Polly woke to the sound of tent pegs being hammered into the ground. She lay still for a moment and then excitement rose in her chest. She flew out of bed and down the stairs in her pyjamas, to find Mum standing cradling a mug of tea in the kitchen.
“Dad’s back,” Mum said.
Polly whooped with delight and shot straight past Mum, out of the kitchen door and into their back garden.
“Glad someone’s happy,” muttered Mum.
Polly raced across the lawn – there was Dad, just finished putting up a small tent at the bottom of the garden. Polly launched herself at him and he picked her up and swung her round,
“My little chickpea! How I’ve missed you,”Dad hugged her tight.
“Are you back from Tibet to stay, Daddy?”
“Well, I’m back for now,” he said, depositing her gently on the grass. “And I have a friend I want you to meet.”
Polly’s eyes widened as a bald-headed man in orange coloured robes emerged from the tent.
“Are you from Tibet?” she asked. “Are you a monk? Daddy went to Tibet to become a Buddhist monk.”
The bald-headed man smiled,
“Not quite Tibet, but I am a monk. I’m from Hemel Hempstead.”
Dad scratched his head and Polly thought he looked like she did when she was caught doing something naughty.
“I didn’t get quite as far as Tibet, chickpea,” he explained. “I met Ajahn Bhikkhu at the Sangha in Hertfordshire. And he has agreed to be my spiritual teacher.”
“Do you know the Eightfold Path?” Polly asked Ajahn Bhikkhu. “Right understanding, right speech-”
“Polly, Polly, stop!” said Dad. “You know Mum doesn’t like it when you do that.”
“And I know the Four Noble Truths,” Polly continued to Ajahn Bhikkhu. “Daddy taught them to me. Suffering exists and-”
“Polly!” yelled Mum, appearing at the kitchen door. “Get yourself in this house at once and eat your breakfast. You’ve got school today.”
“Better go, chickpea,” Dad said, pulling a face. “You don’t want to make Mum cross.”
Ajahn Bhikkum watched the little exchange quietly, a smile on his face, as Polly groaned and slunk back up the garden path into the house.
“Oh Mummy!” she complained. “I was talking to Daddy and the monk about the Four Noble Truths.”
“Not another word,” said Mum, setting a bowl of breakfast cereal down on the table in front of her daughter. “What on earth the neighbours are making of this, I don’t know. Your father disappears for two months in the camper van and then comes back with a Buddhist monk in tow. And now pitching a tent for him next to the greenhouse! It’s so embarrassing.”
“Well then, can’t he stay in the house, Mummy?” said Polly.
“Certainly not! Goodness knows who he is or where he’s been.”
“He’s Ajahn Bhikkhum 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, Mummy, please let me have the day off school today? It’s Friday anyway, nearly the weekend, and I haven’t seen Daddy for ages. Isabel Cartwright was allowed to stay off when her dog had puppies and I think this is much more important.”
“No way, Polly. School is the best place for you today, while I try to get this nonsense sorted out. And don’t you say a word about this to anyone.”
Polly sighed, took her seat and started ladling Rice Krispies into her mouth. Grown-ups were so unreasonable. Couldn’t Mummy see this was the most exciting thing that had happened since Johnny Davison’s Dad was arrested for shoplifting? Not mention it at school? – she was clearly crazy.
`* * *
With Polly safely dispatched to school, Josie decided it was time to tackle her prodigal husband about the whole Buddhist monk situation. This was certainly turning out to be one of the more surreal Friday mornings of her life. She waited until they had finished meditating – at least, she supposed that’s what they were doing, sitting cross-legged on the grass with their eyes closed – and then made her way down the garden to them.
“Right,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm, “I want to know exactly what is going on here.”
“Josie, I’d like to introduce you to Anjahn Bhikkhum. He is a Buddhist monk and my spiritual teacher,” said Dave.
Josie paused, determined to remain polite,
“Good morning, Anjahn.How odd to meet you next to my greenhouse. I’ve never met a Buddhist monk before, so I hope what I’m going to say won’t cause you any offence. But I have to tell my husband that I’m absolutely bloody furious with him,” she took a deep breath.
“Now, Dave” she continued. “Would you please tell me what the hell you think you’re playing at? You sneak away in the dead of night, leaving just a note to say you’re off to Tibet to find spiritual enlightenment. Which may involve becoming a Buddhist monk. Did you forget you were married, with a child? How do you suppose I felt, reading that, and explaining it to Polly? Not to mention our families, our friends, the neighbours, and your boss – oh, you’re fired by the way. But I have managed to continue paying the mortgage while you were gone. Did you think about any of this? Or do you just not care?” her voice rose, “Do tell me. I’d really like to know.”
“Please calm down, Josie-” started Dave.
“And do NOT tell me to calm down! When, in the history of the world, has telling someone to calm down ever actually calmed them down? How dare you!”
