Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Volunteering (2)

A bit tardy about returning to this theme, but reminded of it by meeting someone at Jamyang, the Tibetan Centre in South London, last weekend. She sought me out to ask about our work, saying that she was interested in developing a local resource at Jamyang, something that would help identify people to the sangha, perhaps within the sangha, who needed spiritual support because they were ill - maybe seriously or terminally ill - or dying, or bereaved.

This sort of grass-root, bottom-up awareness of potential need is so wonderfully encouraging, and something we love to support if we can. British Buddhist sangha are not, I think, like sangha in countries where Buddhism is 'native', and the culture is more homogenous and community-based. There may be exceptions, but I'm not aware of them. Most British Buddhist groups I've met are made up largely of white, educated, middle-class people who live distant from each other, although they may be friends and visit. Contact is mostly through weekly or less frequent meetings, classes or at puja.

People who 'drop out' for any reason may well be missed, and their absence commented on, but it's unusual for people to take active steps to check on their welfare, or to sustain a helpful relationship over time at a distance with people who aren't self-propelling or able to say they are lonely or otherwise in need of support. We British, perhaps the English more than the rest, are notoriously prone to "leave well alone", not pry into other people's affairs, and may even "pass by on the other side of the street". Buddhism doesn't confer any immunity in us against old age, decrepitude, failing mental as well as physical powers, social isolation, loneliness, poverty. So many elderly Buddhists go "under the radar" of social and spiritual care provision: I've witnessed this, and it saddens me, although years of dharma-practice grows a resilience and an acceptance in some old Buddhists that inspires us to emulate their example.

So, one of the most valuable contributions you can make to your community may be to get together with a few like-minded individuals to act as an early-warning 'listening post' or 'watch', keeping eyes and ears open for evidence of unsupported need. Perhaps a postcard on your noticeboard advertising the Ananda Network, with the names of two or three contacts who will be ready to respond to a report of someone who has "gone AWOL" from meetings, or hasn't looked herself, or shows signs of infirmity or self-neglect, or has been keeping hospital appointments (maybe going alone), or is facing a scan or an operation, or has a relative who is ailing - you get the picture.

Such a nucleus of concern itself needs support, and you might consider establishing an Ananda Fellowship interest group at which healthcare, hospice-care and social care topics can be explored or discussed. Many professionals from local agencies - a local GP or practice manager, a representative of Macmillan or Marie Curie Nursing, a Hospice Director or a Hospital Chaplain - will gladly come along to meet you to talk about their work, and such face-to-face meetings don't need to be hugely atttended to be worthwhile, and lead to friendship, mutual support and valuable perspectives on supremely important issues around life and death, with wisdom and compassion always at the heart of them, whatever the religion, background or standing of the human beings concerned.

Of course we at the Trust will always do what we can to support your efforts, which don't have to be anything more than human-scale and simple to be powerful and effective. A little goes a very long way. Your heart is indestructible, trust it and its promptings always.

I had a strange and disturbing dream the other morning, just before waking as is the case with most dreams. I dreamed there had been some sort of global nuclear event, a burst or series of bursts of high level radiation had occurred (not as the result of an explosion, there was no devastation). I knew with complete certainty that the result of this was everything, and everyone, must die. I viewed this with some equanimity, although the certainty had some shock value. I visualised the death of everything, myself, my family, all living sentient things (I saw their corpses lying dry like husks - no decomposition because no micro-organisms to cause it - the dream was that real and detailed), and the desiccation of all vegetable matter, trees, crops, flowers, everything brown and dried up, a sort of rustling, silting tide of dead organic material, gradually breaking down to a fine dust like snuff.

To add to the realism I saw my eldest son in the early stages of radiation-sickness, sweating and pale. I don't know what befell him. I knew I was powerless to help him, and that I would suffer the same fate, though I wondered why he was affected before me, yet without anguish.

A strange dream, as I say. Perhaps a portent. We like to believe that life will go on for ever, life as we know it, even after we die, and some of us find consolation in that. But even that consolation should be given up, perhaps, so that we live only in this moment, abandoning our hopes and dreams of eternity to a sterner and more perfect Truth, and living that.
The lovely image of dead leaves above is kindly supplied by Moberg Gallery of Des Moines , Iowa, USA to whom our thanks.

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