Wednesday, October 6, 2010

- Introducing Mahasiddhi


I listened all day for the knock of the Stranger,
And I often looked out from the door.
The table was scrubbed, the brass shining,
And well swept the floor.

The shadows grew longer and longer,
In the grate the fire flickered and died.
`It's too late. He never will come now'
I said, and sighed.

I sat there musing and musing,
The spinning-wheel still at my side.
The moonlight came in through the window
White like a bride.

As the clock struck twelve I heard nothing
But felt He had come and stayed
Waiting outside. And I listened -
And I was afraid.

My ordination retreat took place within the context of a retreat concentrating on the mythic realm centring on the Refuge Tree – the visualisation meditation which builds up all aspects of Going For Refuge and which includes the Buddhas of past, present and future, the Boddhisattvas, the Arhants, Bhante’s (our teacher’s) teachers, the Dharma, the jinas (the five archetypal Buddhas) plus Vajrasattva, teachers of the past, the lotuses, the devas and the blue sky itself as well as oneself and all sentient beings, thus the whole cosmos across time. All this involves the encouragement and engagement of the imaginal. The imaginal, as the word implies, requires the imagination and is a completely different way of relating thought, emotion and intuition and melding them together. It is a spacious set of experiences where anything (and maybe everything!) can come up. And a fair amount did for me. I had a sense of presence for people not there or now dead. I felt like a huge space was opening up – well, it would have to be colossal in order to accommodate the Buddha! Furthermore, as I approached my private ordination and was doing the six element practice every day, there was definitely a sense of sloughing off an old (then current) version of ‘self’. This first week I spent going through a spectrum of emotions chiefly joy and fear, the fear as described in Bhante’s poem Advent

My Private Ordination was magical. The private ordination is when you go alone to be ordained by one’s private preceptor, in my case, Vajragupta who gave the 10 precepts (instead of the 5 that are undertaken by a mitra), before whom I made 3 offerings of flower, candle and incense and where he witnessed me reciting the refuges and precepts. It is also the moment that I was given my new name along with the explanation of it. So I walked from the shrine room at Padmaloka along a candlelit walkway more like an airport runway to the kuta, the hut where I met with Vajragupta. At one point there is a choice of path. If I went to the right I could have pulled out and not gone with no hard feelings. But I stayed on course, one which I began nearly 6 years ago, but in many ways one I began 43 years ago. The symbolism and indeed reality of going it alone means that no one is forcing me, I am under no pressure and it is my choice. I go for ordination alone as I will die alone (thus linking with the 6 element practice). It also means that if no one else were to believe in the Buddha and Dharma I would go ahead and spread that word and set about building a sangha.

Inside the kuta, along with Vajragupta who was waiting for me were rupas of Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, and beautiful cloths and sparking gems as well as candles, flowers and incense. It was as if I had entered another world, and I had, one which had been partially created in the week prior in the prostration practice, 6 element practice and the pujas (ritual and devotion) which we had been doing. Thus it was in that place at that time at approximately 8.50 pm on Saturday 18 September Mahasiddhi was born.

My name means ‘Great Accomplishment or Success’. Vajragupta was much struck some years ago when on a day retreat on the worldly winds – pleasure – pain, loss – gain, fame – infamy, praise – blame, those kinds of oppositions which seem to determine our mood and sometimes a whole lot more besides – I said I was particularly buffeted about by the winds of Success and Failure. I have done a lot of things with my life. I guess we all have, but I have to admit that fear of failure and seeking success have been major drivers for me throughout my life. Briefly, having felt a failure at school, I started the world of work as a photographer when I was 15 before discovering the motivation to go grab some Promethean fire of education for myself, in part motivated by seeing the Sultanganj Buddha in Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery which in turn prompted me to read something on Buddhism. Then followed a long period of academic engagement before turning my attention to photography (originally as an academic interest) and spending over a decade as a sports photographer before drifting into other areas of photographic specialism. My new name has given me the opportunity to count my blessings and rejoice in them: my family and friendships chief among them.