Dave reddened and Anjahn Bhikkhum spoke,
“Is it true, David? That you left without discussing your plans with your wife? You told me you had the backing of your family.” He looked steadily at Dave, who bowed his head and muttered,
“Well, I didn’t want a scene.”
“Ha!” said Josie, “Didn’t want a scene? As opposed to what…coming back now with a Buddhist monk? That was going to be just fine and dandy, was it? You’re a coward, Dave!”
There was silence as all three of them considered Dave’s deception. Anjahn Bhikkhum spoke again,
“David, you cannot hope to find truth and peace within yourself while practising deceit and suffering. I would not have made you my disciple and come here with you had I known your wife was not in agreement with your quest.”
“Well, I’m sure that’s exactly why he didn’t tell you,” snapped Josie. “Wasn’t it,, Dave? Do enlighten us?”
Dave shook his head,
“I just needed to find myself. Modern life is meaningless. I want something more, something deeper. And I’m sorry that I’ve been less than truthful. But I thought you knew that I was unhappy. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” he looked at his wife. “I do love you . And Polly. But I just can’t keep living like this – work, a mortgage, the pub, television every night. I hoped you would understand.”
Josie clenched her fists and stared up at the sky, willing herself to speak calmly and hold back the tears,
“I might have understood, if you’d talked to me properly. You can’t just run away from things, Dave. You left me to cope with everything – and it’s not fair.”
She scrambled to her feet and stalked back up the garden path.
“I’m sorry,” Dave called after her.
There was no reply.
“I really am,” he said to Ajahn Bhikkhum. “What should I do? Help me.”
Anjahn Bhikkhum sighed,
“We have a lot of work to do.”
* * *
Josie stirred her tea and thought about the conversation in the garden. He was hopeless! Absolutely infuriating! She should have seen the warning signs when he started teaching Polly the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths, let alone when he’d talked to her about the Five Moral Precepts.
Don’t start blaming yourself and making excuses for him, she thought crossly, taking a gulp of supposedly calming camomile tea. How was she to know that he was really unhappy? She’d thought the nine to five humdrum was just getting to him – didn’t everyone feel that way? Everyone in Milton Keynes, anyway? Didn’t they all feel unfulfilled, herself included? When he’d started taking an interest in Eastern philosophies – well, to be honest, she’d found it quite endearing. Dave had never been a macho man, into cars and football, or betting on the horses. That gentle nature was one of the things she’d loved about him when they met – it made him stand out from the crowd. He was a thoughtful and kind person.
But really? To run off in the night to become a Buddhist monk? Was she really so unapproachable that he couldn’t at least talk to her first?
A tear splashed into her tea, followed by another.
What a mess.
* * *
Anjahn Bhikkum and Dave talked and meditated for hours. At first Dave asked repeatedly,
“What should I do?”
and Ajahn Bhikkhum replied,
“Meditate and be calm. I cannot tell you what action you should take. You know that Buddhism is about self-enlightenment. You will find the right answer.”
“I know, I know,” 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 are human,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum. “But you are learning.”
The two men were silent.
* * *
Saturday dawned bright and sunny and Polly bounced into her mother’s bedroom, pulling open the curtains,
“Mummy, look, the weather is lovely – how lucky!”
Josie fumbled for the clock by her bed,
“What? What time is is?” her mouth was dry and she saw it was just after eight am.”And why lucky?”
“Our BBQ of course!” said Polly, “Silly Mummy!”
Josie sat bolt upright and gasped. No! She had indeed, in an act of “life-must-go-on-even-though-my-husband-has-walked-out-on-me” defiance, invited around fifty people to a BBQ in her garden that afternoon. She had completely forgotten, with Dave and his orange-clad monk turning up out of the blue.
“Oh, Polly! why didn’t you remind me last night? It’s too late to cancel it now!.”
“I forgot,” said Polly airily, as only an eight year old can. “And besides, you know about it, Mummy – you arranged it.”
Josie groaned, envisaging a garden crowded with friends, family and neighbours, and a Buddhist monk. And before that, a mad dash around the supermarket to buy meat and booze.
“You’d better go wake Daddy up and tell him I need his help,” she told Polly. “He’s sleeping in the spare room.”
* * *
Dave left Ajahn Bhikkhum to meditate on his own by the greenhouse while he helped Josie and Polly prepare for the afternoon’s event. Truth be told, after his initial annoyance, he quite enjoyed the morning with his wife and daughter as it passed in a blur of shopping and tidying the garden.
Maybe he’d missed domesticity a tiny bit after all? he thought.
By 2pm when their guests started to arrive, everything was ready.
“Great teamwork,” he smiled at Josie and Polly, and his heart jumped as he looked at them and realised how much he loved them both. Could he really abandon all of this?
