standing mitra who attended the North London Centre and had also lived in Stanley Buildings. Abhayaratna built up a new circle of gardening customers in Birmingham, was active in the Birmingham sangha and began leading a mitra study group, that included David Smith.
It came as a shock when Pauline told me that he was gravely ill and had been admitted to hospital on an acute ward. It was an even bigger shock when she rang me on Boxing Day, 2006 to tell me he had died.
The Birmingham Buddhist Centre was packed with people for his funeral. A number of us drove up from North London to be there. Abhayaratna lay in front of the shrine in a wicker coffin. There were FWBO Buddhists from Birmingham and London, members of his family and some of his customers. I was one of those who spoke and Pauline sang a song that he’d liked. It all seemed rather unreal yet very sad.
Abhayaratna was serious about the Dharma but never heavy. He had a great sense of fun and I remember the twinkle in his eye and his mischievous grin. He would drive round to my house in the white van that he used for his gardening business, smoking a roll-up, and say ‘Dharma deliveries!’ as he handed over the latest cassette for mitra study. He was especially devoted to the Buddha Amitabha, writing and performing a song dedicated to him.
Dharmacari Abhayaratna had a huge regard for Bhante. He loved the Dharma and his fellow Order Members. He was hugely grateful for what he’d learned from them. His legacy and the Trust created in 2008 in his name embody that love and gratitude.
Dharmacari Kusala, Padmaloka, October 2014