Tuesday, June 14, 2011

- What Price Loyalty?

So Alex McLeish has left Birmingham City and seems set to join arch rivals Aston Villa. I cant say I blame him. He has been treated shoddily by the club in the form of the new owners who came in promising big wads of cash to spend on quality players but failed to put it on the table. Big Eck did what he could with what he had. Hence so many Scots players trickling down over the border. He knows his Scottish football though it doesn’t always translate so easily into English. He has been a refuge of lost causes and the odd scoundrel, too, picking up Bowyer and claiming that people can and do change. I liked that attitude in the manager although I did not like what had contributed to the reputation of Bowyer before he came to Blues. Once at the club, I could see that he was an aggressive and skilful player but also just how much punishment he got and put up with. Just before he left, Big Eck signed another player with a incident packed history, maybe that is one social reform project too many. I have heard of a number of people who are not on board with this signing and will not renew their season tickets.

We had a rough season apart from winning the Carling Cup. Personally as a fan I’d take that cup winning exploit over relegation any time – it’s nice to win something for a change - except that the game has got to the point that it isn’t merely about dropping down a division and trying to pop back up again, it is about financial success and survival. I thought Villa were mad spending £18 mill going on £24 mill on Bent but look where they ended up and where we ended up losing £30 mill straightaway just in the drop.

Losing is something you have to get used to in sport – some of us more than others. So as a full paying season ticket holder some the performances we put together this season were dire. The last home game against Fulham being about the worst. The new season ticket prices were out already, on the high side (sure, other clubs charge more) and when we got relegated there was no adjustment (forget there are a few extra games, the level of football is just not the same). So with Stuart my bro, Jonnie and Louie, whom we go down the match with, Bri a mate, we have all decided not to renew. You have so little space to manoeuvre as a fan to register your protest at what the club does, who it signs, what it charges, and how it plays and how it treats its staff and manager. Loyalty is paper thin in football and it is often only us fans that reveal it in its unconditional form. Alex may well cross the city and I wish him well and I think he will be good for Villa. Just because us fans are not likely to follow him, at the same time, we must not be taken for granted.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

- Canvassing for tennis

It is that time of the year. Wimbledon is round the corner and the French Open is unfolding in Paris. Sandwiched between the two will the Aegon Classic a women’s pre-Wimbledon tournament now in its thirtieth year. My professional life used to be punctuated, as a sports photographer with a special interest in tennis, by the twin events of the French Open followed a few weeks later by Wimbledon. Sometimes I would pop in at Edgbaston between those two pillars of the Grand Slam circuit as it was local. I remember doing the very first one. Billie Jean King played there and what a delight it was to see her on a court in Birmingham. Court On Canvas, currently at the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham has a picture of her of mine in it which was taken at that time. There was something quaint and home-grown about the early days of this tournament such a contrast to the well organised chic and hugely enjoyable extravaganza that was (and still is) Roland Garros literally just completed the day before; or to the settled sedate and well established presence of Devonshire Park, Eastbourne. I have a photo from that first tournament in Brum in my book, Passing Shots as well as in the exhibition The Odd Ball, of former Wimbledon champion and fellow Brummie, Ann Jones seen consulting her clipboard with a curled scroll of items to check (I presume) at the top on a mound just behind one of the scoreboards (see poto above). When I say fellow Brummie that is about as close as I can claim to be to one who has won Wimbledon once, the French twice and (I think) is a world table tennis champion twice over!

I reminisce because of the Barber Institute’s intriguing show about tennis with a focus on Birmingham called Court on Canvas. It has been curator by the Director, Professor Ann Sumner and includes some memorabilia, rackets, balls, costumes and paintings from the 1880s onwards as well as a few photos including three of mine – presumably I press two buttons through being a tennis photographer and a Brummie. The oldest lawn tennis club is in Edgbaston, the Edgbaston Archery and Lawn Tennis Club, behind the Botanical Gardens; and not far away, the first game of lawn tennis was played in Ampton Road – in the gardens of a house as opposed to what we called the horse road and played in as kids.

I must go see the show again as when I went my eyes were sore and covered in some healing antibiotic gunge which lent an aspect of dream-like soft focus so the visual experience was hazy to say the least. However, I thought that the early paintings – paintings are very much the backbone and rump of the show – were sociologically fascinating and aesthetically somewhat frustrating. As social documents they represented a new area of leisure activity that was practised amongst a particular set within a stratum of society at a particular time which was deemed to be worthy of representation and for a future regard cast over the shoulder: things noted now for a future past. They were aesthetically frustrating because all the lines were some how inharmonious. There was the net, the players, the women in their ample long skirts, the spectators watching maybe from within the court or from just outside, the court with its own set of lines of delineation. Yet gradually as the game evolves and as representing it becomes more commonplace, the compositions become more ordered and by the 1930s they are much more interesting partly because the painter is not afraid to go for detail rather than trying to depict the whole. (one could trace a similar trajectory in tennis photography much later culminating in the 70s and early 80s.)

I was particularly moved by Ann Jones account of her early encounters with art in her speech which officially opened the exhibition. Ann this past valiant champion, nervous at public speaking, spoke so modestly and touchingly. She told of how she went to an art gallery in Eastbourne when as a teenager she was down there playing in some country championship or other. A fellow player took her to this gallery where she saw a painting which she fell in love with and which moved her with its depiction of the sea along with some interplay with the sun. It suggested something of Wordsworth’s immortality, she said. The painting was 100 guineas and there was no way she could afford it, but nonetheless he eyes were opened and here aesthetic sense awakened. How much do we all value that bourgeoning of aesthetic sensibility and, working in the creative arts how much would we appreciate viewers responding like that to our own work. © www.roypeters.co.uk

- Walking Away – Luck or conditioned co-production

I was involved in a collision on the motorway a few days ago. I was hit from behind by a lorry which sent me into a spin where (I am told) I hit barriers on both sides of my carriageway and was hit by a car which couldn’t stop. My memory takes the form of flashbacks mainly of being in the cab spinning and turning over and as I hear the bumps bangs and scrapes and sound of cracking and smashing glass like bursting ice. The car righted itself and I was able to open the door and walk out in one piece. Apart from very minor injuries which after four days are healing very well I was unscathed. Except for the mental and emotional damage. This latter has stalked my dreams and waking thoughts and was given fresh impetus yesterday when I went to collect my things from the pound and I saw the vehicle again. It looks worse than I remembered but the basic cage and cockpit area was largely intact which kept me safe even through 360 degrees. What a testament to the build of the car. What a testament to something else which I can scarcely name but which takes me towards karma and a strong connection with the benevolent forces of the universe embodied in the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Or not. What some may say is luck is just another expression of the complex concatenation of forces, causes and consequences which go towards producing any event, what is called conditioned co-production or pratityasamutpada. Nonetheless I feel lucky and blessed. And still a little dazed and in shock.

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.

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.

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."