The afternoon was soon in full swing.
Dave declined to cook meat on the barbecue, because of his new-found vegetarianism, so Josie’s father and brother were busy with burgers, sausages, and the like.
Dave also declined to get everyone a drink, having given up alcohol too, so Josie ran about making sure everyone had beer or wine. It was a seemingly never-ending task.
And while the guests had been surprised to see Dave as they arrived, they were even more surprised to see Ajahn Bhikkhum, cross-legged on the grass in the entrance to his tent. Questions flew at Dave about where he’d been, why he wasn’t eating meat or drinking beer, and whether he was really going to be a Buddhist monk. And Josie’s mother, unimpressed by his lack of hosting, 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 wine-fuelled Dutch courage, Josie’s mother made her way tipsily to Ajahn Bhikkhum and plonked herself down on the grass next to him.
“Good afternoon, Father,” she hiccoughed. “No offence intended, but if you are a religious man, surely you can’t agree with Dave abandoning his wife? Would he have to get divorced to become a monk? That can’t be right.” She fixed Ajahn Bhikkhum with a hard stare.
“Please, call me Bhante,” said Ajahn Bhikkhu. He paused to think, and then said, “Buddhism is concerned with the spiritual. Marriage and divorce are secular matters. I cannot speak on them.”
“Well, that’s very convenient, isn’t it?” said Josie’s mother. “But can’t you help Dave to see sense, get them back together?”
“I cannot act as a conduit between a man and a woman,” said Ajahn Bhikkhum gently. “My philosophy forbids it. David and Josie must find their own paths.”
Josie’s mother snorted with disgust and scrambled to her feet,
“Well, much use you’ve been. Give me an old-fashioned vicar any day.”
She weaved her way back up the garden, and Ajahn Bhikkhum bowed his head in thought. He was interrupted a little while later by a plate of sausages and chicken legs being pushed under his nose.
“Here, Father,” said the man, who was a neighbour, “You must be starving. Get your chops round these.”
Ajahn Bhikkhum tried not to recoil at the meat being waved in front of him,
“Thank you, but I do not eat between noon and sunrise.”
“What, never? That’s ridiculous,” said the man, laughing.
“It is my custom,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum mildly.
“But surely, all this lovely meat…” the man continued to wave it at him.
“I do not eat meat, thank you,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum. “Please, do not trouble yourself about me. I am fine.”
“Suit yourself,” said the man. “Just trying to be friendly.”
He had only just gone when yet another guest appeared, holding out a glass of wine,
“I couldn’t imagine you drinking beer, but I thought you might like some wine – you know, like communion wine,” the woman said, smiling.
“Thank you, but no,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum
“Ah, go on,” she urged. “One won’t do any harm. I won’t tell!”
“Again, no thank you. I do not drink intoxicating liquids,” said Anjahn Bhikkhum.
The woman shrugged and left. Anjahn Bhikkhum decided it would be better if he retreated into his tent and spent the rest of the afternoon in quiet meditation.
The day wore on, more alcohol flowed, and as the afternoon became evening, the guests became more vocal and more obnoxious. Dave hovered anxiously near the tent, trying to keep the curious away from his spiritual teacher.
Then one of Josie’s particularly inebriated colleagues staggered down the garden towards the tent, shouting,
“Oi, monk. Monk! Come out of there!”
When there was no response, the man continued,
“Oi, monk-ee, monk-ee – ha ha, monkey! Come on out! What do you wear under that dress? Is it like a Scotsman with his kilt?”
There was much laughter from the sozzled crowd on the lawn, and two or three more took up the call,
“Oi, monk-ee! Monk-ee! Come on out!”
Dave looked anguished and started towards Josie’s colleague with his arms outstretched in appeal,
“Please, Bob, have some respect. Anjahn Bhikkhum is my spiritual teacher.”
This was met with a chorus of laughter and catcalls, and Bob, obviously playing to his audience now, was about to say something else when a voice cut through the noise,
“Stop it, at once. That’s enough. Have you no decency?”, everyone turned to see the normally mild Josie, red in the face and angrier than anyone could ever recall seeing her. Polly was by her side, holding her mother’s hand, with tears sliding down her cheeks.
“It’s time everyone was going. That’s right. All of you. Would you please go? – now!”
There was a stunned silence, and then some muttering and quite a bit of swearing. But the assembled guests, encouraged by the more decent human beings among them, began to disperse – some with apologies to Josie and Polly and Dave for the general behaviour.
“It’s just the alcohol talking,” said one man, as if this made everything okay.
Josie stood in silence until the last person had disappeared around the front of the house, and then went to Dave.
“I’m so, so sorry that they behaved like that. I wouldn’t have put your friend through that for all the world, if I’d known.”
“I know,” said Dave, taking his wife in his arms. “It’s not your fault.”
