Uniqueness

Can you value your uniqueness, as part of the whole?
Be subtle as breath, and supple as a baby?
Be a polished Mirror reflecting Truth perfectly?

Lao Tzu ~ Tao Te Ching
(Translated Freke 1994)

These days it is extremely socially valued to be distinct, above the herd rather than below it. But our struggle to become distinct can result in us looking and sounding similar. We wear the same sorts of fashionable colours and styles; even deviate from the norm in similar ways; think the same sorts of ideas, driven by contemporary, powerful social and economic forces. Even when we do manage to be special, seemingly in some way ‘unique’, it turns out to be distinctive only in the way that many others are.

The woman at the Ascot horse races discovers that a dozen others are wearing the same dress and hat. She is mortified; her great day in the royal enclosure absolutely ruined. Striving hard to gain accretions — like thousands of barnacles on a ship’s hull- serves only to warp her true nature. We feel that being ‘special’ involves becoming important, acquiring things and designer labels on our clothes, or cloaks. We can become like scouts and girl guides— skills in cooking. Path-finding, sailing, knot tying, tent pitching; invisible badges all over the clothes, but what have all these ‘things’ and ‘roles’ got to do with who we really are? Do they add up to a hill of beans?

This striving for individuality and distinctiveness is not necessarily healing, but becomes a sickness. The healing doesn’t lie in accentuating separateness but in coming together. The reason for the Buddhist community life (Sangha) is inherent in the nature of the Buddha ’s teaching. We have seen that this teaching consists of diagnosis and prescription: diagnosis of the human malaise as consisting essentially of the disease of individualism, and prescription for its cure as consisting primarily of the undermining or erosion of the notion that individuality is something permanent and of great importance. It is in the life of the Sangha that the prescription can most effectively be applied. Here is the community of being which comes into existence when the walls of individuality are completely and permanently broken down. And here too, are found the optimum conditions for those who are seeking to achieve that state of life and consciousness where individuality is no more, but who have not yet arrived at that state.

We may desire but don’t need this pursuit of individuality. We may desire independence but thirst and hunger for interdependence, finding harmony in working and collaborating with others. We need an active fellowship — a sense of union with others, as the Buddha suggested, that may come over the internet or more likely through ordinary conversations, cuddles and laughs from those intimate to us, both geographically and emotionally.

Of the many threats to the building of community, one comes from the belief that we have nothing much to learn from the past, based firmly on the illusion of progress. It worships everything that is modern, combined with a profound disrespect for our grandmothers and grandfathers, either literally or in developing professional disciplines. For example the study of pre-history teaches us that our ancestors were much more accomplished than we ever imagined. Too much preoccupation with modernity can lead us to look to the future and rarely back into the past. We need vision in both directions — past and future — as well as the clearly focused skills to survive in the present moment.

A Zen teacher who ran a bakery employing homeless people just outside New York commented:

One of the most popular pastries we baked was… a dense chocolate torte… it turned out to be delicious and special. Around that time, we hired a professional baker to help us increase our efficiency — and he made a few changes in the way we prepared our Godiva chocolate torte. Almost immediately, we got a call from the people at Godiva, and they said, ‘What’s happened? ’ In fact it was good. But it was good the way any other chocolate torte was good. It was no longer special… Experts can be useful . . . but… we had to learn to keep our uniqueness and style… (Glassman and Fields, 1996).

This outlines the tension between our drive to be special and our original face, or as Bankei would have called it, our unborn mind. The top confectionery expert on chocolate tortes came to give advice, just like any expert in making over deficient psyches. He did this job well, analysing and reconstructing the process of cake making so that the new product was uniformly excellent. He looked at every tiny segment of a complex operation in great professional detail. The brand new chocolate torte was launched and delivered to the shops, amid great pride, glossy brochures and the loud fanfare of trumpets. Everyone was delighted.

