Coming Home

I’ve come to a stage in my life where I feel love is not so much a conscious decision, not on its own anyway, but also it is an involuntary act. It appears to me that I (we) have no choice but to love, and be led by love. But the real test (if there is one) comes when people can’t get along. When people become at odds with each other, when we construct artificial barriers of the ego, to protect oneself, and ultimately cause the other person harm or loss in some way.

For instance, on my return from a holiday abroad I discovered that whilst away my neighbour decided, in her wisdom, to cut down the trees in the back of our garden. Six trees totally ruined by her thoughtlessness, her reaching over the dividing fence and ripping the trunks in half with a blunt hack-saw. At first I was shocked, horrified, distraught at the callous act, to encroach on our small but lovingly tendered garden, and cause such carnage to the trees I have protected for years. I burning with rage over what happened, for days I became a monster possessed, then I realised something… her act came about through a lack of consciousness, respect and caring. She is possibly bi-polar and in her frantic hyperactivity did this with a lack control too. Then it hit me here I was doing the same, acting from the same place – rooted in ignorance.

It took me a short while to understand this and then to approach her with love and understanding. Sadly she still didn’t see that she had done anything wrong, her defences were going nowhere, but I was no longer in the clutches of ignorance and anger. I accepted her, her act and her suffering. We are all suffering in some way or another, and compassion, and forgiveness seems the only way out. I still have to sort the garden out and do something with the trees that got damaged, my spirit still hurts for the injury caused upon mother nature, but I’m not carrying the pain so much. I’ve put it down and given myself permission to leave it there. To let it go.

I think incident this teaches me to love in the most difficult of circumstances, to extend love to those, who are out of touch with themselves, others and common gardener decency. And I know that neighbours can be at war for much less. But I had no choice, with love somewhere in the midst of chaos, I had to lay down my weapons, and pick up the pipes of peace. I had to relearn fast that no-one is perfect, least of all me. I still have a long way to go. Who knows, the trees might even grow once more.

Romeo and Juliet

Since my early teens I’ve felt stirred, frustrated and inspired by the greatest writer who ever lived (in my humble opinion), William Shakespeare. I was only 13 years old when my English teacher, Mr Conte, brought Julius Caeser to my world and slowly he taught me about the value of studying and memorising significant passages.
But it wasn’t until I became a father that I started to see a need to share my rekindled passion with the people I love.

My daughter Isabel shares this love for literature. One day, when Isabel was eight years old, she came home happily spouting a line of Shakespeare: “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.” Her teacher was an woman who took a particular interest in the hero of her youth, and she had decided to pass the torch on to the younger generation.

When I heard my daughter quoting this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a light went on in my head. We should go somewhere to see the places that inspired these stories. But where? There are so many. Together we made the decision. Italy sprang to mind. And after further thought and deliberation we settled on Verona, the city where we could retrace the narrative of Romeo and Juliet.

Why Romeo and Juliet? I recalled how I was in Mr Conte’s class, acne faced, with my hormones changing – falling in and out of love in successive failed plots, that served only to reveal my emotional unreadiness at that age. Looking back I realise that rather than trying to understand Julius, I needed to know Juliet and what it was that drove her and Romeo to play out their cosmic dance of longing, passion and tragedy.

So under the famous balcony in Verona and I’m hoping to inject the spirit of shakespeare, of human drama within Isabel’s grasp of the world and the oceans of emotions she will no doubt face in her own time. I’m hope the Shakespeare’s message will stay with her somehow. Nothing can stop her heart breaking, not even her father’s over-protection, but she may have the vocabulary to recognise it – seeing it in both a personal and universal way – and, more importantly, be able to express it in a meaningful way.

This is what matters I feel. I want Isabel to get Shakespeare’s message: to never give up on the all pervasive, everlasting flame within her soul. And I hope too when it comes to nursing her broken heart she remembers that not all human activity, including love, is folly. But this will take more than a single trip to Italy, it will take practice, and lots of it.

Rather than follow the hordes of lovelorn visitors who flock to the former inn known as the Casa di Giulietta (or Juliet’s House) to leave the letters and messages in the courtyard beneath the balcony, sticking notes of love against the brick wall with chewing gum. Isabel and I will walk away quietly leaving nothing behind. But we’ll take away this vow to practice.

Isabel and I will set up a routine. We will spend time together reading each day and memorising small quotes from Shakespeare’s play. These hours will be spent together learning, starting with Romeo and Juliet then everything else from As You Like It to King Lear. We’ll started with short accessible passages from the comedies and, gradually over time, increased the length and complexity of the passages. These hours we will sit next to each other totally engaged in something we both love, and we will have enormous fun doing it.

I feel that learning passages from Shakespeare is a lot like learning a foreign language. Some of his words are unknown to us, even as adults. Shakespeare’s sentence structure can sounds odd to our modern ears and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can sometimes be difficult to understand. I certainly struggle with it. So what I’ll do is teach Isabel how to understand every word in the Shakespeare passage being studied, then memorize the passage so that her knowledge of Shakespeare become fluent, the way a foreign language can become fluent.

