Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Death - preparation is the key

Here's an interesting article on why, with a few useful tips on how.

It's written for nurses, but it takes two to tango when end-of-life beckons........

Another 'make-over'?

This evocative image of clinging on is titled "A Study For Self-Doubt" - I can't recall its provenance.

I'm working slowly on a position paper that I hope will have implications for the Trust. There have been informal overtures from 'sources' (not yet to be disclosed as that would be premature) interested in a partnership arrangement with the Trust; a partnership that might lead to some diversification and expansion of the Trust's mission - into the field of mental health. The paper argues for such a partnership, against the background of changing need, of more pervasive social and political change (think "Big Society"); and in the context of the Trust as a 'dying organisation', in several senses of the words, dharmic, demographic, financial and real.

Mental health has long been of interest to me, partly because I have had a long career in mental health work - as a nurse, a nurse teacher, in service development as a manager, in Africa where they do things differently; and in my personal experience of mental illness at home: my own clinical depression and personality problems, the difficulties experienced by others in my immediate family, my interpretation of dukkha, and the remedies of the Noble Eightfold Path. Quite an inventory of interests and concerns.

And it seems to me that these are widely shared by other Buddhists. As long as I can recall, the Buddhist Hospice Trust has been something of a beacon to people in mental distress, not just as a result of serious physical illness, imminent death or bereavement, but often for complex and poorly articulated reasons, of alienation and exclusion, of confusion and anxiety, even of rage and resentment.

Some of these have been people who "bumped into Buddhism and got bruised" (a concept around which the Network of Buddhist Organisations developed under the auspices of the late Dr Sally Masheder), some have been shunned or stigmatised by Buddhist sanghas as 'weirdoes' or 'misfits' or 'malcontents' - people who turn up for meditation classes drunk or stoned, people who are garrulous and argumentative.

Like attracts like, they say, and I have always had both fellow-feeling with and a certain fascination for, such people. Not a few have become firm and wonderful friends, mentors and guides on my own spiritual journey, although both I and they are keenly aware that ours can be, or certainly feel like, an on-going, even a life-long struggle with disadvantage, stigmatisation and poor health.

I have long subscribed to the 'spiritual emergency' theory of mental illness, including psychosis, a proposition which is by no means new, and by no means to be lightly disregarded. Media attention to celebrity like Stephen Fry has given something of a sympathetic gloss to the idea that mental illness (especially bi-polar disorder) is a kind of benign holy madness with a creative spin. But the idea has merit, and is experientially as well as in research-terms, perfectly valid.

So I am serious in believing that Buddhism, and in particular the Buddhist Hospice Trust, has something to offer to the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer alone, struggle unsupported with recovery, and for whom simple fellowship, bearing witness, and presence is likely to be a key ingredient on the road to health. So I am working on the idea, and will publish it here first. If you have ideas on this, let me know.

Monday, August 16, 2010


My last post was in May, an interval of three months since.

I'm visited by a strange spirit of reticence recently, but not just that. I'm undergoing an internal 'makeover', the fruits of nine months of regular practice, using a method I read about in a book by Will Johnson, titled "Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient". I love the book, and I love the method. The first time I tried it I had a sense of 'coming home', and I've persevered with it ever since.

In his book, Will Johnson 'takes a pop' -gently and not dismissively - at sitting meditation , and suggests meditating standing up as an alternative or complementary posture, with eyes open. Just as it says on the book blurb, the secret is to align the body vertically with the downward embrace of gravity. This is not to strain to stay erect like a soldier on parade, but to rather to allow the body to align itself with gravity in an effortless way, like a tree: swaying slightly, the weight of its great limbs perfectly poised around a small base, anchored in the mothering earth, without effort or complaint.

The further secret is to surrender to the downward draw of the earth, to gravity's powerful anchoring pull. Like alignment, this isn't easy. I've learned to brace myself against all manner of shocks, and I hold my body in a state of more or less constant tension - although I seem on the surface to be relaxed, and not unusually 'up-tight'. This method teaches how to release this chronic 'holding' tension, wherever - through patient and careful examination - it reveals itself.

Alignment and relaxation together, that's the way, and it it taking time to get into it, but mindfulness of the breath provides the resting place for the mindfulness needed, so that awareness can extend to every part and corner of the body, to every subtle sensation and movement, eyes open and unfocussed, ears alert for all sounds, just in each moment, moment by moment. What a wonderful discovery, and so unlike the exacting methods proposed by many meditation teachers, of unwavering stillness, and attention only on the breath at the nostrils, or on the upper lip. Did the Buddha ever teach that? Johnson opines not.....

Resilience: this is the name applied to the myriad of tiny adjustments of body and mind, that allow alignment and relaxation, deepen mindfulness and open the aperture of awareness that is usually narrowed to a slit (like looking at the universe through a straw, someone said).

Since reading Will Johnson's book - I love it so much I actually hug it, and I've twice kissed it! - I've written to Johnson and had his several replies, encouraging me and pointing me to ways of developing the insights I've gained. Through the kindness of George Draffan at naturalawareness.net I've learned to combine standing-like-a-tree, a qi gong practice that complements the standing meditation, and sitting, eyes open and unfocussed, at intervals when to do so seems right, which is more often than I could have believed possible hitherto.

The effects have been many and various. George Draffan - during a short on-line conversation using Skype - asked me what issues I was ready to work on now that I had got familiar with the practice, and recognised its worth. I was unprepared for the question, but heard myself stammering, "Er, anger, ,and, er, sadness, I think........and shame, and making amends...." "That's fine", said George, "work on those......"

I hadn't the presence of mind to ask him what "Work on those...." meant. But it seemed to me that just voicing those words, which came from I don't know where in my conscious or unconscious mind, was enough or, at least, it was enough that I formed some intent around or with those 'issues', so that that intent combined with the practice to let healing begin, in its own way, in its own time, and yielding its own results. My role is to notice, to trust, and to continue with the practice, joyfully. "Happy practice!" is George Draffan's coda to all his messages, and how it transforms it! No longer dutiful and arid, practice is like coming home, although the results are startling, challenging and call me to a new way of being.

I've said enough, I think. This is not exactly a frugal or parsimonious post, but I'm glad I've made it, thankful to those who have guided and supported me to here, and hopeful that some reader may take heart from the story, read Will Johnson's enlightening, funny and fascinating book, and find their own way home to dynamic, embodied awareness, as I've begun myself.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Last offices

An article in Nursing Times alleges nurses' neglect of Last Offices in some NHS Trust hospitals, causing added distress to bereaved families and friends. In recent years, the NT claims, nurses have not had the teaching and guidance they need to perform Last Offices, a term that describes the procedure for washing, tending and 'laying out' the body of a person who has died in hospital or nursing home, prior to (and preparatory to) their removal from the ward to the mortuary.

'Last Offices' is a fairly regular routine for nurses, and I'm a little surprised that it may have fallen by the wayside in the modern NHS, but not totally surprised. Nurses today are not what they were, which is not to say that twenty-first century nursing is necessarily inferior to earlier versions, but it is true that modern nurses do more technological high-turn-over medicine, are usually more technically proficient than their 1960s counterparts, and have a busier caseload than I ever did. It's easy to snipe from the side-lines, but I doubt I could survive a single shift in a modern hospital setting: my presence could be even be hazardous to health.

