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.