But lest I should be tempted by the vanities (through the one half of praise and blame) to see myself in terms of great success, my name, most crucially for my practice, has a teaching or reminder in it, namely, to go beyond the samsaric world and seek the greater spiritual accomplishment of Equanimity way beyond the range of those worldly winds no matter how strong they blow and blast. I am beginning to see that my private Preceptor has given me a practice and a mandala that contains the whole of my life. Where I have been, who I have been and the potentiality of what or who I may become. It is also a very big coat that I love already enormously but it is way too big for me at the moment!

At the same time as being given my name, Vajragupta also gave me my sadhana practice: the Buddha – in my case – on whom I shall meditate for the rest of my life and seek to become. Yes it is a very big coat indeed. But I am so thrilled to be doing the Akshobhya practice, the practice of the blue Buddha to whom I have been drawn for so long already. So the period between ordinations was spent exploring these spaces even more: early days engaging with my sadhana, more 6 element practice and renunciation and shedding – or merely letting go.

The Public Ordination was a sheer delight. I was so much more nervous than I thought I’d be. Partly because with my family and friends (sangha and non-sangha) coming to witness my going for refuge and becoming part of the Triratna Buddhist Order and hearing my name for the time (because only Vajragupta and I knew it up till this point) I was concerned that all these parts of my life would come together. But I needn’t have worried. The whole retreat was about integration and this ceremonious celebration was the culmination. It was a sheer delight.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

- Looking Forward to Ordination

In a week’s time I shall be on my ordination retreat at Padmaloka, the men’s retreat centre (near Norwich) for the Triratna Buddhist Order. It is only a fortnight long but represents the last staging post of the past six years since I asked for ordination. In part the process involves a spiritual death of the old Roy and the birth of the new whoever. All being well – there is always the caution of non-certainty where ordination is concerned – I shall be privately ordained in two weeks time when my private preceptor, Vajragupta, gives me my new name and I undertake to follow 10 precepts instead of 5 I currently follow as a mitra, and make 4 vows. This part of the ceremony represents the fact that I alone go for refuge to the three jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teaching and the path) and the Sangha (the spiritual community I combine with). In just under a week after that I will – all being well – be ordained publicly by Padmavajra. When Padmavajra ordains me and the other ordinand, he is standing in for Bhante, our teacher, Urgyen Sangharakshita, who in turn is standing for Buddha. This public ordination expresses the fact that I am joining the Triratna Buddhist Order. I have witnessed and photographed only one ordination before and it was a powerful experience for all present not just for the ordinand at the time. It all takes place within the highly appropriate context of a retreat which explores the mythic dimensions of going for refuge.

I have just come back from China where I visited a number of Buddhist temples. It was good preparation for my ordination to be on land where Buddhism has established such deep and sinuous roots. I saw monks and nuns and heard chanting and accumulated lots of images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arahants and other significant icons such as the 4 Heavenly Kings. There were Chan versions, Tibetan and Theravadin styles. But all fingers seemed to be pointing at the same moon, the very same one which, hopefully, will be full for me on the 23rd September.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

- Penned Portraits: Homage à Penn

I went to see the Irving Penn Portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery recently and thought I had seen the death of digital. Crystal clean and sparkling crisp printing and developing reminding me of all the qualities of silver halide that I had so quickly forgotten. The acutance that gives the sharp edges, a good black and a controlled highlight but above all the confidence to print dark.

I love digi and all the immediacy that comes with it and the enormous possibilities it affords for post production – certainly more than that in the days of conventional silver halide. It is so much more easy to work on parts of an image in terms of colour balance, exposure and sharpening let alone greater transformations of the original. And yet in Penn’s portraits the simplicity of the black and white image handled the challenges of available light so well. That’s all he worked with. That and his rapport with the subjects. In the shadow area, there is quite often a hint of highlight, a glint in the eye of the sitter catching some other highlight reflected. And yet there is the full gamut of greys represented. What is dark is meant to be, much like in Rembrandt’s work nicely poised in A Night Watch where the light doesn’t fall you can’t make out so well the objects that miss the passing lamp. Penn seems to have mastered these dark arts early on in the ‘40s before emulsions got more sophisticated and printing papers yielded more gradation and subtlety. This early apprenticeship served him throughout his career where neither his technical understanding and mastery nor eye for a pose imposed or patiently staked out deserted him.