In my experience, performing Last Offices should be a leisurely, unhurried affair. I last did this about six weeks before I retired. Having nursed an elderly fellow during his last years, months, days and hours, he breathed his last one morning shortly after I had arrived on duty at 0700. His death was peaceful - "in his sleep" it might be claimed, although this expression poses a number of unanswerable questions.

I had to wait several hours after his death for his doctor to arrive to confirm his death. The doctor didn't question my 'diagnosis' of death. Although the 'certification' of death is for a doctor, most doctors will accept an experienced nurse's word on the matter, and don't attend the death as a matter of urgency.

After the doctor had left, I set about the preparations needed to minister to the old fellow's last needs, if he could be said to have any further needs at that point. I undressed the body carefuly, removing any medical equipment to which he might still be attached, removing any tubes still in body cavities, taking off dressings (replacing any that might be preventing discharge etc), and then carefully washed and tended the body as gently and carefully as if he were still living.

If necessary, a man might be shaved. Nails are carefully trimmed and cleaned, teeth or dentures cleaned, hair brushed and styled. The eyes are sometimes held closed with a small piece of adhesive tape, it used to be done with a moistened pledget of cotton wool. Jewellery may be removed and put away, suitably labelled, in safe place.

I find it a lovely thing to do Last Offices, although to some that might sound odd or macabre: it's a chance to say the final "Goodbyes", it settles the mind into a state of repose and peacefulness, it acknowledges the finality of death. If possible, I invite someone who has cared for the deceased to help with Last Offices, especially those who have not perhaps met death in this way before. On my last occasion my assistant was a relatively new care-worker, someone who had not done the Last Offices before, so it was an opportunity to show them the routine, and to explain the procedures that would be followed afterwards when the funeral director called to remove the body to his premises.

All this happened in a specialist Nursing Home rather than a busy hospital ward. In the latter setting there is enormous pressure on beds, and the body of a dead patients may be removed with 'indecent haste', without allowing the prescribed hour to elapse after death is pronounced, ostensibly to allow rigor mortis to set in, but also for the sake of decorum, and so that relatives have an opportunity to say their farewells (if they were not present at the death it is an indignity to arrive at the ward and find an empty bed).

Never an occasion goes by that I perform Last Offices without reflecting on my own death, and imagining my own corpse being tended by another. I sometimes think it would be good to be washed and tended by my kin, by my wife, or my sons, but - putting myself in their place - I think they may find this too upsetting, and I wouldn't want them to feel that they had 'let me down', so I will leave it to them to decide for themselves.

In Asian and African culture it is normal for family members to tend their dead, and to dig their own grave for the deceased, or to collect the requisites for a pyre, or whatever rite they follow: it's a do-it-yourself job, although help may be hired to provide transport, or to knock together a coffin. And a funeral is usually an occasion for a family gathering, a feast, some beer (in Africa at least), and in many cases a good deal of fractious squabbling over inheritance, the division of spoils.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Bunny Suicides

The image (centre) is of Garuda, mythical bird in Buddhist and Hindu lore, mentioned below. NOT A BUNNY.

I can't quite work out how this fluffy bunny (see picture opposite) managed to depress the lever -from inside the toaster - after inserting himself (or herself) into the toasting slot. Can this be a case of assisted suicide or bunny euthanasia?

The technology-assisted self-destruction shown in the picture (below, at the bottom) shows a level of ingenuity, and a capacity for meticulous pre-planning, I wouldn't have associated with bunnies. But the older I get the more I realise how I may always have taken the sensibilities of animals for granted, and underestimated their intelligence.

Several years ago my daughter gave me the Book of Bunny Suicides for Christmas, and I was impressed with Andy Riley's finely-observed compilation of several dozen cartoons, each depicting the self-executed demise of a "little fluffy bunny who just doesn't want to live any more". Whatever one thinks of the incidence, causes and morbidity of depression in bunnies (and I haven't previously given it much thought at all), this book illuminates the issue vividly, and I read it at a single sitting.

To say I read it gives a false impression, as there is hardly any text at all, it's all pictures, there's a laugh on every page, and not many pages overall. On several pages I laughed out loud, and on quite a few I laughed helplessly. These cartoons are wickedly funny, consistently, inventively morbid, timeless and also de nos jours. Some bunny-suicides as illustrated take a bit of working out: for example, one bunny - presumably having tried unsuccessfully to die at his own paw using other methods - succeeds in fixing himself to the front of an Underground train (super-glue, velcro, blue-tack?) from which position - suspended above the tracks - he urinates directly and precisely onto the third 'live' rail, with the result that a violent electric charge passes up his urine-stream, with the intended result: he sizzles.

You have to see it to be swept away with admiration at his determination and his ingenuity. How did he manage to fix himself on to the front of the train without attracting the driver's attention? How much did he have to drink to be sure that he could maintain a steady urine-stream for long enough to hold the circuit and produce death? Did he have to practice this method by 'dummy runs'? All this is fascinating conjecture, without even going into what caused bunny to be depressed in the first place, even if he were depressed, which is itself debatable (there are other motives for suicide than depression).

Shortly after I got the Book of Bunny Suicides I passed it on to someone I visited in hospital, dying of an inoperable brain tumour. I did this on an impulse, and it turned out to be a helpful one. The person to whom I gave it found it a real tonic, and got many laughs out of it during his final illness. It's a book you can keep around and turn to in those moments of rather ponderous solemnity and self-concern we're all subject to now and then.

I bought a dozen of these Bunny Suicide books, one for myself, and the rest to give away when the circumstances seemed right, especially around terminal illness: I don't think offering this book as a gift to someone dying is a matter of very fine judgement, in fact I think that bringing very fine judgement to bear on dying and death can be a fearful business. Attending on the dying and death of others - and our own - calls, perhaps, for the qualities of that mythical and fearless Buddhist bird, Garuda.

Garuda is a do-anything, go-anywhere bird, and he can fly as soon as he is hatched. He crawls out of his shell on to the narrow shelf overlooking a vertiginous precipice and - finding no where to perch - falls into the void spreading his wings and flying at once, looking fearlessly for evil adversaries to slay: doubt, prevarication, hesitation, self-consciousness. It's said that Garuda sat on the Lord Buddha's throne as a protector until - during the Buddha's delivery of the Heart Sutra - a bat farted. Garuda promptly killed the bat for its insolence, whereupon he was banished for breaking the First Precept.

I do think (by the account given in the story) the Lord Buddha seemed very hard-hearted, but perhaps he didn't issue the order that banished Garuda, perhaps it was a pompous minion acting ultra vires. If the Lord Buddha lacked a sense of humour, or a sense of proportion, and had never himself farted in public (doubtful indeed), he would probably have had me banished - like that flatulent bat -for distributing Bunny Suicide books to dying friends. Which is why I've always taken stories about the life of the Buddha with a pinch of salt, or with a whiff of bat-fart.

As far as I can recollect, Garuda was eventually re-instated, and is now available to me - when the occasion presents itself - to deliver the remaining two Bunny Suicide books I've got left to give away.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sutra Cordis

Thanks to Mariano Marcigaglia of the Buddhist Society who forwarded this majestic Latin rendering of the Heart Sutra for everyone's enjoyment......

