I can’t get away from a sneaky feeling that miracles sometimes do actually happen. And it has been said before that real miracles are often things that could or would have happened anyway. The question always is: of all the things that could have happened, why this particular one? At this particular time and place?
If we can go with that idea for a minute, it follows that things that were kind of going to happen anyway can still be mysterious signs, messages from the forces that make the universe configure itself just as it does.
Vapour trails, for example, don’t demand any special explanation. No special explanation is needed as to why the above display dominated the sky just before dawn today as I was getting ready for my morning practice. Or what?
(For clarity – the picture above is just one I found on the net. I don’t know who it is, or whose the picture is.)
Soglio. Almost impossible to find on the map, and, as you can see, even the signpost has fallen on very hard times. But it’s this track-junction that is relevant to my story, rather than Soglio itself.
Saturday was one of those winter’s days one likes. Quite cool, but bright, warm sunshine and no wind. I decided to take the car up to this junction and park it – you’ll see that there is enough room to pull off the road to the left of the sign. It’s only five minutes in the car from home.
I then set out with my gear, scrabbling for another three or four minutes through the bushes to the top of the hill. Not one of those things that looks like a hilltop but just turns out to be a point on a ridge that leads further up; no, a real top-of-the-hill, carpeted with dry chestnut leaves. I came across one or two paths, but evidently of animal origin, not human. Wild boar and a small species of deer are quite common here.
I laid out my mat, and got out the gear – the text, the chöd drum, bell, kangling, red and white shawl – and chanted my way through the concise feast. Great.
(Ironical, isn’t it, how much kit you want in order to enjoy the simplicity of Buddhist meditation?)
As I was finishing, however, I heard voices approaching. Two Italian guys, probably in their 60s, were drawing near, together with a dog. Hunters? I guessed that they had heard the tok-tok of the drum, the ting-ting of the bell, and perhaps even the nyeeehhhaaahh of the kangling.
I did wonder what I was going to say. Would they interrogate me? Would they tell me I shouldn’t be there? Would they tell me that I needed a permit to meditate, filled out in quintuplicate including my tax code, decorated with a €14 tax stamp and faxed to the office for anomalous cultural activities at the end of the last corridor on the top floor of the town hall, whose fax number is available on application, with presentation of one’s ID papers, from the responsible authorities? Though I never liked cricket, I think the metaphor applies: I decided to play it with a totally straight bat.
“Buongiorno, Salve!” I called, cheerfully.
“Buongiorno,” they replied, commenting to each other about “il signor con i capelli lunghi”, which is something like “the Mister with long hair”, except that it doesn’t sound that stupid in Italian. I should mention that I keep what little hair I have left in a topknot these days. They asked me what I was doing, and whether I was sleeping there. “No, no,” I said, explaining that I lived in the village in the valley below.
At this point I leaned forward, conspiratorially, and told them that, “The thing is – I’m a Buddhist!”
The expression that flooded across their faces simultaneously was a sight to see. Can you guess? It was total relief! No, this was not some weirdo trying to live out in the woods, nor a refugee from justice, nor a house burglar trying to hide ill-gotten gains under a boulder, nor an illegal mushroom-hunter, nor yet an illegal immigrant. It was just a harmless eccentric English guy!
“Oh,” said the one, “you were praying?”
This was not the time to launch into an explanation of how meditation, ritual and prayer relate to one another in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, and how they compare with or differ from the equivalents in Christianity, so I said “Yes, more or less.”
They proceeded to tell me what a beautiful spot it was, and how the was an artist they knew who also goes there from time to time for the beauty and peace.
They told me that they were ex-hunters, which seemed a slightly unusual thing to say. Perhaps they felt uneasy in the presence of this potentially saintly (if only they knew) unknown quantity. In any event, the dog might have been a hunting dog, but they didn’t have guns with them. Perhaps I should explain that hunting dogs here are not aggressive animals bred to take down their prey – they are inquisitive, friendly, high-energy beasts, whose job is to charge around making a fuss so that the boar or deer breaks cover and becomes a target of the hunters’ guns. (That’s how it is.)
And so, finally, they wished me a good day, and went off, saying that they would not disturb me any further.
I believe in miracles. Sort of. I can’t manage to give much
credence to most of what is claimed for miracles. I suppose that somewhere,
somewhen, there could be or could have been some great magician who could make
things levitate, pull gold out of the air, cure terminal cancer and predict
next week’s lottery numbers. But I don’t expect to meet her.
What, however, I can envision is that, out of the
innumerable ways things could fall out, the reason they fall out *this* way is
not as blindly mechanical as the mechanists would have us believe.
