One of my favourite walks, which I make often, is to walk from my front door along the oldest route through my village, a route that takes me down Gallows Lane to the crossroads where the gallows stood, gallows where those sentenced to death at the courthouse in Pevensey ended up, as a public warning of the ultimate consequence of crime. From the crossroads I take the lane that leads to Pevensey itself, a lane that is still – just – a country lane, lined on one side by an ancient hedgerow containing mighty oak trees as well as myriads of wild flowers and herbs, and through the gaps in the hedgerow my eye can roam over the many miles of manicured fields and the hills beyond. The lane was the main Roman road to Revensey Castle, straddling the only ridge leading over the marshes towards what was then a tiny peninsula sticking out into a vast tidal bay. The Roman legions came this way, then over the centuries it was the main drovers road as cattle and sheep were driven to the market at Pevensey. The lane was also the main smuggler’s route for foreign contraband being run out of Pevensey to divers places inland. Then the lane peters out into Westham high street and I pass the Victorian and Edwardian townhouses, the few still surviving Tudor houses, and the Norman church, until I finally reach the West Gate of Pevensey Castle itself and pass through its Roman walls, walking on until I pass the Norman fort inside, from which I can gaze out across the English Channel nearby and see some of the Martello Towers on the beach which were built to repel an invasion from Napoleon that never came. Finally I pass through the East Gate of Pevensey Castle into Pevensey itself, with its own panoply of old buildings. Yes, the past is all around us, but never more apparent to me than on a walk like this, which connects me to centuries of history-making and landscape-making. On walks like this, I am reminded of T.S.Eliot‘s own walk through a historic landscape, in which he proclaimed “History is now and England”. All the while on my walk I am usually surrounded by a profusion of bird life, especially the sea-gulls ever patrolling for scraps, and the wonderful salty smell of the sea-breeze that whips off the Channel, bringing refreshing air which, through my breathing, connects me – I now realise – with all the life of the present presencing itself, not just here but everywhere. Sometimes, on such walks, I feel as if I were Walt Whitman when he throws himself on the green grass – just as I sometimes lie down on the green sward inside Pevensey Castle itself – and sings:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
Powerful Dharma, in my ever so ‘umble opinion…
I had the great good fortune of engaging in another retreat day today, with a great company of fellow retreaters, and under the expert guidance of a true Kadampa practitioner, one who is, for me, infinitely more authentic, and with far greater integrity and compassion, than the vast majority of so-called Kadampa teachers within the tradition that I was once so recently part of. Once again, as on the previous retreat day I attended, I was able to engage in plenty of meditation and share my feelings about it afterwards with others in the group in a totally egalitarian, compassionate, and non-judgemental atmosphere. It felt like being in a perfect Dharma centre, one that was open, tolerant, and free from any hierarchical boundaries. There was no need for deference, no need for submission to authoritative definitions of exactly what should be done and how, only a willingness to submit to normal rules of care and consideration for others within the group in the same way as we should anywhere else in society. There was no organisation to subscribe to, no pressure on people to do anything other than participate in any way they felt comfortable with. Any volunteering that needed doing happened spontaneously and enthusiastically without any need for people-management. The warmth and kindness in the room was palpable and the conversation very focussed on the Dharma. If only it could always be like this! But, on reflection, that it was like this today is enough. For every day like today is a confirmation of what is possible, of what a Buddhist sangha can be like, of how one can feel totally at home in a community freely coming together to study and practice Dharma without trying to impose limits on one another’s expression of that Dharma. It was very liberating to be with the band of Dharma practitioners I was part of today, a band which was quietly getting on with the business of enlightenment one meditation at a time. I am rejoicing in today for all it is worth, for the memory of such a day as today will be added to all those other positive memories I have that will help to ignite and sustain the bliss of loving-kindness within my heart that will one day hopefully blaze into the full radiance of spontaneous bodhichitta. I have nothing but gratitude for all those who helped make today such a special day of refuge in the Dharma.
Perhaps my time in the New Kadampa Tradition was all a complete waste of time? Sometimes this question comes up, leading to a complex mix of thoughts and feelings within my mind. Sometimes that mix used to be too disturbing for me to cope with and I would shut all the turbulence down and distract myself toward something else. But now the turbulence has subsided and I can look at the question and its subsequent though-train more calmly and with more interest. In one sense, yes, my time in the New Kadampa Tradition was a waste of time to the degree that I consciously or subconsciously developed an over-reliance upon the NKT as being the organisation that would lead me to enlightenment. Ironically, the more I practised NKT Dharma the more I realised the truth of what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso was saying, albeit often only the lines, that only my own inner Spiritual Guide could lead me to enlightenment, that only the wisdom inside my own mind could liberate me from suffering. As Geshe-la himself says: “if you realise your own mind you will become a Buddha; do not look for Buddhahood elsewhere”. And only I can do the actual realising of my own mind; the responsibility is totally mine,a nd my reliance upon Geshe-la is a reliance only on sincerely meditating and contemplating upon the pointers he gives, pointers which I still have to understand within the terms of my own experience, using my own intuition, reasoning, interpretations, etc. In that sense, none of my time within the NKT was wasted, as just putting Geshe-la’s advice into practice gradually empowered me to take ever more responsibility for my own spiritual progress.
