Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Taking up the Brush Once More

Many years ago, I decided it was time to recognise a dream. I had long wondered if I could support myself as an artist. All my life I had drawn and painted things but I wanted to know if I was good enough to make a living doing so. Just as importantly, I also wanted to do it somewhere warm and sunny.

Eventually, with much encouragement and support from my partner, I resigned my job, bought an old campervan and set off for a new life in Menorca in the Balearic Islands. We rented a small house way out in the middle of nowhere and I began to paint. For a while I was living the dream, but of course it was only a matter of time before reality kicked in. When you depend on your art to pay for the groceries, you soon learn that you have to paint subjects that sell rather than those you would chose to paint for your own enjoyment. However, I didn't really mind as long as I had a paintbrush in my hand so I was prepared to try whatever was necessary. This included painting murals on the walls of holiday villas; learning signwriting, painting watercolours of gardens and pets and even stencilling pictures on t-shirts. My biggest success however was a series of large watercolours of black singers and musicians but it was still very much a hand to mouth existence. If we sold a picture we could eat, and if we didn't sell a picture we worried. Eventually I was offered an opportunity to earn a slightly more reliable living running a bar and restaurant. I accepted and I put away my paints and brushes.

They stayed that way for the next 18 years. Several times I had the urge to paint once more but after such a long time I lacked the confidence I once had. I got as far as putting the paper on the drawing board, putting the board on the easel and surrounding myself with brushes, tubes of paint and all the other paraphernalia you need before you can paint. And then I put it all away again.

But this winter I resolved to start painting once again and eventually, I made the first brush stroke for 18 years. Once again it was a black musician. It wasn't the best painting I have ever done, but it was a start and it was good to know that with practice I could regain my old skills.

Gaining Wisdom

I hesitate to lead a discussion on Wisdom. I left school at 15 with two GCE O levels. I have had scores of different jobs and have been married 4 times. I am now well past retirement age – is it possible that simply surviving for 69 years can make one wise? I don’t think so, but wisdom does not necessarily equate with education or academic success, it is more a matter of learning to see the world around you in a different way.

One achieves wisdom when one experiences insight into the way things really are. But what is meant by ‘insight’? What is meant by ‘seeing things as they really are’? We see things as they really are when we rise above our normal mundane, conditioned existence to see things in a new, transcendent, unconditioned way.


This gives rise to another question. What do we mean by unconditioned? The process of conditioning starts almost from the moment we emerge from the womb. The vast majority is useful and intended to help us to grow up in a way that allows us to live in harmony with our society. Our behaviour is conditioned by our parents. From them we learn good manners. As best they can, they teach us what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. However, they may also condition our belief in God or our social order. Our school teachers continue this process, often reinforcing our parent’s ideas of the divine and class loyalties. More importantly, this whole mass of conditioning is inclined to cause us to believe that the way we see the world is the ‘right’ way, indeed we are often asked to believe it is the only way.

By the time we are in our teens and struggling to think for ourselves, we frequently find we are caught in the conflict between our received wisdom and emerging doubts about the true order of things. So, how can we untangle ourselves from this web of conditioning, rise above it and experience insight into the way things really are?

My parents were atheists but they sent me to Sunday school. This was not because they thought Jesus wanted me for a sunbeam, but because it got me out of the house on a Sunday morning so they could have a lay in. One Sunday I was shown the power of sin. A large reel of cotton was produced and it was wrapped around me just once. I was told that this single strand was a sin. I was asked to break free – which I obviously could. Then the children took turns in running the cotton round and round me until I was in a web of sin that held me as tight as a straight jacket. Although I was only 8 or 9 years old I was already having my doubts about the whole God thing, but the image stayed with me and perhaps it is a good metaphor for how conditioning works. Each subsequent thread of conditioning binds us closer and closer to our own view of reality until we become convinced that we are the centre of our own universe, solid, permanent and unchanging.


So, how can we rise above this conditioned view of existence and perhaps see it as it really is? The Buddha to be, Siddhartha Gautama was so determined to see beyond the mundane, obscured view of reality, that he left home and for many years devoted himself entirely to that pursuit. Eventually, having made very little real progress, he sat down to meditate. As he was absorbed deeper and deeper in his meditation, many things were revealed to him until, after many hours, the veil feel away and he saw everything with stunning clarity. He had obtained a view of reality that was now so clear that it was as if his previous life had been lived within a dream and now, for the first time, he was wholly awake. His followers recognising this transition, called him Buddha – ‘he who is awakened’.

As a Buddhist, my hope is not necessarily that I am going to achieve the same total experience as the Buddha, although he himself said that this was possible, but I do hope that I will at least acquire some measure of insight, perhaps just a fleeting glance of the true nature of things.

Over time we come to understand that there is no permanent unchanging self, no eternal soul, no unchanging divine spark. For those who do experience insight, there is no returning, no turning back from the desire to understand and achieve complete understanding.


It is said that the teaching that separated the enlightened teaching of the Buddha from all other contemporary holy men and spiritual leaders was his explanation of dependent origination. It takes a little while to absorb but even someone like me with just two O level GCEs can get there eventually. The Buddha taught that phenomena only exist because of the existence of other phenomena in a complex web of cause and effect. This is what he said:

When this is, that is.

