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.