Sunday, December 30, 2007

End-of-year wool-gathering

I did a live talk this morning on hospital radio (Mid Essex Hospitals) about my new role as Buddhist chaplain, and I was reminded, during my ramblings with the interviewer, of the important role Jigme Choder has played in my own evolution as a dharma-practitioner since we met 'on-line' about ten years ago in a Buddhist discussion group we still run together. The image is of a typical hospital-radio studio set-up (but not Mid-Essex), where I was told the studio suite is new, state-of-the-art, and rivals the best commercial studios anywhere. It all seemed very professional to me.

It was several years before Jigme Choder met face-to-face, and he was nothing like I imagined him to be when we met. In my mind's eye he was small, compact, neat and dark-haired, perhaps because his writing (teaching) is so precisely formulated and authoritative, so succinct, and the style so (well, I must say it) - English. In fact he was thin, loose-limbed, with a soft, lived-in face and an odd (to me) Anglo-Californian accent. I thought I would find him in a robe or chuba, but he opened the door to me in a T-shirt and jogging-bottoms. I recall he offered me a lunch choice of chicken pie or cheese pasty! He is a very kind and hospitable man, and I miss him rather, as he has had to 'move on' suddenly and without explanation. Not that I have concerns about his welfare. I think his behaviour is understandably 'monkish' in that he doesn't need to pay as much heed to the expectations others may have on him as the rest of us might who are more driven by convention and conditioning.

I don't know whether patients in US know what 'hospital radio' is. In our state-funded health-service almost all hospitals are provided with hospital radio that broadcasts its own programmes to patients over head-phones: a mixture of music requests, chat-shows, local news etc. It's a British Institution and generally well-loved, run by volunteers. I was invited by hospital radio to talk to the volunteer disc-jockey who fills a Sunday morning slot with 'inspirational' stuff, combining popular music and requests with live discussion on "Buddhism". I offered to do an unscripted chat because I thought it would be spontaneous and more authentic that way, and Brian Dawson (the DJ) was brilliant at posing questions to get to the heart of the matter, so that I enjoyed the discussion very much, although I can't hardly remember anything I said. The interview was recorded, so I imagine some embarrassment may be in store for me when I eventually get to hear the mini-disk!

I do recall that Brian asked me to choose a record, and the only thing I could come up with at short notice was "When Two Worlds Collide" with Jim Reeves, a blast from the past that stirs memories and emotions from when I first fell in love with Berlina my wife, in Africa, in 1971. They say the course of true love never runs straight, and so it was with our own love, which was trans-continental, trans-cultural, trans-racial - and stirred up political troubles for us both, although Berlina's family was amazingly supportive of the match, and of me personally. Jim's ballad of love, drama and heart-ache was very fitting to the circumstances at the time. But we have spent 37 very happy years together, and have three wonderful children, all now grown adults.
Hmm, this is supposed to be a time of reflection, but maybe I've overdone the reminiscence! I wish you all, especially the more isolated ones amongst you, a year of contentment and fulfilment, and I hope particularly that you will meet the Dharma in a way that fits your personal circumstances, and matches your heart's deepest yearnings. May all beings, to the very least of them, be free of suffering and the roots of suffering. May all beings everywhere heal into their true nature and know peace.Peter

Sunday, December 16, 2007


He who can see the inward in the outward, to him the inward is more inward than to him who can only see the inward in the inward. —HENRY SUSO, German mystic (1295-1366)

When I read this it struck a chord, but I don't know why. Reflecting on it since, it seems to mean that I can see the spiritual in the everyday, indeed that there is no difference. I've always resisted the idea that spirituality is something other than 'ordinary', except that perhaps I've lost the knack of seeing the 'ordinary' for what it truly is.

Over the last few days I've heard from two people I know, both of whom are in the grip of what can only be called 'dire straits', just situations of everyday grimness and plain misery involving the suffering of third parties, and the impotence that goes with trying to care when care doesn't seem to be working. One said that she just wanted to "throw in the towel"; the other said she couldn't stop shaking....."I need help".

Neither of these saw Buddhism as a refuge, a place to go for respite or comfort or relief, although both have followed the path for several years. Both, however, had the pluck and the insight to write to someone about their predicament. Without being pretententious or preachy about it, it seems to me that both were Buddha at that time, are Buddha now. Their momentary insight says everything that needs to be said about awareness, about loving kindness, about despair, and what we do with it, and the rest. The external and the internal. Svaha.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hospital Chaplaincy

Yesterday was my induction as an honorary lay Buddhist chaplain to Mid-Essex Hospitals Foundation NHS Trust (I'm not sure I got all those titles in the right order), at a ceremony conducted by the Bishop of Chelmsford, "Bishop John". That's his picture, with his wife. The induction wasn't only about me, as it primarily concerned the formal induction of a new Church of England chaplain, Doug Loveridge, but I was included together with some other chaplaincy volunteers, of which Guy has scores (or seems to have). All cheerful, positive and welcoming people.

I was invited to apply for the unpaid post by the Lead Chaplain Rev'd Guy Goodall, who (unusually for a Lead Chaplain in a hospital post) is a Free Church minister, a Methodist in fact. We've known each other for a few years mainly through intiatives Guy has taken to practice inclusiveness. The hospital in question is Broomfield Hospital, a large modern District Hospital on the outskirts of Chelmsford, in Essex, England.

The ceremony was attended by about sixty people, including several clergy from the Cathedral, and invited guests. I was invited to stand before the assembly and promised to work sensitively and cooperatively in accordance with the traditions of Buddhism and the requirements of the Trust. After doing so, I was given my "commission" signed by the Bishop, and in return I asked him if I could inflict a bit of Tibetan Buddhist ritual on him and a few others of the chaplainy team. I asked him if I could give him a "kata", the thin white scarf that is given by Tibetans as a symbolic tribute to others, high and low, as a manifest of open-heartedness and unfettered generosity. I said "it symbolises no-strings giving", and he took it with a smile. "Can I wear it?" he asked, and when I said "Please do" he put it round his neck. I had three more, which I offered to other members of the chaplaincy team, including Guy, Doug and Sister Jean, a Roman Catholic chaplain. All seemed delighted with their simple gift, and all wore them immediately

It may seem grandiose to do this, and I thought about it for a long time, but I thought that, simply done, it would be worth doing, and I was very grateful for the trouble and attention that had gone into involving me in the induction. I'm not strictly speaking (indeed not in any formal sense) a Tibetan Buddhist, but I have been influenced in that tradition by contact with Ray Wills who gave me many books on Dzogchen, "Liberation Through Seeing With Naked Awareness", and occasionally mentored by Jigme Choder, a monk in the Nyingmapa tradition. Jigme recommended me for the post in a very generous testimonial.

I have already made visits to the wards to see people, and I'll write more about this another time, and what's involved in becoming a chaplain as a Buddhist: this in the light of developments currently taking place elsewhere, plans to train Buddhist chaplains, and much more of interest and encouragement.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Another long hiatus in the blog, possibly the longest yet, but a fruitful interval for me.

