Personal Stories

A Rabbi on Holy Isle


I’m a rabbi. I have experienced hundreds of Shabbat celebrations with Jewish communities of all sorts, in synagogue,  at camp, as part of youth groups, leading youth groups, with my family.  So how did it come to be that the most unexpectedly joyful, meaningful and deeply spiritual one I ever experienced was with a Christian-born-and-raised Canadian at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center on a Scottish island

It is an amazing story.  And though I am a person of words, I am finding it hard to locate the right ones to describe how this transpired.

I write this article/journal entry sitting at the simple desk in my spartan room at the Centre for World Peace, on the Holy Isle, a mystical jut of an island just off the east coast of Arran, which itself is an island off of Scotland’s southwest coast.  This island has been considered holy for centuries. In the 6th century it was the home of a certain St. Molaise, who spent most of his time living in a small cave (which I visited) tucked into the mountainside. The entire island is about 2 miles long and a few hundred yards wide, with a camel-like set of high humps in the center with an apex of about 1200 feet—beautiful views from there. In 1992, the island was purchased by a Tibetan Buddhist organization called the Rokpa Trust. The Holy Isle Project is now directed by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, named Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, who is committed to ensuring that the island itself, and its programs and retreats, provides a sustainable environment, where individuals of the Buddhist faith, of other faiths, and of no faith, can develop and experience inner peace.  It sounds lofty.  It is.  

I arrived here by plane, then train, transferred to ferry, and finally on to a dinghy.   The travel was interrupted for a day as a result of stormy weather that made the crossing from the bay of Lamlash, on Arran, over to the Holy Isle simply impossible.  As I write this, there is no way of knowing whether weather conditions will permit me to make it back to Arran in order to take dinghy to ferry to train to plane to return to the US.  I am here for a weeklong meditation retreat, combining with elements of Qi Gong (pronounced chi-gung) practice, which is an ancient Chinese/Buddhist approach to movement and life-centering in one’s body, as well as some sessions of shiatsu. 

I chose this retreat and this island somewhat by happenstance. Having dabbled recently in meditation—exclusively in Jewish settings with Jewish teachers and Jewish fellow meditators—and having brought some of that elemental practice to my spiritual work as a rabbi, and even to members of my professional team as we try to add some mindfulness to work that can become mind-numbing, I knew I wanted to immerse in it more deeply. I happened to have this particular week free on my personal, professional and familial calendar.  Add Google to the mix and, voila, I found this meditation retreat that happened to take place over the exact right dates, and in a location whose remote-ness and promise of always-changing Scottish weather drew me in like a magnet. So much of meditation, I am learning, is an acknowledgement and embrace of the ephemeral. Life. Our thoughts and moods.  And, yes, the weather.  Recognize that thought or feeling that is in your mind right this second. Nod to it. Accept it. Look at it. It will be gone before you know it, replaced by  a renewed spiritual landscape, a new emotional sky.

I hesitated before registering.  In a lengthy email exchange with Sue Weston, the leader of this particular retreat, I inquired what it would be like for an observant Jew and rabbi to come to such a retreat. Could I yield to the spiritual and cultural norms and expectations of this location and find the space to carry out my own personal observances? She assured me that my faith, and my personal prayers, would be welcome. And also that Shabbat would be no concern.  There would be no writing or travel at the retreat, or any other activity inherently at odds with my traditional Shabbat observance.  I would easily be able to take part in the retreat’s sessions, say my Shabbat prayers, and have plenty of time to read, rest and recuperate. 

So I signed up, quite reassured, and arrived with an open heart and a sense of burgeoning awe for what I was about to experience.  Nothing prepared me for the island’s beauty. Its rawness. And the liminal feeling of crossing the bay of Lamlash to an island that, in its entirety, is dedicated to serenity, openness, love and spiritual grounding. 

The first few days of the retreat passed momentously in their own right.  The Qi Gong was, and continues to be, revelatory for me. As someone who has struggled with a gimpy lower back for years, some of the exercises and movements were reminiscent of what this osteopath or that massage therapist or this chiropractor had offered me before during previous flare-ups.  But I soon realized I was learning a spiritual choreography. An ancient, grounded body-wisdom that re-integrates the natural awareness of the body we have when we are pre-sentient babies with the actual muddled and stressed and overly cerebral body with which most of us go through our adult lives.  I loved it all instantly. 

And the initial days of meditation brought me to an inner voice and body-based tranquility that cleared mental cobwebs, awakened aches for ways of living my life that had been hovering for years but hadn’t burst to the surface, and inspired my thinking regarding how I could bring some of this work and wisdom back to my community, and my family, and link it to the Jewish faith and tradition that so suffuses our lives.  

The connections between this far-eastern spiritual body-practice and the inherited layers of Jewish living are far more intimate and shared than one might initially think when considering, for instance, how far apart the life and culture of a Tibetan monk are from those of an observant Jew.  Some overlaps and nexuses:  The first Qi Gong move we began to master is called Wild Goose. It is an elaborate and incredibly hard-to-master set of moves, breaths and intentions.  And some of it is done in sweeping arm motions around the body.  Instantly, the move felt familiar, as I realized that how I put my tallit on in the morning, wrapping the woolen cloth around my upper body in a sweeping motion before pausing for a moment of reflection and centeredness and letting it rest on my shoulders, was evocative of this Qi Gong move.  Much of Qi Gong is focused on which “leg” you are in, using the hips, sacrum and pelvis to ground yourself and toggle from right to left and back.  We took hours to master the simplest shift from one leg to the next, and I realized I was ahead of the class because my own shuckling during davvening, which I learned through osmosis rather than from any one teacher. It closely resembles this shifting, through the midsection of the body, using subtle changes in weight and posture to create a dynamic within prayer.  

And then, the bowing.  We Jews have forgotten how to bow. Admit it.  You know that I am right, even if you are fighting back when reading these words.  I watch a Muslim bow, prostrate to the ground, and I am envious.  I go the distance during the Aleynu prayer during the High Holidays, and some in the congregation behind me do the same. But it is a bit ersatz.   We are fully aware that come the end of Yom Kippur we will return to the nearly knee-less and almost certainly waist-less half-gesticulation that constitutes a bow in most Jewish communities.  But in Qi Gong you must bow.  Not to a deity. But to open up your body, activate and release your core, and find ways to pour energetic Qi to as many parts of your body as possible.  These are bows and dips which are simultaneously painful (particularly for someone as non-limber as I) and cathartic. By day three, I could go deeper and breathe into it.  And among a cadre of fellow non-retreaters, not a single one of them Jewish, doing ancient Chinese body-meditation under the auspices of a Tibetan Buddhist holy order, I remembered my Shulhan Arukh, my close reading and study of the traditional code of Jewish law from the 16th century.  I remember how much detail went in to Rabbi Yosef Caro’s explanation of how to bow during prayer in such a way such that the soft material between each vertebra is exposed to the air, curving your back all the way over.  Was he writing with a sense of body-awareness like the spiritualists from the far east?  Or was this merely his translation of talmudic texts that were focused more on obeisance, modesty and utter insignificance relative to the presence of God? I’d like to think a bit of both. By the end of the second day I made a true and binding religious vow to myself never to bow again in prayer without being fully open to the experience.  

As hours passed, I became both more open to the practices and forms I was learning for the first time, and blessings and rituals I had done thousands of time but to which I was now returning as if for the first time.  For instance, for decades I have had the personal religious practice of saying the “asher yatzar” blessing after relieving myself. It began when I was in yeshiva, with a burst of both frumkeit and awareness/gratitude. But for as long as I can remember the prayer has turned into a mumble.  Said quickly and mindlessly on the way to the next meeting or appointment.  With no connection to the very body whose functioning I was supposed to be blessing.  This week, that blessing has become a symphony to me.  Because the meditative and Qi Gong practice is so grounded in the body, I have been reawakened to this blessing’s force.  And as I curve my mouth around the words, n’kavim n’kavim, halulim halulim, naming and thanking God for our openings which stay open and our closings which stay closed, I find myself profoundly connected to my intestines, my bowel, and the very miracle of my body’s healthy functioning.  

As another example, my blessings before and after meals have been revivified.  They, too, I have been saying dutifully for decades. Dutifully, but not always soulfully. It is, admittedly, hard to sustain any spiritual or religious or relational practice at a consistently high level.  But at least for this week, my food-gratitude blessings are alive again.  Some of our meals are taken in noble silence, within which I feel the crunch of each bite, taste the kaleidoscope of each organic green and grain I am consuming, and am a witness to the activity, often so mundane in our culture (even among those who regularly say blessings) and yet so elemental to our being alive and thus worthy of our continued awe: eating.  The meals on Holy Isle are unhurried.  What is important is the food, and the company, whether being shared in conversation or in silent presence.  And because I truly am grateful for the delicious all-vegetarian (and nearly all-vegan), all-natural meals I have been served, with the ingredients nearly all home-grown and home-cultivated on this island, I am experiencing birkat hamazon (which I have been singing to myself in my head, rather than just rushing through nearly inchoate) as a digestif, both a slow eruption of gratitude and one which in some psycho-spiritual-embodied way is actually aiding my digestion and thus the very miraculous process I am blessing.  After one meal I urged myself to conjure the faces of my immediate family as I blessed them in the harahaman section.  When my children’s faces emerged in my mind’s eye, a tear fell upon my cheek. When was the last time an oft-said blessing moved me so much? When did it last move you?  What would your reaction be if someone began to cry when saying birkat hamazon at a communal Shabbat dinner at your synagogue?

But all of what I just described is a mere prelude to the true and unexpected jolt I experienced on Holy Isle.  Let me explain what happened on Shabbat. 

