Foolish Beings in a Beautiful Land

There is a thin pink streak of light in the eastern sky. The sun is well over the horizon and that last thread of colour tells me what a glorious sunrise I would have seen if I had been up a little earlier.

The valley is heavy with mist; a few hilltops and the tips of the tallest trees stand above the almost liquid fog.  A little closer to me the fields and gardens I can see are covered with a heavy frost. Not for the first time I can understand why C.S. Lewis and Tolkien used to come walking here.

There is something magical about a morning like this one. Looking out to this view gives me a sense of a much bigger world, a world beyond my own concerns and even a world even beyond what I can see outside. Somehow the mist which covers up what is there gives my imagination the space to image what isn’t there too.

It is me looking out into this magical scene: me with my ordinary body that aches in the cold and complains when I eat too much at Christmas, and my ordinary mind that takes selfish concerns and makes them into the whole of the world.

And I am living with ordinary people. Although we live in a space which inspires us to connect with something greater (and I am sure that tempers the selfishness) each of us carries our own concerns and dysfunctions with us.

When I first moved into a Buddhist community nearly 10 years ago I remember imagining that I could leave of all my baggage at the door. Just by stepping over the threshold I thought I could become someone new.

I have become someone new – but that process was fuelled by all of the baggage (excuse the mixed metaphor) rather than despite it.

As we move into the New Year it feels important to me to remember both halves of this picture: the beautiful magical landscape and also the ordinary human beings that live within it.

It is all too easy to forget how beautiful the world is. We create our own suffering and our selfishness bumps up against other people’s and then turns in on itself again.

It can be easy to make the same mistake in the other direction as well. To only see the ideal and become blind to the suffering of ourselves and others in case it disturbs the sense of peace we have gazing at the landscape. This is another form of selfishness, harder to see, but equally problematic as what we don’t see piles up and eventually comes tumbling down on us much more heavily than if we had paid attention to it sooner.

I will make a resolution to keep the beautiful landscape in the corner of my eye, to sometimes gaze at it with both eyes, and also to see the ordinary foolish beings (myself included) inhabiting this landscape. It is from the relationship between the two that compassion appears.

 

This post also appeared on the Amida Mandala website

the end of stress – how to relax

This morning I was supposed to be giving a talk on how to relax. I had the flowchart of the talk I had prepared earlier in the week in one hand (‘flowchart’ is the grand name I gave my few scribbles on a page) and a cup of tea in the other. I watched as the clock ticked towards ten, and waited for people to arrive.

No-one turned up.

I might have been disappointed (Why on earth wouldn’t people want to come and hear me speak?) but in fact it felt like a gift.

Satya and I have just been given a tentative moving date. In four week’s time (or perhaps five) we’ll be given the keys to our new home: Bredon House. It has been a guest house since the 1820s and is about to become a Pureland Buddhist Temple.

One of the things keeping me from relaxing recently has been the ever expanding to-do list of jobs that we need to complete before moving, and the anticipation of a continually growing to-do list when we move.

Years ago when I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance one of the few parts of the book that made sense to me was the advice that if worry about an outstanding job keeps interrupting your meditation, getting up from your cushion and completing the job might be the best course of action.

This morning, instead of giving a talk on how to relax, I decided to tackle some of the jobs on the to-do list that had been keeping me from actually feeling relaxed.

A few hours later and the garden is now ready to handover to whoever inherits this house from us, the contents of the shed are packed and ready to move, and I’ve started collecting assorted books from the corners of rooms and packing those away too.

As I closed the shed door at lunchtime one layer of worry evaporated  and I relaxed a little.

So thank you to whoever arranged the gift of a free morning.

In the talk I had planned to say how it’s taking refuge in impermanent things that keeps us from truly relaxing, and there was something of that going on in my worry about getting things ready. I had become attached to the idea of specific outcomes like keeping people happy, creating a beautiful looking space, and having a smooth transition from one place to the next without ruffling anyone’s feathers. With those expectations I was bound to become disappointed at some point, and part of me knew that – hence the worry.