However there was a great problem in the shops. The purchasers of the new torte compared it adversely with the previous, so—called inferior version. Their mouths and stomachs were fine judges. It wasn’t that the original torte had been better or worse, but that it had been ‘unique’ and the new version was uniform and standardised. The new and delicious torte was like everyone else’s — mouthwatering, but delicious in the same way as everyone else’s. You could buy this sort of torte in most discerning confectioners, almost anywhere. The original might have been ‘less perfect’, whatever that means, but it had been a definite reflection of that particular bakery, in a way that the new one was not. It was a direct expression of the expert’s work.

This was the result of conscientiously and eternally striving to be better. To make perceived improvements is an important aspect of human striving, but we can get hemmed in with fantasies of improvement, as Feynman might have noted. They can be self—incarcerating and claustrophobic. They can reject the natural flow of the chocolate, with all its quirky, incalculable outcomes, in favour of something much more calculated and planned which is content with agreed standards, measured dessert spoons and regulations.

This is an almost irresistible movement from the scruffy to the slick. The old torte—making process in that particular bakery was scruffy and large elements were virtually unmeasured, based on guesswork. The new system, cleverly designed by the confectionery expert was slick. Everything from start to finish was completely standardised and measured.

There is no need to search to be unique, we are already. The drive for psychological and even spiritual betterment, as with chocolate tortes, can take us away from our original face. We can become standardised, similar in artificial ways to most others. Not only do we end up wearing the same jeans or chinos, but our naked souls are clothed similarly.

Our essential ‘vitality’ as the Nei—yeh Taoist text has it, comes from being wholly and fully who we really are. Christ of the Gospels talks of ‘living more abundantly’. Worry and greed generate illness, and an increasing craving to be better can easily be a denial, a fundamental lack of acceptance of who we really are. That sort of craving can never be satisfied by hungry ghosts.

Nowadays our TV screens are packed full of DIY gurus and cookery experts. There’s no end to the demand for this sort of basic entertainment. Raymond Blanc, one extremely popular cook is like a pharmacist, a domestic scientist, presiding over a large kitchen and measuring with extraordinary care the various ingredients for the dish. His culinary precision is remarkable and he uses a great traditional pedagogic style. Yet you know that his instructions should be followed exactly and will always end up with a delicious meal. It feels as though you’re observing a great technician at work. Precision cooking at its finest.

Yet another popular TV cook, Keith Floyd travelled abroad a lot and had on hand vast amounts of cheap red wine to flavour various dishes and sauces. Much of this wine went down his own throat. In great contrast to the pedagogue, this chef throws handfuls of herbs and this and that into various simmering saucepans. You don’t feel ‘taught’ at all, not at all like a small errant child, but part of a hastily arranged party, where the guests become increasingly inebriated and begin to dance.

In one kitchen the stress is on the goals, and in the other it’s on the whole enjoyable process. In one kitchen processing food is an exact science, in the other flamboyant fun. One experience is of very formal learning, where my admiration of the cooking teacher grows and grows. But afterwards, I don’t feel like cooking or that I’ve gained increased confidence, or even feel the slightest bit hungry. It all feels rather like painting a Rembrandt by numbers. With the second cook, it’s all great comedy, although I’m not sure what he’s doing or where we’re going. It’s not an ascetic experience but sensual. After all this is not medicine, but eating and drinking. I could throw this and that into any old pan and it would taste reasonable, especially if I drank sufficient alcohol.

With the famous pedagogue I can be confident that his recipe will always work out correctly but it will never really belong to me. It will remain firmly his. Like the chocolate cake, it will be excellent but always uniformly excellent, nothing genuinely distinctive and unique. With the second chef, it will never be his, it would always belong to me — whether edible or not, it will have a unique, un—uniform quality. Every time this dish is made, it will taste different.

The second chef passed on to me via the TV something of the joys of cooking, the real process of preparing food. Although impossible to follow, even when sober, he took a whole liberating process and communicated it, as all great teachers rather than technicians do. He captured its whole spirit.

