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!

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