Tibet or not Tibet
enlightenment in the suburbs
Polly woke to the sound of tent pegs being hammered into the ground. She flew downstairs into the kitchen in her pyjamas, to find Mum cradling a mug of tea.
“Dad’s back,” Mum said.
Polly whooped with delight and shot straight past Mum into their back garden.
“Glad someone’s happy,” muttered Mum.
Polly raced across the lawn to where Dad had just put up a small tent. She launched herself at him and he picked her up and swung her round,
“My little chickpea! I’ve missed you.”
“Are you back from Tibet to stay, Dad?”
“Well, I’m back for now,” he said, depositing her on the grass. “And I have a friend I want you to meet.”
Polly’s eyes widened as a bald man in orange coloured robes emerged from the tent.
“Are you from Tibet?” she asked. “Are you a monk? Dad went to Tibet to become a Buddhist monk.”
The man smiled,
“Not quite Tibet, but I am a monk. I’m from Hemel Hempstead.”
Dad scratched his head,
“I didn’t get quite as far as Tibet, chickpea,” he explained. “I met Ajahn Bhikkhu at the Sangha in Hertfordshire. He agreed to be my spiritual teacher.”
“Do you know the Eightfold Path?” Polly asked Ajahn Bhikkhu. “Right understanding, right speech-”
“Polly, stop!” said Dad. “Mum doesn’t like it when you do that.”
“And I know the Four Noble Truths,” Polly continued to Ajahn Bhikkhu. “Dad taught me them-”
“Polly!” yelled Mum, appearing at the kitchen door. “Breakfast! You’ve got school today.”
“Better go, chickpea,” Dad said, pulling a face. “You don’t want to make Mum cross.”
Ajahn Bhikkhu watched quietly as Polly groaned and slunk back into the house.
“Mum!” she complained. “I was talking to Dad and the monk about the Four Noble Truths.”
“Not another word,” said Mum, setting a bowl of cereal down on the table. “What will the neighbours think? Your father disappears for two months in the camper van, comes back with a Buddhist monk in tow, and pitches a tent for him next to the greenhouse. It’s embarrassing.”
“So can he stay in the house, Mum?” said Polly.
“Certainly not! Goodness knows who he is or where he’s been.”
“He’s Ajahn Bhikkhu and he’s from Hemel Hempstead,” said Polly.
Mum choked on her tea,
“That’s typical of your father. Says he’s off to Tibet and gets as far as Hertfordshire.”
Polly jumped up from the table and threw her arms around her mother’s waist.
“Oh please, Mum, let me have the day off school. It’s Friday anyway and I haven’t seen Dad for ages. Isabel Cartwright stayed off when her dog had puppies and this is much more important.”
“No, Polly. It’s school for you while I get this nonsense sorted out. And don’t say a word about this to anyone.”
Polly sat down and ladled cereal into her mouth. Grown-ups were so unreasonable. Couldn’t Mum see this was the most exciting thing that had happened since Johnny Davison’s Dad was arrested for shoplifting? Not mention it at school? — Mum was clearly crazy.
`* * *
An hour later, Josie decided to tackle her prodigal husband about the whole Buddhist monk situation. This was turning out to be one of the more surreal Friday mornings of her life. She waited until they rose from sitting cross-legged on the grass with their eyes closed and then made her way down the garden.
“Right,” she said, “What exactly is going on?”
“Josie, this is Ajahn Bhikkhu. He’s a Buddhist monk and my spiritual teacher,” said Dave.
“Good morning, Ajahn,” said Josie. “How odd to meet you next to my greenhouse. I’ve never met a Buddhist monk before, so I hope I won’t cause you any offence. But I have to tell my husband that I’m absolutely bloody furious with him.”
“Now, Dave” she continued. “Please tell me what the hell you’re playing at? You sneak away in the dead of night, leaving a note to say you’re off to Tibet to find spiritual enlightenment. Which may involve becoming a Buddhist monk. How do you suppose I felt reading that and explaining it to Polly? And telling our families, our friends, the neighbours, and your boss — oh, by the way, you’ve been fired. Do you care about any of this?” her voice rose, “I’d love to know.”