If I can remember the spirit of the move instead, the compassionate impulse and the act of love, then all of those specific outcomes suddenly become less important.

The more I take refuge in what is not impermanent, the more I can step out of the cycle of attachment and disappointment.

Nonetheless, here’s to a smooth move and no ruffled feathers 😉

There is that dimension, monks, where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished unevolving, without. This, just this, is the end of stress

The Buddha, Udana 80 Tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

 

more brushes with death

Yesterday morning as I was getting into the car, a harried looking nurse ran down our garden path, opened our door and called into the house. A few moments later I heard her apologising to Satya for getting the wrong address.

By the time I had started the engine she was back in her own car and driving down the road. I passed her a little later, pulled up in front of another house.

This afternoon as I was pulling up weeds in the front garden I noticed a hearse passing. It parked up further down the street. It had stopped in the same place the nurse had stopped yesterday. Two suited men got out, with serious expressions and black ties. I watched them getting an empty stretcher out of the hearse.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that these two events are unconnected. When the hearse passed I was already thinking about tidying up the gardening tools and getting a cup of tea. I didn’t wait around to see if the two smart men brought a body back out of the house with them.

This morning Satya gave a talk on A Buddhist Approach to Following Your Dreams. She talked about which dreams come from the Ego, and which are more selfless, how we can tune into our dreams and what the risks and rewards are of following them.

In the discussion afterwards we talked about broken dreams: what is it like when you have a vision in mind and suddenly it is taken away? Sometimes we let our dreams die and sometimes we try and keep them alive beyond their natural lifespan.

A few weeks ago I thought there was a reasonable chance that the building I had begun dreaming about would be taken away from me.

The Trust that supports our Buddhist group is in the process of buying a wonderful building for Satya and me to run as a temple here in Malvern, and for a little while I thought the whole thing was at risk of falling through.

Any house purchase has a whole host of things which are outside of the control of a single person. I remember the stress of buying our current home: there were phone calls every day to make sure other people were doing the jobs they were supposed to be doing. With this deal it’s not even me buying the building I have set my heart upon; I’m even less in control.

When it looked like the deal was at risk I must have been disappointed at some level, although I think I would have appeared pretty pragmatic if you’d spoken to me at the time. I suspect I pushed all those worried feelings deep down inside somewhere. Occasionally they would slip out in a few sharp words but mostly they kept themselves pretty hidden.

It was only the great sense of relief I felt when the deal was back on that clued me in to what level of feeling I’d been keeping at bay.  It was also at that point I accepted the project was really going ahead, and not just something that I would like to happen. I began to get excited about moving and then suddenly I was surprised by grief.

After our offer was accepted on the new place, dark dreams disturbed my sleep for a couple of nights. In the wee small hours of the morning I woke up in tears.

I traced back my thoughts into my dreams and I realised that I was grieving for futures that could no longer be, now that I was committing my life to running the temple.

Theatre director Anne Bogart has said that every creative act is a violent one. Even the simple act of placing a chair in place on a stage destroys all the other possibilities for where that chair might be.

I’m not even sure what those old dreams were: the last wisps of the teenage fantasy of being a rock star, perhaps, or my dreams of going back into the theatre myself. There is still time for those things of course, but not in the magical way of my most grandiose of dreams.

Every now and again I catch myself fantasising about life in the new place. My ego works hard to create visions of being there in a way in which I can be up on a pedestal and life is easy. I try to give those dreams up as soon as I spot them.

If I didn’t want to grieve for those unlived futures I could have tried to keep the dreams alive. I could have turned them over in my mind in the quiet spaces of the day and allowed them to infect my sleep too.

Down that path leads madness: resentment of the gap between my lived life and the dream world and a lack of gratitude for the amazing dream that is being realised.

Just like our physical being, every dream has a natural lifespan.

Recently I met the death of some of my dreams, and it was good.