Sutra Cordis Magnae Sapientiae Transcendentis

(Om laudetur Domina Nobilissima Sapientia Transcendens!)

Sutra Cordis Magnae Sapientiae Transcendentis
Bodhisattva Avalokita
profundam Sapientiam transcendentem excolens,
quinque complexuum vacuam naturam conspexit
et hoc modem omnes dolores superavit
Shariputra, forma dissimilis non est vacuitatis,
vacuitas dissimilis formae non est.
Forma est vacuitas, vacuitas forma est.
Idem accidit sensibus, perceptionibus, propensionibus, conscientiis.
Shariputra, omnia phaenomena natura vacua sunt:
non nata neque exstincta, non pura neque impura,
non crescentia neque descrescentia.
Ideo in vacuitate
forma, sensus, perceptio, propensio, conscientia non est;
non oculus, auris, nasus, lingua, corpus, mens;
non species, sonus, odor, sapor, contactus, notio.
Sensus videndi non est, neque alia elementa huius generis
usque ad mentis conscientiam.
Ignorantia non est, neque finis eius, aliaque huius generis
usque ad senectutem et mortem, neque finis eorem est,
Labor non est, non causa, non exitus, non via.
Scientia non est, neque adeptio.
Cum nihil adipiscendum sit
bodhisattva Sapientia transcendente nisus,
animo libero ab impedimentis vivit.
Impedimentis non obstantibus nulla timet,
falsas cogitationes relinquit et summum Niravana fit.
Cum Sapientia transcendente nitantur, omnes Buddha trium temporum
perfectam illuminationem consequentuur.
Scito igitur Sapientiam transcendentem
sublimem mantra esse, mantra magnum et fulgentem,
maximum mantra, mantra sine aequali,
quod omnes labores dissolvere potest.
Verum est, sine errore.
Proinde mantra Sapientiae transcendentis ita pronuntia:

(Ivit, ivit, transivit, totum transivit, Illuminatio tum sit!)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Vapour trails in the sky

The skies are strangely unblemished by vapour trails since air-traffic has been suspended, and I am in an odd - but not disagreeable -psychological space because of this.

It's as if the unblemished sky reminds me somehow of another more innocent time, and I feel a small tug of nostalgic yearning for that time, a small hope that the sight of intercontinental jet aeroplanes high in the sky above our home in South-East England has gone forever.

I've done my share - perhaps more than my share, indeed certainly more than my share - of careless jetting around Europe in recent years. It hasn't even been entirely careless: every trip has caused me a twinge of guilt about the self-indulgence of cheap flights to European destinations, but the twinge has never been sharp enough to make me desist. It's always been possible to rationalise my discomfort: for example, as a concerned spouse meeting his wife's legitimate need to visit a daughter abroad, and - of course - his own need too. And I've also made a fair number of more expensive and tiring trips abroad by car, and on the train, to 'reduce my carbon footprint', although I have no confidence at all in this 'fig-leaf' of self-deception.

Next week my wife and I were to have travelled to Italy by air for a four-day break, two in Rome and two in Florence. This visit to Rome and Florence has long been a dream of my wife, who craves the warmth and sunshine of the countries of southern Europe as a temporary respite from her forty year exile in the nippy Northern hemisphere - her birthplace was sub-Saharan Africa.

Along with millions of others we shall need to grin and bear the disappointment, and find some consolation in the early Spring sunshine here at home. At least we shall be here to see the flowering cherry we planted in our garden ten years ago come into ravishing blossom, a heart-stopping display that quickly tarnishes and fades a day or so after its pristine first flush.

Alongside the disappointment I shall feel (more for my wife, vicariously, than for myself) there is something like satisfaction, perhaps vindication of my long held view that my life of self-indulgence is intrinsically hollow and illusory, although I have often felt locked into it by circumstances, by powerful social convention, ties of affection and family solidarity that can't be undone, not that I want to undo them.

I am only one individual in a family of (currently) five constituent members, and the other family members don't necessarily agree with my purely theoretical ideas on the merits of self-denial, and abstinence from small pleasures which they - quite validly - feel they have earned. We do have discussions about this, as I imagine most families do - I may be wrong about this, I often am on such matters. Such discussions sometimes mar the serene skies of family accord with vapour trails that disperse only slowly, and are replaced quickly by new ones when they fade.

The trouble with me, as always, is that I'm not as ready to give up my own pleasures as I am to point out to my loved ones the value - to them - of giving up theirs.

Perhaps there's hope for me yet in terms of personal turn-around, although I think there may not be a lot of time.....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Essence of Care.....

I can't resist commenting on the Lift Game installed in North Wing of St Thomas's Hospital, a scene from which is captured in the picture opposite. Devised and crafted by Tim Hunkin, the game bears some resemblance to an end-of-the-pier amusement game, you put a coin in the slot, choose from one of three flashing buttons, and your reward (if you punched the right button) is a tableau from hospital life (see picture), enacted as one of three lift-doors opens randomly to reveal a member of staff, delivering a service to an old dear on a trolley.

The old dear (I'm conscious as I write of the possible political incorrectness of such a term) sits up on the trolley when the designated service arrives, gazes at it or submits to it reflectively, nods his or her head in solemn approbation, then sinks back on to his/her trolley, ready to be wheeled passively by the solemn porter to the next assignment. It's mesmerising......and great fun.

When we aspiring chaplains go to St Tommy's for our course, we've started to tarry by the Lift Game and use our loose change to gamble on seeing who pops out of the lift to attend to the old dear. Of course if you push the wrong button, and the old dear has been manoevred to the 'wrong' (non-opening) lift door by the long-suffering porter, the 'wrong' door opens to display something less dynamic. a thin old thing standing erect but forlorn and unattended, wearing a nightshirt, attached to an intravenous drip on a stand, and quivering like a recently struck tuning fork. Disconcertingly pathetic. I don't know whether the top-to-toe vibration was contrived, or whether it was just an unintended mechanical effect. But it unsettled even me, inured as I am by years of nursing to the suffering of others (I jest).

The lift game, despite its power to disconcert, is great fun, and we spent a happy ten minutes feeding it coins, and laughing like kids at the fun of being wrong-footed by the machine, and whoping with pleasure when we banged the right button and got a prize. This is heralded by a cheerfully raucous pealing of the lift bell as the lift 'arrives', the doors open, and the tableau is set in motion.

I "Googled" the Lift Game and got Tim's email address to send him a word of appreciation: it's worth reading his account of how the Lift Game came to be; how much effort he put into getting it right; what obstacles he had to overcome; and how much it still demands from him by way of attention. If you go by the game yourself, think of Tim - he's a craftsman, and something of a genius; maybe something of a bodhisattva too.

The little figures Tim has crafted, although apparantly simple and stylised, seem to me to carry some extraordinary quality of sensibility, of responsiveness, and of care. I think it is this essence of care that Tim has captured (through his observation of people at work) that calls forth my own emotional response - of concern, but also of joy - and, I would surmise, a variety of emotional responses in others. I think this work deserves wider recognition, and there might well be more of it.