Bodhiprem Shapiro, one of our Trustees, wrote to me the other day. It was a warm, wise and rather sombre letter. He feared that the Trust was at risk of demise and made a number of tentative suggestions for recasting its future. As I was in a positive frame of mind (this is not always the case but there has been a shift) I was really delighted to have his opinions and suggestions. Bodhiprem, Mick Lewin, our Treasurer, and I have arranged to meet in early January to 'talk turkey'. We shall meet at the "Crown and Three Chairmen" in Soho, London, at or just after 5.00 pm on Wednesday 16th January. If you want to join the fun, just turn up. Cooperation is the colour of 2008. Positivity the perfume.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nothing special

It's been over a fortnight since I posted, the gap being the result of my wife and I taking a short holiday in Spain, whence our daughter, her partner and a mutual friend have decamped from North London to live and set up their business. They've rented a villa on a millionaire estate until they can get themselves established somewhere permanent. we visited them and it was a quite spectacular place, with jaw-dropping vertiginous views over wide valleys to misty mountains, their 'garden' a steep mountainside of wild rosemary, hibiscus, olive and oleander.

Like many thirty-somethings they have declined to buy-in to twenty-first century amorality, commercialism, hedonism and 'aspiration'. Although they are renting a magnificent villa at off-season prices, they are living very frugally and simply, they are all vegetarians, don't drink or smoke, and generally walk or cycle to the village on errands. Politically they are disengaged and cynical, although that's perhaps too strong a word. Dan, our daughter's partner, has an Iranian father and an English mother. He lived in Iran until he was eleven, having been taken there by his Dad as a child. He talks enthusiastically about his Sh'ia Muslim heritage, although he is non-religious and not a practising Muslim.

During our short visit we were deeply touched by their quiet hospitality and kindness. Late one afternoon, after eating a simple meal on the gorgeous terrace over the valley beneath, the cool of the evening descending, my wife and I were gently surprised to feel a soft warmth enveloping us from behind. As we sat, Dan had come behind us with a padded quilt, wrapping it gently round us two and tucking it in, to keep us from the chill.

My wife and I had an opportunity to talk while we were away, to feel ourselves slowing down, our tensions dissolving, the pre-occupations of our daily lives falling away. I've never indulged myself in a Buddhist retreat, but this was a retreat in its own way, and it was good to share it with my life-companion, and for us both to marvel at our daughter's mature womanliness, no longer our "little girl", although always our dear child.

Friday, November 2, 2007

In Memoriam - "Dorothy"

Died 1 November 2007

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

These lines, "Wild Geese"
by Mary Oliver (from her book, Dream Work, 1986), were dedicated by her devoted son, Phillip, whose origami birds perched on her pillow as she died, calmly, bravely, choicefully, freely, as we do, as we all do, as we all do always, left to ourselves.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Live Well - Our Sacred Obligation

I received this uplifting message today from our Treasurer, Mick Lewin. Although I can't be sure, I suspect that it is from Mick's own authoral "pen", as he is a gifted and much-published writer of inspirational articles and reflective prose. Mick edited "Buddhist Reflections on Death and Bereavement", free copies of which are still available on request, with a donation towards post and package.

In style and spirit the passage bears the hallmarks of Mick's mentality: vigorous, encouraging, positive and brimming over with thankfulness for life and its opportunities to do something for others.

Thanks for this, Mick, and let's have more.....


Tomorrow comes to us fresh and clean asking us what we have learnt from yesterday in order to make a new start

Deep within us, to bring to the surface, is a sacred obligation to live well. Never forget this.

Have a vision in life. Cultivate a plan to work towards otherwise random conditions

will make one for you, which you may not possibly like, or you may not even be aware of - although you might be living it now

Strive, make every effort to work hard in order to achieve the results you need.

Life is a never ending process of constant discovery and revelation. Push yourself into new, exciting areas of growth and remember that in every situation there are lessons to be learnt

Always remain positive in your outlook knowing that you cannot enter the new until you have let go of the old

Stand in your own light, confident and affirmative in your own actions. Never allow others to overshadow you with their negativity

Startle and surprise yourself with fresh, invigorating thought.

Listen to the wake up calls that will take you off to adventure. Live life fully engaged, attentive and committed.

Make a pact with yourself to grow and develop as an onward going commitment. Make a list of new ventures to undertake - as if you only had one more year to live

Enjoy yourself – seek out joy and laughter

Support and encourage others

Set aside periods of quiet and solitude in order to reflect more - meditate

Be grateful for all the gifts and lessons that enter your life


Michael Lewin

Monday, October 22, 2007

Just wait...

You need not do anything. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen. Just wait. You need not even wait. Just become quiet and still and solitary. And the world will offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
—FRANZ KAFKA (1883-1924).

The image on the right is a photograph of Franz Kafka aged 5. He died of tuberculosis aged 40.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

How we die, what we do

Although this is a very negative, self-referential post, and I thought on reflection to delete it, I will let it stand as a lesson to myself, and to others who may read it. This opening remark was added 48 hours after posting the original article.....

I'm writing this just so I can externalise my mundane experience, and get comments if you have any and care to make them. It's about "how we die" and it's from first hand experience of watching someone die, and trying to be a help, as a Buddhist, and a nurse.

I work as a nurse looking after men and women with long-term psychiatric problems. Dorothy is one such, and I've known her for about three years. She is over 80, and has spent most of her life in hospital. She suffers from what is called paranoid schizophrenia. Her intelligence is unaffected (and she is pretty bright but largely uneducated), but all her life she has experienced the world as implacably hostile. She believes that people are conspiring to harm her, and that she is affected by the television and people's malevolent thoughts. She hears messages being broadcast about her by the BBC, plots to destroy her etc. Very ordinary conversations are misinterpreted as insults. This is very real to her, and nothing has ever succeeded in reassuring her that there isn't a global conspiracy to destroy her, and paint her as an evil woman who deserves to be punished. Needless to say she is always on the offensive with people, especially strangers, especially women, especially young women. She has established some rapport with us nurses, although she often accuses us of talking about her, trying to kill her etc. She isn't easy to help and has had times when she has been violent. Her language is obscene, and she is particularly offensive to black and ethnic minority staff, who are well represented at my workplace. She says they are diseased and dirty, and they shouldn't touch her. This is putting it mildly, as she is vicious and vituperative. She recently commented that a Community Nurse, who had come to renew her dressings, looked tired and pale: "You are masturbating too much, dear", she suggested in front of others. Typically Dorothy. Fortunately, we nurses are used to such invective, and can ignore it.

Dorothy has inoperable cancer of the cervix. Such is her suspicion, that she has never consented to an examination and will not contemplate treatment of any kind. The cancer has now undergone widespread metastasis, so that her whole pelvis is riddled with it, she is swollen below her waist and has a huge untreatable bedsore, despite every nursing intervention possible. She has large doses of morphine to control her pain as much as possible, but even on large doses it does not prevent her from experiencing agonies when we change her bed. She is doubly incontinent and, although we disturb her as little as possible, we have to attend to her four-hourly. It is a duty no-one looks forward to, but we care for her as gently and as light-heartedly as we can.

