Friday, February 22, 2008

Trustees Meeting: Quiche, Fog, Versatility

A thumbnail sketch of the proceedings at Oakridge Towers last week, when the Trustees met:

We agreed unanimously to invite Jane Walden to trusteeship and, when she accepted the invitation, she was welcomed and confirmed as our newest Trustee. The Trustees are now eight in number, and Trust office-holders are unchanged.

We agreed the Chairman's draft arrangements for the two "Renewal and Reconnection" conferences to be held in June and July i.e. the venues are confirmed as Penny Brohn Centre, Bristol (June 7th 2008) and Friends Meeting House, Ealing, London (July 5th 2008). The trustees will meet on March 26 at 1.00 pm (Euston Road Friends Meeting House) for further detailed work on the programme of events. If you want to play a part in that meeting, please come along, no need to make an appointment!

We agreed in principle to constitute a formal Membership of the Trust, achieved by subscription. Members will be entitled to benefits and privileges, including (at a minimum) a newsletter, voting rights, and concessionary attendance at events that would otherwise attract a full attendance fee.

Viewing with some concern the dearth of contributions and/or donations to the trust's funds, we agreed to institute urgent fund-raising measures towards a balance of £10,000. The current balance of our accounts is in the region of £4,500. Receipts for the year 2006-2007 were.... well, take a guess for yourself by joining our poll opposite.

We ate delicious vegetable quiche (some Trustees ate baked beans with theirs), a tasty mixed salad with pine-nuts, seeds etc and some of us ate Stilton cheese and other goodies. We drank coffee and other beverages. Our cheerful and solicitous host was Bodhiprem.

The chairman left his headlights on at the foot of Oakridge Towers, having driven part of the way in fog. The result was a dead battery, but the Treasurer and Minute Secretary put their shoulders to the wheel, and bump-started the chairman's car without fuss like a couple of teenagers. Where else would one find find Trustees as versatile, as energetic, or as willing as this?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bodhiprem Shapiro Bubbles Forth...

Bodhiprem Shapiro, one of our Trustees, and a veritable spring of joy that never stops bubbling forth, has favoured us with the following commentary, dedicated to our mirth, education and common humanity:

THE 1500s- How Some English Expressions & Customs came to be.

The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are facts about the1500s

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to church to mask the stink, as we do still today (carry a bouquet, that is).

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, don't throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying It's raining cats and dogs.

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, "dirt poor". The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence the saying a threshhold. (Getting quite an education, aren't you?)

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme, Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat". Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle and guests got the top, or the upper crust. Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins,take the bones to a bone-house and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; thus someone could be saved by the bell, or was considered a dead ringer.

And that's the truth. Now whoever said history was boring?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Pictured, a cheerful hospice volunteer......

From time to time people write in or 'phone to offer themselves to the Trust as volunteers. Sometimes they do this in the mistaken belief (an easy mistake to make) that the Hospice Trust is a place where dying people are being looked after by Buddhists, and they think they may be able to help out in some way. A few such people seem to want to be "in on the act" of dying, so to speak, presumably at second hand. This is not an uncharitable impulse, and it is not any part of our thinking to second guess people's motives for offering their services. But it can't happen here, as we don't have a hospice in the 'bricks-and-mortar' sense, so we have to divert volunteers to something may be able to do in their own localities. We have a number of excellent up-to-date Directories that can help us to pin-point services in your locality that might welcome your enquiries or offers of help.

There are very rare occasions when the Trust gets a call from someone, usually a close relative or friend of a dying Buddhist, asking for some kind of spiritual support for the one who is dying. At such times we try to find a volunteer from amongst the Ananda Networkers dotted around the United Kingdom. They don't have to agree to make a visit and, quite understandably, some can't take this kind of thing on, for a wide variety of entirely legitimate reasons, even if they wanted to, or felt competent to take on an open-ended commitment with a stranger. These occasions are, as mentioned, extremely rare. They usually involve Buddhists who have lapsed from regular practice, or never really had a practice, or have been cut off by age or infirmity from Buddhist friends or communities, and such like. Quite a few are Western "converts" to Buddhism, whose families are at a loss as to how to help them. Others are the second- or third-generation relatives of older "ethnic" Buddhists, who feel the pull of old religious ties and affiliations, but don't know how to make contact with the Temple or Vihara, and need advice and support.

All 'bricks-and-mortar' hospices rely heavily on volunteers across a range of activities, some 'in-house' stuff like cleaning, gardening, helping with kitchen chores, administrative duties or working on the reception desk. People with relevant skills may be asked to deploy them with patients or families, but only rarely will this involve any death-bed support. I have heard volunteers complain that their skills weren't properly used, and this generally means that they aren't happy to do what others want them to do, and have an agenda of their own. This is not a very welcome characteristic in a volunteer, as needs hardly be pointed out (but sometimes has to be). Of course, people with fund-raising skills are much sought-after: it takes a very special person to get money off others without causing bad feelings or raising expectations of something in return, so I admire them, and their cheek!

Later on I'll write a little about other ways that supporters can make themselves useful on the Trust's behalf (and their own). You don't have to know a lot about the Trust itself (indeed there's not much to know - it's all on the website). Each individual supporter IS the Trust, in fact. No-one is representative of the Trust in one way, and EVERYONE is representative of the Trust in another. All you need to do is to be true to yourself, to your own interpretation of Buddhadharma, and do your best. That's all any of us can do, and thank goodness for the fact that you do it, the best way you can. If your best efforts leave you feeling an abject failure, join the club!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Babel, Tower of....and the PFI of Health

The image of a stained glass window (not, however, in a multi-faith room, but in the Oakwood Centre, Reading) is by Stoney Parsons Glass Design.

