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.