Saturday, December 27, 2008

Harold Pinter 1930-2008


Two quotes from Harold Pinter who died over the Christmas holiday:

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false” (1958).

A long life-time later:

“When we look into a mirror we think that the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of the mirror that the truth stares at us.”

“I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.” (2005, Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech).

These two sets of statements strike me as inconsistent with each other, unless, of course, one accepts the premise of the first that life is paradox, mystery, impenetrable, un-pin-downable. In which case we can either ignore or accept the implicit condradiction in his words, or do both simultaneously.

An interval of fifty years separates the mind of the young, emergent Pinter and the older, wiser Pinter. Pinter the Elder lays down the Law of Obligation, an inescapable call to duty, to mental struggle, to the obligations of citizenship, concluding, “If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man” (Nobel acceptance speech ).

Now I do wonder how he came to this point of pessimistic certainty, this dogmatism. Perhaps he was frightened into it by the thought of how his Nobel acceptance speech might be received, although he had little time for critics, once saying, “I find (them) on the whole a pretty unnecessary bunch of people”.

I don’t share his concerns about human dignity, or think that maintaining human dignity is the province of politics, the responsibility of a political citizenry, or even a social project to be embarked on by writers. Less tinkering, say I- less “building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”, less chariots of fire and ceaseless strife, if you please. Less doing - more being?

I do like Harold's portrait at the head of this page. So very intense, so very "fifties" - the angry or at least agonised young man of the day, amongst many. He was very handsome too, as well as gifted.


My contract to serve as an Honorary Hospital Chaplain to Mid-Essex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the Farleigh Hospice has recently been renewed for another year, although I can hardly be said to have discharged it very completely over the last year. There are very few calls on the services of a Buddhist Chaplain in Mid-Essex, and I haven’t “put myself about” very diligently at the Chelmsford hospitals that comprise the Trust, although I’ve responded to the infrequent calls that have been made from time to time.

I’ve also taken occasional Communion with the Christian ministers and volunteers, a very agreeable and uplifting ‘ecumenical’ ceremony held each Wednesday lunchtime.

The Trust already offers meditation classes for staff, so there seems little point in setting up another “stall” for potential meditators, even if I had the time and the skill to run classes, which I don’t.

Work is progressing in Buddhist circles, I’m informed, on developing a structure to accredit and approve Buddhist Hospital Chaplains more widely (there are at present very few of us in post). I have reservations about this move - not that I’m against a Buddhist presence in hospitals, but because it seems unnecessarily restrictive and bureaucratic, and I’m not sure who will come forward to do the approving and accrediting the new scheme calls for.

I wouldn’t feel in any way equipped to approve another person for the role. Who am I to judge another, and what would I be using as a yardstick to measure their acceptability? Some people toss criteria like “trustworthiness”, “empathy”, “reliability”, “warmth”, “well-versed in Buddhadharma” and so on in to the arena. But what do these mean, and how are they properly assessed or quantified?

Others would require an attestation from a “Buddhist spiritual leader or teacher” about the candidate’s “good standing in the Buddhist community”. Well, I don’t know how I would meet that one - I couldn’t, not ever.

But if you are interested in a chaplaincy or chaplaincy volunteer role, write in to me and I will put you in touch with developments, so you can bring your own influence to bear on what is decided, before the die is cast, so to speak.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Positivity - glass half-full or half-empty?

We were recently approached by a seasoned Buddhist who is inspired to build a Buddhist Hospice here in the United Kingdom - a place where a dying Buddhist could be fully supported in their practice as they neared the end of their life, a modern, well-appointed place where holistic care could be given to the highest standards by Buddhist attendants.

This is a noble aspiration, and it was put to us with unusual fervour and enthusiasm, notwithstanding the challenges inherent in such an undertaking. The person who made the proposal didn't know about our own existence when he first conceived the hospice idea, and only learned about the Trust via a third party, which led to his telephoning us.

My first-off response was to greet the proposal, saying that I would personally lend whatever resources I could to such a venture and, further, that the Buddhist Hospice Trust would do whatever lay in its power to help. I thereby surprised myself at my own positivity.

I think my response was called forth by the positivity of my counterpart, the one who made the proposal; but also that it came from a general attitude of positivity that I have cultivated this year, although I can't say how I've done it. I've meditated on positivity a few times, and - of course - positivity (and cooperation) were advertised as themes for the year on the website, and in planning the conferences that didn't happen. One can only wonder - but there it is - a glass half full of readiness to help, open-mindedness, and belief in miracles!

At the Mandala meeting we met up with the man who wants to run with the hospice idea and see it through to fruition, in company with like-minded others as a project to unite all traditions, generating the fund-raising and voluntary-service capacity needed, and within a open time-frame. This fellow's enthusiasm is infectious, and there's no doubting his determination to realise his dream, his ability to entrain others, or his experience of the British Buddhist scene (whatever that might comprise).

We had an interesting discussion. I'm not at all an expert on hospice work, and I did suggest to him that he might better consult people who are about what's involved in developing a hospice service from scratch. My views on hospice work are, it must be said, at least idiosyncratic; but one does not have to be a specialist to know that hospices in general are 'retrenching' financially and in other respects, that end-of-life care is changing, so that it is likely in future that more people will die 'at home' than in a hospital or hospice bed. This doesn't of itself imply that a Buddhist hospice can't be achieved, nor that it oughtn't to be: let what will be announce itself, and who knows what may happen.

What I was able to point to, from my own experience of care-provision (in nursing and residential care environments, as well as in hospitals), is the high cost of care. It is not so much in capital costs that hospice care comes dear, but in recurrent costs - the monthy bills, as the following "back-of-an envelope" calculations may show. These are my own raw figures, and they may only be rough approximations, but - as far as I can honestly say - they are realistic, and give some idea of what might be involved.

The figures offered are based on a notional hospice offering four in-patient beds for terminally ill or dying people requiring end-of-life care, including palliative care (pain- and symptom-relief, specialised nursing, and on-call medical support). The figures represent estimated monthly outlay, based on a twelve calendar month year.

Rates/Council tax £ 200
Utilities (Gas. electricity, water, sewage) £ 800
Insurances £ 120
Maintenance of fabric/repairs £ 100
Technical equipment (hire/replacement) £ 160
Food/drink (based on 4 patients and eight
staff) £ 300
Cleaning materials and consumables (e.g.
paper towels, toilet rolls, gloves etc) £ 160
Stationery/stamps/office sundries £ 80
Telephone/Internet £ 60
Nursing staff (based on 6 Whole-Time
Equivalents [WTE] for 24 hour cover x 7 day week and employer's NI) £7,200
Care Assistants (based on 6 WTE at national
minumum wage including employer's NI) £4200
Administrator/clerk-receptionist/payroll staff 1 WTE £ 900
Housekeeping staff (cleaner/laundrywoman) 1 WTE £ 750
Cook/Kitchen Assistant 0.5 WTE £ 400

Total £15,430

You may agree this is a lot of money to find monthly, and could call for a professional Fund Raiser, probably full-time. Let's say (if we include her necessary expenses and the resources of publicity she would need to do her crucial work) another £1,400 a month. That adds up to a rounded-off total of £200,000 annual recurrent running costs.

Food for thought, but my cup's still half full, and I'm up for further debate and analysis on the matter. Are you?

Sunday, November 16, 2008


My eldest son scorns my occasional use of the word “networking”, and I can see his point. He feels that “to network” has taken on a kind of cynical, manipulative connotation, that of using people for one’s own selfish purposes, of empire-building, ‘feathering one’s nest’, a culture of reciprocal favours and obligations: “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.

Networking, one imagines, is a vital part of the curriculum of the coveted Masters in Business Administration with which so many of our health and social care managers seem to invest themselves in modern times. But our organisation - and I use the word cautiously - is very loose, and deliberately so. We rely on the self-directed actions of individuals to fulfil our declared purposes. The Trust has only ever been a free association of individual women and men, committed to sharing themselves in spiritual friendship with others at times of difficult transition, and to fitting themselves for such sharing through personal practice.

We don’t select, accredit, authorise, train, direct or supervise our volunteers. We don’t ask for references, testimonies of good Buddhist standing, Criminal Records affidavits, or transcripts of caring experience or qualification. In this sense we are counter-cultural, if only because everything else in contemporary culture seems to be subject to ‘managerialism’, to the entrepreneurial ethos, the ’cutting edge’ of new technology, the rolling tide of added-value, risk-reduction and all the rest.

I read a prospectus recently for training as an End of Life Care Practitioner. The training involves four weekend modules and two eight-day retreats. It’s an impressive-looking programme aimed at impressively qualified and committed individuals, but the cost to each participant is US $5,000, plus US $2,900 for accommodation at the training centre. I can’t and won’t repudiate such initiatives as this, but I deplore any trend towards the ‘commercialisation of compassion’, the insidious commodification of care.