From the arising of this, comes the arising of that.

When this isn’t, that isn’t

From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

In other words, nothing can exist entirely independent of everything else. Everything that arises, does so in dependence on certain conditions. When those conditions cease, the arising ceases also/ Let us take a simple example. A flower rises in dependence upon certain conditions. Firstly there must be a seed. That seed needs certain conditions to germinate. It must have light, soil, nutrients and moisture. It requires certain climatic conditions to signal when it should start growing and it is dependent upon genetic programming to ensure that it grows into a flower and not a stick of rhubarb. When all these conditions exist, so does the flower. If any of these elements cease to exist, so will the flower. Buddhists remind themselves of ‘conditioned co-production by placing flowers on every shrine. We understand that everything must be transient and therefore impermanent. When we can grasp this and connect with it with our hearts as well as our heads, insight will arise. It is said that the Buddha once gave a teaching to a group of followers. The Buddha took his place but instead of speaking, he remained silent for some time. Then he held up a single flower and someone in the audience immediately gained insight and attained enlightenment.

Our very existence is contingent upon a whole series of connected phenomena going all the way back to the time sentient beings began to emerge from the primordial swamp. Everything you do is contingent upon a mass of other phenomena. The moment you opened your eyes this morning your existence was contingent upon a web of events so complex as to be almost beyond description.

To enable us to understand this concept we can reflect on the beautiful metaphor of Indra’s web:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung buy some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each ‘eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that it its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

With growing concern for global warming and climate change, we are beginning to grasp exactly how complex and interconnected this web is. We learn that unless we do something to redress the damage we are all doing to the environment, the planet we always thought of as the ultimate in permanence, is nothing of the sort. Unchecked, it is possible that the human race will destroy it. Conditioned co-production teaches that every one of us has a role to play in ensuring this does not happen. We are interconnected with every other human being on Earth and our contribution, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, is vital to our survival.

Wisdom arises when we glimpse the true nature of things as they really are.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Flotsam Faces

A couple of years ago, we were spending a day with friends who had access to a waterfront villa at Calla Rata on the opposite side of Mahon harbour in Menorca. Whilst the others were fishing, I idled away the time arranging bits of flotsam and jetsam to create a caricature. I continued and over the course of the next hour or so I had created three of them.

My friends were so taken by the result that they urged me to take one of them home and permanently fix the bits together. On my return to Wells at the end of our holiday, I spent an afternoon collecting rubbish off the beaches at Burnham on Sea to make some more caricatures. These 'Flotsam Faces' are now displayed on the walls of our cottage. I enjoy creating something amusing out of rubbish and I hope you like them too.

Pratītya Samutpāda

The concept of Pratitya Samutpada or dependent origination is common to all schools of Buddhism and is a fundamental cornerstone of the Buddha’s teaching. In short, it states that all phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. A Wikipedia entry describes it as follows:

“A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being. This sounds as though it is unbelievably complex and indeed it is”.

The Buddha described it more pragmatically:

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

They say that the best way to eat an elephant is a little bit at a time, so maybe we could start by nibbling at one tiny corner of this massive cardinal doctrine. The Buddha urged us to test his teachings in the light of our own experience and I have always taken this advice to heart. If I can see the truth of a concept represented in my own life and in the world around me, I find it much easier to understand. So here’s an example of something that seemed relatively insignificant at the time but because of dependant origination, it changed my past, my present and my future.

I joined the RAF in my late teens. I loved the life but was not too keen on my job as an RAF Policeman. I was due to be released at the end of my enlistment period but felt inclined to stay on if I could change my trade to something more interesting. The RAF had just introduced a new flying trade of Air Quarter Master. I met the criteria so I applied. I was then advised that all applicants must have a minimum of 9 years unexpired service. As I was at the point of being released, I would have to sign up for the full term. However, if I failed the selection process or did not complete the training, I would have to serve out the 9 years as a policeman. I quickly withdrew my application and was released a few weeks later.

I decided against returning to my home town of Ealing and settled in Bristol. Here I met new friends including Bob, a jazz musician and sandwich bar owner,

Meanwhile, unbeknown to me, another story was unfolding. Two teenage girls, Jan and Mandy, had become close friends at school in Bristol. They were now both working and decided to take a holiday together. It would be their first time abroad and they eagerly poured over the holiday brochures. They chose a reasonably priced 10 day holiday in Menorca in the Spanish Balearic Islands.

The adventure was everything they hoped it would be and Mandy had the bonus of a holiday romance with Jose, a handsome Spanish waiter. Unlike most holiday romances this one endured. Mandy and Jose continued to write to each other. Eventually Jose saved enough to fly to Bristol to find Mandy and seek employment. They married and returned to Menorca together where they started a family. Jan would fly out to visit them as often as she could. Eventually Jan also married but her husband wasn’t keen on foreign holidays, but she still kept in contact with Mandy and Jose as best she could.

Tragedy struck and Jan’s husband was killed in a motoring accident. Some years later she bumped into my friend Bob in a jazz club. They fell in love, married and had a honeymoon in Menorca with Mandy and Jose. Bob loved the island and couldn’t wait to move out and start a business there. Naturally I was keen to visit Bob and took my new partner Chrissie with me. She too was enchanted by the island and we agreed to sell up and emigrate there.