But the NKT, an organisation Geshe-la created, and sanctioned, is what it is: an organisation. And arguably, spirituality cannot be ‘organised’, and no organisation can develop a definitive way for a teacher’s, any teacher’s, guidance to be understood and followed, precisely because no organisation can take on the responsibility of an individual to work out his or her own ‘salvation’. Organisations inevitably develop their own dynamic, their own purposes and agendas, which eventually deviate either partially or wholly from the spiritual goals of the individuals who owe some degree of allegiance to the organisation, and then those individuals have to cope with varying degrees of cognitive dissonance as they struggle to combine their spiritual path with the often purely worldly demands of an organisation bent only upon perpetuating and promoting itself regardless of what damage it may do to the integrity of the teacher and the teachings the organisation ostensibly supports. Krishnamurti understood this only too well, and he had the courage to dissolve the very organisation that was set up to promote his teachings and to gather disciples for him. Just read his dissolution speech! Now that is integrity! Perhaps Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, for the sake of his own teachings and the wisdom they contain, should dissolve the NKT and just tell all his disciples to get on with practising the Dharma without being diverted by the need to satisfy the demands of any ‘Dharma organisation’? Now there’s a thought! Enough to make an NKT groupie choke on his breakfast muesli! Just as well a ‘heretic’ like me does not feel the need to apply for re-entry into the ranks of the ‘pure ones’…
Yesterday I started to resume a daily meditation routine after several months of not being able to do so for various reasons, and one of my New Year resolutions was to do so assuming that I would have to start all over again, from the beginning, asasuming I was completely lacking in any real Dharma knowledge or skill (probably true anyway!). I tried to adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’. But where to begin? With what is most obvious, for me anyway: resting in the simple awareness of my breath. Afterwards, this led to the following contemplation:
We humans are, like all other phenomena, dependent-related phenomena, and the most important phenomena, both in terms of number and degree of dependency, are all those phenomena in the natural world, in our immediate eco-system, that we are interacting with, that we are inextricably linked with. An immediate example is the air itself, containing the vital oxygen that we breathe in continuously in order to fuel the chemical and physiological transformations within our bodies that sustain our life moment by moment. Even if one has no scientific knowledge at all, a phenomenological appreciation of the mere fact of breathing reveals one’s dependence upon the whole atmosphere around oneself, an atmosphere that appears to fill the whole of space, to be limitless, inexhaustible, and to have no boundaries, and that merely to hold one’s breath for long enough is to immediately create increasing physical distress which can only be alleviated by resuming breathing.
It is no coincidence that one of the most basic meditations in Buddhism is focussing and sustaining attention upon the breathing process, which is at the core of our embodiment within the natural world that is our life-support system’. Our breathing breathes life both into our meditation and generates awareness of our dependence upon ecological phenomena for our very awareness itself. By becoming more aware of the actual process of breathing we automatically become aware of awareness itself, which co-originates with the intake of air itself. Perhaps this union of in-breathed air with awareness is behind the long association of breath with spirit, pneuma, prana. But for me, the breath is proof of the embodiment of awareness within the ‘material’ or ‘physical’ world. even though awareness feels, especially in its reflexive mode, as being ‘non-material’, as transcending the material world, or as an emergent property of the material world, as somehow a phenomenon separate from the material world. The Buddha appears to have known that the breath is such a potent gateway to a deepening of mindfulness precisely because it is such an obvious and easy gateway towards a greater awareness of the myriad of ways in which the many mutually interacting, and mutually dependent, mental and physical sensations and processes that make up the human consciousness of the world. Just by following the breath deeper into its constituent and supportive physical processes and then going further into following all the subtle mental and emotional processes that are concomitant, or associated, with the breath, one can actually traverse the entire route to enlightenment, as outlined in the sattipattana sutta.