I could still buy film now and paper I guess and try and get my Leitz Focomat enlarger back from the then young student I donated it to (whom I suspect hasn’t used it – why would she?) but how long for. Plus any large images commissioned now are digitised and printed either by ink jet or etched by laser onto a silver halide paper such as does the Lambda printer. So maybe talk of digital death is somewhat exaggerated. The prints are great though. As are Don McCullin’s in his exhibition at the Imperial war Museum, Manchester, Shaped by War. But his is another story.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

- Suvannavira: To Russia with Metta

Recently I had the privilege of Suvannavira staying with me. He is a anagarika and as such lives a life of celibacy with no fixed abode, even though he occasionally participates in community living, and no career and very little in the way of goods and chattels. He is the embodiment of non-attachment and going forth. He is currently re-learning Russian which was his mother tongue but was lost when overlaid with English from the age of 4 when he came over to live in the UK. He intends to establish the teaching of the Buddha according to the interpretation and translation of Bhante Urgyen Sangharakshita. This project is a substantial undertaking, but if anyone can do it, Suvannavira can. He has been circulating friends and contacts with the details of the three Russian language websites so that they can be linked to, something which will increase their prominence and presence in web searches. So here is what he would like us to do if we are able.

The three sites are:


Russian Wildmind

- this contains 4 books and the first year of the new Mitra study course.

However not many people access or look for these sites via search engines. What is needed are more links from other websites, so if you can add them to your website links page, this would help enormously.

Using ‘FWBO’ is becoming out of date as the new name change becomes widespread, and in due course it will be changed but for now, will be kept as it is.

Having websites in Russian visible with search engine will help Suvannavira greatly as he will imminently be living in Moscow and working for the Dharma ther
e. ©

- Some Dharma

I have had some good contact and quite a bit of input from Varasahaya and Vipulakirti relating to my scribbling on dharmic and Dharmic which has occasioned further reflection on my part. I was aware that I hedged around attempting a definition of Dharma and perhaps I was not as precise as I should have been. The main point I’d like now to say about what I said there is that Wordsworth’s words could be said more accurately to express something of the spiritual experience rather than be taken to express something of the Dharma.

What I didn’t say and which I think Vipulakirti amply furnishes is that to be fully Dharmic all four Noble Truths have to be present:

the truth of suffering/unsatisfactoriness,

the truth of the causes of suffering/unsatisfactoriness,

the truth of the cessation of suffering/unsatisfactoriness (Nirvana) and

the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering/unsatisfactoriness.

Furthermore, Vipulakirti quoted an exchange between the Buddha and Mahaprajapati Gautami, which I find both useful and illuminating which goes something like this:

Lord, what is your teaching? There are so many different versions, so many interpretations. How are we to know what is the correct one? How are we to know what you really, truly taught? What is the criterion of your teaching, your Dharma?"

The Buddha's reply was quite unambiguous. He said,

Whatever conduces to purity, that is my teaching.
Whatever conduces to freedom, that is my teaching.
Whatever conduces to decrease of worldly gains and acquisitions, that is my teaching.
Whatever conduces to simplicity, that is my teaching.
Whatever conduces to contentment, that is my teaching.
Whatever conduces to individuality, that is my teaching.
Whatever conduces to energy, that is my teaching.
Whatever conduces to delight in good, that is my teaching.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

- dharmic & Dharmic

I frequently hear the use of the term ‘dharmic’. At least I talk a lot about certain things, events, occasions or possibilities as being ‘dharmic’. These may be poems, lines in poems, novels, bits of philosophy, films, or something from within the very fabric of life experience itself. Strictly speaking, dharmic should only be applied to what the Buddha said and taught and if it isn’t what the Buddha said and taught then it can’t be called Dharmic or emanating from the Dharma. Of course this canon might well extend to the great teachers including our own Sangharakshita. In that respect Dharmic becomes the adjective of Dharma. But I mainly use it – even when speaking – in the lower case. ‘dharmic’ in this sense relates to opportunities to perceive the Dharma in some way through a kind of portal which non-canonical non-Buddhist texts may point to or lead us towards.