And, right or wrong, my instinct is to trust the open-handed and open-hearted Hospice Trust volunteer to do her best, as she sees it. In my experience, our best is always just what is needed: even our mistakes and clumsiness are as it should be in the wider scheme of things.

Writing about when things go wrong reminds me of an incident that occurred at my brother’s funeral last weekend. The service had just got under way with a short introduction, and the priest invited the congregation of mourners to join him in a short prayer. As he was making this invitation a latecomer, a young woman carrying a child no more than a few months old slipped into the chapel and, making her way down the central aisle, lost her footing on the polished tiles and fell with a great crash and a cry of shock to the floor.

Fortunately, with a mother’s instinct, she managed to hold the baby away from harm’s way on the unforgiving tiles as she fell, but she was clearly very distressed and a great gasp of concern rose up from the seated mourners. She rose to her feet clutching her child, and managed unaided to find a seat on the pews. Without offering a word of comfort or concern, and without leaving the rostrum (but with a look of deep embarrassment), the priest continued at once with his formulaic words “Shall we pray….”

Over his recited prayer the congregation heard the woman quietly weeping as she comforted her baby. We were, and I include myself, as if transfixed by the awful conjunction of events. I still feel the momentary horror of the situation as I write, the awful contradiction of a ceremony that - as it were - averted its eyes from everyday pain towards an unseen God who, we learn, numbers every hair on our head, and every sparrow that falls.

It has occurred to me to wonder if such a scenario could ever be enacted in a Buddhist setting. I don’t know the answer, do you?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The merits of being alive

Yesterday I was at my brother's funeral, and this morning as I walked jauntily to the shops I reflected on the merits, possibilities (and responsibilities) of being alive. Jonathan was eleven years my junior and died at home of pancreatic cancer last week. A little while before he died I asked him if he had ever believed that he would show such manliness during his final illness (it lasted eleven months), and he shook his head. But he did, and I pray that I shall walk in his footsteps towards my own.

When my Mum (who is still alive aged 91) was expecting my brother in 1949 she went to the cinema to see a new film release, a drama called 'My Brother Jonathan' starring Finlay Currie, Michael Dennison and Dulcie Gray. My brother was a bump inside her. She was inspired to choose my brother's name by seeing the film, and by the Biblical story from which it was derived. I don't know whether my brother and I bought into her narrative (as childen often do buy into the stories their parents tell them about themselves), or whether she was prescient in her naming, but he and I enjoyed a very close bond throughout his life, and our lives mirrored each other's in many respects. We both became nurses and psychiatric nurse-teachers, for example. At his funeral, having being invited by Maggie his widow to say a few words, I was able to quote from Samuel 2, 2:1 as follows:

"I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant hast thou been to me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women". And this was the experience of all who knew him, I have no doubt.

I haven't blogged for about a month as I've been unwell myself, on and off, and 'otherwise engaged'. I wasn't able to get to the Mandala meeting yesterday for obvious reasons. I understand there were four or five people present and I'm grateful for the feedback I've had from some of those who attended.

A week ago I attended a meeting of the Activities Committee of the Network of Buddhist Organisations of which the Trust is a constituent member. These meetings occur from time to time and any Trust supporter is welcome to attend. I will publish forthcoming meetings of the NBO as and when we are notified of them and you can attend in your own right as a Trust 'supporter', bearing in mind that we have no formal membership (although some people think we do). You won't be expected to act as a representative of the Trust, not by anyone, and you won't be expected to 'report back' on decisions taken or matters discussed, although I shall appreciate it as a favour if you do.

The NBO is a funny organisation in so far as it was set up as a network and didn't take any powers to itself except to admit member organisations who applied, and to apply some basic criteria for admission (mainly so as to deter very small organisations from applying, although one can't imagine why, or I can't). Since it was set up it has emerged - not consciously or deliberately - as a reference point for agencies looking for a "Buddhist position" on anything from religious education, through euthanasia, to immunisation of girls against the human papilloma viris implicated in some cases of cervical cancer.

Needless to say there is a vigorous debate and indeed some tension arising from whether a network, set up to promote dialogue and mutual support amongst the wide variety of Buddhist minds, hearts and voices, can ever articulate a representative "Buddhist voice", or whether it should.

Part of the meeting was given over to discussion of a draft Code of Conduct that might be applied to member organisations to keep them in line (so to speak) with acceptable forms of Buddhist behaviour, based generally on the Five Precepts. This stirs up all manner of bees in my already buzzing bonnet, and I did express the very personal and idiosyncratic opinion that this might be a step too far for a network.

I said that I didn't see networks as pushing things around; on the contrary a network depends on voluntary links (like people holding hands) that can register a pull from other sources, but can't transmit a push (at least that's how it seems to me that a net 'works'). Nets may have a certain holding power (as long as the links are there), but they aren't pro-active or pushy. A Code of Conduct seems to me to be "pushy", especially as it serves to exclude anyone who breaches it, or potentially so, and that in fact was why it was conceived, or so it seems to me. If you have views on this, let me know.

Before I left Eccleston Square where the NBO met, I had an interesting conversation with Dario (whose surname I can't remember but you may remember him as a Colombian doctor based on the Buddhist Society for quite a few years), currently the Buddhist Society archivist, about our work and his own. He unearthed a couple of audiotapes about the Buddhist Hospice Trust, made by Maurice O'C Walshe who clearly figured prominently in the Trust's early years. I haven't yet listened to these tapes, but shall as soon as I can sit down mindfully to do so.

It may be of interest to Trust supporters to hear them, and perhaps this could be arranged at some future time, perhaps as part of a more extended meeting than the Mandala meetings allow.

Incidentally, it was pointed out that the times I posted for the monthly meetings at Friends House were wrong (an hour out), and I am very sorry for this, and for any inconvenience to anyone. I have now corrected them. I shall post a reminder of the December meeting nearer the time, and send this out by Royal Mail to everyone whose postal address I have on my files.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Manadala meeting", advance notice

“We are always beginners in the art of compassion” Christina Feldman

Dear Friend

The next monthly meeting will be held on Saturday, 8th November 2008 at 2.00 pm in the Doric Room at Friends House, Euston Road, London. Nearest Underground stations are Euston, Euston Square and Kings X/St Pancras (all within reasonable distance for pedestrian or wheelchair user).

We have decided from now on to call this monthly meeting the Buddhist Hospice Trust “Mandala meeting“. This inspired suggestion was made by Michael Lewin who, besides being our Treasurer, is an artist of repute.


Mandala is, I understand, a Sanskrit word combining the elements ‘essence’, ‘containing’ or ‘having’, and is of Hindu origin but is also widely used in Buddhism. We read that in various spiritual traditions mandalas are used in meditation for focussing attention; as a spiritual teaching tool or ‘visual aid‘; and for establishing a ‘sacred space’.

The mandala has become a generic term for any plan, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos: a microcosm of the Universe from a human perspective, or a representation of the unconscious self. In the Tibetan tradition, complicated and beautiful mandalas are carefully constructed using coloured sand; when completed the mandala is quickly swept away to show the transitory nature of all material things, the sand returned to a river so that it may not be used again.

Now I wonder if you will find that that this is an appropriate label to apply to our meetings? I think so myself; in fact I experienced a shiver of recognition down my spine when Michael suggested it - I can think of none more mellifluous and appealing, so I recommend it to you all.


For those who want meet earlier there is the coffee-shop/book shop on the ground floor, and the meeting room itself is available to us from 1.30 pm. There is a basement restaurant with nice food costing around £6.50 for a main course, open at 12.00. This will be our fourth meeting and attendance so far has been in line with our expectations, bearing in mind that there hasn’t been much publicity.

A group of seven people (such as met in October) makes for a congenially intimate encounter, even when most people are strangers to each other. Not having an agenda encourages those present to use the opportunity for dialogue, to listen carefully to other points of view and experience, to see the world through other eyes. In these conversations buddhadharma is our point of departure, not our destination.

By this I mean that the meetings aren’t intended to deliver teachings , and there are no readings or planned expositions on the tenets of Buddhism. Stephen Bachelor (see below) speaks of ‘beings who inhabit a participatory reality, seeking relationships that enhance our sense of what it means to be alive’.

This, for me, clearly expresses the meaning of our meeting, a temporary mandala of participatory reality, within which we can share our aliveness, “women and men living in the here and now” as Ray Wills used to put it.


Before Mick suggested Mandala as a title, I had been thinking of the meeting in terms of a stir-fry. For a stir-fry, small amounts of fresh raw ingredients, whatever is to hand, are thrown into the wok in which a little oil has been heated over a fierce flame. That’s what the meeting feels like, a wok!

Each of us (who wants to) tosses in a handful of fresh stuff we‘ve plucked from our lived experience: something leafy, crunchy, moist, dry, sweet, tart, sour or fragrant; maybe it’s just a pinch of something fiery, spicy, aromatic or piquant, something to tease and tantalise, to make the juices flow. Those who don’t want to speak supply the wholesome oil of their silence.

