issue 17 winter 01
15 | 16 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | current

Mutual Spark

From college days to the Indian plains, Padmaprabha and Taraka's lives have interwoven for 17 years. They tell Vajrasara how their friendship has been forged on a love of the Truth.


'We met in 1984 in our first term at Bristol University. Taraka (or Caroline as she was then) was very shy and avoided the initial rush to find friends. So our first contact came a little later when this mysterious woman from our corridor asked if she could come down to supper with Vassika and I. It was a brave step by Taraka, and it was the start of us all making friends.

That first year I contacted the Buddhist centre and Vassika, Varaghosa and I learnt to meditate. Taraka was more reticent; she took up meditation the following year. Once she did get involved, however, she had a strong and rapid response to Buddhism. In our third year the two of us became much closer through living together. And during our finals Taraka, Vassika and I hatched a plan to go to India.

The trip was to be a pilgrimage to the holy sights and to meet some Indian Buddhists. It lasted four months but it was like four years' worth of life experience. It was a formative time, being in a different culture, meeting new situations and coming up against each other. We were young, quite naive and idealistic. It was intense and testing in its mix of happiness, sadness, shock and excitement. But it bonded our friendship. We struggled with self doubt in our Dharma practice; we also had times of great faith. Taraka became especially inspired and in Sarnath she asked for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order.

By encountering the Dharma as students, we didn't have much of a wild youth. So our friendship has been about moving towards something higher. Taraka is so naturally positive I can't imagine it being based on anything else. I feel fortunate to have such a positive relationship; it certainly has a special spark.

After India Vassika, Taraka and I lived together again in Bristol for the next couple of years (until I decided to try living alone). Things changed when Taraka moved to London to train as an osteopath and for the first time in five years we didn't live in the same city. Taraka grew a lot and in some ways we became more separate; we had to find new ways of coming together, geographically and emotionally. This has happened repeatedly in our 17 years of friendship, and I've learnt to have patience with those unsettling phases. When I moved to Brighton in 1990 and began training as a clinical psychologist, it was easier to meet regularly. We were both engaged with our courses and I had a sense of our lives running in parallel; we were developing ourselves professionally as well as personally.

We were also both working towards ordination. Then Taraka quickly deepened her commitment and felt ready to be ordained. However I struggled to understand what was happening for her. She was ordained not long afterwards, in November 92. I was a bit fearful that she might move away from me, but I was also pleased for her, so it didn't divide us. And I meditated all night to mark the evening she was ordained.

Taraka has always related to the best in me, as if she's drawing me on. Especially since that point, when her commitment to the Dharma really matured, she has shown she can fully share herself with me. During the three years between her ordination and mine, Taraka was a vital friend. She had confidence in my commitment. And a key factor in feeling ready to be ordained was having someone who knew me so thoroughly, and had faith in me - even though I wasn't communicating my confidence more widely. It was so precious that she stood by me during that confusing process.

Through this friendship I've learnt that people develop in different ways and at different rates. At the outset I got involved more quickly, then we were very much peers exploring the spiritual life together. These days I believe she has a very deep Dharma practice and she draws me on a lot. And I give a great deal to her, too. We cannot fix who is wiser or more mature. It's too fluid - it can change within a conversation.

But I do feel Taraka has deeper experience than me: that's why I asked her to be my kalyana mitra (spiritual friend), which we formalised in 1997. After so many years she has a perspective on me that counts for a great deal. The ceremony ritualised what already existed - our love and commitment to each other.

In 1996 Taraka said she was thinking of working for the Dharma in India. I was shocked, and remember saying I felt heartbroken that she'd be so far away. The next shock was that I was asked to go too. It promised to fulfil an ambition that one day we would live and work together. So in November 1997 Taraka and I went out for six months, with another friend Karunamaya.

Unfortunately Taraka soon became seriously sick. She went to hospital with a tropical disease then had a bad reaction to the medication. It became frightening, I thought she might die. I stayed with her in the next-door hospital bed - not that I slept, I was too aware of her pain and needed to be on hand to help, and try to communicate with the hospital staff. Taraka's grave illness made everything emotionally charged. But I knew my sole purpose was to look after her; there was something beautiful in that simplicity.

She went back to Britain to recover, and was unable to return to India. Having someone I love deeply being so at risk was hard. And for the next year I had many dreams of her dying. It was also agonising to go back to India, which I did twice more, while Taraka had a relapse in Britain. I felt reluctant to leave her (I was probably being over-responsible). It also dashed our hopes for a joint project.

