Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Common Ground

I’ve just completed teaching a ten-day meditation retreat at Amaravati in Hertfordshire, England. For those of you who know the retreat scene, it was in many ways typical: about fifty people of a range of nationalities and ethnicities gathered together, keeping the eight Buddhist Precepts, maintaining silence, many bedding down in a dormitory or sharing a room with a stranger. For the group the day started before 5a.m. and finished around 10p.m.; there was an ongoing schedule of talks, discussions, and a lot of sitting still. Despite the winter ice and snow, the retreatants practised walking meditation outside – swathed in down-vests, balloon-like coats and wraps. Some even spent their spare time sitting on benches overlooking the surrounding fields. The breakfast and a midday meal were eaten communally; there was a qi gung session and optional yoga. People churned through their drowsiness, pain, stress and self-hatred; they melted some stuck stuff out of their systems and concluded the retreat with warmth and humour. After the retreat, they streamed into the teacher’s room to express gratitude, offer small gifts, and request more of the same next year.  

As for costs: I get no remuneration, the cooks are unpaid volunteers, and the Centre itself quietly informs people that the living costs are about £25/day but there is no charge. You give what you like. For many it could be cheaper than staying at home. Often people offering food to the monastery of which the Centre is a part, will send some food over in support. The talks are recorded, edited and loaded online for free; a lay supporter will make CDs and distribute them at his own cost.  All in all, a lot is produced from one resource – the human heart – at minimal financial and environmental expense.

Back at Cittaviveka, we’ve just concluded the forest work month, which amounts to three weeks of work in our woods – cutting coppice for fuel, stacking logs, planting new trees and heather, and building boxes for bats to live in. This work has been going on since 1986; gradually a self-sustaining woodland has come into being. The desolate silence of a commercial monoculture of non-native trees has been replaced with a mixed habitat of native broadleaf, heathland and wetland – and the insects and birds have returned, along with bats, badgers, deer and dormice. This work has been carried almost entirely by volunteers, with whatever costs that accrued through using chainsaws or professionals being offset by the sale of firewood or by donations. The coppice that is cut produces new shoots, so the monastery gets heated with no loss of resources. And not only has the land and the wildlife improved, but the men who volunteer and spend three weeks in the monastery working together in the cold and rain with the monks speak warmly of the benefit. ‘It’s the best choice I’ve ever made in my life,’ said the Cambridge graduate. Some come year after year.

So how well does the notion of the self-centred human, motivated by profit and personal gain, stand up in this light? What is noticeable is that when given a free choice, people incline towards voluntary service and towards taking on a challenge.  Even in a non-Buddhist context: when there is some clear space and autonomy, people decide to learn to play piano, take on hospice work, give blood, teach Dhamma, create open source software – because they like to; especially if they feel that someone else will benefit from it.  I would go so far as to say, that a person who doesn’t have an occasion to freely offer is liable to suffer from depression, narcissistic introversion, anxiety and isolation.  This is ‘not-self’ as a practice. To emphasize: not-self isn’t a wipe-out of our individual freedom or vitality, but a direct pointer to what inhibits this heart and mind. It’s just these inclinations to own, defend, assert or compare – all the programs that making the mind into a self brings about. As a workaday practice, ‘not-self’ means ‘to others as to myself’; and in meditation it’s the ongoing reminder to meet and melt that sense of being alone in a world that has died to me.  So you do not-self through giving, through ethical integrity, through pruning desires down to needs, and through the patience, clarity and honesty of meditation. The results of developing such pāramī speak for themselves. 

Apart from any ‘inner’ benefits, the first three pāramī – giving, morality, and renunciation – make profound economic and environmental sense. The more you can share your life, the wider your field of conscience and concern, and the less you have to consume – the lighter and more kindly your footprint is on the environment. The three work together: How do you filter out needs from the bubbling tide of wants that surges out in consumer-fever, especially in this Christmas season? Find and rest back in your inner wealth, that’s how.  How do you generate inner wealth? Open the heart like a generous hand, whether in terms of things or service, or even in giving attention to others’ needs – that’s a good place to start. Developing the holistic integrity ‘to others as to myself’ to include a widening field of humans and creatures – that also causes the natural bounty of the heart-mind to become apparent.  Then meditate on these and realize that this heart-mind, along with every crumb of matter is given – not owned or deserved. So having so much, you don’t want that much, or to be that much; and you look out for how you can participate in a sharing universe. In ‘not-self’ is endless wonder and gratitude.