**** **** **** **** **** ****

The course itself is going well, and I'm enjoying it. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into planning it so that the content is balanced, and so that - all things considered - the participants have an opportunity to meet the objectives, which are by no means modest. One of the sessions at our last meeting invited us to work in small groups to develop our thinking about what setting up a chaplaincy service might involve. To invest this task with a bit of dynamism, we were asked to think about how our new chaplaincy service might respond to an early challenge.

Wwe were three, and we conjectured that we were setting up a chaplaincy service to the UK Space Agency, whose mission was to put on astronaut on Mars. The agency employed at least 1,600 people, one of whom was the astronaut. The urgency that confronted us was a sudden and inexplicable spike in sick-absence amongst the staff. Where did we fit in? What might we contribute to the agency? And how would that work out in practice?

This was great fun, but it did challenge us in many ways, and at many levels, including the level of dharma-practice. I got a lot out of it, and so - I think - did my collaborators. After a while the several small groups (all of which had their own different scenarios) met to compare notes and share experience with each other and with Keith Munnings and Chris Blomeley, the facilitators.
It's a moot point whether we succeeded in bringing an effective spiritual or pastoral ministry to our 'organisations', but I for one will feel better equipped in future to join others in doing so.

**** **** **** **** **** ****

I've been pressing on with the new zhen zuang energy-work, and I'm now in my third month of daily practice, with encouraging results. I feel more integrated, look and feel better, and look forward to the practice happily each day. More details can be found at George Draffan's website, well worth a visit I reckon.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The caravan moves on....

Image is of a deva (see text below)

Another tent-pitching occasion for the Kalyana Mitra caravan, yesterday at the Buddhist Society, where the first meeting took place of the second chaplaincy development programme for aspiring chaplaincy candidates, or 'dharma-workers' - a provisional title tentatively offered by Keith Munnings - who led the training event, attended by twelve participants.

For the first time I made sense of the fact that there are two training programmes, or development programmes, offered by Kalyana Mitra. The one at St. Thomas's that I wrote about earlier is for intending or existing NHS chaplains, and addresses the needs of healthcare chaplains in particular detail.

The programme I attended yesterday is for anyone who is working in a helping capacity: the term 'chaplaincy' has accordingly been 'stretched' or expanded to embrace all such endeavour, whether actual (people who are already in a helping 'role' of some sort), or intending (people who would like to help others in some way).

I've been more than a little sceptical about the value of training for a defined role in Buddhist 'helping', as I understood (or misunderstood) it, since I first became aware that the training was envisaged, and I have expressed discordant opinions with Keith and Chris Blomley about their plans.

I was wrong on two accounts: first, there is no reason why a formal training scheme for volunteers should not co-exist with a volunteer scheme such as the Ananda newtwork (which does not supply training or accreditation); there is room for both, and perhaps each meets a need in different ways. Second, the training scheme/development programmes offered are less propositional, more open and flexible, and more susceptible to the experience of the participants than I feared they might be otherwise. And my fears may have been based on a misunderstanding on my part of what was intended, why it was intended (the rationale), and how that 'what' was to be achieved.

Here are the purposes of the programme I attended yesterday(quoted from the programme literature), or rather the first of seven sessions that make up the complete programme:

"Who we are and what we hope to achieve from these session:

- Kalyana Mitra - Buddhist Chaplaincy Support Group (BCSG)

- sharing dhamma teachings and chaplaincy experience

- strengthen dhamma practice of the attendees

- towards development of Buddhist chaplaincy in the UK (EU) enabling trainees to provide Buddhist spiritual, moral and pastoral care to the community inclusively, effectively and professionally within a mutifaith environment".

The programme was introduced by Dr Sunil Kariyakarawana "the man with the longest surname in the world", who directs the BCSG with sunny humility and charm (he is a very humorous speaker), none of which disguises his intellectual brilliance and scholarship.

The day comprised an experiential journey around the Mitta Sutta (Seven Qualities of a Friend) of the Pali Canon (AN VII 35), with individual and paired reflection, group work, and whole group discussion. Before lunch we were treated to a Jakata Story reading by Professor Upul. I had never heard one of these fables before, but it was a treat, fantastic, full of symbols and allusions, and of course with a moral message for the listener.

Professor Upul clearly enjoys this traditional dharma-vehicle, and he is a great story-teller; his eyes twinkle, his voice is expressive, and for me the message 'went in', almost without touching the sides, as most good stories do. It's true for me that - possibly - something of the fable's magic was lost in translation, but there were enough long and musical names in Pali to convey some of that fabulous quality to every listener, as if in a trance-state.

The day 'ticked all my boxes': and it seemed to me to be well on course to fulfil its purposes, especially if participants are able to complete it.

At the start of one of the sessions we were invited to choose one of eleven fruits of metta practice, and reflect (with a partner) on what particular value it might hold for us, what obstacles might stand in the way of our receiving it, and how - if we received it - it might bring benefit to others.

I chose "devas will protect you". I chose it because it caused me a certain dissonance. Do I "believe" in devas? I'm not sure I know what devas are, but in my strange surmises I see them as exotic female images in odd poses (see image above), limbs akimbo and breathing fire etc. No, I can't seriously believe in them.

But - and this I can't deny - it is quite possible, indeed very likely, all that stands between me and their protection is my perception, and my stubborn attachment to belief. Not belief in anything or something, just the B-word itself. And it's not just about me, all that, perception, belief, the kleshas, stand between me, the devas, and everything and everyone else, reinforcing my separation, reinforcing the walls of self-imprisonment that surround me.

So I think a little gratitude may be overdue, for a richly blessed and fortunate life, and if a little of that is due to the devas life-long protection, I shall certainly withhold it no longer.

The process continues....

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Trustees eat posh lunch

I'm not sure what my telling of this adventure will do for the Trust's reputation, or more widely for the fortunes of British Buddhism, or for the hapless kitchen staff at the Canteen, but I will report it nonetheless. It may be turn out to be an appropriate coda to the business of the Buddhist Hospice Trust, only time will tell.

The trustees took lunch together at one of Britain's reputedly finest and most voguish 'eateries', by all accounts the acme of Traditional English Food, the Canteen at the South Bank Centre.

This meal was taken during an interval in our trustees' meeting, which we held in the South Bank Centre itself, on what is probably called the mezzanine floor of the Royal Festival Hall: it's upstairs from the Thames embankment, and its pretty huge, with lots of seating around tables, some sofas, and no officials to hurry one on, or to ask why one is loitering with apparant business intent. The Canteen is on the level below.

We chose to hold our meeting at the South Bank Centre (it was Bodhiprem's idea) because we've noticed a recent social trend amongst purposive-looking types with laptops, Blackberries and netbooks, to hold quite loud conferences in coffee-bars and pubs; so we decided to do the same, save ourselves the cost of a poky room in a conventional venue (like Friends House), and - with the money saved - treat ourselves to a working lunch, in company with the world's army of lobbyists and corporate duty-men and -women, and with our precepts and principles intact.

Lunch was served in what I might rather ungratefully describe a a tarted-up canteen, styled (I imagine) on a recollection of old-time workers' canteens in someone's modern mind, or possibly reproduced from sepia photographs of Longbridge Motor Works canteen circa 1940, with benches rather than tables, and narrow bench-seats onto which customers slide their artisanal behinds to eat the authentically-crafted, workmanlike fare provided.

