Spiritual journey in the UK #2

Ms Gloria Campbell

This Dharma Journey talk was presented at the London Buddhist Centre on 15 July 2023, during the Ullambana ceremony.

Ms Gloria Campbell

Good afternoon, everyone. As you have just heard, for those who don’t know me, my name is Gloria and I live in Kingston with my husband Mungo.

I’m sure many people will be saying it, but I would just like to thank Tony for organising today so beautifully for us. It was hearing Tony’s recent Dharma journey talk that inspired me to write my own story.

I would like to say hello to David who can’t be here today but it was David who first introduced me to the centre. Thank you for your healing gift of Japanese acupuncture practice, which is how we met, your concern for my happiness, for reaching out to me and for being a friend and bodhisattva to me since.

When I started to write my talk I’m afraid I didn’t get very far. I started to think about all the things that had happened long ago, and my talk became mainly about my parents, but as we are commemorating our deceased loved ones today, I hope you will find my talk relevant to the occasion, too.

I was born in 1945, at the end of the war, in a cotton mill town in Lancashire. My father and mother both left school at an early age with an elementary education and a love of books which they passed on to us through story reading and telling. When they first married they lived with my grandparents, but by all accounts, my father was keen to provide a better life and opportunities for his children. His small business prospered on the government’s rebuilding programme after the war, and we later moved into a house with a large garden and workshops.

I have many happy memories from this time, of holidays in Wales, my father taking us on fishing trips and into the woods to go look for elves and fairies. Waking us up in the night to see a comet crossing the sky or going into the garden to look at the stars and the moon and telling us, to our astonishment, that one day a man would walk on it. My father gave me a sense of wonder at the world as well as a love of nature which has brought me great happiness and which I have always sought to share with others.

Another memory is my mother bending down to kiss us goodnight before she went out with my father, her beautiful ball gown rustling, the unfamiliar lingering smell of perfume. One night my little brother started to cry when she left our room. When I asked him why he was crying he said through his sobs he was crying because one day our mum was going to die. ‘I don’t want her to die’. For once, I didn’t know how to comfort him. This was, for both of us, a glimpse into the impermanence of everything, a painful realisation that living also meant dying.

When I was 11 it became obvious to me that things were not right. It felt like everything was falling apart. My father was hardly home and started drinking. There were loud, angry arguments. My brother and I were taken to stay with our grandparents, and before they left us there, our parents told us we would be moving to a new house. We were very excited by the thought of this new adventure and didn’t know then that my father’s business was failing. Unable to bear the shame, they were driving to see if they could start a new life near our Aunty in Bedford, where work and housing were available.

Perhaps they didn’t relish going to share their troubles and failures with close relatives, but in any case, they got badly lost and ended up late at night with no idea where they were and 200 miles astray in a roadside inn not far from a small seaside town on the south coast of England. My father became acquainted with the owner and spoke frankly to him, saying he was looking for work and a place to live. In short, he was offered both, and on a complete whim, they decided to accept.

Our house and all its contents had to be sold to pay debtors. As a child, I came to understand the pain this caused my father. It must have been just before we left. I was in the back of the car with my brother. My father was in the front driving seat. When the car stopped I saw we were at the top of the drive outside the heavy locked gates to our house. Suddenly, my father’s head fell forward onto the steering wheel, and I realised he was crying. I squeezed my young brother’s hand and whispered for him to be quiet. I was old enough to know instantly my father was crying because he was locked out forever from the home he had worked so hard to provide us with. At that moment, I saw the adult world, too, was subject to unbearable pain and immeasurable grief.

We were now very poor, and my father had returned to manual work, but he no longer drank, and home was peaceful. My sister started work at the hospital, and my brother and I set off exploring the rock pools, caves, clifftops and woods for miles around. We had never experienced such freedom and revelled in the places we had only ever encountered in our books and fairy stories.