The helping profession strikes me as much the same. Many of us give help via a series of models, diagrams and carefully organised strategies from textbooks that look more like car repair manuals — year on year. Each particular part is exactly described — dissections of empathy, projecting warmth and accurate feedback, but it bears very little relationship to the whole activity. We haven’t communicated the essence — any of the warmth and fun— in our work. I’ve been fortunate to meet several great teachers in my career, although I didn’t usually realise they were great until a long time afterwards.

One early encounter, whilst working with homeless people took place at the Mill Road Project, in Cambridge. The Project gave out bus tickets and small amounts of cash to various itinerants. It was presided over by Reg, whom I’d presumed on several previous meetings to be affable but bumbling. Reg let me sit in on brief interviews. It was fascinating to see him at work. There was the usual long series of depressing encounters, an eternal file of the disabled, the elderly and what used to be called before the war ‘the feckless’. These people were ‘down on their luck’. Many were old soldiers, British Legion types, never adjusting to civvy street, whilst others emerged periodically from assorted prisons and mental hospitals into the smog and busy traffic.

Of course I had read some related books and articles, mostly of the sickly sentimental ‘I rescued the homeless’ type; and attended several relevant lectures and seminars, but those were simply words and this was so much more. There was the world of difference between going to the zoo to watch the big cats sleeping and actually wrestling with them, feeling their sharp claws and teeth on your flesh. Although my experience of sleeping rough had involved some direct wrestling with the tigers.

Reg dealt with the homeless in a courteous and priestly style. He seemed devoid of any organisation. He had a natural gift for anarchy, of the ‘large piles of files all over the floor’ variety. He gave the many downtrodden guests some quality time, whereas I was more brisk and business—like, operating on piecework and strongly influenced by my idea of what constituted professional skills.

I vividly recall one encounter. The man was in his early thirties, wearing dirty work trousers and a scruffy T shirt. ‘I’m a time—served carpenter by trade, mostly working on buildings. Split up with my wife some years ago, she was always difficult to live with, and never seen the two bairns since. Just come in to Cambridge from Birmingham on the train. Left my carpentry tools in the left luggage office so I could look for work. After a couple of days of looking, I’ve found work with Laings and start work tomorrow morning at 6. I need £20 to pay to get the tools out of the station and get some new work clothes. And I don’t have a penny piece. I’ll pay you back in a few weeks.

Reg listened carefully and gravely. After a few more questions and many serious nods of the head, he got out a battered tin cash box and handed over two scruffy ten pound notes. The man bowed his head, uttered repeated thank yous and left hurriedly, as if Reg might suddenly change his mind. l was astounded.

Reg could see I was fit to burst as he turned to me: ‘Well what did you think of that man and his story?’

‘l thought it was a completely preposterous pack of lies. With those unblemished hands he’s no more a carpenter or builder than I am. He’s probably been in London some months at least, probably living in a Sally Army hostel. The money is obviously going on the drink right at this very moment’

‘Yes — you are completely right. I can’t disagree. He’s probably half drunk already’

‘Then why did you give him the £20 if you knew the story was false‘?’

‘Who else in Cambridge is he going to fool with such a stupid story? He’ll probably starve to death’

Being intensely full of myself, arrogant and stupid to boot, it took me many years to work on that simple story. lt wouldn’t let me go. It stuck in my mind like a piece of grit in an oyster. lt wouldn’t go away. l’m not sure there is any real moral. Morals — drawing out the underlying message — were never the stock in trade of Bankei types. They just got on with ordinary living. The homeless man’s story was almost certainly grossly inaccurate but somehow nevertheless true. Reg was a guru who had almost disappeared, forgotten to teach. He had deep saddle sores from too much riding on the backs of bulls.

The emphasis in work with the homeless in those days — and today — was on the great split between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ , finding out whether you were of ‘ good character’. lf you were of good moral status, then you deserved to be helped; if not, then there was always the workhouse. So the resources were given for presenting good illusions, putting on an attractive charade.