Schopenhauer’s notion of causality, was succinctly expressed by A C Grayling on In Our Time, Radio 4 October 09, as ‘everything that is has to have been produced by a set of antecedent conditions’. This chimes in with pratitya samutpada or conditioned co-production.

So many of Wordsworth’s lines - especially some of those written above Tintern Abbey - talks about ‘the spirit that rolls through all things’ as in:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

In this expression of something transcendental, he could be taking about Going For Refuge on a cosmic scale!

Predating the Buddha, Dharma for Hindus was synonymous with the eternal law of the cosmos, thus in Sanskrit that is one of its meanings. It connotes habit, law, social and moral duty and behaviour consistent with this ‘eternal’ law. For Buddhists, it becomes the truth of non-dualistic reality.

Art, culture, the arts, the whole aesthetic will can lead us toward the Dharma and articulate it for us. Of the Four Visions (old age, sickness, death and the monk on the road with a serene expression) maybe all four are present and well expressed for dharma wayfarers (dharmacharis and dharmacharinis) but the absence of the 4th sight means that such insights can only remain dharmic as opposed to Dharmic. In La Robe et L’Échelle, Cabrel sings of ‘ces portes qui donnent vers le ciel’ – opportunities for us to pass trough certain thresholds to another space and order of being.

Maybe there are Dharmic possibilities in every moment but it is only by cultivating awareness, compassion and wisdom and practising ethics and, yes, making the most of dharmic opportunities that we go towards that ideal and line up our practice with our ideals.©

Monday, March 15, 2010

- Michael Cole: Credit Due

I used to be a sports photographer. In those days in order to ‘protect’ the profession you needed not only to be a member of the NUJ (which to qualify for this membership, you needed to prove that you earner over 70 odd per cent of your income form journalism) you also needed to join the PSPA, the Professional Sports Photographers’ Association, where you had to prove that 90 per cent of your income derived from sports photography. Once these criteria were met you could be sure that though we were wide-ranging in the kinds of work we did and markets we served, and certainly in terms of personality all human-kind was represented, we were nonetheless conjoined and initiated in similar arts and practices which meant that we actually had quite a bit in common. So there was that mixture of sharing similar tools and setting about similar tasks with the richness which came from the variety of personalities who were involved.

I don’t know how all this works or fits together today, but a leading luminary in the PSPA and an elder statesman in the sports photographic world, George Herringshaw seems to trying to pull together a notion of this brother-(and some sister-)hood. So many practitioners have come and gone over the decades and many more have retired, just as much as many newbies have entered the fray. Merely by sending out block emails to all current and past members, George has been keeping us up to date with some of the passing of past personnel and what has been going on for others.

It was in this spirit that I leapt at the idea of doing an interview with a very dear friend of mine and stalwart tennis photographer, Michael Cole, who had notched up his 40th consecutive Wimbledon last year. Although Michael has been a constant on the tennis circuit over the years, not just at Wimbledon but also as a regular at the French Open, the US Open, the Lipton (now Sony Ericsson) Florida and the occasional Italian Open amongst others, many of the younger generation may not have clocked who he is and just what he has achieved. What a great excuse to pop down to Beckenham and spend some time with him, mess around with a camera body he adores and which I had never previously got on with - the Canon 5D - and take a snap of him with it. Here is the result of that encounter...

