Monday, 19 September 2011
When I log onto Facebook it tells me that I have ‘102 friends’. What that actually means is that I know 102 people well enough to be interested in seeing what they are doing and saying. If I had to reduce the list to those who were friends in a truer, more meaningful sense, I would have to pause and think carefully. What do I understand by the term ‘friend’ and what is’ friendship’? Is a real friend someone who you see regularly and spend time with? Or is it someone you think of regularly and try to stay in touch with; someone who you have a lot in common with and share ideals?
Once you attempt to categorise friendship it starts to become quite illusive. For example, some of my dearest friends are also my oldest friends, mostly dating back to my school days and even earlier. Some of them have ideas and principles so removed from my own, that it is almost certain that had I met them in more recent times, it is unlikely I would have formed a close friendship with them. Yet I think of them often, love it when I hear from them and on the occasions when we actually get to meet, enjoy their company with a warmth and affection that has remained undiminished over many decades.
I have been part of the same industry for many years and have come to know hundreds of people who work in the same field. If you asked me if I knew the Sales Director of a certain company I would almost certainly reply, “Oh yes, he’s a friend of mine; we’ve known each other for years”. We may attend the same functions, greet each other warmly and be genuinely pleased to see each other. We would exchange Christmas cards but we would never meet up, just for the pleasure of hanging out together, so was I correct in referring to them as a friend?
However, there would be the occasional work colleague, often one with much more experience, who would become a mentor. One such, John who was a proud Scot, taught me much of what I know today and although he retired to a small croft high above Aberdeen and is now in his early 80’s, we regularly keep in touch through phone calls and email.
When you share a flat with others, they see you at your best and at your worst and it is not uncommon to develop close and enduring friendships with former flat-mates.
So it seems that friendships can be formed in many ways and on several levels. In my personal experience, some of the most powerful and enduring friendships are those formed in the early years. These seem to thrive independently of ideological differences; without common religious or political affiliations. They are life long – I was introduced to one childhood friend before we were both old enough to walk. We are now both in our 70’s and our lives have travelled in distinctly different directions, yet we seem to be a close as we ever were.
As I grew older and my career progressed, I tended to meet more people but form fewer and fewer friendships. I have never really understood why that was. I met women and they became lovers and wives and whilst my relationship with them was as close and intimate as it is possible to be, it was distinctly different from the relationship I had with my ‘friends’. These were almost, but not entirely male. I had other, non sexual friendships with one or two women. I have heard it said that there’s no such thing as truly platonic friendship but that is not my experience.
So, there are long term friendships developed during my childhood or school-days; brief but intense friendship created by the need for mutual support in difficult or dangerous times. There were more remote friendships with work colleagues and business associates with the occasional closer relationships with senior mentors.
However, new friendships of a less casual kind were becoming increasingly rare.
Then, when I was distinctly middle aged, I discovered Buddhism and became a ‘Friend of the Western Buddhist Order’. I enjoyed meeting a large number of like-minded people and sharing my experience with them. We used the term ‘sangha’ a Sanskrit word for a group of people who follow the teaching of the Buddha. We met regularly and although the FWBO – now known as the Triratna Buddhist Community, set great store in friendship with an emphasis on mentoring and ‘kalyana mitrata’ or spiritual friendship, I was not particularly attracted to this. I was further distanced by the fact that 25 years ago the practice of forming kalyana mitra relationships was mostly popular amongst gay men. I was not in the least homophobic but felt uncomfortable with the idea that if I was to form a kalyana mitra relationship I may be regarded as gay (naively I thought this would affect my relationships with women). In any case, I had not yet met anyone who had impressed me sufficiently to a want them as a mentor.
Consequently my experience of ‘spiritual friendship’ was very limited. I was aware of Ananada’s observations when talking to the Buddha that ,”…friendship is half of the spiritual life” and the Buddha’s response, “Not so Ananda, it is all of the spiritual life” but I was concerned, rightly or wrongly, that many of the friendships I observed in the movement seemed slightly contrived.
I had been living abroad for some years and consequently was out of touch with fellow ‘Friends’ and ‘mitras’. On return to the South West after 11 years away I was invited to join a mitra study group. It was a gathering of more mature mitras, mostly far more experienced than myself. I was flattered to be invited and readily accepted. There were six of us in the group and with the exception of the oldest member, we all had families to support and were pursuing active careers. Apart from these common factors, we were entirely disparate; a chest consultant, a manager with a fostering agency, a local government facilitator, a successful osteopath, a sales manager (me) and a senior citizen who was not quite sure if he was a Buddhist or a catholic.
