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.

Monday, 22 April 2013

NEWS JUNKY


If you asked me what I like most about Sundays, I would say it was relaxing with a cup of good coffee and the Sunday paper.  As I sat reading the paper this Sunday, I became aware that not only was it not a relaxing experience, I was actually getting wound up by what I read.  It seemed that every piece I read was written in such a way as to deliberately generate a negative response.  Social benefits scroungers, immigrant families being housed in central city locations; god bothered Americans resisting legislation to control guns, Rolf Harris questioned about sex offences.  As I read I became more and more mentally agitated.

Then it occured to me, “I am news junkey!” When I get up most mornings at 6.45, the first thing I do is switch on the radio in the kitchen and listen to Today on Radio 4 whilst I make my breakfast.  I eat this in front of the TV, channel-hopping between Breakfast, Daybreak and Sky News to avoid weather forecasts and adverts.  When I eventually go to the bathroom to wash and shave, I continue to listen to Today on a small bathroom radio.  Then it is time to switch on my computer and start work – too late for meditation.

I pondered for a while on whether I felt compelled to be so well informed about everything that was happening.  Would I be any worse off it I was less aware of all the tensions in the world?  As a Buddhist I wish to develop empathy, but is there a danger of overload?

I have decided to experiment by substantially reducing my news intake.  I will not listen to Today or watch TV news programmes for the next week and see what happens.  I began this morning and have to admit that I found it a little difficult but one benefit was plenty of time for a longish meditation with not so many things going round and round in my mind as I sat.  Maybe the vacuum will be filled by a greater awareness of what is going on infront of me – that remains to be seen.

Monday, 8 April 2013

DEATH & REBIRTH


As I am now well into my 70's I am conscious that I have entered the endgame of this lifetime.  So, do I fear death?  Not really, but I would certainly like to hang on for a little longer to see my grandchildren mature.  What I do fear is disease and the suffering it may bring to me and to my loved ones.  When I talk to friends who fear death, I point out that they have experienced ‘not being’ before they were born, so this is a familiar state and nothing to be afraid of. But the question they always ask is "What comes next?"

The majority of those with little knowledge of Buddhism would assume that I would believe in reincarnation – this is a common misconception.  The two most fundamental teachings of the Buddha were impermanence and conditionality.  He taught us to explore and understand that everything is impermanent – everything passes, even the universe. 

Then there is his most original and enlightening teaching; 'everything arises in dependence upon conditions'.  The more we consider this concept, the more we realise its truth.  Even the planet Earth arose in dependence upon certain critical and finally balanced conditions, allowing life forms to be created.  When those conditions cease to exist, as they inevitably will one day, all life on this planet will also cease to be.  So it is with all things - even the most simple.  A potted plant on my window sill has blossomed because it has light and warmth and soil in which to root and be nourished by. I give it water to help it flourish.  These conditions being present, it grows bigger and flowers brightly.  But if any of these conditions cease to be; the plant is moved away from any light and it is no longer watered, it will quickly fade, die and cease to exist.

If there are no exceptions to these two core principals, then it follows that reincarnation must be a myth.  If everything is impermanent then there can be no permanent, indestructible entity or ‘soul’ to be transferred from one life to another in a constant, unbroken stream.  However, we are asked to consider the possibility that the karma we acquire in this life-time can somehow affect a new-born human after one’s death.  How can this be?

If you Google rebirth, you will find many learned people explaining how this works, but frankly, it is unlikely that any of these pundits knows for sure. Having never seen any exceptions, I understand and accept that everything rises in dependence upon conditions and karma creates conditions in which it is possible for phenomena to arise, but how to explain this graphically?

Fortunately, there are a couple of excellent metaphors.  Firstly, the metaphor of two candles; one is burning and near the end of its life, the other is new and unused.  The flame from the old candle is used to light the new candle.  They continue to remain entirely separate, yet the flame of the second candle came into being upon the presence of the first candle. Without the dying candle, there would be no light from the new one.

Another metaphor that appeals to me, is that of two snooker balls.  The white ball strikes the stationary red ball.  The movement of the red ball is entirely conditioned by the angle and speed at which the white ball strikes it.  Without the white ball, the red ball would have neither motion nor direction.

Of course, these two simple metaphors can never explain the immense complexity of karma, but they serve to give rise to the possibility that it does exist, and a life that has gone before has somehow created conditions that will affect the life of a newly born person.

When you begin to meditate on this, you realise the enormous responsibility resting upon us all. As well as skillful, positive karma, we can also create unskilful negative karma which can burden the life of  someone yet unborn.  By living an ethical, empathetic life we hope to create good conditions upon which positive phenomena may arise, long after we have returned to a state of ‘not being’.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

WHAT IS THE DHARMA?

