Books: From Bethnal Green to Buddhahood

Jah Wobble finds two spiritual biographies have their roots in the East End
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
B oth these biographies describe the quest for (and attainment of) spiritual enlightenment. Apart from that, the only thing they have in common is a Bethnal Green connection. Tenzin Palmo (formerly Diane Perry) was born and brought up in Old Bethnal Green Road, while Bede Griffiths (formerly Alan Griffiths, 1906-1993) spent a short time there as a young man working with the poor people in the slums. He did enjoy the work but found London "intolerable". However, the fruit and vegetables displayed at the nearby street market did provide him with some solace in that they reminded him of the countryside.

Bethnal Green didn't mean very much to Diane either: she failed to find a strong connection with the people around her or the locale. Why it was this way was made clear to her years later; it was her Karma to be born (in this life) a long way from Tibet and to have to make her way back to her Guru. Anyway, while Diane may have felt somewhat disengaged from those around her, which under the circumstances is understandable, her childhood was happy and well adjusted, apart from a few out of body experiences. She loved her Mum.

Alan came from what I would call a "poor toff" background. His family was staunch Anglican. As a young boy he had a vivid spiritual experience that would stay with him for the rest of his life. On a summer evening in 1924, when still a schoolboy, he felt a sudden and profound connection to God. He went on to study Classics at Oxford but opted for a degree in English when his yearning for poetry became too strong to resist. After Oxford Alan retired to the Cotswolds with two friends , an experiment they dubbed an "Adventure in Living". They grew a bit of veg and ate duck eggs. It was quite handy that the Dad of one of his mates paid the rent. This meant that they had no worries concerning the need to work. It was modern living they couldn't abide, in fact anything associated with the Industrial Revolution. Alan and his pals had delicate and sensitive features. They displayed no interest in sports of any kind. They must have been very shy as no girls seem to have come to visit. Alan's spiritual yearnings continued.

Di also develops spiritual yearnings at a young age. Quickly deciding that the personal god of Christianity is not for her, and that Hinduism is too convoluted, she chooses the religion of the spiritual fast track - as it often seems to be perceived in the West - Buddhism. She takes a tramp steamer to Bombay and hence to Dalhousie in Northern India, the home of the Tibetan exiles. She becomes a nun and takes the name of Tenzin Palmo. After many trials and tribulations (not least with the patriarchal system inherent within Tibetan Buddhism, a system that to this day she is still trying to change) she found herself in a cave. Well, I say a cave, but actually it was a bit more than that. The local Sherpas installed a stove, provisions and a door, oh yeah and extra walls. Sounds better than most of Tower Hamlets' housing stock.

From then on, Di was celibate; she had got hold of her travelling companion on the boat from Europe, a Japanese geezer (remember this is Di's first reincarnation as a European so she still fancies Asiatic fellas). He wanted to marry her but although she liked him she loved the idea of isolation a lot more. At this point in the proceedings the only thing we (believers) can be sure about is that God/Buddha must think people who search for him/her are the funniest people of all.

After converting to Catholicism and becoming a monk, Alan (now Dom Bede) went through the standard spiritual trials and tribulations, before being ordained as a priest. He found he had real problems with Roman dogma as well as uncompromising abbots. He decided to go to India and set up a Christian ashram. During the preceding years he had read much concerning Eastern religion and philosophy, especially that of a Hindu nature, and felt that this perennial wisdom should be reconciled with the Western church. Bede essentially saw all religions as having the same underlying reality. However, he felt that you were as likely to come across ultimate reality within the union of a loving sexual relationship, or in the community, as you were in solitary meditative practice. Tenzin Palmo extols the virtues of the cave above all other practices, claiming to have become conscious of this true background reality (Shunyata as Buddhists call it) during her 12 years in the cave.

Vicki Mackenzie's book will appeal to Westerners already on Tenzin Palmo's particular path. It's written in a "my Mum's great she is" style and accepts everything at face value, which on occasion is not a bad thing to do (faith before works and all that). On the other hand, Shirley Du Boulay's effort is well researched and written, far more penetrating on the personal level than Mackenzie's. It should be of interest to theologians as well as to more well-adjusted readers. The only major surprise was that Bede, as a Catholic, should have taken so long to realise the presence of the Divine Mother.

Du Boulay's book conveys a strong sense of Bede's frailties and shortcomings, as well as his courage and conviction. The book paints a picture of a man at first callow and confused (although always opinionated) who because of and not despite the contradictions in his soul managed to grow emotionally as well as spiritually. So often in spiritual biographies, the emotions are seen as a rather bothersome and messy side issue. Personally, I believe you have to be human before you can be God. Tenzin Palmo's reply would probably be that she cut the bullshit and went straight for perfection. Remember the Tao Te Ching states: "Those that know do not speak; those that speak do not know."

'Cave in the Snow: A Western Woman's Quest for Enlightenment' by Vicki Mackenzie is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 16.99. 'Beyond the Darkness: A Biography of Bede Griffiths' by Shirley Du Boulay is published by Rider at pounds 20

'Jah Wobble presents Zi Lan Liao: The Five Tone Dragon' is out now on 30 Hertz Records