Thursday, May 29, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
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
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
Saturday, May 3, 2008
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.