Our tacit expertise comes (I think) in how we judge when to tilt the wok, how to stir the contents, how much (if any) of what we bring to throw in the wok, how high we set the flame, and how we judge when enough is enough. No single hand does this, or it does itself, the cooking sizzles and steams, the ingredients are balanced ‘just-so‘, and no meal is ever the same.

I like to think we can all ‘eat’ from the same dish, without being formally invited, that what we ‘eat’ is good for us, and I hope that you think so too. If this makes anyone feel hungry, I should add that we do supply tangible as distinct from fanciful refreshment (hot drinks and nibbles) and people sometimes bring a little food to share (but not a lot please because the Friends aren’t keen on our doing this, although it’s OK as long as we take clear up after ourselves when we leave)


During the last meeting I had a telephone call about my youngest brother, who is dying at home from advanced pancreatic cancer. This near-at-hand encounter with a dying sibling (he is 11 years my junior) has shown me how deep and convoluted run the dynamics of my family life; how, since I learned of his terminal condition, mental processes have gone on in me without my being fully aware of them, sometimes throwing me into confusion and paralysing my intention; and how important spiritual friendship is in making sense of one’s feelings, thoughts, reactions and impulses.

I pay tribute here to the friend I talked with on that Saturday, and to the way our conversation opened my eyes and helped unburden my heart. Thank you.

Spiritual friendship is at the heart of our hospice work, in fact it is all of it, because we don’t as a Trust aspire to professional involvement with the dying, although some supporters do so in their own right as doctors, nurses, counsellors, therapists etc. Below I am copying an article by Stephen Bachelor that I think captures the essence of spiritual friendship exactly, and I hope you enjoy reading or revisiting it, and feel uplifted by his words.

SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP (by Stephen Bachelor)

JUST AS THE DAWN is the forerunner of the arising of the sun, so true friendship is the forerunner of the arising of the noble eightfold path. - The Buddha

"These friends are teachers in the sense that they are skilled in the art of learning from every situation."

Dharma practice is not just a question of cultivating resolve and integrity in the privacy of our hearts. It is embodied in friendships. Our practice is nourished, sustained, and challenged through ongoing contact with friends and mentors who seek to realize the dharma in their own lives. We were born alone and will die alone.

Much of our time is spent absorbed in feelings and thoughts we can never fully share. Yet our lives are nonetheless defined through relationships with others. The body is witness to parents and endless generations of forebears, language witness to fellow speakers, the most private thoughts witness to those we love and fear.

Simultaneously and always, we find ourselves alone with others. We are participatory beings who inhabit a participatory reality, seeking relationships that enhance our sense of what it means to be alive. In terms of dharma practice, a true friend is more than just someone with whom we share common values and who accepts us for what we are.

Such a friend is someone whom we can trust to refine our understanding of what it means to live, who can guide us when we’re lost and help us find the way along a path, who can assuage our anguish through the reassurance of his or her presence. While such friendships occur naturally between peers with similar aspirations and interests, certain crucial friendships are also formed with those we respect for having achieved a maturity and understanding greater than our own.

Such people offer guidance and reassurance through each aspect of their being. The way they move their body and hold our gaze with their eyes, the cadences of their speech, their response to sudden provocation, the way they rest at ease and attend to daily chores: all these things tell us as much as they tell us in words. And we too are called upon to respond in such ways. In this kind of relationship we are no mere recipients of knowledge. We are invited to interact, to challenge and be challenged.

These friends are teachers in the sense that they are skilled in the art of learning from every situation. We do not seek perfection in these friends but rather heartfelt acceptance of human imperfection. Nor omniscience but an ironic admission of ignorance. We should be wary of being seduced by charismatic purveyors of Enlightenment. For true friends seek not to coerce us, even gently and reasonably, into believing what we are unsure of.

These friends are like midwives, who draw forth what is waiting to be born. Their task is not to make themselves indispensable but redundant. These friends are our vital link to past and future. For they too were nurtured through friendships, in many cases with those who are dead. Dharma practice has survived through series of friendships that stretches back through history – ultimately to Gautama himself.

Through friendships we are entrusted with a delicate thread that joins past with future generations. These fragile, intimate moments are ones of indebtedness and responsibility. Dharma practice flourishes only when such friendships flourish. It has no other means of transmission. And these friends are our vital links to a community that lives and struggles today

Through them we belong to a culture of awakening, a matrix of friendships, that expands in ever wider circles to embrace not only “Buddhist” but all who are actually or potentially committed to the values of dharma practice. The forms of this friendship have changed over history. The dharma has passed through social and ethnic cultures with different ideals of what constitutes true friendship.

Two primary forms have emerged: the fellowship model of early Buddhism and the guru-disciple model of later traditions. In both cases, friendship has become entangled with issues of religious authority. Before the Buddha died he declared that the dharma would suffice as one’s guide. In the early community, friendship was founded in common adherence to the rules of discipline the Buddha devised to support dharma practice.

The community was a fellowship of brotherhood and sisterhood, under the formal guidance of a paternal or maternal preceptor. While the system reflected the hierarchy of an Indian extended family, in which everyone deferred to seniority, the final authority lay not in a person’s position in the hierarchy but in the rules of discipline. True friendship was modelled on the relationships among siblings and between child and parent, with the difference that all were equal in the eyes of the dharma and subject to its law.

After about five hundred years, the Indian guru-disciple model was adopted by certain schools. Here the teacher became a heroic figure to whose will the student surrendered as a means of accelerating the process of awakening. This relationship reflected that between master and servant or feudal lord and subject. The different degree of power between guru and disciple was utilized as an agent of personal transformation. Elements of dominance and submission (and with them the concomitant danger of coercion) came to characterize the notion of true friendship. If, after close examination, your accepted someone as your teacher, then you were expected to revere and obey him.

In varying degrees, the authority of the dharma was replaced by the authority of the guru, who came, in some traditions, to assume the role of the Buddha himself. Despite the contracting nature of these models, in practice they coexisted. As a follower of the Buddha’s rules of discipline, a true friend was accountable to the community and the dharma, but as a guru was impervious to any critique formulated by the deluded mind.

Most traditions of Buddhism today represent one of these ideals of friendship or a blend of the two. In the contemporary secular, democratic societies, such traditional models of friendship are bound to be challenged. For we may no longer feel at ease in friendships defined by the hierarchy of an extended family, the rule of law, or submission to the will of another. We may no longer feel the need to wear a uniform or in any way sacrifice our ordinariness.

Exotic names, robes, insignia of office, title – the trappings of religion – confuse as much as they help. They endorse the assumption of the existence of an elite whose explicit commitment grants them implicit extraordinariness. It is not just different circumstances that raise questions about the nature of true friendship. Of greater significance is that we notice that circumstances are different. Historical consciousness itself makes the difference.

It is no longer possible to maintain that dharma practice has remained unaltered since the time of the Buddha. It has evolved and continues to evolve distinctive forms peculiar to the conditions of the time. It has survived precisely because of its ability to respond creatively to change. What features of contemporary life are most likely to affect the concept of true friendship? Mutual respect for the creative autonomy of individual experience would take precedence over submission to the dogmas of a school or the autocratic authority of a guru.

The responsibility of a friend would be to encourage individuation, self-reliance and imagination. Such friendship might be informed by notions such as martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship and the French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel’s ideal of “availability” for another. Its practice may draw on the experience of psychotherapy, in which a “free and protective space” allows an encounter that is simultaneously trusting, opening, and healing.

For learning and training, it may take as its model the relationship of artist and apprentice, in which skills are developed so that creativity can be realized with technical competence and expertise. Whenever Buddhism has become a religion, true friendship has tended to be compromised by issues of power. Both the fellowship and guru models have given rise to large, impersonal, hierarchic, and authoritarian bodies governed by professional elites.

In many cases, these institutions have become established churches, sanctioned and supported by sovereign states. This has often led to rigid conservatism and intolerance of dissent. This process is not inevitable. It is also possible to imagine a community of friendships in which diversity is celebrated rather than censured. In which smallness of scale is regarded as success rather than failure. In which power is shared by all rather than invested in a minority of experts. In which women and men are treated as genuine equals. In which questions are valued more than answers.


We are grateful for your contributions towards our work, including the costs of hiring the room for our meeting, currently around £70 per session.Your attendance, your presence, is especially precious. I hope you will want to come again, and will be able to. Remember that every meeting is free-standing and there is no need to keep up regular or frequent attendance. Feel free to bring along a friend at any time without prior arrangement.

We shall welcome your ideas for public meetings or seminars on topics of interest that have relevance for our work, although we don’t usually host dharma expositions by teachers of lineage or otherwise, and we are not able to pay fees to speakers (although we will cover travelling expenses).We are also on the lookout for short articles or other contributions written by supporters to feature in our newsletter ‘Mustard Seed’ which will be published shortly. If you send these to me I will pass them on to the ‘editorial team‘.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Here to help! Some searching questions...