I had planned to mark the beginning (and end) of Shabbat as inconspicuously as possible. I did not want to invade, or proselytize. I was a guest.  My hosts were Tibetan Buddhists.  My peers came for Sue Weston’s Qi Gong and meditation, not Rabbi Kligfeld’s Lecha Dodi.  They are very fire-conscious here, and so I asked if there might be a safe place where I could kindle two lights.  Oh, and might they have some juice for a special blessing?  The on-site director of the retreat center, a humble and gracious Buddhist nun, bowed towards me with her hands clasped at her chest when I made this request.  She thanked me for the opportunity to serve my spiritual needs.  She provided me two tea-lights, each within a little glass bowl, held in place by dry rice grains.  And she procured some sweet cinnamon-pear juice that had been prepared for a previous meal.  She bowed towards me again, and not only gave me permission to use them in the main meeting place—Peace Hall—but also asked if I wouldn’t mind doing my ritual in front of the whole retreat, as well as any part-time and long-term volunteers who make up the working staff of this island.  Sue, the leader of this retreat, thought the idea was fabulous.  I was humbled.  And felt a tiny wince of shame, wondering how many Jewish institutions, and retreat centers and synagogues—including my own—would be so tolerant, and even so proactively gracious and inviting, were visiting Buddhists to request the space and accoutrements to perform their religious practice.  

And this is how it came to be that at about 8:45 on Friday night on Holy Isle, this rabbi who came to meditate as a lay-person became the local teacher and dramaturg of the Friday night seder shabbat to a group of about 50 spiritual seekers in Peace Hall. 

I was not expecting this.  And I said as much as I began to talk, having no idea what I would say. I started with a niggun: the one referred to as Neshama’s Niggun, as it is one of the most beloved of all those written by Neshama Carlebach. (Seeing as how our entire week was focused on the breath and the spirit, I thought it appropriate to offer a tune written by a Neshama.)  And then I had an outer-body experience, watching myself describe the rationale behind all of our well-known, but also well-worn, Friday night rituals.  Waving the hands towards us as the Shabbat candles are kindled, one for zachor, to remember Shabbat, and one for shamor, to observe it; welcoming, inviting and receiving blessing from the Shabbat angels who escort us from services on Friday night and who are the subject/object of Shalom Aleichem; the sweetness of the kiddush juice or wine, including why I was saying a different blessing tonight than I would be had the substance been a grape-based juice or wine rather than the delicious cinnamon-pear juice they provided me; the eshet hayil poem with which I address and praise my wife every week, and then the proffering of a blessing upon the heads of my children, taking the original place of the priests in the desert. 

As I went through this litany, there was absolute silence in the group surrounding me. Not just silence.  Reverence.  I could feel it, palpably.  And then I ended with another niggun, explaining how wordless tune has become so central to modern Jewish practice, and how essentially ecumenical such tunes are.  For, after all, what tradition owns a particularly musical note, or even a string of them? The ones we generally sing sound Jewish to us.  But they aren’t on a categorical level.  They just have ascribed Jewish flavor to us. The one with which I ended is the most recent one I learned from Netanel Goldberg, an extraordinary Israeli composer/spiritualist.

Without my asking or inviting them, this group, none of whom expected any part of this week to be an exposure to Jewish music or ritual, started singing.  Maybe because their hearts and chests and whole bodies had been so opened by meditation and Qi gong, or maybe because non-Jews are a little less reticent to sing when a rabbi starts singing in front of them than many Jews are when being introduced to—gasp!—a new tune (you know who you are…), whatever the reason, they didn’t just sing.  They became an instantaneous choir.  The acoustics in Peace Hall are fabulous. The niggun rose and fell, swelled and waned, and ended on a a thoroughly unrehearsed and yet somehow fully harmonic, chord-like coda.  I use niggun all the time in my work. In the last few years, I believe we have introduced no fewer than 50 new tunes into our musical repertoire at Temple Beth Am. I love singing with my community.  And with my colleagues.  And yet I do not remember a more heart-filling and awakened musical or spiritual moment in my life.  

The moment ended.  People started filing out of Peace Hall, as they had been told (by the nun) that I had my own personal Sabbath prayers to add on to this ritual and they didn’t want to disturb.  Some could not help themselves, and came to me to tell me what this experience was like. I promise no embellishment as I convey what some of them said to me. 

One said she will remember this moment for the rest of her life.  One told me that the last tune, in particular, had helped heal a deeply-held wound in her soul.  Then one of them pointed to a large rock on the table that held the Shabbat candles and kiddush cup and asked the significance of the stone in the Jewish ritual practice.  We all had a cathartic laugh when I told them that the rock just happened to be on the table and I had decided not to move it.  A peer in the retreat suggested I go back to my community saying that I had uncovered an ancient Scottish Jewish rite, that had every Friday night dinner begin with a large, craggy rock smack in the middle of the table.

Eventually the room emptied, and I was left to davven Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv in the waning light, and digest what had just transpired.  This particular set of prayers, which I generally loathe to say by myself, were elevated, uplifted and infused with spirit.  I sang them all out loud, to myself, in Peace Hall.  I sang so full and so loud that at times I wasn’t even sure if my voice were the one making the sound.  And I had my childhood and adolescence, and college years, and the members of both congregations I have served in my rabbinate thus far, and the voices and tunes of countless artists and composers as my minyan as I went through the liturgy.  There, in Peace Hall, on Holy Isle, on an island with Tibetan Buddhists, and a whole sea of non-Jews, I had Nava Tehila from Jerusalem with me.  And Micah Shapiro, a recent graduate of Boston Hebrew College whose tunes for Kabbalat Shabbat have become part of the Beth Am experience.  He was there, as was my partner and cantor, Rabbi Hillary Chorny, as I sang her exquisite composition to Psalm 93.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was with me as well, of course. As were the anonymous (at least to me) composers of the traditional Ashkenazi Friday night nusah.  I had feared I would be alone on this isle for Shabbat.  I have never felt so un-alone in my Jewish practice.

If that were the end of the story, dayenu. It certainly would have been enough.  But it was not. 

My mini-Shabbat service, I had learned, had quickly become the topic of conversation and curiosity and awe among this sacred community.  Throughout the rest of the evening and into the next day, I kept hearing how the experience had moved people. I heard it from people who said it to my face, one of whom said she would only come back for Sue Weston’s retreat if Jewish chanting were a formal part of it.  And I heard it from people who were just talking to one another in a different room but within my earshot, explaining that they never understood how spiritual Jewish practice could be. “Do you believe that such love and tenderness is expressed between spouses as Sabbath begins?”  “When he blessed his children, in abstentia, I thought of my own children and tears welled up. I wish we had this in our religion.”  And I also heard it from another small but important subgroup of people who happened to be with me on this island for Shabbat.  

Let me go back a bit. When I had started to sing Shalom Aleichem in Peace Hall, I swore I heard some light singing of the tune, and the words, in the background. But how could that be?  When I said the “boreh pri ha’etz” over the pear juice, I almost certainly heard an unbidden “amen,” sung in tune.  And by the time I got to the second half of the longer kiddush paragraph, I heard two distinct and clear voices joining in with “ki vanu vaharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim…”  Among the volunteers on the island and those here for just a getaway but not part of our retreat, were two Jews.  They had not previously identified themselves to me, despite my very obvious Jew-y kippah that I had been wearing all week.  But they were there.  Seeking. Searching.  Still, clearly, tune-connected to the religion and people of their origin, but on this island precisely because the Judaism they had fled had never filled their spirits adequately enough to keep them in the game, as it were. I found it a bittersweet irony that they “came out” as Jews, to me and to the rest of the group, by uttering the words of the kiddush that are some of the hardest words to say with a full and non-guilty heart when experiencing beautiful shared spirituality with non-Jews: “For God chose us, and sanctified us, among all the peoples…”  

Over the course of Shabbat, I spoke at length to these two Jews, both from Britain.  One thanked me for exposing the beauty and sweetness of Judaism in an era, and continent, of what she called rampant anti-Semitism, thus perhaps creating some subtle ambassadors as those on this retreat would go back to their homes and might speak about the nice Jew that they met and the nice rituals he led.  The other spoke about the pain of never feeling alive or soul-connected in her Jewish life and education.  She grew up in a pretty Jewish part of London.  She knew the words and the prayers. And she said hearing the kiddush was a surge of comforting nostalgia for her. But just that.  Maybe a hint of what spiritual power there could be in Judaism, but which she had never imbibed.  It was hard for her to believe that Judaism and Jewish practice, and particularly traditional Jewish observance could be non-fanatical, embodied, nourishing, intellectually honest, both particular in form and yet universal in aspiration.  Had she experienced all of that, she told me, she might never have felt the need to escape to Holy Isle. I told her that I did experience those very parts of Judaism, and try to teach, model and embody them, and I still came to Holy Isle to learn even more ways to animate the Judaism that I love so dearly, but which I know suffers through moribund stretches that call for re-awakening.

As the chatter about the Friday night experience in Peace Hall rose throughout Shabbat morning, there was a swell of curiosity and interest in more Jewish singing. What a nutty phenomenon: You had people who came to a Buddhist meditation and Qi Gong retreat for spiritual healing and centering clamoring for a Jewish rabbi to offer them more niggun sessions.  And it wasn’t taking away from the spiritual thrust of the retreat, or the place. It was purely additive.

By mid afternoon, the host Buddhist nun and Sue Weston both came to me, knowing that I would need to end my Sabbath with another short ritual later that night, and asked again whether the entire island could be invited to join.  I told them I would be honored, and asked what they thought if we met about 45 minutes before the time for Havdalah for an extended, fully ecumenical, wordless and contentless niggun circle.  Formal programming on the island ends at 8:30.  Havdalah was set for 9:45.  Meeting together in Peace Hall at 9 would not interfere with any of the retreat’s or the island’s volunteers’ normal activities. They were delighted with the idea. 