But once again, life took another sudden turn. Very soon after we moved into our new home my mother arrived back after a visit to the doctor. It was quite late, and standing on the stairs, calling my father, we heard her say that she had to pack a bag and leave us all instantly that evening to go into the hospital. Our old doctor had been treating Mum for a simple backache, but in fact, she had cancer. Later, it did not escape any of us that by moving, Mum’s life was saved. How do we weigh the good and the bad? It was confusing for a child. Were things always going to be alright in the end, or were we adrift on unpredictable, capricious and turbulent seas? It was perhaps partly seeking answers to these questions that eventually led me here to Rev Hosoya, his wife Kay and the RKUK London Buddhist Centre.

After leaving school, I eventually began working as a secretary in various companies, but in time, I found it did not satisfy the growing need I felt to be doing something meaningful that would make a difference to people’s lives. I decided I wanted to go to university and to get the qualifications, I started a course at college. My father strongly opposed me giving up work to go on this totally unexpected journey. But I stood up to him for the first time because I felt so strongly the need to do something worthwhile with my life. I know he was shocked by our disagreement because there had never been a rift between us. At this time, my father was once more becoming prosperous, but I was losing my respect for him. I felt he was abandoning us, and the home was empty of love and falling into disrepair. Despite the fact it was obvious my father was neglecting us, my mother tried to bring my father and me back together, but I remained aloof and cold.

Then, one day at home, my father approached me and told me he had been to see the doctor and he was seriously ill. When I was silent he asked, Do you not care? Without raising my head and meeting his eyes I shook my head and said, No. Since then, I have asked myself how I could have been so devoid of compassion. Looking back to that moment is painful, knowing I rejected and must have deeply hurt my father, who loved me and was turning to me for comfort and love in a desperate moment. Looking back I see my young self unable to speak and unable to cope with such powerful and conflicting emotions, prevented by suppressed anger and my own hurt feelings to respond with compassion. And so the opportunity for understanding and reconciliation was lost. My father walked out of the house and didn’t return. Or at least that’s how I have always remembered it.

Our house became silent as if waiting, and a few days later, we received a phone call from the hospital to say my father had been admitted with a heart attack. It was just a few days before Christmas. My mother and I immediately joined him, and when I saw them together with their arms around each other, I knew they had reconciled, and all that was passed was forgiven, as it was for me. There was no more anger between us, only understanding and love.

At the end of a visiting day, I remember getting ready to leave my father for college. The room was bright and sunny. I stood up to comb my hair in the mirror, and as I turned back towards him, I saw my father looking at me, his face brightly lit from inside with wonder, as if he was seeing for the first time the inconceivable preciousness of life and knew what a wonderful thing it is to be human and alive. Although I did not speak, that moment struck me powerfully. I have no doubt now that in that moment, my father became aware of our fundamental ignorance and saw how transitory and precious life was and how unimportant our desires and cravings were. In time, the teaching of the Buddha enabled me to deeply understand for myself this profound moment of enlightenment my father and I had shared.

Each day, my mother and I visited my father in hospital, but as Christmas approached, my father suffered an attack that left him paralysed and unable to communicate. The hospital provided accommodation for me and my mum, and we spent time with my dad in A&E as he lay hooked up to monitors. I knew the last sense to be lost was hearing, and one day, as I held my father’s hand and talked to him, a large tear fell from his eye. After a few days, the ward sister told me my mother was exhausted, and I should take her home as there was little she could do.

I visited my father one more time. I was told he had been moved onto a ward. I passed a group of staff gathered round a desk, and when I asked where my father was they pointed up the ward and turned away from me. As I approached my father’s bedside, I had a terrible shock: My father was lying with just a white sheet over half of his body, his chest strong and smooth and beautiful, but his face a distortion, like the depiction of suffering in Picasso’s Guernica. No screen had been provided for him, and I sat on the chair beside him and lowered my head, ashamed that it had seemed fit to deny my father dignity in his last hours. As I left the ward I lowered my head to avoid catching anyone’s eye, and as I passed the group of carers involved in their meeting, they did not stop to speak to me or look my way.