The turning point is often how to get started. When one is conditioned into self-view (that is ‘isolationist-view’) choices come down to ‘how to get, or how to be more than I sense I am.’  And yes, there’s a real predicament when one is disadvantaged, homeless or depressed. There doesn’t seem to be much to give or to let go of, let alone free choice, clear space or autonomy. The seed bed out of which these springs is the experience of ‘common ground.’ You access this in meditation through reflecting on what we all have in common – mortality, kamma, the potential for goodwill and awakening. And in that open space where meditation takes you, you feel the fragility of boundaries and the interest in mutuality: we can only survive through the goodwill and cooperation of others, and our lives are enriched by friends. But not everyone can begin in meditation; the open space isn’t entered just by sitting still. In fact sitting still and looking within is a pretty difficult place to begin when you’re strongly held by isolationist-view.  Where we can find an opening is in common ground as a shared and safe environment.

When I began meditating in a monastery in Thailand, there were two sources of ease and joy. One was going out on alms-round in the local town, seeing and being warmly received by people giving a little food.  What made it better was, strangely enough, the silence of the offering and the anonymity. The offering wasn’t because I was someone special, or deserved it, or was part of the family; I couldn’t even speak the language. So the offering happened outside of the context of personality; it was a meeting at the place where I was vulnerable and exposed. On the street, penniless, with an empty bowl.  This isn’t a theory, but the living enactment of being accepted into the web of vulnerable, mortal but sharing beings. And rather than eliciting a mood of tragedy and despair, that felt like a relief and a release into something bigger and more timeless.

The other source of ease was the fortnightly recitation of the Rule, the Pāṭimokkha. It was the same doorway as the alms-round. No conversation, no performance, no need to be different: I was just one of the monks who sat there while another recited the Buddha’s words in an incomprehensible language for about fifty minutes. And there we all were, held in our integrity and respect, with our individualities accepted but not highlighted.  We have a relative self, and that’s fine as long as it remains relative and doesn’t split off into its own bubble.

Cittaviveka monastery isn’t an especially interesting place by some standards … not much happens outside of meditation, talks and work, and yet a good range of beings regularly pass through, of many nationalities, ethnicities, and financial resources. They’re seen, talked with, and given the shared requisites and some free individual space. Locals who live outside the monastery drop by to walk around or offer advice; some work here on a regular basis. The place is basically run by unpaid volunteers. It’s a commonwealth that had no mission to be so; it all just happened because people like to operate that way and there was the opportunity to do so.

Last year we had a homeless woman stay with us for about three months. Prior to being here she’d been at another monastery for about six; before that, stretched a battered history and teetering on the edge of suicide. So, if you possibly can, if the person can keep precepts and live within the boundaries, you take them in. You could think, ‘But we might be stuck with this woman forever!’ You could play the track that says ‘What if hundreds of people turn up at the door?’ But in the direct experience of the heart, there isn’t a ‘forever’, and right now there aren’t a hundred people at the door. There’s just another vulnerable and exposed sentient being; so now there’s the space to respond.  And after the three months, the woman had steadied, found her own ground and moved on.

I’m sure that having plenty of time to meditate helped her enormously; but theoretically she could have sat still with a few books and practised on her own. But even if she had, what that have helped her out of the mess of her life? – the problem with despair is that you’re always ‘on your own.’  It’s obvious to me that there is a healing power in communality; this is especially clear as it is through the reduction of this that people are in dire straits. The common land, the untidy places where people could wander and meet, and all classes could rub elbows, is shrinking. It’s not only ‘natural’ land that’s lost to the commons: when I was a child in London, all the kids played together on the street; parents frequented their neighbours’ houses; child-minding was just a neighbourly and unpaid thing to do. Street-markets, or the presence of people standing conversing on the street was part of the social landscape. As the streets became increasingly ‘no-stopping, keep shopping’ zones; as the townscape centred around how to move cars  (the most isolated and destructive means of transport yet invented) through them; as property developers bought up neighbourhoods and converted them into high-rise estates and malls that you can be ordered out of (I have) – the free-access mingling space dwindled. Crime increased, and some streets, even areas, are no longer safe. Because there’s nobody really there in the spaces through which people move. Instead, being driven along the prescribed highways to the prescribed work place or the mass shopping mall focuses attention onto getting your stuff and taking it inside your bubble. You might have an exchange with a ticket machine, or a voice might ask you to wait and thank you for your patience – but there’s less and less people there.  So, while the heart steadily closes, the message is to sit back, look at the screen, listen to the music – or buy something.