Aspects of this whole dynamic led to some moments that were both sweetly comical (sometimes to me, sometimes to others as well) and also painful (only to me).  Some examples.  I was struck by the incongruity of my finding a way to make tea on Shabbat afternoon at a Buddhist retreat center using a kli shlishi (“third vessel”), which is how many observant Jews make tea on Shabbat in such a way that does not, according to halakha/Jewish law, violate the obligation of cooking raw food.  I will always linger on the “who would have imagined it?” moment when a Buddhist nun asked whether leaning two birthday candles together would be sufficient for Havdalah.  Those were sweet.  And some painful and internally awkward moments as well.  For instance, how do I tell this loving and embracing Buddhist nun what my texts really tell me to say when she innocuously and generously asks whether she can take the extinguished tea-lights thad had served as Shabbat candles and add them to the devotional space in their Buddhist prayer room? By strange coincidence, my regular and rhythmic study of Talmud has me studying, right now, the tractate Avodah Zarah, dealing with the prohibitions of idolatry and of dealings with idolaters.  On that very day, I was studying the section that discussed how far away from idolaters’ holidays one must refrain from doing business with them, lest they use something they purchased from you in their practice or even bless you in gratitude in the name of their God(s). I do understand why the Talmud wrote those laws and restrictions. And I am not even convinced that the rabbis, if they really knew enough of Buddhist thought, would have considered practicing Buddhists to be idolaters. But that is sophistry.  At the core, I felt that my own tradition, in the midst of it being as welcomed and blessed as could be possible in another religious tradition’s holy place, was shouting out some of its xenophobia and blatant judgment of others’ religious forms.  When the nun did indeed ask me that question, I told her I would be honored. I do feel it was the right decision, even if there may be texts that question whether extinguished Shabbat candles ought to end up part of a Buddhist rite.  

And my very Shabbat prayers, which as I have said before were so awakened and alive for me, also caught me in some harsh ways.  Here I was, relishing in the rest of Shabbat, and utterly grateful for the womb of tranquility being offered to me by a community of non-Jews, hearing my mouth say these words from the Shabbat morning amidahv’lo n’atto adonai eloheynu l’goyei ha’aratzot.  “God, you did not give Shabbat to the nations of the world. Nor did our King bequeath it to idol-worshippers.  The uncircumcised will not dwell in its restful embrace.”  I believe that on some level. I believe that our Shabbat has unique qualities and characters to it. But it felt insulting, and inaccurate, to utter those words amidst a community of very holy people experiencing a very holy and restful Shabbat though they never uttered a single Hebrew prayer nor had taken upon them the yoke of the Jewish commandments. I felt guilty uttering those words just feet away from people without whose open and embracing hearts this Jew would never have experienced Shabbat’s rest this weekend.  

I said the Shabbat afternoon prayers right after a particularly meaningful meditation. My heart and soul were alive and open, and I thought of the wisdom of the Mishnah in tractate Brakhot, where it says that the early pious ones would meditate for a full hour before they would recite their prayers. (Nowadays in shuls if weekday prayer is not fully complete within an hour, someone’s job could be on the line).  I recited the Shabbat minhservice more awake to the meaning of the words than I have in a long time. That was mostly a blessing.  But it came with a wince as well, as when I uttered the self-referential words “mi k’amkha yisrael? Who is like your people Israel?” they sounded jingoistic to my ears.  What makes us so special?  And the following words in the liturgy took on a different contour than what I imagine is their original intent. “Goy ehad ba’aretz.  One nation upon the earth.”  The plain meaning is that we, Israel, are the singular nation on this planet.  This time, the words echoed for me as a prayer that, even with our disparate forms, languages, liturgies, rites and belief systems, the human community is—could be—one nation upon the earth. And religious communities could and should be leading the charge to that messianic possibility, rather than reinforcing only those boundaries that keep us separate.

If my afternoon of prayers and interactions included some internal hiccups, the end of Shabbat was all glory. All sweetness.  Some version of this experience, of course, is repeated and indulged in by Jewish communities—particularly at camp and at youth group retreats—all over the world. Who doesn’t like Havdalah?  But something made this Havdalah different than all other.  First, we sat in a circle in Peace Hall and we sang. I reinforced the two niggunim I had sung the previous night.  Then I introduced them to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s “Rova Niggun,” one of his simplest yet least-known tunes.  They picked it up in a second and the room exploded with musical meaning. After that, I taught them Zusha’s “East Shtetl Niggun.”  Google it. It is out there, and wacky, and wonderful.  I think it was this group’s favorite.  I threw in a few more before teaching them the niggun I learned for Havdalah when I was at Yeshivat Hamivtar in 1994, and have been using and teaching ever since. (If my rebbes in yeshiva knew I was teaching their tune to non-Jews at a Buddhist retreat center on Holy Isle…!?).  They mastered the tune quickly. We sang it fast and energetic, and then slow and elegiac.  I explained how the rituals, and music, of Havdalah are caught in liminality, grateful for the Shabbat we just experienced and yet sad to release our extra soul, not to meet it again until the following Shabbat. I was singing, and explaining, not to proselytize.   Or to convert.  Or to make people more religious. Or to grow my community. But just to share my love and my spirit, and the sweetness of our notes.  Maybe the very absence of pressure or missionary posturing contributed to people’s openness to the notes, and the feeling, of the entire service.  I can’t explain the exact pathways, But this Havdalah was triumphant. And transcendent.  When we ended I did the simplest thing that Jewish camp counselors and youth leaders learn: grab hands and make a circle. For some reason, this tipped this group over the top. They simple sunk in to the embodied nature of a simple grasp of the hands.  Someone started a squeeze and sent it around the room. It wasn’t me, but I felt it come my way and I sent it to the next person.  When we were done, we were breathless and breath-full at the same time.  

And as a result of this unexpected weekend, there is now a group of 45-50 people, mostly British, but some Canadian, German, Polish, Brazilian, of all ages. Of all sizes.  Some seekers. Some in pain. Some committed meditators.  Some who had never met a Jew. All of whom who now know of Shlomo Carlebach, and why we look at our fingernails during Havdalah.  A group of people who are incredibly touched that a Jewish husband turns and praises his wife when Shabbat begins, and who are humming Zusha’s East Shtetl Niggun to themselves as they go about their work on the Holy Isle.  We have a collection of folks, mostly of originally Christian heritage but now on a search for deeper peace and meaning, who, before being serendipitously cloistered on this island with a rabbi from LA had never experienced a specifically Jewish moment, who now understood something that professional Jews like myself spend their time, and careers, trying to get Jews of all ages to understand and embrace: and that is that there is tremendous organic and embodied power to Jewish forms, rituals, music and ways.  One told me she felt it to be a true privilege to hear the sounds and be witness to the rituals of the Jewish Sabbath.  They understand this organic Jewish spirit so well that they want more of it.

Not of Judaism, per se.  They don’t want bar mitzvahs and lulavs.  Rather, they want the spiritual force that gushes forth from so many of our traditions, but which have been diluted by over-intellectualization, disconnect from the body, poor education, lack of commitment and raw ennui.  How do we get our shuls, and those within them and those who would never set foot in them, to rediscover this path?  If we cannot take them all to Holy Isle, how do we bring some of what Holy Isle stands for, and enables, to our established communities?  How do we re-open Jews to the treasure of their inheritance?  How do we take seriously our role as caretakers of the tradition and refuse to permit the rabbinate and cantorate to be mostly page-calling, stage-directing and expertise-exhibiting when services are on? How do we meet the needs of those who do fill the pews and who are not necessarily interested in having their familiar Judaism be broken down so it can be re-embodied and re-spiritualized…while also meeting the needs and wishes of the Jews who will never find home and retreat in Judaism unless that very surgery takes place?  How do we serve what we sense the universe needs from our Judaism and Jewish practice? Which is introducing soulfulness and an open heart, and gratitude, and connection to our bodies and, in the safest of ways, even to others’ bodies as we continue to cherish, observe and also reawaken the unique forms that make up Jewish practice and observance.

The retreat is not yet over.  As of writing this, there will be at least two more niggun sessions.  One was requested by a few who asked, almost with temerity, whether I would be comfortable if they recorded some of these tunes so that they could bring them back to their lives and families and communities. Would I be OK?  Can you imagine it?  Church groups in Wales singing the East Shtetl niggun?  A choir director in southern England using Calrebach’s Rova niggun as a warm-up for their practice? It is too wonderful to consider.  So that recording session will take place, with a room full of singing voices and iPhones set to capture the tunes.  And Sue has formally asked me to use niggun to end the retreat itself. As someone who puts an enormous amount of time into how I begin and end sessions that I lead, I am honored and touched to think that what I brought to this experience was sufficiently powerful that Sue, a master presenter and teacher, who I am sure planned exactly how she intended to close the experience, has considered that there would be no better way to end this week together than with my leading some singing.  I plan, at that closing session, to introduce words for the first time into our group singing. Not liturgical ones. That would violate the covenant we are all sharing.  But I do think that concluding with Od yavo shalom aleynu, v’al kulam would be most appropriate.  Indeed, let peace come upon not only us, but upon everyone.

I will, weather permitting, leave this island in a few days.  I will take away more that can be named.  Certainly, a re-attachment to the words of our prayers that become re-ignited in my consciousness.  Including those words said so early on a morning weekday or Shabbat service that sanctuaries are usually still empty by then, and which are usually raced through by those who are there: barukh she’amar v’haya olam: Blessed be the One who spoke, and there was a world.  Our words, like God’s in Genesis, can create worlds.  And sew worlds and people together.  Beyond words, I will leave Holy Isle with a renewed commitment to embodied religious life.  In Sue Weston’s words, to outrageous vitality and perkiness, and to being unashamed at having those stances be reflected in my Jewishness, in my rabbinate, in my soul.  Will we Jews permit ourselves to be ecstatic? Can we fully live in our bodies as we live our Judaism?  Can we accept our hands and feet and heart and chest and pelvis and ears and toes as instruments of our divine work?  I aim to try.  I aim to try to say “yes” to the nun’s extraordinary offer that I come back and lead a chanting retreat on this Holy Isle, and I hope that perhaps some from my community may join me if it comes to fruition.  I aim to accept the wonder that as this group of non-Jews became open to the spiritual power of Judaism and Jewish music, they re-opened me to my own embodied inheritance.  