Yesterday I was inconspicuously present at a meeting held to determine the shape, fittings and furniture of a "Multifaith Room" to be installed in a new PFI (Private Finance Initiative) Hospital planned for Chelmsford, near my home. I was there to add something of a "multi-faith" dimension to the meeting made up of architects, design specialists, builders and other sparky young things, plus a couple of Christian clergy whose exclusive province the hospital chaplaincy, until now, has traditionally been. But I pay tribute to their collegiality and ecumenicism (hope that's the right word) in inviting me along to offer my ten-penny-worth of opinion, and half-penny-worth of experience.

As a lay Buddhist at the meeting, and decidedly non-representative of anything much, I felt the Hand of History on my Shoulder (I'm sure that phrase isn't original, but I'm darned if I can remember where I heard it). In my experience of Multi-Faith Environments - I'm something of a collector of MFEs from my long non-alcoholic waits in various airports here there and everywhere - they tend to be culturally as neutral as possible, with no symbols or artefacts to suggest any kind of religious or cultural identity, let alone one that has 'supremacy' over the rest.

For example, the presence of chairs in a 'sacred space' might cause dissonance amongst people who usually worship on the floor, or sit on the floor to commune or take food together. The same might be said of a table. TV suppers apart, we in the "West" are used to sitting on chairs at a table to eat. Many people in the East sit lower down, eating from dishes laid on a cloth on the floor, or a low table. Curiously, we see paintings of the "Last Supper" with the Lord Jesus sitting at a refectory-type table with his disciples and not on the floor as one might suppose would be the norm in that place and at that time. The presence of a waist-high table might signal Western cultural assumptions. Public perception ought to be the determinant in such matters, perhaps. Perceptions are easily challenged by minor discrepancies from what we all take-for-granted as the 'norm'. I only offered this as a perspective.

There was some discussion on an 'ablutions' facility that had been designed-in to cater for Muslims, who have an obligation to wash before prayers. A smallish washroom had been planned in, but it had only one door. I pointed out that this would mean that worshippers would enter through the door with shoes on, remove them, wash (including their feet) and then make their way out of the ablutions room (with newly washed feet) through the same door they had traversed with 'dirty' shoes. Not a lot of sense when you think about it, but an easy mistake for a non-Muslim to make.

So the designer pencilled in a new (second) door aperture in the wall of the ablutions room. A stitch in time saves nine! I don't know why there wasn't a Muslim present at the meeting (or a Jew, or a Jain, a Sikh, a Hindu, a Rastafarian, a Zoroastrian, a Pagan, a Wiccan or any other faith representative for that matter). It might have made a difference. On the other hand, too many cooks.....

The meeting lasted about 90 minutes, and there were ten people present. One can imagine how many meetings must take place to 'get it right' for a whole hospital, and at what cost. A proper Tower of Babel, or forest of Towers. I was impressed by the rigorously consultative nature of the process, but also by the 'youth' of the various experts involved in drawing up the plans and bringing them to fruition. It also gave me an interesting insight into the nature of the PFI process. This is taking place against the background of remarkable and 'exponential' change in the technology of medicine, but also of the shifting expectations and demands of 'you' and 'me', the paying public. It's easy to be an 'armchair critic' of PFI but, in an era of rapid change, I can now better understand why services need to be built (and financed) with the possibility of change and obsolescence built in, not as "one-off" projects or buildings. I guess PFI is some sort of response to that.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Drala Jong Appeal - An Appeal Director writes...

Namgyal Dorje writes (he's the big one in the spectacles - I think!):

"Hello there - my name is Namgyal Dorje and I am the Appeal Director for the Drala Jong retreat centre appeal. I wanted to say thank you for posting the link to the appeal, and also to say that you're most welcome to 'cock a British snook' regarding elements of the appeal itself. This is our second major appeal, and like the first we found ourselves musing over how best to engage with potential donors. Specifically, with our first appeal - asking for sponsors to enable Tibetan children to attend a traditional school in Pemako, North India - some potential donors asked us in a round about way 'what do we get in exchange for our donations?'"

" When we were dealing with providing education to kids who otherwise would have no schooling at all and would either join the military (the boys) or stay at home to look after the family (the girls) it was quite a thing to hear that some potential donors wouldn't contribute unless e.g. they got photos of the individual child they were sponsoring, or even letters from the child saying how they were getting along. In that case £100 would buy that child the chance of a far brighter future than they'd otherwise have (a year in school). It was hard to think about what we wouldn't do to try to help."

"So, when it came to the Drala Jong appeal we thought 'what are donors going to want in exchange'. You know what, I think we got it wrong initially with this element of the Drala Jong appeal - so, thanks to comments such as yours, we've had a re-think, and changed the format of the appeal. We still offer donors a chance to come and meet our organisation, be it on a formal or informal occasion, since they quite rightly need to be assured that we're doing as we promised with their contributions. However we're now leaving the 'cash for honors' (not that it was intended thus) to the politicians. It seems that's more their strong suit than it is ours. To keep you up to date, our appeal has just passed the £50k mark thanks to the work of our hard pressed unpaid volunteers, and hopefully members of the Buddhist Hospice Trust will be able to attend the opening of the first vajrayana centre of it's kind outside of the Himalayan region in a year or two's time."

"Best regards, Namgyal Dorje - "

So, an excellent response to our snook-cocking of last year, and another invitation to Trust supporters to look at this cause with a view to "no-strings-attached" generosity, a quality worthy of my own efforts at developing for sure. Thanks, Namgyal Dorje! Love the jammies!