And as each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest (with a lot more plays in between), we will talk about the stories, the characters and the meanings of the works so that Isabel gets the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare she’ll need to become a student, thinkers, and ultimately, a teacher of Shakespeare.

There is no doubt in my mind that
knowing Shakespeare will help prepare Isabel for the years ahead. Or as Hamlet says: It will better prepare us for the joys, as well as the whips and scorns of time. If we practice, practice, practice, it will introduce Isabel to the rich world of literature, and, from there, to the universe of cultural references embedded in that literature.

Shakespeare will give Isabel confidence and it will, ultimately, by giving her Shakespeare’s perspective on the world, teach her to be a more moral human being, when it comes to dealing with adolescent romance and it’s many pitfalls. She will be stronger and wiser. Her knowledge of true love will pull her through. And to quote Hamlet again, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Compassion

Several years ago in a large shopping mall I watched this scene unfold: About 100 yards in front of me an elderly lady had fallen down an escalator. Her shopping had spilled everywhere. One of her legs was bleeding, and with the escalator still moving there remained other possible dangers. As I approached five or six people, none of whom knew the lady or each other until moments before, had already burst in to action, forming a collaborative team.

A young man pressed the emergency button to stop the escalator; a couple lifted the elderly lady from the metal stairs, where she was balanced precariously to the main floor, and someone’s coat was placed under her head. A middle aged man dialled 999 to call for an ambulance. A young woman came out of the nearest shop brining with her a first aid kit. She knelt over the elderly ‘patient’, asked how she was, assessing for shock, and explained that she was a off-duty nurse. The lady was shaky but unbowed. The gash in her leg wasn’t too bad, although there was a lot of blood.

The main actors stood around sympathetically, awaiting the arrival of the paramedic crew. One man had blood on his jacket from lifting her off the escalator. Another man and woman had collected her spilled shopping and put it back in the bags. Other people offered help but weren’t need, so effectively had the team performed. And then the experts arrived. The ambulance could be heard some distance off; the paramedics, so familiar form various TV programmes, dressed in medical uniforms carrying specialist equipment, arrived efficiently and quickly. The helpers melted away and became curious onlookers.

Everyone was touched by this experience. For a few minutes these complete strangers had acted selflessly, had given no thought to themselves. Nobody had thought ‘this is no business of mine’, or if they had, they had quickly dismissed it and taken responsibility, like the good Samaritan. Then the middle-aged man looked at his watch and the spell was broken. The young man talked to his girlfriend they and walked off, leaving the off-duty nurse in charge. The patient seemed fine and people remembered who they were – an accountant going to a busy company board meeting; a mother collecting her children from school; a young woman in love.

For a few moments the world had frozen a compassionate snapshot, but then, as in the marvellous last lines of Larkin’s poem Aubade the everyday world began to move once more. The shopping mall accident became an event, to be mused over that evening in front of a score of TV sets or even earlier in two dozen offices. But for a few moments all those ordinary people had behaved extraordinarily, lost in the service of a single distressed other.

Meanwhile telephones crouch,
getting ready to ring.
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented wolrd begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

(Larkin, 1990)

Lament by Gillian Clarke.

For the green turtle with her pulsing burden
in search of the breeding ground.
For her eggs laid in their nest of sickness.
For the cormorant in his funeral silk,
the veil of iridescence on the sand,
the shadow on the sea.
For the ocean’s lap with its mortal stain.
For Ahmed at the closed border.
For the soldier in his uniform of fire.
For the gunsmith and the armourer,
the boy fusilier who joined for the company,
the farmer’s sons, in it for the music.
For the hook-beaked turtles,
the dugong and the dolphin,
the whale struck dumb by the missile’s thunder.
For the tern, the gull and the restless wader,
the long migrations and the slow dying,
the veiled sun and the stink of anger.
For the burnt earth and the sun put out,
the scalded ocean and the blazing well.
For vengeance, and the ashes of language

 

This is what Gillian herself describes about the poem:

‘Lament’ is an elegy, an expression of grief. It can be a sad, military tune played on a bugle. The poem uses the title as the start of a list of lamented people, events, creatures and other things hurt in the war, so after the word ‘lament’, every verse, and 11 lines, begin with ‘for’.

The poem is about the Gulf War, which happened in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States, with Britain’s help, bombed Iraq. This war has never really stopped, it still threatens the world. War can’t be waged without grave damage to every aspect of life. All the details in the poem came from reports in the media.

There were newspaper photographs of cormorants covered with oil – ‘in his funeral silk’. ‘The veil of iridescence on the sand’ and ‘the shadow on the sea’ show the spreading stain of oil from bombed oil wells. The burning oil seemed to put the sun out, and poisoned the land and the sea. The ‘boy fusilier who joined for the company,’ and ‘the farmer’s sons, in it for the music’, came from hearing radio interviews with their mothers. The creatures were listed by Friends of the Earth as being at risk of destruction by oil pollution, and ‘the soldier in his uniform of fire’ was a horrific photograph of a soldier burnt when his tank was bombed.