The Buddha-Dharma stems from the teachings and discourses given by Siddharta Gautama during the 40+ years of his life after becoming a fully enlightened Buddha.

After his enlightenment experience, the Buddha remained beneath the Bodhi tree for several days. He wondered how he could possibly communicate the extraordinary understanding he had realised. However, was always his intention to gain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings so he decided to seek out the group of five ascetics he has spent the past 7 years with. However, as he set out to find them he met a holy man, Ajivaka, walking the other way. They stopped and recognising a fellow seeker of the truth, he asked him, “Who is your teacher? Who’s dharma do you follow?” The Buddha tried to explain that he had awakened and discovered the truth for himself and would now teach his own dharma. Ajivaka smiled and nodded in a knowing way, and walked on unimpressed. The newly enlightened Buddha realised that he had to think carefully about how he was to present his Dharma.

He found the ascetics staying in a deer park in Saranath, near the ancient city of Benares. They were reluctant to listen at first but there was something distinctly different about their former colleague so they invited him to sit amongst them and listened to what he had to say. This was the Buddha’s famous discourse on the Four Noble Truths. It was later described as having ‘set the wheel of the dharma turning’ and is the bedrock on which all other teachings are mounted.

The Four Noble Truths
The first was the truth that dukkha is part of the human condition and is present in all our lives.
The second truth was that all dukkha has a root cause.
The third truth was that there was a way to reduce dukkha or even eliminate it altogether.
The fourth of the Four Noble Truths was the Noble Eightfold Path, the teaching that leads us away from dukkha

Dukkha is translated in many ways, with varying levels of emphasis, from simple unsatisfactoriness to out and out suffering.

The Nobel Eightfold Path was a sort of route map to enlightenment. In setting it out, the Buddha was suggesting an alternative to the long hard slog he had endured to reach his insight experience. By following the eight limbs of this suggested path, we too can achieve what he achieved. The eight limbs of the path are:

Perfect Vision
Perfect Emotion
Perfect Speech
Perfect Action
Perfect Livelihood
Perfect Effort
Perfect Awareness
Perfect Meditation or Concentration

During the following years the Buddha gave many hundreds, if not thousands of discourses to his followers and devotees. None of this was written down and recorded until hundreds of years after his death so how can we be sure that what we read in the accounts of his teachings are accurate and truly represent what he said?

We can’t be certain that what was eventually recorded was word-for-word exactly what the Buddha said, but we trust that the general tenor of the teaching was preserved. The main way to ensure the truth of these teachings was conveyed was by the common habit of listing things in numerical order and by repetition. Consequently, the written Buddha-Dharma is full of lists and often tedious repetitions and occasionally the Buddha summarised the teaching with a short rhythmical verse. All this can make for difficult reading but 2,500 years ago it enabled his followers to learn the Dharma by heart so that it could be handed on from generation to generation.

There was also another way the truth of the teachings was preserved. The Buddha’s most loyal and dedicated follower was his cousin, Ananda. Twelve years after the Buddha was enlightened Ananda joined him as his personal attendant. He had what we would call today, a photographic memory – or in his case perhaps, a tape recorder memory. During the followiurn are translatas always by the Buddha’Pali and Sanskrit words have no direct equivalent in our modern lexicon. The term ‘metta’ for example can be translated as love, kindness, empathy, compassion, etc. As we have seen, ‘Dukkha’ can be interpreted as anything from outright suffering to simple discontent. These translations can add different emphasis to the teachings so from tradition to tradition the understanding and interpretation of the Buddha-Dharma can vary widely. Over the centuries the Buddha’s teachings have been interpreted in many different ways with varying degrees of emphasis and, just like the Christian movement that was to follow half a millennium later, it led to schisms and the formation of various ‘schools’ of Buddhism.

Finally, at the age of 80, after 49 years of wandering and teaching, the Buddha grew ill and began to die and with his disciples and a number of villagers gathered round him, he uttered his last words, and passed away. What his words were will depend upon which school of Buddhism you follow or what translation you read. It coucient of surviving Buddhist scriptures, the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Cannon. Typically Ananda’s recollections begin, “Thus I have heard…”

The scriptu completion by being heedful." Or, slightly more abridged, “With mindfulness, strive on”.

Even though the Buddha passed away over 2,500 years ago, the real magic of his Dharma is that it is just as pertinent to those of us who live in a modern western culture as it was to the lives of the monks, villagers, tribes-people and forest dwelling hermits he encountered in his lifetime.