I recited the Aleynu prayer many times this week.  I bowed deeply at the appropriate words.  But towards the end, in the paragraph almost always said silently in Jewish communities, a few words got caught in my throat.  Yakiru v’yed’u kol yoshvei tevel.  All the inhabitants of the earth will recognize and know.  Ki l’kha tikhra kol berekh.  That to You will bow every knee.  Tishava kol lashon.  That to you will swear every tongue.  L’fanekha adonai eloheinu yikhr’eu v’yipolu.  That before You, our God, all will prostrate, and all will bend.  All that bending before the Divine light.  And all that knowing the divine goodness. And all that committing to making that awareness be a spark for acceptance and beauty in the world. And all that permitting our entire bodies and beings be part of our religious practice.  All of that? It is happening, here, on Holy Isle.  This prayer has Jews being so very concerned that all the peoples of the world will learn this pose, this awareness, this craft. It is worth aspiring to. But when it comes to bowing. And awareness of God’s presence.  And fully embodying religious life…can we work on ourselves first?

Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

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SATURDAY MORNING

On Saturday morning I was on the coach early to get to Brighton in time to hear Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche teach on Santideva’s 9th chapter. It was just after 6am. I pulled out my new dharma book The 6 Perfections by Dale Wright (an excellent book) and tried to read the section on tolerance. It was early and my eyes hadn’t woken up. Blurry font. Unfocused mind. Easily distracted.

About 10 minutes into the journey, we were at the last main coach stop before leaving Oxford for London. A young woman got on. She expected the driver to accept card payments – only had £5 in cash. The nearest ATM was a long walk away. I asked if she was going to Victoria in which case she could withdraw £10 when we got there. We sat down and out of nowhere out of my mouth said the words: Keep the money. She wanted to repay me. All I thought was, I don’t own the money, the Government does – all I’m doing is moving it around.

The question of ownership shifted in a big way after reading a short excerpt by Daniel Dennett. It was from a philosophy text reader when I belatedly started university in my mid‑30s. My take on Daniel Dennett’s view on ownership is this: Your possessions stretch as far your mind. So, if you’re at a friend’s place and are handed a plate is the plate yours or your friend’s? The pens at work where you sit each day, are they yours? Well, they’re your employer’s. So when I sat down on the bus and thought, It’s not my money, it’s the Government’s, that’s where I was coming from. Continue reading

HELLO FROM GOA

 

Hello from Goa, land of blue skies, sunshine and palm trees swaying in the balmy breeze. But lest you think that Liz and I are living the languid life of lotus eaters (okay, occasionally…) we are of course as trumped and brexited as the rest of you – but in true Indian style.

Luckily we weren’t here in November when the demonetisation policy kicked in overnight. It caused mayhem and chaos and is still not fully resolved. Basically there is still a shortage of bank notes as they scrapped the 1,000 rupee note and replaced it with a 2,000 note. That’s now £25 quid in UK money with the current crap exchange rate and if you try and pay with it few shops have change to give you or they want plastic money instead. Yes, they are trying to move to a cashless economy where hundreds of millions don’t even have a bank account or their own mobile phone. There are still unreported riots and violence and the poor have no money to pay for fruit, vegetables or milk. Unemployment has risen. Nobody can afford to buy locally built Hero motorcycles, for example, so they’ve had to close the factories. Continue reading

JOURNEY TO ASSAM: GUWAHATI PART 2

Sign in Haflong, Guwahati

There’s something wonderfully hedonistic about an alarm that goes off at 5am and you lie in bed for another hour in that half dream-like state.  This is India; and lateness is a fine art that requires a last minute scrabbling for the prize – a seat on the bus or train; meeting a friend in a chaotic, busy city; frantically looking for an internet hotspot at the airport to confirm a flight.

So my wife is off to the train station.  One hour late!  Not that it matters.  She’s meeting her brother and his wife and a sister coming on the Delhi express which is two hours late.

Today is chilly and misty.  We’re in Guwahati, the capital of the state of Assam in the north east of India.  The flat has been lent to us by Sadhana, a childhood friend of my wife’s.  Sadhana heads a team in the precisely named DIRECTORATE OF WELFARE AND SCHEDULED CASTES and lives with her husband on the other side of the city.

Sadhana outside her office

I spend some time relaxing and reading India in Slow Motion by Mark Tully, the BBC correspondent for India.  Someone described his broadcasts as sounding as if he were speaking from a phone box in the middle of a busy city with the hum of traffic and horns sounding in the background.  The chapter I’m reading is about Sufism, Islamic mysticism expressed in dance and rituals.  A pity there is the split now amongst so many adherents of the religion.

My wife brings the family back from the station and they quickly settle in to the spare room, a rather dark and dank affair as it hasn’t been lived in for some time.

Time to go for a wander in the town, we leave the house and board a bus which takes us to the outskirts of the city.  Walking around, we come across the Science Museum, surprisingly neat and tidy with lots of experiments for the the kids to play with inside the building.  Nothing really sophisticated is there but the attempt to engage children in scientific practice is well thought-out.

Outside is a medicinal, aromatic herbal garden with all kinds of plants in neat beds.  Signposts indicate their Latin and local names as well as their efficacy for treating various ailments.  Doubt is cast when I see that some are purported to cure leprosy and cancer, though who knows what truths lurk in local lore.

We aim to return before we leave, yet knowing that road leads on to road we doubt that we will ever come back.

 

 

 

JOURNEY TO ASSAM: PART 1

 

Day dawns.  Early morning standing in the doorway of the little courtyard of Shinji Butt. Outside, pigs are grunting about in the mud.  A little boy squats and defecates while a multi-teated sow waits behind for him to finish.  A goat, wearing a yellow sweater, its front legs inserted into the arms, munches grass at the side of the road.

 

 

 

 

 

Inside the lodge, embers from the previous night’s celebrations, set into a square bed of sand with a parapet of bricks around the edges, still smoulder and glow red in the middle of the open yard.

The fog of the previous day has cleared, revealing cold edges and carved roundels on the lintel at the entrance to the shrine room.  Staff move around, here and there, lightly brushing the paving with a besom, clearing the corners of cobwebs that glisten in the grey, morning light.

Slowly, we leave the temple and make our way to Maha Bodhi for our morning perambulation around the walkway bordering the quadrant in which is set the main temple area.

Clearly, in my head, is the sound of the Japanese monk, Ryosho Shimiza, playing his ancient sho with its bamboo pipes standing erect.  He follows spider-like notation penned in meditative harmonies that have strange, other-worldly dischords.

The instrument is blown and sucked; the disparity in the harmonies sends shivers down the spine – dissonant , flowing, pensive sounds.

In the evening, we sleep well and waken the next day to a bright, clear and crisp morning.

Around midday we leave Bodh Gaya in a hired car for Patna.  The journey through dusty Bihari towns and villages takes 3 hours.  Our journey will continue from Patna to Guwahati, the capital of Assam state in the north east.

Alighting from the car with our baggage, we are suddenly in the chaotic traffic circle in front of the entrance to the station. We enter the concourse and walk around the various families and individuals camping on the floor of the reception hall.  Those who are awake stare at us as we make our way to the waiting room

 

As in all of India, real information is very difficult to come by and we know the train is late, but by how much we don’t know.

We find our way to the ladies’ waiting room.  One old lady is making a fuss about there being men in the room although they are obviously with their families – wives and children.  I have to leave.  But the general waiting room has an air of depression that overwhelms.  The bright overhead lights, the resigned hunched postures of the waiting passengers, the smell of vomit from a corner where someone has thrown up is overpowering and sends me back to the ladies’ waiting room from which I had been ejected.

By 12 midnight, according to the electronic notice board, the train will be at least 4 hours late, an increase of 2 hours on the last bulletin.

A descent down the worn stairs, past a beggar wearing shorts to  show off his chronic leukodema:  the poor guy is a sickly white except for brown panda eyes; and on to a “help desk” where my wife has already been and where she was told, “No rooms available”.

I try to get a room.  At the help desk, the clerk and his assistants speak no English.  I get passed from one to another and every time I start to communicate with them about getting a room somewhere in the station, they all cast their eyes down and giggle.  Eventually, I manage to communicate and I’m given a room, number 4 somewhere along from the waiting rooms upstairs.

I pay the Rs 780 (about £9) and a coolie in regulation maroon uniform takes us along a dark passageway past a restaurant that is closed and we come to a door with a padlock. We leave our bags and progress, feeling exhausted, to a dark alcove in which there is a raised deck.  A peon is asleep on a raised, concrete platform.  He peers at us from under a blanket.

We waken him and he rubs his eyes and gives us the key for the padlock.  We return to the door, open it and enter a large square room that could double for a multiple occupancy prison cell in Saudi Arabia or Syria with a palette and mattress in the middle of the room.  Using our own sheets on the thin, lumpy mattress to lessen the chances of being bitten by bugs, we flop down and sleep a dreamless sleep with the fluorescent light blazing above our heads.

As we can’t hear the announcements from the tannoy every hour or so, I have to traipse downstairs to check the bulletin board for any hint of the arrival of our train; and it’s back to a short nap in our torture chamber, the lower wall splashed red from the expectorant release of pan disconcertingly the colour of old blood.

At 4 am the board still states our train will arrive at 2 am.

Standing outside, I suddenly I hear that the train is arriving at the station.  The coolie has failed to wake us to take us to the train and the peon is fast asleep again under his blanket.

I waken my wife and send her downstairs to fetch the coolie while I pack and pile our luggage outside the door.

THE TRAIN IS NOW ARRIVING AT PLATFORM 2, I hear over the tannoy.  It’s the North East Express to Guwahati.

Just then, my wife arrives with the coolie looking guilty.  We shake the peon awake and shove the door key at him then rush downstairs, the coolie carrying our bags on his head.

Across a pedestrian bridge we go, weaving in and out of the crowds.  My wife is running ahead. The train has come in from Delhi and we have only about 10 minutes to find our carriage and get our bags on the train – and there is a really, really long train of carriages.

Just in time, the coolie finds our carriage about halfway along the platform, and we settle into our sleeping quarters.

On the way to Assam, our train is delayed again and we don’t reach our destination till past midnight the following night…altogether a 33 hour journey from Gaya to Guwahati.

 

A friend has booked us into the Surya Hotel but the place seems locked up for the night.  Raju, our friend, phones the hotel and eventually a young boy opens the hotel door and takes us up to our room.

After the filth on the train, the room sparkles.  At last, we have a shower and sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIFE AND DEATH

We Buddhists talk about death a lot.