“I never realised how small-minded some of our friends are,” Josie continued, shaking her head.
Dave was silent.
“Is this what you’ve seen in them? Is this what’s been bothering you,” she asked.
He sighed, “Partly. I suppose…I suppose I just think our way of life is..shallow. I just needed to find something…more. Something meaningful.”
There was a pause. Polly had wandered over to the table and was helping herself to the leftover food.
“But do you still love me?” asked Josie, looking Dave straight in the eyes.
“Of course I do. You and Polly are my world. But I was stifled, suffocated. And I thought you were happy here, living like this.”
“I thought I was, too,” Josie answered. “But I missed you so much. And today…well…it’s made me realise that I might need more than this too.”
On cue Anjahn Bhikkhum 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 with him. He regarded them steadily.
“Please understand, I cannot tell you what you should do,” he said. “But if you will allow it, I would like to tell you what I know and what I have observed.”
“Go on, please.”
“First, if you become a Buddhist monk, David, you will have to sever ties with your wife, and treat her, at most, as a sister.”
Dave bowed his head and squeezed Josie’s hand.
“And second, David, 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 that only you can decide. But there are some things I want to tell you, that may help you. A Buddhist is someone who Goes for Refuge – to the Buddha, to the Dharma and to the Sangha. A Buddhist is someone who accepts Buddha as their spiritual guide, who does their utmost to understand and practise Buddha’s teachings, and who looks for inspiration or guidance on these teachings to those followers of Buddha who are more spiritually advanced than themselves.”
Ajahn Bhikkhu paused to let this sink in.
“Going for Refuge does not mean running away. Or seeking escape from the realities of life through pseudo-spiritual fantasies,” he regarded Dave calmly. “Going for Refuge means accepting that permanence and pure bliss and beauty are not to be found in mundane existence.”
He looked around the garden, and Dave and Josie followed his gaze, and saw the lawn strewn with empty bottles, and the plates with huge quantities of uneaten meat.
“And Going for Refuge means realising that one must transition to a transcendental Nirvanic realm.”
Josie shifted uncomfortably – this talk of Nirvanic calm was very odd.
“What I am trying to explain,” Anjahn Bhikkhum continued, “is that commitment is primary, and lifestyle – that is, whether you choose to live as a monk or a nun, or as a layman or laywoman – is secondary. It is not that lifestyle is unimportant. But it is less important than the commitment of Going for Refuge – that is the central defining act of a Buddhist life.”
He paused, and then went on,
“And Going for Refuge is not done in isolation. It is done in the company of others also going for Refuge, in a wider spiritual community”
There was silence for some minutes. Josie looked at Dave. Then Dave said,
“So you are telling me that I can be a good Buddhist without becoming a Buddhist monk And that I do not have to do this alone.”
Ajahn Bhikkhum closed his eyes and smiled,
“I am saying that there are different paths to enlightenment, and that only you can determine which is the right path for you.”
There was silence again, broken only by Polly wandering over with a burger in one hand and a bottle of coke in another,
“I feel sick, Mummy,” she said.
Josie pulled Polly down onto the grass next to them and put her arm round the little girl.
“I think we need to do some talking, ” said Dave.
“Talking is long overdue, Dave” said Josie. “Ajahn Bhikkhum, I think I’ve had a moment of epiphany today. I’ve realised that we can choose our own paths in life – that we don’t have to continue in the groove we’re in, just because that’s where life has accidentally led us. I don’t know that I’ll ever become a Buddhist, but I do know that I want to open my mind and experience some different things.”
Ajahn Bhikkhum smiled. Dave hugged her in delight.
“And would you…could you…possibly think about us leaving Milton Keynes and travelling around?”, asked Dave, holding his breath, eyebrows raised.
“You still want to go to Tibet in that campervan, don’t you?” asked Josie, smiling.
“Well, maybe further than Hemel Hempstead this time,” agreed Dave. “But avoiding the pseudo-spiritual hippie trail,” he assured Anjahn Bhikkhum, who merely shrugged and smiled.
“Hmm. Let me think. Working in an office in Milton Keynes, or travelling with my husband and daughter…?” Josie laughed. “I think we both know the answer to that.”
“Do you feel like an adventure, chickpea?” Dave asked Polly, who was now lying flat on her back looking up at the stars.
“Will I get some time off school?” Polly asked.
“Yes!” her parents answered, in unison.
“Then let’s go” said Polly.
* * *
The road between Shalu and Nartang, which follows the ancient trade route between two great Buddhist monasteries, 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 loaded with scriptures and treasures that once travelled it. Guides can be hired locally – people who know the area well, and who have a spiritual understanding of their surroundings. One of the best guides, somewhat surprisingly, is an eccentric middle-aged English woman named Polly, who has lived in Tibet for more than forty years. Over the course of a two to three day trek under her guidance, 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.
* * * * *