The following questions came to us from someone embarking on a research exercise into hospice development, and I attach my responses (for what they are worth). The questions were sincerely put, and I hope that my unvarnished responses have not dampened the enthusiasm of the researcher to enquire further.

What do you see as the most challenging aspect of your work with the dying?

Difficult question to answer.

Working with people in crisis is always something of a challenge to all involved. Dying is a crisis in the same way most of the rest of life throws up situations of challenging change, crises. Dying isn't qualitatively different, and Buddhism teaches us not to see death as something essentially different. The way people deal with dying is the way they deal with all crisis. We are creatures of habit. As we live, so we shall die. But perhaps Buddhists learn through their practice that they don't have to be challenged by change; indeed, Buddhism has acceptance at its heart. In acceptance nothing challenges, and there is no-one to be challenged.

Practice isn't easy, so perhaps that's the everyday challenge, to do what we can to practice, whatever we understand that to mean. And that's a challenge too, understanding what it means to practice. It isn't bowing, making obeisance to the Buddha, or sitting on the cushion.

What is - in your religion/spirituality - the most important aspect of the dying process?

It's important not to get hung up on 'the dying process', whatever that means. Dying is a normal physiological process and there's no part to which it is worth attaching symbolic importance, or thinking it is more important than another. The question arises out of the tendency on the part of many Buddhists to take teachings about the bardos too literally. One might quite as earnestly ask "What is the most important part of the process of evacuating the bowels?" Or, "what is the most important part of the process of digesting one's dinner?"

As a nurse I have attended the deathbeds of very many people, and death - you can rest assured - is always 100% successful. Every death is unique, and the process may be very drawn-out, or it may (of course) be instantaneous, as in a plane crash or 9/11. It doesn't matter how we die, what matters is how we live. I don't think the Buddha had a lot to say about deathbeds.

What are the most recurrent problems you are facing with dying people?

There are generally no problems to be faced with dying people except the usual ones such as "If I am visiting shall I find a place to park?" or, in my case, "Will my wife get irritated that I am not at home to help her with the household chores and domestic worries she has to face alone because I am attending to my "good works" with others?" You may have heard the Bible saying ascribed to Yeshwa (Jesus), "Leave the dead to bury their dead". It makes a lot of sense.

As the Chairman of a Buddhist charity, it is sometimes a problem fending off Buddhist volunteers who want to be "in on the act" at other people's deaths. If you ask them to address envelopes, wash up or serve tea they feel snubbed and hurt, that they have some special gift to impart, and you are standing in their way! Not all volunteers are like this, of course, but it is disheartening to find how many are.

Which are the situations in which you find yourself helpless?

Helplessness is a most desirable default mode to cultivate when being with the dying.

There is nothing to do, so the mind of helplessness is entirely congruent with that. "Doing less, being more" is the motto. If we can cultivate a heart of helplessness compassion will flow into it and, in that heart of compassion, 'helper' and 'helped' will encounter each other without distinction and in perfect reciprocity.

How supportive/unsupportive do you consider your society with death, religious approach to death, and religions in general?

Our own (British) society has been greatly shaped by Christendom including the tenets of Christian belief and doctrine, in their many vernacular forms, and there is no doubt in my mind that established religion in UK does provide a framework for many in helping them to find meaning and consolation in suffering and loss. Some individuals find it difficult to talk about death, to talk naturally to a person who has been bereaved and so on, and this reticence is part of the way people feel about death; it is not our part to judge them, or to characterise them as unsupportive. People have a right to their feelings, and there is nothing wrong with the way they behave.

I have deep admiration for Christian clergy and for many church-goers. I don't find that Buddhists are better at dying and death and supporting others than members of other faiths. Some are very good, some less so. I think that humans (regardless of their religious affiliations or lack of them) are on the whole infinitely capable of acceptance, equanimity, "courage", and of healing into their true nature.

Although I'm a Buddhist and it has worked for me, it's my point of departure in what I do, and I have no interest in or ambition to convert others to Buddhism. I lived and worked in Africa for many years, where Buddhism is just unknown. But the people there live richly-engaged dharma lives, and have no need of the teachings of Gotama to guide them away from what they know and do.

What do you think could be common ground for our different religions to expand our support in hospice work?

Our common humanity supplies enough ground, I think, for interfaith cooperation and mutual support in the face of suffering. Suffering feels and looks the same in all creeds. We don't need to wrestle with conceptual issues, indeed, they get in the way of collaboration.

There are certain principles of the hospice movement, and of the palliative and "end-of-life-care" movements, that are worth fostering because they have made a major difference to terminal care. Hospices as institutions where people go to die, however, are giving way (for various reasons including cost) to death at home, or in some other 'preferred place', as the spectrum of care-provision changes in line with popular choice, and improved technology.

How do you deal with mental and spiritual suffering in your work with dying people? What are the words and attitudes that seem to relieve anxiety, fears and agitation?

How do you, the questioner, distinguish mental and spiritual suffering? My question is intended to challenge you, the questioner, out of a state of mind that reduces life to a number of discrete compartments or categories that call out to be 'dealt with'. I don't intend to insult or attack you, and I know you are in a reflective situation, and just putting your toe in the water. But I think you are also robust enough to follow my drift.

Suffering does not call for formulaic responses, words, attitudes or theories. I can only be alongside the one who suffers, and dwell with her/him. In helplessness the words and actions may arise that are fitting, appropriate or 'helpful'; but they will be uncontrived, not 'mine', not to be held on to. Buddhism has nothing 'off the shelf' to offer, does it? The following true anecdote illustrates the folly of taking a 'cook-book' approach to death, however eminent the 'cook', and however well-intentioned the recipe.

I once met a very devout and kindly Buddhist woman who, when her old Glaswegian mother was dying, plucked up her courage to begin reading her Mam a few words from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Her mother opened her eyes, gazed steadily at her daughter and said in a clear voice, "Aye, and ye can fuck off dearie, and tak' yer fucking book wi' ye!" That old dying woman was Buddha, and her daughter never forgot the lesson she was taught that day. Talk about enlightenment!

What has changed for you from your experience of dying people?

Well, I have never sentimentalised death, and I don't put dying on some sort of pedestal. I have come to understand that death takes care of itself and needs no facilitation. Death is good, death is kind, or so it seems to me. Dying may be difficult, and in some cases it presents difficulties for which there may be remedies, e.g. pain and symptom relief. People often need good nursing care. People largely prefer to die at home (if they can be adequately cared for at home), and this has affected the way hospices are funded and operated.

People who are dying appreciate the friendship and support of others who come with no helping agenda, no spiritual mouthings, no religious templates of belief or doctrine to pass on, no formulas, interpretations or solutions. Such people are rather rare, including amongst Buddhists.

And, to quote Christina Feldman, "We are always beginners in the art of compassion".

Is there any aspect of Buddhism that you feel may be particularly useful with dying

No, no agenda, no special tool in my tool box. Possibly I might remind myself often that Gotama said "No person can save another. Work out your own salvation, with diligence".

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Toxic Debt" and other lies...

The image is of Winter in Glen Etive, Glen Coe by courtesy of D W Roberston Gallery and is an illustration for Tales of Travel (see below)

As I write news is coming over the radio about the resue plan put together in the US to save international markets from melt down, or whatever other thermodynamic metaphor is appropriate for this jolt out of the consensus trance we've all been in for the last thirty or so years, or longer.

I have the powerful feeling that the explanations we're being given for what has happened to the 'markets', and what we need to patch things up, is another deliberately administered dose of anaesthetic. The problem, we're being told, is that banks are no longer willing to lend each other money, and this 'freeze' is the cause of the problem.

At the heart of the crisis, allegedly, is "toxic debt", debts built up by poor people who were bamboozled into mortgages they couldn't afford, and can't repay. This level of "toxic debt" has "infected" the global financial system. I find it outrageous, but perfectly in keeping with the evil tenets of capitalism, that this language of poison and contagion should be used to define the heart of the problem; to denigrate and scapegoat the hapless undeserving poor, those who wanted to house their families, low-paid workers, single mothers, people from ethnic minorities.

The implication of what we're being told seems to be that banks actually have lots of money, but they don't trust anyone enough to lend it, including each other, because toxically infective "sub-prime" borrowers have contaminated the system, defaulted on loans, and infected the system like a type of rabies, paralysing it like 'lock-jaw'. So the banks are are sitting helplessly on the money they have left. The result is that no-one can borrow any more, so they have none to spend or 'invest'. There is, or soon will be, no money in circulation. Money has somehow congealed, clotted up.

The proposed solution seems to be that Governments will give a very large amount of money - "taxpayer's money" - to the banks. This is called "injecting liquidity" into the system to "lubricate it" or "free it up" or some other inane slogan borrowed from hydraulic engineering. This money will somehow, miraculously unblock the clogged-up system, and money will once again flow.