Chrissie’s son Will came with us, went to a local Spanish school and on to Art College. Years later, when Chrissie and I moved away from the island, he decided to stay behind. Today he works in one of the island’s big tourist attractions, Los Covas den Xoroi, a night club situated in caves set high in the side of a massive cliff face. His partner is pregnant and in a few months Chrissie and I will have a grandchild who will be part Spanish. I doubt that they will every wish to live in the UK so we will have a family line stretching far into the future and linked to this small Mediterranean island.

Had the RAF not imposed the 9 year rule, I would have stayed on as an Air Quarter Master, living an entirely different life flying around the world taking supplies to air bases. I would never have met Bob or known anything about Jan, Mandy or Jose. I would not have met my wife Chrissie or lived in Menorca. I would not have had a stepson called Will or a Spanish grandchild. My past, present and future turned on a simple decision to return to civilian life.

Through our own experience we are able to understand and appreciate the amazingly complex web of cause and effect that connects us all. Today it is considered to be new science and ‘the butterfly effect’ is often used as a metaphor. 2,500 years ago in Northern India a fully enlightened Buddha understood it all perfectly. He called it Pratītya Samutpāda.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Sliding Doors

In the film Sliding Doors, Gwyneth Paltrow portrays two versions of a young New Yorker’s life. They are separated by the closing of the doors of a tube train. In one version she catches the train and her life is taken in a particular direction. In the other version the doors shut before she can board and her life is totally different.

It is the fact that our lives can turn on such seemingly insignificant events that excites me so much. No matter how we plan or structure our lives, they can suddenly alter in the blinking of an eye, for the better or for the worse. We may turn a corner and meet the person we are going to spend the rest of our lives with or fall down an unattended beer cellar and carry the scars forever. When we open our eyes each morning, we have no idea if the dawn is going to bring an encounter that will significantly alter the direction of our lives or if it is going to be just like any other day.

Some years ago I was a security surveyor working in London. One day, I was working in London’s West End when I received a pager message asking me to visit Group Sales Box Office, a company located down a side street off Haymarket: I was to ask for the Director, Gillian Guy.

I caught the lift to the second floor which opened into an incredibly busy office. Phones rang, telex machines chattered. People were ran back and forth carrying files and waving pieces of paper. I was led to the far corner where Gillian sat behind a desk shielded from the chaos by shoulder-high screens. She was on a transatlantic telephone call. No sooner had she put the receiver down than it rang again. I sat patiently until she finished and pressed the Do Not Disturb button.

She was an imposing figure. In her late 50’s, confident and authorative. Her accent was middle class and slightly theatrical. I needed to engage in a little small talk so that I could be sure of her attention, so I commented on the high stress environment and suggested it must be a very difficult to wind down at the end of the day.

She became quite animated. “Oh you wouldn’t believe it darling. It is so difficult. I’ve tried everything, alcohol, yoga, exercise. I am even thinking of trying meditation”.

At that time I was supporting the beginners’ drop-in class at the London Buddhist Centre, so I mentioned this. Gillian’s eyes lit up and she asked me when and where the classes took place. I explained that they were at a Buddhist centre in Bethnal Green and expected this would put her off. Not so. Gillian grabbed a Post-it note and scribbled down the details. I suggested that if she ever wished to come along, she should try the vegetarian restaurant next door as I usually ate there at 7.00 before the class started at 7.30 and would be pleased to introduce her. With that we moved on to discuss the security of the offices and when I left the building an hour later, I did not expect to see Gillian Guy again.

Several weeks later, I wandered into the Cherry Tree Vegetarian Café one evening for a bowl of soup and home made bread before entering the adjacent London Buddhist Centre for the beginner’s meditation class. Someone waved vigorously in my direction and it took a moment to recognise Gillian Guy, sitting in a corner wearing a genuine fur coat, oblivious to the fact that the vegetarian diners were looking daggers at her. We renewed our acquaintance and spent the evening at the class. Gillian took to meditation like a duck to water and we continued to meet regularly as she became a frequent visitor to the Centre.

Group Sales Box Office specialised in booking large blocks of theatre seats for visiting parties of tourists. In fact her company sold more West End theatre tickets than any other agency in London. Consequently, much of her spare time was taken up attending opening nights of plays and shows so she could assess their suitability for her groups.

She told me that her husband had been a senior manager with the Daily Telegraph but had died nearly two years previously. To compensate for the void left by his death she filled her spare time with the theatre and voluntary work as a part time magistrate. However, she didn’t like to go to the theatre unaccompanied and would invite friends and even ‘borrowed’ their husbands for a few hours to act as escorts. She asked if I liked the theatre and I replied that I liked it very much, although I didn’t go too often. Gillian asked if I would be prepared to escort her one evening and I said that it would be a great pleasure.

A few days later my pager instructed me to ring Gillian Guy.
“Are you free this evening” she enquired. I was.
“I don’t suppose you have a dinner jacket with you?” I assured her that it was not an essential part of a security surveyor’s equipment but I was wearing a dark blue suit.
“Could you buy a dickie-bow somewhere and then meet me at the Haymarket Theatre at 7.15? It’s the first night of a new musical”.