This comprised a variety of nostalgic items, notably a range of pies, looking very pie-like in a retro kind of way, piled up in neat stacks in a heated cabinet. Fish and chips were also on the menu. None of these items were particularly cheap.

I had the fish and chips, with tartare sauce; at £10.75 I thought it expensive. The haddock was over-cooked in batter, dark and very dry. Cook had served me two fillets; the second was, I think, a sort of conciliatory gesture, a mute apology for the state of the pair. One curled up and almost scorched fish was more than enough, my eating of it was tokenistic, so as not to seem churlish; after all it was being paid for by voluntary donations from Trust supporters.

The chips were similarly dry and unappetising. A kind of karmic gloom hung over my meal; however, fellow trustees seemed satisfied with the fare offered, and plates were emptied, including my left-overs. This generosity was, I thought, a touching, and an intimate gesture by the others. It redeemed the event for me. Service was rather nice, however, and the late arrival of another diner at a bench ordered for four was handled cheerfully, perhaps because six buttocks will just about squeeze on to a bench made for four.

The meeting was generally counted a success. We agreed unanimously to invite three talented, enthusiastic Trust supporters to become trustees: Tony Webster, of Association La Porte Ouverte in Civray, France; Arati Banerjea, of Golders Green in London; and Willemien Hoogendoorn, of Beckton, also in London.

The Trust has continued to garner new support over the past twelve months, and to consolidate this we have agreed to publish an electronically distributed newsletter, with 'hard' copies for the minority of supporters who don't have, or don't want, Internet access and email. The newsletter will be titled "The Buddhist Hospice Trust Newsletter", and will be published in colour using Adobe Acrobat's .pdf format, at no charge.

The newsletter will be a platform for advertising Trust events, for keeping people in touch with Trust affairs and with each other, to encourage credit and debit card donations (but also cheques for as long as these are still current), and for any other worthwhile purposes. It will not carry articles, but may well supply links to such.

We've agreed, for the time being, to hold one annual members' convention. There are no plans at present for further public meetings or lectures, or for any meetings along "Inner Work School" lines. Trustees and supporters will be urged to "put themselves about" in their localities, to raise the Trust's profile; to publicise its philosophy, its approach, and its aim to "be present, bear witness, and befriend" people in need - from a Buddhist position, whatever that need may be, and whoever expresses it.

Minutes of the meeting are available to supporters on application to me, Peter. I would appreciate your sending me a stamped addressed envelope if you want them.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Is this a Buddhist love story?

Like most Buddhists I know (admittedly not many of these are bhikkhus or bhikkhunis), I have often struggled with practice, especially formal sitting meditation practice. Like most Buddhists I know, I recognise the central importance of meditation practice to most Buddhist traditions; and in my personal experience, such formal sitting as I've done is of great value in developing a mind that is clear, open, flexible and - even more important than these qualities - a mind that can respond to the suffering of fellow beings, and to my own, with compassion and wisdom.

I admit that my efforts at sitting have never been truly consistent, my application uncertain and sometimes unwilling, and my practice has been generally unsupported by an experienced guide.

Some expert advice has come my way, and I've welcomed it, especially because it has reinforced my prejudice against sitting, and encouraged me to work with other methods, some of which have seemed promising, some of which have seemed improbably effective as ways of training the mind to watch itself, and to accept what is sees with kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

In recent times I have felt the need for more support and - in the absence of any enthusiasm on my part for an institutional sangha - I have joined an on-line sangha, the varied and large assembly of on-line dharma-practitioners around the teaching of Ken McLeod, author of "Wake Up To Your Mind", and founder of Unfettered Mind (see the link in the left column of the blog).

I've belonged to Unfettered Mind for several years now, and it is indeed my practice-mainstay, members of the virtual sangha my spiritual friends and collaborators. Modern technology means that we can meet regularly using Skype to hold conference calls across the world, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Texas, Canada, Los Angeles. These meetings are as warm, as friendly and as intimate as any I have joined face-to-face. I count myself very lucky to have stumbled across this resource, and grateful for what has flowed from it in terms of personal enrichment, and the touch of many dharmas.

Each week one of our small group poses a question for the rest to ponder during the week until we meet again. The questions tend to arise naturally from an earlier discussion we've had about our individual practice, how we're doing, what's 'come up' for us etc. We've established a convention of confining our reporting-in to a single sentence each, heard in silence and without questions or comments until each of us has said our short bit.

Last week's question was about 'awkwardness', and that arose in part from what we had talked about before around the topic of 'meditating standing up', a method suggested by Will Johnson, a Canadian exponent of embodiment, whose book "Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient" I took to as a duck takes to its first encounter with water, with a delighted "Quack!" Without going into detail which can be found by following the links, I can say that my practice has been transformed by standing up, and I am 'sold' on it: it's like coming home, and has led to further explorations of what I now realise is a school of Buddhism that has been kept a well-guarded secret, Ecstatic Buddhism.

Certainly, when we met at the chaplaincy training group on Sunday last, none of the participants had heard of it; several of these were experienced dharma-pactitioners and teachers of repute. I suspect, and it is only a conjecture on my part, that - as with all ecstatic traditions within the majot world faiths - ecstatic Buddhism is the object of mistrust, because of its sexual content- or at least because of its attention to psycho-sexual energies, and the immense world of sensation they entrain. Such energies are released by meditation techniques that open up to our embodiment, and which are enjoined by such encouragements as "Happy Practice!" and "Relax, smile, rest".

So it was interest and curiosity that I turned to Ken McLeod's book for guidance on the matter of sex. The book is titled "Wake Up To Your Life". It runs to 478 pages and the index contains over 1,000 entries. The book is manifestly addressed to my life (and any other readers), and I know my life is as much about sex as it is about food, drink, shelter, self-esteem, relationships, money, emotions or the internal combustion engine. But the word sex isn't in the index. I found one mention, on p476, about problems with the teacher-pupil relationship.

What is it about religion and sex? What is it about Buddhism and sex? Don't YOU want to know?

I thought to add the following story as a frivolous addendum to the above. It's the love story I alluded to at the beginning of this blog, at least, that's my romantic interpretation.

"A large assembly of monks gathered around the Buddha at Vulture's Peak to hear him teach about the nature of being.

Buddha, sitting quietly, held up a flower and showed it to the whole gathering.

Everyone sat in silence.

But one student, the venerable Kashyapa, smiled.

The Buddha then said, "The one true teaching is beyond form and does not depend on words or letters. It is a special transmission outside all scriptures. I now entrust it to the venerable Kashyapa".

The image above is of Shakyamuni Buddha with his friends Ananda and Kashyapa.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Essex Mind-Spirit

Essex Mind-Spirit (EM-S) is an established, county-wide alliance of Government (NHS) health agencies, Higher Education, faith communities including the churches in Essex, and other stakeholders, including the Buddhist Hospice Trust.

EM-S operates via a network of cluster groups based in the four main 'geo-political and administrative quadrants of Essex (see locality map above); each is autonomous and each is constituted according to the mix of stakeholders willing and and able to commit in the particular locality from which the people come, and in accordance with local need.

