Dedicated Buddhist's life as a modern day “Lawrence of
The life and times of Sean Jones...
In March 1959, Sean Jones, then a fourteen year old schoolboy read in his local paper how the Dalai Lama, by riding over the snowy Himalayas from Tibet to India, had escaped the clutches of the invading Chinese communist army. A little later, his friend Kevin Rigby lent him a book on Zen Buddhism, which he devoured. Next, he was fascinated to read an old account of fearless Afghan tribesmen defeating the armies of the British Raj in the Khyber Pass. These three events made an indelible impression and subtly influenced how this boy’s future life played out.
By pure chance, by 1968 he ended up living on that same Afghan-Pakistan frontier for a dozen years and became a kind of modern-day ‘Lawrence of Pushtoonistan, whilst also meeting that same Dalai Lama and developing a lifelong personal friendship with him – and becoming a committed Buddhist. And that was just the beginning, his formative years, for Sean feels his life only began to have real meaning when he returned to the west in the 1980s, became a successful businessman and was able to do something useful to help change the world. Yet throughout this unbelievable mixture of lives he’s lived Sean’s always stayed true to his roots as a down-to-earth, northern English ‘bloke’.
This is the unusual story of a deeply enigmatic man, who as a teenager also enjoyed the prestige of knowing the still un-famous Beatles from nearby Liverpool who played gigs at his brother’s tiny cellar beat-club The Catacoombs, in Preston, in 1962. The way he tells it is a gem: “on Saturday they’d play 4 two-hour sets, starting at midnight, for a fee of £8. I’d run the cloakroom, and there’d be less than 100 people in. Then on Sunday morning John Lennon and Paul McCartney would come round to my mate Miffy’s house to jam on his mum’s old out-of-tune piano and drink mugs of tea. They called him “Letters Smith” because he wrote to the musical press to praise the Beatles when they were unknown outside Liverpool. On 5 October 1962, the day they released their very first single, ‘Love me Do’, my brother hired the Beatles to play at Preston Town Hall and my mum was making the tea. I never saw them again.”
By 1965 Sean quit his trainee accountant’s job to go ‘on the road’. Inspired by Kerouac, the beatnik ideal and the same Kevin Rigby who had given him the book on Zen he set off hitchhiking to India. Beaten back by winter weather in Eastern Europe, when Spring came he set off again together with Kevin. They had £5 between them to get to India and slept in world war 1 sleeping bags under hedges, trees and bridges. Separated from Kevin near Salzburg, Austria, Sean lost his passport, was jailed for illegal entry and repatriated for having insufficient funds. Kevin evaded arrest and continued, barefoot with just his passport and a pair of jeans and actually made it to India via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was third time lucky for Sean when in the summer of 1967 he finally made it, hitchhiking, arriving in Rishikesh on the Ganges well before the Beatles got there and before the word “hippie” was invented.
Six months after the Salzburg incident he literally bumped into his travelling buddy Kevin again in the middle of a large crowd back in central Teheran. They resumed their trip to India together from there, by foot and without money.
For a year Sean lived in India more or less as a beggar, travelling by train and by foot, exploring Himalayan valleys and studying yoga with holy men. Then in 1968 to escape the burgeoning Indian “hippie scene” he left India for the Pakistani hills and was lucky to be offered an expat office job there by an Italian contractor building the world’s biggest dam, across the Indus River. Until 1972 this was his base for further travels to the Far Fast and Russia, including a 1970 trip through China’s Cultural Revolution.
In 1972 he quit this job and resumed his travels between India and Europe - this time by car. In Afghanistan, with Kevin and other friends he bought a string of Buzkashi horses for cross-country trekking. Taking these horses over the border to Pakistan they were captured by Afridi bandits in the tribal area. They talked their way out (see Sean’s blog of this amazing story) and rode on up to Swat Valley in North Pakistan, which happens to be the birthplace of Guru Rinpoche (Skt: Padmasambhava), the 8th century Indian sage who introduced Buddhism to Tibet.