I was not too keen on musicals but it was a free night out and soon sported a criminally over-priced black bow tie. I hurried to the Haymarket. I turned the corner to see a heaving mass of people thronging around the Haymarket Theatre. There were flood lights, TV cameras and autograph hunters waving books. A fleet of sleek limousines queued at the curb-side waiting to discharge celebrity passengers. Policemen linked arms to hold back the crowds. And there, standing calmly on the other side of the police cordon, wearing her genuine fur coat, was Gillian Guy. She waved; instructed the police to let me through and quickly whisked me inside. She took a seat in the stalls bar whilst I elbowed aside Melvyn Bragg to order a couple of gin and tonics for the intermission. Gillian explained that this was the first night of Phantom of the Opera, a new musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice starring Michael Crawford who was a major star following his television success as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.

It was a glittering occasion and we were surrounded by well known faces. Gillian pushed through the crowds to speak to Stephen Fry. They obviously new each other well and she explained that they had once been neighbours when she lived on Clapham Common. We took our seats and the lights dimmed.

Back at the bar during the interval, Gillian asked me what I thought of it. Anxious not to reveal that musicals were not my thing, I praised the amazing sets. I was blithely unaware that I was witnessing the birth of a worldwide theatrical phenomenon; the most successful West End musical of all time.

When the curtain calls finally ended, we fought out way out into the fresh air once more.
“Come along darling, I’ve got a ticket to the Lloyd-Webber’s party at Limelight”. Gillian showed me the single gold edged invitation.
“I will walk you there and then I’ll go home” I said. I have had a truly incredible evening”
Gillian was having none of it. “Just stick close to me and we’ll be fine”

As we approached Limelight we could see a menacing team of bouncers guarding the door. I feared the worst but at that moment a number of taxis pulled up disgorging a crowd of dinner-jacketed men with their cocktail-dressed partners. We were surrounded on all sides. Cameras flashed, invitations were waved in the air. Somehow in the melee we were suddenly found ourselves inside and being offered chilled champagne by tall transvestites in fishnet stockings.

When we emerged at 2.00 in the morning, an argument was taking place on the pavement. Singer George Michael was being denied entry by bouncers because he had not got an invitation.

A throw-away remark about the need to unwind after a stressful had taken me to another world; one I would otherwise have only dreamed about. For the next three years I was to escort Gillian to every first night in both London and the provinces; attend every award ceremony and be invited to all the major theatrical parties.

Far more importantly, I forged a very special friendship that endures to this very day.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Long Journey Home

I related this story during a talk at the recent East Down Centre Beginner's Retreat in Devon (see below).

Some years ago, I was eking out a living as a water-colourist on the Mediterranean island of Menorca in the Spanish Balearics. I had been asked by my ex-employer to assist with a new project and was flying to the UK via Barcelona. As I sat in the departure lounge some passengers were transferring from an inbound Ibiza flight. One of them, a rangy middle-aged hippy, staggered under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as he searched vainly for a seat. He cussied and shouted at no one in particular. I had a sinking feeling that if he was allowed to board, he would end up sitting next to me.

The flight embarked and sure enough, he came tottering down the aisle towards me. To my intense relief he continued past me, disappearing to the far end of the cabin. Instead the empty seat next to me was taken by an elderly lady, short and rather dumpy, with a startlingly severe haircut and a shapeless, long-sleeved dress. I relaxed; at least I would be able to shut my eyes for a while during the 2 hour flight to Gatwick.

It soon became obvious that she was not going to be ignored and once airborne, eagerly engaged me in conversation. She asked if I had been on holiday in Spain and I explained that I was fortunate to live in Menorca and worked as an artist. Her face lit up as she twisted in her seat to look at me directly. She wanted to know what medium I worked in and I replied that I was a water-colourist. At this she issued a snort and became intensely animated.
“Watercolours are for women!” she exclaimed loudly, “Men should work in oils or acrylics”.
Now she was in full flow. “I use oils but I paint with my hands, I push the paint like this, and like this!” As demonstrated, waving her arms about in a dramatic manner, attracting glances from other passengers. I began to wonder if the Ibizan hippy may have been a better travelling companion.

As she became excited, her accent became an odd mix of something strongly Slavic combined with a slight tinge of Scots.

I asked her what subjects she painted. “I paint abstracts to express all the suffering I have seen in my life” She replied, her voice lowering. I enquired if she had a market for them and she explained that she lived in a retirement home for artistic Jews. They provided the canvasses and paint and sold her pictures to cover the cost of her accommodation. He voice became conspiratorial, “But I get up in the night when they are all asleep and paint pictures that I hide under my bed. Then I sell them privately”.

I wanted to know if she got good prices for her abstracts. “It’s better than writing books” she said with another snort. By now I couldn’t stop myself.
“You’ve written a book?”
“Yes” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand.
“What about?”
“My years in the Russian gulag”
I sat up in my seat. “You were in the gulags?” I said incredulously.
“Yes, for many years,”
For the next hour she told me of her nightmare imprisonment in Stalin’s labour camps. Several times I felt my eye brim with tears. I could hardly breathe as her story unfolded.