For me, that’s the main attraction – there’s no shying away from the truth in Buddhism. I’ve always known death. I’ve always said that Life is death and death is life. When I was 14 months old, my sister was born terminally ill and died 18 months later. In 4th grade, my father underwent major surgery which he again underwent in 6th grade. I guess he’d had symptoms for a couple of years. Maybe he didn’t want to imagine himself unwell. Who knows? In any case, he did what men so often do and didn’t go to the doctor. He died at 46 when I was 13. If he’d have gone to the doctor earlier, he would have lived longer.

The way I see it, my father wasn’t one for facing facts. For whatever reason, for some people the truth is too hard to bear. Maybe we’re all like that – it’s just a matter of extent. Maybe that’s what the Buddha is teaching us. Maybe he’s teaching us that we need to face the truth. We can’t see what we can’t bear to see. How do we see what we can’t bear to see?

The story of my sister’s death isn’t as simple as it seems. The story of my father’s death isn’t as simple as it seems. For anyone who’s experienced these types of things, it’s never as simple and straightforward as we like to imagine. We like to create edges around things, fill in the contents and label them. We like to see what’s inside our jars, put a lid on and write what’s inside. We read the jar label imagining the flavours and textures. But it’s completely different when you live and breathe it. It’s a bit like a reading a book. If you’ve lived it it’s completely different to getting a theoretical perspective. For us Buddhists, we read books about death – about bardo, life, death, books like The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But death from the inside looking out isn’t like a book describing something. It’s too close. It’s not orderly. It’s not contained. It’s visceral.

I need to go back a bit so you understand where I’m coming from. Let me start with my sister.

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TECHNOLITERACY

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I first felt the onslaught of the digital tsunami in my engineering days.  My job as an apprentice toolmaker was to set up capstan lathes in a small factory in Glasgow that made bespoke accouterments for submarines:  salinometers, micro-valves and custom tools for cutting gears.  Crockets was the name of the company.

After two years of working there, the management decided to invest in machines that could be monitored by one man from a centrally situated hub and my skills quickly became redundant, along with about 10% of the factory’s workforce.

 

It was the sixties and the journey from analogue to digital had begun.

In 1981, after many years of working on a BBC computer and inking exam papers on a Banda machine for third-world use, I was in Toronto where I was helping to build a sauna with some Polish students in the district of Pape.  The house was a late 19th century French colonial structure.  The sauna was annexed to a bedroom on the top floor, the middle and ground sections providing living space and a kitchen respectively.  In the basement was a service workshop for Apple computers, the first in the country I was told.

Tom and his wife Trudy, the owners of the house, left me in charge while they went for a two-week vacation to Tobago.  I was to sign myself in and out of the place, cook my food in the kitchen, and was allowed to’play’ on the computers in the basement.

I don’t know how you feel about packman and on-screen table tennis, but don’t get involved, ever, with shooting alien craft out of the sky as they drop to earth in ever-increasing numbers accompanied by a repetative, digital soundtrack. I spent 16 or more hours a day at the screen and walked about the house zapping everything in sight in my line of vision accompanied by an auditorially tintinnabulated internal screeching of extra-terrestrial craft landing from the ceilings of the house.

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Nowadays, while driving, I think of how my father would have wondered at the technology used in cars these days.  For as far as I can remember he drove a new car every year until he died in 1972.  These included Vauxhall, Singer, MG, Morris Oxford, Triumph, Humber, Austin, and various other models.  (I also wonder how Leonardo da Vinci would react to television, helicopters and aeroplanes, and, well, just about anything in the modern world.)

Now, microprocessors in cars regulate the windows and the engine with on-board diagnostics.  The engine control unit, for example, is one of the many seeming miracles of vehicle technological developments.  It balances the mixture of air and fuel that passes through the catalytic converter to remove pollutants from the car exhaust.  And what would my father think of me speaking to someone on my hands free iPhone then switching to a GPS navigation system which can forecast my time of arrival at a destination by the shortest and least cumbersome route in real time?

Now, I have an old and redundant SLR Pentax in my cupboard with a detachable 185 mm lens, replaced with a Nikon digital camera, a Cassio compact camera and an iPhone on which I can access What’s App, Viber, Face Time, send and receive texts and tweets, send an Instagram,  listen to music on wireless digital headphones on Deezer or Sound Cloud, enter appointments in my calendar with one click, find the arrival of a bus near my home or anywhere in the country, carry plane, train, bus and theatre tickets in my digital wallet, make use of predictive text which suggests words I might wish to insert in a text field, predictions based on the context of other words in the message and the first letter typed…and take a pretty good photo with a selfie stick that someone gave me.

As for the future. Well, here are some of my predictions.  I was told by an 86 year old mathematician who used to work in Ferrantis developing electronics for the defence industry that most of the guesses below have been or are in progress.  Excuse the layman’s vocabulary:

• Inter-dermal gossamer implants containing personal  information     such as passports, medical records and current terrestrial location
• Geo drones for the delivery of online-purchased goods.
• Holographic, omni-directional media systems for home use
• Rolls of highway applied to super-Velcro surfaces
• Predictive Assessed Profiles (PAP) of criminal behaviour – think Tom Cruise’s Minority Report
• Smart wrist bands that send real time diverse health uploads to a central astro-physical diagnostic hub enabling packets of advice on activities and diet
• Organic/biological prosthetics
• Neo-plastic neuron implants in designated inter modal pathways to facilitate the amelioration of harmful habits such as smoking and alcohol addiction
• Inter-spatial organic plateaus for the production and delivery of food to stations on earth
• Genetic applications of advantageous features in mammals applied to humans, such as amphibiotic gills, eidetic tableau memory platforms and stereoscopic vision.
• Biological, inter-gender robots with legalised human partner-paired capabilities  (This is happening now cf Martina Rothblatt)
• And, of course, international exospheric battlement stations stocking nuclear payloads

In a billion years, let’s imagine that we’re still around, the difference between human appearances now and then would be as different as the forms evolved by bacteria and a monkey.

I read that somewhere.

Technologically, well, that’s beyond all our present understanding.

 

Image result for photo of space time

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Game Changing

 Somehow 2016 feels like a game-changer. The fatigue of decades of political non-speak and spin has taken its toll this year with Brexit and Trump. The social scientists at work were wondering what they’d missed in their analyses of the political ailments that returned us to Germany in the 1930s when the news of the Austrian election where almost half the population voted for an outright Fascist. How did that happen? we asked and yet it’s been a long time coming.

So what’s in stall for 2017?

I live a very simple and calm life which has been fantastic for my Buddhist practice. At an external level, not much changes between one day and the next, one week and the next. I make breakfast, do Pilates, meditate, go to work, come home, cook dinner, read, go to bed. It’s pretty much the same thing day in, day out. The weekends are mugs and mugs of freshly brewed loose-leaf tea while pottering about the house. The amazing thing about having a repetitive life is that I have the space to develop my practice, to reflect, to read – it feels very 1980s. Simple and comforting.

Image result for meditation illustration

A Buddhist acquaintance recently said that 30 years ago she made the decision to lead a full life after her father’s death in her late teens. The conversation triggered a contemplation about what it means to live a full life, especially as I lead such a quiet life. Given the opportunities and options available today, the idea of doing lots and lots of things as a definition of leading a full life feels like I’m in a huge banquet hall with tables and tables in every direction with varieties of cuisines and courses of all descriptions. There’s no way to taste everything and I’m unsure about where to go? what to choose? how much to have? I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities and feel uncertain to step in any direction. None feel particularly meaningful and the consumption feels both unethical and unsatisfactory. Why choose 1 way instead of another? It doesn’t matter which way I go, I’ll always miss out on more than I could ever taste. And besides, what will all that tasting give? A chronic insatiability of what I haven’t yet had, questioning what other options are available and regret about which decisions I made. I feel saturated and overwhelmed by it all.

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In response, I’ve pulled back from the world, restricted my options, reduced what I look at. One of the decisions has been to focus on the good news on the internet and to avoid the rest because the bad stuff is really bad, e.g. the situation in Syria is bad enough and yet Russia is in cahoots – Putin looks like a parasitic monster feeding on the underbelly of greed. In addition, I get the feeling that much of what’s news is propaganda. Is ‘the news’ a form of consumption to feel bad as much as shopping is a type of consumption to feel good? It’s as if the society is obsessed by consuming in any form without understanding the assault on the soul. My body and mind feel triggered and pulled in all directions as it seeks my attention, emotion and purchase.

And so the question remains – What does it mean to lead a full life? After much cogitation, I’ve decided that leading a fuller life is to lead a stiller life – to notice both the beauty and the pain by pausing and doing less: The sunrise is beautiful. Syria is a mess. Fascism is rising. The rose is stunning. People are lonely. People are happy. There are hurts. There is forgiveness. And then there’s the wonderfully kitch and the inspiring.

For me, it seems that to lead a full life is to lead a life with the full gamut of emotions, responses, reactions – to intimately engage with whatever arises: The funny, the bland, the hate, the love, the sorrow, the drudgery, the appalling, the wonder and the joy. As for 2017, my hope is that it will be a new job at better pay, meaningful friendships, connection to a charity, deeper understanding of Buddhism and plenty of wonder and joy.

May you also have a year that is full of wonder and joy – and full life in whatever form that takes.

About the author Wendy Nash.
Wendy is Australian and has been living in Oxford, UK, for the past 3 years. She has been following Buddhism since 2003, took refuge with the Buddha in 2008 and in 2014 realised that although she had everything she wanted (good relationships, health and job) she was still unhappy – that’s when her practice really came into its own. She has been dedicated to the White Tara group in Oxford since 2014.

She thinks that life is better with a vase of flowers nearby and mugs of teapot tea. 