Dorothy has not really talked about death. Sometimes I sit with her quietly so she has a chance to talk if she wants to. Once ot twice I've asked her "What's happening?" or "What are you thinking?". The last time I did this she said "I don't know" and her eyes closed as if in exhaustion. Dorothy and I have a complex relationship but I believe she trusts and likes me. My feelings for her are complex too. It would take several pages to explain what we have been through together over the last few years, including the time when she was physically well and had no signs of cancer.

I don't really find any of the stuff I've read in Buddhist books much help in caring for her. Most of it seems to disregard the physical necessities of looking after people who are physically ill, dependent, and full of pain and fear. It's all very well advising people to do tonglen etc but one wonders who will wipe away the faeces and remove the pads and dressings soaked in discharge, and try to clean the areas of disintegrating flesh, and move the pain-wracked limbs. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is full of high-minded counsel about the bardos, but says absolutely zilch about how to support someone with cancer for months of swollen glands, gangenous bedsores, and untreatable nausea, who thinks people passing in the street are calling her a bad mother and a prostitute, and spits out her morphine because she thinks it is poison.

I lie in bed most nights and think of Dorothy, and breath in her pain and distress, and that of all the world, breathing out love and compassion to all suffering beings. As if! I occasionally think about when she dies, and what I can do to support her if I'm around, at her bedside (bearing in mind there are many others in the same home who need my help and attention). I'm not new to bedside deaths, I've been present at hundreds. I don't "do" anything ritualised or thought-through. Just take it as it comes. The Tibetan Book of Dying doesn't help me at all, it just seems stilted and artificial, like a 'cookbook' with a recipe by a cook who has never actually done much real-time cooking, just waiting at table. If I think anything at the time of death it's usually just, "That's it. It's over." And if there are relatives I do what I can to help them cope with the new situation they're in, which is only slightly different from the situation they were in before the death, except what they feared is over, and there's nothing to fear from it now, and they can relax. With a cup of tea.

Well, that's what is on my mind at the time of writing, and I thought I'd share it with you. Her real name isn't Dorothy, of course.

The picture at the head of this post is "By The Deathbed" by Edvard Munch

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cicely Saunders - Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge

The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge announces their publication of a new edition of Dame Cicely's Biography, written by Shirley de Boulay with Marianne Rankin, adding a further three chapters to the First Edition (1984), thus covering the remaining 21 years of Dame Cicely's life until her death in 2005.

Dame Cicely Saunders was the founder of St Christopher's Hospice and of the the modern hospice movement; her work transformed the care of the dying, and led to the establishment of the field of palliative medicine. Dame Cicely figured productively in the establishment, by Ray Wills and Dennis Sibley, of the Buddhist Hospice Trust, and tribute to this landmark event in the UK hospice movement is given in the new biography.

The new biography will be of interest to Trust supporters, and copies may be had directly from the Society for £12.99 (paperback). To source it elsewhere, quote ISBN 978 0281 05889 1 and the Title 'Cicely Saunders - The founder of the Modern Hospice Movement.

Please note that The Buddhist Hospice Trust does not hold any copies of the book for sale.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Silver Sangha

Do visit this new blog which is dedicated to the desiccated, and may or may not offer a Buddhist self-assessment on the sublime abidings of prostatism, age-associated propensity to meditation-cushion deep-vein thrombosis, or advice on how to receive alms via your PEG-feed.

The associated picture shows advanced practitioners who have attained the jnana of meditative absorption into alternate Thursday mornings at the Orthotic Clinic in the David Blunkett Wing of the Bolton Royal Infirmary Manchester Metropolitan University Foundation Hospital NHS Trust This Is Strictly A No Smoking Hospital Including Approach Roads And Adjacent Shrubbery All Car Parks Restaurants And Cafeteria Bus Shelters And Fire Assembly Points PLC: Our Motto, "Your Health Is Our Business And Do You Have A Problem With That?"

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Dying is easy

Once master Hofaku called his monks together and said: "This last week my energy has been draining - no cause for worry. It is just that death is near."

A monk asked: "You are about to die! What does it mean? We will go on living. And what does that mean?"

"They are both the way of things," the master replied.

"But how can I understand two such different states?"

Hofaku answered: "When it rains it pours," and then calmly dies.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Walk on the bright side...?

Would one of your supporters be able to find 10 people to take part in 'Walking On The Bright Side'?

'Walking On The Bright Side' is an idea generated by Lesley Lay (who's not involved with the Buddhist Hospice Trust) that a 'supporter' from every hospice in the UK will plan a 10k sponsored walk for their hospice, with a group of 10 or more walkers each raising a minimum of £50 each. Each group of walkers will set of off on Sunday 18th November 2007 @ 1030am in their local area.

Lesley says, "I’m saying ‘a supporter’ because I’m conscious of the pressures on fundraising departments and this walk doesn’t need to add to their workload."

"The aim is to provide an opportunity for all hospices in the UK, at the same time on the same day, to be recognised for the amazing work they do and the wonderful services they provide, whilst at the same time allowing them an additional opportunity to raise much needed funds."

"I am not personally connected to a specific hospice, but in September 2006 I lost my sister-in-law to pancreatic cancer. Gill's last few days were spent in a hospice where she was able to die with dignity and was shown so much love and care, and also where we as a family were treated with such humanity."

"In Gill's memory, and as a way to express my heart felt thanks for the care she and thousands of others like her receive every year, I would love to be able to provide an opportunity to give something back to hospices."

"I am therefore asking for someone associated with your hospice to undertake to organise a 'Walking On The Bright Side' walk."

"For further information please look at the 'WalkingOnTheBrightSide' website where you will be able to register your interest in taking part. Registration will allow me to gauge the level of interest in this event and will also enable me to make further contact regarding the amount of money raised nationally."

"It would be fantastic if every hospice in the UK is able to 'Walk on the Bright Side'."

If you want to take up Lesley's invitation on our behalf, and to benefit the Buddhist Hospice Trust, the trustees would naturally be delighted, and I would do what I can to support the initiative, either by joining a walk or organising my own. I can't promise to walk 10 km as my knees won't allow it, but I would certainly try 5 km. Would anyone sponsor me?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

A Trust Supporter writes.....

"We're back", (writes Lisa Sheehy, left above, who is touring Asia and an unpaid unofficial roving reporter to the Trust). "End your computerside vigil!" (We were literally glued, matchsticks in place, Lisa, but the discomfort was a small price to pay! - Peter)

Lisa continues....