Sean ‘settled down’ in Swat for the next few years. He built a house and stables there, often travelling by horse up into the mountains, the Karakorums and the Hindu Kush in the summer and down into the plains and to Waziristan in the winter. Kevin returned to India and become a Buddhist monk in Dharamsala. When Sean visited him there in 1975 he met the Dalai Lama for the first time, took Buddhist teachings with Tibetan Lamas and formally became a Buddhist.
Two years later however, he made a foolhardy and ill-conceived attempt to carry hash from Afghanistan to Europe by road. He undertook this on a very positive I Ching reading predicting that, despite an “immediate disaster”, this kamikaze scam would lead, ultimately, to “great success”. He mused “if I believe in this, then I have to go”. He was duly busted the first border, entering Iran and given a 44-year jail sentence. However, that was the beginning of a whole new life for Sean.
He tells how Buddhist friends in India arranged rituals invoking wrathful spirits to free him, and how, simultaneously, ‘coincidentally’, a popular Iranian uprising against the Shah’s rule began. Meanwhile Sean took full advantage of his sentence to study, especially analytical psychology. While incarcerated in 1978 he read the entire works of C G Jung and says it was the best, most illuminating year of his life. “I had to be thrown in jail, to realise I was free” he says.
As the unrest gathered strength outside Sean egged on the Iranian prisoners to rebel and go on hunger strikes. Finally, in December, all 4,000 prisoners rose up and seized control of the jail. Sean grabbed a sheep’s carcass from the kitchen, chopped up a wooden door, tore the iron bars from his cell window and with friends enjoyed an open-air barbecue in the exercise yard. A three-week standoff ensued with 50 tanks surrounding the walls, demos, shootings, burning, daily tear gas and the gradual destruction of the prison.
He explains, “finally on 14 January 1979 I was pardoned, released and headed for Teheran on an overnight bus. Arriving next morning I found the Shah had fled into exile in Egypt the day before. I celebrated for a few days then left Iran for Turkey. Next day, Ayatollah Khomeini flew in from Paris and Iran’s Islamic revolution began in earnest. I got back to London with nothing, but on a wing and a prayer I opened a travel agency, REHO Travel, in New Oxford Street, specialising in cheap flights from the UK to Australasia.”
In accordance with the original I Ching forecast, this business flourished brilliantly and was the making of Sean’s career. REHO Travel became a legend, it was a fairytale success. By 1986 he had 40 staff, annual turnover of $15 million and branches in Australia.
In 1982 the Dalai Lama toured the UK and Sean was asked to help by loaning a company limo for the motorcade. He agreed and then was asked to drive it himself, as the great man’s personal chauffeur. It was a great success and Sean stayed as His Holiness’s driver on his regular UK visits for the next eleven years. On His Holiness next visit in 1984 they travelled all over the UK together in a silver Jaguar.
“He always sits in the front and used to chat with me as we drove around”, Sean relates. “He was fascinated that I’d lived in Muslim countries and wanted to know all about it. I think it was the first time he’d heard positive accounts about Islam and Muslims.”
“Since 1981, I’ve attended 13 of the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra initiations all over the world, from the Himalayas, Zanskar and Sikkim to Switzerland, New York and Los Angeles.”
Sean’s connection with Afghanistan was not over, however. “In 1982, soon after the Soviets invaded, I founded an agency called Frontier Media (now defunct) to facilitate a live broadcast of a battle from inside Afghanistan to RAI prime-time TV in Italy. I was helping my old friend Rafiullah Khan, an Italian Muslim who’d been with me when captured by bandits with those horses in 1973 (see my blog). We fixed microwave TV signal transmitters on mountaintops above the Khyber pass, to Pak TV which boosted it to satellite”. It was to help publicise Afghan resistance against the Soviet invaders.
