Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Practice what's important now...

Killing Time by Dave Bryson

"What's important right now is the level of attention you can bring to what you are experiencing. Nothing else really counts." (A quote from 'Unfettered Mind').

Helpful counsel as I prepare to visit my younger brother, who has recently been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He is a nurse like me and has decided not to receive any treatment, which in any case (he's been told by his consultant) won't make any difference.

The feeling of "waiting for the end" keeps intruding: he feels it, I feel it, his loved ones feel it. It's no use pushing it away, it must be acknowledged: "killing time".

The first time I went to see him after hearing his news I found myself rehearsing what I might say to him, then rehearsing that I would tell him that I had been rehearsing, then rehearsing that I would tell him that I had been rehearsing that I would tell him that I had been rehearsing...I expect you get the picture, infinite regress of intention. It made us both laugh, a little.

I kept seeing an image, a black-and-white snapshot of me by our suburban front door, standing in short trousers and a school cap, fresh home from school. In my arms, wrapped in a shawl, was my newborn brother. It was 1949.

Being with someone you love as they are dying is very complex and mysterious, and it's awful as well. I'll concentrate on just turning to face what is, as I know my brother Jonathan is. Courage, maybe; trust, possibly; but mostly attention. Nothing else counts.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Trust Supporter writes (continued).....

Neither of these Brazilian images is of Lisa Sheehy.....

Splendid to hear once more, our first news of them in 2008, from Lisa Sheehy and partner John, now in Latin America, and going down to Rio. You can see Lisa and read her comment in full, and I recommend that. This is gloriously adventurous stuff, Lisa, and we wait with bated breath for your new insights from the steamy interior. "Bon voyage!" And if you're down Acapulco way, "Mente onde a arei vai!!" (That's "Mind where the sand gets!!" in Portuguese - no-one can say this Trust isn't imaginative in it's response to new forms of hedonistic suffering). Peter

Monday, January 21, 2008


Views* of Holy Trinity Church, Rayleigh, Essex (see below)

"The only God is Reality. To seek Him elsewhere is the action of the Fall."

This saying is attributed to an obscure sect, the "Sarmauni Botherhood", and is quoted by Professor Charles Tart in his book "Waking Up". It has a very powerful resonance for me, who is always falling, or at least teetering on the edge of various dizzying drops. It reminds me to turn around and walk towards the light.

Tonight I went to a prayer-meeting, one of a series of rotating meetings organised by the several churches in the town where I live, in aid of Christian unity. I went on an impulse, having dropped in at the Parish Hall earlier in the day to get out of the driving rain. The meeting was advertised in the Parish magazine, which I read while I waited for the squall to blow over. I thought that, as I had nothing special to do, it would be nice to put my spare energies behind the co-operative efforts of local Christians: any co-operation is better than none, "co-operation is the colour" etc.

About forty mainly elderly folk turned up, we had coffee, then embarked on an hour of open reflection and spontaneous prayer, interspersed every ten minutes by short inspirational snippets from the Gospels. I can't recollect all the themes, but one was 'perseverance', which is, I think, a Buddhist virtue. Walter Elliot (1842-1928) says, "Perseverance is not a life-long race, it is many short races one after another". Thank you, Walter.

During the prayers I sat silent and meditatively with eyes open, listening to the prayers that were offered up by various members of the group, as supportively as I could. I couldn't help my mind from entering into various reflexive and unnecessary judgements on the content and style of the prayers: some seemed rather ponderous and had an undertone of prescriptiveness about them, others were more tentative and personal. Of course I also realised that it hardly mattered what was said in one sense, and mattered absolutely in another. It certainly didn't matter what I thought, except in terms of my own obscurations. One woman's prayer (I guess it was a woman as I didn't look to see who spoke) was almost inaudible, and I found myself liking that best! At the end of the meeting I felt very still and relaxed, and found I had enjoyed the meeting lots.

The church where the meeting was held is Holy Trinity (pictured above)*, the parish church of our town, and a local land-mark. About seven years ago I took my wife's blind Zambian father, Loti Matipa Mulumbi, there for a visit (we went to almost every church in town for services, as he was a devout Christian and an ordained minister of Christian Missions in Many Lands). While he was there at Holy Trinity they gave him the bell pull to ring the church bell which sounded out across the town. I thought that was a wonderful gesture, and he was as pleased as Punch. He died about eighteen months ago aged 92.

*Two general views of the exterior of Holy Trinity, and a close-up picture of the Tudor porch, built of red bricks in the early 16th century. The porch was used as a shelter for vagrants (perhaps one of the earliest types of hospice, or places of refuge), and also a classroom for six boys.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cooperation is the colour...

In early December I posted about a meeting to be held at the "Crown and Three Chairmen" in Wardour Street, Soho, this month, at which we should be informally discussing the future direction of the Buddhist Hospice Trust. The meeting did in fact take place in very convivial circumstances in the Upper Room, and adjourned after ninety minutes or so to a nearby vegetarian Thai restaurant, where further robust and creative exchanges continued for another hour or so. An excellent meeting, with exciting outcomes: all on pineapple juice and soda water (albeit at West End prices).