So the removal of free and living space, the waning of the commons, has its consequences.  As society loses that organ, it loses location, and thus loses respect for the environment. The planet has been paying for it, and now as the global economy falters and conflict escalates, humans are also counting the social and environmental costs of globalization. But I’m not advocating an end to global cooperation, but just that we universally agree to respect local common space. Nor am I a communist in the way that the term is used, because ‘Communist’ societies were never voluntary, free-access environments. They did pretty much the same as any centralizing state does: ‘public’ land is owned by the state, not the commons, and it’s the state that decides what is for the public good. Yet what the state rarely does is activate an ethos that supports morality, generosity and personal relinquishment – one that sees inner fulfilment rather than wealth, prestige or power to be the highest happiness. The fact is that the state can only support, not create, the commons – because the commons happens naturally in the right space. Like a regenerating woodland, you just have to clear away what chokes it, protect the boundaries and wait.

The culture that does just that is truly ‘religious’: the origin of the word is to do with ‘connection’ and ‘creating a bond.’ Religion can ossify into dogma; but if it stays connected to real life it supports the system of loyalties, mutual respect and group awareness that all folk culture is based upon. It’s still around. On the streets of Chengdu, I’ve seen people dancing and woman walking unaccompanied at night; in rural Spain I’ve seen villages come alive at sunset; and in London there is growth in terms of community gardens, spontaneous public meditation sittings and developing local networks. Folk culture grows on the margins, away from the political centre: and the classic marginal settlement is the forest monastery, apparently cut off, but a vital organ for the society as whole.

In such a monastery, the fortnightly Pāṭimokkha (literally ‘thorough bond’) is the formal statement of the commons, made valid by the respect for self and others in the ethics that it outlines. But it is lived out in the unstructured times, where conversation may swing between the anecdotal, the doctrinal, the practical and the playful. The boundaries remain, the centre loosens. It’s the same in the retreat centre, the workplace, the village and in the woodlands. The community may create the boundary by what it says, but brings communality alive from mutual regard and respect. This is because the commons can’t be established by ideology or law, but grows where those are digested into organic humanity through voluntary acts. Generosity, morality, renunciation and meditation are the actions, but humbly and wonderfully enough, the really vital ingredient is location: shared and lived-in space.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Love, Marriage and Self-Surrender

‘Why are you doing this? Why get married?’ 

Geraldine, my niece, responded with a relaxed smile. ‘Well, it’s like we’re friends, you know…’ After being together for seven years it felt to her and her partner that marriage was a way of following through: to ‘just go with the flow.’

I did some life-arithmetic: Hmm. Seven years… And she’s thirty-two, old enough to take hold of her life.  ‘So…what would you like me to do.’ ‘Oh, maybe you could give us a blessing. Say a few words or something. You’re wise.’  ‘OK, I can do that.’

I have been a rare frequenter of family occasions for the past forty years. The only wedding I’d been to before was of a cousin’s – and that was even longer ago than that. It’s not that there are any family problems, it’s more that we’re like planets in a solar system in our own spin and orbit, and I’m rarely coming into conjunction.  Still I have always had affection and admiration for my elder brother; he has played the lay life like a sound batsman in a long cricket match: resilient, reliable, full of applied effort and with occasional flashes of genius. The result of which has been a very solid marriage, three fine daughters, and enough money for a comfortable life – as comfortable as life in the world can get, that is.  So when I received the invitation to Geraldine’s wedding, I was pleased to have the opportunity to connect, spend time with my kin and help out in any way that I could.

But why get married? In my childhood it was an absolute must for an extended male-female relationship; but these days: shared resources, companionship, sexual relations, children – you can do it all without the legal procedures. Let alone the expense! My niece had organized everything down to the last detail – the medieval hall for the ceremony, the menus, the dresses; she’d even specified and bought the ties that she expected the officiating male guests (me excepted) to wear.  Not only that, but as her husband-to-be was a Muslim, they’d already had an Islamic wedding ceremony.  Two weddings! This was no casual commitment.