It has been a beautiful winter’s morning: cold but not
bitter, dry, quiet, with clear blue skies and a bright, low sun. I went for a
walk up the hill. Not far from the top I sat down on a sun-warmed stone, as I
have been memorising a few lines of chant. I want to be able to recite the
lines at a good speed, without great effort, and with clear focus on the
meaning. That’s a fairly normal procedure in Buddhist practice. Having got far
enough that I don’t need to read these particular lines off paper, my idea was
to recite them a few times just to get more familiar.
So far, so good.
I didn’t notice any wind, but there must have been a stirring in the air above the ground, because exactly as I completed the lines for the first time, there was a loud rustling behind me as one of the oak trees decided that the moment had arrived to shed a few hundred leaves. The one above came into my hands on its way down.
So, ok, I was amongst hundreds of trees on a dry winter
morning. They were likely to shed leaves anyway. Thousands, if not millions,
must have fallen in those woods this morning. But at that moment? This leaf? In
It would have happened anyway. But it didn’t have to. I’ll
take it as an auspicious coincidence.
I recently read someone expressing the yearning to be free of all religious groups and labels. Ironically enough, this yearning has been an important thread in the whole fabric of Buddhism since the beginning. Even the first grouping around the Buddha himself was to some extent a rejection of the hierarchy, hereditary privilege and religious stranglehold of the Brahmins.
The thread continues through the great mahasiddhas of India, and pops up in the quirky Zen people who are fond of saying that if you meet the Buddha on the road you should kill him. (It’s okay, I know they don’t mean it literally.)
So it’s a fine thing, and if somebody innately has the insight, moral strength, independence and courage to sit in a lonely spot looking at the true nature of their mind for years on end without support from friends or teachers, then I take my hat off to her. (Or him.)
It does, however, run the risk of being simplistic. (I use the word “simplistic” correctly, by the way.) I myself am a Buddhist, and this is a perfectly reasonable statement, just as it is perfectly reasonable to say that I am male, English, politically socialist, that I like curry, and so on.
The problem, it seems to me, is not with labels such as “Buddhist” or “curry-lover”, but it is with the way we have a tendency to use and understand these labels.
People (I’m thinking of adolescent males in particular) who first come across the teachings on emptiness and are swept away by them, can be tempted to play games, denying that there is a coffee mug on my desk, because there is no mug, no desk and no coffee in “reality”. I once even came across someone who was so impressed by the teachings of “no-self” that he refused to use first-person pronouns and possessives, in the belief that this would train him away from believing in his “me”. It was, of course, ludicrous, unhelpful, and made him look like an idiot.
outwardly a Buddhist (hopefully with some discipline),
inwardly a tireless bodhisattva of endless compassion,
secretly a yogi revelling in the equal taste of samsara and nirvana and
ultimately knowing the clear light beyond all concepts, systems and labels
– that seems to me a much more profound ideal than the ideal of simply being free of religion. Oddly enough, I suspect that it’s more practical, too.
For some while I have been an “administrator” of a facebook group, now called “Contemporary Buddhism” though it started life as “Open Buddhism”.
In its early days it was, while allegedly set up for all sorts of open and potentially critical thinking, fuelled by the need to let off steam and face up to the scandals brought on Buddhism by Sogyal Lakar. The appalling behaviour of others like Trungpa, Mipham, Santarakshita and others.
Now that those issues are much more out in the open, I think the group has lost focus. I shall be happy to hang around – there are some good people there, and occasionally something interesting comes up. But I don’t think my time is well spent any more by being an admin, and I’m not convinced that the group has much to gain by having me there.
So I think it is time for me to step down as an active administrator in that group.
I use the word “active”, because, for the immediate near future at least, I shall not in fact “click myself out” of the role, just in case of some urgent need. But as and when either of the other administrators sees fit, I will not take it personally when the associated rights are cancelled.
I have chosen this moment, in part, because there is no particularly heated exchange going on at the moment. And in part, because it has no great focus any more.
Occasionally there are “feel-good” quotes or what we now call memes that get posted; they were something firmly against the original spirit of this group, which was to promote conversation and the exchange of information and understanding on some of those issues that are often swept under the carpet: sexual and other abuse, sexism more generally in Buddhist communities, racism and inverse racism in Buddhist communities and so forth. A post that did not either contribute to or initiate useful discussion was deleted. I will confess, however, that I tend not to do that any more, because I feel that it is somehow mean-spirited when there is nothing else very much going on there.