I don’t know who lives at the house the hearse stopped in front of this morning, but I hope that whoever lived there  lived well, I hope that those that were close to them can grieve well, and that new good dreams will flourish.

lessons from breakdancing

The bass rolled across the dance floor and into my chest. I could feel it through the floor, and the wall behind me. The dance floor was surrounded by young people.

We were at the festival of colours in Birmingham; a celebration of street art. We were in a small bar in the middle of the old Custard Factory. We had gone there expecting a beat-boxing completion, but when we squeezed through the crowd at the door we encountered an empty dance floor. On the stage behind an MC was mixing and sending out tunes. We hunkered down in one corner of the room and waited to see what was going to happen.

For the next hour or so people took it in turns to step on to the rolled out square of  vinyl  that was the dance floor and break dance. There were some stunning performances. As we sat watching I noticed that I preferred some dancers over others. I began to wonder what it was that made the difference between a good performance and a great one.

Years ago I studied performance as part of my Drama degree. One of the definitions we used then was that performance happened when someone was working on stage. What attracts an audience is seeing effort applied, particularly effort that takes the performer to their own learning edge. This is when the performance, whatever it is, comes alive.

That gave me part of the answer. All of the dancers were working hard. They were working hard physically and in some cases you could feel their mental concentration too; their focus on each of the moves individually (how to keep your balance in a float, or a flare) and even in which sequence of moves to perform.

Another part of the answer came from some of the reading I’ve been doing recently.

A couple of weeks ago I found my old copy of Robert Pirsig’s Lila on a shelf in the flat in India, covered in an inch of dust. I cleaned it up and brought it home with me. In Lila Pirsig takes his previously undefined ‘quality’ and divides it into static quality and Dynamic quality. (Pirsig always capitalised ‘Dynamic’ but not ‘static’.)

I’ve also been reading about Chaos theory recently and found some parallels there with Pirsig’s work. Systems with what Pirsig calls static quality are what chaos theory might call ordered systems, patterns which repeat and copy themselves – like certain social mores that are passed down unchanged through the generations. Dynamic quality is the value that comes from patterns on the edge of chaos: ideas or physical systems that, instead of repeating without changing, are developing in unpredictable ways – often to bring themselves into a higher value relationship with their environment.

The dancers I preferred were the ones with the most Dynamic quality.

The first break dancer was a young man in shorts and a t-shirt. He looked strong; I could see the definition of his abs and his calves, and his veins standing out as he strained in the physically difficult moves. He reminded me of the acrobats doing floor work I had seen on TV during the Olympics.  He certainly ticked the box for working hard on stage.

Despite all of this there was something missing from the dance. I didn’t realise what it was until I saw the next person enter the space and start to move.

Like George Gershwin, he had rhythm.

The first dancer hadn’t treated the music any differently to how he’d treated the walls of the bar. It was there behind the dance but he didn’t notice it or react to it. The dance and the music were separate and bound never to meet.

The second dancer was less acrobatic but the music became his partner in the dance. His moves bounced off the beat; he slid in and around the melody. It was like the MC had stepped on the floor and was dancing too.

This was the real stuff. Here was a dancer working hard and also displaying Pirsig’s Dynamic quality. When the music changed the dance changed with it.

Maybe that’s just a really long way of saying I preferred the dancer who was tuned into the music, and not just going through his best set of moves, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Or at least I think there are some lessons here for how I live my own life. Life isn’t a performance but the most exciting moments are those which include Dynamic quality – when we put ourselves in relationship to something outside ourselves and let ourselves, our performances and our projects, be changed and affected by those influences.

When we are first learning to dance, or to write poetry, or any new skill, we have to learn the static patterns first. How to hold a brush and make a stroke, how to gauge the metre of a line of verse, or to cha-cha-cha.

The kind of art and the moments in life which stop us in our tracks are those which go beyond the usual and take us to the edge of something new. They are the moments in which we dance in relationship to music that comes from somewhere other than the simple patterns we have inherited. We are inspired by a muse and use what we have learnt, those static building blocks, in the creation of something new.