I was desperate to know more but we were now being instructed to fasten our seat belts as we were starting our descent.
“Was the book published?”
“Oh yes, but after agents fees and public relations and marketing, I got nothing”.
She didn’t seem keen to continue discussion of her book but I pressed her.
“What was it called?”
“Long Journey Home”
“Is it still in print?”
“Oh yes”.
“What name did you write it under?”
“My name, Flora Leipman”.

The conversation was over. She caught a passing air hostess by the arm. “I would like a wheel chair to meet me at the steps, I am too old to walk all the way to the terminal”. The hostess explained that if she had not booked it before departure, it would not be possible. With that Flora Leipman simply repeated her request, slowly, quietly and assertively. “I would like a wheel chair to meet me at the steps.” Shaking her head, the hostess walked away.

The aircraft landed and Flora Leipman remained seated. “I am waiting for my wheel chair” she stated flatly. I wished her well and left the aircraft. As I waited at the baggage reclaim I heard a triumphant shout, “Goodbye Mr Watercolour”. Flora Leipman waved me farewell as she was pushed through the arrivals hall in her wheelchair.

At the weekend, I enquired at my local Waterstone's. I asked if they had heard of a book called, Lone Journey Home by a Flora Leipman. Yes they had. It had been on their best seller list but was sold out and they were waiting for the re-print to be delivered next week. I ordered a copy and collected it the following Tuesday. I urge you to find a used copy on Amazon - there are plenty there costing little more than the postage, I guarantee you will be moved.

In 1999 I read her obituary in the Independent.

In the 1930s Flora Leipman left the Glasgow of her childhood for Leningrad, expecting to help build a socialist paradise: instead, her whole family fell victim to Stalin's purges. Her strange, sad life was documented in a book by her, The Long Journey Home, which was also the subject of a BBC documentary....just before she died she explained: "Painting helps me forget . . . losing my girlhood, not having shoes, never having enough food, the rage, the waste of all our lives.”

I have learned that there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ person. No matter how ordinary a person may think they are or how ordinary they may appear to be at first sight, everyone, but everyone has a story to tell. Maybe not quite as chilling as Flora Leipman’s but an interesting tale nonetheless. All you need to do is listen.

A Beginner's Retreat

A Beginners’ Meditation Retreat took place at the beautiful East Down Centre deep in rural Devon over the weekend of 23 to 25 October. There were 14 retreatants including the team. The theme was 'The Heart' and was co-led by Amaladevi and Bahiya. Organisation and catering support was very generously provided by Padmapala and Kumada releasing the co-leaders to concentrate on the programme of dharma talks and meditation.

Saturday was wet and miserable with the gloom added to by the sound of gunfire as a pheasant shoot took place on the neighbouring estate. But on Sunday the sun shone. The sight of dozens of surviving pheasants raised everyone’s spirits and the glorious contryside was transformed as the sun drove away the mist and clouds. Taking advantage of the unexpected good weather,the team was able to introduce a walking meditation into the programme. It was so warm that many were able to walk in bare feet, enjoying the sensation of the grass between their toes and the sun on their faces - a memorable introduction to this form of meditation

Amaladevi introduced the beginners to a 3-fold puja on Saturday evening and led the final metta bhavana meditation on Sunday afternoon during which each individual attending the retreat was named and sent metta by the group.

Padmapala and Kumada, having provided food of the highest standard and more than ample quantity, ensured that everyone left clutching apples and bananas for their journey back to Bristol on Sunday evening at the conclusion of what everyone agreed was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring weekend. My heart-felt thanks to everyone who made it happen.

Monday, 12 October 2009

In God's Waiting Room

There’s a dilemma when considering when one should accept that one is officially ‘old’. Getting a bus pass and a state pension didn’t seem to do it for me and until now I have steadfastly refused to describe myself as ‘old’. Next year I will be 70, there will be no argument – I will be old and that’s that. I could last another 10 years or more, but there is no disguising the fact that I am now, in ‘God’s Waiting Room’.

It is perfectly natural, once you reach your 60’s, that you should begin to think a bit more carefully about death. During last winter’s damp, cold weather my creaking and painful joints nudged my consciousness, reminding me that time was marching on. I needed to consider what was most likely; would I would die, be reborn and start all over again from scratch, or I would simply enter into the ‘Big Sleep’. Of course my Christian friends would suggest that I would find myself standing before my maker as he considered my CV. I thought carefully about the ,Big Sleep.

"I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."
Mark Twain

When insight came to me it was not on the meditation stool, not on retreat, but from that other great source of spiritual inspiration – Google. I Googled ‘death’ and started following some strange and rather spooky threads until I somehow came across a reference to Dr Ian Stevenson.

Dr Ian Stevenson had acquired a medical degree at McGill University in Montreal in 1943, graduating at the top of his class. Following some early work in biochemistry he decided to specialise in psychiatry. He became head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia at the age of just 39. Somewhere along the way he developed an interest in reports of children who seemed to remember past lives. He became so attracted by this research that he was granted a professorial chair, becoming a full time researcher into paranormal phenomena.