At no stage in the development of the breathing meditation could this dependence of the breath, and hence of our entire existence as a living being, upon the wider natural world, ever be forgotten, as the breath responds in every way to the condition of our environment. fresh air invigorates, stale air debilitates. breathing air in a room filled with fragrant incense and/or flowers can have a dramatic effect on the quality of meditation. Prehaps holy sites where much meditation, contemplation and prayer has gone on has air add qualities to the air that makes breathing the air there particularly powerful; not for nothing do we talk about the ‘atmosphere’ of a place or building. And, of course, we all breathe within the same atmosphere, we share the same air, so we are all connected to each other and all living beings through the air itself. By polluting the air in any way, we are harming all loving beings to some degree. And we are as humans, polluting the atmosphere in a colossal way through our collective carbon emissions with consequent colossal consequences for all living beings. A very natural way, therefore, to become more environmentally aware is simply to be more aware of our breath and its key role in all of our own life, both physical and mental, and in the life of all beings.
New Year’s day dawned bright and sunny, perfect for a walk upon the South Downs, from Willingdon to Jevington and back again. The air was mild, with a fresh breeze, and the visibility was near perfect, allowing breathtaking views across the Channel coast and towards the Weald, as well as along the rolling Downs itself. OK, just another walk, but this walk was different because it gave me an opportunity to contemplate what I have been reading about, namely the idea explored by David Abram in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, that one of the ways to reconnect deeply with nature generally is to practice becoming mindful of how our awareness is embodied within, and inseparable from, the wider landscape and eco-system we are habitually interacting with, that even our sense of time and space is not the abstract absolute entities completely independent of nature that we ordinarily conceive them to be, but are in fact generated by, and embodied in, our actual experience of the natural world itself.
Phenomenologically, the past and future can be seen not as separate facets of our experience connected by an infinitesimal small moment of present time, but as phenomena embodied in the presence of the landscape itself. The ground we walk upon feels like the past embodied; to go into the earth, by digging, mining, etc., is to go into our past, to go down through the layers of the history of the landscape and of the human race. The ground supports our walking just as the past provides the foundation for whatever we do in the present. Likewise, the horizon of our view prevents us from seeing what is beyond the horizon, but as we walk towards that horizon, we move towards the future into the space which is gradually disclosed as the horizon shifts. And hidden within the trees and plants of the landscape is the future of that landscape, that which will grow come the spring and summer, growing from the past that is the soil and the inner structure of the vegetation itself. Past and future merge into one another within the landscape to create a presence within the present, a presence in which the awareness is inseparable from the perceived and felt landscape. The many tumuli along the walk heightened this effect because they were such stark reminders of our ancestors literally become part of the landscape itself, ancestors now becoming the ground upon which we walk, our ancestral past pervading our present, a present which we can gain a wider perspective upon by being able to see further than normal just by being high up on the top of the Downs itself.
Being closer to the clouds and the birds, and having a 360 degree vision over a vast area, looking down upon the land below, is simultaneously a widening of inner vision, a deepening of the sense of time past and time future leading to one end, which is always that timeless moment which is the present felt as presence, as the landscape one is present within, with no feeling of separateness between self and the natural world itself. For me that is a precious kind of Dharma, and I like to think that the Buddha, wandering on his way from forest to hilltop and back again, was engaging in this kind of contemplation, or something similar to it, using his direct, raw immersion in the natural world, as an opportunity to see how all the mutually interacting dharmas of his awareness and the world around him, were all fused into the non-dual immediacy and presence of the spatial-temporal unity of just being-in-the-world in the here and now. Anyway, it was a grand walk and a grand way to start the New Year. And a Happy New Year to you all!
- David Abram: logos beyond words (gradscholars.wordpress.com)
What will 2013 bring, especially for Buddhists and Buddhism in general? I hope it brings an increased awareness amongst Buddhists about the prospect of catastrophic climate change and how Buddhists can, indeed perhaps must, get involved in what is arguably the greatest challenge mankind has ever faced: the challenge of reducing the carbon emissions of mankind sufficiently to mitigate the worst effects of global warming and allow mankind, and all other living beings, a reasonable chance of making the necessary adaptations to the inevitable climate shifts without catastrophic losses of life and eco-systems. This seems to me to be a supreme field for bodhisattva activity, as anything that helps to achieve some reduction in carbon emissions or help make the switch to a low carbon society and economy will quite literally benefit all living beings. The urgency of the global warming crisis is such that all of us, especially all of us Buddhists, acting here and now to help deal with this climate emergency, will be engaging in something that will benefit not only this generation but all future generations. This is now a chance for Buddhism to become truly engage with one of the most urgent issues of our time. Many Buddhists from traditional forms of Buddhism realise this and are urging such action, and the book, A Buddhist response to the Climate Emergency, is a tremendously powerful statement by many of the most renowned Buddhist teachers of our time for such engagement by Buddhist worldwide. By far the best website I have come across for exploring the climate emergency further and looking at ways that Buddhists can help deal with it is the Ecological Buddhism website. 2012 was the year in which I started immersing myself in environmental campaigning as part of my bodhisattva field of work, and I hope that 2013 will see a deepening of my commitment, and a widening of my range of activities, in this area.