Reg revealed the mirage nature of this — nobody deserves or doesn’t deserve, whatever that might mean. Did the Good Samaritan ask for the bona fides of the injured traveler, or even references? He was much more generous than that. He just helped him up onto his beast and paid for his care at the inn, not a passport or social security benefit voucher in sight.

Rosie, a young woman with learning difficulties in her early twenties, had recently been discharged from a long-stay hospital and wanted a dog for her twenty-third birthday. lt was her heart’s desire. Why? We can only make guesses. Perhaps it was some great symbol of freedom, a celebration of her escape from the grim institution, but she hungered badly for a dog — an ordinary mongrel. ‘Please can l have a dog for my birthday?’ lt seemed a reasonable request.

But unfortunately she had only exchanged one kind of institution for another. She now lived in a staffed group home, run by a large voluntary organisation. The staff wanted to help but the hypothetical mongrel presented huge organisational difficulties. The opinion of the other residents must be taken into account. How would it affect their lives? Perhaps some of them might be allergic to canine fur. Others might not like dogs. There was the whole democratic process to go through, including the views of the staff who had to work there every day. Could she look after this animal? lf not, who would take on the responsibility, and was it fair on them? After all dogs are not just for Christmas, but for life. Who would take financial responsibility for any necessary vet’s bills when her social security income was so low? What did the complex risk—assessment processes have to say? What if one of the residents was bitten — would the existing household insurance cover it? The process was absolutely endless. There was always yet another steep hurdle.

After two interminable staff meetings the problem was referred ever upwards. Nobody wanted to accept responsibility for this truly awesome decision. At regional office level it became an issue of hygiene, as well as one of endangering the security of the group home through the construction of a dog or cat flap. Various senior officers discussed this endlessly, as well as the implications for fire regulations. What were the regulations about the size and construction of various sorts of door flap? How could the organization ensure that the builder was adequately insured? Hundreds of pounds was spent, enough to buy a Crufts champion, without any clear decision. National headquarters were asked for guidance.

The whole process took more than five months. Her birthday came and went, and so did Christmas. The file on the canine request grew thicker and thicker, to phone directory size. Phone calls and meetings proliferated. Just before the referral to the United Nations, a good old—fashioned English compromise was reached, balancing the least danger with the greatest acceptability. One evening Rosie came home extremely tired from the adult training centre and was introduced to the home’s newest inmate. She passed it by without a break in her step, showing unerring Zoological accuracy: ‘That’s not a dog. lt’s a cat.’

All those intelligent and professional staff, employed by a caring organisation, were completely unable to respond accurately to the uniqueness of Rosie’s desire for a dog. They couldn’t recognise the incessant yearning she had for some canine company, that it wasn’t remotely like the desire for a cat. She wanted something to train, to take for walks, to throw sticks into the far distance and have some chance they might be brought back. No cat could do all of that.

lt wasn’t because staff didn’t care — they spent thousands of hours trying to square the circle. lt wasn’t because they couldn’t tell the difference between dogs and cats — at least two of them were dog owners. They had also clearly understood, just how important having a dog, as opposed to having a cat, was for Rosie. They had breakfast with her every day, they accompanied her to the local shops. The juggernaut system they operated just wouldn’t permit an accurate and sensible decision. Overall guidelines and general principles had to be adhered to. Rosie’s choice was only one of any number of items that had to go into the service spin—dryer. All these items had to be taken into account, resulting in a stupid and unsatisfactory compromise, made principally by distant people who were completely unable to recognise the uniqueness of either the hypothetical dog or Rosie.

Again we see how the services are trying to be slick rather than scruffy, erring towards yang and neglecting yin. Efficiency and best value are the bywords. So the dog gets tippexed out and the cat brought purring in. Each step in this long and expensive process is very sensible and coherent, but somehow — largely unintentionally — returns the requested dog into a cat. Every single segment of that essential uniqueness, which Reg taught so well, is ironed out.

