Thursday, March 31, 2011

- Blues, Blue, Belonging & Emptiness

I still don’t know what it means to be a fan. I hold this season ticket for Birmingham City and I wear the blue and white and go along to the games follow with interest bits (not all!) of news about the team and club between matches and I have done so for many many years in my life. I seem to be passionate about the Blues.

Blue is such a significant colour for me. It works on such a deep level that I can’t quite fathom it. It is the colour of the sky, which in Buddhism is coincidental with emptiness (sunyata). When I was ordained the sadhana practice – the yiddam or figure I aspire to – I took was Akshobhya, the blue Buddha associated with the dawn, water, mirror like wisdom, solidity, imperturbability (the names means the imperturbable one) in his earth touching mudra reminding us of the that historical moment when Shakyamuni became Enlightened.

I enjoy being a fan and had the most delightful time last month when along with 32,000 Blues fans we witnessed the unusual event of our team winning a trophy against the mighty and mightily successful (over time) Arsenal. It was great day out and a lovely way to be one with a large gathering of diverse people. I celebrate that more than the differentiation with the opposition and their identity as ‘other’.

I think fandom is a practice. It involves observing my reactions and the speed at which they come up and then deciding what to do about them. Well, most of the time and increasingly that is the case. I am currently working on compassion for referees…

- Work: Still Not Finished

Recently on the work front, I had the creative pleasure of working with Sonia Sabri and Company once again on their latest project Kathak Box which ran for three nights at the Midlands Art Centre recently. It was a diverse blend of dance - kathak, break dancing and hip-hop. Musically it was vocal - beatbox - whereby the human voice made the sounds of various instruments including the tabla. Parts of it were sung in Hindi followed by an English translation basically acknowledging differences within our current British culture but emphasising the common human threads that fundamentally conjoin us. (I felt it was like the last stage of the metta bhavana meditation in that respect.)

I also did a session with Rich Batsford, a musician fiend who has a new album out in the summer called Mindfulmess (his intentional typo I suppose!), following on the remarkable album Valentine Court which came out over a year ago. That was all electric piano, the new one includes his voice.

The variety of my work is what makes it unpredictable. Earlier this week I went to Rutland to take photographs at a school which specialises in catering for kids with autism. I say kids but next year they will go up to provision for up to 24 year olds. This was a really remarkable place in terms of what they do, the people who do it, the kids, the location, and the commitment, energy and feel good factor of the place. Much of which must be due to Marina Gough’s stewardship as head.

I am not done yet done with exploring the world and enjoying being in it with my camera. Not yet.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

- With Loyalty To My Teachers

That was a long full stop. More of a dash really since my last entry. These past five months have gone very quickly as I have flung myself into my Order life and begun to discover a little what it is to be an Order Member. On the outside, I have taken on teaching commitments at the Centre and in an outreach context not far from where I live. I also led my first retreat over the New Year. I have been to two National Order weekends and one Regional and I am in a chapter which meets weekly. On top of that I have been meeting up with more people. Plus, I did a talk to a few hundred people just after I was ordained. On the inside, I feel this is what I have been building up to and I am keen to do : get more involved, lead things, explore my name. It has been richly rewarding yet it can also all too easily mean that all the space in my life gets filled up and there is too much to do before I can get the chance to reflect and take stock of what is going on. I feel a solitary brewing up though this will have to wait until after I get back from India. I leave on my maiden voyage there on April 1st and spend a week in the Bihar travelling round the Buddhist sights and ‘places in which the Bodhisattvas have been’. Then I go to the Punjab via Delhi. So many people think I am mad to go in April because of the heat. Some have even proffered further advice to do with mozzis and other beasties wee and bigger, water, diet, armed brigands and various scams. I am left in no doubt that this will be, at the very least, an adventure.

Since my ordination I have had three marvellous occasions to encounter Bhante Sangharakshita. The first was back in November when, at a fund raising event, I had the honour to read out four of his poems and sing with others four more poems poignantly and sensitively set to music by my friend Vipulakirti. Bhante was very appreciative of all our efforts. I also had just a couple of minutes with him last week when he came to the Buddhist centre to hear Vishvapani talk around his book about the life of the Buddha. However, I met up with him at length in January.

Something happens when I am in his presence. Erudite and precise as his writings are they are idiosyncratic and need the full engagement of my brain. When I am with him in person my heart, intuition and imagination gently slip into gear as well. I was wondering whether in trying to evoke this, his presence, whilst one is not in his company, is a bit like us practising our sadhana where we try to imagine a Buddha or a Bodhisattva and approach the qualities embodied in such figures to which we aspire. There is a pivotal paper published very recently by Subhuti around this theme following discussions with Bhante about sadhana and its significance along with the importance of (re-)imagining the historical Buddha. This paper has given rise to much discussion and debate within the Order, too.

In 2014 it will be 50 years since Richard Hoggart founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). I went there between 1975 and 1979 towards the end of Stuart Hall’s tenure. He is still to me the most gifted and able teacher I have encountered, both as a learner and a teacher, and as an observer in my job which has taken me into countless educational institutions over the last 24 years. He is also on my Refuge Tree in that I owe him such a debt of gratitude for contributing to my expansion and receptivity to ideas and differing points of view. That attitude permeated the place and built rather creatively upon the strong critical and classical education I formatively received at Durham. Stuart is in good company on my Refuge Tree along with St Francis, Shakespeare, as well as, more traditionally my two Preceptors, Bhante and his teachers, the Arahats, Bodhisattvas, archetypal Buddhas, Dharma teachings, devas and the three Buddhas of the past, present and future who figure most centrally. One of the four ordination vows I took was 'With loyalty to my teachers I accept this ordination', so it is quite natural and fitting that Stuart should be there, too.

I thought I might do a portraiture project of some of the influential thinkers and teachers who have passed through the portals of CCCS, with view to mounting an exhibition which celebrates this institution (which was closed down some 9 years ago). Richard Hoggart is too ill to be photographed, so naturally, I thought to start with Stuart who is in so many ways the most influential person to be associated with the Centre. I am doing the project with critical and sympathetic input and support of Roger Shannon, who like me, in the end took a non-academic route away from academia and we have drawn up a list of people whom we think I should photograph.

I was to be assisted further under the very capable tutelage of Michael Green who was one of the three full-time lecturers at the Centre when I was there - along with Stuart and Richard Johnson. Michael was there to the bitter end when it closed down in 2002. He was very keen on this project and full of advice unfortunately not all of it transmitted before his untimely death in December. He gave so much to so many and was sharp, witty, well-read and had, so it seemed, boundless energy. Naturally, I was going to photograph him but he only lived round the corner and I thought there was no rush. Perhaps rush is the wrong word. But we never know when our time has come. In a strange way I have felt uncannily closer to him since his death, partly because I have got to know his daughter Emily very well and her partner, Paul, as ell as Alison whom I already knew quite well. But also because with the family and Mark Erickson (one of the last in post to turn off the light) we are organising a memorial event for him later in the year.

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."