Since then we've gradually been acknowledging how difficult that period was - and adjusting to its fallout. Last year Taraka moved to a retreat centre in Wales that helps to prepare women for ordination. I am now working in Brighton and living with my partner. So for the time being we're inhabiting quite different realms. It would be lovely one day to live or work together again, but we try not to speculate. We've had to laugh and warn each other to be careful what we say, as it may have consequences ...

I can only think of one argument, while living together in Bristol, when I shouted at her for not coming when her porridge was getting cold. And even that was a nonsense. We'd heard about 'fierce friendship', the idea that communication shouldn't just be 'nice', but honest and bold - and I thought I would try it out. Actually I was just being irritable under the guise of being direct! Otherwise Taraka and I haven't had rows because it's not really our style. But we've definitely had difficult situations and life choices to work through.

People often comment how happy we seem together. We certainly laugh a lot. I remember going for a meal together in a gay area of Brighton and we were obviously beaming, because one man remarked on our lovely smiles. And I think some people thought we were lovers. But there's no romantic element, just us revelling in being together. It's always a delight to see her.'


'Padmaprabha and I met at university, becoming better friends over the three years. We were both vegetarians, into yoga, members of the choir and the Amnesty International group - as well as our mutual interest in meditation and Buddhism (though I was more cautious at first). So from the start we had certain values in common.

Padmaprabha was always very kind and encouraging of my aspirations to grow. Early on I remember her going through the Puja book and explaining the meaning of ritual. After graduating we lived happily together, with our friend Vassika, in our first 'proper' Buddhist community. We were living frugally on £5 a week to save money for an Indian pilgrimage. Without her and Vassika I doubt I'd have become a Buddhist.

Our Indian trip in 1988 was significant for our friendship. By travelling and relying on each other, especially when we fell ill, we got to know each other considerably better. We also meditated, confessed and studied the Dharma together. I remember Padmaprabha was fond of stray dogs; she befriended one particularly mangy dog, which joined us when we meditated. She has a big heart. She is also skilled at creating harmony, often helping Vassika and I to understand one another.

Living together again after the pilgrimage was another bonding phase in our history: a time when Padmaprabha and I stepped up our Buddhist practice, and encouraged each other's spiritual endeavours. We tend to rub along together remarkably well, and for some reason we don't really argue. I think we tried once - but it's never felt particularly necessary. We can talk issues through and often bring a sense of humour to them. Laughter has helped us through many troubles.

I've always felt a strong thread of continuity with Padmaprabha. So when I moved to London a couple of years later it was a separation but it wasn't difficult between us. Fidelity is one of her strengths and she seldom takes things personally or feels rejected. She tends to be understanding and looking out for the other person - which makes it easy to be her friend.

For years we aspired to find a shared project, and in 1997 we both went to India to teach the Dharma. However it ended abruptly when I became seriously ill. I went to hospital in quite a state: I had running diarrhoea and was put on a drip. Padmaprabha was there night and day, patient and supportive, washing out my knickers and soothing my fears. Her loyalty touched me deeply.

It was a ghastly time. We were already very worried about two women who were missing from the local sangha (and who subsequently died). Once we were back in Britain I was acutely disappointed when it became clear that my health wasn't up to life in India. Then it was a wrench for all of us when she and Karunamaya returned to India and I remained in Britain, still unwell. I had to let go of my vision of spreading the Buddha's message in the land of its birth, with the implications of that for our friendship.

Padmaprabha and I have pledged to maintain our friendship for life. I remember once sitting on a graveyard bench vowing to share our lives more fully. But I believe there was already some kind of karmic link between us. She's so integral to my life I cannot imagine it without her. One of the highlights of our friendship was our kalyana mitra ceremony in 1997. Ritualising our commitment to each other felt significant and at the same time quite natural.

So there's certainly a strong bond - but realistically you cannot always be there, nor be everything for any friend. And we've had to explore this area. Since India we have built up quite different lifestyles. It was painful to make choices that keep us living far from each other. When I first moved to the retreat centre in Wales I really missed the intimacy I've developed with Padmaprabha. And I've struggled to accept that we're unlikely to live or work together, at least for the time being. But who knows what lies ahead?

Meanwhile we keep seeking ways of sharing our lives while allowing the other to follow her own path. We're facing the age-old challenge of how to be a good friend without holding expectations of the other. How to love someone deeply and at the same time let her go.'