The seventeenth-century Japanese Zen Master Bankei brought to practice an earthy freshness that still breathes through the stories, which even three centuries on still contain an immense vitality. He left no written expositions of his teachings and gave strict orders that nobody else was to reduce them to writing. Nevertheless his students were disobedient and did record his teachings, in particular about the ‘Unborn’.

Take this comment from one sermon:

What we call a ‘thought’ is something that has already fallen one or more removes from the living reality of the Unborn. If you priests would just live in the Unborn, there wouldn ’t be anything for me to tell you about it, and you wouldn ’t be listening to me. But because of the unbornness and marvellous illuminative power inherent in the Buddha mind, it readily reflects all things that come along and transforms itself into them, thus turning the Buddha-mind into thought.

But his main lessons are not to be found in the formality of sermons in the temples but rather, like Christ, in the way he lived. During one of his retreats, a student was caught stealing. Others reported it to him and asked for the student’s expulsion. Bankei ignored their demand. Later the student was caught stealing again and once more Bankei ignored their request for expulsion. The other students were angry and drew up a petition asking for the thief to be sent away, otherwise they would leave. Bankei read the petition and called everyone before him: You are wise brothers. You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study gr you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I’m going to keep him here even if the rest of you leave.’ A torrent of tears cleaned the face of the brother who’d stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.

My favourite story is about hecklers at one of Bankei’s lectures. Two students of another teacher were angry when their master lost all his students because they went to hear Bankei talk. They stood on the edge of the crowd and heckled. ‘Our teacher can do magic. He can make the clouds move and bring the sunshine. What magic can you do‘?’ Bankei responded: ‘It may be that your old fox can do these things but my magic is that when I’m hungry l eat, when thirsty I drink.’

Now that’s what I call extremely powerful stuff. It leaves everyone just breathless. He could join any spiritual Magic Circle anywhere in the world with tricks like that. The message was so direct and clear, almost brutal, give up this intense yearning for the mysterious and delectable, live with the world as it genuinely is. See and delight in the ordinary magic and miracles everywhere around you. If these two poor stooges, the hecklers, had even one shred of wisdom, they’d have left their tired old fox and simply followed Bankei, but I don’t think they did. I bet they stayed close to their cloud mover. They were looking up in the air for intoxicating conjuring, not for immensely skilful ways of living. Staring upwards, quite soon they would get their sandals all covered in dog shit.

Bankei didn’t give starving people photographs of loaves of bread. He gave them real loaves so that they could eat their fill. He didn’t deal in complicated ideologies and paradigms, but suggested directly what they might do about their perceived problems. He was the direct expression of the Buddha nature, the unborn mind.

On the day of his death the monastery bell began to toll. A young monk coming out of the main gate spoke to a blind beggar who had sat outside for many years. ‘The great teacher is dead’ said the young monk. ‘l’d guessed that. He’d been ill for quite a while’ said the beggar, ‘He was a really great man. When you’re blind you must listen more carefully to the sound of people’s voices. Sometimes you can hear that although people say they are sad their voice sounds glad; and sometimes when they say they’re glad they sound sad. But with Bankei, in all the years I heard his voice, every time he said he was sad, he was only sad, and every time he said he was glad, he was only glad.’

Chuang Tzu write about our projections and expectations. If we see another person, we develop a whole series of ideas about how they are supposed to think and behave. We assume they have control and operate under the very same principles as we do. Reality may not be like that at all.

Imagine that you have an enemy. Someone tells you that he let some people down by not turning up to give a talk. Just imagine the response: ‘Well I have to say, he’s that sort of person. We have found him to be totally unreliable. He does what he wants to do in the way he wants to do it.’ You already had an extremely poor picture of this person and the information just received fits this.

