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.