As such it had to be carried by ritual.  By the time we’d moved to the meeting hall, the stage-craft was carefully at work. We – the assembly – gathered and then stood up as the bride, who had swapped her sweatshirt and jeans for the traditional regalia, came floating down the aisle on the arm of my brother (who was also dressed to fit a shop window, but to his credit looked only slightly embarrassed). The registrar carefully questioned the couple as to legal impediments; the rings were exchanged and they each made the vows ‘as long as life shall last.’  Vows: this was about solemnizing, a strong binding. And that meant, as I commented in my address, stretching the softer aspects of love to include patience, compassion and a resolute act of faith in each other’s capacity to work through the challenges. An enjoyable partnership had just turned into a potentially deepening union.

So how real is all this? How can there be union for lives that are inevitably individually defined, marked with separation?  As a notion it makes the same kind of sense as the statement that the Buddha attained the Deathless, years before his life-span terminated in disease under a tree. And from one perspective, the Son of God didn’t look very divine when he was nailed to the Cross. Perhaps we’re talking about spirit here, and about how consciousness can deepen beyond self – ultimately to a depth that goes past life’s exit door. 

However, in this life the value of a vow can be experienced every time the mind wobbles, and the reminder comes up: ‘But you’ve made a commitment to this.’ Rightly held, commitment refers our actions and attitudes to core values, and steers the mind towards deepening. Or, in Buddhist terms, wise resolution (adhitthāna) is the foundation for the spiritual perfections (pāramī): generosity, morality, renunciation and the rest.  Perhaps now that marriage is more a conscious extra to a relationship, it can encourage those virtues.

The decision to make any commitment casts a cool light over the drama of the human plane. It’s about maintaining values while the world of surfaces swirls around and sometimes over you.  And what causes us to make a resolve is perhaps a recognition of the swirling and unsteady nature of all surfaces. That recognition, and sometimes even the decision, is more of a felt thing than an idea. When people ask me why I became a monk, all I can say is that at that time, it felt like the right thing to do; it offered a steady reference point, for a while. But once I’d started to explore my own awareness, I couldn’t see how the way I had been living previously was going to work.  It wasn’t that I had a clear idea of becoming a monk; it was just that in my lay life there were too many diversions, and too many requirements to stay on the surface. Deeper felt like the way to go, but where that trajectory would take me wasn’t immediately apparent.

Of course the crunch points of living in a monastery – letting go of socializing, music, food and sexual activity – come even before one has made the full commitment. That’s why I never suggest to someone that they take it on, and in our sangha, there are preparatory stages of several years before one can even be considered ready for training as a monk or nun. It gives an aspirant fair time to let any starry-eyed idealism fade out of the mind. But with full commitment come the gritty realities of obedience to a communal rule, and of clearly representing something in other people’s eyes; the latter in particular being something that one has no negotiating power over. Furthermore, Sangha commitment is to formal occasions and public events that aren’t always one’s cup of tea. And come to think of it, it’s not that every samana whom I’m affiliated with is someone I get on with swimmingly well. 

It’s also true that there are more options nowadays for Dhamma practice than in my youth. Now one can meditate, do retreats, study, and learn Dhamma as a layperson. Still, in that scenario, each individual makes their choices, sets up the routines, and keeps one hand on the steering wheel. The further deepening, into psychological self-surrender, takes understanding and integrity: even in Sangha life, you can find ways to carve out your own niche. But the cultivation that psychological renunciation encourages is about meeting one’s preferences and opinions, softening their grip and deepening into something beyond that.  And in the end, it’s the deepening that counts: I’ve never conceived of how my life could be made richer or more worthwhile.

However, as mysteriously as the aspiration comes, it can also change.  More people leave the Sangha after a few years (or even months) than stay in it for life.  Those who persist in samana life are probably fewer than the number who stay in a marriage. As a phenomenon this has its good points. The ability to leave without disgrace keeps the individual referring the commitment to the present moment. Is this worth working with? (Go deep and check it out.) It also curbs the tendency for the Sangha to become an institution that deprives people of authority over their lives.  Self-surrender has to be personally authorized and reviewed. Do you trust the field that you’re in? If not – and you may be right, not all religious communities are reliable – it isn’t going to work.  As it is, I would also say that at least in the communities that I’ve been involved with, the majority of post-monastics stay with Dhamma. The deepening has been irreversible, and represents a process that predates their commitment to the outward form and practices.