In had never heard of mitra study groups having names but somewhow, as we met on our regular Thursday nights, we came to refer to ourselves as The Dharma Bums after characters in a book of the same name by the ‘father of the beat generation’ Jack Kerouac. Maybe it was a reference to the fact that many of us had experienced moments where we were outside the mainstream of our movement and were regarded as slightly rebellious or at least non-conformist. Whatever the reason, a tradition developed that the Dharma Bums would always gather together for supper, mostly Indian, before our Thursday evening mitra group.
Time passed and there were some minor changes amongst the group and the remaining five became even closer – we had somehow transformed and become genuine ‘spiritual friends’. Several years and many curries later and it was obvious that some of us were likely to be invited for ordination sometime soon. However, the bond of friendship amongst the Dharma Bums had become so strong that we agreed that we would wait until we were all ready and could be ordained together. It was quite remarkable that in spite of working towards this point over many years, those who were ready were prepared to wait even longer not knowing how long their ordination would be deferred for.
As it happened, a short while later and much to the surprise of the entire group, the call came for all five of us to be ordained together. During our time in the mountain retreat centre high in the Spanish Sierras above Alicante, we agreed that now we ceased to be a mitra study group, the Dharma Bums would transform into a Chapter so our Thursday meetings could continue. A Chapter is an informal group of Order Members who meet on a regular basis to study the Dharma and enjoy each other’s company.
The Dharma Bums have now been meeting for over a decade and have recently grown to seven. We have eaten endless curries, meditated, run courses, taken retreats together, discussed hundreds of topics and even studied a little. It has not always been sweetness and light – it is only natural that from time to time we have a disagreement but there has always been a resolution and our continuing friendship has never been in doubt.
Our group ordination was not entirely unprecedented but it was rare enough and The Dharma Bums are occasionally referred to in the movement to as an example of what spiritual friendship can achieve. For my part, the friendships I have forged with my fellow ‘Bums’ are every bit as powerful as my continuing long standing childhood friendships but with the added spiritual dimension of a joint commitment to the Buddha Dharma. I doubt that I would ever have achieved ordination had I not been influenced and supported by the fellowship of the Dharma Bums. Of course, we acknowledge that all things are impermanent and it is inevitable that our group must change – as in deed it already has, but day by day, week by week, curry by curry we enjoy our brotherhood as it is right now, in the present moment , rejoicing in the bonds that have held us together over so many years.
Saturday, 11 June 2011
This talk was given to a beginner's group at the Bristol Buddhist Centre in May 2011.
One of the most basic of the Buddha’s teachings was delivered as part of his very first discourse after he had experienced what we have come to refer to as his ‘enlightenment’.
In his life up to that point, he had experienced two extremes. On one hand he had been brought up as the son of a Sudhadana, one of the wealthy ruling classes of the Shakya clan. He had led a privileged life of luxury and indulgence. He wore the finest clothes, ate the best food, and was trained in archery and other martial arts. His life was lived within the walls of the family’s three palaces sheltered from the harsh realities of life outside.
Later, he left his home to become a shramana, a wandering mendicant, owning nothing other than his course robes and alms bowl. Walking barefoot he visited all of the leading spiritual teachers of his time. Eventually he joined a group of forest dwelling ascetics. They lived in accordance with an extremely rigid code believing that by renouncing all bodily comfort they could achieve insight. Consequently they were virtually naked all year round apart from a simple loin cloth; they slept on the ground with no bedding or protection from the elements. They ate only sufficient food to prevent them from starving to death. Depictions of the Buddha during this time show him to be almost skeleton-like, with sunken stomach and all his ribs showing.
However, after several years of this practice he came to realise that neither of these two extremes brought him close to the insight he sought. Eventually he left the ascetics and sitting quietly beneath a shady tree, entered into a deep meditation. He sat there throughout the night achieving deeper and states of absorption until, in the early hours of the morning, he finally achieved the wisdom he had sought for so long. After this extraordinary experience, he saw everything in a totally new way. For a few weeks he sat and reflected on what he had experienced and thought about how he could help others to achieve the same insight. He set off to walk to Sarnat looking for the group of five ascetics he had spent the past few years with. Finding them he gave his first talk as a Buddha (one who has awakened). This first discourse later became known as the Four Noble. The truth of the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering, the ceasing of suffering and the path that leads away from suffering. This last truth became known as the Noble Eightfold Path. One of the limbs of this path concerns making the balanced effort as one moves along the path, known as The Middle Way.