I spared my family an account of my last visit to my father. My father passed away soon after, and my mother and I were thankful his suffering was over. Eventually, after a year away, I came home and joined a four-year course at Maria Grey College and the University of London Institute of Education. I threw myself into my studies and passed the first part of the course with distinctions, but at home in Devon, I felt detached from life. My mother was so kind and gentle and quietly understanding. We used to walk together over the hill into the next valley on Sundays, even in the snow, to the small church by the sea where my father is buried. I was quiet during this time, and everything seemed hyper-real. I would find myself lost in my thoughts, overcome by the beauty of simple things. My mother arranged for us both to go on a silent retreat in a convent in St Albans. It was a beautiful place, as I remember it, and each day, a group of us on the retreat would eat our meal together in silence. At the dining table on such a day, someone reached out for the water jug, smiled, and, without speaking, poured me a glass of water. The effect was as profound for me as my father’s vision of the preciousness of life. This moment of kindness relieved me of my suffering and showed me there was an alternative to the cold indifference both I and others had shown towards my father. For me, the unsolicited kindness of a stranger at that moment was an intense experience of our human capacity for kindness and compassion towards each other.

My husband Mungo has spent much of his life helping others, and much like my father, he has loved and cherished me through our long life together and, to be honest, I have to say, has had to put up with quite a lot from time to time. He has always supported me on my dharma journey and enjoyed hearing all about my visits to the centre, so much so that I am sure he feels he knows many of you here today.

Just before I started attending the centre about a year ago life took another of those turns. Mungo had suffered a stroke. We had been through lockdown and become isolated, and nothing about life seemed the same. I began to feel unstable, easily triggered into anger. Eventually, I felt I was standing on the edge of a precipice, and one push would send me over the edge. The doctor prescribed medication, but I didn’t want to block out my suffering. I needed to know what was happening to me. I needed answers. I had no idea then how studying the Dharma, attending Sunday services, and sharing experiences in the Sangha would change everything about my life. It did not happen as I might have expected. Becoming a Buddhist was not like being given the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that would fit neatly into a gap in my ideas about the world. It was much more like being given a map of a completely new and magical country that was lit up before me as I entered further into it. The only way I think I can describe the transformation my life underwent is by likening it to Shakespeare’s description of the storm at the beginning of The Tempest. After the fear and turmoil of a shipwreck, I was cast up on a beach and, when I came to my senses, found my clothes washed clean and sparkling with sea salt, stripped of the illusions of the Saha world. I saw life differently because I had been changed. My Buddhist practice had helped me to realise that we are all profoundly connected to each other. Looking back at my life I saw I had not experienced either happiness or suffering alone. All our experience is dependent on others, and we are all interconnected. I saw that the journey to enlightenment was not therefore only for our own sake but for the sake of everyone: those in our families, our communities, those we are yet to meet, and those still to come, each on their own path to buddhahood.

This is true of my family. In my early years, I spent very little time with my sister. From a young age, she was always adventurous, independent, difficult to control and in trouble. I admired her from afar. As an adult, my sister has often felt estranged from me and the rest of the family. The bonds between us were fragile and easily broken, leading to many years of unhappiness, as sometimes happens in families. My Buddhist practice of non-attachment that accepts both the good and the bad with calmness and composure has helped me to see a wider perspective more clearly and compassionately and to find the right things to say in difficult and emotional family situations. My relationship with my sister has been transformed into a more loving and supportive one. Other members of the family have softened too to each other’s needs, and past differences are forgotten as, accordingly, the changes in ourselves are shared with others.

These experiences are magical, and if magic can be defined, in one way, as the meeting between the material and spiritual world, I have found there is much magic in Shakespeare’s Tempest and also in The Wonderful World of the Threefold Lotus Sutra. Much of my own journey has been magical, and the most magical thing for me has been discovering that to help each other and share the happiness and joy of life, all we have to do is be the person we become through our practice and faith in the Dharma and the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni. So here before this beautiful Gohonzon that has been prepared for us today, and in the presence of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni, I vow, together with my sangha, to continue walking this Buddha way.

That is the end of my talk except to say thank you to all of you. Today has been an important part of my dharma journey, and I thank you for listening.

The Ullambana ceremony of RKUK London Buddhist Centre in 2023

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