Presumably this borrowed money will be used to lend to other people, so that banks will "regain the confidence they need" to begin "lending money to each other", re-establish "confidence in the system" and everything will be AOK again. Except that you and I will be expected to pay for it through taxation, the privatisation of services, and the life-long indebtedness of our children.

Does anyone believe this anaesthetic nonsense? That the banks have money but are too mistrustful to lend it? That they need to be given money to steady their palsied nerves?

Well, I believe that in truth there is no money. The money that the banks and building societies have been lending to people doesn't exist, and never has. The money on your mortgage statement, or in your deposit account, the "equity" in your house, or the figure on your ISA certficate is just a mirage. Since the "Big Bang", money has just been an illusory row of noughts on the computer screen, from which people in the City and on Wall Street have been regularly helping themselves to huge tranches in currency bills, to buy or build mansions, Rolex watches, Maseratis and diamond encrusted crystal skulls as gee-gaws.

It seems to me that what is proposed is the launch of another illusory capitalist spree, a re-instatement of the status quo ante, business as usual in Wall Street and the square mile, a short term boom in the High Street as consumers "regain the confidence" they need to put a spring in their step in the long run-up to Christmas (expect the tinsel, toys and mince pies to greet you in Tescos, Wal-Mart and Sainsbury's soon enough). And the directors (and highly paid non-Execs like Tony Blair) will laugh all the way to their non-dom banks and off-shore Cayman Island havens.

What has this got to do with Buddhism? Well, as I said in an earlier post on the Social Care Green Paper, perhaps it's about seeing the world, or not seeing the world, from any perspective, but recognising that this is what we always do and recognising this, opening ourselves to the possible emergence of another way of being. As Ray Wills used to say "There must be another way". He didn't define what that other way might be because the Way doesn't have a destination in mind: it's a point of departure, an open road. What we can do (but it's hard and calls for energy and resolve) is to allow ourselves to open to another way of being, not adopting it or 'trying to' follow it, but rather becoming it.

A howl of outrage? An intemperate polemic? Well, yes, perhaps. But I'm human, and it's part of my way of opening up to another way being, and perhaps helping you, who knows. So I'll let it stand, and finish on a quieter note with the words The Vagabond, part of a song-cycle of verse (Songs of Travel) by R L Stevenson, set to music by a favourite composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and with the cool illustration of Glen Coe (above) as backdrop:

Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see,
Bread I dip in the river -
There's the life for a man like me,
There's the life for ever.

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around
And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger.
White as meal the frosty field -
Warm the fireside haven -
Not to autumn will I yield,
Not to winter even!

Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o'er me;
Give the face of earth around,
And the road before me.
Wealth I ask not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I ask, the heaven above
And the road below me.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tacit knowledge

It has been a pretty exhausting week at my place of work, with a spate of sickness affecting several of the carers, so that everyone unaffected has had to pitch in to cover for absent colleagues, work extra shifts, and generally 'burn the candle at both ends'. In the last weeks I have worked several back-to-back shifts of fourteen consecutive hours duty, mostly engaged in 'hands-on' care, interspersed with such activities as helping to cook and serve meals, wash up pots, pans and dishes, do laundry, and variety of administrative chores besides.

At such times nerves can get frayed, patience is strained, and mistakes and accidents are more likely to happen. This morning, arriving at work at about 0645, I looked in on the laundry room to find that one of our washing machines had been loaded with two sets of nightclothes, both of which sets had been subject to a hot wash while still containing incontinence pads, which ought to have been removed. These 'pads' are disposable adult garments like large 'nappies' made of cellulose padding inside a thin plastic envelope, designed - of course - to capture and contain human wastes.

Presumably the overworked and overtired careworker who did the washing had been too distracted to remember to separate out the pads from the garments so as to put them in the clinical waste bin. Of course, they had disintegrated in the machines, dispersing the contents throughout the wash, and liberally coating the inside of the drum with unpleasant emulsified pap. Not a bright start to the day, but not unusual either.

After work this evening I turned to an article in my daily paper, hoping to take my mind off things clinical, but my eye was caught by an article, a critique, about the training of young doctors. Not a lot has changed in the fifty or years I have been in a position to observe this happening except, perhaps, that doctors have grown unaccountably younger, like policemen. Training is still very much hospital-based, and possibly even more fragmented and modularised than ever, with more tick-box-type assessments, and less time at the bedside.

Patients are in hospital for much shorter periods than twenty years ago, so that doctors have less time to get to know their charges, less time to see changes in their patients over time, for getting a feel for how people respond over time to disease, and watching what happens as they get better. The wisdom that emerges from being able to witness such evolutionary change is called "tacit knowledge".

One of its characteristics is a growth in the necessary humility that a practitioner develops about her own part in the processes of recovery and 'cure', and a deeper respect for the adaptive potential of the human organism, in both the physical and the psychological domains. Medicine, after all, is just a set of interventions that help to put the patient into a condition that allows nature to take its healing course. The same is true of nursing and all 'healing arts'.

In this respect, I believe, nurses are at an advantage over doctors, and many doctors (certainly most senior or older doctors) acknowledge the wider and deeper clinical acumen of nurses in making a difficult diagnosis, and a more reliable prognosis, than less seasoned doctors. Nurses, unlike doctors, see their patients day-in-day out, are privy to their informal conversations and reflections, and see them in a far wider repertoire of activities than doctors, sleeping, eating, eliminating, attending to their own needs, in relation to their families etc. Unfortunately, changes in the way nurse training has been structured and delivered have made for a much less coherent and "wholistic" relationship between nurse and patient, less physical intimacy, less thorough-going trust and rapport, and less of a long view on events in the curriculum of health and illness.

There are times when I am attending to one of my own patients, that I am thrown back in my experience to an earlier time when I first began to learn to nurse, fifty years ago. It's not memory in the sense of a picture in the mind, it's a felt physical thing, a reassurance of close contact, warmth, the complex scent of a close-held body, the touch of skin, awareness of a tremor, of a small weakness, of effort, of courage that always springs up in the other to meet the challenge of the moment, and something eternal too about trust and vulnerability.

Today I was helping an old fellow off his commode, helping him hitch his underpants and trousers up, his head against my chest, his arms round me in a politically incorrect and improperly conducted lift by Health and Safety rules, telling him, when he said "You know how to help me", "Yes, we know how to work well together", and meaning it, and knowing it's meaning is not to be found in me, but in the way things are, in that tacit knowledge, that unspoken wisdom that pervades everything, and always. Help is not something I do to another, it's a resource two people in a relationship share, born of the relationship and its circumstances, and always in perfect reciprocity, whatever happens.

"Though the Path is vast and fathomless I vow to understand it.

Though enlightenment is beyond attainment I vow to embody it fully."

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Social Care Green Paper

The diagram to the left is a representation of an aspect of the social care market, courtesy of Healthcare Economist Journal of the United States

Eminent Buddhist commentator and analyst Yann Lovelock has written to us inviting us to contribute to a discussion promoted by Government on the future of social care for old and very old people in our society. The link leads to a short introductory vox pop video in which a number of people offer views on the issue, framing the discussion, and linked to a site that presents the issues from the perspective of the working party preparing a Green Paper. The Green Paper is part of a process by which enabling legislation will be worked up, and services designed, to meet our social care needs in the years ahead.

As Yann reminds us, some of us will soon be facing questions of what care we need, what is available, what it is going to cost, and who will foot the bill. Some of us, of course, are facing these issues already.

These questions have been framed for us by the consultation document, and seem to me to have a very New Labour quality to them, in that they arise from a set of political assumptions about the meaning of care i.e. care as a commodity that individuals will want to buy, exercising choice over their purchases, purchases designed to support their independent living, a 'marketplace' for the setting out of care-wares, care-tariffs and so on (some of these terms are my own, I must confess).

Buddhists may want to challenge these assumptions, although they may not, of course. We are all used to viewing the world, its affairs, and our atomised part in those affairs, through a narrow slit of social and political conditioning. We constantly absorb through the media of TV, press, advertising and the Internet an insistent paradigm of existence that stresses individualism, consumer choice, competition, and the all-defining lifestyle.

I live my life mainly as a consumer; I can't help it. Although I make efforts to break out of consumerist samsara, it is deeply engrained, and I have no illusions about my intentionality or volition, which is weak and intermittent. My puny efforts are debilitating and discouraging, I often feel flaked out and hopeless.

But fettered as I am by the chains of my mind, I find that I must protest, even though I can't find the words to do so, except in the anguished cry,"There must be another way"!

I feel, I intuit, that there is another way to characterise care, a framework that expresses our interdependence, our shared vulnerability, our willingness to let go of the pride and intellectual arrogance that puts independence and individualism on a lofty pedestal, that "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". I can not accept that care is, or should be, a commercial transaction, bound by contractual criteria, published as a menu of bite-sized interventions, packaged, audited, regulated, costed, 'branded', advertised, "starred", charter-marked and "visioned".

There must be another way.

