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.

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."