For several years since EM-S was established, it hasn't been possible to set up a cluster group in South West Essex, and I have now been invited to do this, and have accepted the challenge it involves. South West Essex is a wide area, an urban and rural 'strip' fifteen to twenty miles deep from the North bank of the Thames estuary, and as many miles long along that bank, from Thurrock (whence arises the Dartford Crossing/Queen Elizabeth Bridge and Tunnels), via Tilbury, Shell Haven, Pitsea and Canvey Island; and including several good-sized conurbations: Basildon, Wickford, Billericay, Rayleigh, Hadleigh, South Benfleet, Hockley, South Woodham Ferrers, and many small villages interspersed.

Why is the Buddhist Hospice Trust involved? Several reasons. First, for as long as I have been involved with the Trust, it has been a 'port of call' for people who are suffering mentally, whether the suffering is a consequence of a physical illness, impending death, bereavement, or any other human frailty or breakdown. Indeed, one could characterise all suffering as a mental phenomenon. Buddhist teaching points in that direction, as it points to mind-training (in a very general sense of those words) as the only remedy.

I have also received very many appeals for assistance from people who identify their problems as 'mind-made' or 'mental'. This is what one might expect from Buddhists, after all. A few of these admit to a history of diagnosed mental illness, or of psychiatric treatment and sometimes psychiatric custody. It might be said that the Trust is ill-equipped to respond to such appeals for help, and - if it were the case that the Trust offers professional intervention - this could well be true. If the Trust ill-advisedly took on a case of terminal cancer, needing specialist medical and palliative intervention, the same would be true.

But the Trust offers only to be present, to bear witness, and to befriend people who call upon its services, such as they are. And this formula is as effective (and as limited) as a response to mental suffering in all its forms as it is as a response to the ravaged physical body of an individual with a fatal disease. As an adjunct to properly prescribed medical treatment, the solidarity and support of a spiritual friend is an enormous boon to the mentally, as well as to the physically, ill sufferer; not "half the spiritual life", but the "whole spiritual life, Ananda".

Second, there is no apparant unaffiliated, non-sectarian and inclusive Buddhist organisation that is ready, willing and accessible to pick up the gauntlet of spiritual support and non-judgemental companionship for people who are suffering mentally, and suffering alone. This Trust is ready and willing to do this, and our cooperative venture with Essex Mind-Spirit is an expression of that readiness, and a testing ground for our preparedness, and our capacity to deliver.

It is a small step, but a significant one. And I know you will wish it well.

The new South West Essex Cluster Group will meet on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, beginning 10th March 2010, at 7.00 pm for 7.30 pm. Meetings will be held at the Todman Centre (Rayleigh Age Concern) in Castle Road (corner of Daws Health Road), Rayleigh.

These meetings are open to all comers. They will provide a meeting place for people with an interest in mind and spirit, however that interest comes about. You may have personal experience of mental health problems, or know someone who has; you may be a carer, professional or otherwise. You may be a 'person of faith', whether or not a religious faith, and whether or not you belong to a 'faith community' (church, mosque, temple etc). You may just be curious to know more. No experience or prior knowledge is necessary.

Over time we shall aim, together, to build greater understanding and - perhaps - to use that greater understanding to help ourselves, each other, and maybe others. How we shall do that we shall work out amongst ourselves, with the support and guidance of Essex Mind-Spirit. EM-S is a very well-resourced project, with lots of experience and expertise, and is a member of the National Mental Health Forum.

Essex Mind-Spirit doesn't preach, proselytise (aim to convert), and has no hidden agenda. It is funded by Faith In Action, an independent source of funding for social enterprises. You won't be put under any pressure to volunteer, and you can come and go as you want to, whilst always being welcome.

Contact me, Peter, for further information.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kalyana Mitra (2)

Last weekend saw the first session in a series of five, at which eight aspiring chaplains met with two trainers, Keith Munnings and Chris Blomley, to set out on the path to accreditation and eventual registration as Buddhist chaplains.

This sounds a very formal process, and in one sense it 'has to be' if Buddhists are to have a recognised role within the many formal institutions where spiritual need is perceived to exist, and deserves a response. Such institutions include the health and welfare services, schools, colleges and universities, the whole range of criminal justice provision, immigration and asylum, and much more besides.

But, despite the implicit seriousness of the undertaking, the session we attended turned out to be great fun, and pervaded by a lightness of tone that was in no small part a product of the preparations made by the two facilitators and - of course - the commitment of the participants, who threw themselves enthusiastically into the work, and clearly enjoyed it.

There was a minimum of necessary expository stuff, scene-setting and putting the programme in a broader context, and we soon got down to some experiential work, exploring the qualities of a 'good' chaplain by testing ourselves out with each other in a variety of challenging and realistic scenarios, and reflecting together with the two trainers on what we experienced, "how we did".

We met in a rather small room in part of the chaplaincy at St Thomas's Hospital in Lambeth, so for our experiential work we spread out into the surrounding hospital premises, and I found myself in the Central Hall on the Northern Wing of the hospital (pictured above top left), where there were benches we could use and we would be neither overlooked not overheard as we worked, and probably looked entirely natural to a casual onlooker.

I had time to take a look at some of the features of the Hall, and my eye was drawn to two glass-fronted cabinets, each full of a montage of nurses' hospital badges, in the famous dark blue enamel of St Thomas's Nightingale School of Nursing (top right). Each badge was identified as having been awarded to a named nurse, and most of the badges had been awarded on completion of training to nurses in the earlier part of the 20th century, 1921, 1933 etc. There must have been 200-300 badges in those cabinets. All presumably returned to the hospital after the nurse's death.

This was a poignant moment for me, as I have recently retired from nursing after 50 years of uninterrupted nursing practice. Unfortunately, my own nursing badges, awarded on completion, were stolen, so they will not survive my death to be returned to my training schools, which - in any case - have not survived themselves. Indeed the hospitals have now been closed, and in part demolished, although the Casualty and Accident Departments of Hackney Hospital where I trained in 1956-1959 are still there in Homerton High Street, E9, and still evoke memories when I occasionally pass.

Hollymoor Hospital and Highcroft Hospital in Birmingham, where I trained as a psychiatric nurse, are now demolished too, nothing remains but memories, and a collection of photographs and reminiscences. Hollymoor was famous during the Second World War for its pioneering approach to therapy for "shell-shocked" officers, out of which were developed modern treatments for 'psychoneurotic' disorders (such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety-states, and many moderate forms of clinical depression).

From the past to the future: the image at the top of the page is of some members of the chaplaincy team to which I belong at Mid-Essex Hospital Services NHS Foundation Trust, dressed up in protective clothing to pay a visit to the newly commissioned Faith Room, installed in the new PFI hospital being developed on the site of Broomfield Hospital near Chelmsford. I am second from right, next to Imam Hafiz Ahmed, our Muslim chaplain. He tells me he gets the name Hafiz because he has managed to memorise the whole Qu'ran. I intended to ask him if he would tell me how we was tested on it, but didn't get the time. Is a candidate allowed to make one or two slips, like in the driving test? I almost certain he would be willing to let me in on this, he is a most accommodating chap, with a very friendly smile, despite his rather stern Abrahamic appearance in the picture.

