Thursday, May 29, 2008

Event Cancellation

I have to announce cancellation of the Renewal and Reconnection Conference planned for 7th June in Bristol (Penny Brohn Cancer Care). People who registered have been informed. We cancelled the event because too few people expressed interest in attending to justify the expense and effort involved in mounting it.

This isn't to say that the response to our invitation was unheeded; in fact the overall response to my letter and towards renewal and reconnection was very positive. But it seems quite clear that, amongst those who responded (just under 5% of those to whom I wrote), the feeling seems to be that the Trustees are to be 'trusted' to decide what needs to be done by way of renewal and reconnection (if anything), and supporters are generally content to let them get on with it.

Altogether I sent out just under 300 invitations, of which the bulk went to former Raft subscribers, and to Ananda networkers (a sizeable group, some of whom also took Raft). Just under a fifth of the total invitations went out to Buddhist groups who may or may not have been aware of the Trust's activities, including the representative bodies of the main traditions and schools in UK. I also sent a couple of dozen invitations to hospices, and to palliative care teams mainly those around the centres where the conferences were scheduled.

I was rather surprised that a number of invitations were returned unopened by the Royal Mail, marked "not at this address" and - in the case of two addressees - R.I.P. This suggests that out data-base (such as it is) is not current, and people have moved.

Several letters (and a few emails) of encouragement and continued commitment did much to keep us in good heart, and there were a fair number of generous cash donations. Not a few letters told of growing frailness and/or limited means for getting around, going to meetings, or visiting the sick.

I don't feel much disappointed at having to cancel the conference in Bristol, especially as we were lucky to be able to do so without much financial loss, thanks to the Penny Brohn Centre's generous cancellation policy and our charitable status. It was clear that some intending delegates were individually disappointed to hear that it was 'off', especially as we made a special effort to arrange an event otside London, and were looking forward to visiting Bristol, where we have been warmly welcomed before (by the Western Cha'n Fellowship's Bristol chapter) at their Annual Congress. I was looking forward to being greeted as "My Lovely" - this was the term of endearment used by the night receptionist at the Severn Bridge Travelodge when I booked in for a night's stay. Very nice.

At the time of writing plans for the July conference in London are progressing, and there will be further announcements nearer the time. The turn-out, however, looks to be quite modest on present reckoning, but we shall see how things develop.

There's a lot to learn from this consultative conference exercise, and the Trustees will meet on Saturday 7th June in London to "read the entrails" (mine, I expect) and draw lessons from that. More to follow, I promise.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Waveney Miller

Until her death in a nursing home in Kent in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Waveney Miller was a trustee of the Buddhist Hospice Trust, a position she had held for over twenty years. I also saw her as a friend, and she was one of my most potent dharma-teachers, possibly because we were temperamentally quite unalike, and often clashed. I first met Waveney at one of Ray Wills's Inner Work School meetings held in the basement room at the Quaker Meeting House in Hop Gardens, St Martin's Lane. this was, I think, in 1989 or thereabouts.

On the day before she died I got a call from the staff at her nursing home, telling me she was near death, and asking if I could visit her. They had never had a Buddhist resident before and wanted to do the right thing by her at the critical time. Having visited her about four months earlier, the staff had my contact details. At that earlier visit ago I found Waveney much changed: she couldn't speak or move, and communicated only by shrugs, chuckles and turning her head from side to side. I think she recognised me: I kissed her cheek and told her that her "naughty boy" (as she called me) had come to see his "Dancing Dakini" (as I called her).

Last week she was barely conscious and although I spoke to her a little I'm not sure if anything registered. I spent an hour with her, during which time she yawned often like an over-tired child. I did tell her that her death was near and that, if she could and wanted to, she might let go of life and face what she needed to face. We, her friends, loved her and thanked her for her friendship, for what she taught us and shared with us. She danced like a young girl, she giggled like a new bride, she chided us and scolded us for our inattentiveness in matters of dharma-practice, she soared spiritually like a beautiful tropical bird. She irritated us plenty by asking us, wagging a finger like a schoolmistress, if we knew the meaning of the word karma. She spoke often about her happy anticipation of death, and of the strictures she wanted us to observe after she died. I passed these on to the care staff on her behalf, together with observations of my own about rites appropriate to her tradition.

At the time of writing funeral arrangements haven't been finalised or posted, but I understand that Lama Rigdzin Shikpo, spiritual director of the Longchen Foundation, and Waveney's much-loved guru will be officiating at her funeral in due course. If possible, and pending a hoped-for invitation, I would hope someone will be able to attend for the Trust, to offer our condolences to her family and friends, and perhaps give brief tribute to her unique contribution and generous support for the work.

