Friday, 1 December 2017

BUDDHISM AND NITS



Practicing Buddhists undertake to abide by a number of precepts.  Lay Buddhists have five, ordained members of the Triratna Buddhist Order have ten and Buddhist monks have many more.  However, the first universal precept is, ‘I undertake to abstain from taking life’.  Now, as there is no Buddhist pope sending out edicts on what is right and what is wrong, it is up to each individual Buddhist to interpret this precept and decide to what degree it should be applied.  The religious group known as Jains, take this to extraordinary extremes.  They sweep the ground in front of them as they walk to avoid accidentally stepping on any insects.  They also wear veils over their faces so they will not accidentally breath in any insects.

The Buddha consistently taught us to seek ‘the middle way’ between extremes.  He decreed that animals should not be slaughtered to feed him but when he stood in the villages with his alms bowl, he accepted whatever was given and this may have included meat.  His view was that to refuse a gift was to deny the giver the merit that comes from generosity.  Although the overwhelming majority of Triratna order members do not eat meat or fish, you could no more say that all Buddhists are vegetarian than you could say all vegetarians are Buddhists.  The Dalai Lama was once a vegan but following a severe bout of jaundice, he began eating meat on the advice of doctors, whilst still advocating vegetarianism.

My personal interpretation of the second precept is that as far as I am able, I avoid killing harmless bugs.  I don’t kill spiders but I would take measures to clear an infestation of ants in the kitchen.  I don’t want mice in the house but I hate to use mouse traps, so we have an electrical device that sends out a signal to make mice uncomfortable and less inclined to take up residence. I would not hesitate to use the most powerful anti-nit treatment if, in the unlikely event they were that desperate to find somewhere to live.  I am one of the fortunate few who seldom get bitten by mosquitoes but if I saw one feeding on my arm, I wouldn’t hesitate to swat it.  

Because of this precept, I gave up eating meat.  You could argue that no animal is slaughtered for my particular benefit, but I don’t accept that premise.  Someone has to do the killing and by doing so there is a danger that they will become hardened to the suffering of their victims, and this would have a powerful karmic effect.  I try to avoid eating fish although as I now live in Spain, I either have to eat fish or go without.  I also have to confess that from time to time I eat traditional fish and chips, albeit rather guiltily.

The world is changing and it is predicted that as the population of this planet swells it is going to become increasingly difficult to continue to feed everyone with animal protein.  Some say that in the future we will derive our protein from insects specially bred for the purpose, whilst others say that we would be perfectly able to feed the entire population of Mother Earth if we ate the vegetable protein we currently feed to sheep, cattle and pigs.

We experienced CJD in beef, an influenza epidemic created by poultry, salmonella poisoning in eggs and massive outbreaks of swine fever and foot and mouth disease, all due to intensive farming methods.  It seems to me that nature is telling us something and we really should take notice.  I am not suggesting that the entire population will become vegetarian sometime soon, but as we become more aware of the suffering inflicted on animals in order to provide us with affordable animal protein we will demand improvements to their welfare and perhaps eat a little less meat.  As we learn more about depleting fish stocks, we may also be encouraged to eat less fish. 

A few years ago lived surrounded by fields full of cattle.  From my bedroom window I would see them grazing peacefully with their suckling calves.  Human beings are the only creatures to demand that we should drink milk throughout their entire adult lives, so in order that we should have the milk rather than the calves, the male calves are taken away to be slaughtered and the young cows are taken off to eventually become milking cattle.  The moment the cows are separated from their calves they become distressed and start calling for them.  Their calls become increasingly desperate, even through the night and frequently one or two will force their way out of the field and run up and down the lane, bellowing for their young.  This goes on for at least a week until they calm down.  Eventually they will be put to the bull, and the whole process starts again. I found this upsetting and consequently moved slightly towards veganism by cutting cow’s milk from my diet.  To my shame, I still eat cheese as it seems currently beyond food scientists to invent an acceptable alternative.  We eat eggs but never from the supermarket.  Fortunately we have friends who keep chickens and allow them to joyfully run about freely.

