At an open meeting in 2010, Russel gave an account of his life and how he came to Buddhism. Someone present recorded his story as follows:
“I will tell you my story, it might be useful to you.
I was born in the military barracks behind Buckingham Palace (June 29th 1921). My father was in the army, he was a sergeant in the Coldstream Guards, got injured in the first world war, in a gas attack. An invalid, he had to leave the Army and became a steward in catering, at Northolt and Hendon at airfields for the RAF. In those days they were nothing much, just a field with a few hangars. Then we went to Coventry, and he worked for Triumph, as steward in the Social Club. After that we went to Egypt, he was working for the Naafi (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes), which started in the 20s, first in Egypt and then in Palestine, under the British Mandate at the time.
In Palestine we were going somewhere in a car, quite fast, and the door opened and I fell out. I was unharmed, not hurt at all. Another time I was in the sea and the waves swept me away but some Palestinians pulled me out and saved me from drowning.
My mother went down with consumption and was sent to a hospital in Beirut to recover. I was nine and there was all this sickness in the family and I wondered why, I felt there was something wrong, and not just for my family but for many many people. But I didn’t know why. Then my father died, and we were back in the UK and my mother had only a small pension, times were very hard. I had a brother and a sister. Then our mother died and we had no money.
My brother joined the Navy as a boy sailor, he was thirteen. It was tough, no money. I got a job on the trawlers out of Hull, and went out with them up to the Arctic Circle. Then I got a job with a Jewish tailor in London. In 1939 war broke out and I joined up. I had clothes, food, some money in my pocket. It was riches to me. There were 30 of us but only a few of us knew how to handle a rifle .
At that time the British Expeditionary Force was having a desperate time. We were set to guarding the docks. I had a weekend leave and decided to visit my mother’s sister in South London. I was crossing the bridge and saw a boat moored up, and from guarding the docks I knew boats were not supposed to be there. I asked the skipper, and he had a fuel blockage and he was fixing it and he told me they’d been commandeered to go to Chatham. Something was up. So I decided to go with him. The navy had summoned all these boats to go to Dunkirk (May/June 1940). The people said, ‘we know our own boats best so we’ll take them across ourselves’, so that was agreed and I went with them. It was a devastating experience, I was there for 3 days. I won’t say more than that. When I got back I was Absent without Leave but the Navy had written me a letter so it was alright.
I was still in London and the Blitz was going on (September 1940 – May 1941) and then finally I was sent to Chester for some military training. I’d been in the army over a year by then. After that I was posted to Northern Ireland, Port Stewart, for more training and to meet the first American troops arriving in Europe (January 1942), and we all thought how green and inexperienced with firearms they were. One day I was injured. A Browning machine gun was mounted on a vehicle and it came off as it went round a corner and I was on the roadside and the gun hit me and injured my shoulder and I was invalided out of the army.
I was trained as an electrician and went working on airfields in the South of England with fighters and short range bombers, Mitchells. (B25 Mitchells entered active RAF service on on lend lease in 1942/43). I was on duty at midnight on D Day and all the bases were sealed for 3 days, no civilians in or out, I was trapped there.
I had occasion to go into an electrical substation and I touched a live cable, 33000 volts. My last thought, as calm as anything, was ‘I’ve had it’. I then realized I was out of my body and there appeared to be a light up there somewhere and it was friendly and it became known somehow I had to come back to do a job and there was some urgency. I realized it was a choice: to go on and be reborn or to go back and get that body going. So I came back and it was the hardest thing I ever did to get that body off that cable. My clothes and boots were badly burned but I was completely OK, no harm at all.
Another time, I was working on the runway fixing a night landing light. They would fit extra bombs to the bombers, under the wings, and one of the planes was coming in I could see it was bad, and the bombs under the wings had gone. When it touched down the bomb bay opened and 4 bombs dropped down and went off. I was very close and the blast blew me up in the air and outwards, but I was OK. There were no survivors from the plane.
So it went on in this fashion and the war ended and I had planned to start an electrical business with a friend but I was worn down and exhausted. I was a wreck. I just wanted to get away.
So I tramped and eventually I found myself one morning in Devon, Yeovilton Moor, broke, and there was this old chap and his wife with a fairground van and he had a pot of tea and he said, ’would you like one of these?’, and of course I did, and he said ‘when did you last eat’ and I told him it was a couple of days and they gave me some breakfast. He asked me if I wanted a job working with animals. There were some people in Newquay and if I could get there by the following morning there was a job with them and he gave me half a crown. Well somehow I got to Newquay, (130 miles) and there was this family and they had 4 horses, and with their kids they made a little show, riding and acrobatics. Quite nice it was too.
They were just leaving, so they put me on a horse, and I had never been on a horse before in my life, and by the time we got where we were going I was asleep. Anyway I stayed with them and we did the whole season and we finished up in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. It was time to put the horses into winter quarters and he was going to get a horse box and he said ‘what are we going to do with you because I can’t pay you through the winter.’ Well I knew that. So he got me fixed up with one of his pals working in the halls. Dropped me off in a town, can’t remember the name of it, has a crooked spire. (Chesterfield).