Glesca

Rouken Glen Boathouse, Glasgow

I had a great childhood just outside of the city, Glasgow that is!  Not like the city I grew up in, no it’s now a fabulous bustling town and something to be proud of if you are a Glaswegian…

I lived in Orchard Park which is between Giffnock and Thornliebank.  Behind “oor hoose” was a farm.  It was owned by farmer Stirling.  He and his wifie had two sets of twins, one set boys and the other girls.  I remember the old farm kitchen.  It had a huge wooden table (at least it seemed huge then) which was worn down in the middle where there was always an uncut loaf, I think we called it a plain loaf!  A huge dish of homemade jam took up residence on one corner of the table and likewise on another corner was delicious homemade butter,  the wooden butter pat still in it.  Of course these three ingredients made great “jellie pieces.”  Up the circular staircase from the kitchen was the family`s best lounge.  Glass cabinets held their treasures….

I went on the tractor and round the fields with the farmer.  I helped to milk the cows, feed the pigs and collect eggs.  Wonderful memories of a wonderful time.

I was probably about 15 years old when the farm was knocked down and a function hall was built, not nearly as much fun but necessary they said.

I lived in a cul-de-sac at number six and my friend at number 12.  Her father had an amazing  gardens full of beautiful blooms of all the colours of the rainbow.  He fed the plants with horse dung which he collected from the droppings of horses which came through our street and into the fields.  For me as a child I found this disgusting!!!

We as children had so much freedom.  Off we went on our bikes and weren’t seen again till lunch time.  After lunch we were off again.  We went to Rouken Glen up hills and down vales.  Exploring the woods, picking bluebells by their hundreds,  jumping the burn etc…  What great memories.  So sad that our children and grandchildren are so restricted and don’t have much freedom.  One wonders if the goings on were the same in the old days but with no media to frighten people off..

I left school at 16 and took up hairdressing as my career.  My parents had to pay £300.00 for my apprenticeship.  It was such a lot of money for them to find.  However it gave me the ability to do something which I used for many years both here and abroad and best of all I loved `doing hair`.

When I became twenty one, three girlfriends and I decided to go and work in Gibraltar for a year. We all left our jobs and booked flights.  What an exciting time that was.  We were ahead of our time because if you weren’t married and by that age you certainly didn’t leave home!  The neighbour speaking to my mum over the fence said “Was she thon way” is that’s why she has gone away…

Anastasia Romei

THE PHOENIX

I am skiing down through the snow and come across a building called Innovation. I walk through the door, and come across the people at the pay kiosk. I say I have no money with me but I want to meet my other half. They let me go in and I go up the escalator to meet the other half, at the top of the stair I see myself, and follow ‘her’ through something which look like market stalls. ‘She’ collapses, and I shout out, is there a doctor here to help? Three Doctors come by me, but not in time as she dies in my arms. I am bereft as I walk to the great window and look out. There is a vast expanse of nothing.

I wake up and tape my dream, which I take down to my partner, who has a painting and writing studio down in the barn, on the land which is in the Highlands of Scotland. We study some Krishnamurti and Wittgenstein together for awhile. As one does! I am age 31.

A little later, I put on a pair of gardening trousers, to lift potatoes I have grown, I would normally wear a dress or skirt. I see smoke coming from the croft, and run towards it, and call for Neil, my partner. The croft is becoming ablaze with fire, and cannot be entered. Since we only have a small bridge over the river to this remote land, above Loch Ness , there is no way a fire engine can get access to the house. Neil says to me, I will get two deckchairs and we will sit and let it be. Unless you watch it consciously Kate, you will never let it go, he says. We sit behind the house on deckchairs, in the meadow and watch the house and all the belongings burning down. There is a strange feeling mix of shock, sadness and yet there is also elation. This moment changes my life. The Phoenix.

UNLESS YOU WATCH IT CONSCIOUSLY KATE, YOU WILL NEVER LET IT GO, HE SAYS.

That night we go to friends, support I suppose. They are having a party. We only have the steading barn left with artworks and writings of Neils, and my spinning wheel. He is a poet and playwright. Friends offer clothes and washing things, for me to take ‘home’ which I take in a rug bag. We return home, sleep in the steading, Scottish for barn, as the croft still smoulders. We have lost everything, and the local farmers come to pay respects, with whisky. I lie on the balcony bed and watch them reminisce, exhausted.

In the morning when the fire brigade men in their yellow suits are there, smashing down the remains, I go in and find a double egg cup which had belonged to my mother, and a copy of Ivanovitch Gurdjieff’s ‘All and Everything’ untouched by the fire. All else had gone to the fire.

Within days I go to the Tibetan Monastery in Dumfrieshire, and on arrival find Situ Rinpoche, Gyalsab Rimpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche there on a visit. It is an auspicious moment. I meet Akong Rinpoche and say, I have had several dreams, and experiences, I think you spiritual masters, may have burnt my house down. He says ‘maybe.’

I ask if I may stay to follow the Dharma. I ask if I may stay for a year and a day! Neil decides to travel to India to follow a spiritual master in India. We go our separate ways. Within months I am in Oxford, starting to care for the Lama House, for Thrangu Rinpoche. Yes, my life has changed. I am in the kind hands of the Buddhas. And still am.

I learnt from this experience that the material world, is very much less important than the spiritual world of which I am now making an effort to live. The Phoenix was a hidden blessing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Roddick

KATE RODDICK

Kate is unique, being one of the first ever Westerners ever to study traditional Tibetan medicine in Dharamsala. This was no mean feat, spending seven years within the monk community next to His Holiness Dalai Lama’s residence, translating Tibetan texts to enable her to study medicine with some of the greatest Tibetan physicians of our time. This was borne out of her deep dedication to of wishing to help others. At Napiers the Herbalists. She also holds workshops on The Art of Tibetan Healing and the Five Elements. She spends much time attending retreats these days and has a darn good sense of humor.

This article first appeared in LEVEKUNST art of life  free online magazine.

See also The Tibetan Art or Healing in Many Roads.

Visiting Borobudor

At the top of the Stupa, just before sun rise

I had been in Indonesia for over a week, starting in the crazed metropolis of Jakarta then moving on to the University town of Yogyakarta. From Yogya I took a Taxi which got me to my hotel in Borobdor in just over an hour. After checking in, I booked a sun-rise entrance ticket to the Stupa.

No one knows who built the monument, the largest Buddhist structure in the world, or indeed why it was built although it is thought to have been completed in the 8th century. It lay abandoned, hidden under volcanic ash and jungle growth until it was discovered by the British while Java was briefly under U.K administration in 1814.

There had been a plan by the Dutch to dismantle the monument and scatter the pieces across the world in many different museums, but thankfully this didn’t happen and after many years work, UNESSCO named it a world heritage site in 1991.

Buddha statue, looking out into the Jungle

I was picked up by motorbike at 4:30 AM and taken to a luxury hotel which sits in the grounds of the Temple Complex where myself and about 30 other people queued up at the back of the hotel and where a staff member gave us a flashlight and pointed to a path. I was at the start of the line and turned on my flashlight and headed into the darkness with the rest of the group following behind. It was pitch dark and there was a low lying mist swirling over the path.

After a few minutes’ walk we arrived at the monument, although it was still really dark you could really get a sense you were somewhere really special. You walk round each level in a clockwise direction, climbing the stairs and passing smaller stupas and Buddha statues until you reach the top (which is Nirvana, the other levels being the lower stages of life)

Wall carving

I got to the top and found a space and sat down, staring into the darkness. After a while all the Mosques in the area started doing the call to the first prayers of the day, it was still dark and misty which made it even more atmospheric.

Gradually the sun rose, lighting up the monument and the surrounding jungle. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I spent the next three hours or so exploring the site, there are so many carvings which explain the laws of Karma, the birth of the Buddha, the Jakarta tales to name just a few. It is such a mind blowing place, it was hard to leave but after quite a few times round I decided to head back to my hotel for breakfast.

 

The top of the Stupa

All the guidebooks suggest you go twice during your stay in Borobudor but I decided not to go back, the visit had been so magical I wanted to keep the feeling in my heart and mind for the rest of my life. One of the most amazing places on Earth, I urge everyone to visit if the chance to comes up.

Looking up at the Stupa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HERMIT

Buddhism has been part of my life since I was a teenager. Now I have just passed my seventieth birthday. In the intervening years, I have been fortunate to study with some of the leading teachers of the age – Chogyam Trungpa, Kennett Roshi, and Thich Nhat Hanh among them. along with some lesser known but equally great figures who have had a profound effect upon me – Minh Choa, Saiko Gisho, Nai Boonman, Viradhammo, and others.

 At one time or another I have explored most of the modes of Buddhist life – the householder, monasticism, the wandering teacher, community living, socially engaged ministry – and now I live as something of a hermit in a remote area of France – la France profond. 

 Berry is geographically situated in the upper Loire valley. The lower Loire is famous for its chateau, but we are off the regular tourist track here in a region of big rivers and forests and gently rolling countryside. It is a tranquil area where nothing much happens other than the procession of the seasons, which are, here, strongly marked. Winter is cold and crisp. In spring you can virtually see things grow and there are carpets of bluebells in the woods. Summer is hot and dry, with occasional dramatic thunder storms. Autumn is veritably the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

 I live in a somewhat primitive house. there is no central heating. For cooking i use bottle gas. There are wood burning stoves and I cut the wood from the forest myself. In the warmer months I get visitors, but those who dare the cold times are rare. I find it easy to identify with the hermit hijiri of old Japan who wrote poems about beauty and desolation. 

 There are paths through the surrounding woods. It is not a difficult matter to stay in tune with nature here, in fact, difficult to avoid doing so. It is a meditation simply to step outside the house and gaze at the walnut tree in the field. I see the phases of the moon advance and note the turning of the starry heaven. The sunrise is orange and the sunset pink, or sometimes even a fiery red.  

 These natural elements take on a divine appearance and one senses deities in every direction. In addition to Buddhism I have a sensitivity for the ancient Greek religion and one it seems a great deal more than myth when one lives in such a place as this.

 By way of formal practice, I call the name of Amitabha a hundred thousand times a month and it seems that the elements say it back to me each in their own way. The locals probably think I am an odd eccentric, but then, I suppose, that is what I have always wanted to be. Buddhism has a place for such things. 

 Though remote, I am not entirely isolated. There is a very small settlement of friendly Dharma companions about 15 kilometres away and we meet once a week to practice together and enjoy the company. 