His chosen subject was probably considered extremely flaky by fellow scientists and in spite of his research being published in lofty but somewhat dry publications such as The Journal of American Society for Psychical Research and The Journal of Scientific Exploration; he was totally ignored by the mainstream scientific community and of course to the larger non academic community. Until he came to the attention of the Washington Post journalist and best selling author, Tom Schroder.

Like me, Schroder had been looking around for possible evidence of reincarnation when he came across and article written by Prof. Ian Stevenson. It featured the results of his research into the previous life memories of young children. The amazing thing was that Prof Stevenson hadn’t just investigated a handful of cases, he had researched literally thousands. Schroeder was impressed by his calm, slightly dry academic approach to his research, meticulously checking and substantiating all claims.

Stevenson was now 80 years old but still conducting research. Schroder contacted him, requested an interview and was invited to visit him at the University of Virginia’s Department of Personality Studies. Filing cabinets in his office were stuffed with transcripts from over 2,500 cased he had investigated during the past 40 years. He was tall and lean with a full head of silver hair and a slightly formal air. Schroder asked him if his research had proven reincarnation. Stevenson’s response was typically measured, “Of the cases we know now – at least for some – reincarnation is the best explanation we have been able to come up with”.

At the end of his visit, Schroder asked if he could accompany him during one of his research projects. Stevenson said that he was nearing retirement but had plans for two final field trips, one to Lebanon and the other to India. Eventually, Stevenson rather bravely agreed to allow this Washington Post journalist to travel with him on his final tour. The result was an amazing book entitled Old Souls. I found a copy on Amazon and sent off for it.

Tom Schroder freely admits that he had no preconceptions at all when he began his travels with Professor Stevenson but by the time he had written the book, he had been totally won over. There is no time this evening to relate any of the case studies Stevenson revisited during this tour but the details are jaw-dropping. From the moment these children could talk they spoke of people and events from the past with details of specifically identifiable individuals who may have died just months, weeks or even hours before the birth of the child in question. Very often their previous persona had died from a significant trauma, a car accident, a shotgun blast, etc. In many cases the child has a birthmark, skin blemishes or deformities that coincided with the injuries received in their previous life.

I began to reflect on my own childhood. What were my earliest memories? I remembered a recurrent nightmare I used to have. I would dream that I was being crushed by something massive, dark and unstoppable. It was bearing down on me relentlessly and silently. I would wake screaming and it would take my parents ages to calm me down. One evening I had gone to bed relatively early and had woken screaming with terror at the same dream. My father asked me what it was and I tried to describe the massive thing, like a cloud but not a cloud that was coming down on top of me. I couldn’t stop it.

With that my father went to a cupboard and came back with a ceremonial sword he had acquired as an officer in the RAF. He unsheathed it with a flourish, jabbed the point in the ceiling and wedged the handle on top of a small wardrobe. “That’s fixed it!” he shouted, “It won’t come down on you any more” and that was it – I went to sleep and never had that dream ever again - I was 6 years old.

This made me think about an odd phenomenon that I had almost taken for granted. My wife calls it my ‘stigmata’. It is a small jagged, bright red mark that occasionally appears on my face. It can do so once a year, or several times in succession. It looks like I have been struck by a small shard of glass. It is never in the same place and usually on the right side of my face, but not always. It doesn’t hurt and it fades after a couple of days. It appears in the night, sometimes after I have had a particularly stressful or tiring time.

I was born in London on 24th September 1940. The Luftwaffe began their blitz of London on the 11th September and continued every night until the 27th. Many homes were bombed and hundreds of lives were lost. Survivors described how they were deafened by the blast and buried under rubble. I imagined how they must have died, trapped, their eardrums burst, cut and bleeding, crushed by their collapsing homes. Viewed in light of the experiences described by the children in Professor Stephenson’s research, the nightmares and the stigmata began to take on a new significance.

This gave rise to another memory. Some years ago, my ex-wife Jane and I had hired a VW Camper and taken our three young children on holiday to France and Spain. One early evening we had arrived at a campsite at a mediaeval walled town of Peniscola on the south coast of Spain where they had filmed El Cid with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren. We had just parked the camper when a Citroen van pulled up along side – one of those old fashioned ones with the corrugated sides. The driver, a middle aged man wearing a very large black beret, clambered out and aided by his wife, began to erect a very large tent. As they did so, it was obvious that a storm was about to break. The sky had darkened and the wind was becoming progressively stronger. Being experience campers, we all agreed that we should give them a hand. As we did so, the rain began to fall and the wind was reaching gale force. As we struggled with the unfamiliar canvass the beret wearing man began shouting instructions to us in a language I didn’t understand. Jane raised her voice over the wind and shouted “He says peg out the main guy ropes first”. Then another instruction from the foreigner interpreted by Jane, “Stand on the edge to stop it flapping whilst he gets the pegs in”.

Quickly, the tent was erected and we returned to the camper to dry off. The consensus of opinion was that they were Basques and I asked Jane how she knew what the guy was saying. She said that she couldn’t explain it - somehow she just knew. An hour later there was a knock on the door of the camper and it was our Basque neighbour. Jane interpreted, “He would like us to join them for aperitifs”. For the next hour or so we sat and chatted in a convivial sort of way. He spoke and Jane interpreted. We spoke and Jane used body language to get our points across.

