Sunday, November 16, 2008


My eldest son scorns my occasional use of the word “networking”, and I can see his point. He feels that “to network” has taken on a kind of cynical, manipulative connotation, that of using people for one’s own selfish purposes, of empire-building, ‘feathering one’s nest’, a culture of reciprocal favours and obligations: “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.

Networking, one imagines, is a vital part of the curriculum of the coveted Masters in Business Administration with which so many of our health and social care managers seem to invest themselves in modern times. But our organisation - and I use the word cautiously - is very loose, and deliberately so. We rely on the self-directed actions of individuals to fulfil our declared purposes. The Trust has only ever been a free association of individual women and men, committed to sharing themselves in spiritual friendship with others at times of difficult transition, and to fitting themselves for such sharing through personal practice.

We don’t select, accredit, authorise, train, direct or supervise our volunteers. We don’t ask for references, testimonies of good Buddhist standing, Criminal Records affidavits, or transcripts of caring experience or qualification. In this sense we are counter-cultural, if only because everything else in contemporary culture seems to be subject to ‘managerialism’, to the entrepreneurial ethos, the ’cutting edge’ of new technology, the rolling tide of added-value, risk-reduction and all the rest.

I read a prospectus recently for training as an End of Life Care Practitioner. The training involves four weekend modules and two eight-day retreats. It’s an impressive-looking programme aimed at impressively qualified and committed individuals, but the cost to each participant is US $5,000, plus US $2,900 for accommodation at the training centre. I can’t and won’t repudiate such initiatives as this, but I deplore any trend towards the ‘commercialisation of compassion’, the insidious commodification of care.

And, right or wrong, my instinct is to trust the open-handed and open-hearted Hospice Trust volunteer to do her best, as she sees it. In my experience, our best is always just what is needed: even our mistakes and clumsiness are as it should be in the wider scheme of things.

Writing about when things go wrong reminds me of an incident that occurred at my brother’s funeral last weekend. The service had just got under way with a short introduction, and the priest invited the congregation of mourners to join him in a short prayer. As he was making this invitation a latecomer, a young woman carrying a child no more than a few months old slipped into the chapel and, making her way down the central aisle, lost her footing on the polished tiles and fell with a great crash and a cry of shock to the floor.

Fortunately, with a mother’s instinct, she managed to hold the baby away from harm’s way on the unforgiving tiles as she fell, but she was clearly very distressed and a great gasp of concern rose up from the seated mourners. She rose to her feet clutching her child, and managed unaided to find a seat on the pews. Without offering a word of comfort or concern, and without leaving the rostrum (but with a look of deep embarrassment), the priest continued at once with his formulaic words “Shall we pray….”

Over his recited prayer the congregation heard the woman quietly weeping as she comforted her baby. We were, and I include myself, as if transfixed by the awful conjunction of events. I still feel the momentary horror of the situation as I write, the awful contradiction of a ceremony that - as it were - averted its eyes from everyday pain towards an unseen God who, we learn, numbers every hair on our head, and every sparrow that falls.

It has occurred to me to wonder if such a scenario could ever be enacted in a Buddhist setting. I don’t know the answer, do you?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The merits of being alive

Yesterday I was at my brother's funeral, and this morning as I walked jauntily to the shops I reflected on the merits, possibilities (and responsibilities) of being alive. Jonathan was eleven years my junior and died at home of pancreatic cancer last week. A little while before he died I asked him if he had ever believed that he would show such manliness during his final illness (it lasted eleven months), and he shook his head. But he did, and I pray that I shall walk in his footsteps towards my own.

When my Mum (who is still alive aged 91) was expecting my brother in 1949 she went to the cinema to see a new film release, a drama called 'My Brother Jonathan' starring Finlay Currie, Michael Dennison and Dulcie Gray. My brother was a bump inside her. She was inspired to choose my brother's name by seeing the film, and by the Biblical story from which it was derived. I don't know whether my brother and I bought into her narrative (as childen often do buy into the stories their parents tell them about themselves), or whether she was prescient in her naming, but he and I enjoyed a very close bond throughout his life, and our lives mirrored each other's in many respects. We both became nurses and psychiatric nurse-teachers, for example. At his funeral, having being invited by Maggie his widow to say a few words, I was able to quote from Samuel 2, 2:1 as follows:

"I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant hast thou been to me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women". And this was the experience of all who knew him, I have no doubt.

I haven't blogged for about a month as I've been unwell myself, on and off, and 'otherwise engaged'. I wasn't able to get to the Mandala meeting yesterday for obvious reasons. I understand there were four or five people present and I'm grateful for the feedback I've had from some of those who attended.

A week ago I attended a meeting of the Activities Committee of the Network of Buddhist Organisations of which the Trust is a constituent member. These meetings occur from time to time and any Trust supporter is welcome to attend. I will publish forthcoming meetings of the NBO as and when we are notified of them and you can attend in your own right as a Trust 'supporter', bearing in mind that we have no formal membership (although some people think we do). You won't be expected to act as a representative of the Trust, not by anyone, and you won't be expected to 'report back' on decisions taken or matters discussed, although I shall appreciate it as a favour if you do.

The NBO is a funny organisation in so far as it was set up as a network and didn't take any powers to itself except to admit member organisations who applied, and to apply some basic criteria for admission (mainly so as to deter very small organisations from applying, although one can't imagine why, or I can't). Since it was set up it has emerged - not consciously or deliberately - as a reference point for agencies looking for a "Buddhist position" on anything from religious education, through euthanasia, to immunisation of girls against the human papilloma viris implicated in some cases of cervical cancer.

Needless to say there is a vigorous debate and indeed some tension arising from whether a network, set up to promote dialogue and mutual support amongst the wide variety of Buddhist minds, hearts and voices, can ever articulate a representative "Buddhist voice", or whether it should.

Part of the meeting was given over to discussion of a draft Code of Conduct that might be applied to member organisations to keep them in line (so to speak) with acceptable forms of Buddhist behaviour, based generally on the Five Precepts. This stirs up all manner of bees in my already buzzing bonnet, and I did express the very personal and idiosyncratic opinion that this might be a step too far for a network.

I said that I didn't see networks as pushing things around; on the contrary a network depends on voluntary links (like people holding hands) that can register a pull from other sources, but can't transmit a push (at least that's how it seems to me that a net 'works'). Nets may have a certain holding power (as long as the links are there), but they aren't pro-active or pushy. A Code of Conduct seems to me to be "pushy", especially as it serves to exclude anyone who breaches it, or potentially so, and that in fact was why it was conceived, or so it seems to me. If you have views on this, let me know.

Before I left Eccleston Square where the NBO met, I had an interesting conversation with Dario (whose surname I can't remember but you may remember him as a Colombian doctor based on the Buddhist Society for quite a few years), currently the Buddhist Society archivist, about our work and his own. He unearthed a couple of audiotapes about the Buddhist Hospice Trust, made by Maurice O'C Walshe who clearly figured prominently in the Trust's early years. I haven't yet listened to these tapes, but shall as soon as I can sit down mindfully to do so.

It may be of interest to Trust supporters to hear them, and perhaps this could be arranged at some future time, perhaps as part of a more extended meeting than the Mandala meetings allow.

Incidentally, it was pointed out that the times I posted for the monthly meetings at Friends House were wrong (an hour out), and I am very sorry for this, and for any inconvenience to anyone. I have now corrected them. I shall post a reminder of the December meeting nearer the time, and send this out by Royal Mail to everyone whose postal address I have on my files.