N.B. I shall welcome your views, opinions and sugestions and, if you agree to my doing so, I will add them to views I am collating on behalf of the Network of Buddhist Organisations as a response to the Green Paper consultation. Or you can send them directly via the link given above.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

De mortuis nil nisi bonum

Speak only well of the dead. This came to mind today as I read a quite lengthy broadsheet obituary which ended as follows: "At one time he owned a parrot with a penchant for fried eggs and Guinness. His wife Doris died in 1992, and he is survived by his son, Andrew."

That I should ever deserve such such an eloquent summation! "At one time he owned a small knife with a bone handle, a gift from his school-friend Roger, who had bought it on a holiday visit to Switzerland with his father, an industrial glass salesman."

I was at the second meeting recently of the reconstituted "Inner Work School" meeting, held on the second Saturday of each month in Friends House, Euston Road. It was good to meet old friends again under familiar circumstances, albeit a new venue, paid for by the Buddhist Hospice Trust. It was also good to meet up with newcomers, thanks to the efforts of Ben (Bodhiprem) Shapiro and Mick Lewin in publicising the event, and convening the meeting.

By all accounts, the 'mood' of the first meeting was for open discussion to an emergent agenda, and the meeting I attended was carried on in this way too. It's hard to see how, with a fluctuating membership and no chairperson, an agenda could be developed that carried across meetings. But we shall see what emerges over time. For myself, I have enjoyed these gatherings, and got benefit from them, in ways hard to describe.

I know they have contributed to that softening of opinion in me that Buddhist practice produces, so that I can listen to the opinions of other people with something akin to empathy: it's like seeing the world from another point of view, through different eyes, and not in competition with one's own perspective. This is by no means my default position, I am almost if not fully as combative and confrontational and contraversial as I've always been; but there has been a change. Of course I am still always right, but other people have gradually much nearer to my position than they used to be, thus their expressions of dissent are more bearable.

"At one time around 1956 he owned a secondhand collarless Gieves shirt in a narrow blue stripe, which he wore with a white starched collar secured with a stud, loooking very much (as he thought) the fashionable young man-about -town, especially as he carried a rolled umbrella."

Am I alone in sensing a change in the temper of society since the "credit crunch" began? There seems to me to be a sense of sober expectancy amongst my fellows as I move about the town to do a bit of shopping or to pay bills. Do I also sense a "rabbit in the headlamps" paralysis in the unconvincing (and unconvinced) utterances of our national leaders? As if they understand the enormity of the show-down we face in the crisis of capitalism, the imminence of irreversible climate change, the here-and-now inescapability of 'peak oil', but lack the courage to do anything about it. The best thing would be to come clean, to spell out the situation, and to ask us to begin to develop ways of coping with a new reality. Offering structures that would mobilise our efforts for survival or, if we are not to survive, for a dignified extinction, worthy of a noble if flawed species. What might be our epitaph then?

"At one time he owned a portable Olivetti typewriter in a faux pig-skin carrying case, bought on Hire-Purchase terms from a door-to-door salesman who visited his rented flat in Moseley, Birmingham, in the autumnn of 1962."

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Buddhist Hospice Trust Blog: Mrs Waveney Miller

The Buddhist Hospice Trust Blog: Mrs Waveney Miller

Stephen Hodge, who was Waveney's first and much-loved teacher, has sent some kind and corrective comments on my earlier blog, and these can be read in full using this link. Thank you Stephen.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Lying low

I've been lying low, skulking (but not sulking).

My internet connection was lost for about six weeks, I overlooked a telephone bill, was disconnected, then the contract was cancelled, and I had to rebuild the connection all over again. It's a long boring story.

I have allowed my self to get into a situation where I felt pulled hither and thither. This was more a feeling than a fact, but it makes not much difference. I have taken time out, skulking, lying low and reconnecting with what seems important. I realise it's all relative anyway, but the part of me that that thrashes around in relative reality knew that I was losing touch with family, friends, responsibilities at work and at home, and needed to reconnect.

I missed the first of a series of Trust supporter meetings at Friends House, and it went ahead anyway. I've not had much feedback on it except that those who turned up took the view that they wanted a meeting that was 'open to the emergent' (as I think the saying goes) rather than something predesigned and overly structured. For those interested, the meetings are held on the second Saturday of each month (through May 2009) from 1330 at Friends House, Euston Road, almost opposite Euston station. Nothing to pay, no need to register or anything, just come along.

I read somewhere that the best-run and most effective organisations don't hold meetings, at least they don't hold meetings that work to an agenda and reach decisions. Mainly because the decisions taken at such meetings are pretty meaningless, and don't get implemented anyway. And nobody cares one way or another, except that everybody hates meetings, except the people that enjoy them, and everbody hates those chaps too (they are usually men).

The Trust recently received a donation of £1,000, and we are very grateful for it.

There will be more posts in due course, the blog is still alive.

The image above was delivered to you by courtsesy of Google images, and it is titled "skulking", and it says it better than words. Isn't Google fabulous?

Monday, July 7, 2008

A view on ageing

Bodhiprem sent this. It's just typical of the man, he's tall and larger than life, wears a full flowing beard and an outlandish hat, has a wonderfully rich booming but still musical voice, an indecently uninhibited laugh, a real rollicking roar, and the sweetest of sweet natures. He is an impossibly prolific source of the most politically incorrect and torrid jokes imaginable, they just keep coming, like crude oil from a Texas gusher (as was). Saucy jokes, like crude oil, are the result of millenia of squashed lives, sensuality and fun that hasn't seen the precious light of day for a long, long time.

And Bodhiprem is always boring relentlessly down into any fusty old crust he can identify as a likely source and....There She Blows!

Thanks Bodhi, and Mosel Tov! May you live long and prosper!

A view on ageing.....

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we're kids? If you're less than 10 years old, you're so excited about aging that you think in fractions.

'How old are you?' 'I'm four and a half!' You're never thirty-six and a half. You're four and a half, going on five! That's the key. You get into your teens, now they can't hold you back. You jump to the next number, or even a few ahead: 'How old are you?' 'I'm gonna be 16!' You could be 13, but hey, you're gonna be 16! And then the greatest day of your life . . . you become 21.

Even the words sound like a ceremony . . YOU BECOME 21. YESSSS!!!

But then you turn 30. Oooohh, what happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk! He TURNED; we had to throw him out. There's no fun now, you're just a sour-dumpling. What's wrong? What's changed?

You BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you're PUSHING 40. Whoa! Put on the brakes, it's all slipping away. Before you know it, you REACH 50....and your dreams are gone.

But wait!!! You MAKE it to 60. You didn't think you would!

So you BECOME 21, TURN 30, PUSH 40, REACH 50 and MAKE it to 60. You've built up so much speed that you HIT 70! After that it's a day-by-day thing; you HIT Wednesday!

You get into your 80s and every day is a complete cycle; you HIT lunch; you TURN 4:30 ; you REACH bedtime. And it doesn't end there. Into the 90s, you start going backwards; 'I Was JUST 92.'

Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again. 'I'm 100 and a half!'

May you all make it to a healthy 100 and a half!!


1. Throw out nonessential numbers. This includes age, weight and height. Let the doctors worry about them. That is why you pay 'them '.

2. Keep only cheerful friends. The grouches pull you down.

3. Keep learning. Learn more about the computer, crafts, gardening, whatever. Never let the brain idle. 'An idle mind is the devil's workshop.' And the devil's name is Alzheimer's.

4. Enjoy the simple things.

5. Laugh often, long and loud. Laugh until you gasp for breath.

6. The tears happen. Endure, grieve, and move on. The only person, who is with us our entire life, is ourselves. Be ALIVE while you are alive.

7. Surround yourself with what you love, whether it's family, pets, keepsakes, music, plants, hobbies, whatever. Your home is your refuge.

8. Cherish your health: If it is good, preserve it. If it is unstable,improve it. If it is beyond what you can improve, get help.

9 Don't take guilt trips. Take a trip to the mall, even to >the next county; to a foreign country but NOT to where the guilt is.

10. Tell the people you love that you love them, at every opportunity.

AND ALWAYS REMEMBER: Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. And if you don't send this to at least 8 people - who cares? But do share this with someone. We all need to live life to its fullest each day!!

Friday, July 4, 2008

"The answer's yes. What's the question?"

Yesterday provided something of a relief from feeling a bit beleagured, as I travelled up to St Pancras station, the Eurostar terminal, to meet Tony Webster whom we had asked to speak at one of our conferences this weekend. Although the conference was cancelled, Tony didn't cancel his trip to UK from the depths of rural France where he and his partner Lyn have lived for the last ten years, and where they have established the Open Door project in Civray.

I hadn't really met Tony in the flesh, not to have a real talk, although we met briefly at a meeting in London several years ago. I wasn't sure I would recognise him, so we arranged to meet under the big, bold, brassy and unmissable sculpture of two lovers in a 'glad-to-see-you' embrace that marks the rendezvous spot for travellers and those waiting for them off the train (see image top right).