As for marriage and divorce: amongst the people I know, most of the marriages have lasted and strengthened. On the other hand, recent reflections from post-marriage friends also bear witness to what that can take. A woman who had stayed with her husband for fifty years until death commented that although the marriage had been rashly undertaken, and although when the romantic glow faded she didn’t like her mate that much – yet she had loved him.  Others remarked on how freeing the divorces had been for all concerned: like getting out of a cage.  It wasn’t as if the marriage commitment had been to get beyond desire and realize nibbāna in the first place; but even that commitment had checked a lot of self-centredness and thrown light on emotions and attitudes. Whether it’s to another person, or to a Sangha life, commitment to ‘the other’ always helps us to learn what we can’t see in ourselves.

People might imagine that you get out of all that in Sangha life; that awakening could somehow happen without revealing – revealing a lot about oneself and the human condition. The myth of the tranquil haven where those others are running away from the world still lingers.  (If one could run away from the world, and if that were a good thing, then indeed why not). But the ‘dark matter’ which apparently makes up most of the Universe, and whose psychological aspect wells up from beneath the waves of personal mood and inclinations, isn’t something that is escaped from. Go to a tropical island, and it sits on the beach beside you; douse it in wine – it blinks once and grips you harder; sit cross-legged and focused on your breathing – it murmurs in your heart. And when one enters community life, the dark matter whinges, recoils, judges and caricatures one’s fellow aspirants. It seems to be the fault of the others, the tradition or the sense of being a public icon – but when all that changes, the restlessness, the desires and resistances, and the doubts and gloom stay on.  So one either has to adjust to another way of life, or breathe gently, patiently through it all. Reveal what seems to be your self, meet it in a clear and reflective place, and deal with it.  As in a marriage, the commitment asks us to keep putting more of our attention and consideration into it – or it goes flat and even toxic.

So commitments don’t carry guarantees – but without them, how far, how deep do you go? A part of us wants to play around on the surface, to splash and skim, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. But in the heart there’s also the inclination towards deepening: to be taken beyond our personal moods, to be made to work on ourselves. Inspiration and tedium, joy, grief, and all the nothing special in between: to meet what life brings up and work through holding on to any of it. Then when death grabs all we're bound up with, spirit has a way to get through. Because if you can’t handle getting taken to uncomfortable depths – why get married, why become a monk?  In fact where’s the growth, and what’s the point of being alive?  After all, you have to take your life like a hoop and throw it towards the peg that feels right. Who knows how good a throw is until you’ve made it?

Life is made sublime through sacrifice, and something in us knows that.

….to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint.
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
T.S.Eliot: The Dry Salvages V

So here’s the challenge for commitment: see the anxiety, darkness or pain in yourself or another; take hold of the mundane and by working out your expectations, biases, impatience and all the rest – widen into this strange space called love. Then include it all.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

How Things Should Be and The Way It Is

The man was eager to speak, unusually so for a newcomer to the monastery and its weekly tea-time ‘Questions and Comments.’ After a few initial pleasantries, the other guests were content to quietly mull things over, but ‘Ted’ (not his real name) jumped in. There was an experience that had shaken him to the core a decade or so ago, and he had finally found a time and place to give it voice.

Ted had committed to volunteer work in a drought-prone area of Africa – medicine, work on the land, anything he could do.  People were malnourished and infant mortality high. On the too-frequent bad years, the meagre crop failed altogether.  The villagers had a few goats that survived by nibbling scrubby grass and thorn bushes. For Ted, working there meant meeting a hopelessness that seemed as inevitable and implacable as the sun. As volunteers know, finding the emotional resilience to persist in such a situation is as much part of the work as anything one can do physically; in fact one of the values of the physical work, however inadequate the results may seem, is that it provides a relief from the grinding force of helplessness. Doing something helps to dull that edge.

However, what had stirred him most deeply was the mental state of the villagers themselves.  They were bright-eyed and lived lightly; they weren’t always happy, but neither were they patiently enduring or grimly surviving. They were as void of such shields as they were of bitterness or despair.  Somehow, they could dance and sing and laugh: it didn’t make sense. But what turned his mind completely upside-down was that when the time came for him to leave, these people who had as near to nothing as makes little difference, insisted on giving him one of their goats. It was all they had. 

That contradictory response had challenged Ted’s sense of living a meaningful life in secular materialist terms. How was it that people who had so little, so much less security and comfort than he had, were yet happier than him?  And a further question kept nagging: In terms of freedom from stress and inner conflict, how far does the conventional direction of getting a successful career, a car and a mortgage go?