What is also clear about 2013 is that we will see an ever increasing engagement of Buddhism, especially the more recent and secularised forms of it, with the cutting edge of modern developments in science, technology and cultural innovations generally. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of computing and the internet. What impresses me is the sheer range and variety of Buddhist websites, and the ever increasing sophistication of those websites. Truly the internet is now contributing significantly to a vast and deep transmission of the Dharma on a global scale and in a myriad of new ways. The challenge is how to marry the advantages of online educational technology for structured, easily accessible learning courses that have built-in interactivity and supported by media resources of all kinds with the advantages of the traditional fac-to-face oral transmissions and the supportive aspects of having a local sangha. Some Buddhist websites are making great progress in this area, but as usual there is much work still to do to fully exploit the potential of the internet for deepening Dharma study and practice. And, of course, there are dangers with an online approach to Dharma, dangers that require the use of mindfulness to keep them in check. But then again, these dangers are themselves an opportunity to deepen that very same mindfulness. I suspect that the use of the internet to spread the Dharma is just as big a challenge to traditional ways of Dharma transmission as the transfer of the original purely oral teachings of Buddha into a written form, and later on the mass production of the originally hand-written texts through the use of printing, an innovation that enabled the Dharma to spread quickly throughout the vastness of China. A good summary of some of the key issues concerning Buddhism and the internet is Sean Healey’s article. And by online, I mean not just desktop computers but also mobile phones and tablets. The proliferation of Buddhist apps for such devices may represent a quantum leap for the uptake of Buddhist ideas and practices on a mass level, if such apps gain traction and popularity. The development of such apps is very much discussed in detail by the techno-savvy guys at Buddhist Geeks.
But perhaps the most significant, if less obvious, way in which Buddhism may evolve in 2013 is through a subtle deepening of the engagement of traditional Buddhism with modern psychological research and practice. This has been going on for some years now and will no doubt continue. Buddhism is arguably a psychological world-view in itself, and certainly modern psychologists have recognised in Buddhism a rich source of ideas about human psychology. Modern psychology has a huge if often unacknowledged influence upon modern ways of thinking about the mind and thinking in general, so any engagement of Buddhism with modern psychology gives Buddhism a chance to exert a wider influence upon society in general, although in the process Buddhism itself undeniably starts to become influenced by modern psychology itself. Certainly Buddhism has been mined by modern psychologists for ideas about how to introduce mindfulness training into health care settings, and this secular application of Buddhist principles is making substantial headway in clinical psychology, certainly in the US and the UK, and is a fascinating story in itself, as described very well by Vishvapani in his excellent blog on Buddhist issues. I would argue that the best Buddhist websites attempt to combine the best of online educational technology, itself heavily influenced by modern educational psychology research, with the most important aspects of Buddhist psychology to create new and innovative ways of transmitting the Dharma. But that is another fascinating story in itself.
And I would argue that the best of the newly emergent sanghas are those which recognise that traditional forms of Buddhism cannot be harmoniously transplanted to the West without an awareness of the particular psychological make-up of people within Western culture and the particular needs many people attracted to Dharma have of either psychotherapy of some kind or some help to understand what a basic positive psychological state is before they engage too deeply with advanced Buddhist practices. That is why I would recommend to all Buddhist practitioners works such as Toward a Psychology of Awakening by John Welwood and The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra by Rob Preece. Both Welwood and Preece are Buddhist practitioners of long-standing but are also qualified psychotherapists of long-standing, and their works point out the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of the psychological and emotional demands of certain traditional Buddhist principles and practices, dangers which can be avoided or overcome through a sensitive application of Western, non-Buddhists psychological and psychotherapeutic principles. I myself wish I had read these books before I had engaged too deeply with the New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism, as these works enlighten me on some of the mistakes that both I and the management of the NKT have made with respect to managing conflict within the NKT centre I belonged to and the wider NKT in general. But such mistakes are not confined to the NKT. Many other Buddhist traditions have had similar traumatic lessons in conflict management, and many will continue to do so as long as the resources already within our culture for helping to deal with them are ignored or demeaned by those traditions because of a lack of humility about the limitations of traditional forms of Buddhist practice or Buddhist governance.
Anyway, we’ll see what 2013 brings. May you all have a very Happy New Year, filled with much peace and joy!
- Mankind Approaching ‘Carbon Cliff’, Report Warns (ipsnews.net)
- CO2 emissions rises mean dangerous climate change now almost certain (guardian.co.uk)