It has always puzzled me that Jane was so clearly able to understand what our Basque friend was saying and I began to wonder if there was something in her family background. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was 100% pure Romany. He was a gipsy horse trader travelling the country for months at a time visiting the various county fairs. By all accounts he did rather well and when he retired he bought a large piece of land in Hanham, then just green fields in the country surrounding Bristol, where he settled down, built a row of terraced cottages for all the members of his family, and bred horses.

I Googled ‘Romany gipsies’ and discovered that they originated in India. Over centuries they travelled through North Africa; crossed the Straights into Spain and travelled northwards towards the Pyrenees where they came to a halt in the land of the Spanish Basques. During the hundreds of years of their steady migration westwards they had absorbed or adapted to local languages. Over time the small group of that remained resident in the Basque country developed Erromintxela, a mixture of Romany and Basque, a language now vanished into obscurity, that both could understand.

Xenoglossy describes the phenomena where someone finds they are able to talk or understand a language they are not familiar with and have never been taught. Perhaps somewhere in Jane’s past life memories she has a vestige of the ancient Erromintxela tongue.

Finally, there is an internet blog strictly controlled and maintained by past life therapist, Carol Bowman, where people discuss what appear to be their children’s past life experiences. It is interesting to note that there have already been a small handful of reports of very young children referring to experiences relating directly to those who perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

The evidence seems overwhelming and my mind is clear. Of course I have no idea how the process works and there are hundreds of unanswered questions - to which one day, we will all have the answers.

The Accidental Buddhist

I was brought up in a home where God was never mentioned. My parents didn’t go to church or express any interest in religion. I was sent to Sunday school purely so they could enjoy a peaceful morning in bed with the papers. Later, in my early teens my parents separated and my mother had a mental breakdown. The usual teenage angst was added to by my distress at losing my father (he had moved 100 miles away) and my concerns for my mothers health. If I thought of God at all, it was to regard him as malevolent.

In 1981 I was in my mid 40’s and had been divorced twice and married three times. I was living in Bristol but travelling all over the country as National Sales Manger for a security company specialising in safes and vaults. One early autumn afternoon I was working in London SW1, somewhere near Victoria Station. I had two domestic security interviews to conduct. Having found a parking meter I fed it to the maximum before setting off for my first interview. It was over sooner than I expected and as it was unlikely that I would find another meter, I decided to walk to the next call. As I did so it began to rain. Without an umbrella or raincoat I was anxious to shelter until it passed and looked around for a pub or café. There was nothing but a long terrace of large Victorian houses. My pace quickened. Still no shelter. Then I saw a brass plaque above a short flight of stairs, “The Buddhist Society”. The door stood open and just inside I could see the entrance to a library with an “All Welcome” sign.

I entered the library and watched the continuing rain through the window as I pretended to browse the books. A small lady with oriental features approached me and asked if I needed assistance. Slightly embarrassed I asked if she had any leaflets on Buddhism, with the certain knowledge that all religious organisations always have leaflets and are just dying to give them away. She apologised, the only leaflet they had was one they give to children when they visit schools. “Perfect”, I lied, “I was looking for something for my children”.

The rain ceased, the second survey was conducted and I drove back up the M4 to my home just outside Bristol. That evening after supper, I took off my suit and discovered the leaflet in my inside pocket. It was Xeroxed on a single sheet of orange paper, printed both sides and folded to make 4 pages, A5. On the front was a line drawing of two children looking up at a statue of the Buddha. Inside, in language designed to be understood by 10 year olds, it briefly described the life of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths and the Nobel Eightfold Path. As I read, a tingly feeling crept up my spine.

Without any formal religion I had developed my own personal ethical values over the years and considered them to be uniquely mine. As I read this children’s tract, I was struck by their similarity with Buddhist values. For much of my life I had been a bit of a loner, through circumstances rather than choice and the sudden feeling that I may share something with millions of other like-minded people around the world caused me a shiver of excitement.

The next day I rang the Buddhist Society to ask if they had any centres elsewhere, hoping there may be something in the West of England. “No, we don’t, but there is a Buddhist organisation based outside Bristol. Do you have transport?” I replied that I had a car so that was no problem.
“Do you know the village of Long Ashton?” Slightly stunned, I said that I actually lived in Long Ashton. “Well, do you know Western Road?” My voice went up an octave. “I live in Western Road!” They explained that there was a small community of Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Western Road, gave me their number and suggested I contact them.

I rang the number and was answered by a man with a strong northern accent. I asked if they ever ran courses for people with absolutely no previous knowledge of Buddhism. “Yes mate, we run a couple of Beginners’ Weekends each year”. I requested he make a note of my number and give me a ring next time a course was planned. “No need mate, there’s one this weekend…”

Twenty-two years later, when a whole ocean of water had passed under my particular bridge, I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order and given the name Bāhiya.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The Buddha's Teaching to Bahiya

The tale of Bāhiya of the Bark Garment appears in one of the oldest of the Buddhist scriptures, the Udana, a rich collection of short stories of the Pali Canon.

Apparently, Bāhiya was a merchant who travelled to far off lands. He is said to have successfully crossed the great oceans seven times, but on his eighth voyage, he was shipwrecked and washed ashore naked.