My own take on the sculpture was intially that it was rather grotesque, disproportionately huge, and not in particularly good taste. However, this impression was softened by my hearing a middle aged woman say to her husband, "Oh! It's lovely!" Unaccountably, I saw it, for a moment, through her eyes. It was tender, romantic, unabashed and - well - lovely. Perception is - well - in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps, on that occasion, my beholding was not as implacably firm as usual. Its grip was loosened by some quality of simple awe and pleasure at what she saw in an unknown woman's voice.

Tony and I have exchanged emails for several years now, and he regularly sends news of the Open Door project, including an entertaining and informative newsletter, packed with happenings, events, and practical advice and guidance on surviving French bureaucracy, aimed at the many expatriates (and French locals too) who live in Tony's part of France, and avail themselves of the services offered by Open Door. These services include social functions like a women's needlework group (Tony calls it "Stitch and Bitch") a weekly informal coffee morning, a large English-language library, advice on administrative matters like benefits and finances, and how to negotiate with local 'fonctionnaires'. Tony and Lyn, with some help from volunteers, also provide a listening service for people in trouble. To a large extent I gather that the informal hospitality and comradeship of the Open Door is a safe portal of entry for people who need support in a variety of crises, from sudden bereavement or illness, marital breakdown, money problems, depression, addictions, alcoholism and the rest.

From modest beginnings, Tony and Lyn's project has grown steadily and 'organically', largely because of their enterprise, energy, commitment and openness to what life throws up. As their service has expanded and particularised, the couple have embarked on the training of volunteers, developing their listening skills, with extension training available for suitable candidates in basic counselling. Tony's outlook on helping is summed up in the phrase he used to describe his response to enquiries, some of which are from people who feel tentative, anxious and uncertain of both how to frame their worries and what any reaction will be: "The answer's yes. What's the question?"

It was a lovely, refreshing experience to sit in this generous man's company, listening to his enthusiastic talk, his infectious chuckle (despite the Jurassic Park groans of arriving and departing Eurostar trains from adjacent platforms), and getting to know him better. Despite his vitality and focus on the welfare and happiness of others, Tony's life has been far from easy, nor has his partner's. Both of them have been deeply touched by the support they got from Ray Wills several years ago, although they never met face to face. Tony described Ray's help (in the form of as a personal letter) as being like an encounter with a dearly-loved uncle, in its intimacy, solicitude and "knowingness" of what would meet their need. Since that time, the Buddhist Hospice Trust has been Tony's sangha, and he has archived all Ray's correspondence, copies of Raft, and Inner Work School letters received: a humbling and touching tribute, hard to live up to.

It is a great pity that Tony's experience, and Lyn's, as social entrepreneurs (and more) was not heard by a wider audience, but he has assured me that he will be willing to speak at a future meeting of ours, and I am determined to make that possible. Although Tony hasn't asked, I would like it to be known that the Open Door (Association La Porte Ouverte) will be pleased to hear from people who may be able to help, either financially, or in other ways (for example by donating books). I can supply Tony's postal address to anyone who writes to me. I shall advertise any visit by Tony Webster at which he may talk on this website and in our forthcoming Newsletter.

As for myself, I have learned a lot from talking with Tony, and from his warmth. What sticks in my mind is his phrase, "The answer's yes. What's the question?", because it is an unconditional affirmation, a declaration of totally open generosity, a ready gift of no-agenda. If there is any kind of compact we as a Trust can make with what comes, this should be its by-word, and I will do what I can to live up to that in the days ahead.

The charming pen-and-ink drawing at top left is of the Open Door project in Civray.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Being wrong.

First, I need to rebut a charge that has recently made against me, that I am abusing the resources of the Buddhist Hospice Trust in maintaining a "Chairman's" blog as I do. By its nature a blog is a personal record, or a record written from a personal perspective. The blog I write has been given the assent of the Trustees, and so far no Trustee has raised objections to what I write, nor suggested that I desist. They may do so, however, if they conclude that the blog is bringing the work of the Trust into disrepute, or otherwise damaging its cause.

For the record, the blog is a free amenity, and costs the Trust nothing. I write it as an entirely voluntary activity and claim no expenses in relation to its appearance. In that sense there is no justification for anyone to claim that I am abusing Trust resources, and I refute any such claim vigorously.

It is worth saying that one reason why I write the blog is to increase the profile of the Trust and invite people to get involved, perhaps to donate. The website itself is static: it is informative and yields a fair amount of basic information. But to stay 'salient', to maintain a position in the Google ratings in a competitive and rapidly Internet scene, to hold our own in the technological traffic, we have to maintain our 'hit rate', the number of people who visit our site. The interactive and regularly updated nature of a blog permits this; indeed the rate at which people all over the globe visit our site has increased by almost 1000% over the last year. This greater visibility is (I believe) in the interest of the Trust, and thus in the interest of the people whose interests it serves. It has certainly led to a higher level of engagement with issues at the core of Hospice in the Heart, and engagement at a higher level of partnership with other agencies, both Buddhist, interfaith, and professional too. That is what I believe, anyway, and I also act on advice given me by people who have expertise in this area, and in the charitable field.

Of course some people will be 'turned off' by personal disclosures such as from time to time feature in my posts, but which are also balanced by other material generated by the work we do, and our 'contemporary' non-sectarian Buddhist philosophy. On the other hand some people find them helpful, and they attract a fair amount of comment and discussion, some of it private, some of it posted on the blog itself. Blogs are intended to generate comment, or at least debate. This debate doesn't have to be public, sometimes it is internal.

Some Buddhists believe that personal disclosure, 'hanging out dirty washing' (a particularly European turn of phrase and turn of mind, if I may say so), or exteriorising the inner perturbations of egoic mind, is not good practice. Dwelling on one's faults or failures tends to establish them more firmly, and make them more likely to be repeated. On the other hand, some Buddhists reckon that bringing one's thoughts and patterns of feeling and emotion into full awareness also has the effect of dissolving them. At least, if they are put "out there" for everyone to see, they are not submerged and hidden; and, like icebergs, they are less likely to cause disastrous damage to those who blunder into them unawares. Self-disclosure is also reckoned to be one of the crucial criteria for establishing and maintaining interpersonal solidarity, trust and friendship. Friendship is at the heart of our mission. A lot depends, of course, on one's motives for doing so. I can never be sure of my own motives for anything, but I do my best at self examination, and - of course - I take heed of the counsel of my trusted friends, and - of course, and more-so - of my perceived enemies.

This rebuttal is not intended to forestall further criticism, and I am open to whatever comments are likely to be made, and will publish them willingly here, in the interests of transparency, and in the interests of natural justice. I should also add: so as to indemnify myself, at least in part, against charges of abusing the minor office I hold, for the discharge of which I must be held publicly to account by the Charity Commissioners. If it was the intention of my critic to "whistle-blow" on my abuse of office, I am happy to expedite the process of bringing me to judgement. I hereby 'turn myself in'.

Lastly, I have to respond to charges that I am betraying the values and subverting the noble enterprise of the co-founder of the Trust, Ray Wills. This is ultimately for others to judge if they want to do so, but times are changing and the Trust will change with the times, and I make no apologies for my part in facilitating that. I am confident that Ray Wills identified me as a collaborator who recognised the need for change, and who had the capabilities to work for and with necessary and inevitable change; moreover, recognising my many flaws and failings as he did, he had confidence in me. If I am wrong about that, I am wrong about him, and wrong about everything else. My critics are clearly confident that I am indeed as wholly wrong as that. I am much less certain that I am right, and my uncertainty is, perhaps, part of Ray Wills's legacy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


The following message, which speaks for itself, was delivered to my mailbox today; it came from a former Trustee of the Buddhist Hospice Trust and a close friend of its co-founder, Ray Wills:

"I consider that your use of the web site to publish your personal dilemmas a misuse of Buddhist Hospice Trust Resources. I know you consider you are carrying on and promoting the work of Ray Wills but you apparently don't realise that what you are doing is totally again what Ray stood for. If you want to air your problems and inadequacies why not go on television to a programme such as the Jeremy Kyle show. It would be a real show case for your ego. Or when you get the new BHT group going use that instead. It is far more appropriate even though I think it would be an exercise in self indulgence. If this sounds uncompassionate it is because I feel that a noble enterprise has deteriorated into a showcase for Peter Goble."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Nothing Special

I've had a long time away from the keyboard. My wife occasionally complains that I neglect my family responsibilities in favour of my Buddhist interests, and there is a lot of truth in that. Not so long ago I had a thorough telling-off about the hours I spend online. Today I cleared out our garden shed, mowed the grass in the back garden, went shopping for food, cut my son's hair, and helped my wife to clear a border of weeds. A bit of good family karma there, maybe.