There will be a multi-faith dedication ceremony in August, by which time the Faith Room will be ready for use on the same floor as the acute medical units and emergency rooms of the new hospital. Most of the planning for the ceremony has been done, and I'm in process of obtaining some Buddhist artefacts for use (as appropriate) by people who want to use the Faith Room for Buddhist purposes at any time. These will generally be stored out of sight when not in use, so that the Faith Room is otherwise featureless in terms of religious symbolism, and available to all for quiet reflection etc at any time.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Describe the fruits.....

"Describe the fruits of your practice......"
Someone in a dharma-group I belong to set this as 'between-meetings' homework for people that wanted to take the assignment on, and with intriguing guidlines for doing it...

"Give the non-dominant hemisphere a walk in the park by responding in fruity terms, staying with a fruity image/metaphor and letting it proliferate without pruning. Let your fruity insights present themselves in their own time and at their own fruity pace.....let there be absolutely no self-imposed pressure, just in playfulness and for playfullness's sake".

I liked the permissiveness of this, and decided to see what happened during the week, by 'not-trying' or contriving, not scratching after a concept or image as a chicken scratches for insects or worms. Difficult to do. As the injunction "Try not to imagine an elephant" proves.

Sure enough, within a couple of days, two images presented themselves. One was of a large dark-skinned avocado pear. It's skin was deep blue-black and shiny, and it was sliced in half so that the creamy flesh exposed a smooth round stone embedded in the lower half, and a correspondingly smooth round concavity in the other. The other image I will keep to myself, and see how that feels, and if it has anything more to reveal to consciousness.

What did this avocado image have to say about my practice? At first I had little to go on. I do enjoy an occasional avocado, eaten from the shell without dressing or anything added. I recollected that there was a large spreading avocado tree in the first house I was assigned when I arrived as an new expatriate employee in the Zambia copper-mining town of Mufulira. I didn't know it was an avocado tree until a local man told me. There were unripe avocados all round it on the grass. I don't think I had ever seen one before, and I didn't know they were edible.

The only connection with practice is that, shortly after I arrived in Zambia - in 1970 a complete innocent abroad - I had an unheralded experience of 'world collapse', lying in bed listening to the sound of drums from a nearby African township. I have sometimes traced my journey to Buddhism back to this experience, but memory is such an unreliable compounded thing.

Another link suggested itself, timidly. On the advice given by the teacher, I hesitated before 'pruning it' away, before dismissing it as irrelevant or far-fetched. And this insight, if that's what it was, came up: I have often felt that I have a frozen lump of unexpressed grief in my heart. I don't know why I should think like this, I am not conscious of anything I might grieve over, any unresolved sadness. But the feeling doesn't go away. I have, somehow, somewhere, an unrequited need to grieve for something lost. There are times, when I'm relaxed and reflective, that a long shuddering sigh escapes my chest, like the shuddering sigh of a small child who has sobbed until he can sob no more.

For a while, the exposed stone of the imagined avocado stood for the exposed grief in my heart, open to my gaze, embedded in its own smooth richness. And I remembered that it is from such a stone as this, properly nurtured, that a huge spreading tree could grow under a warm sun, and fine harvests of beautiful fruit could grow and drop to the earth for others to eat, or admire.

Is this a fruit of my practice? Should I 'accept' this seemingly unbidden image and my own interpretation. Or should I let it go as sentimental guff? Perhaps, and this response has a more comfortable feel to it, I should just leave it where it fell, in its 'is-ness'.

I've been reading a wonderful book, a slim volume by Will Johnson, "Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient" (Shambhala, 2000). It's a primer for meditators on posture, but more than just posture, on gesture, the embodiment of mindfulness. Johnson encourages practitioners of mindfulness, meditators, to 'meditate standing up'. Doing this, he suggests, makes it possible for us to re-engage with the earth, from which we grow, which supports and enlivens us, and which brings us always down to earth through the unceasing power of gravity. And it re-engages is us with the life-force that moves ever upwards through the watery ground of our being. It's a magical book, at least that's the way I've felt it.

Tomorrow I'm embarking on a new venture, it's the beginning of the Kalyana Mitra chaplaincy study-group at St Thomas's Hospital in Lambeth. I'll report on that at some future time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Kalyana Mitra Launch

Yesterday was the official launch of the Kalyana Mitra - otherwise known as the Buddhist Chaplaincy Support Group (BCSG), at a beautiful and many-layered, day-long, ceremony hosted by London Buddhist Vihara. The Chiswick vihara is itself a vibrant, inimate and homely place, very much a family place, with children scampering about, smiling Sinhalese monks in their robes, many members of the local Sinhalese lay community in attendance on guests and participants, and a delicious smell of cooking from the kitchens.

Kalyana Mitra has been a long time in gestation, and enjoys the support and generous sponsorship of the Buddhist Society; chair of the BCSG is Frederick Hyde-Chambers OBE, who presided over the event. Mr Hyde-Chambers is a former Secretaruy of the Buddhist Society, and currently Secretary-General of the International Association of Business and Parliament.

Kalyana Mitra supports all forms of Buddhist chaplaincy, in hospitals, hospices and emergency healthcare services, in the armed services, with the police and the Courts, in prison, with immigrants and asylum-seekers, in education (from early years to Higher Education), indeed in all areas of public life where spiritual care in the community is of value, and can meet a need.

You can find more information, a host of resources, and an opportunity to get involved (without having to volunteer your services) at http://www.buddhistchaplains.com/ which has been launched to coincide with the project launch.

I attended with several Trust supporters, including Netta Wills, one of our trustees, and widow of Ray Wills, co-founder of the Buddhist Hospice Trust. I was particularly glad that Netta was able to be present. She said at the end of the proceedings that it would have been a great joy to Ray to see this development, as he had dedicated himself and his energies for much of his life to a fully collaborative engagement of Buddhists 'from all traditions and from none' - people working together to bring spiritual friendship to people fettered by suffering, caught up in serious illness, dying, death and bereavement.

Monks and ordinands of most traditions offered prayers and chanted offerings of dedication, and representatives of religious sangha and secular Buddhist organisations joined to make offerings of light. The Buddhist Hospice Trust was privileged to be called (unexpectedly) to participate in this, and to offer words of affirmation at the end.

Especially touching were an entrancing puja dance performed by four young women of Sinhalese origin, a short dharma-drama by the same young women and the young children of Chris Blomley and his wife; Chris was master of ceremonies for the day and is one of the principal architects of the BCSG.

Principal speaker was Dr Sarah Shaw, a Buddhist translator, author and scholar. Sarah's talk was a jewel-like exemplar of simplicity, authenticity and wisdom. She spoke a little to the value of the 'Four Immeasurables' in guiding spiritual friendship. Most notable (for me) was the distinction she suggested between loving kindness to myself, and loving kindness to others. It is of immeasurable help to others, she suggested, to know that what might give ease and contentment to us may not be what would give ease and contentment to another. We should take care not to 'prescribe' for the gladness of others, or wish our own happiness on them, however sincerely; better that we should fully intend that, without any reservation on our part, whatever happiness they found should be the happiness that they most sought for themselves.