The Trustees will meet informally on Saturday 7th June at Friends House in Euston Road, London, to consider what further tribute or commemorative action might be appropriate for Waveney, and to meditate for her merit.

Perhaps the following passage from "Wake Up To Your Mind" by dharma-teacher Ken McLeod provides something in response to Waveney's insistent question about karma, and I pass it on in tribute to her memory, and with love and appreciation for the change she wrought in me, though I struggled against it for several years:

"The teachings of karma are central to the practice of Buddhism. While karma developed into a belief-system in many Buddhust cultures, the essential import of the teaching on karma is that we are responsible for the way we experience what arises in our lives. All too easily, the teaching of karma can be misunderstood to mean that we are responsible for what happens to us. We are not - neither in the traditional belief that we reap the painful consequences of actions done in past lives, nor in the naive modern belief that all our actions are volitional. Both interpretations rest on the belief that all our actions are volitional. they ignore that much of what we do is not volitional but based on set patterns of perception and reaction."

"Karma teaches that these patterns are reinforced by our actions. If we don't pay attention to the way we live and act, our lives are consumed by the "artificial life" of patterns. This approach to karma rests not on belief but on our own experience of the way patterns operate in us."

"There is a Tibetan saying that summarises karma:

To see what you've done, look at what you experience now.
To see what you will experience, look at what you are doing now.

Another version goes:

When you do what you always did, you get what you always got."

"In effect, we approach each situation as a mystery, and know that all we can do is be present, to the best of our ability, in that mystery. We don't need beliefs, we don't need comforting, and we don't need explanations. Karma directs attention to our actions, bringing us in touch with our habituated patterns that dictate much of our lives. It alerts us to the self-reinforcing nature of those habituations, and the importance of attention in dismantling them."

"This is the real teaching of karma: a compelling appreciation of the blind suffering that is present in a life when attention and presence is not cultivated. Thus karma provides a powerful motivation to be free - by dismantling patterns. All Buddhist practices are directed to one end: the freedom that comes from dismantling conditioned patterns."

"When we start dismantling patterns we are in effect shifting the basis of the organisation of our personality away from conditioned patterns, and the constructed identities they maintain, to awareness itself. The shift is radical. We move from believing we are something to knowing we are not anything. We are stepping directly into the mystery of our being."

Om gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Things fall apart...

Recently I spent several hours working on the little hut in our garden where I have mostly slept for the past few years. The hut is made of marine plywood, such as is used to fashion yachts and dinghies, sturdy but not elegant. Just big enough for a narrow bed, some shelves, a chair, it has two very small square windows partly obscured by a rail from which some of my spare clothes hang down. Only one of these small windows opens, and this makes for a stuffy atmosphere in summer.

I'm aware that the last part of the first sentence of this post may excite wonderment and speculation about my sleeping habits, and - perhaps - the state of my marital relationships. It is not, perhaps, as you think, or perhaps it is; but it merits no further disclosure of facts, and there will be none. Not for the time being, at least. And if that's not a cliff-hanger, it's the nearest I shall ever get to writing one.

What I had to do was to completely dismantle the front wall of the hut, as I intended to instal a ready-made softwood window-frame bought from a local retailer. This was twice the size of the windows it would replace, and had a good-sized casement allowing it to be wide-opened and thus ventilate the cottage freely. Dismantling one wall carried with it a risk of the whole structure falling apart if I removed a key support without recognising its crucial role in holding things together. I hoped to proceed slowly and mindfully enough to anticipate a sudden collapse.

It took me a couple of hours to remove old weatherboarding, timber infrastructure, old glass windows, ancient nails, piece by piece. The carcass of this hut had been built in very ad hoc fashion: no symmetry, no true angles or reliable measurements. It looked as if everything had been done wholly 'by sight', using rough-and-ready judgement of length, and without a plumbline, set-square or spirit level. When I inherited it it had been used as a pigeon loft, it was not built as a dwelling; but very robustly and, I think, lovingly.

As I worked I was very aware that I was undertaking a project the like of which I doubt I shall ever repeat. This growing awareness of my mortality is around a lot of the time these days, part nostalgia, part gratitude, part curiosity, part resistance to the frisson of fear I feel in recognising that I may die soon. Recognising is not the same as accepting, of course. There's a qualitative difference, I believe. Acceptance is an inclination of the heart, not a movement of the mind.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Silence, please

The image is titled 'Silence, please..' and is by Nick Palmer, with thanks to the artist and to All Posters who published it on-line.