Break dancing is outside of my usual culture. I don’t spend my time practicing spinning on my head or perfecting the worm. I read ‘b-boy’ competition on the events programme and was expecting beatboxers not break dancers.  I’m glad that I was surprised though – this too is Dynaimc quality at work. It took me out of my usual world, exposed me to something new, and changed me.

 

Mindfulness practice is not a magic wand

Mindfulness practice, like psychotherapy, is a long term solution. Mindfulness based programmes have been in this press a lot this year. They make great claims to solve many of the problems we face in our lives. My own mindfulness practice has given me great gifts but the journey is not always a smooth one.

The simple exercises that mindfulness practices begin with, like focussing on the breath or noticing feelings in the body, work to create space in our minds. The usual frenetic thoughts that race around quieten down and we start to experience some measure of peace.

Mindfulness practice is not the only factor in how peaceful or disturbed our minds are. Our actions affect how we feel, as do experiences that we have had but not yet come to terms with.

If we want to achieve true peace we also need to work with these aspects of our lives. From the initial spaciousness that a mindfulness practice can bring we need to reach out into the world and act in ways which benefit ourselves and others, and reach into ourselves to let go of what needs letting  go of and to accept what needs accepting.

This can be a challenging and emotional process.

Learning to take more skilful actions in the world takes us out of our comfort zone. It means building new habits and changing or giving up old ones. These old habits are often created to protect us and challenging them can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed.

The processes of accepting or letting go of old experiences can sometimes lead to feeling old unpleasant feelings that we thought we were done with.

All of these difficult, but ultimately rewarding tasks become easier with a sustained mindfulness practice. The meditations give us practice at not getting caught up in our mind’s processes; we learn to observe without being overwhelmed and to create pockets of peace that we can return to when we need a break from the more difficult work.

The habits that we need to change, and the thought patterns that we need to let go of, are those which have selfish cores. A mindfulness practice reveals that the path to real peace is through giving up conceit and allowing compassionate action to flow.

As we work though these different process the peace that we experience in our practice deepens. The difficult work of a mindfulness practice is like digging a deep well in order to get the cleanest water. We can use our practice to dig a shallow well if we want to, but the greatest rewards come after the hard work of digging more deeply.

 

Join my new mindfulness class in Malvern, or book a one to one.

brushes with death

In medieval Japan one of the main reasons for practicing Pureland Buddhism was to have a good death. When I’m writing leaflets or emails about the Pureland Buddhist group I run here in Malvern I don’t mention death at all. Most of the people who come through the door of the shrine room aren’t looking for a good death; they are looking for other things.

This morning I sent out an email advertising a new set of mindfulness meditation classes. I didn’t mention death there either.

The sales pitch for Buddhism, and for the mindfulness classes I teach, is all about a good life: slow down, create space, and find peace.

I’ve had a few encounters with death recently, one literary, one physical and another via someone else’s grief.

For the past week or so I’ve been reading Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking. It’s a beautiful little book of prose from a poet and funeral director. Some of my great uncles were in the same trade, or at least used to provide a dressed up horse and carriage for the final journey of a number of lifeless Welsh bodies, thirty or so years ago. I have often thought if I wasn’t a Buddhist priest I might have become an undertaker. Lynch writes about taking care of the dead and the grieving with a tenderness that goes beyond the merely professional.  There is something of the Bodhisattva spirit in the attention he gives to the living, in the presence of death. The Undertaking reminds me that at the end of every life comes death, and that how we treat the dead and dying is a good measure of how we treat the living.

I’m not sure we treat the dying and the dead very well at all, these days. This afternoon I watched Big Fish for the first time. At the end of the film (don’t read the next few words if you haven’t seen it yet) the son of a dying man asks his mother, “How long has he got?”

“We don’t talk about that yet.” She tells him.

A couple of days ago someone drove their car into the back of mine. Not so much impact that either of us were hurt, but enough that I suspect their car will be written off.

I was slowing down, the car in front had slowed and stopped and was turning off the road. I glanced in my rear view mirror and could see the car behind was going too fast. My first instinct was to stop braking and create more distance between me and the car behind. My second instinct was to brake again;  I didn’t want to hit the car in front. I tried to brake just enough to stop before hitting the car in front, but not so hard that the impact from behind was made worse. That whole process took less time than it has taken me to write out these few sentences.