I paused and listened to what was happening within me. ‘They didn’t have a “should be”,’ was what I offered, waiting for anything further to arise in my mind, ‘they didn’t have an idea of how things should be.’  The statement seemed simplistic, even callous if developed as an ideological response to the world’s suffering. However as is often the case when one listens deeply to what is being expressed, the comment that emerged touched the moment’s truth.

As we moved into dialogue, it was easy enough to explore the degree to which the emotionally-charged notion of ‘the way it should be’ was a major source of suffering to us well-fed, clothed and comfortably-sheltered people.  ‘Should be’s’ – expectations and assumptions about everything from other people, the weather, the government and the global economy – formed clouds that hovered over most of us for periods of time and cast shadows of lost promise, of frustration, and of further struggles to get things right. Whatever ‘right’ would be.

Because, although the sense that the society, life and oneself weren’t as good as they should be was a presence in our hearts, it was difficult to get a realistic picture of a scenario that would suit everyone. Furthermore, as things had never been the way they should be … on a statistical basis alone, that made it unlikely that they ever would. A few moments’ investigation also questioned as to who it is that knows, or what is it in us that tells us, how things should be. And on what grounds? How many people as we meet them, and how many situations that arise, can actually fit into any ideal state? Wouldn’t it feel freer, wouldn’t our minds feel more open to come to terms with what was actually happening without that sense of  ‘it shouldn’t be like this.’

However, there’s an uneasiness about letting go of how things should be. Would that commit us to a state of indifferent passivity? What about aspiration? And compassion? Do we just watch the pangs of the world and the wincing and pushing of our minds until we give up? Is that what ‘letting go’ is about?

There’s a story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that makes a point about the wrong kind of letting go. Called The Immortal, it’s an exploration of a theme, a parable of sorts. The central theme of this story is one of a quest for immortality, for freedom from death and for the paradise that would ensue. After a long trek across a desert, the narrator comes across a paradoxical city. It is elaborately constructed of streets that lead to dead-ends, of labyrinths, of great doorways that open onto pits, of irregular cupolas and columns; this crazy city is also uninhabited. In the desert that surrounds the city are some scrawny sub-humans clothed in rags and eating little. One of these, a being who is accompanying the narrator as a guide, only manages to speak – and with difficulty – when a provident rainfall washes their faces. He, it turns out, is Homer, and has become immortal, as have all the sub-humans in the surrounding desert.  So, the fable unfolds. Being immortal, these people are under no pressure, and have nothing driving them on to reach deadlines. Nothing will kill them, so there is nothing to be concerned about. They see everything pass away, so they are free from the pangs of unrequited love, and from the gnawing envy of others. Nothing needs be built, nothing is precious and made poignant by its unrepeatability; hence there is nothing that needs to be expressed. So they look at each other with indifference; and when one of their number falls into a quarry he spends seventy years in this pit burning with thirst before anyone throws him a rope to haul him out. Building the crazy city was the work of these immortals, a final expression, before they abandoned even that, of the meaninglessness of an endless future devoid of moral purpose, compassion and self-sacrifice. So is this immortality the ending of birth and death, the extinction of desire and the way to the Deathless that the Buddha advocated?  Surely not – these immortals are the living dead. The plight of the African villagers offers more in terms of living freedom.

The human predicament needs to be looked into fully and holistically; it needs to include not just the world as something ‘out there’, but the ‘inner’ world of our attitudes, reactions and responses. Actually it needs more than looking into – this holistic experience, in which there is no real separation, has to be entered and fully felt. No sane mind can advocate poverty and infant mortality – but can we open to and sit with the fact that ageing, sickness, death (at any time) and separation from the loved are universally unavoidable? ‘All that is mine beloved and pleasing will become otherwise, will become separated from me.’  This, one of the most troubling statements about the human condition that I’ve come across, is something that the Buddha recommended we reflect upon and take in on a daily basis. Because whether it should be or not, this is definitely the way it is for all of us. It’s an arrow of truth, shooting straight through the heart.