Other speakers included Dr Sunil Kariyakanawara (Director/BCSG), Mr Robin Field-Smith MBE, Vice-President of the Association of Police Chaplains who sang the Collect from Choral Evensong (Book of Common Prayer), Ven Sochu of Shoboan Zen Centre, Matthew Jee who devised and demonstrated the new Kalyana Mitra web-forum, and Mr Keith Munnings who also led the finishing meditation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dangerous Spirituality

Yesterday I was at a training workshop, one of an on-going series offered by Janki Foundation (JF) for Global Healthcare. JF is in my opinion a wonderful organisation, an offshoot of the Brahma Kumari spiritual tradition. JF has developed a training package, used worldwide, to develop healthcare staff in a better understanding of the universal values of whole-person healthcare, within a non-sectarian spiritual framework.

There was an atmosphere of deep attention. We all know each other well, and we have worked together often before. Our work was to test how the training package allowed participants to explore their own experience of spirituality by calling to mind a significant other, to whom a loose 'spiritual' attribution might be made.

My own mind turned at once to a man of my fairly recent acquaintance (about two years or so), an unemployed Scot from Glasgow. I know this man devotes much of his time to campaigning on behalf on beleagured or oppressed minorities, and spends much of what free times remains to him befriending people who 'live on the streets' of a seaside town on the South coast: alcoholics, drug-users and similar marginalised people.

He can't do much to help them materially, but he is always vividly present for them, and a friend. He isn't in any way pious, he's a straight talker, a remarkably poised listener, and in no way a 'bleeding heart do-gooder'. By his own account, which I believe, he has had his own experience of living rough: he was for some years a Forest monk in the jungles on the border of thailand and Burma. Bandit country. And he acknowledges personal brushes with the law.

This man has had an amazing effect on me since we first met. He is, as I know him, entirely without guile. He has an aura of divine innocence about him. Yet I sense that, for me at least, he is dangerous to know.

Not dangerous in the sense that he might murder or rob me, or try to seduce my daughters. Dangerous in the sense that my falsehoods, my vanities, my faithlessness is vulnerable to his presence in my life. Dangerous because, for reasons that leave my understanding and experience behind me like discarded garments, I trust him completely.

I think John the Baptist had the same effect on people who met him, hoarse-voiced and wild-eyed, up to his waist in the River Jordan. They were drawn to him as iron filings to a magnet; they wanted to be held by him and forced into the turbid waters by his mad strength. Certainly, his dangerousness was sufficiently feared by Herod Antipas for him to grant his daughter's wish for the Baptist's head on a platter (Mark 14:8) - that's John's severed head in the Coptic engraving at the top of the blog.

I will write a little more about this chap on another occasion. When I first met him I called him 'Rasputin', for reasons that will be obvious to those who recognise the name - part monk, part witch, Communist and healer (he is pictured above with John the Baptist).

Needless to say, colleagues at the workshop were surprised that I ventured the term "dangerous" as a possible characteristic of spirituality. But I'm sure that many will agree that it's a candidate adjective worth considering.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti and the karma question

A Trust supporter has written to ask, "The tragedy that Haiti is going through just now has reminded me how fragile we all are. I've made a donation to try to help relieve the suffering but it's just a drop in the ocean. There are those who will say that this is just karma, but is it?"

Well, an earthquake isn't karma, it's the movement of tectonic plates against each other to cause violent perturbation of the earth's crust and consequential damage to structures it supports.

As for the suffering: all beings suffer - I remember the Buddha's 'double pain' parable about the man struck by an arrow, the arrow causes a painful sensation but the added suffering, much worse, is the result of wanting the pain to stop. And I recall what the Buddha wanted me to know about the cause of just such suffering-in-ignorance: it's my poisoned mind.

My mind has been slowly poisoned by what has happened to me since I was conceived; some of what has happened to me is of my own brutish making, more or less choicefully and/or awarely. Some of what has happened to gradually poison my mind has been the brutishness of others towards me, more or less choicefully and/or awarely, as their own minds have been poisoned in their turn; some of what has happened to me is just stuff that happens to anyone: an earthquake, a tornado, a lightning strike, German measles while she was in her mother's womb, Thalidomide, nuclear fall-out, drought.

Most of those I've missed so far, not living across a tectonic faultline or in a tornado belt. I did once or twice live in a fever belt in tropical Africa, but I was blessed with a good education, medical training, indoor sanitation and money to buy anti-malarials and mosquito screens.

To the extent that what I described as happening to us to poison the mind, so that we suffer needlessly and in ignorance, greed and hatred, I'd agree with people who say what causes suffering amongst the people of Haiti is karma. "Just their karma" is a bit too glib for me.

From what I've seen on TV of the way the people of Haiti have responded to ferocious natural events, I'd characterise them as models of restraint, composure, dignity and resilience, which is their karma too, by the way. And I think they could show some of us Buddhists a thing or two about lived-out compassion and wisdom.

That's what I would say, if I were to say anything about the people of Haiti and karma.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dr Sally Masheder

A few days ago we heard from her husband Mike that Sally had died in a Bristol hospice, having decided not to continue with treatment for her cancer, which was terminally advanced. Mike told us that "Sally retained her equanimity and command of the situation, and it was all done as beautifully as it could have been. This was all helped by the really remarkably wonderful care delivered by the hospice." Dr Mike Masheder and their childen were present when Sally died.

Readers will probably know that Sally Masheder was Honorary Secretary to the Network of Buddhist Organisations, having been a founding member since 1993, and a leading member and former secretary of the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol. Sally was a practising doctor in General Practice at Templemeads, Bristol.

I knew Sally slightly through my involvement with the NBO but my few encounters with her impressed me very much with her great human warmth, shrewd judgement, dry humour as well as generous solicitude for me and for the Buddhist Hospice Trust. No doubt Sally's engagement with the Dharma and her spiritual practice was profound, but she bore this very lightly. Everyone's experience of her was, I feel sure, that she was a wonderfully wise and compassionate human being, who embraced us with kindness, and knew us and our needs better than we did ourselves.

It was as a result of Sally's several approaches to us that we agreed to join the Network of Buddhist Organisations in 2008 as a full member organisation, and Sally arranged an unsolicited donation to our funds by the NBO, having learned that the level of subscriptions to the Trust was low. Sally also invited me to apply to join her on the NBO's Health Advisory Panel of its Activities Committee, which I did shortly after we joined.

In 2008 I visited Bristol at Sally's invitation to participate in their annual conference which was themed on Death and Dying. I delivered a talk on the Buddhist Hospice Trust and Ananda Network, and joined with Ken Jones in delivering a workshop on "Being with the Dying" to delegates. Tired but fulfilled at the end of the busy weekend, I said my Farewells to Sally with a characteristically fulsome (but sincerely meant) tribute, "Sally, you have looked after me like a mother!" Sally responded dryly with a quizzical sidelong look, "I'm not old enough to be your mother, Peter!" A Zen-like moment of satori (or maybe kensho) ensued for me. Sally is reputedly famous for this variety of upaya.

Details of Sally's funeral are still in abeyance, but donations in tribute to her life and in memoriam can be made to her husband Dr M R W Masheder, 6 Tyne Road, Bishopston, Bristol, BS7 8EE for distribution to or amongst charities chosen by Sally, including St Peter's Hospice (where she was cared for until she died), CaRe appeal for the Bristol Haematology and Oncology centre, and One2Five, a charity with which Sally was associated run by the Sisters of the Church to support the street women of St Pauls, Bristol.