It was my first ever retreat and I was sharing a room with Philip Philippou, my new boyfriend. Or perhaps I should say I was Philip’s new girlfriend. He carried his grey plastic Samsonite case with him at all times, and I soon realized why. It was where he kept the entire budget for the retreat, including the cash payments, in neatly labelled envelopes.
Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche was a regular feature of the retreats I attended in the early days. And it was in Tenby that I first saw him sitting gazing out over the sea from the window of a caravan, a black cape draped about him. He looked like a raven.
Towards the end of those ten days, Sogyal Rinpoche agreed to give refuge to newbies, and at one point during the ceremony, Rinpoche spoke extremely eloquently about the what exactly we would be taking refuge in. The Buddha, of course, with whom I had no problems whatsoever. The Dharma, which was still a complete mystery to me, but one I was willing to delve into. And, the Sangha. Hmmnnn.
Looking around at the collection of sweet, naive, desperate, sincere but overwhelmingly bonkers people who had gathered in Tenby that Easter, I made a decision. Rinpoche went ahead with the ceremony, and I ran to the kitchen to do the washing-up.
My heart pounded and my hands shook as I filled the sink with steaming hot water. It’s nothing to do you with you, Rinpoche, I screamed in the confines of my panic-struck mind, as I manically squirted Palmolive into the sink full of water. What will he think of me? In went the plates with a loud splash. Would he ever forgive me? Followed by forks and spoons. God, what had I done. I looked at the pile of dirty knives, but left them where they were. Could I trust myself with knives…
Before long I felt Rinpoche enter the kitchen. I span round to make my excuses and he hugged me, laughing loudly, as if I’d just told him the best joke he’d ever heard. Words pushed their way to my lips, but failed to get through my clenched teeth, so I just let myself be hugged. I may even have hugged him back. Finally I blurted, “It’s nothing to do with you Rinpoche, but really, the Sangha business… they’re all potty!” Rinpoche threw his head back and laughed even harder than before.
He must have said something, but I can’t remember what, and it was clear that, as far as he was concerned, nothing bad had happened at all. On the contrary, my lack of gratitude and loyality (as I saw it then) appeared to have made his day.
One of the other kitchen dwellers (the kitchen is so often a refuge for the paranoid and the neurotic, don’t you find?) who was the only other person to witness the scene asked me what was going on. I explained that I’d ducked out of taking refuge and her eyebrows shot up. For the first time she surveyed me with interest and muttered a few words to herself in French (the French often mutter). “Not formally, I think…” she said, and went back to kneeding the dough.
Needless to say, I did eventually put my Sangha phobia behind me and formally take refuge. Loads of times, as a matter of fact, although it’s not something I’ve ever really come to terms with. But as the years melt away I realize it’s no biggy. After all, the world is bonkers; the people in it, bonkers; and I am most definitely bonkers. So from that point of view taking refuge in the Sangha makes perfect sense. Don’t you think?