That’s purely my personal viewpoint, but I would bring out the heavy artillery to tackle nits but think twice before stamping on a spider, look for alternatives to trapping mice and consider eating a little less meat.  But please don’t cook bacon when I am around, even after over 25 years as a vegetarian, the smell of bacon frying still makes my mouth water.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

HARVEY WEINSTEIN AND KARMA



Buddhists believe that all actions have consequences.  Positive actions have positive consequences and negative actions have negative consequences.  So we may say that Harvey Weinstein’s current predicament is the karmic consequence of his many negative actions both recent and historic.

Firstly, it is important to establish that karma is not a form of punishment meted out by some powerful deity, neither is it fate or destiny.  Our actions are often likened to seeds that are planted in the present but harvested in the future.  This future may be just minutes away or it may be many years before our actions mature into consequences.  However, this may be a little simplistic.

Karma is not a general law of causation but it is the way our deliberate actions shape our relationships with other people and affect the world we live in.  It is our intention, the deliberate wilful action that creates Karma.  

So in this case, it seems undeniable that Harvey Weinstein’s actions were aimed deliberately at satisfying his sexual urges with little or no consideration to how other parties were affected or damaged by them.  But what of all those who, because of the power wielded by him, were coerced into being complicit or remaining silent?  

These were deliberate actions albeit taken under duress.  They could have spoken out but chose not to out of fear of reprisals or damage to their own careers.  It could be that their actions were partially responsible for fostering the continued belief among some that sexual harassment was acceptable.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

THE FOUR SEASONS


There’s a widely held misconception that we don’t experience the four seasons here in the Balearic Islands.  The transitions may be very different in appearance to those experienced in the UK, but we still enjoy spring, summer, autumn and winter.  

Spring is notable for its profusion of wild flowers.  No daffodils or bluebells but spring is around the corner when there is a sudden explosion of bright yellow flowers that seem to happen overnight.  They pop up everywhere, every nook and cranny, every crack in a wall or pavement will be filled with them.  When the sun bounces off the carpet of yellow blooms it is dazzling and you have to look away.  Then just as suddenly they are gone to be followed by oxide daisies and a proliferation of wild orchids including the fascinating bee orchid, mimicking female bees to trick males into mating and thereby pollinate them.

This year however, spring suddenly became summer without warning.  Half way through May we were enjoying the warmth of early season’s sunshine when suddenly temperatures soared into the low 30’s, and it stayed that way all through June with high levels of humidity.  June became July heralding killer temperatures way off the scale, reaching the low 40’s in several places. 
We took showers several times a day but it was futile, just toweling off was enough to get the sweat flowing again and sleep was almost impossible.   

August was unbearably hot and humid, we could hardly remember the last time it rained. Then on the very last day of the month the rain came.  Temperatures plummeted as the skies clouded over and at last the garden hose was redundant.  

Yesterday the thunder rumbled and skies turned slate grey.  Strong winds heralded more rain and it   I remembered many years ago when we were running a country bar/restaurant in August and at 6.30 in the morning a storm broke the drought.  In an instant the gutters were overflowing with rain, water streaming off the roof to create a waterfall .  I leapt out of bed, grabbed a bar of soap and stood naked under the gushing water, filling the patio with suds. I had never felt so alive.
was delicious.

This morning the grey skies are gone as have all the puddles.  The breeze is still quite perky but the temperature was up in the low teens when I exercised our dog at 8.00 but quickly climbing to a manageable 28⁰ by midday.  The humidity has gone and the air is crisp.  Hopefully, in spite of this sudden shift from Summer to Autumn, we will have a few weeks of this wonderful weather before the winter chill arrives.

Friday, 1 September 2017

THE ACCIDENTAL BUDDHIST - RETIRED



Four years ago my wife and I left the UK to live in Menorca.  The reason for us emigrating was threefold.  Firstly, financial.  Now retired on a very basic state pension, rent and council taxes would be much lower there - an important consideration.  Secondly, we had family in Menorca; my wife’s son’s family lived there with our two grandsons.  Finally, it was the year of the big floods in the Somerset levels.  Luckily we lived high on a hill, safe from the floods but for months and months we looked out over the saturated levels hating the grey, leaden skies and desperate for some sunshine.