As a curtain-raiser to my recent birthday, my wife and I travelled to Spain to visit our daughter in her valley home fifteen minutes drive from the small town of Xativa. After the flight, the bustle of the airport and an hour in a hire car, we stepped out into her yard and into a quite remarkable silence. I remember how lovely it was, that quiet stillness, and how much I presently live in the midst of so much noise. It wouldn't be true to say I hate noise, but I am rather noise averse, especially what seems to me 'unnecessary' noise - the sound of background music to which no-one seems to be actively listening, or the chatter from a television that no-one seems to be actively watching.

On the other hand, I can understand that people who live alone (or feel lonely even in company) may feel reassured to hear people talking, human voices, even if they aren't personally contributing their own. My wife is soothed by the chattering that emanates from a particular shopping TV channel where women discuss cosmetic products for hours on end, and I can see her point. She buys the products, and finds them good for her skin; I think they may be good for skin because she likes the people who sell them, and she wouldn't disagree I think. A perfect conjunction of happy experiences. And her skin is rather lovely too.

Next week sees the beginning of Noise Action Week in UK, promoted by the charity Environmental Protection UK. During the coming week we are encouraged to "consider the noise we make, the noise that bothers us, and what can be done to reduce it". I have a life-long tendency to sing sotto-voce, usually quite unconsciously, although I am sometimes roused to awareness by others telling me "You've got a nice singing voice", "You sound happy!" or (as today by a colleague at work) "That's an old one, Peter" - I was singing a wordless version of the Neapolitan aria "O Sole Mio", also known here in UK as the TV jingle "Just one Cornetto!" (a kind of ice-cream confection of doubtful Italian provenance). Of course, it's possible that other people find my tunefulness irritating or distracting, but are too tactful to say so. I'm aware of other traits of mine that people dislike or mistrust, but don't tell me. I'm aware also that they don't tell me because they don't see the point in doing so: I won't take it well, and am unlikely to change.

This intrinsic tunefulness (I hope) is something I can't explain, and I doubt I shall ever understand it, let alone curb it, and its potential for polluting the serenity of those nearby. I think it may be a side-effect of the depressive side of my nature, a way of dispelling the blues. During a long period of depression for which I was treated medically some years back, a doctor told me it was very probable that I had been depressed since puberty. I didn't find much to argue with in that statement; in fact, I felt a sense of relief and - almost - a feeling of vindication and freedom.

I have revisited that feeling of acceptance, of understanding myself, of being understood, many times since; but I've also wondered how deep my rationalisations go, and how impenetrable are my veils of self-deception. I usually end up convinced that I was never really depressed at all, but somehow nevertheless managed to convince myself and others that I was by my fiendish, self-serving cleverness. However, onwards and upwards! Or not, as seems more to be the case; where I am more "at home" and content to be, which could also be the reason I croon to myself.
A nice way to end, so I'll not spoil it.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Mugabe (First Class lives, Second Class lives)

I am still purging the racism I have harboured in my heart since I learned to discriminate anything, since the dualism of burgeoning intellect took hold. It's impossible to know it's origins, and I'm not concerned to know them, only to know it and what it has done to damage the lives of those I love, as well as many others whose lives I have touched outside the intimate circle of my family, including the African family that took me in, cared for me, humoured me, and taught me how to be.

There is a saying "Doing less, being more". How wise and true, yet how inscrutable the wisdom. We learn so much about doing, but are taught so little about being. Yet in Africa it is possible to learn the art of being, by absorption almost, because the people there seem to spend more time in being than in mere doing. Although what they do is intensely done, economical of effort and resources, mindful and astonishingly effective, they can just "be" in a way that is full of repose, grace and carefulness. I've entered an African household feeling strung up, harrassed and ill-at-ease. After fifteen minutes I feel untangled, calm and integrated. I've not been overwhelmed with hospitality, or had food or drink pressed on me, or listened to lively chatter. Often I've felt un-noticed almost; but somehow embraced by an absence of any contrivance or pressure to 'do'.

My racism. It has been pervasive, unacknowledged and camouflaged by my marriage to an African woman, as if that were evidence of my non-racist credentials. It wasn't, and it didn't escape my wife's notice, although it was only under its intolerable burden in our marriage, and its subtly oppressive effect on our children's upbringing, that she felt she must challenge it, and did. As with all forms of racism, it was my unaware assumption of the superiority of 'my' race, 'my' culture, 'my' worldview, expressed in the minutiae of our marriage and family life, her work, her politics, her sexuality, my tastes and preferences: not a scruple of our life was free of the taint of my bigotry, albeit subtly and artfully concealed.

Gradually over thirty seven or so years of our partnership, this racist heart has had its layers peeled off like an onion. There have been tears. But its sting has been drawn. Now, when my remaining bigotries and biases are challenged, I can acknowledge them without defensiveness, and they are disarmed, disabled, defused.

