The first day I entered the multi-faith monastery was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I was going to visit for the weekend with some friends. I had no idea that this is where I would end up taking my monastic vows and spending the next 11 years of my life.
It was completely dark when we arrived at the Skanda Vale monastery. Coming from the bustling metropolis of London our 5 hour car journey finally finished at the end of a long, winding mud track, somewhere deep in the Welsh countryside. We were met by a friendly and articulate monk, his bearded face beaming with delight at receiving some visitors. In the darkness it was difficult to get an idea of my surroundings. I could feel gravel beneath my feet and could just make out the dark shapes of buildings nearby. In the cold night air I could catch the fresh scents of pine forest mixed with a hint of incense, creating within me an immediate calming effect.
We followed our enthusiastic host to our accommodation which consisted of nothing more than wooden bunks in a wooden cabin… we had been told to bring our own sleeping bags. We were de-briefed on the do’s and don’ts of life in the monastery and informed that the next puja (service of worship) would be at 5:00am, and it was obligatory for all visitors to attend.
At 4:30am the next morning my alarm woke me up and I sleepily wriggled out of my sleeping bag into the cold January morning air. The heating in the chalet was a rudimentary electric fan heater that functioned with 50 pence coins, and wasn’t really very effective. After dressing rapidly to try and warm up I made my way to the puja. It was a relief to get inside the warmth of the temple. Still feeling half asleep I sat down on the floor indian-style to wait for the service to begin.
In the past I had often listened to the typical indian devotional songs that were characteristic of hindu temples. These bhajans, as they are known in Sanskrit, are simple but powerful songs to deities, and are usually accompanied by traditional indian music such as the tabla drums and harmonium. Although I knew about the type of worship that was practiced here in the multi-faith monastery, I had never heard or experienced a puja, so I was a little unsure about what to expect.
Before long someone indicated that the service was about to begin and everyone stood up. The large curtains at the front were drawn back to reveal the inner sanctuary and the monks and nuns, each standing and holding a bell.
Then the puja began. Bells rang, drums sounded, and conch shells hooted like trumpets. Strong voices chanted out loud the prayers of the different religions. In unison the monastics and devotee visitors recited the mantras of the different personalities of God, their voices lifted high in adoration, filled with power and conviction that the Divine was there, present among us. The puja resonated with the vibration of joyous worship, immediately dispelling all sleepiness. The energy rippling through the temple was so palpable one could almost reach out and touch it with the hands.
From the instant the puja began something inside me ignited, like the flick of a light switch. It took me totally by surprise. Although this was the first time in my life I had been to a puja, I immediately recognised everything. I was instantly transported into a memory of having done this before. I recognised the sounds of the conch, I recognised the mantras. I suddenly forgot who I was and what year it was. I was sucked into a timeless experience of the worship of God that had been taking place time and time again throughout the ages of the world. Time ceased to exist. Instead my spirit flowed along this energetic current of worship, weaving in and out of the mantras from different religions, courting and flirting with the different deities of the world’s spiritual traditions as they danced around me. Through the chanting these divine beings revealed their names to me… Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Krishna, Kali, Rama, Saraswati, Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, Guru Nanak, Francis of Assisi, Clare of Assisi, Mahavira. I could feel their presence, could feel their touch as they confidently led me in their dance. I could sense their eyes looking into mine with with such a joy as if to say “finally you’ve come back home to us, finally you’re back, oh how we’ve missed you!”.
So… I guess I was home.
Coming up next:
Before I started my life as a monk I spent years struggling with meditation. In the monastery I discovered how to quickly slip into a natural state of spiritual consciousness without the mental effort needed with meditation. Here I will share with you the basic elements of this process which anyone can adapt to their own life.