“Calm down, Josie-” started Dave.
“Do NOT tell me to calm down! When, in the history of the world, has telling someone to calm down ever calmed them down? How dare you!”
Dave reddened and Ajahn Bhikkhu spoke,
“Is it true, David? That you left like that? You told me you had your wife’s blessing.”
He looked steadily at Dave, who bowed his head and muttered,
“I didn’t want a scene.”
“Didn’t want a scene?” said Josie. “But coming back now, with a Buddhist monk, that was going to be just fine, was it? You coward, Dave!”
They all considered Dave’s deception. Ajahn Bhikkhu spoke again,
“David, you cannot find truth and peace within yourself while practising deceit. I would not have come here with you had I known your wife was not in agreement with your quest.”
“I just needed to find myself,” said Dave. “Modern life is meaningless. I want something more. I’m sorry that I’ve hurt you,” he looked at his wife. “But I thought you knew I was unhappy. I love you and Polly. But I can’t live for work, the pub and television every night.”
Josie clenched her fists, holding back the tears,
“I might have understood if you’d talked to me. You can’t run away from things, Dave. You left me to cope with everything. It’s not fair.”
She stalked back up the garden path.
“Sorry,” Dave called after her.
There was no reply.
“I really am,” he said to Ajahn Bhikkhu. “What should I do? Help me.”
Ajahn Bhikkhu sighed.
* * *
Josie sipped her supposedly calming camomile tea. He was hopeless! Absolutely infuriating!
How was she supposed to know that he was so unhappy? She’d just thought the nine to five humdrum was getting to him like it did to everyone, herself included. When he’d started taking an interest in Eastern philosophies she’d found it quite endearing. His gentle nature was what had attracted her when they met — it made him stand out from the crowd.
She should have seen the warning signs when he started talking to her about the Five Moral Precepts.But really? To run off in the night to become a Buddhist monk? Was she really so unapproachable that he couldn’t talk to her?
A tear splashed into her tea, followed by another.
What a mess.
* * *
Ajahn Bhikkhu and Dave talked for hours. Dave asked,
“What should I do?”
and Ajahn Bhikkhu replied,
“Meditate and be calm. I cannot tell you what action you should take. Buddhism is about self-enlightenment. You will find the right answer.”
“Yes,” said Dave.
“But what do you think I should do?”
“David. Breathe. Go deep within yourself. Be still. You will find your own pathway.”
Dave tried to clear his mind but he just kept seeing Josie’s tearful face and Polly’s delight at seeing him again.
“I’m a fool,” he said.
“You’re human,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu. “But you’re learning.”
The two men were silent.
* * *
Saturday dawned bright and sunny and Polly bounced into her mother’s bedroom, pulling open the curtains,
“Mum, look, the weather is lovely — how lucky!”
Josie fumbled for the clock — it was seven am,
“Why are you waking me up so early? And why is it lucky?”
“For our barbeque, Mum!” said Polly.
Josie sat bolt upright. How could she have forgotten? In an act of “life-must-go-on-even-though-my-husband-has-walked-out-on-me” defiance, she’d invited fifty people to a barbeque in her garden that afternoon. Dave turning up with his monk had put it right out of her mind
“Oh, Polly! why didn’t you remind me last night? It’s too late to cancel now!”
“I forgot,” said Polly airily, as only an eight-year-old can. “And besides, you knew about it, Mum — you arranged it.”
Josie groaned, envisaging a garden crowded with guests, and a Buddhist monk. And before that, a mad dash around the supermarket to buy meat and booze.
“Go wake Dad and tell him I need his help,” she told Polly. “He’s in the spare room.”
* * *
Dave left Ajahn Bhikkhu to meditate by the greenhouse while he helped Josie and Polly prepare for the afternoon’s event. He quite enjoyed the morning, shopping and tidying the garden.