Now suppose this person is a close friend — imagine the very different response: ‘This is not at all typical. He must have been sick or had some accident. I can’t understand it. We’ve always found him to be utterly reliable. On the one hand, when the person is someone we don’t like we find the example fits with what we’ve experienced the mind-set of the person. On the other, when it’s someone we do like we find it incomprehensible and alien to our picture of him.

But this attitude of non-judgment is both hard both to practice and not to practice. I’m really familiar with the ten thousand traps that it is heir to, especially the arrogance and stupidity of raising oneself high above others, feeling that you’re in some way better. Although in my heart, most of the time I feel not better, but much worse than others. This habitual posture is an expression of the very next grave precept — ‘Do not be stingy’. Stinginess reflects a lack of awareness, generosity and compassion towards others. Again all these projections arise from the network of expectations. I should wash my mouth out with carbolic soap every single time I break that precept, except it would be very expensive and do disastrous things to my digestive system!

What is unique about us? When all our roles and other accretions are stripped away and our so—called achievements are no more — with what does death leave us? Bill ’s long-suffering wife came to my home early one Sunday morning. She had been crying all night. Her tale began rather hesitantly and then became more fluent. ‘You’ll remember Bill. You met him at some party and he came to visit you several times. I recalled him well — an awkward, self—opinionated middle-aged man with an extremely chequered career. He’d left many jobs — fruit picker, postal worker, taxi driver — just before he was sacked. We’d had several fierce arguments about the nature of the universe, whether there was life on other planets, about truth… Mostly I enjoyed those arguments but his boss, a former Roman Catholic priest whom I knew well, was not so pleased. He worked in a group home for people with learning difficulties who had recently been discharged from long-stay hospitals. The serious question was, who had the greatest need ~ he or the residents. Bill was always late for his shift, due to regular drinking bouts.

He was regularly ‘pissed off’ with his boss, who he assessed as ‘an emotionally constipated bastard’. Bill’s diagnosis was probably accurate but it didn’t help the smooth running of the shift system. His boss’s diagnosis – ‘Bill has an ego the size of the Royal Festival Hall and an authority problem to match’ was probably on the ball; they were both shrewd judges of horse flesh if it wasn’t their own. I first met Bill at a social event one Christmas. He was a larger than life character, drinking gallons of cheap beer and brandy, taking numerous pills, having affairs with assorted colleagues and discovering the occupational disciplines of life in extensive conflict with enormous passions. For Bill, this resulted in a major crisis every year or two.

‘Bill died on Tuesday’, his wife informed me as she sobbed, apparently Bill had staggered back late at night from the off-licence, presumably already tanked up. Slaloming across a busy main road, he had been hit violently by a car that hadn’t stopped, probably because the driver had been over the alcohol limit himself.

‘Well he told me that he was a Buddhist. He read a lot of books on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism… so… I need your help to arrange a Buddhist funeral’. It was a considerable surprise that he was Buddhist. He always seemed a straightforward agnostic. Did reading a few books make you something? It seemed churlish to argue about theological brands, particularly when the object of the discussion was already dead, or at least in between rebirths.

I slowly savoured Bill’s wife’s request daunted but the fact I never arranged Buddhist funeral, I had never even attended one. Surely she couldn’t be serious. How could I conduct any sort of funeral? I would need to enlist the help of my friend Rev. Jim, an ordained Zen monk. He would have to guide me. So I spoke words of agreement. It would take place at 1pm the next Tuesday.

‘What do you want me to say in the funeral address?’ ‘Tell the truth about him. No nonsense? Easier said than done — exactly what is true about anyone? But I knew what she meant. There is a convention in newspaper obituaries that only saints die; sinners live forever. A journalist friend killed herself recently and the Guardian obituary never mentioned suicide. We needed to speak of his Unborn Mind, the essential nature of the man without any gloss.