Much the same goes for those posts that do not invite discussion, but appear only to be intended to promote and publicise another blog or website in which the poster, Alex Kakuyo, as one example, has an interest. They are not what the group is for, but perhaps they are not that harmful either – I’m not sure that I particularly want to decide.
I have also had my fill, for the time being, of the people who come here with their own strange agenda. We can challenge those agendas – but is it worth it?
We have, for example, being through posting campaigns from Paul Beard, whose blue-clad acolytes consider that their “Dharmadatu Sangha” (the strange spelling is theirs) is a new, in some way “secular” Buddhist order at the same time as claiming not to be a new school. “Go figure”, as some put it. He had to be kicked off the group.
We have had Greta James with her bizarre and lurid claims about what she imagines goes on in the name of Highest Yoga Tantra. Asked for her source, she referred to a book; asked for page numbers, the book was unavailable. When a new copy was obtained, it was the wrong edition. In the meantime, a group member who actually worked on the said book told us that he has no memory of anything resembling her claims. The supposedly source has apparently still not been located. “Go figure”, as some put it.
We have had the claim that Trungpa (and let it be said that I am not at all impressed by Trungpa) arranged for “an evening of sexual entertainment” for the 16th Karmapa. Sources were asked for. I put myself to the displeasure of reading an entire hagiography of a drug dealer who worked for a short while as Trungpa’s cook. The entire “source” turns out to rest on a single word choice by the hagiographer at the point where, having been pushed to (justifiable, I would say) fury by Trungpa’s objectionable behaviour, catches a glimpse through the door into a room in which a number of people, including the Karmapa, are present, and refers to the people he glimpsed as a “slew” of bodies. Hmmm.
We have had Kim Katami, the self-styled Orgyen Rinpoche. The list of long-dead teachers from whom he claims to have received teachings is very long. The list of teachers he has actually met is, on the other hand, extremely short. “Go figure”, as some put it.
We have had Chad Foreman, who seems like quite a reasonable guy in many respects, who “studied vajrayana” he tells us, “full-time from 6 years living in a retreat hut”, but who never personally met his teacher and, as far as I can tell, didn’t receive an empowerment or instructions from him. Instead, he has found a new definition of self-empowerment which allows him to claim that “self initiation and empowerment are a valid alternative to guru initiations”. “Go figure”, as some put it.
We have wrestled with Ayya Yeshe’s posts, whose point that Western nuns don’t get a very good deal is entirely fair and often overlooked, but whose approach drove even many of her own sympathisers away. Any approach other than unadulterated agreement and approval was met with an accusation of “bullying, sexism, and intimidation on the part of a few powerful voices” in this group. Finally she left. “Go figure”, as some put it.
As a spin-off from things that happened there, I also had to deal with one “Sila Astarina Trevor” and her claims that, for instance, Trungpa’s mother was kept as a prostitute in the monastery, or that “Sakya Clan (Lamas and Royalty) in Tibet did what they liked sexually with women and boys – rape of women was the path to “enlightenment” -especially old men and young girls.” Asked for any sources as evidence of this presentation, which is rather more extreme than the usual picture, I was urged to ” Get real about all this …. Sources are there – look them up!”. That, it is clear to me, is a digital-age equivalent to the childish “everybody knows that..” dodge. She claimed that the sources were out there but that she was not “an expert on posting links”. Eventually she did refer to a book by Nancy Steinbeck, and I took the trouble to drag myself through that without, unfortunately, discovering anything particularly new. My previous ignorance of Ms Steinbeck and her book was viewed by this poster as evidence that I was “ingnoring to gaslight me as some kind of voyeur “, and asserted that Ms Steinbeck was to be believed because she “did her Masters Degree at Sorbonne”. Well, that’s nice, although I don’t claim any particular authority for having degrees from Oxford and an MPhil from Leicester. “Go figure”, as some put it.
Have I gone on a bit longer about this? I believe so, but the point is that this stuff goes on, and on, and on, and I need a rest from it.
Now and again I hear a bit of devotional music, with Tibetan roots or, for that matter, Indian roots (I’m talking kirtan here), but using some Western elements to good effect. My own musical roots are, of course, western, with a strong element of blues and folk, so I was inspired to put Guru Rinpoche’s most famous praise (the “Seven Lines”) and the best-known version of his mantra (Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung) to the arrangement I’ve used for the House of the Rising Sun.
I’m not sure how well this works at all, so this is just a first attempt. My pronunciation may be very poor, as well. So I put it out here now to see what sort of reaction it might bring.
I hope you enjoy it. If you see the singalong scope, I could do one with more (many more?) repetitions of the mantra.