Many years later when the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment was written down, the scriptures were to illustrate this teaching with the following story:
One day the Buddha observed an over zealous monk called Sona, who had practised Walking Meditation so vigorously that the soles of his feet had become blistered and bleeding. The Buddha bade him sit down and reminded him that before he became a devotee, he had lived a normal life and had played a musical instrument called a veena – a member of the lute family.
He asked Sona, “When the strings of your veena were too taut, was your veena in tune and playable?"
“No lord” replied Sona.
The Buddha continued, “When the strings of your veena were too loose, was your veena in tune and playable?"
Once again Sona replied, “No lord”.
“When the strings of your veena were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your veena in tune and playable”.
Sona shook his head in agreement, “Yes lord”.
"In the same way, Sona, too much effort leads to restlessness whilst overly slack effort leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your effort, re-tune the pitch of your faculties, and then pick up your theme."
In terms of our own spiritual life, the extremes are over zealousness on one hand and sluggardly indifference on the other. There is a balance to be struck between these two extremes. If we make no effort whatsoever, the likelihood is we will achieve little or nothing at all. On the other hand, there is a danger of becoming too dedicated to a position, too entrenched in our own version of ‘the truth’. We can see this extreme in most if the world’s great religions where their truth is the only truth. How much suffering and conflict has been caused over the centuries by religions attempting to impose their version of truth upon others who hold a different view? We don’t have to look very far to see examples of the suffering being caused today by these extreme types of fixed view (Catholic v Protestant, Muslim v Jew)
So we must be prepared to recognise any lack of balance in our own spiritual journey. For many years I found it difficult to accept the concept of re-birth. I also struggled to engage with certain Buddhist devotional practices. However, my teacher told me not to worry; to neither reject anything outright or blindly accept, just ‘set aside’ these difficulties, coming back to them at another time when my understanding may be greater. I was able to accept the middle way between rejection of that with which I had no emotional or intellectual connection, or simply ‘going along with it’ because of my desire to fit in with the group.
Many years later, I returned to find these problems had become mere ripples in the sand.
Friday, 15 April 2011
So, what’s it like to be 70? I guess the answer depends on your health. If you are reasonably well, you feel pretty much the same as you did in your 40’s. Of course I am aware that my short term memory is not as good as it was. I can recall events that occurred in my teens with absolute clarity but find it hard to remember where I was last week. And there’s a little arthritis too. I try not to let it show but you may notice it sometimes takes me a while to get up from my stool after meditation. However, they say (whoever ‘they’ are) that 70 is the new 50 and to an extent that is true. I am certainly just as busy and active now as I was then.
Is there a plus side of being 70? Obviously being alive is one. Another is the fact that there is no longer any pressure to achieve. Whatever career I once had, has now reached an end. I can’t deny that I get a buzz when my 40 years of knowledge and experience is occasionally called upon. It seems that the one part of me that has not aged or weakened is my ego.
I bumped into the Dharma quite by chance when I was already middle aged and I simply can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I not done so. For the past 5 years it has been my great privilege to be part of the Tuesday night team teaching meditation and Buddhism to whoever walks through the door.
I guess everyone likes to think they leave some sort of legacy behind to mark their passing. Of course there are my children who all live wonderfully creative and exciting lives. But perhaps even more importantly, it is those strangers who crossed the threshold of the Bristol Buddhist Centre for the first time one Tuesday evening and encountered something so exciting and challenging that it set them off on a journey of discovery that will engage them until they too are in their 70’s.
During my 70 years I have learned several talents. I can paint watercolours reasonably well, play the banjo ukulele rather badly and balance a broom handle on my nose. Unfortunately I was never able to develop a talent for making money so I will not leave behind great riches. However, when my time comes, I will feel content that I have contributed in some small way to keeping the wheel of the Dharma turning.
That should be good enough for anyone.