Next stop was Sri Lanka. Just 20 miles by sea from India but a very different story. Most notably there is considerably less cow dung and car horns and more men wearing skirts (sarongs) than lady-boys in Bangkok! Known as the pearl of the Orient or as the dutch say 'a leg of ham in the sea' (?) Whatever you want to call it, some weird quirk of fate meant that it cost less for us to book a package including a flight and a stay at a 4 star hotel for 3 days with a chauffeur driven car than a flight alone!......Backpacking can be such a drag. So for 3 days we stayed in the lap of luxury in Kandy a beautiful, holy city set in rolling green hills. The hotel was very friendly but they did play Cliff Richard constantly !! It seemed to emanate from everywhere in the building , secret speakers would suddenly blast out Devil Woman as you opened the wardrobe, Daddy's Home would be warbling through the soap suds in the shower. So after 3 days of Cliffs greatest hits and several mojitos ( Cliff gets better after about the second or third ! ) We reluctantly put our backpacks back on and headed to Pandana, a nearby beach town. We had seen adverts on the television every five minutes depicting all the sexy young things of Sri Lanka having the time of their lives at a music festival there and naturally we just had to get in on the action ! Will even bought himself a new outfit ( well tee shirt. )
We rushed to get the train but unfortunately, were squashed next to a toilet and the tea man, this lasted about an hour so we alighted smelling strongly of piss and pj tips .
Even worse, not a soul had heard of this mini-Glastonbury. Not even Cliff was playing !
Was this an elaborate attempt at attracting ageing wannabe rock stars or had we had one two many of those cocktails? We will probably never know....
Luckily our trip was not to be a complete waste of time....
After combing the beachfront for our usual 1 pound 50 hovel we settled on a charming place owned by a friendly man with teeth like an explosion at a domino's factory. Escaping his hugs and invitations to his future offspring's weddings, we went for dinner at the sumptuous 5-star hotel next door.
To Will's amazement, this was the very hotel in which his friend had sworn his undying commitment to his ( then) wife 4 yrs earlier! He recalled the pictures of the couple, accompanied by 20 dancing boys and a carriage pulled by two horny bulls and reflected on what an elaborate waste of money this had been, as the ill fated relationship ended by the time the flannels were handed out on the terse plane-ride home...
Nevertheless after surveying the 4 gorgeous swimming pools and cocktail list he still wished he had been there.
Waking the next day we were determined to party one way or the other and were delighted to discover that a 'perihara' - a sort of local procession with dancing and elephants, was passing through today! With the usual confusion about the location, we headed out into the baking midday sun, where we were immediately accosted by a wild eyed hairy gentleman driving a tut-tut.
Due to our confusion about where to go and imminent heatstroke, we jumped in and were thrusted back into our seats with the g force of a fighter jet, as he wheelied and screeched along leaving a cloud of dust, and scattering a few lepers in his path. This madman then claimed to be 'The Sri Lankan Jackie Chan'.
To our terror he turned completely around to proudly show us a tattered, bloodstained stunt-mans license. He also pointed to some film posters in the back of the vehicle, which he claimed were from his latest blockbuster. We politely tried to take this all in while clinging to each other for dear life!
Coming to an abrupt stand still we arrived to the arresting sight of brightly costumed kids dancing barefoot, skinny men on stilts and a mad chained monkey all moving to the sound of a drum beat. After the procession passed, 'Jackie Chan' convinced us to come back to his 'studio'. Thinking he was clearly a delusional psycho we reluctantly agreed to get back into the death mobile.
Imagine our shock then, upon pulling up a what can only be described as a shrine devoted to his image! We stepped into the shop and were immediately presented with his latest album (Oh, did I forget to mention that he was also Sri Lanka's answer to Robbie Williams?)
We left the tut-tut driver/stunt-mans/actors/singer-songwriters shop in a state of shock and I think Will was secretly a little envious of this one-man entertainment industry.......( please see picture of album cover )
Next day we woke to beautiful sunshine and birdsong .
But we were covered from head to toe in itchy bleeding welts! To our disgust, we realised that we had been a bed bug feast for the last 8 hrs. We screamed and itched our way down the corridor to reception, were the orthodontic ally challenged manager tried to persuade us that we had sunburn. Unconvinced about our joint cases of nocturnal over exposure we made a swift exit.
Onwards to Galle, a beautiful, colonial dutch fort, were we spent a few quiet days, window shopping and caking ourselves in tiger balm to ease our wounds. Fully healed, we went down the road to Unawatuna a funky, hippyfied beach resort were we met an eccentric yet kindly Buddhist man who invited us to meditate. Arriving at 6.30am the next day,we were slightly taken aback when we were greeted by him, stripped to the waist, wearing a sheer white sarong (micro mini!)
He led us through to his peaceful tree house studio where the sun shined brightly through the branches. Unfortunately, the sun also shined brilliantly through his sarong giving us a full view of his pendulous 'chakras'. Needless to say our attempts at clearing our minds were not as successful as usual, consumed as they were, with this unforgettable image....
After a few days of swimming and being knocked over by the monsoon tide (which stole Will's watch) we decided to watch some turtles laying their eggs.
We almost gave up after 3 hrs in the dark and rain but were eventually rewarded, when the most enormous animal I have ever seem ambled to the shore. Each turtle only does it once in their lifetimes so we were very lucky to see it. It was an amazing experience.
Next, due to an explicable case of homesickness we headed to Nuwara Eliya, known locally as 'Little England' There were not kidding. It was freezing and rained constantly for days. This was a horrible shock after the baking heat and we had no warm clothes. We were also staying at the most unusual guesthouse of our trip and to be honest our lives! Instead of a brick wall there was a patio window on one side. The side which looked directly out onto the owners dining room! Who was a pervert. Just to make it even nicer the window was covered with lovely see through curtains which almost, but not QUITE closed properly. I think my favourite moment of the stay was waking one morning to see the manager and 3 of his friends staring in at us and politely bidding us good morning! We soon became experts at dressing under the duvet cover, probably much to their disappointment....
We finished the trip with the Kandy perihara. This is world famous as it involves 100s of elephants parading the sacred Buddha's tooth relic through the streets using more lights than Blackpool pier. It didn't disappoint and was a great way to say goodbye.
Next stop Bangkok, sex capital of the world! However, we stayed in Thai lands answer to Fawlty Towers. With a huge sign outside screaming 'Zero tolerance and sleaze free zone, no sex tourists, junkies, louts and other degenerates.' This charming hotel called The Atlanta was started by an German, ex Nazi arms dealer, who delighted in terrorising his staff, displaying endless lists of rules and an enormous signed picture of Margaret Thatcher. Fortunately for the staff, he died years ago but his spirit lives on in heart warming pearls of wisdom displayed on beer mats. Like... 'The staff are nice, I am not nice - which is why the staff are nice. Anyone who expects me to be an obliging, hand wringing sort of innkeeper will be sorely disappointed.'
After being thrown out for rule breaking..( ie splashing in the pool ) we moved onto ChaingMai, then up to Pai, a lovely haven of artists and musicians where we did an excellent thai boxing course ( and met some great characters such as a professional gambler, a drug dealing Thai with a only fools and horses accent and a one legged, spaced out Vietnam vet!
Feeling fitter than Rocky, we headed over the border to Laos to live with some gibbons ( This was simply out of this world. For 3 days we lived in a tree house, high above the jungle floor, waking to the sound of these amazing animals and spending the days with nothing but a harness and a wire rope between us and the jungle canopy 100 meters below us.Go to you tube and type in whw68 to see Will flying through the air....We were also very lucky that that the 4 people in our group were friendly and easygoing as the word 'semiprivate' in the brochure was an understatement! Listening out for the sound of a neighbours turd as it whooshed 50 meters to the floor is a bonding experience, we will never forget.
Next we took a (very) slow boat through Pak Beng to Luang Prabang - a gorgeous, sleepy, temple filled town where we sampled the high octane brew 'horsepower' - the strongest whiskey in Asia,peddled by a merry, red-faced Swedish man. At 65% you could feel the effects just by walking past him.
This gave us a bit of 'Swedish' courage for our next destination - The infamous Vang Vieng.....A beautiful craggy, mountain ed town where bizarrely,every restaurant plays 'Friends' from dusk till dawn.
This has a bizarre zombie like effect on the travellers who sit there transfixed after sampling the 'happy' pizzas. However, the real reason people visit this town is to go tubing.....This involves sitting in an inner tube tire and floating slowly down the river, stopping off at the numerous bars along the way. How this highly dangerous combination does not result in more fatalities is a mystery , especially to the bar hands who hook you in with a stick to ply you with cheap,lethal booze! Sensibly (well, sort of) I floated back to the hotel,after losing the power of speech. Three hours later, I was faced with a mud-caked, seaweed entangled creature (Will) carried by two concerned Danish babes - old enough to be his daughters! Unconcerned by his disgusting appearance and odour he gamely tried to persuade us all to carry on the festivities in a local nightclub....Luckily he fell asleep in a heap, dreaming of Jennifer Aniston. Probably.
P.S The only downside of our trip, has been seeing sad tourists posing in traditional dress and getting their photo taken. When will this exploitation stop?
P. S. S. Hope you enjoy the pictures.
Next installment: Good Morning Vietnam!!!!