My back is still a little sore but it is the reminder of how close death might be that leaves the deeper mark. I have been to plenty of family funerals, sometimes for people who died relativity young (I was going to write, ‘who died too young’, but death’s scythe cares less about age than we do) and as a Buddhist priest I have been called to sit with the dying in Hospital. In all of these previous encounters I never saw my own mortality reflected back at me so clearly as I do now.

Thomas Lynch writes that when he was a young man he wanted to know how long his life would be, and created a formula. If you can recognise the middle of your life, he thought, just double that and you’ll reach the end point. What are the signs of this middle part of life? Being satisfied in where you are, noticing that the mind turns back to the past as often as it turns to the future, and perhaps a new awareness of mortality. I think I can tick the first and third of those boxes at the moment; with a new project on the horizon my mind is still turning more towards the future than the past. Although Lynch’s theory has a certain poetic beauty, I am not sure that death will pay much attention to it at all.

My third recent encounter with death was in Delhi. The son of a friend there was killed recently. I only managed to get a few moments alone with the bereaved father. We hugged and in that communication I understood as much as if we’d talked for hours.

In medieval Japan the point of a good death was to ensure a good rebirth. In a culture where being born into the right family made all the difference, where only men from the right families could become monks (mistakenly thought to be a pre-requisite for enlightenment) I can understand wanting to make sure you end up in the right place next time around.

Most of the people I speak to here in the UK don’t put much stock in the idea of rebirth, but that’s no reason to throw the idea of a good death away too.

Keeping the great leveler in mind can bring a tenderness to all of our interactions. Not only because it reminds us that everyone is carrying their own griefs, but also because it reminds us that time is limited: each moment of this life is unrepeatable.  Most of the beauty we encounter in this life is like the famous cherry blossom in Kyoto: it comes and then it goes.

What lasts beyond death is the spirit of things.  Hundreds of years ago the Japanese believed that the spirit in which you lived your last few moments made a big difference to where you next life would be. Each moment we live is like this. Live well now, live with love, and where you go tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, will be led by love.

Live well now and you will head towards a good death.

I think this is a formula that works both ways. Aim for a good death, and you will live well now.

 

 

 

back home…

…and everything seems translucent.

We think of our worlds as solid, but spending a week in a completely different culture reminds me of how provisional all of this is. The things we lean on are ghosts that we take to be real.

what have I learnt in India?

It’s late, but something is keeping me awake. Could be the small can of Coca Cola that I drank earlier, with CONTAINS CAFFINE stamped on the side? It’s possible, I’ve been off caffine for long enough that a regular cup of tea gives me a sleepless night.

The Coca Cola was given to me in the house of an old friend of Sahisnu’s; Rana Gupta. Their house was above a shop and was one of the nicest that I have been into in any of my trips to Delhi. I know there are much nicer houses that this one, but I’m used to living in the slums and this felt like a place in comparison. Marble floors, the biggest TV I have seen in a long time, and wallpaper – something I’ve never seen in an Indian home before.

I’m wondering what I have learnt about myself since I have been here.

I learn about myself in specific moments. This morning I thought I was being invited to talk at a school and my first response was resentment. I had got used to the idea that my last two days would be quieter and was even looking forward to that quite space (despite being frustrated earlier this week, in the spaces where there was less to do). It didn’t take long for me to convince myself that I could enjoy giving a talk, the school was an hour away and they wanted something on basic Buddhism… I could provide that, I thought, and it would be a good thing to do, dharmic work, even if it’s not directly supporting the Amida Buddhists here.

Of course once I was looking forward to it I realised that I hadn’t been invited at all. Suvidya had simply been telling me about something he would be doing in a few week’s time, once I have gone.

These specific moments give rise to more general learning. This one takes me back to the dream I had before coming out here: let go of your expectations.