It’s all so unfair – but the Buddha shot this arrow, the truth of dukkha, as an opening to an Awakening that brings about our highest happiness. Yes, in one of his own moving parables, (Samyutta 56.46) the Buddha sets up the scenario whereby what is offered to you is the possibility of being stabbed with spears one hundred times in the morning, one hundred times in the afternoon and one hundred times in the evening. In this parable, this ‘stab-a-thon’ will happen every day for one hundred years – at the end of which you will realize and Awaken through the Four Noble Truths. ‘If someone makes you that offer’, says the Buddha, ‘accept it.’  Realizing as it really is the truths of suffering, its arising, its ceasing and the Path to that ceasing will be for our long-lasting welfare.  And this process will also be accompanied by happiness and joy.

However, the Buddha didn’t teach these Four Noble Truths to uninitiated beginners; only when the heart was made ready by reflections and practices of generosity, morality and renunciation would he deliver the truths that release it. And that’s the clue. Because these practices introduce us to the holistic sense – ‘to others as to myself’ – and also check the rush towards sense-gratification that is a primary obstacle to staying holistic. The African tribe, by being a collective, had that sense; together they could dance, grieve and share what they had. Because of this shared sense they were not bowed down with the suffering of ‘Why me?’ This sense of being part of a universality has a capacity that our self-importance blocks; here is the bull’s eye to which the arrow of suffering brings transformation when we no longer deny or rail against it. Because if attention is steadied on that vulnerable point, the response of true knowing, selflessness, and compassion issues forth. This is the Awakening to the Way It Is – a Dhamma that does not shift and die. It’s a Dhamma that never tells you how you or they or it should be, but it unerringly makes it clear what you should do.

In Dhamma-practice we are encouraged to relinquish guilt, regret and fantasies around trying to be clearer, stronger or more loving than we are, and to replace all that with here-and-now acceptance of ourselves and each other. That acceptance is that there’s nothing that we have to be; in fact that there’s nothing that we ever can be – except the awareness that the images and impression of self, other and the world are subject to change. Yet that acceptance requires a subtle action, a shift to the holistic sense.

Of course, to put the conventional reality aside and to step out of the regretted past, the mundane present and the anxious future; to come to a place of timeless, selfless response – that too takes some doing.  But if we don’t do that, our minds either spin around trying to create a happy world, or close to shut out its pangs. Either of these currents, ‘becoming’ (bhava) and ‘negation’ (vibhava), obscure the holistic sense – which is the only sense that can transmute suffering into unflustered compassion.  So what we can do, what in fact we should do if we seek our own welfare, is to come out of those currents. And that means developing the emotional and psychological capacity to steady our awareness and meet what arises without holding on or closing awareness. This is uncomfortable and confusing at first, because to give up controlling or defending the heart against life confronts the ego. Initiation into wholeness isn’t ego-gratifying. But it’s from this attention as it deepens beyond the currents of bhava/vibhava that the Awakening response will emerge. Putting aside the ‘should be’ therefore doesn’t mean putting aside being touched and responding.  It means that our true response has to be one that doesn’t get bogged down in, regret or deny life. To live truthfully is to live lightly.

In fact Ted’s presence in Africa, his wish to help, his work, along with his confusion at the villagers’ attitudes were also attempts at the Four Noble Truths. He saw suffering, and in the only way that he knew how, he went forth to end it.  But he hadn’t fully entered dukkha and he had no Path.  Yet he got a teaching: he thought that suffering was outside himself and he could fix it, but the villagers had presented him with a Dhamma that blew that paradigm apart.  Unable to fit the experience into his customary way of thinking, now he needed the skill and the encouragement to meet and deepen into what had hit him. The monastery’s reception room in comfortable West Sussex is a long way from impoverished rural Africa; but it’s significant that something in him sought out such an occasion – because it was a place for talking to and being heard by others. This is the most available entry to the holistic Cosmos.  But more than that, Cittaviveka monastery presents a situation that is based on generosity, morality and renunciation, where deep attention to oneself, to others, and to the Way It Is, is encouraged and cultivated. These frame a door, but then you’ve got to do it.  The key has to be turned.  Because without wisely attending and opening into what it reveals, the door of suffering isn’t a Noble Truth, it’s just plain miserable and it doesn’t go away.

Ted comes to the monastery regularly now, to work, listen and meditate. As for me: at times – and if my mind was fully-Awakened, it would be all the time – I live in awe of how the peace of the Way It Is emerges out of meeting, purely, what arises. That out of an unsatisfactory and even anguishing existence should flow such strength, grandeur and freedom that will make a human being give all they have – just because it is the right and true thing to do. But the sweet truth is that although sickness and death may be our lot, greed, hatred and delusion and the needless suffering they create don’t have to weigh us down.