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, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
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 . 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.
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.
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?”
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…
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.”….
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.
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.”