The following morning the phone started to ring. First it was the funeral director. What were Buddhist procedures? Could I write them down? Shortly afterwards it was the crematorium. Were there Buddhist hymns that could be played during the service? They were anxious to get tapes for the sound system. People were nervous and confused. We were leaving behind carefully rehearsed scripts.

I began three days of preparation, ringing around his friends. Some were grieving deeply; others were getting on with life. I needed a picture of him as a living breathing person. It was a fairly raunchy and chaotic picture. He drank a great deal; womanised extensively; smoked much dope, mixed with a variety of other drugs; battled with all authorities at all from the Inland Revenue to the police and his gentle boss; and had, in between times, shown great chunks of captivating compassion — a latterday Falstaff.

I made copious notes and discussed the eulogy and the service in detail with his wife at a second meeting. She seemed happy with the arrangements.
I found a tape of Japanese bamboo flute music — shakuhachi — for the worried man at the crematorium. It sounded suitably oriental and dirge—like. If I was to play the fool in front of a hundred plus guests, I’d do it medieval Japanese style. There wouldn’t be many samurais present.

The chant for ‘unexpected misfortunes’ in the Buddhist services book looked promising. There are few greater unexpected misfortunes in life and death than being mown down by a ‘hit and run’ driver. I started to rehearse.

Suddenly it was the day. More than a hundred gathered: two wives (one ex-); assorted friends and mistresses from work; drinking companions; brothers and sisters; his weeping mother; and the crematorium staff, who had never seen a Buddhist funeral, but neither had I.

Thankfully Rev. Jim presided over the service, in line with ancient tradition. He welcomed people, explaining the service to an eerie silence. His voice came and went in waves, trying to sound confident. ‘We’ll begin with Japanese music, followed by chanting; followed by a short talk about our friend Bill; then more chanting and a period of silence. The service will begin and end with the sound of this meditation bell.’ After the beautifully wistful shakuhachi music faded away, we waited for a moment and then began a deep rhythmical chant from back of my throat. The Japanese sounds came pouring into this very Christian chapel of rest.

When finished a reading of The Gobunsho, or Epistles, I talked slowly of Bill:

‘All of us knew Bill. That’s why we’re here. Not primarily to feel sorrow at his death, although most are grieving, but richly to celebrate his life — who he was and what he did in his uniqueness. He wasn’t a saint by a long way. He was an ordinary man with more than his fair share of desires leading a life good in parts and with some great difficulties in others. He had a chequered career — lots of different jobs from bookmaker to postman, from supermarket manager to travelling salesman. He lived life abundantly.

Many will know of his drink and drugs problem. He struggled over many years to kick alcohol and get off dope. Many will know he felt a great failure as a father to his five children. Many more will know that he had intimate relationships with a number of women. It is not our part to judge him here but to tell the truth. The truth is that he worked with people with disabilities; that he read widely and thought deeply; that he wondered a lot about the nature of life and the planet; that he could be difficult and bloody minded; but that there was a great mixture of joy and suffering deep within him. In other words, he was much like the rest of us.

We don’t know what is happening to Bill, but he’s returned to white ashes. He was a follower of the Lord Buddha. Perhaps at this moment he waits outside the Nirvana gates. l knew and respected him. Let’s send our good wishes whatever religious faith we have or none. Let’s end this funeral service in silence, finishing with the sound of the bell.’

Like Bill’s life, one moment the funeral was rolling along and then it was over. The music and chanting faded away. The large Japanese meditation bell tinkled three times, followed by deep silence. I waited outside in fine drizzle to shake hands with each mourner as they went. Bill’s wife embraced me with her thanks. One skeletal young man covered in tattoos, even on his bald head, shouted: ‘Nice one man!’ before climbing onto a damp motor bike. I went home by car — moved and empty. I was too full emotionally. Some deep mysteries had been touched in this ceremony. I was part of some huge process, tapping into the flow of a great river. Just for a single moment we had felt the original, unique nature of that old rogue Bill.

