By Stephen Batchelor
Everyone who knew John Snelling through his Buddhist connections soon learned that he had leukaemia. This disease, which was diagnosed in 1975, became his inseparable companion in dukkha. Although he raged against it, countering it with cocktails of chemicals and all manner of complementary care, in the end he let it run its course. ‘I want to die organically,’ he said with a wry smile in the weeks before his death, and restricted his treatment to herbs, massage and good meat dinners. Those of us around him expected that this time too, as so often before, he would bounce back to life. In the Bristol Cancer Centre it was said of John that he didn’t just recover from his bouts of cancer, he reincarnated.
Well, this time he didn’t — at least not in this world.
Although we had corresponded for some time, I first met John in 1984 when he was General Secretary of the Buddhist Society and Editor of The Middle Way. Even then, seated in a tweed suit in his living room in Stoke Newington, he had aged beyond his years. His illness gave his life an urgency and accelerated maturity which he directed with increasing passion to those things he valued most highly. Since returning from his travels in India in 1971-2, he devoted himself to the Dharma in the broadest sense, absorbing himself in Buddhist philosophy as well as training in Zen and other forms of meditation.
Three years later, after the breakup of his second marriage and with growing alarm at what he perceived as power-struggles within the Buddhist Society, he moved to the Sharpham North Community in South Devon. Here he found a supportive collection of like-minded people, most of whom had undergone a Buddhist training but preferred to live in a non-denominational, non-monastic environment free from hierarchies and spiritual leaders.
John was particularly concerned with the tendency he observed for fresh and vital spiritual movements to ossify into rigid structures. He was at heart a liberal, perhaps even an anarchist, who despaired at times of how human beings tied themselves repeatedly into the same knots of self-imposed suffering in their otherwise good-hearted attempts to organize their lives around spiritual values. But he was far from being a naïve idealist who proclaimed such views while unaware of his own behaviour. He had the honesty to recognize that he exhibited many of the same faults he observed elsewhere.
Nor did he believe in strict moral purity as the sine qua non of spiritual integrity. He often remarked how the universe moved in mysterious ways, selecting at times apparently the most unworthy vessels through which to communicate spiritual truths. Above all the very mysteriousness of life had to be respected. For human beings to pretend to be able to organize this mystery according to their inevitably limited vision was the height of self-deception, and, as with hubris, contained the seeds of its own downfall.
John never claimed to have any answers to these perennial problems. But he was convinced that he was asking the right questions, and he spent his last years at Sharpham remorselessly pursuing them. He was never a very conventional or pious Buddhist and in Devon he led a multi-faceted life that included painting, the enjoyment of literature and music, and the cultivation of friendships with people from all walks of life. The book into which he threw his last remaining energy was a study of Buddhism in Russia, centred around the life of the Buryat-Mongol lama, Agvan Dorjiev. Although he completed the book, he was still tinkering with it a few days before he died.
In the last article to be published before his death, John explored the question: ‘Do We Need a Buddhist Church?’ The answer, in brief, was ‘no.’ He concluded: ‘I do not have a blueprint for how Buddhism could be without infrastructures and professionals. I do believe, however, that the energy presently locked up in those, once freed, could work in marvellous creative ways. We could, I believe, see Buddhism doing what it is surely meant to do: help people to come of age, able to stand on their own feet as fully mature beings. No longer would they clutch at external props and sources of direction but would instead be more self-reliant, confident in their own source of wisdom — the Buddha within. There could then be real Sangha, the friendly association of spiritual equals, rather than the divisions, dependency and exploitation that we are beginning to see more and more.’
John Snelling was the author of The Sacred Mountain (1982; revised 1990); The Buddhist Handbook (1987); The Elements of Buddhism (1990); and Agvan Dorjiev and the Saga of Buddhism in Russia (forthcoming).
Obituary by Stephen Batchelor from the May 1992 Buddhism Now.
Many thanks to Gill Farrer-Halls for the photograph of John Snelling.
John loved his hat. He also loved Mt Kailash. As a tribute to him, Brian Beresford took John’s hat to Mt Kailash and left it there.
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Categories: Biography, John Snelling, Stephen Batchelor
My name is Douglas Calvo Gainza and I live in Havana, Cuba.
Like 20 years ago I read the Handbook on Buddhism of Snelling, and since then it became an inseparable companion. Eventually, life lead me to Buddhism, but even today I reread this book and learn from it.
I had been for a long time hesitant about finding out if he had died from his leukemia. I feared to find the answer, as happens with a dear being. Finally, I took the decision and came to this website. Well, ir was to be expected… but wherever he is, and only taking into account what a single book made to me, I am quite sure that he is faring happily.
Thank you, dear John Snelling. Love to you 🙏
I was very pleased to read your comments about John Snelling.
At the time of his death, John lived in a Buddhist community just outside Totnes in Devon.
I had known John for many years before that in London, but I was also a member of that same community, so we knew each other very well.
John had had leukaemia for 16 or 17 years, and he had the knack of knowing how to deal with it himself. For instance, he would attend a hospital in London and have serious chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and would often make the decision when to leave the hospital and return to the community to continue with herbal medicines from a local practitioner. 😀 Indeed, he would pick many of the herbs himself from the fabulous walled garden which the community tended. He would also gather herbs from a nearby wood.
Winter was his ‘low’ time, so he would try to start a new writing project in the autumn. The year he died, he was too ill to start a new book.
Thank you so much. He was keen, vivacious, non-dogmatic and wise, the kind of person needed in every time of humanity. I feel like if I had known him, and perhaps we did or we will along our karmic path.
Many merits for you! 🙏
Nicely said. Would have been proud to have this fellow’s acquaintance, methinks.
One of the best.