I have learnt that I only feel competent in so many ways in the UK because I am embedded in systems which I understand and which support me. Here in India freed from those systems I sometimes feel under resourced and suddenly grateful for everything that holds my competence at home.

And of course, I am reminded of how provisional the life I have is. That if a just one or two conditions had been slightly different I might be living in poverty or in a society that is organised along completely different lines and with completely different assumptions to the one I usually call home.

 

i’m not self sufficient

After a fitful night’s sleep, with a couple of trips to the fridge for ice cold water, I woke up at seven am local time. It feels hotter than yesterday. It might not be at all, it may just be that I am simply feeling it is still too warm and thinking it’s hotter than ever is one way of processing that.

In the time of the British Empire, the British would retreat to the cooler hills. I can understand the sense in that, although I think there may have been a myth around that native Delhites could withstand the heat more easily, which I don’t think is true. No one here likes it this hot either.

It’s supposed to be monsoon season, but it has only rained three times this month, and the forecast is for more dry weather.

On the theme of expectations, Suvidya is supposed to be coming over this morning. That’s a reasonably easy expectation to hold lightly, as I still have five full days here to do what I came to do, which shouldn’t take all of that time.

A more difficult expectation to let go of is that it is possible for me to be self-sufficient here, or that I should be able to, and that it’s okay to ask for help when I need it. Not wanting to ask for help does come out of wanting people to see me in a particular way – or perhaps in wanting them not to see particular parts of me at all.

This was tested this morning as I struggled to close the tap on the water filter, having filled the kettle, a water bottle and then having a jug on the floor to catch the water as I struggled to close the tap I knew it was time to ask for help. And it wasn’t a problem at all.

All the evidence is that people are happy to help and I am more than looked after, so I know my fears are to do with my own bonbu nature, rather than any reality.

Even if it does become a problem to ask for help, in other people’s eyes, I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason not to ask anyway. Part of the practice of letting go of expectations is being able to be with whatever reaction occurs…

arriving in Delhi

It’s Friday evening and I am in the first floor flat on the edge of a small town near Delhi. The flat is above the house of Prakash, one of our lay Order members, and I’m here to visit the local Amida group and give some training.

The last time I was in India was just over four years ago. I stayed for six weeks, in spring time and just as I left the temperature was tipping forty degrees. Now, at the tail end of August the temperature is the same.

I have never enjoyed pouring cool water over myself so much as I did earlier this afternoon. Within a few minutes of drying myself of I was too hot again. They say it’s the humidity that gets you and not the heat. There’s plenty of each here.

I’m immensely grateful for the cold water in the fridge just outside my door, and to Prakash, for looking after me so well.

The part of the trip I was most worried about – making sure I got here – is done, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. There was a moment, when Prakash didn’t answer his phone the first time I called, when I worried that I had somehow got hold of the wrong phone number. The driver of the taxi I had taken was anxious to leave me and get to his next job. I knew we were close to Prakash’s house. I suspected it was just a short walk away – but I wasn’t convinced I’d make it without a guide.

Prakash answered his phone and everything was fine. I probably shouldn’t have been worried though, even if he’d been unavailable for some reason most of the people here are so eager to help travellers like me that I’m sure I would have been safely delivered.

In the middle of last week, a few days before travelling, I had a powerful dream. I won’t go into the specifics here, except to say that it had a visionary quality to it and my teacher, Dharmavidya, appeared and told me to, “Let go of your expectations.”

Pertinent advice when I feel like I am reorienting my life around my ministry. I have a feeling the expectations referred to were about how I would like others to see me. That wasn’t explicit in the dream though, and letting go of expectations is good advice generally.

I was thinking about this advice yesterday. The Trust have given me some quite specific jobs to do while I am here, they are going to be financially supporting the group here more formally and have some things they’d like putting in place.

How do I let go of expectations and at the same time carry the expectations of the work I have been asked to do?

It’s about the difference between intention and expectation I think. The practice before me is to be clear about my intentions, without holding on to tightly to any specific ideas of how other people might respond to those intentions.