A Family Affair: `I hoped Guy's Buddhism was a phase, like skateboarding'

Novelist Katie Fforde, 52, From Stroud In Gloucestershire, Has Two Sons, Guy, 21, And Francis, 19, Who Became Buddhists And Left School To Move To A Dharma Centre In Somerset. Katie Found Their New-Found Faith Very Difficult To Come To Terms With
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The Independent Culture
Katie Fforde

Guy went to his first Buddhist summer festival immediately after he finished his GCSEs when he was 16. I am not religious, so it came as a shock. After one week he called to say he had been "sponsored" to stay on for another week. I panicked. I thought he had become a member of a cult. I kept asking myself: "Who has got hold of my son?"

At first I hoped this was just a phase, like skateboarding. I didn't really worry about it, until Guy began talking about dropping out of school and going to live in a Dharma centre. I was desperate for him to do his A-levels, but tried not to get angry. At the same time my youngest son, Francis, also took up Buddhism. Their belief was absolute and they couldn't make me understand it. I tried very hard to convince them their education was crucial.

In the end I persuaded them to stay and take their exams. Buddhism places a lot of importance on the family and both Guy and Francis were forced to respect my opinions because of this. But they had no motivation whatsoever. Guy spent most of his time reading expensive Buddhist books instead of working, and Francis's GCSE results were absolutely desperate. He then refused to do his A-levels.

They both left home on the same day to live in the Buddhist centre. Francis was 16 and Guy was 18. I remember driving them down to this derelict girl's boarding school in Somerset. It was cold and spartan. I had to resist the urge to pack a supply of thermal socks for them.

I suppose, in a way, I felt betrayed by them as they had turned against everything that my husband and I stood for. We had projected our own desires on to our children. Neither of us had gone to university and we had always wanted it for them. At the same time we felt we had failed them. Their spiritual lives were fine but they were incapable of earning a living.

When I told my friends what my boys were doing, I could see the horror in their faces. They seemed to think it was all my fault and that I should have stopped them from leaving.

Francis became increasingly committed to the centre and at one point he asked to be ordained. He needed our permission for this and we refused. He was only 16. No one that age can make that kind of decision. He can be stubborn and determined and tried to convince the head of the centre that we were not fit people to pass judgement. Thankfully she stood by our decision.

Guy decided to leave after 18 months and came home last summer. I think the freshness of it all just wore off. He got a part-time job as a dustman before going to High Wycombe University to study English and Film Studies. It was an enormous relief to be able to say that my son was a dustman, rather than a Buddhist. He now leads a normal student life and wants to become a pop star.

Francis left the centre last Christmas after nearly three years there. This was mainly because his dole had been stopped. He is living at home for the moment and wants to find a job, but is still adjusting to life outside the centre.

I think one day I'll be pleased they have done this, but for the moment we have a lot to get through. Now that I know more about Buddhism, I am less frightened by it. In many ways it has inspired me to think in a wider way. I am more aware of the greater world, rather than my limited environment. Against my will, and through living with Guy and Francis, I have started to adhere to the Buddhist code. In many ways it makes sense. I am a compassionate person and I no longer kill anything. I have slugs in my garden and an ants' nest in my conservatory. I have learned to examine the way I am, rather than think about Guy and Francis.

Guy

At first, I missed the point of Buddhism. I was an obnoxious teenager seeking a way out from exams. I was reading about death and philosophy and my A-levels paled into insignificance. Mum thinks that I did my A- levels for her, but in fact I did them for myself. I didn't object to the idea of them, I just didn't want to do the work.

Buddhism was a revelation. Initially I was attracted to it because it was exotic. I got carried away by my experience at the summer camp. But the more I learned about it, the more it made sense.

I don't know if Mum found it hard to see us go to the centre. It was a big, old house in the middle of Somerset. It had been derelict for five years and was cold and uncomfortable. She never really said what she thought. I remember coming home with Francis one weekend shortly after we left and found her quite upset, but otherwise she seemed to accept it.

Although Francis had not been positive about Buddhism at first, I was not surprised when he said he wanted to be ordained. I felt very strongly that he wasn't ready for it. He didn't respect my opinion but I thought he would be making a big mistake.

I left the centre after 18 months because I was sick of it. The talks that I had initially enjoyed seemed boring. I had been teaching evening classes in Hereford, Cheltenham and Worcester and had got tired of it. It felt more like a chore, like work. I felt that I had grown old before my time. I suddenly felt the need to go mad and crazy, be young for a while.

Coming home was not really that difficult. I had often come home for weekends while at the centre, so it wasn't a culture shock. I got a summer job collecting recycled waste for the local council. It was good to do something physical and to rest my mind.

Now that I am a student I am a lazy Buddhist. I drink alcohol and eat meat which I didn't do before. I want to be in a band. In a practical sense I feel distant from the Dharma centre, but not from Buddhism itself. I will always have a very strong connection to it and I still meditate occasionally. Rather than go to talks four times a week, I feel that it has become more personal to me.

I think I would like to return to the centre one day. I would not rule out getting ordained myself. It would mean a lot of sacrifices but Buddhism is something that is fundamentally important to me. I think that Mum would understand. She has written about Buddhism in one of her books, Wild Designs, and she leads a Buddhist life now. She is an incredibly compassionate and kind person.

's latest novel `Life Skills' is published by Century on 6 May

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