Although an enclosed Christian contemplative monk for 21 years, my formal training in meditation was Buddhist, more specifically in the Mahayana tadition of Zen or Chan tradition. It all began with a book, when I was 23. The book was called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Tibetan Buddhist monk Chögyam Trungpa. Although I considered becoming a Buddhist monk, I eventually decided to apply to enter a Trappist monastery, Mount St. Bernard Abbey in England. I had to wait over 3 years, undergoing a full physical and psychological check-up beforehand. Even then, I nearly compromised my trial month before entering the monastery as I was working with fiery determination on the koan ‘Mu’, central to Zen training.
I duly passed the screening process and entered the culture of silence maintained in the strict monastery of Mount St. Bernard Abbey, with its community of 38 monks. I was 28 years old and maintained my meditation practice in the crossed-legged position in my cell where no one could see me. This monastery belonged to a contemplative order and as such was familiar with apophatic prayer, i.e., silent prayer non necessarily with devotional focus, much like the Eastern practice of shikantaza or Maha-Ati yoga. Although one of the monks had been on an monastic exchange to Japan, such activity was more tolerated than celebrated.
Outside regular time for contemplative prayer, there was a strict ascetic culture of silence and work in the abbey, and the food was simple. As a novice, I underwent a deeply challenging time, eventually with therapeutic support. This was when I met up again with my 'Guru': a retired British army Anglican chaplain, who the abbot had directed me to before my entrance nto the abbey and who later to become my honourary grandfather (see photo right in his younger days). I was to learn far more from him than any subsequent teacher. After all, there was a lot to work through. I was an ex-punk, in itself a very colourful (Vajrayana) experience, and used to breaking social behaviour constraints and exploring fear, both in myself and others.
After this intensive period, as a junior monk, I was obliged to transfer monasteries (unusual but permitted) and while living in this abbey in N. Ireland, a visiting Dutch abbess invited me to stay at her convent in the Netherlands. Zen was openly encouraged and practiced by the abbot and the prior in the monastery I visited from there, so I chose to transfer to a third Trappist community (Zundert, photo left). This is when my training changed gear, from private to public.
Two teachers, one guru
In the years that followed, I met 16 Zen teachers, had private interview (sanzen) with 8 of them, and studied koan with 4. Of these four, I was personal assistant to two. One for 8 years and the second for 3 years or so. The first teacher (and former abbot Jeroen Witkam, photo left) was authorized to give koan training by AMA Samy, an Indian Zen teacher of the Sanbo Kyodan school and Jesuit priest.
As well as leading the group while individuals went to see the teacher in sanzen (private interview), I myself was able to work through both the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan) and Blue Cliff Record (Hegikanroku) koan collections. In addition to the introductory koans, it amounted to about 230 koans altogether. Later I was fortunate to give my own weekend sesshins for guests specifically coming to this monastery for instruction and experience in zazen. I would receive participants in sanzen during the weekend, while my assistant took over the group in my absences from the zendo.
Around this time, as chair of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue for the Dutch-speaking region, I was privileged to take part in the 2005 Spiritual Exchange with Zen monks in Japan. Our party had a gruelling but rewarding experience in three different temples, including a week in the Gifu mountains in an ‘oni’-temple (‘devil’-temple) where the training is particularly hard.
The second teacher I was personal assistant to was the Dharma heir to Teh Cheng, otherwise known as Ashin Jinarakkhita (1923-2002, see photo right). He was an Indonesian-born Chinese who revived Buddhism in Indonesia. His teaching style included mutual enquiry and written, rather than verbal, answers to koans, a method also used for more advanced monks in Japan, in temples such as Daitokuji.
The second teacher, Prof. Ton Lathouwers (left of the two Chan monks in the photo) similarly asked for written answers to koans. I would send them to him in letters. After two years, he suggested I publish these letters as a book. As his assistant, my further duties included receiving sesshin participants in sanzen during the quarterly meditation retreats, when numbers could run up to over 100 participants. I also gave basic instruction to beginners in correct meditation posture etc.
Leaving the monastery
After leaving the Trappist Order in 2011, I slowly made my way to America to train in Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Vajrayana practice of deity yoga. This consisted of reciting 100,000 mantras over a period of three months while visualizing the deity. I was subsequently ordained on the anniversary of my monastic profession. I am now authorized to teach formless meditation in this crazy wisdom lineage.
Returning to Ireland from America, I learnt the basics of shamanic journeying from Liam Glenane and later Daan van Kampenhout when back in the Netherlands. Since then, my own spirit-guides have instructed me directly. Finally in 2018, I successfully completed training as an IEMT practitioner, adding a useful complementary skill to all the other training.
None of all this would mean much unless it had led to lasting inner peace. I have been blessed to discover all major trauma hidden in my subconscious, going back to before birth. Now that my psychological portait is complete, I can let it go, in the knowledge that I am far, far more. This knowledge is not vague: it is the mechanics of second sight and can be learned. That is what I teach.