We knew the island well, in fact some 20 years earlier we had lived there for a few years struggling to make a living as artists and interior decorators.  Having failed, we returned to the UK but continued to take our holidays there.  We owned a primitive ‘casita’ literally ‘small house’.  It had running water, flush toilet, a fair sized plot of land, but no electricity.  We couldn’t afford to install solar but we enjoyed summer evenings by candlelight.  We always looked forward to our annual holiday in Menorca visiting friends and family.  When we landed at Mahon airport we felt the stresses of day to day life in the UK immediately begin to fade away.  After a couple of weeks laying in a hammock or swimming in the sea, we were totally relaxed and ready to face the world once more.

But now we live here – our pensions converted to Euros and paid directly into our local bank.  At first everything was rosy.  Sterling was probably over valued as we were receiving over 1.40 to the pound and with a single client left over from my freelance days adding to our income, we felt that we had made the right choice.  

Then came the referendum.  Even before the results were known, sterling was already on the move downwards and it continues.  Now not far short of one for one, we have definitely felt the pinch.  My stepson lost his job with a local nightclub and unable to find alternative work, took his wife and children back to the UK where work was plentiful.  We missed them terribly and this combined with our diminishing income began to create stress.  In the past we would counter this with a short holiday in Menorca – but now we lived here and there was no escape.

This reminded me of the piece I wrote on this blog a few years ago about the Wordly Winds I read it through again and remembered how much I enjoyed leading classes at the Bristol Buddhist Centre and also the pleasure in writing these notes afterwards.  So I have decided to revive it – maybe not writing as regularly as I did when I lived in the UK, but just now and then.  Quite what I will write about and who I will write it for, I am not sure.  

Maybe just some very brief notes from a retired Accidental Buddhist living on a very small Mediterranean island.

(pictured is Calas Fons at Es Castell)

Friday, 20 June 2014

LIVING IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I have a connection with the beautiful Spanish island of Menorca.  Some years ago I quit my job and together with my partner, Chrissie, headed off in an old VW campervan towards Barcelona to catch a ferry to Menorca where we intended to try to earn a living as artists.  Once there we rented a tiny house on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere and sent for Chrissie’s 11 year old son to join us.

We struggled to make a living and were eventually invited to take charge of a restaurant and bar.  It seemed less precarious but was very hard work.  It became a success but after a few years we worn out and decided to move on, but Chrissie’s son was at studying at art college and chose to remain there.  He is now married and has two sons and we have frequently wondered if we could ever afford to go back to Menorca to live there once again.

On holiday last year, some friends offered us a small house at a peppercorn rent.  It was a home we were familiar with as our son had lived there for several years with his former partner.  It was too good to refuse and we began to plan our move from Somerset to the Mediterranean.  It was not a decision we took lightly as there were several important things to consider.  I am now well into my 70’s and my wife is 70 this year.  We have no private means, just State Pensions.  However, I provide consultancy services to a company in Kent who were happy to continue to the arrangement via the internet.

The cost of living in Menorca is moderately better with lower rent, lower community taxes and less heating bills, so we would be a little better off.  However, once we had moved everything lock, stock and barrel to the island, we began to reflect on wider issues.   At our age it is inevitable that we will eventually need medical attention.  It is also very likely that we will live out our final years here and we had been warned that the cost of cremation was very high – around 6,000 euros.  With my little consultancy we could afford to run a small car and even put some cash aside for an occasional visit to the UK to see family, but if it ceased, our sole reliance on a UK State Pension would not be sufficient.  We could never afford to move back and if one of us died, the other would be marooned here.  I would also miss my Buddhist friends.