He found himself on the beaches of Supparaka, a once great port on the west coast of India, just north of the present-day Mumbai. Covering his nakedness with flotsam from the beach, he tied a piece of bark around his waist. The villagers, seeing his eccentric dress, thought he must be a holy man and gave him alms; food, drink and shelter.

Time passed and Bāhiya became highly regarded amongst the local residents. They came to him for advice and spiritual teachings. Although not a monk, he became revered as a holy man and gathered a large number of followers, some of whom regarded him as an arahant (Pali - someone who has reached nirvana, the ultimate goal of the spiritual life where all suffering and all attachment ceases). After a while, Bahiya was beginning to believe in his own press, and wondered if he may actually have become an arahant.

In the traditional texts, it is claimed that in a previous life, Bāhiya had been one of a number of monks who had been so determined to achieve enlightenment through meditation, they had scaled a high mountain using a series of ladders. Once they reached the highest point, they threw their ladders down the mountain so there could be no return without achieving Buddhahood. As a result, most of them died. However, one of them somehow survived, and became a Non-returner.
He appeared to Bāhiya as a deva (Pali/Sanskrit - a supernatural being with special powers). He reprimanded him for his arrogance and told him that if he wanted to meet a real arahant, he should travel to Savatthi, the capital of Kosala in the far North where he would find Siddhartha Gautama, known to his followers as the Buddha.

This fired Bāhiya with such enthusiasm to receive a teaching from a real arahant, he set off immediately. India is a large continent and it was a long way from the west coast of Supparaka to the grove in Anathapindinka’s monastery in Savatthi where the Buddha and his followers were on their rainy season retreat (this was one of the Buddha’s favourite places. He used if for 20 years before eventually making it his permanent base). It is said that in his eagerness, Bāhiya only rested for one night.

When he eventually found Anathapindinka’s Monastery, the monks told him that the Buddha was not there, he was in the nearby town receiving alms. If he waited, the Buddha would return later in the day and grant him an audience. But Bāhiya became greatly concerned that something could happen to prevent him meeting the Buddha and receiving the teaching for which he had travelled so far. He decided not to wait but to follow him into town and seek him out.

Bāhiya eventually located the Buddha in the nearby village. He was standing very quietly, gracefully holding his alms bowl. Bāhiya approached, introduced himself and told the Buddha how he had travelled from way down south to receive a teaching from him. However, it was the Buddha’s practice to remain completely silent when seeking alms, so he did not reply. Bāhiya was so desperate for a teaching from a genuine arahant that he begged him once again. For a second time the Buddha remained silent. In desperation, Bāhiya flung himself at the Buddha’s feet, grasping his ankles, explaining that he must have a teaching right now. He said that no one knew what life had in store, he was afraid that something may happen to him or the Buddha and he may never have another chance to receive a personal teaching from a genuine arahant (a prophetic observation as it turns out).

It had become a practice, that if you asked the Buddha a question three times, he would always respond on the third time of asking. So, at this point, he turned to Bāhiya and gave him one of the shortest, and certainly the pithiest teachings in all of the Buddhist scriptures.

Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: in the seen only the seen; in the heard only heard; in the sensed1 only the sensed; in the cognised only cognised.

Practicing in this way, Bāhiya, you will not be “with that.” When you are not “with that,” you will not be “in that.” And when you are not “in that,” then you will be neither here nor there nor in between the two.

Just this is the end of suffering.

Hearing this teaching, Bāhiya immediately recognised the deepest significance of the Buddha’s words and instantly gained insight. Thanking the Buddha profusely, he left him to continue his alms round. Unfortunately, a little later the same day, Bāhiya was involved in an accident with an enraged cow that was protecting its calf. He was gored so severely that he died from his wounds. When the Buddha returned to the monastery and learned of the sad fate that had befallen Bahiya, he instructed the monks to prepare his body and cremate him with all the respect and ceremony that is due to a true arahant. They should then build a stupa for his ashes and treat them with great reverence as befitting an enlightened person.


This teaching is interpreted in many ways but on Free Buddhist Audio, you can hear Padmavajra’s talk ‘The Sound of Reality’. He tells the tale of Bāhiya of the Bark Garment and describing the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching he refers to “pure sensing” or “seeing without mental proliferation”.

Normally, when we sense something by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or perceiving, we almost immediately ‘claim’ it by stamping our interpretation on it, thereby button-holing our experience. This is rather like a tourist who can only experience what he is seeing through the lens of a camera. The experience can only be ‘real’ if he/she can take a picture of the experience home with them. The picture stakes their claim, proving that they have grasped the experience and, to use a photographic term, have ‘captured it’ on film. Consequently, the experience has now been divided into ‘self’ and ‘other’; into ‘grasper’ and ‘grasped’. The moment we claim an experience as ‘ours’ the essence of that moment is lost.

We have probably all encountered ‘unproliferated sensing’ or ‘pure awareness’ at some time or another although it may only have been for the briefest of moments. Walking past someone’s garden at dusk and we suddenly catch the scent of a flower. In that nano-second we respond with pure awareness. Our sense of smell engages and we have that “Aaaahhh” moment before we immediately move on to define the experience so that we can re-experience it again the next time.