Blogger's postscript: unfortunately, only two of Lisa's pictures could be uploaded to the blog, but each is a veritable cultural feast in itself and/or a bold expose of the worst kind of commercial exploitation of indigenous peoples, and who could seriously ask for more? Courage mes Braves!, Bon voyage!, A bas les Bogues de Lit !(that's "bed bugs" to you), Lisa and Will, and may the Shades of Jennifer Aniston, Sir Cliff and Jackie Chan be with you as you fly with the rising sun to Vietnam! Write soon!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reflective practice

The image "Reflection" is by Claudia Markovitch.

Ms Marilyn Miller-Pietroni, adult psychotherapist and previously a lecturer at the University of Westminster says that in her personal journey from psychotherapy to meditation, she discovered that “reflection is a mind that watches itself. It is disciplined and not research-free."

She emphasises that each client encounter is a new one and recommended, “Every health practitioner needs a state of ‘calm receptiveness’ in order to avoid bias arising from the last session, past interaction or a desire for definitive outcome.”

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Seaside Hospice

This is "Fair Havens" Hospice in Westcliff-on-Sea, near Southend-on-Sea in Essex. I suppose it could be called "my local Hospice" as it's the nearest to my home. It's also one of the first hospices to have been established in UK, as it was opened in 1983, its inspiration coming directly from the teachings and example of Dame Cicely Saunders.

The caring work of Fair Havens (and its partner children's facility Little Havens) is 77% funded by charitable donations, both private and corporate, and only the lesser fraction comes from Government. This is true of almost all hospices in the UK. It is also true that no more than 4% of those who die actually end their days in a hospice bed. This small percentage takes no account, however, of the many more who are supported by Day Services operated by the hospice, by short-term respite and palliative care options, and through family support e.g. bereavement counselling and specialist social work intervention.

Today I attended a "Multi-Faith" get-together hosted by the chaplaincy team, and joined a tour of the premises, escorted by various members of hospice staff who answered questions and offered information. As can be seen by the photographs, the hospice comprises two detached (former) family homes that have been modified and joined together. Another similar building on the same plot provides the premises for Day Care. Amazing ingenuity has been used to make optimum use of the limited space for eight bedrooms, all the necessary ancillary rooms, toilets, bathrooms, offices, a chapel, restaurant etc etc without ever seeming claustrophobic or cramped. The level of housekeeping and comfort achieved is, in my opinion, incomparable; and the provision for nursing and medical care would rival the best-equipped hospital.

I was accompanied on my tour by a Muslim G.P., Dr Pasha, who has practised family medicine in Southend-on-Sea for 50 years; before that he worked and trained at a hospital in Stourbridge in the West Midlands. He recounted to me his interview with Matron, who inducted him properly in what it was appropriate for a young and inexperienced doctor to do, and what he should not do, on pain of her displeasure. And he recollected being taught by a Ward Sister how to practise venepuncture to collect a specimen of blood, without causing the patient bruising or pain. In conversation with this man, one could not imagine a more gracious and delightful companion.

As it is the Muslim month of Ramadan, Dr Pasha eschewed the offer of tea and cake from his hosts. He told me that, at sundown when it is permissible to eat and drink, he is content to drink a little water and eat a morsel of food; then he allows his body to relax and prepare for a meal later in the evening. He told me that it is usual for younger people to fall hungrily on the food as soon as it is time to eat but, for the older man, a little restraint is more seemly and better for the constitution.

Dr Pasha was generous in his appreciation of the virtues of Christendom in practising love-in-action. He said that, with Islam, he thought Christianity was a religion that engaged with real-life suffering and deprivation where it found it. His view was that, in their belief in an after-life, Christians and Muslims invested this earthly life with a special meaning and significance for action by believers, not in the hope of reward or fear of punishment in the hereafter, but rather so as to help bring heaven closer to earth while they lived, for its own sake.

There wasn't much time to discuss the possible merits of dharma, nor did it seem the right place to do so, but it was an enjoyable and heart-warming experience overall, an opportunity to refresh friendships with colleagues, to meet new people, and to gain fresh knowledge and inspiration for the future.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Buddha's Words on Kindness (Metta Sutta)

"Buddhist monks chanting the Metta Sutta marched the streets in Mandalay, Burma, in protest against the vile tyrrany of the ruling military junta, and their 20-year suppression of democracy".

Just over a year ago, I heard the Metta Sutta expounded by a monk at the
funeral of one of the Buddhist Hospice Trust's staunchest, most
generous, and most devout supporters. MK lived alone for many years
and was regarded by some as eccentric, as she was Austrian, of strikingly ascetic appearance, spoke
in very heavily accented English and, although she was almost totally deaf, frequented every Buddhist talk or exposition of the Dharma she could get to, usually sitting in the front row nearest the speaker.

In her last few years, confused, isolated, and resolutely adamant about remaining independent, she was treated like a wounded animal by local youth, teased and mocked, and her few possessions stolen by casual burglary.
In the weeks leading up to her death she was knocked over by someone on a
pavement bicycle, went to hospital with a broken hip, entered into
rapid decline with signs of agitated confusion (common after trauma in
old people), wouldn't eat or accept treatment, and had no visitors
except the hospital chaplain who contacted me, and Ananda Networker Netta Wills who took her vegetarian food to tempt her towards health, and comforted her.

