Āloka wrote this letter before he died and requested that it be read at his funeral.
A very warm welcome to you all and I’m so pleased that you could make it to my funeral today. Well, a bit of an unusual way to start a letter I’m sure you’ll agree, but I would like to say a few words before the funeral proceedings get underway, as a way of saying goodbye to my dharma friends, and to wish you all the best for the future.
Creating and leading a dharma group was always an adventure and a challenge for me. This was mainly because, like all adventures, it requires you to go into the unknown, which often means abandoning the safety of your comfort zone. Many if not most of the challenges I faced when starting up and running the DharmaMind group were usually around dealing with human beings and their refusal to do what I wanted them to do. One of those many challenges however existed pretty much on the horizon, it was an inevitable event that would happen sometime in the future. This event was that one day someone in the group was going to pass away, and I as leader would be expected to lead a funeral ceremony, probably similar to this one. Well, would you believe it never happened, because here is my corpse lying before you showing that I really did at least get that one wrong. Now instead of leading a funeral ceremony I become the centre of one. Now instead of leading the ceremony I find myself writing these few words before any member of my group passed on before me. So good on them, they’ve all out done me and may they all live long and healthy lives! Now this challenging task has been left to members of the group who I’m sure will do a sterling job. So lucky me I’ve managed to side step leading my first funeral service, which had always been a daunting prospect.
I mention this mainly because once again does this not show how unpredictable life is. We can never with any certainty predict what will unfold in front of us, or that our life can be taken for granted and so stretch out before us into the distant future.
Do not the scriptures tell us not to take our life for granted and neglect this rare opportunity to practice the dharma while we are in a position to do so? This message is for us Buddhists that like to think we practice yet how often do we take practice to be like some sort of a part time activity that we fit in as we give priority to pursuing our worldly desires and ambitions?
Now that I’ve been given notice of my demise and so reaching the end of this life, I have the opportunity to reflect not only on my time spent chasing worldly desires but also the opportunity to reflect on my commitment to the practice of dharma over all these years. On reflection, I am on the whole satisfied that I have given my practice primary commitment even though there has been a good amount of time spent on worldly pursuits too.
I would like this funeral not to be a sad one but an opportunity for you all to reflect on and celebrate the opportunity our karma has given to us all to burrow into the existential reality of life’s unsatisfactory nature, and to celebrate the liberation of breaking free from dukkha that is the promise to us all through the training of dharma. With these words I’d like to now request your patience for a few minutes while I touch on the wonderful and challenging life I’ve had in pursuit of freedom and liberation from dukkha and the ever turning wheel of life.
When I look back on my 40 years of training I am filled with so much joy and gratitude that I’ve had the rare opportunity of changing the stream of my karma, the nature of which has meandered precariously through endless lives. I have been so blessed when I recall that I found the first, and most important, of my three teachers on the very first enquiry I made to find a group in 1974. It was Zen and the spirit of this tradition became the bedrock and spirit of my years of training. From being grounded in practice with a strict teacher I ventured off to Sri Lanka in 1980 to be guided by my second teacher who inspired and supported me as I settled into the challenge of an alien culture and a new tradition. I worked so hard on my practice, pursued mainly in a hot, sticky and difficult mosquito infested environment, yet I kept my head down and remained dedicated to getting to the bottom of this human dilemma. My reward after my first year was to breakthrough to my original nature and from this point my life changed forever. My time in Sri Lanka came to an end shortly after a time of maturing my breakthrough with my third teacher who skilfully guided me through a tricky process before I left for home via Bodhgaya. Here I stopped off to pay my respects to the Buddha and to thank him for the guidance and inspiration he had given me in rediscovering the ancient path that has led me back to my true eternal home. I now look back over those few years with immense humility and gratitude that I had been blessed with the opportunity to have taken refuge with those three deeply mature spiritual beings.
After returning to England in 1984 I spent the next 15 years protecting the ‘advancing host’ by living an uneventful household life gardening for a living in London. This life-style seemed as though it would continue forever until I sent a manuscript that I wrote of my time in Sri Lanka to Sangharakshita. To my surprise he was rather taken by it and kindly promoted its publication through Windhorse Publications in 1999. I always enjoyed his company whenever I visited him and I have always been grateful for his kindness and support in getting my manuscript published. From the launch of my first book my life took another turn that set the conditions that have prevailed to this day. I now found myself in the midst of the then FWBO and receiving attention from many wonderful people that populate this western tradition. Soon I was leading retreats that took me around the UK, Ireland and beyond and slowly I honed my teaching skills and found myself immersed in something I never had any previous desire whatsoever to do. It was challenging and exhilarating and for the first time since my Buddhist life began I was experiencing satisfaction and fulfillment from helping others as they grappled with their practice. As many of you know though, my experience at times with the movement was a rocky one. Coming as I did from a completely different background, and wedded to insight that didn’t always conform to the ways of the movement, eventually the time came for me to move on.
In the time I was leading retreats around the country I got to practice with a few people that somehow stuck with me and so when the time came to break away I had ready students to form a group. This group had its first independent meeting in January 2007 – the DharmaMind Group was born and it has been my life ever since. The group has grown and matured over these years and I like to think we now have an impressive committed solid practicing sangha, dedicated to meditation and daily life that points directly at discovering their true nature. Now they will have to carry on without me, so I wish them well and if they stick to the form I see no reason why this harmonious sangha cannot continue with commitment well into the future. So I wish them well and that they manage to keep the demon Mara in all his disguises well away.
During my time of illness, so many of them have been very kind and thoughtful in various ways, and I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all of you; in particular, to the team of carers who have done so much to ensure that I was able to spend my last weeks in the comfort and dignity of my own home. That was a very valuable thing for me.
I now wait for the body to go into change and so leave it for my next life. At the moment at least I have no fear around that prospect. For this I am grateful because without doubt this is possible because of my years of training and seeing the creator of fear and the ripping asunder of his roots. Interestingly, I notice I have no particular preference for the next life. If there is to be one, then one without dukkha would be appreciated. These days it feels at times like the familiar experience I’ve had on many occasions over the years, of packing my bag and waiting to set off for one of my holidays and a new adventure somewhere in the world, carrying slight trepidation about going into a new culture and not really sure how it is going to work out. I have to confess that I’ve never actually seen a specific previous life, but I have seen with clarity layer upon layer of previous lives stacked side by side so numerous as to be countless. That insight alone should be enough to put fear into any sensible person to do something about this endless round of rebirth.
Finally, I note with great sadness that many Buddhists these days are doubting the truth of rebirth and karma. I fear this is another step on the road of stripping away the mystery and wonderment of life that many westerners seem to be on a mission to promulgate. Stripping away the mystery and heart of centuries of wisdom from forms of meditation as well as denying karma is sweeping the western Buddhist world. Further to that, turning away and even denying the existence of Buddha nature will surely finally sterilize and even destroy a spiritual path that has liberated countless beings for many centuries. Please don’t fall into this trap. Practice with all of your heart and embrace the mystery that we all live out of, and have the humility that will lead you to discover your divine nature.