My wife and I discussed the situation in Zimbabwe. I am unrepentant about the views I expressed about the situation there, although I don't like the violence. The extent of the violence and intimidation of voters is hard to assess and, having lived in Africa during the "struggles" for independence, I know how the Western media can and do distort news for political ends. I heard a Sky News journalist reporting graphically "live-to-air" in Jo'burg on acts of contemporaneous intimidation of voters by Zanu-PF gangs in Harare, notwithstanding the fact that these two cities are 600 miles apart. But any violence is wrong, and to be condemned, not by me (I am not in a position to throw stones), but as a matter of principle. I should add that my wife agrees with my analysis of the Zimbabwean news, although we tend to disagree about African politics generally.

My posts have also had repercussions for me professionally, in that a few Zimbabweans have taken exception to my views on the situation in their country; moreover, I am charged with racism on the basis of self-disclosures I made some time ago about 'my racist heart', in the context of my marriage, but also - it has to be admitted -more widely. Such is life: I am happy to be judged on my actions, and if it is established that I have acted improperly in any arena out of racist motives I will take the consequences.

Our eldest son, Mwape, has gone to Berlin to visit an East German woman he met in South Africa, with whom he struck up a friendship. I am pleased he has gone to Berlin. As a teenager I had a German pen-friend who lived in that city, close by Unter Den Linden (see image above). We corresponded for a couple of years and eventually arranged for him to visit us in Birmingham. This was about ten years after the end of World War II. Horst, a couple of years my senior, had been a member of the Hitler Jugend, and we had great fun lying in our bedroom in Birmingham, with him teaching me Hitler Jugend songs which we sang together, giggling. Some of them were absolutely awful, I must admit, full of imagery of violence and despair. I have not myself visited Berlin, although I would like to do so.

I've started work on the Trust's newsletter, although I haven't made a lot of progress. The provisional title is Mustard Seed, after the parable of Kisogotami, a moving tale of a girl's enlightenment under the guidance of Gotama, from whom she was directed to seek medicine when her firstborn child died. He directed her to seek a little mustard seed from houses in the town, save that it must be obtained from a house where no-one had died. As she moved from house to house in her quest, it gradually dawned on her that in no house was death a stranger. Her eyes were opened, she buried her child in the forest and returned empty-handed but aware to the Master. A lovely tale, and fitting to our work, I think.

I have not sat in formal meditation for some weeks now. I am too weary, too sad, too...everything, and thoughts of Buddhism 'and all that' are far from me, and me from them. But I feel reassuringly at home with my sadness and weariness. I read a poem my son had fixed on his wall, and I felt a great welling-up of love and admiration for him as I read it. Here it is, by Edgar Allen Poe:


From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone
And all I lov'd — I lov'd alone —
Then — in my childhood — in the dawn
Of a most stormy life — was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still
From the torrent, or the fountain
From the red cliff of the mountain
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by
From the thunder, and the storm
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view —

Monday, June 16, 2008

When the whipping had to stop..

The image is of Friends House, Euston Road (opposite), where the Trustees met about a week ago to debate the aftermath of the cancelled conferences, and to plot the road ahead. That all sounds very organised, but in fact the meeting was very informal (although we were 'quorate', set an agenda, and took minutes in case the Charity Commission is reading this ready to pounce).

We agreed to re-instate the monthly meetings that used to be held as a kind of auxiliary "engine" for the Trust: the 'Inner Work School' (IWS), a kind of rolling, open-to-all get-together of Trust supporters and others, held monthly in various venues across Central London, working to an open (or as I prefered to call it, an 'emergent') agenda. I decided, after Ray's unexpected death in 2000, that the IWS should continue, and so it did until 2007 when I further decided that it had run its course and should be folded. High-handed of me, perhaps, but the decision was taken with general agreement, and some general regret, that it had come to the end of its usefulness.

For many of us, certainly for me, it constituted a 'sangha', and what took place within the membership was a kind of dharma-cultivation, albeit undirected by an evolved teacher of lineage, accreditation and authority, at least after Ray's death. Ray, of course, disavowed any credentials as a dharma teacher, despite his learning, and despite his enormous authenticity and integrity. But I certainly felt I encountered the dharma at the meetings in the presence of men and women, living in the here-and-now, sharing experience in an atmosphere of uncontrived openness; and between meetings in simple friendship here and there, acts of kindness and solidarity, nothing special, just as-it-is-ness.

Over the years there had been about a score of loyal IWS attenders, although few meetings were attended by more than six or seven, and some meetings comprised two or three. The final straw, I think, was being forced by rising room-hire fees and other minor but understandable vexations to the last venue, the YMCA Sports Centre off Tottenham Court Road, where we had to endure a windowless room and line-dancing on the ceiling. The carrot-juice bar was no consolation.

So now the Trust has agreed to fund meetings, at least for ten consecutive months beginning August 2008, on the basis that we do need to offer something to supporters, and the framework of a regular monthly meeting may enable the process of reconnection and renewal for which the conferences were a flawed blueprint. Meetings will take place at Friends House, Euston Road, on the second Saturday of each month, in the afternoon, from 1.30 pm until 5.00 pm. The invitation is "Come if you can and want to". There is no charge, and there is presently no pre-determined programme or modus operandi. As before, it will be a matter of trusting what comes, whatever comes. This permits people to come as invited, and to feel that they haven't lost touch with events, or somehow fallen behind, if they can't come regularly or often.

The Trustees have circulated (to each other, or some of us have) some possible titles to apply to this series of meetings. At present "Sharing Circle" and "Explorations of Awareness" are front-runners, and I like both. Another possible title that popped into my head recently was "The Nothing Special Fellowship". I think Ray Wills had a hand in this, and may have been waiting in the wings for a chance to pop it in.

When the whipping had to stop? I had an anonymous comment on my last post, and this is worth reading, perhaps. I've had several comments as emails from known contributors, one of whom thought I might make a good Roman Catholic as I seemed to get benefit from the confessional. Self-flagellation is a practice too far, I reckon.

Yesterday I attended a rather sparse meeting of the South-East sub-group of interested parties following the progress of the Buddhist Hospital Chaplaincy Group towards the establishment of an 'endorsing body' for Hospital Chaplains, governing the admission of Buddhists to the role, their accreditation, training, support etc. All this is in line with NHS policy, and tied in with the Government's 'diversity agenda', 'social cohesion' and the perceived soul-lessness of the NHS, to judge from accounts from users and other critics one reads and hears. I have some fairly well-developed views on this, informed in part by my experience as a nurse and a some-time denizen of the NHS, by my experience within the Trust, and more recently by my induction into the Hospital chaplaincy as a Buddhist lay officiant. I'll return to this in another post in a few days time.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I've now had a little time to reflect on the lived experience of my most recent blog, and a handful of comments about it. One comment included the question "why do you wash your dirty linen in public?"

I posted my ex-wife's letter to me on an impulse. I have a tendency to impulsivity: on the one hand it is narcissistic and regressive, on the other it yields insights to me that would otherwise just lurk in the shadows. My impulsivity has always both repelled some and conversely it has sometimes emboldened others to see things as they are, unidealised and stark, in their own lives. It is, perhaps, like all our characteristics of personality, both a gift and an impediment.

I remember my mother telling me as a child (maybe I was 9 or thereabouts) "King George is dead", and I replied, without thinking I'm sure, "Should I lower my trousers to half mast?". My mother was genuinely shocked, and I think it was my first awareness of my capacity to shock others, of my taste for doing so. I've never lost either.

I posted the letter not for compassion, not for absolution, not out of humility I think. But, yes: I did so to put the record of my own life and parenthood straight, and as a response to the charge of hypocrisy. This aspect of what I am, selfish, neglectful, and deviously 'clever' needs to be 'out there' to redress the otherwise impossible projections I attract, and generate through my writings and utterances. I also thought my ex-wife might see it and feel vindicated. She has not been impressed by any claims to compassion I might seem to make, or that might be wrongly inferred by others. Not that compassion is anything to do with the person or his efforts, as I understand it. It is something "in which we live, and move, and have our being", not a product of what we try to do.

I've had email contact with my eldest daughter (aged 42) and her own daughter for about three years, and this has clearly brought things to a head now, as I thought it eventually might. My daughter's messages to me are warm, confiding and intimate. She refers a lot to our temperamental similarities. We have made tentative plans to meet up, although we are both aware of the tension this may cause her in her relations with her Mum and her sisters.

I have been feeling quite wretched for the past few days, and this is the place to be, a place from which I can perhaps touch the experience of my ex-wife and her children, and share in it with thought for them, and not for myself. Even this sounds phoney, but there it is.
I'm grateful for the comments I've received from individuals for whom my post has had some relevance for their own experience of abandonment. These comments have been strangely devoid of any judgement, more a recognition of how things sometimes are. Perversely, this has not 'let me off the hook', so to speak, but has deepened my reflectiveness, and promises more by way of insight as time passes, and barriers fall away.
The image above is a portrayal of "Self-Doubt" published by Endicott Studio.