By the time I made arrangements to visit her she had already died. There were only six people at
her funeral, as she had no family. I handed out some Swiss Ricola
Herbal Sweets
to mourners, because she always carried them and pressed them on
everyone she met: they were almost her personal "signature". She used
to say something like "Zey are for children not suitable to be given"
every time.

Why am I recounting this anecdote? Well, mention of the Metta Sutta
brought the memory of MK to the front of my mind. And the mundane
circumstances of her death which were in every sense of the word
commonplace. But I am confident that she died as she had lived in a
state of Buddhist grace, of sublime abiding, fruit of her lifelong generosity and
devotion to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

The Buddha's Words on Kindness (Metta Sutta)

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in saftey,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

Dedicated to the memory and to the merit of Marghareta Khan, lately supporter and generous benefactor of the Buddhist Hospice Trust and Inner Work School.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Customer Service at your service....

You voted, I noted. And the software mis-toted (there were seven votes apparantly amounting to 113% of the poll). I didn't vote myself, honest!

Altogether, I am amazed at the response, as I had no idea (or not much idea) that anyone ever looked at the blog, and I'm gratified at the response, although I'm not about to beat my breast to announce how I feel otherwise.

But of course I can't help being influenced by the readership, and it remains to be seen how, doesn't it?

Thank you all for your input, and please keep visiting.

Positivity in Healthcare

Last Sunday I attended a whole-day workshop at the premises of the Brahma Kumaris Global Spirituality University in Pound Lane, Willesden, North-West London, my third visit to an event offered by the Janki Foundation.

At first acquaintance, the Brahma Kumaris (who offer their premises to Janki without charge) appear an other-worldly lot. They are all clad in white clothing, and look serene and approachable. Although I wore week-end jeans and a rugger shirt, and looked very much not a member of the congregation, who are mainly of Asian appearance, people met my eyes and smiled warm acknowledgement. The building is designed and fitted out as a modern conference center, but in a palpable way it seems to signal receptivity and calm. It's hard not to feel at ease there, despite its unfamiliarity to a newcomer.

The workshop was attended by about forty men and women, mainly health-care professionals, but with a sprinkling of business types including two financial analysts from Bloomberg. The facilitators were part of an established Janki team, volunteers who held down jobs outside the organisation. The workshop was a module from the extended VIHASA programme (Values In Healthcare - A Spiritual Approach) which, despite sounding rather esoteric, is culturally neutral and applicable to healthcare and its workers everywhere. Indeed, the full VIHASA programme has been trialled in Asia, Africa, the Carribean and in several European countries, with excellent evaluative reviews.

The workshop is a carefully balanced mixture of experiential and propositional work in small groups, in pairs, and as a full collective, with time for individual reflection and 'guided meditation'. The two facilitators were skilled and charismatic, never tipping over into 'facilitator-speak' or sententiousness. The workshop offered a taste of how the seven spiritual skills of VIHASA are nurtured and developed: these are described as "reflection, visualisation, meditation, appreciation, listening, creativity and play". At the heart of these activities is a powerful message of individual worth, of unique self-hood, and our capacity for compassion.

When returned home my wife commented on my looking "sun-kissed", as if I had been out in the sunshine. I knew that this glow was an inside-out manifestation. First I had been invited to choose a colour that would suffuse my day, and I had immediately known it should be "vibrant peach", though where that idea came from is anybody's guess! I am usually more a brown or blue man. Later, when invited to reflect on the meaning of positivity, my mind had delivered in quick and unambiguous succession the words "Energised", "Potent", "Open", "Sensitive" and "Whole". It is fair to say that on waking that morning I had felt anything but as I faced the long journey up across London to the venue. But that is what the workshop and its participants delivered to me, and - by all accounts - what it gave everyone who attended, and I am deeply appreciative of those gifts as I write. I hope very much to be able to offer some part of the VIHASA programme to Trust volunteers (and others) in future, and have booked to undergo facilitator training later this year, at Janki Foundation's generous invitation.

For more information on the Janki Foundation please use the links above and to the right of the posts, or contact me in person.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Difficult decisions

This Trust often gets requests for help, support and advice that give rise to difficult decisions. The Trust has defined charitable aims, set out in its founding charter. Broad in one sense of allowing for natural growth and diversification, the core 'business' of the Trust is that of supplying spiritual support for seriously ill, dying and bereaved people (notionally Buddhists), but in practice anyone who seeks help from a Buddhist perspective.

It is through this rather restrictive 'lens' that requests have to be examined. The Trust doesn't and can't offer a panacea for all ills, indeed it is hard-pressed enough to fulfil its supplementary objectives of teaching, promoting and developing the principles of hospice, and of encouraging personal openness to death and dying in the midst of life: "Hospice in the Heart".

So Paul King's combined invitation and enquiry posed a dilemma for me, as one of the Trust's representatives and a first-line of response via the website. Paul was tasked by the Five Buddha Shrine (in Las Vegas) to arrange an visit by Master Yu Tianjian, leading exponent of esoteric Hanmi (Chinese) Buddhism, to the United Kingdom in September of this year. An outline itinerary and background information is shown here. Paul thought that, as a hospice, we might know of individuals who might wish to avail themselves of opportunities for healing that Master Yu might bring. Paul offered attestations from people who had declared themselves healed in his presence, and Paul's reverence for, and faith in the Master was compelling. Paul affirms that he, Master Yu, comes with the most exalted recommendations and testimonials to his spiritual authority. Paul, as "his only English disciple", wishes fervently that others might experience, as he has experienced, the transforming power of the dharma as expressed by this "living Buddha".

I explained the Trust's un-afffiliated and disinterested stance re the many and various expressions of Buddhism, the so-called "many Buddhisms". We don't act for or on behalf of any sect or tradition, nor do we seek spiritual direction from a particular teacher or Master. In the eyes of many Buddhists this exposes a serious weakness in the Trust's legitimacy, but that is a non-healing wound we are willing to bear. I also explained that I could not, in conscience, exploit the vulnerability of individuals by holding out to them or their friends hopes of healing from any self-advertising source, however sincerely held his disciples' beliefs, or firmly established his own claims to esoteric powers.

Paul is a busy man, and our debate had to be curtailed for that reason. This post is a respectful compromise that I am sure, or at least I hope, Paul and Master Yu will acknowledge as fair both to their vocation and mission, and to the principles that guide our work. The links above are provided by Paul, and any further enquiries should be addressed to him via those. It goes without saying, I'm sure, that we wish Paul, Master Yu Tianjian and his retinue, and all who meet them, a safe and successful visit to our shores, and our best wishes for their endeavours while they are here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"A small number of days..."

There's a new NHS protocol or procedure available increasingly to dying individuals in hospital, in residential care, hospices and in their own homes via Community Nurses. It's called the Integrated Pathway for End-of-Life Care, and I had my first professional dealings with it today.