Last year Michael Cole notched up his 40th consecutive Wimbledon. In May he will add the French Open to that formidable achievement – and he doesn’t look a day over 41. He can also add 20 Miamis and 20 New Yorks to that tally too, but he is very much synonymous with Wimbledon an inherited trait from his dad Arthur who had been taking pictures there for some 40 years. On his first visit, he photographed the marathon match between Gozales and Pasarell. The general advice from his dad was merely to ‘look for anything unusual’ and to try to, “Get the player diving - going for the ball”. Apart from those pointers he left Michael to his own devices – basically just to get around the courts and get on with it. Now he has accumulated images of all the major – and quite a few of the minor - players and more than a fair share of the decisive moments across six decades if you include Arthur’s work.

Turning to equipment and stock over the years, in 1969 he used a Pentax SV with a manual shut down 135mm F2.8 Tamron lens. This was perfectly adequate at the time for volleys from the side of court. In the Gonzales-Pasarell match, for some reason, he ended up using a Rolleiflex - which he found awkward and clumsy for tennis - loaded with Agfapan 1000 because of the fading and appalling light.

The Pentax was replaced by a Nikon F with noisy motordrive attached. Michael still has a lot of his old cameras, including the Pentax and Nikon F. Being a bit of a sentimentalist he finds it difficult to part with certain things - this amazingly includes his old school blazer, cap and tie as well as a pair of swimming trunks - all from the 50's! He rates the legendary Nikon F as the toughest body of them all - built to last, he reckons. The 180mm F2.8 was predominantly used courtside as well as sometimes the Novoflex but he never really got to grips with that squeeze-trigger focussing. A while later, he acquired a 400mm F5.6 Nikkor lens - a slow lens but remembering he was shooting predominantly b&w at this time this wasn't too much of an issue. In those days he never used zoom lenses because they were 'soft' compared to primes. The Nikon F was superseded by the F2 to be followed by the F3 and the 400mm F5.6 was upgraded to the F3.5. 1991 saw Michael switching to Canon acquiring an EOS 1 with a 200mm F1.8 with both the 1.4x & 2x converters. Later he added a 500mm F4.5 which was his favourite lens for down-court and was razor sharp. He got Canon to change the polarity on his lenses because he had got so used to the Nikon direction. He still uses Canon lenses with reversed (Nikon) polarity today.

Stock wise, the benchmark was Kodachrome 64 because of its well established stability and reliability. He still has some dating back to the early 1950s. However, this is more than a difficult film emulsion to scan these days. Occasionally, he would also use High Speed Ektachrome which gave an overall 'blue' hue in overcast conditions and was also quite grainy but speed was of the essence in such conditions. The emergence of Kodachrome 200 was an interesting innovation with its tight sharp grain texture but somehow it lent itself more to available light portraits rather than to tennis. Kodak gave him several boxes of this to 'test drive' before it went into full production. He also experimented with GAF 500 which was even grainier.

The gear he currently uses for tennis runs to an EOS1D Mk 2 and a 5D along with a 15mm F2.8, a 24-70mm F2.8 zoom - his first ever zoom lens and only purchased a year ago he tells me! -the trusty old 200mm F1.8 and a 400mm F4.

Throughout his career, and it is by no means over yet, he has followed his dad’s early advice and sought out the unusual. In fact that is very much a hallmark of his work and approach. In 1994, Tennis Week magazine in New York voted him the Best Tennis Photographer in the World. Michael was humbled by this and was quick to point out that this was the opinion of one tennis magazine's findings. In the early ‘80s, he acknowledges a debt to Racquet magazine in New York and Tennis Revue in Germany both of whom enthusiastically gave him a platform for what he calls his ‘details photography’, often publishing his interpretations full-page over a number of years. This took him away from merely supplying backhands and forehands month in month out. Before 1979/80 how many other tennis photographers were taking these kind of shots on the tennis courts and getting them published regularly? Michael was a creative innovator and still has the appetite to continue that tradition.

As far as meeting client expectations is concerned, it has never been an issue for him: editors either liked or needed his pictures or they didn’t. Michael is of the opinion that every photographer has his own approach to a subject and to be influenced to stray from that path is not something he would contemplate.