Maybe he’d missed domesticity a tiny bit after all? he thought.
Everything was ready when their guests started to arrive,
“Great teamwork,” he smiled at Josie and Polly, and his heart jumped as he realised how much he loved them. Could he really abandon all of this?
The afternoon was soon in full swing.
Dave declined to cook meat because of his new-found vegetarianism, so Josie’s father and brother were busy with the burgers
Dave also declined to get everyone a drink, having given up alcohol, so Josie ran about making sure everyone had beer or wine. It was a never-ending task.
And while the guests were surprised to see Dave, they were even more surprised to see Ajahn Bhikkhu, cross-legged on the grass in front of his tent. Questions flew at Dave about where he’d been and whether he was really going to become a Buddhist monk.
Josie’s mother collared an embarrassed Dave about exactly where he thought Josie and Polly fitted into his new Buddhist lifestyle. Unsatisfied with his evasive answers, and full of Dutch courage, she made her way tipsily to Ajahn Bhikkhu and plonked herself down on the grass.
“Good afternoon, Father,” she hiccoughed. “No offence intended, but as a religious man, surely you can’t condone Dave abandoning his wife? That can’t be right.” She fixed Ajahn Bhikkhu with a hard stare.
Ajahn Bhikkhu paused to think, and said, “Buddhism is concerned with the spiritual. Marriage and divorce are secular matters. I can’t speak on them.”
“Well, how convenient,” said Josie’s mother. “But can’t you help Dave see sense, get them back together?”
“I can’t act as a conduit between a man and woman,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu. “My philosophy forbids it. David and Josie must find their own paths.”
Josie’s mother snorted with disgust and scrambled to her feet,
“Much use you’ve been. Give me a vicar any day.”
She weaved her way back up the garden, and Ajahn Bhikkhu bowed his head in thought. He was interrupted when a plate of sausages was pushed under his nose.
“Here, Father,” said the man, “You must be starving. Tuck into these.”
Ajahn Bhikkhu tried not to recoil at the meat being waved in front of him,
“Thank you, but I don’t eat between noon and sunrise.”
“What? never? That’s ridiculous,” said the man.
“It’s my custom,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu mildly.
“But surely, all this lovely meat…” the man continued to wave it at him.
“I don’t eat meat, thank you,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu. “Please, don’t trouble yourself. I’m fine.”
“Suit yourself,” said the man. “Just being friendly.”
No sooner had he gone when another guest appeared, offering a glass of wine,
“I thought you might like some — you know, like communion wine,” the woman said, smiling.
“Thank you, but no,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu
“Ah, go on,” she urged. “One won’t do any harm. I won’t tell!”
“Again, no. I don’t drink alcohol,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu.
The woman shrugged and left. Ajahn Bhikkhu decided it would be better if he retreated into his tent and spent the rest of the afternoon meditating.
More alcohol flowed and by evening the guests were louder and more obnoxious. Dave hovered near the tent, trying to keep the curious away from his spiritual teacher.
Then Bob, one of Josie’s more inebriated colleagues, staggered down the garden towards him, shouting,
“Hey, monk! Come out of that tent!”
When there was no response, Bob continued,
“Monk! Come on out! What you got under that dress? Same as a Scotsman under his kilt?”
There was laughter from the drunken crowd on the lawn.
Dave looked anguished and approached Bob with his arms outstretched in appeal,
“Please have some respect. Ajahn Bhikkhu is my spiritual teacher.”
This was met with a chorus of laughter and catcalls, and Bob, playing to his audience, was about to say something else when a voice cut through the noise,
“Stop it! That’s enough. Have you no decency?” everyone turned to see the normally mild Josie, looking angrier than anyone could recall seeing her. Polly was by her side, holding her mother’s hand, tears sliding down her cheeks.
“It’s time everyone was going. That’s right. All of you. Just go home — now!”
The request was met with muttering and swearing. But the assembled guests began to disperse — a few with apologies for the general behaviour.
“It’s just the alcohol talking,” said one man, as if this excused everything.