Monday, 21 March 2011
I recently gave this short talk on Akshobya Day describing my earliest encounter with this iconic figure:
Nearly five years ago I was invited to join an ordination retreat at Guhyaloka Retreat Centre high in the mountains above Alicante in Spain. I had been associated with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now known as the Triratna Buddhist Order) for some 24 years. I had been attracted to Buddhism by its pragmatic, common sense approach and I found it answered questions that had been in my head for many years. In my enthusiasm I asked to be ordained into the Order. As time passed, any expectation I had of actually becoming an Order Member faded into the distance. So, when I received ‘the call’ nearly 20 years later, it took me very much by surprise and although I was excited by the prospect, I was more than a little unprepared.
With just days to go before we flew out from Bristol I was asked by one of the other guys who I had chosen for my yiddam. A yiddam is a Buddha or Bodhisatva who one finds inspirational and will play a central part in a visualisation practice – a meditation where you visualise his/her physical and spiritual attributes and aspire to follow them. You are invited to discuss this with the Preceptor conducting the ordination and unless he/she feels that your choice is significantly inappropriate, it is almost certain you will be receive the yiddam of your choice.
Knowing that I was going to be required to express a preference, I hastily reached for Meeting the Buddhas which rather fortunately, was written by Vessantara, the man who had agreed to ordain me. It is quite a thick book and there was not a lot of time so I rapidly scanned through the pages in the hope that something would leap out at me. Luckily, this is exactly what happened. Fortunately, the first of the Buddhas Vessantara described was Akshobya.
I learned that Akshobya was associated with the colour blue (in fact his body is actually glowing blue) and the water element. This immediately appealed as I have been so attracted to this colour, as a child my mother used to refer to me as “Little Boy Blue” because whenever I dressed myself, this was the colour I always chose.
I also love water. I was born within a short bicycle ride from the Thames at Kew and much of my early teens was spent cycling and picnicking on its riverside pathways. Latterly I have lived in Pill on the River Avon and Portishead on the Bristol Channel. More recently, my home was a narrowboat in Bristol City Docks and then a hill top cabin on the small island of Menorca, never more than 5 miles from the sea. Finally, for many years, my passion was dinghy racing.
In addition, I have always admired people who are able to remain calm in the face of adversity and have yearned to develop this trait in myself, unfortunately without much success.
So you can see that Akshobya ticked all the boxes. He is unshakable, immovable, steadfast. On his way to enlightenment he has conquered hatred and anger, transforming these negative emotions into ‘mirror wisdom’. So when I was asked who I would like as my yiddam I replied without hesitation – Akshobya, even though we had not really been introduced and I knew very little about him.
A few weeks later, high in the mountains above Alicante in Spain, I was given my new name, Bahiya, with a short explanation of why that name had been chosen for me. Then my yiddam was confirmed as Akshobya and for the first time I heard the Akshobia visualisation practice described. This is how Vessantra told it to me:
You are in the middle of an endless, clear blue sky. Nothing above or below you, just emptiness.
In the middle of this clear blue sky, slowly emerges a pale blue lotus. On the lotus, a bright white moon disk and on the moon disk is the symbol representing the bija-mantra HūM, deep blue in colour. The mantra slowly transforms into the figure of the Buddha Akshobya.
He sits on the bright white moon mat, on the blue lotus which is now supported by an elephant throne. His body is made of deep blue light. He is strongly built, wearing richly embroidered robes. He sits in the full lotus posture. With his right hand he makes the bhumisparsa mantra (earth touching); his left hand rests in his lap. On the palm of his left hand, standing upright, is a golden vajra. He has dark hair. His eyes are half open and his face has a smile of imperturbable compassion.
His head is surrounded by an aura of pale green light and his body by an aura of light red or pinkish light. In his heart is the deep blue symbol Hūm.
From Akshobia’s head, throat and heart centres come rays of pale blue light which fall on the crown of your head and enter the heart via the median nerve. Down the rays of pale blue light come the deep blue syllables of the mantra -
OM VAJRA AKSHOBYA HūM
- which are also absorbed into your heart. The mantra is recited at least 108 times. Having done so you should sit a while in Samadhi (concentration). The mantra and rays of light dissolve back into the figure of Akshobya. The elephant throne, the moon mat and the blue lotus slowly dissolve. The figure of Akshobya begins to fade. All that is left is the dark blue symbol, Hūm. Gradually this too dissolves and you are once again alone in a vast, unending blue sky.
Over the years, Akshobya and I have come to know each other well and not for one moment have I regretted my hastily made choice.