In terms of the competitor environment over the years, it is certainly true that more competition means fewer opportunities to sell these specialised images but Michael reckons competition is healthy. In such a specialised market, he perceives that because of the deals being done, there is a significant number of great photos out there which never get to be published where they should be. Driven by cost, publishers seem to be in favour of all in deals at the best price rather than the quality of images supplied. Such deals, he feels, mean that really creative pictures are no longer sought after and published on merit.

When not photographing tennis Michael likes to get involved with photographing classic and sports cars which involves going to meetings and events such as Goodwood and Brands Hatch. E-type magazine regularly use his pictures on their covers. Recently, Michael did a feature on stripping the body of his own car, a specialised task away from photography which he undertook himself.

He also loves his stock photography too and has a good deal of travel photos in his collection. His images of Venice are quite stunning and have been widely used in travel magazines and in a series of greetings cards and even by the National Trust to promote music festivals in England.

He is not just first and foremost a photographer then a tennis or sports buff. He is entirely and exclusively a photographer, tennis happens to be both his canvass and palette. Had he not have turned up to Wimbledon all those years ago he would quite probably followed a fine art route having spent five years training at Beckenham School of Art and later at The Ravensbourne College of Art & Design.

What a loss this would have been to tennis photography and tennis photographers, because as anyone who knows him will agree, he is so easy to be around. Such talent with such modesty, too.

Desert Island Questions & Mikey’s Answers

Q: Favourite piece of kit of all time?

A: The Canon 5D is best digital body I've ever owned/used to date. The 500/4.5 was best long lens ever owned/used.

Q: Favourite tournament?

A: French Open. Love the ambience, the spectators, the fashion and the glamour and the late afternoon/early evening light - for those reasons it's the best Grand Slam for me.

Q: Favourite players to photograph?

A: Connors, Mac, Borg, Nastase spring to mind immediately because of the many pictures they "gave me". I'm almost grateful to them for being around competing when I was around working and I count myself lucky to have been on court to photograph them for so many years. Charismatic characters all of them.

Q: Favourite meal?

A: Scallops in their shells.

Q: Favourite drink?

A: Champagne but dry sparkling cider is a good substitute. The occasional Sussex real ale, too.

Q: Favourite music?

A: The Stones, Chuck Berry, Dylan (timeless - I get into Dylan every so often on a regular basis - love the lyrics and the monotony of the music - Gawd that dates me! Trad jazz and Chopin piano music too.

Q: Favourite movie?

A: Carve Her Name with Pride.

Q: Favourite photographer?

Ernst Haas. I'd never heard of him until I was on a Marlboro shoot in the mid 80's and one of the cowboys showed me one of his books and I was just totally inspired - the images excited me. I was and still am passionate about his work.

Q: Favourite comedy?

A: John Cleese especially in Fawlty Towers. John Shuttleworth, too, but that is almost documentary!

Friday, February 12, 2010

- Parinirvana Day 2010

Talk given at Birmingham Buddhist Centre

I’m just going to share some reflections around death and becoming upon Parinirvana Day. Parinirvana literally means ‘liberation without remainder’ and refers to the Buddha’s physical death. Here, I am making a few connections which have evolved over time and which have begun to make sense to me, but they are neither polished nor finished. It’s a bit like an ad hoc bouquet of different flowers. Some of them may work well together others may clash in the context of the company they keep. So these are just a few ideas fuelled by feelings born out of experience.

In two days time my dad, Jim, will have been dead 28 years. He was just about the same age as I am now. I have lost other relatives and dear friends in that time (and before) but Dad’s loss was the most painful. He was an electrician, lived in a council flat and was proud of the fact that he had never read a book. Nonetheless, he supported me unreservedly through the annealing of adolescence, through my various changes in direction which saw me occupying spaces he had never dreamed of. Likewise, my brother, Stuart, nine years younger than me and so different, pursued yet other directions and Dad was even handed in his unconditional love of us both. Though I have long since let Dad go, I have recently been working through some unfinished business in my grief which came up following a retreat at Padmaloka two weeks ago.