However, the Dharma encourages us to live in the present moment.  The past has gone and cannot be changed and the future is unknown.  All we have is the here and now.  When a crisis arises we will somehow find a way to resolve it. That is not to say we should be reckless and not take steps to put aside resources as best we can, that is sensible.  But it makes no sense to fret about what may or may not happen.  We must enjoy our new life and live in the present moment; making new friends and learning to speak Spanish.  We have been here just a few weeks and
have already met some people who are keen to learn meditation and have asked if I would be interested in starting a small group. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

EMPTINESS & INTERDEPENDENCE



When I first developed an interest in Buddhism there were many things that were totally new to me, some of which I grasped fairly easily but others aspects that I struggled to understand.  I was told, “Don’t worry, set them aside and come back to them later – you may find these things clearer when you are more experienced”.  It was good advice and when I returned to a particular element, I was often surprised that I had made such hard work of it.  However, there is one sticking point that many quite experienced Buddhists have difficulty with – and that’s the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness.  I have re-addressed this several times over the years; read many descriptions and explanations and listened to talks by well-respected teachers, but somehow I couldn’t quite grasp it. 

I recently took a holiday in Menorca, a place I visit often as I have a very small home there.  We have no electricity so there’s no internet and no TV.  Before we travel I spend some time searching for good books to take with me.  Nothing too heavy or challenging,  Mysteries and detective novels are absorbing and relaxing and I find I can get through 2 or 3 each week. Just before we left I bought some used paperbacks, one of which was a slight departure; The Wisdom of Forgiveness.  It is written by Victor Chan, a close friend of the Dalai Lama and based on a series of intimate conversations they shared whilst travelling from country to country following the Dalai Lama's busy schedule. 

In the course of one of these conversations, His Holiness tells Victor Chan that for decades he has meditated every day on interconnectedness and emptiness.  Victor Chan confesses that he has difficulty with this concept but later is present when the Dalai Lama is visited by a Korean scholar, Kim Yong-Oak.  The Dalai Lama begins by stating that emptiness is not the same as nothingness.  He said that there are two types of reality.  Firstly, there is ‘standard’ reality.  He gestures towards a mug of water.  When we look at it we see water.  When we touch it we feel water.  We know it is water. But then he described how we can look at it with ‘ultimate’ reality in which the mug is a combination of particles, atoms, electrons and quarks – none of this particles can be described as ‘a mug’.  The term mug is just an every-day label for this collection of particles.   The mug has come into existence because of a complex web of causes and conditions.  Therefore it does not and could not exist independently.  It cannot come into being by itself, of its own volition. It is empty of intrinsic, inherent existence.  In other words, empty is another word for interdependent.

We all tend to see ourselves as distinct entities; we are different from our friends and family.  Due to our conditioning we believe we are distinct and independent,  but in fact our existence depends on an infinite, intricately linked series of events, causes and conditions.  If any of these conditions had varied, we would exist in a wholly different way.  From this perspective, ‘self’ and ‘others’ makes sense only in terms of relationships.  In fact, your interests and my interests are inextricably connected in a tangible way.  If emptiness is another term for interdependent, we could describe ourselves as ‘empty’.  The Dalai Lama concluded his discussion with Kim Yong-Oak by emphasising that anyone could obtain happiness and fulfilment by focusing on two main elements of the Buddha dharma; compassion and emptiness.

His Holiness returned to this subject in a later conversation with Victor Chan.  He explained that the existence of anything, coffee mugs, feelings of jealousy, is dependent upon a complex web of relationships.  If you think about it long enough, there is no logical way for these things to exist independently.  Therefore they can be said to be devoid of  a life of their own.  They have no inherent, independent existence.  In other words, they are empty. 

He continued, “Normally we tend to see things in a solid, tangible way.  Therefore there is a tendency to grasp at things, to become attached to things.  We cling to the idea of a separate self and separate things. We strive for new experiences, new acquisitions.  Yet as soon as we possess them, the buzz is gone and we look for something new.  This endless cycle of craving causes suffering”.

Later he tells Victor Chan of an insight into emptiness and interdependence he experienced as a young man.  He said that the realisation hit him with a physical shock and he remained affected for several days afterwards.  Since that moment he has viewed life in a total different way.  He concluded that if we acquire and understanding of emptiness, craving, the source of our suffering, will be lessened.

My problem in grasping this teaching was simply caused by having a preconceived idea of the word 'emptiness'.  English translations of sanskrit and pali frequently define the meaning of words in a limited way.  The best known example is the term 'dukkha' which is often just translated as 'suffering'.  This is wholly inadequate as it ignores all the other shades of meaning, ranging from mere dissatisfaction to the full-on agony of suffering.