 There are times when one walks out on a frosty morning or sees the glow worms shining in the evening or stands beneath a centuries old oak when the impression that there is nothing better overwhelms one. The Buddha often praised solitude and, although he lived in a country with a different climate, I feel he must have experienced similar joy in order to recommend it to us.

 

David Brazier is a British author and psychotherapist known for his writings on Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy. He is the leader of the Amida Order. Wikipedia
David Brazier can be contacted via http://eleusis.ning.com/

The Trek to Mount Kailash in Tibet

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The trek to Mount Kailash Tibet May 2002

Mount Kailash is the holiest mountain in Tibet and probably all Asia.  It is situated in the Ngari region of western Tibet, which is one of the highest, loneliest and most desolate places on the planet.  It rises perpetually snow capped 7,500 metres from the high desert plains which surrounds it.  The shape of the mountain is a near perfect pyramid. The Buddhists believe is was the location where the Tibetan Buddhist saint Milarepa overcame the obstacles created by followers of the ancient Bon religion.  Tibetans also called the mountain Kang Rinpoche which means precious snow mountain. Hindus consider Mount Kailash to be the mythical mount Meru; the world’s spiritual centre.  Mount Kailash is also the source of three of Asia’s most important rivers; the Ganges, the Bramaputra and the Indus.

This trek circumambulates Mount Kailash and crosses the Drolma La pass which is 5,800 metres.  Mount Kailash is not an easy place to get to.  Since it is located 1,250 kilometres west of Lhasa.  For the last 500 kilometres there is no road as such just a rock-strewn track with several rivers to cross and with no bridges.  Our trek was organized by the Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland UK together with an international adventure trekking company.  This trek is a fund-raiser to help them construct a large Stupa at their monastery.  (A Stupa is a symbolic representation of Buddha’s spiritual mind or Dharmakya.)  The physical shape of the stupa is based on the shape of Kailash itself.  Each part of a stupa illustrates and represents different stages of Buddha’s path to enlightenment.

Building a stupa is of great significance in Tibetan Buddhism because it is a very powerful way to purify negative karma and also a way of accumulating great merit.  Stupas can be of almost any size ranging from a few centimetres to the stupa on the Indonesian Island of Java called Borododur which is 200 metres in height.

This trek took place in the Tibetan year of the wind horse [2002].  It is the year which Tibetans believe is the most beneficial year in which to do the Kailash trek.  The reason for this is that to do this pilgrimage in any year will wash away the sins of a lifetime.  But to do this trek in the year of the wind horse will wash away the sins of several lifetimes. The end of our trek around mount Kailash is also planned to coincide with Sawa Daga at Tarboche.  This is the date [the varies because of the lunar calendar but it happens around the 15th May each year] which commemorates the Buddha’s birth and attainment of enlightenment.

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There were 15 of us on the trek excluding guides, drivers, porters and cooks.  In addition to cost of our trek, we each donated at least 1,000 $US towards the construction of the Stupa at Samye Ling Scotland.  Our guide was Bradley Rowe a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a very experienced Tibet expert with an international reputation.  Our group comprised of myself [from Thailand], 1 German, 2 from the US, 2 from Canada, 9 from the UK.  Our ages ranged from 19 to 69 years old.  We all flew from different parts of the world and met up in Kathmandhu Nepal for the departure to Tibet.  The complete trek lasted 6 weeks in all, firstly flying to Lhasa, Tibet to acclimatize and sight-see for a few days.  Then on to the oldest Buddhist monastery in Tibet; the Samye monastery.  From the Samye monastery we went by jeep 1,000 kilometres to the foot of Mount Kailash.  Then we returned overland from Kailash to Kathmandhu by jeep.

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Wild White Horses

 

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In the Tibetan map of the world, the world is a circle and at the centre there is an enormous mountain guarded by four gates.  And when they draw a map of the world, they draw the map in sand, and it takes months and then when the map is finished, they erase it and throw the sand in to the nearest river.

Last fall the Dalai Lama came to New York city to do a two-week ceremony called the Kalachakra which is a prayer to heal the earth.  And woven into these prayers were a series of vows that he asked us to take and before I knew it I had taken a vow to be kind for the rest of my life.  And I walked out of there and thought:  “For the rest of my life??  What have I done?  This is a disaster!”

And I was really worried.  Had I promised too much?  Not enough?  I was really in a panic.  They had come from Tibet for the ceremony and they were walking around midtown in their new brown shoes and I went up to one of the monks and said, “Can you come with me to have a cappuccino right now and talk?”  And so we went to this little Italian place.  He had never had coffee before so he kept talking faster and faster and I kept saying, “Look, I don’t know whether I promised too much or too little.  Can you help me please?”

And he was really being practical.  He said, “Look, don’t limit yourself.  Don’t be so strict!  Open it up!”  He said, “The mind is a wild white horse and when you make a corral for it make sure it’s not too small.  And another thing:  When your house burns down, just walk away.  And another thing:  Keep your eyes open.”

“And one more thing:  Keep moving.  ‘Cause it’s a long way home.”

Sourced from What Book, Buddha Poems from Beat to Hip Hop.

 

 

Are There Any Bodhisattvas in the Room? by Karma Changchub

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“Are there any Bodhisattvas in the room?”

“Are there any Bodhisattvas in the room?

When asked such a question, few of us might raise our hands, possibly through a combination of humility and the absence of having more than two arms?

Ringu Tulku Rinpoche asked the question when he returned to Palpung Changchub Dargyeling in June 2016, fittingly as Wales was swept by Himalayan-style torrential monsoon rains. On arrival he was greeted by Chamtrul Rinpoche and Lama Rabsang; and the rainclouds above Brynmawr parted, exposing the clear expanse of a summer sky. It stopped raining for a bit -in Welsh terms -a miracle of sorts.

This year’s weekend teachings were on the topic of Bringing Relative and Absolute Bodhicitta into our everyday lives. Rather than solely the remote preserve of only fully realised beings, Rinpoche presented Bodhicitta in accessible terms – that anyone can manifest, if they so choose. Rinpoche taught that it starts with the aspiration to help free another being from pain and suffering. That wish is a seed that slowly germinates over time, whenever it is planted in fertile ground.

Essentially, compassion for another starts with wishing compassion for ourselves. Our own wish to be free from suffering and its causes. Just as we wish this for ourselves, so all other beings wish this for themselves too. So, if we have suffered pain in the past, we understand how it feels, and don’t want it to also happen to others too. We also learn that if everyone else is happy, that will be interdependently good for us too.

However we don’t always feel able to do anything really useful, lacking belief in our ability to help. But, when we realize that anything we do, which helps us to increase our positive side and which lessens our negative side, will increase our power to help – then we can build belief. While we can have high and noble aspirations and intentions, we start with practical, down to earth actions. As we develop more patience, discipline and generosity- we grow our compassion. When we start to deal with our own issues, then maybe we can go on to help one, two, or perhaps more beings.

The process isn’t instantaneous but it is possible. If we look at what’s happening inside us, and look at our agenda, we become aware of what’s actually going on. We see how we react, moment by moment. We notice what is affecting us and other people. Each moment leading onto the next. Because of our mind’s strong habitual tendencies, lots come up, but over time we can develop the wisdom not to be led by anger, hatred, resentment or ill-will. If we take one day as one life, at the end of every day we can rejoice in, appreciate and dedicate what went well, and purify and let go of what went badly. In this way we can transform a life made up of days.

There is no pressure, no compulsion. We simply do how much we want to do and are ready to do. We simply just do it, if it is good for us and good for others. We learn to avoid doing things we’ll regret at the end of the day. We can even take this up as a hobby; people never get burnt out by their hobbies. The “weight” of anything depends on ourselves.

To be compassionate is not only useful for us and others; it’s actually the only solution for our own transformation and that of society. When we see suffering clearly, we realize that no new system, rules, or laws will sort it all out. We have to change ourselves, and do so voluntarily, to become compassionate and kind to each other. This transformation will only happen if we value this as important. If I’m angry or upset or hateful, it helps no one, least of all me. We understand that we are still samsaric beings, not the finished product yet. Yes, we have selfishness. Bad moods. Ups + downs. We may not have perfected the 6 Paramitas yet. But, if someone helps me, I feel good. So why not help others, in return, too?

We may not have perfect wisdom, but we can do our best, with best intentions. If we do that, we can’t go too far wrong, and are unlikely to do something too harmful. If our motivation is to help, then we shouldn’t have any regrets. We can never be sure of alternative outcomes, but the more compassionate we are, the more good things tend to happen. Whereas the more selfish and self-centred we are, the more misery and suffering will result. The more we obsess about ourselves, the more we will suffer.

Happiness is experienced from our mind having peace and joy. We practically achieve this by feeling love without attachment. We feel happy when someone we care about is happy. If we are a parent, and we love our children, we also wish we can take on any suffering they experience. If we can extend this kind of loving kindness compassion, we experience more joy. There is no Tibetan word for “stranger”-as it is believed that nobody is a stranger -as everyone has previously been your mother. We just don’t recognise them now!

As we extend our loving kindness compassion to others – we don’t lose it – we just accumulate more happiness! To become a fundamentally happier person, we first become more compassionate and kind. The less our mind is grasping, the happier it will be. Ironically, exclusively wishing well for ourselves, is the source of all our problems, agitation, discontent and suffering! Self-centred clinging and grasping to a “Me” is an obstacle. Ultimate Bodhicitta is egoless and without self-centredness. Bodhicitta isn’t necessarily a “Buddhist” attitude; it’s merely a genuine commitment to the wellbeing of other beings, through removing their suffering. The mark of any great saint or truly realized being, is the absence of this self-centredness; a sign of ultimate Bodhicitta. This only manifests when we truly understand the way we are and the way everything is.

The route to this pure and perfect compassion is through understanding, reflection, investigation and meditation. That way we see how things exist. We see their nature. That everything is changing, that there is nothing that doesn’t change. That nothing exists independently. Everything is interdependent, influenced by causes and conditions. Nothing exists on its own. All is flow, always changing. All my body’s cells change completely every few years. So “Me” is just a concept- there is nothing about “Me” that is permanent. My consciousness is just momentary thoughts and emotions.