Last June I lost a young friend, Anna, a close friend of my daughter Katie. She died after an eight month struggle against cancer at the age of 24. Anna was a beautiful girl, very talented especially musically playing cello and singing in choirs. She read geography and development studies at SOAS, loved Africa and volunteered her time helping refugees in this country. There was a documentary – Into That Good Night - just after Christmas on Channel 4 which featured her hospice, St Christopher’s, London. In the context of an art session exploring identity, she talked very movingly about her illness and its trajectory. Prompted by a question from another patient as to whether she could rationalise her predicament or make sense of it, she reflects beautifully and wisely:

This is my path, this is what has been given me and I just have to keep going. And for me a lot of it is [that] I put on a big brave face because I don’t want any sympathy from anyone. They haven’t done anything wrong to me there’s no reason for anyone to feel sorry for me. [...] For no explainable reason – this is what has been given to me. It makes you a lot more sensitive and aware of things than ever I would have been before and not in a big-headed way. I feel so much more aware of my own strengths. For me, a positive mental attitude is really the only way forward. You can’t think otherwise - because anybody who hasn’t even got cancer or an illness has a chance of dying as much as anyone else has.

Such wisdom, compassion and equanimity in such circumstances and in one so young.

I don't know what happens when people die

Can't seem to grasp it as hard as I try,

It's like a song I can hear playing right in my ear

That I can't sing -

I can't help listening

For A Dancer, Jackson Browne on Late For The Sky

Death is most people’s biggest fear. It is the greatest of unkowns when we shall die and what happens next. It is that country from whence no traveller has returned with or without an account or set of photos or film, so how can we ‘know’?

Even the Buddha would not be pressed on such matters. To the question

What happens to a Buddha after death?

he would not answer saying that it was undetermined – along with three other questions –

Is the universe finite?

Is the universe eternal?

Is the life force synonymous with the body?

Sangharakshita reminds us (A Survey of Buddhism, pp 100 – 102) that these are questions which are not susceptible to logic. The Buddha refused to answer because such ‘holy’ matters are not dependant on the truth or falsity of any of the four propositions. This does not mean to say that the Buddha did not know the answers, but it does mean they are not open to the discernments of the unenlightened mind.

We are thus encouraged to live with uncertainty regarding our own demise and that of our loved ones.

Yet if we can really start to see ourselves as processes rather than entities with more than a suggestion that we are somehow fixed, then what is it or who is it that dies? We are a conglomeration of cells constantly dying and renewing and becoming. We are composed of elements found outside of us: the earth, water, heat, air, the spaces we fleetingly occupy, our awareness – consciousness itself. All of which are found in other people, other creatures, the whole world around us - and beyond. Bill Bryson (in the modestly entitled A Short History of Nearly Everything) reminds us that we have billions of ‘adams’ - atoms – in each and every one of us that were in Shakespeare. And in everyone else I guess that means. Someone was telling me the other day that the air we are breathing today was breathed in China about 6 or 8 weeks ago – though I guess it depends which way the wind blows.

Even if the ego is somewhat resistant, I like the idea of processes and seeing myself – and others – in terms of component parts. It facilitates a letting go, some kind of renunciation, and easing of possessiveness in terms of me and mine. Which brings me to nearly the end of the puja and the Transference of merit and self-surrender.

Just as the earth and other elements

Are serviceable in many ways

To the infinite number of beings,

Inhabiting limitless space,

So may I become

That which maintains all beings

Situated throughout space,

So long as all have not attained

To peace

The spiritual well-spring which helps nurture and propel this letting go is sraddha. Not just in terms of faith but mainly in terms of trust. It literally refers to where you place your heart, what you put your heart upon. Whether in Pali, saddha, or Sanskrit sraddha, heart also includes mind.