“In 1983 I went inside again, undercover, with Rafiullah and the freedom fighters to film a battle at Urgun, a Soviet garrison in Paktia province. It was besieged by Mujahidin under Commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. It was one of a series of Rafiullah’s ‘docos’ for Australian TV, one of which might have inspired US Senator Charlie Wilson to send Stingers to shoot down Soviet aircraft, turning the course of that war. Unfortunately, poor Rafiullah was killed at the end of the trip, accidentally run over by a captured Soviet tank he was filming.”
A couple of years later when Tibet first opened up Jones immediately flew in as an independent tourist with his Tibetologist friend Brian Beresford. “We spent 3 months travelling, hiring an old Chinese army truck and furnishing it with armchairs and supplies. We covered 5,000 kilometres from the Changtang to Kham and from Lhasa to Kailash.” At the end since they had so many photos and so much video the local Chinese PSB, believing they were tour operators opening a new route, helped them cross the Nara-la pass into Western Nepal on horseback where they were arrested and held for a week before being allowed to proceed to Kathmandu. It was the first of many such trips to Tibet for Sean and with the resulting footage they made two video programmes published by www.meridian-trust.org/, of which Sean was a trustee, “Around Mount Kailash” and “Artistic Treasures of Western TibeT”.
Now making a fortune from his travel business, in 1987 Sean could invite the Dalai Lama to tour the UK and give teachings, but China pressured the UK government to gag him, forbidding any political statements. This prompted Sean to co-found Tibet Support Group (UK) as a political platform for Tibetans. This organisation, now called “Free Tibet” www.freetibet.org/ was then replicated by Tibet supporters networking all over the world, creating a basis for the world-wide Tibet support movement.
In 1988 Sean organised the first authorised overland tourist crossing of Eastern Tibet from Chengdu to Lhasa via Chamdo, shooting in the process another undercover video programme, “Deforestation in Eastern Tibet”. Also published by www.meridian-trust.org/, this was shown at Tibet-support gatherings all over the world.
In the 80s Sean also helped found various other NGOs, Buddhist centres and political lobbying groups, most of which have gone on to do substantial work, amongst them being: Appropriate Technology for Tibetans (now being closed down), The Network of Buddhist Organisations UK www.nbo.org.uk/, Jamyang Buddhist Centre www.jamyang.co.uk/ and Tibet Foundation www.tibet-foundation.org/.
“In 1993 the travel agency was closed down, since when I married Ariane in 1995 and have worked as a volunteer for various charities and Buddhist groups, doing things like directing and organizing, with Ariane, huge Buddhist festivals in Mongolia in 2003/04 with 100,000 people attending. We also visited to Kabul in 1999 during the Taleban rule and travelled around the country independently. It was perfectly safe, but Ariane had to put a headscarf on."
More recently Sean has gone on to new things, co-founding PACT Radio working for peace in hot areas of Afghanistan/Pakistan (www.PACTRadio.com) and Jamyang (www.JamyangStudyGroup.com), a new, model International Buddhist study group based where he has resided in the south of France since 2001, whose Patron is: His Holiness the Dalai Lama, of course – all welcome to join (free!).
For all his travelling and 'Lawrence of Arabia' lifestyle on the wild frontier, Sean Jones is a committed Buddhist and says he’s has never worked harder than in this voluntary sector since the business closed, including, he notes proudly, in his vegetable garden! With two thriving sons, a devoted wife, and memoirs in the pipeline, Sean Jones can take time to reflect on a remarkable life. To this day he keeps his house in Swat and in peaceful times still visits there annually, with his wife.
I in turn, for meeting him and having the opportunity of creating this profile in collaboration with him, feel deeply honoured and a sense of being in a remarkable presence - something akin to Antoine de Saint Exupéry¹s Little Prince a man of a legendary life with a soul at the heart of a very human matter: tolerance, freedom and the right of Being, of (i)peace through inner peace.
Arrival at Indus River dam site 1968 – Indus river in the background
No Problem! A shop in Darra, tribal area guns and dope bazaar, south of Peshawar
Sean on Savoy at Kohat Festival 1974 (see his blog)
With other Buddhist students Dharamsala 1975
Leaving the Iranian Jail
/2007 HHDL Ariane Tica