Based on principles developed over many years in hospices and specialist palliative care services like Macmillan, it states that:

Too many patients die an undignified death with uncontrolled symptoms (e.g. pain, breathlessness, nausea, agitation)*

Transfer of best practice from a hospice setting to other care settings, including for non-cancer patients, is a major challenge (partly because death is regarded as a negative outcome and may be denied by professionals despite its being an obvious fact)

Diagnosing dying is an important clinical skill (and central to the Pathway's successful implementation)

One of the key aims of specialist palliative care is to empower generic healthcare workers to care for dying patients (by setting out the pathway in easy-to-follow/easy-to-document steps, allowing for individually- tailored alternative strategies and techniques where the situation calls for variation)

Core education objectives related to the care of dying patients should be incorporated in the training of all relevant healthcare professionals (the plan constitutes a "core curriculum" that can be delivered in situ, in a real-life/real-death situation, and will be remembered by those who engage in it actively)

Resources should be made available to enable patients to die with dignity in a setting of their choice (and the plan provides justification for making them available, with no redundancy of expenditure).

National indicators for care of the dying patient should be identified and monitored (working to a consistent plan allows for reliable and valid audit across all agencies that use it).

*(The bits in brackets above are my own speculative comments, not those of the Plan's authors).

In actuality, the Pathway is a detailed plan involving the dying person, their friends and family, all key professionals who ought to be involved and who "sign up" to it, and it is triggered by a decision based on awareness that the individual has just a "small number of days to live", and will not recover.

In a nutshell, the plan draws on best evidence-based practice to deliver comfort, full symptom relief, remission from heroic and unnecessary treatments, psychological ease for patient and family, such spiritual support as may be wanted, full communication amongst all concerned, and all the components possible for "a good death".

Crucial to the plan is the consensual decision that only "a small number of days of life" remain, and it is an agreement on this that triggers the plan, and sets its integrated steps in motion.

Under discussion today with the family of our dying patient was, "how shall we recognise that death is only a small number of days distant"? Of course, there is always a certain unpredictability about death, and in an important sense "it knows its own time". It won't be hurried, that's for sure, any more than it will be unnecessarily delayed.

In my experience, and in the experience of many nurses and doctors, there is a variable period preceding death during which the person stops drinking, becomes bedbound, is very still and stuporose; and there is an unmistakable sense of recession, of withdrawal from involvement in the realm of life, hard to describe, but tangible and real to the sensitive or sensitised onlooker. Later there are physical signs, associated in some Buddhist traditions with dissolution of the elements: slight and/or sterterous, noisy breathing, pallor, coldness and sweatiness of hands and brow, a pinched appearance of the nose and face, episodes of restlessness and apparant agitation etc. These signs are possibly more distressing to the onlooker than they are experienced as distressing by the dying person.

Today, when our patient's GP visited her, she was bright, cheerful and anxious to know how he was doing himself. Although she is gravely ill, he thought it was not time to initiate her plan, and will visit another day when we reckon the number of days may be "small" enough to make the plan worthwhile, although it seems a rather cold-blooded business, if well-intentioned and humane.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Dachau, Bavaria

Last week my son and I were away for a few days in Bavaria, a trip we'd planned about a year ago as a treat. We stayed in a Munich Youth Hostel (very different from the Youth Hostels of my recollection from the 1950s) and walked miles around the city, dropping off at various watering-holes for a beer.

On our second day we took the train to Dachau, a small, pretty, pleasing and provincial town (see image on right), reminiscent of Hemel Hempstead or Bromsgrove, and the site of the concentration camp (image on left shows one of the camp watch-towers overlooking the roll-call assembly area).

It was a sombre experience, the moreso because of the nearness of the camp to the town: there is nothing isolated about the camp now, and there can have been nothing isolated about it in the 1940s. Indeed, prisoners were marched from the station to the camp entrance along suburban roads, past the same bus stops (presumably) as we stopped at on our short commute there.

It is a tribute to the German people that they have preserved the camp as a memorial, many of its original features being still intact, and with some sensitive reconstruction. There is a wealth of information on display, and several guided tours each day. My son and I spent just over three hours wandering round. The site is roughly the size of a small retail park, and housed 63,000 people in 38 barrack-rooms.

I imagine the question most foreign visitors ask themselves is, "Could it have happened at home?", and my own answer would almost certainly have to be "I don't know, but I think it might".

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Injury Compensation

I read recently of a soldier, badly crippled in a recent conflict, who is appealing against what he considers to be an inequitable compensatory settlement of just over £150,000 for loss of legs, spleen, brain injury etc.

Considering that he was presumably willing to inflict injuries at least as serious on other people, admittedly brown-skinned foreigners, as part of his contracted duties, and knew (in theory, at least) what the risks of the work involved, can one have sympathy with his claim?

As a tax-payer I think enough of my hard-earned cash goes on ill-advised not to say immoral military adventures abroad, wars I didn't agree we should wage, and marched in protest against (NT Forum 2002 passim),so I'm definitely not at all disposed to fork out more. What do you think?

Saturday, August 18, 2007


The Face of Amida Buddha

"The ultimate protection is emptiness;
Know what arises as confusion
to be the four aspects of being."

Stella, whom I had been visiting intermittently in the Hospice, and then in a Nursing Home, died on 14th August.

She had asked that I be called to see her. She had attended a dharma group I set up locally in an Age Concern meeting hall a few years back. The dharma group met fortnightly for what was basically a cosy chat, sitting in 1980s chintz chairs in the gloom. There were seldom more than four of us at any particular time.

In 2005 I disbanded the group, and lost contact with Stella, although we had corresponded by email occasionally. Her call for me to visit her disconcerted me. She was dying of terminal cancer, with brain metastases. I found her in a hospice bed, quite incapacitated, but capable of slow, painful speech. She asked me first if she was dying. I recall answering that it looked like it, but that death was hard to judge or predict. She asked me if I would help her. I remember saying "That's why I'm here". I didn't, in truth, know what that meant, only that I had gone because she had asked me to, and I wanted to.

She then said, "I want to learn to be a Buddhist". I said, "Stella, you really don't need to be a Buddhist" and I meant it. I told her that I thought she had done all the work she ever needed to do to face death, and now was the time to draw on the fruits of that work, not to look for anything else. It was all there for her. She asked me, "How do you know?". I said, "I don't know, I just have confidence in you, and in it".

Stella was a science teacher, a biologist and chemist by training, and a natural sceptic. I loved the way she challenged everything, challenged my assertions, my glib aphorisms.

Our relationship was very uncertain. At one point I told her that I thought my visits were a hindrance to her, and I stopped visiting her. I think that uncertainty, my uncertainty, her uncertainty, had a value for both of us beyond the assurances of Buddhist teachings or the prescriptions of, for example, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

"The ultimate protection is emptiness;
Know what arises as confusion
to be the four aspects of being."

I dedicate this post to Stella Whittaker, her life, her death, and to the merit of all sentient beings, great and small, near and far, born and yet-to-be-born, that they may be free from suffering, and the rooots of suffering, and heal into their true nature, and know peace.

