I first met John after struggling through a Welsh winter’s night in search of his retreat centre in the Welsh hills called the Maenllwyd. When I eventually found the door, it opened into a candle lit room, full of dark shapes, slurping tea around an open fire; there was expectancy in the air. When we had all arrived John opened the retreat in what I was to learn was the same manner every time, with a question, “why have you come?”
This began a week of very intensive practice, early morning exercises in the yard, lots of sitting, the beauty of light cast only by oil lamps, candles and the occasional sunbeam, and in the midst of it all was John, steering the ship firmly, kindly and often with humour. At certain points in the retreats John would take great delight in telling certain jokes, the same ones over and over again, they would seem as funny each time as the first, I guess it’s the way you tell them.
I sat many retreats with John over the years and had the honour of guestmastering with him several times, training for which enabled me to sit in on interviews he gave. These were such intimate encounters, John was a master at connecting with people no matter what they were going through and then helping them to move forward if he sensed this was possible. It was a remarkable process to witness. John had such a fascination for people and our processes, a deep compassion and such skill for pointing something up which would precipitate insight for others, helping people to leave with clarity around troubling life issues.
John was a lineage holder in both the T’sao Dong ( Jap. Soto ) and the Lin Chi ( Jap. Rinzai ) lineages, passed on to him by Master Sheng Yen, who also passed away last year. John held his teacher in the highest regard, which didn’t mean that they agreed on everything. John developed and lead a retreat called the western zen retreat which combined a more western psychological approach within the framework of a traditional chan retreat. Anyone who has sat one of these with John or his other leaders knows how powerful these can be. However, John and Master Sheng Yen often discussed the wording of one of the questions. Master Sheng Yen invited John to lead this retreat with his students in New York, afterwards John was able to clarify this point in a way which has helped greatly to understand the different ways in which western and eastern students approach practice.
I am very happy to have spent time with John on retreat and also less formally. He loved to share a glass of sherry or two and talk of his experiences and also to listen to others. At his funeral, his colleagues from the scientific world shared how accomplished John was in his fields of interest, a true pioneer here as well. His family shared their memories of him as a much loved father, grandfather and brother. His funeral ceremony was beautifully lead my Reverend Master Daishin Morgan and members of the community from Throssell Hole Buddhist Priory. It was attended by monks from New York and Europe, by family, friends and students from many places.
During the ceremony John was ordained a monk, a saffron O-Kesa draped over the coffin, before his body entered the cremation. As a good friend of John’s reminded us during the service, John would often exhort us, “where is your mind?” Perhaps for those of us left with deep sadness,deep gratitude, deep love in our hearts, our question is “where are you now, John?”