To return to Jackson Browne:

Don't let the uncertainty turn you around

(The world keeps turning around and around)

Go on and make a joyful sound.

Which is precisely what Anna did.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

- The eye of the tiger

When I did a marketing course a little while ago, we were told that in a presentation about 93% of communication is non-verbal. People make certain judgments and inferences about you before you open your mouth and regardless what comes out of it irrespective of the slides you may have sweated over in your PowerPoint presentation. There is a fabled practice in the FWBO which I had heard much about but never actually done until last weekend. It is a communication exercise and it was set within the context of spiritual friendship on a retreat entitled ‘Entering the tiger’s cave’. The title refers to a Zen story where human footprints are said be seen leading into the cave but none do seem to come out.

A route into exploring certain aspects of this commitment was afforded through this communication exercise. You work in pairs, ideally with a partner whom you have never met before. The first part of the exercise involves looking in and around each other’s eyes. Then you break off before going back to repeat the exercise this time taking some awareness to being open and letting the other person in and really being willing to enter into this other person’s being. It is striking how much the superficiality of the first encounter is deepened by engagement with these possibilities in the second. Each mini session is about 3 minutes long.

Then one partner chooses a phrase to be repeated and the other partner affirms it by saying ‘Yes’. The phrases on offer (and it is part of the fable that they are usually these) were:

The cow is in the field

Do birds fly?

Water is wet

Flowers grow here

The sky is blue today

Each partner takes it in turn to utter the phrase and to make the affirmation. All the time you are still holding each other with the eyes.

Finally, the phrases are dropped and you go back to just sitting and staring into one another’s eyes.

What is extraordinary is that there is a real sense of knowing this erstwhile stranger that soon builds up as well as a sensitivity to the tone and cadence of the voice. Some affirmations are more gentle or more brusque than others despite the repetition. Something else is communicated beyond the words themselves. It is a stripping bare of communication. It feels as though you have entered the tiger’s cave because you have poured yourself into another being through the pupils and you have let another person in because you opened the door to your own being as wide as possible and you just don't know what will happen. Friendship is thus a risky business and we have to be prepared for anything and for surrendering ourselves completely.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

- A step, a stone, a path and a couple of other things

Les Eaux de Mars is an old Georges Moustaki song in the style of a lively bossa nova which starts with the line :

A step, a stone, a path which progresses.

Then goes on to make an arbitrary list of objects, states and attitudes. (The lyrics can be found at

Occasionally I have experimented with this idea photographically, of photographing objects in an uncontaminated way as far as that is possible, neither with the aim nor intention of producing aesthetically pleasing images so much as attempting to grind down the meaning and eliminate extraneous threads of connotation and detonation. Of course it is a vain endeavour because as soon as you commit to any representation or act of communication you effectively lose control of the meanings which may be mined from the utterance. Meaning is in the mind of the beholder. But at least you might be able to park the signifier just a little way off the lawn of Barthes’ notional idea of a degree zero. Odd perhaps for a Buddhist to chase after the integrity of any object being itself a set a processes arising upon conditions in a particular conjuncture at a particular time.

Reading Nagapriya’s book Visions of Mahayana Buddhism, I was very much struck by a quotation where he humself quotes Zhenzie Qingliao quoted in turn by McRae (a bit like opening up Russian dolls!) in Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism,

Without taking a step, you should constantly sit in your room and just forget about the teachings. Be like dried wood, or a stone, or a wall, or a piece of tile, or a pebble.

This is very much in line with the ‘if you see the Buddha on the road, shoot him’ and points towards the fact that the teachings are not the Dharma, practice is: they merely point to the Dharma. Here, nonetheless I stretch out towards a certain purity or integrity in these objects in my mind’s eye much as in the same way as I envisage the segment of tomato in Robbe-Grillet’s description (see the first blog entry October 2009).

Bahiya of the bark garment, after asking three times, gets a teaching from the Buddha in which the Buddha says "In the seen only the seen, in the heard only the heard, in the imagined only the imagined and in the cognised only the cognised."