John Hurrell Crook (1930-2011) was a remarkable man with a remarkable mind. His journeys spanned over sixty years and took him to The New Forest, Hong Kong, East Africa, Ethiopia, The Seychelles, India, Ladakh, Tibet, Japan, China, Taiwan, even Antarctica: always returning to various homes in Southampton, Bristol, Mendip and Wales. He was not unlike a migrant bird making pilgrimages to sacred sites and in later years became a wise old owl who loved solitude and imparting nuggets of Buddhist wisdom.
His academic life as a biologist, zoologist and pioneering ethologist was very wide ranging. His areas of interest spread from a study of gulls when an undergraduate student at Southampton University to weaver birds whilst at Cambridge and then Gelada Baboons. John was a brilliant research scientist and adept at gathering field data. His ideas were often at the forefront of crucial debates in animal behaviour. In India John was very lucky to have worked with the great ornithologist Salim Ali and it was John's very patient study of weaver birds and their intricate nests which showed how the availability of food resources directly influenced mating behaviour. Within the world of ethology this provided pioneer scientific evidence that the natural environment directly influenced social behaviour. A key factor which John later used to great advantage in when researching polyandry and marriage patterns in Ladakh.
As an academic John was for many years a highly respected Reader at Bristol University where his fledgling department was perched in the upper stories and attics of the Department of Psychology in Berkeley Square, which was itself very close to 'There and Back again Lane'. A joke which never ceased to amuse him. John soon became a major figure in British primatology and socio-ecology. He worked with some excellent research students several of whom are now eminent professors: Robin Dunbar at Oxford, Richard Wrangham at Harvard and Martin Daly at McMaster, Ontario. Others like Pelham Aldridge Blake worked for the BBC Natural History Unit and then there was Salim Ali's nephew, Rauf Ali who now works in Pondicherry. John also examined a fine crop of postgraduate students including Sir John Krebs. Other academics like David Fontana and Sue Blackmore came to know of his psychology work through the Buddhist retreats he used to run in Wales. One of John's ground breaking books was 'The Evolution of Human Consciousness' published in 1980.
And yet all the time he was an academic, John was also writing poetry, which for a hardened scientist was unusual, to say the least. The clue was perhaps in his birdwatching. As a schoolboy, with one or two others, he once crept into the grounds of Sherborne Castle armed with a pair of binoculars and carrying a note book. He started logging down various species of wildfowl around the extensive fifty acre lake which had originally been built by Capability Brown. But the boys were themselves spotted trespassing and when approached by the gamekeeper the others ran away but John held his ground and was taken to the great house to meet the owner to explain himself. Far from reprimanding him, Simon Wingfield Digby was very keen to see what John had written down in his note book. He was invited into the Castle for tea and thereafter John was given permission to visit the lake whenever he wanted. A fine start to a career in bird watching. Appropriately John's first poem is called Sherborne Lake - 'murmuration in the reeds'.
Add to this the tail end of the Korean war when John was drafted into the army for National Service as a subaltern in the Royal Artillery. He was sent on a troopship to Hong Kong and as he sailed through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean he read a book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys. This was all before going to Cambridge, so John's eyes and ears were awakened not only to the colours of the east but to the dulcet tones of the men in his battery who were mostly hard drinking Geordies from Tyneside. A distinct contrast to his southern roots, but they loved him dearly. He had responsibilities for the air defence of Hong Kong and his guns were aided by primitive radar tracking equipment. Given that China had just fought a major war in Korea against the United Nations, and that their Mig 15 fighters could zip in and out at 650 mph, Hong Kong was particularly vulnerable. But John loved it at Nam Long Shan, alias Brickhill, his spartan hilltop eyrie overlooking the harbour. His time spent calibrating radar and anti-aircraft guns was interspersed with the odd night out in the fleshpots of Macao.
It was in Hong Kong that John first encountered Zen or Ch'an Buddhism. It was here also that he met his lifelong friend Yiu Yan Nang. Here John also met his first Zen teacher, a layman called Yen Shiliang who had trained with the famous Venerable Master Hsu Yun, who reputedly lived till he was 119 years old and only died in 1959. The visits to the weekly discussion group and teachings given by Mr Yen were crucial in introducing John to the wisdom of Ch'an. As a twenty three year old army officer John was distinctly unusual, but he loved army life and would have made a good Brigadier. He visited many old monasteries and observed the monks chanting and meditating. Trips to Lantao Island, Po Lin monastery and Castle Peak were particularly memorable. In later years when John re-visited his first teacher and found him dying in hospital, John asked him about western psychology and therapy. His teacher, who was lying down, raised himself up on one elbow, looked John straight in the eye, and said "Dr Crook, Zen is total therapy."
John then came across eastern thought again when attending talks by Krishnamurti in Poona. John also explored other forms of Buddhism notably Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen. The former at Throssel Hole Monastery in Northumberland under the guidance of Roshi Jiyu Kennet. Soto 'Farmer' Zen and Rinzai 'Warrior' Zen, both of which use Zazen, Shikantaza and Koan as aids to enlightenment. John then moved across to main stream Tibetan Buddhism and studied with several well known teachers: Chogyam Trungpa at Samye Ling at Eskdalemuir in Scotland, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Geshe Damcho at Lam Rim in Wales, taking initiations from them where appropriate.
In 1976 John came face to face with the Tibetan culture in the raw when he visited Zangskar, Ladakh and then Tibet itself, not just as an academic, but as a 'nangpa': an insider. This word is perhaps crucial to understanding John and his later poetry, for an 'insider' is as Sogyal Rimpoche puts it: 'someone who seeks the truth not outside, but within the nature of mind. All the teachings and training in Buddhism are aimed at that one single point: to look into the nature of mind, and so free us from the fear of death and help us realize the truth of life.'