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7 Replies to “Uniqueness”

  1. A wonderful, life-affirming post that gives honour and respect to our moment in time. Humanity has the propensity to believe that special individuals have a grand destiny to fulfill. Our history books are full of heroes. In the end, however, we all want to know our lives have meant something to someone else. It doesn’t have to be the many or the few, just the one is enough. Our uniqueness is seen through the eyes of the other.

    “Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”
    ― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

  2. The system just erased two or three whole paras I’d written here in answer t oyour wonderful post… :) So, here goes, again.

    It is a profound post and has given me a lot of matter to think about. You have articulated your thoughts very lucidly. A pleasure to read such a well-written, well-put-together article. All thoughts, in the right place, to the right degree, in the right tone.

    Rosie’s story, heartbreaking. All for a dog. oh!

    Bill’s story too. We are all seekers. Some seek well, some seek and seek and get lost as a result… Bill might have been the second kind, but, hey! who are we to judge? Seeking can be a painful thing!

    The chefs are a great way to talk of the importance of loving what you do. I now try to live life only to ‘enjoy’ it for what it is… not for the ‘goals’ Ascot-like!

    Yes, who are we to judge the deservingness of people for charity? I completely and strongly agree with that. The Sufi teachers too…

    ‘….What we call a ‘thought’ is something that has already fallen one or more removes from the living reality of the Unborn….’ A very interesting sentence…. tell me a bit more about this.

    I will revisit this post again….. :) Until then, take care!

  3. For every cat and dog and Bill and Rosie in the world. . . a great homage.
    We are all unique. We are all special. We are all important. There is no one before the other on the playing field of life.

    I believe there is no greater expression of uniqueness than BEing true to oneself. It can take a life time to arrive at that place . . .compassion, honesty, acceptance, generosity of spirit and soul searching along the way.

    The destination to uniqueness is worth the journey (..and there may be a spark of inspiration from 67 to wj for another blog post one day)

    Thank you

    Andrea

  4. Our recognition of our humanity is uniqueness, is a light that surrounds us all, and that’s holy (in a religious sense), as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton understood.

    Re. Beginners mind… Have you read Shunryu Suzuki’s autobiography: The Crooked Cucumber? The title alludes to his uniqueness. I loved his wonderful sense of humour and compassionate thought. It was a light that surrounded his life.

  5. Thanks Meenakshi, Rosie, she had also told me that she wanted a boyfriend, but I think after the whole dog-means-cat debacle she didn’t feel she could have any confidence (or trust) to seek help, in fear of the team coming up with another well crafted, risk managed ‘solution’ to her need. Rosie’s uniqueness ran rings around their systems of help and processes of helping.

    Bankei’s also expressed the ‘Unborn’:
    you should all listen to my words as if you were newly born this very day. If something’s on your mind, if you have any preconceptions, you can’t really take in what I say. But if you listen as if you were a newborn child, it’ll be like hearing me for the first time. Since there’s nothing in your mind, you take it right in, grasp it even from the first word…

    I guess this small word of advice would serve well as a preface in current nursing, social work and counselling textbooks. Can we become like empty boats, when listening to the needs of others?

  6. Hi Andrea, thanks for this feedback, this spark of inspiration is a mutual one, your BEing inspires other BEings :)…

    You say compassion, honesty, acceptance, generosity of spirit is a long journey. I agree, and it reminds us that every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single footstep. We may never know where it ends, but our mindfulness is in each step.

    I don’t know much, and age doesn’t equate to wisdom, but I’ve learned that we contain such incredible diversity inside our minds and yet with this we share a common goal: to find a coherent identity, connection and support with those we care for and about. And those I have connected with have opened my eyes to see at least a tiny part of the whole….

    Thank you again, really appreciated.

  7. And on the subject of humanity, we might learn from a South African word: Ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: “the word Ubuntu. . . speaks about about the essence of being human: that my humanity is caught up in your humanity because we say a person is a person through other persons.”

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