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....

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