We assume that there is something called “Me” but where is it? Our ego is based on the assumption that there is something called “Me”, that is truly existing somewhere in our body. But when we look, we see that’s a wrong and mistaken assumption. One to which we are strongly addicted. We have been constantly trying to confirm and affirm a “Me” since beginningless time. This is the basis of all our problems, all samsara. Aversion, attachment, fear and worry all come from this. We grasp at holding onto secure concepts. We are fixated on our constructed identity of “Me”. We identify with past memories and traumas; our karma is basically our habits. But, the more compassion we have, the less self-centred we become, and the less clinging we will have to this fabricated “Me”. This way we positively transform our habits, and therefore our karma.

Such wisdom is experiential. Lessening self-centredness is the strongest method of purification.

Our flaws are not new, they have been with us for lifetimes. But if we’re able to change a little bit, for the better, we should appreciate it. We take small steps.

If we meditate on our impermanence, on the reality that we could die today, then we are more likely to work on integrating these teachings in our lives. If we appreciate this precious opportunity, we focus our minds and use the teachings on ourselves. Whether deep or high, these teachings only work if they’re applied. Enlightenment is about fully understanding and experiencing what we are. When we see that there is no need for attachment or aversion at all, then the capacity of our mind can be fully used. Mind is nothing but awareness. There is nothing to get. And nothing to get rid of.

“Are there any Bodhisattvas in the room?

Some people are more naturally compassionate and show signs of Bodhicitta easily, as they awaken habitual tendencies from previous lifetimes. Whereas in others, Bodhicitta is less visible, hidden, even suppressed, due to alternative habitual tendencies being more strong.

Sometimes we have high expectations of Dharma practitioners. Some unrealistically expect Buddhists to be perfect. When you go to a hospital, do you expect everyone to be well? Well, people go to Buddhist Centres to become compassionate, not because they’re compassionate already! The Sangha is not merely a community, but rather beings who have taken the same vows, traveling on a similar path, with similar aspirations, undertaking similar trainings. In life we learn together best through appreciation, not through punishing or criticizing each other.

A Bodhisattva needn’t be a perfect Bodhisattva. School starts with nursery! There is nothing wrong with feeling “I’m a Bodhisattva”. The Bodhisattva Vow is a commitment to train myself over a long time, so that eventually I’ll be able to help everyone.

For more on Bodhicitta… Ringu Tulku has a Lazy Lama book about Bodhicitta. You might have read it? It’s very good and at £4, a better buy than the last, or the next, Game of Thrones box set. For, what it lacks in CGI dragons and ultimately-pointless power politics, it makes up for in the form of words that may lead the reader to cessation of all suffering. Did I mention it only costs £4? https://bodhicharya.org/store/pro…

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A Room

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Our grandparents’ house was one story with the thatched roof common to most houses in our particular area at that time. It consisted of a kitchen/cum living room, two bedrooms and what was known as “the good room”, this room was only used on very special occasions such as gatherings at weddings or funerals. I would imagine that when my father and three brothers were growing up it would have been a bedroom and only in later years when they had flown the nest converted into what could be termed a parlour although I never heard that term being used in our neck of the woods. I feel that the room did not see a great deal of use it being more of a status symbol than anything else.

The main feature of the room was its fireplace. Mother always referred to this as “the Yankee fireplace”, not because of any particular American quality in its make up but, rather, because it had been a gift from my Great Aunt Mary on one of her visits from her adopted country across the sea. Aunt Mary being what was then described as a spinster lady was wont to lavish her largesse on various family members, not the least being my grandfather, her favourite brother.

The fireplace was of a black cast iron construction with side panels of colourful tiles, the whole being surrounded by a wooden frame supporting a broad mantelpiece the latter bearing two large China dogs placed one at each end while in between were placed a few family photographs. The same type of fireplace would now be described as Art Deco and would be most likely fuelled not by coal or peat but, rather, by gas or electricity and not connected to any kind of chimney.

The walls displayed three or four embroidered samplers conveying slogans of an improving nature. The only one I remember is that which exhorted its readers to “neither a borrower or a lender be.”

Along one wall was a horsehair stuffed chaise longue, covered in what I presume was a leatherette material and quite incapable of giving what could be described as a comfortable seating experience. A glass case containing various knickknacks completed the complement of furniture along this wall. The only item in this case that comes to mind now was a colourful mug adorned with the royal coat of arms and bearing some words to the effect that it celebrated ” Sixty glorious years” of Queen Victoria’s reign. Probably a forerunner of the Coronation mugs which appeared at the commencement of subsequent reigns.

A high backed chair composed of the same material as the chaise and to my mind just as uncomfortable, graced the opposite wall along with a bookcase containing a collection of for the most part high minded books which I and, I suspect, no one else in the household ever peered inside. It was in this bookcase that I made my acquaintance with Zane Gray via a novel called Riders of the Purple Sage. There was another book which I deemed to have possibilities but which I never got around to having more than a cursory glance inside namely, Mister Midshipman Easy by a Captain Marryat, whom I learned much later was a retired naval officer who had served during the early 19th century and had written some quite well known books. He must have been writing at the same as Charles Dickens. I have always regretted passing up the opportunity to make his acquaintance but maybe not as his writing may have been full of the high flown fustian of the day but, again, Dickens is readable so why not Marryat. We’ll leave that discussion for another time.

The complement of furniture was completed by a table and, if memory serves, two balloon backed chairs. One of which had a cushion strategically placed over a rent in the leatherette seat where the horse hair stuffing was making its present felt. On the rare occasions when the room was in use additional chairs would, if required, be moved in from the kitchen. If memory serves the table supported a brass bound pot containing a species of aspidistra or similar plant. I do recall that it had large evergreen leaves.

Of the few occasions when I was present in the room at a family gathering only one of these comes to mind and this to sometime in 1946. I was a mere schoolboy at the time and we were gathered after the burial of my grandfather. Probably the strongest reason for this remembrance was the presence of my Uncle James. It was the first and last time I saw him. He was the youngest of my grandparent’s four sons and in common with the other three was part of the Protestant exodus from that part of Ireland when 26 of the 32 counties became independent from the rest of the U.K. in 1921. One had gone to the United States, my father and the oldest brother to the new state of N. Ireland and James to England where he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. After leaving the Army he became a prison officer and served in the medical departments of various prisons in England. At the time of our meeting he had a certain celebrity status as he had met the infamous Lord Haw Haw, proper name William Joyce, who had been a guest in his prison, Wandsworth, prior to his execution for treason in January of 1946, just a few months before our meeting. Needless to say he was the centre of attraction for the course of the afternoon.

Sadly, the room is no more. After my grandmother’s death in 1976 the house and land passed from our family and the new owner allowed the house to crumble away while he built a fine new bungalow in an adjacent field. A few years ago on a visit to the area he was kind enough to give me a tour of what was left of the house, really only a couple of walls and nothing of the room. While I contemplated the remains of the representation of another time and place the words of the old song came to mind, “Why stand I here like a ghost or a shadow? ‘Tis time I was moving. ‘Tis time I’d passed on.”….

 

 

Lama Ngapa Shakes the Dice

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Keeping an open mind, I decide that my mind would be open enough to have my immediate kismet – if fate has an intermediate stage – foretold by a lama.  The idea of rolling the dice, reading the tarot, seeing angels in tea leaves, stirring the entrails of a dead goat, laying silver on the palm of a chiromancer or allying the state of one’s being to the configuration or disfiguration of the planets used to be a no no:  now it was a yes yes.

But as there is a limit to our knowledge in an infinite world of possibilities; and there is a diminishing amount of time during which to discover just that little bit more, if not about the world then about oneself, I decide to give it a go.  By trying to be realistic one can become too cynical:  so I’m willing to open myself to the experience of having my fortune/misfortune told.  As Dawa, my daughter, says, It should be fun.

The Lama’s room is next to a Buddhist clinic a few minutes from the main Stupa at Boudha. I must have passed it hundreds of times but for some reason never noticed. This is typical of the area.  There are always nooks and crannies, lanes and narrow gullies that are missed no matter how many time you might pass them by.

When I enter the room, there are several other clients waiting and the Lama is reciting some prayers with that machine-gun speed that always amazes me.  He is unusual in that he has long hair tied back and a rather scanty beard and mustache.

After some time, he finishes and a woman from a remote village asks him about accommodation she is having a problem with.  After the advice is given, she hands him an airmail envelope containing some money wrapped in a kata (Tibetan scarf).

My sister-in-law is next.  She asks about a pain in her knees, although I’m not sure what his answer is as he talks to her Hyolmu, a Tibetan dialect.  Probably he’s telling her to eat less and lose weight.

Then it’s Fulmaya’s turn.  She’s been wondering about returning to Scotland:  will she be able to settle back into her routine?  What about the weather, the house, the work, the food, the expenses?

My question is also about our return to Scotland:  should we rent or buy another property as our house is currently being let for an indefinite period while we gallivant around the world?

He opens a little six-sided silver box, intricately tooled with a filigree design, and takes out what I presume to be dice, although I never quite see them.  After a few shakes, he says a mantra and blows on them, reconsiders and shakes and blows again.
Lama NgapkaLama

This routine is repeated a few times then he tells me that I should either look for another house to buy, but not immediately; rather, consider a few offers of places I would like to stay and if the price is right, buy.  Otherwise, he says, Look for a place to rent and be prepared to stay there but not for more than two-years. 

I give him an airmail envelope containing NRs505 wrapped in a kata and he gives me some kind of blessing.   (Apparently, according to the culture, one should not give a round figure as an offering, thus the extra five-rupees.)

The advice sounds sound and we leave feeling happier.  I don’t suppose we have been told anything we couldn’t think of ourselves, but the conviction with which we’ve been counselled does give us a certain feeling of elation – or are we kidding ourselves?  Nevertheless, a little bit of paranormal experience has done no harm and, after all, Lama Ngakpa is a really affable man and seems to have an inner peace and happiness that is communicable to all who meet him.  My maxim now…

 “There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”