What has this to do with Mugabe? Well, I have strong sympathies for him, despite the grotesque portrayal of his actions, and those of his supporters, in the struggle for the survival of Zimbabwe as an autonomous African state. Having lived in Africa myself, amongst Africans, I am aware of the ethnocentric bias that the developed world's media always shows in its portrayal of events on that continent, its selection of images and vox-pops to suggest chaos, bloody violence, ignorance, greed and lust for power; its pandering to stereotypes of Africans as living, un-evolved, crudely unsophisticated, and helpless in the "Dark Heart" of the continent.

I believe that Mugabe is right to be suspicious of the intentions of the West in supporting the call for "democratic" regime-change in Zimbabwe, for the imposition of free-market structural adjustments to the economy; for the commodification of life and of society; for the top-down establishment of democratic institutions based on Western models of the law, the media, the family, and religious belief; for global corporations to call the shots throughout the region and keep the Chinese on the back foot. He calls it recolonisation, and who can blame him? Is that what Zimbabweans want? I think not, and my wife agrees with me, although in the past we have disagreed about almost everything that Africa means to us both.

The image above is of the coat of arms of the independent nation of Zimbabwe, for whose freedom Robert Mugabe and comrades struggled for decades against a relentless, oppressive and racist regime, propped up with the shameless collusion of Wilson's British (Labour) Government, and the connivance of most of the British people; and for which cause many thousands of Africans died.

Friday, May 2, 2008

First Class Lives, Second Class lives

My wife and I were out to lunch today, a rare but happy event - we don't get much time together to chat, and it's a real treat. Today we discussed the recent news from Zimbabwe that the electoral commission had announced the result of the presidential vote. More votes for Tvsangirai than for Mugabe, but not enough votes for the former to instal him as President unchallenged. So a "run-off" election is called for, and everyone suspects that Mugabe's ruling party will disrupt it, so that the vote goes the old man's way and he gets another presidential term of office.

My wife Berlina is something of a veteran in African politics, as she grew up in colonial Africa and witnessed the transition from subject-state to independent nation. Zambia's transition was not painless, but the Freedom Struggle (it is usually dignified with capital letters) for Zambian independence was relatively bloodless: a "copper revolution" one might call it, as Zambia is copper-rich, heavily industrialised and had a well-developed and muscular Trade Union movement, linked to a nascent labour movement in South Africa.

Berlina was a young working woman well before 1964 when Zambia 'threw off the colonial yoke', took an intelligent interest in the 'struggle', and knew many of the young political activists on the Copperbelt where she worked as a Medical Assistant in a Mine Hospital. Many of these were black Rhodesians, as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was/is the Southern neighbour of Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) and both were, for a while, members of the ill-fated "Federation" of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland, all contiguous and sharing tribal peoples, rivers, roads and railways.

Berlina's part in the struggle was typical of her: she pushed the boundaries of what was possible in a country, her birthplace and homeland, where she had no voting rights, no rights of assembly, and no right of access to a shop in the High Street through its front door. Africans were permitted to make purchases from "white" shops, usually termed "First Class" shops, but had to knock at a specially designated hatch at the back of the shop in the back-alley for attention. If attention was forthcoming, they asked for what they wanted, paid their money, and received the goods through the hatch. Africans could otherwise make their purchases in the Second Class Trading Area, from designated Second Class shops. Africans were allowed to enter these shops off the Second Class sidewalk.

Berlina flouted these rules. She had a favourite shop, Vennie Myers, selling High Couture to First Class Ladies (at first class prices). She could see what she wanted through the window, but wanted to try things on (as women usually like to do). So she went in through the forbidden entrance and asked to try things on. She was not challenged about this breach of "petty apartheid", possibly because Vennie Myers was a Jew and knew what it felt like to be treated as less than a full human being, maybe because she liked women with style to appreciate her designs (Berlina did and still loves lovely well-made clothes); maybe she needed the custom.

Berlina also ventured, illegally, to the "First Class" cinema, ate in "First Class" restaurants, rented a "First Class" telephone, took a "First Class" driving test, and otherwise aspired to a First Class status in a country in which everything First Class had been appropriated by the colonial masters and mistresses of the time for themselves. You might say she called their bluff, and they didn't have the courage of their First Class convictions. She makes no comment herself, and she holds no grudges, feels no resentments. But I see her exulting in the freedom she won, and I exult in her happiness too.

The rest, of course, is history. But history is still in the making: in Africa, in Zimbabwe, in Kenya, in Angola, in Darfur.. and this is where I must pick up the threads of our lunch-time conversation again when I resume....(to be continued)