Interestingly in Ladakhi 'nangpa' also means bar headed goose, anser indicus, a remarkable bird that migrates across the Himalayas twice a year and in summer is found breeding on the shores of remote lakes in Ladakh and Western Tibet. I remember seeing them with John on Tso Moriri. On the same trip we spotted black neck cranes and a herd of skiang wild donkeys, as well as a full blown monastic festival at 15,000 ft. The ritual, philosophy and meditational techniques preserved in Tibetan and Ladakhi monasteries were very close to John's heart. The great tome on Zangskari life, called 'Himalayan Buddhist Villages' was edited by John with the indefatigable geographer, farmer and climber Henry Osmaston whose heart was not so much with monasteries and monks but with mountains, forests, fields, crop yields and yak breeding. Added to all this was John's deep interest in meditation, encounter groups and inter-personal psychology. His retreats in Wales at Maenllwyd were legendary. I went on many of the earlier ones, tackling koans or seemingly unanswerable Zen questions such as 'What is the meaning of life?' 'Who are you?' 'What is death?' 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' 'What is Fear?' 'What is love?' 'Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?'
Combine this with Tibetan ritual, Zen meditation and Chinese Buddhism and you have very powerful cocktail. John ran these retreats for over 30 years and they were of great benefit to many people who were disillusioned with the West, its material values and its handful of diverse and prescriptive Christian religions. Yet John also had the ear of Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. No doubt they talked about meditation, Welsh Mysticism and the 'Cloud of Unknowing'. More importantly John was also the Dharma heir of Venerable Ch'an Master Shen Yeng, a Taiwanese who had fled from the Chinese mainland in 1949. The Western Chan Fellowship was set up in 1997 and is still going strong today, running retreats and printing articles and newsletters.
John was also no stranger to the BBC and did broadcasts mainly for Radio 4 including one programme on the oracles of Mattro where two monks in trance are possessed by spirits from ancient Tibet. John wrote many books including one on the 'Yogins of Ladakh' which he co-authored with James Low. His last book called 'World Crisis and Buddhist Humanism' takes up Niko Tinbergen's 'doubt' and looks at consciousness, society and the end game of Civilisation.
John's legacy is very great and yet to find the man behind the words, there is no better way than to explore his poetry, which in a very real sense provides us with a slim line autobiography at various key stages in his life. His poems will also be of great interest to those who may have only known John as an academic or lecturer. The Buddhist and the Welsh poems are perhaps John's finest poems.
John also led Buddhist travel groups to India, Ladakh, Tibet and China. I was very fortunate to have accompanied him as Number 2 on about half a dozen of them including the famous trip to Ladakh in 1990 which included the actor and comedian John Cleese as well as his psychiatrist and friend Robin Skynner and both their partners. John Cleese and Robin had just written 'Families and How to Survive Them'.
And talking of families, John's father helped run a family business Lankester and Crook which ran many stores selling groceries, wines and spirits in Southampton. John's mother died when she was in her nineties, a small sprightly, intelligent woman. John's sister Elisabeth, known as Betoula, had worked as a nurse in Dharamsala with Tibetan refugees when they first came out of Tibet in the 1959. She had also worked in a leper colony so she had seen real suffering at first hand.
As a family man John was for many years married to Eirine, a Greek lady whom he had met at Cambridge and she became a well known translator. They had two children: Tanya and Stamati. In 1969 John and Eirine spent a year at Stanford in California. Here John encountered dynamic psychology as well as Encounter groups. This changed John's outlook on life and it was after this experience that he and Eirine decided to go their separate ways. They divorced a year or two later.
Delving into Buddhism with John at his beloved hill farm Maenllwyd with sheep and oil lamps was never dull and often had some very interesting side effects. His mind was always enquiring, ready to observe, listen and debate. John was always ready to question everything. In the beginning of an essay in his book 'Space in Mind', John says simply this
"I awoke this morning with a question. What is the use of knowledge?"
Other Buddhist orientated trips followed to Sikkim, Bodh Gaya, Arunachal Pradesh and many other important Buddhist sites in Central India, as well as Western Tibet and mainland China.
As far as the poetry is concerned John often wrote when he was alone, though we did write and perform one long joint poem for two voices which we wrote together in Zangskar. There was also a memorable meeting in Phuktal monastery with an old monk, Yeshe Monlam who had studied for many years in Tibet. These direct links with hard core Buddhists were very important to John and he saw the transmission of eastern thought, wisdom and practice to the west as a key part of his teaching.
At times in his poetry there is darkness and despair at the human world of warfare and strife but there are also many places where John's deep love of Wales, his humour, wisdom and humanity shine through. He often manages to convey in just a few words certain underlying truths about the human condition and his response to it. John was often saying "Where is your Mind?" At least here with his poetry we have at certain times an accurate map of where his mind was at. Or as they say in Devon 'Where are you to?'
Layman John was a fine Zen teacher and his poetry allows us to savour his sharp insights into human nature. Some lines in his poems like 'a murmuration in the reeds' have a real Zen flavour. When I think of John certain phrases which from his retreats also spring to mind: 'Form and Emptiness', 'There is no Time', 'What is Memory?', 'Who are you when you are completely alone?', 'What is the meaning of life?'
His poem 'Letting Go' is a Buddhist masterpiece which I will always treasure. "When you let go of God and Everything- You find yourself" "When you let go of yourself- You see the Nature"
James Crowden February 2015