During 2007 the Trust's work has continued quietly, to a pattern established during the preceding fifteen years or so, of handling enquiries from people who needed advice, information and/or support in relevant spiritual straits; of encouraging dharma-practitioners to deepen their acquaintance with death through personal practice, contemplation, study and - perhaps - by engaging in activities that give scope for experiential immersion in the death of others; of staying abreast of technical, social, professional and demographic change so that the work of the Trust continues to configure, and helps to inform, the needs of the public it aims to serve; and that does so from a broadly catholic, inclusive and authentic Buddhist perspective that appeals to individuals from all traditions, alienates none, and inspires confidence and trust in its legitimacy as a Buddhist enterprise.

We have no reason to believe that we have failed in any of the above, and every reason to feel confident in the Trust's future, whatever direction the future may take it in.

I regret that we haven't been able to fulfil the commitment we made to write and circulate a Newsletter (provisionally titled Mustard Seed) to supporters. Perhaps our plans to do so were unrealistic. These plans were in part driven by the anxiety some of us felt, and some supporters voiced, about the demise of Raft. Raft did play an important part in reminding supporters of the Trust. It was a kind of umbilical link, and that has been temporarily lost.

But Raft was not the Trust, and the Trust has continued to function much as before without it, in its characteristically low-key and local way, through the efforts of its scattered volunteers and supporters.
I shall be writing to supporters (and inviting new support from Buddhist organisations in the United Kingdom and more widely) after the meeting mentioned below, so look out for that letter on your door-mat quite soon.

The trustees will be meeting formally in February at Basingstoke, and details of that meeting (including an agenda) will appear here and elsewhere before the end of January. I remind supporters (that means anyone who supports our work or the aims of our work) that you are welcome at meetings of the trustees. Although only trustees can vote on matters on which a vote is called for, supporters can speak at meetings at the invitation of the chair, and are encouraged to do so.

Oooops! I should add that, if anyone who isn't a trustee wants to attend, it will help to let me know in advance, as there is only so much room on Marcia and Bodhiprem's sofa.....

Co-operation is the colour, positivity the perfume...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Reality Check 1970 vs 2008

Something of a bracing reality check...a letter in today's Grauniad from Chris Connolly of Chesterfield, that I have to reproduce in its (almost) entirety:

"I don't recognise Britain in the 1970s from (the) description of a country whose infrastructure was shabby, if not falling down. We may indeed have had hospital treatment in old workhouse buildings rather than PFI structures with their magnificent works of modern art, but these old hospitals were at least accessible, being in town centres rather than at the side of ring-roads; nursing mothers were not expected to bring their own nappies and towels; and if an ambulance was needed, there was a better than even chance of it turning up within a few minutes."

"If, like me, you needed a bus to get you to work at 5.00 am, there would be one available, British rail ran a system where a single ticket could take a passenger all the way from Penzance to Thurso and local authorities provided affordable accommodation for people and families in need. Every street corner had a shop on it, so someone running out of bread had no need to use the car."

"The 1970s were, it's true, a time of bad fashions and heavy rock. There was no Internet or text messaging and there were only three TV stations. But then again, ITV showed World In Action, whereas today they have I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. More significantly, in those years a working class person could afford to do most or all of the following: buy a home, go to university, catch a train, consult a dentist or afford a medical prescription."

"For those of us who did go to Uuniversity in the 70s, they were a time of radical politics - when radical had the opposite meaning to the one it has today - idealism rather than cynicism, and hope for better things in the future. The contrast with the prevailing mood at the beginning of 2008 could hardly be more stark."

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The price of generosity...

We've recently had a Report* from the Charity Commissioners (with whom the Trust is registered according to law) setting out its findings - through research, casework and consultation - on how to improve its services to faith-based charities like ours. The Charity Commission estimates there to be over 25,500 faith-based charities operating in England and Wales, not all of which were registered until recently.

The stated aim of the investigation into faith-based charities was to gain insight into the main issues, concerns and tensions facing faith-based charities in their work, and in their relations with the regulatory body.

The Report (which can be accessed in its entirety at http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/) explores some of the key themes that emerged, and 'learns lessons' from its findings. 234 Buddhist organisations were identified by the Commissioners, of whom 39 made representations (including this Trust).

Common issues expressed across all faiths included a need for more support, especially for trustees, and more face-to-face events allowing dialogue. Faith groups believed that the Commissioners lack understanding of the cultural context within which faith groups operate, especially the spiritual system of giving (in Buddhism, dana), where Commission accounting methods and "public benefit requirements" may conflict with religious beliefs and practices.

Issues of particular concern to Buddhist charities, over and above the ones mentioned, included dana in the form of time, knowledge, services, goods etc, where attempts to quantify giving to meet legal accounting practice undermine the concept of no-strings generosity. Another concern was perceived pressure to "merge" in order to achieve efficiencies of cost etc. Buddhist charities have a generally low profile, irregular and often very modest incomes, and can be easily overlooked.

The Commissioners were generally seen as doing a good job, but - as always - one has learned not to take everything one is told at face value: the "proof of the pudding is in the eating", and we shall just have to wait, watch, and see...
*Working with Faith Groups: The Charity Commission Faith Groups Programme 2004-2007