Om Amidewa Hrih
Om Amidewa Hung Hrih
Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung
Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Tetrung Tsul
Benza Samaya-Dza, Siddhi Pala Hung Ah

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Call me Al.....lah

A Catholic Bishop in the Netherlands has said that God doesn't mind what people call him, and that people of all faiths (perhaps he means Abramic or theistic faiths) should call him Allah. This would foster inter-faith understanding and promote religious tolerance.

He certainly has a point. Surprisingly, and a bit dishearteningly, he met with a heavy weight of criticism: apparantly 92% of a surveyed 4,000 people thought he was wrong.

My wife's deceased father was a Zambian, an ordained minister with Christian Missions In Many Lands. In his prayers, he always referred to the Almighty as "Lesa", which is the Bemba word for God, a title that antedated the arrival of Christianity in Africa. I always thought it sounded better than God, at least it did when he said it. I wonder if Lesa prefers it, and inclines more readily to it than God, or Allah. Of course, this is purely a flippant, idle question. I have no idea what the answer may be.

Perhaps perversely, what also came to mind for me when I finished reading the Bishop Tiny Muskens story was the 1980s Paul Simon hit "Call me Al", itself an inspirational composition built on the Great Depression lament, "Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?" ("It was Al all the time...").

It's a great lyric, and worth posting here, I reckon (in case yoú've forgotten bits):

A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard
I need a photo opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard

Bone-digger, bone-digger
Dogs in the moonlight
Far away my well-lit door
Mr. Beerbelly, beerbelly
Get these mutts away from me
You know I don’t find this stuff
Amusing anymore

If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al

A man walks down the street
He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention
And woe my nights are so long
Where’s my wife and family
What if I die here
Who’ll be my role model
Now that my role model is
Gone gone

He ducked back down the alley
With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
All along along
There were incidents and accidents
There were hints and allegations

If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al
Call me Al

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
He doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound
The sound

Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen and Hallelujah

If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al
Call me

Na na na na …

If you’ll be my bodyguard
I can be your long lost pal
I can call you Betty
And Betty when you call me
You can call me Al

Call me Al

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Wrong, wrong, wrong

Not for the first time, I was wrong.

PBC isn't an arrangement to let patients buy services they want from a pot of money they're given by Government. It stands for "Practice Based Commissioning".

As the Lord Warner, ex-Minister of State for Health, helpfully explains on the DoH website:

"If there is an alternative that is better for the patient and better for the NHS, then practice based commissioning provides the basis on which they can change the way that services are delivered."

So, presumably, PCB can be seen as a 'lean, innovative tool to drill down and leverage more business, as smart, efficient operators in the mental health landscape' will certainly want to do.

Won't you? And if not, why not?

Monday, August 13, 2007

I've seen the future, and it err, umm.....

Advertising a Two-Day Conference on Mental Health Service Development, September 2007
(Health Services Journal)

"In an evolving mental health landscape now is the time to be smart and efficient. Operating in a dynamic, modernised NHS brings new challenges for mental health services. When faced with a new business world, mindsets and ways of working must be adapted, and corporate skills flexed to achieve the service transformation required to survive in this commercial environment.

Day One - Corporate Development

Thinking of the NHS as a business whilst maintaining a focus on “customer” care within mental health is no easy task. This day will drill down into the business planning and market management required to effectively compete in a commercial environment. Hear how to achieve flexibility, efficiency and financial stability as a Mental Health Foundation Trust in the absence of PbR. Learn how to respond to the diverse needs of your local population and gain meaningful membership. Acquire insight into the mechanisms available to drive efficiency and embrace these business challenges, including the establishment of robust governance and adoption of lean methodology.

Day Two - Service Transformation

At the heart of service transformation sits workforce redesign and effective commissioning; this day has been designed to provide you with the tools and information to rise to these challenges. In today’s NHS whole systems commissioning is imperative to service transformation. Learn how to make this a reality in mental health, whilst leveraging tools such as PBC to drive care closer to home. Hear also how to commission for public health outcomes, paramount to achieving health promotion in mental health, and use commissioning as an opportunity to increase the plurality of mental health providers and deliver real service user choice. For workforce and capacity planning to meet future demands on mental health services, roles must be redesigned and new ways of working applied. Hear how to embrace new ways of working to manage the primary/secondary care interface and establish effective partnerships with multiple agencies to maximise collaboration. With race equality high on the current agenda, gain experience-driven guidance on utilising your workforce to meet these needs and ensure equal access to all services and cultural sensitivity at all levels."

Peter comments: I reckon PbR means "Payment by Results", and I think PBC refers to the arrangement whereby patients get a sum of money to buy services they want, rather than getting what they're given. I can't remember exactly what the letters stand for, "Personal Budget for Care"?

The language sounds rather odd, but the thinking seems sound enough, if a bit overheated. I'd be a bit concerned that the hyperbolic way ideas are expressed may get in the way of implementing them. And some terms seem euphemisms for redundancy e.g. "lean methodologies". On the other hand, 'more efficient methods' is three words, 'lean methodologies' is two. Maybe that's what they mean. Why am I thinking of a certain tower in Pisa...?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Vote, vote, vote...

Well, I asked for it, I know.

Someone has already voted in my slightly daring poll, designed to give me feedback from readers on the direction they would like this blog to take (including the direction marked EXIT), or its content, or its style.

When I saw the first vote had been cast, I was pleased to know that someone actually reads the blog, and was sufficiently interested to vote. I wonder if that person will continue to visit, if only to see whether their vote will influence it? I also realised that the question I posed didn't quite match the responses I framed. It would have made more sense to ask "What CHANGES would you like to see on this blog?", because that's the purpose of the question, to canvass a few ideas about change. But I can't edit the poll in any way now someone has voted. That's democracy. And karma.

Of course, some response-options I offered are a bit provocative, because - at the time of writing - I've no firm intention to invite teachers of lineage to use the blog as a platform - although some readers might want that. And some of the the pictures and short captions are derived from Ken McLeod's Seven-Point Mind Training site that I find helpful and inspiring, without the pictures/captions being overtly Buddhist or suggesting a particular tradition.

A reflection on the first vote:

As I write, and since I first embarked on the blog, I realise how much of my ego contents spill out on to the page. More realistically, I'm PARTLY aware that SOME of my ego contents spill out on to the page, and partly aware that much of what I disclose is written unawarely. Often, when I read it back some days or weeks afterwards, a previously unconscious element leaps at me from the page: Buddha! Ray Wills used to counsel people in his circle to write stuff down, so that they might encounter themselves, not just in their narcissism, but also in their luminosity and grace.

Is the purpose of this blog self-gratification for its own narcissistic sake, or does it serve some other worthwhile purpose, personal or altruistic? I don't know, but I trust that it inclines more to the latter than the former purpose, while thinking that it may well do both. Does the blog in any way illuminate, through self-examination, some of the core issues at the heart of hospice, of suffering, its causes, and its remedy? That's not for me to say. But those of you who read it, if there any such beside the solitary voter, can comment if you want to. It will help me.

The image top left is titled "The Narcissist" and is by Jon Goebel (no relation)