So I worked through the winter with Johnny and Jimmy Kay, in the Halls and at the end of winter we finished up in winter quarters in Braintree, in a hangar, and the Chipperfields were in the hangar next door. I started work with a new show and they had a good trainer but they needed someone to look after the horses and after that I was with the horses non stop for 3 years, lived with them, ate with them, slept with them.
Another time we were in winter quarters at Flamborough Head and me and another chap lowered a rope down the cliff and went down collecting shellfish to eat. A thunderstorm blew up and it was raining and crashing and banging, thunder and lightening. My friend went up the rope first and I followed and on the clifftop I was struck by lightning. A blue flash went right down me through all the water running down me in the rain. I was amazed to find I was completely unharmed, then a few paces further on I was struck again.
I was living with the horses 24 hours a day seven days a week and I wanted to do my best for them, so I decided to observe them without preconceptions and not to speculate. What is the nature of horse? After 3 months I found I had stopped thinking, no thoughts. I was concentrated on horses for 3 years. One morning I woke up and looked across at the horses, no glasses on, and I wasn’t used to seeing them that way. Steam was coming from the nostrils of the horse and in that moment I was gone, I was looking through his mind, through his eyes. I knew its nature, its sensations. When I turned to look at this (self), there was nobody there. Strange. Nobody there, but comfortable none the less. Then the show disbanded, they were going back to Ireland to start a new show.
I knew something wonderful had happened. There was a great clarity of mind. I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew it wasn’t normal in ordinary life. I tried asking round Churches and speaking to vicars and so forth but none of them had a clue what I was talking about. There was nobody I could share this with. After a while I began to doubt what was happening to me. I was in turmoil. One day I asked for help, inwardly, and I received help, this man appeared and immediately there was profound peace and comfort which lasted for 3 days. I had no idea who this man was until years later I saw a picture of Ramana Maharshi. (Tamil Saint 1879 – 1950).
I ended up back in London and I was working as an attendant in the baths in Islington. One day I had finished work and it was raining, thunder and lightning, it was really pouring down, and I went back to my digs, an attic bedsit in Finsbury Park, and I bought an evening paper, which was something I didn’t normally do, and was looking through the ads, pages full, and there was a talk at a Church Hall in Highgate about Spiritual Healing. It was raining hard but I went, and there was a dozen or so people and a chap at the front with his charts and diagrams and there was a chap at the back making notes. I thought ‘this is a waste of time’. When the chap finished the chap at the back stood up and gave him such a dressing down, tore a strip off him, worse than you hear on the parade ground, and when he’d finished he turned to me and said ‘I suppose you are the chap I’ve come here to meet’.
He was John Gary, some of you have met him I think. He was one of the founder members here (Manchester Buddhist Society). We went for a coffee and talked for the rest of the evening . We discovered we had a lot in common and we were living in each others pockets for 6 months or so, so to speak.
He lived in a basement flat in Brixton. One day he said there is someone I want you to meet, Connie Waterton. She was born in this house (3 Grosvenor Square, Sale, Manchester). She had been visiting on the south coast and she was on her way back and staying over night, on the top floor, in the house where John had his basement flat. So she came down and we talked all night and in the morning we saw her off at the railway station.
Connie invited me up to Manchester and said I could stay at her place. So a month later I went up there intending to stay for a few days and I never left. I arrived in Manchester on New Years Eve 1957.
Cyril Bartlett was the President here, as you’ll see from the plaque there on the wall. They had started the society in 1951 and sent one of their number over to Thailand to train as a monk (William Purfurst, ordained as Kapilavaddho by Luang Pu Sodh Candasaro, abbot of Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen) and he sent back teachings and tape recordings. A remarkably good job he did for them too, I will give him that. We confirmed one another. I hadn’t clue about Buddhism and they asked me questions and it all tied up with what they had learned. So I confirmed them and they confirmed me you see.
It was only recently, reflecting on it, I realized what an intense experience it had been those 3 years living with the animals, giving them full attention all my waking hours. I had nothing to live for, I loved the horses. I didn’t know it was meditation, for 3 years. But if I could do it in 3 years, why not do it in short bursts over 20 years. Bring this love and warmth into yourself. I was 29 when it happened.
Today I’m not happy about these long periods of meditation, at most it should be half an hour to an hour. Endeavor to achieve what you are aiming for in 15 minutes, once you know what it is you are dealing with, say 4 times a day, spread out, achieve continuity, spread out, it’s more beneficial. You can always pinch 10 or 15 minutes. Do it anywhere, the toilet. Do it gently and easily. The nurturing aspect goes along with it, otherwise there is too much tension. You don’t need to learn Buddhism, Christianity or anything else, just get your heart set in the right way.”
A fuller account of Russel’s story can be found in ‘Not I, Not Other Than I’ :The Life and Teachings of Russel Williams: edited by Steve Taylor