Josie stood in silence until the last person had disappeared and then went to Dave.
“I’m sorry they behaved like that”
“It’s not your fault,” said Dave, hugging his wife.
“I never realised how small-minded some of our friends are,” Josie said.
Dave was silent.
“Is this what you’ve seen in them, all along?” she asked.
“Partly. And I started to feel that life was…meaningless.”
There was a pause. Polly had wandered over to the table and was helping herself to leftovers.
“Do you still love me?” asked Josie, looking Dave in the eyes.
“Yes. You and Polly are my world. But I was suffocating. And I thought you were happy living like this.”
“I thought I was, too,” Josie answered. “But I missed you so much. And today has made me realise that I need more than this, too.”
On cue Ajahn Bhikkhu appeared from the tent and walked to the middle of the lawn, clearing empty cans and beer bottles out of the way with his feet as he went,
“Josie, David…please…come sit with me,” he asked.
They followed and sat down on the grass. He regarded them steadily.
“Please understand, I cannot tell you what to do,” he said. “But I can tell you some of my thoughts.”
“Go on, please.”
“If you become a Buddhist monk, David, you must sever ties with your wife, and treat her as a sister.”
Dave bowed his head and squeezed Josie’s hand.
“I can see that you love your wife. And that separation from her and from Polly would cause all of you pain.”
Dave and Josie nodded.
“That is something only you can decide. But this may help you. A Buddhist is someone who Goes for Refuge, who accepts Buddha as their spiritual guide, and who looks for inspiration to those followers of Buddha who are more spiritually advanced.”
Ajahn Bhikkhu paused to let this sink in.
“Going for Refuge does not mean running away or seeking escape from the realities of life,” he regarded Dave. “It means accepting that permanence and pure bliss and beauty are not to be found in mundane existence.”
He looked around the garden. Dave and Josie followed his gaze and saw the lawn strewn with empty bottles and plates of uneaten meat.
“Your commitment is what matters most,” Ajahn Bhikkhu continued, “and lifestyle — whether you live as a monk or remain a layman — is secondary.”
He paused, and then went on,
“Going for Refuge is not done in isolation but in the company of others, in a wider spiritual community”
Josie looked at Dave. Then Dave said,
“So you’re telling me that I can be a good Buddhist without becoming a Buddhist monk? And that I don’t have to do this alone?”
Ajahn Bhikkhu closed his eyes and smiled,
“I‘m saying that there are different paths to enlightenment. Only you can determine which is the right path for you.”
Polly wandered over with a burger in one hand and a bottle of coke in the other,
“I feel sick, Mum,” she said.
Josie pulled Polly down onto the grass next to them and put her arm around the little girl.
“I think I’ve had an epiphany,” said Josie. “We can choose our own paths — we don’t have to continue in the groove life has accidentally led us to. I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I do want to open my mind to new experiences.”
Ajahn Bhikkhu smiled. Dave hugged her in delight.
“And would you consider us doing some travelling?” asked Dave, holding his breath.
“You still want to go to Tibet in that campervan, don’t you?” asked Josie.
“Well, maybe further than Hemel Hempstead this time,” agreed Dave.
“Hmm. Let me think. Working in an office five days a week or travelling with my husband and daughter…?” Josie laughed. “I think we both know the answer to that.”
“Do you feel like having an adventure, chickpea?” Dave asked Polly, who was lying on her back looking up at the stars.
“Will I miss school?” Polly asked.
“Yes!” her parents answered
“Then let’s go,” said Polly.
The road between Shalu and Nartang follows the ancient trade route between two great Buddhist monasteries and passes through a handful of villages as well as dry, deserted canyons. There is something spiritual about making the trek along this road and being mindful of the caravans that once travelled it, loaded with scriptures and treasures. One of the best local guides is an eccentric English woman named Polly, who has lived in Tibet for over forty years. During your three-day trek, she will tell you the story of how her wonderful parents brought her there. And about how they are still living out their days together in happiness, seeking enlightenment.