The ashes of language are the death of truth during war.

Lament is from Collected Poems published by Carcanet Press Limited
Copyright © Gillian Clarke 1997 used with kind permission

http://www.gillianclarke.co.uk

Iraq

On the 23rd March 2003 the UK / US coalition forces embarked on the invasion of Iraq. Ten years on I look back in my diary of that ill-fated day and the growing feelings of fear, anger and sadness which followed.

I wrote:
I am against this war because the case for war (weapons of mass destruction) has not been proven; and because the unilateral, pre-emptive strike policy of the Bush administration, combined with their rejection of global legal systems, which have taken decades of diplomatic work to assemble, places us all at risk from future unilateral actions by like minded and even less “friendly” regimes.

This evening, with alliance troops in Baghdad, I could write at length about how things might have been had inspections continued for several months; how the country should have been flooded with thousands of inspectors armed with the locations of the three hundred sites of weapons of mass destruction as specified by the US security services; how any invasion should have been UN sanctioned.

If weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq and paraded as justification for the war, should we believe that evidence when it is revealed? Some may insist that our leaders would never lie to us about such things. I wish I could share that view. They have, at the very least, misled us in the past. When these weapons are found I hope I will be able to believe that “we” didn’t put them there. Or does this suggest more faith in the sanity and honesty of our democratically elected leaders than is justifiable?

I find it worth noting, albeit with a healthy dose of scepticism, we have a long and dishonourable history of arming and supporting “pro-west” fascists and despots, the liberation of Iraq for the Iraqi people (if that is what happens) will be a rare and welcome example of us doing the right thing. I could accept the responsibility of war, if (and it’s a big if) the philanthropic, humanitarian, “liberate and leave them” motive to govern themselves is adhered to.

But ten years on, why do I still hear that voice in my head saying “Get real man, who you trying to kid?!” I couldn’t quieten that voice, history will not allow me to silence it.

The Practice of Love

Although I often express this philosophy of love in Buddhist language it is not the property of any religion exclusively. I’ve seen it in Hindus, Buddhists, Janists, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians… alike. It is there in the Kabbalah and its there in Quaker meetings. It is there in the great movement of the dervish and in the stillness of quiet contemplation. All these traditions are human attempts to connect with the ideal of perfect love and to optimise the human response to it. Therapy, religion, enlightenment and spirituality are, or should be, different names for the same thing, liberation from self into a direct encounter with reality.

I am a Buddhist, relying upon the unimpeded light of Amitabha Buddha. Light or love or spirit – call it what you will, comes to us from the Unborn. I am, therefore, a Buddhist, because to me the key element of Buddhism is to take refuge. For me it is important to take refuge in a Buddha, or, to put the same thing differently, it is important that what I take refuge in is a Buddha. A Buddha is one who embodies unconditional love. Other traditions know this by other names but its essential to understand that we have the same or significantly overlapping faith, in love.

Before committing to Buddhism, I travelled to the north of Scotland on a mission to visit the Findhorn Foundation. Whilst I was there I met EiIeen Caddy, the founder of the community, who said to me “the meaning of life is love”. At first I thought it was yet another well trodden mantra for the new age movement, but she said it with such belief in her eyes, her voice, her heart that I could only smile. Eileen just radiated love.

Eileen later explained that she believed that spirituality derives from the contemplation of love in its purest form, unconditional love, beyond what is possible within this world. She also explained that love is quickened by proximity to death, I later learned that she was battling with cancer, but her community applied their spiritual awareness and healing hands to her health for many years on.

We are all trying to love – all trying to live loving lives. However, because of the way this world is, our love is continually frustrated. We can all experience disappointments and we carry the hurt of these disappointments and defeats and this sometimes leads us to act in ways that are destructive. Love thus gets twisted.

Eileen believed that the most ‘evil’ acts are distantly related to a desire to love, but sometimes it is very distant. I struggled with this message but now I realise Eileen was right and how vital it is to maintain the courage to go on loving through all our disappointments is the central challenge in life.

Eileen taught me that spirituality must be based on the awareness of a ‘love that surpasses human understanding’. Mindfulness of that love is the substance of spiritual practice no matter what cultural trappings it is dressed up in. For traditions to quarrel, as they have done for over two thousand years is thus absurd, but it is all too common and is just another example of how love gets twisted.

Love is not something one earns or deserves nor is it something that one has any control over. We are beneficiaries. Love is freely given. To live a spiritual life is essentially to do things ‘for the love of it’. No other motivation is required.

On the one hand, this means to do things without attachment to a result or reward. On the other hand, everything we does in practice have a goal in view and that goal is closely or distantly related to what we love. Love provides the framework within which a meaningful life is lived. Love is the substance of it day to day. The frustration of that love is the ‘dukkha’ that either drives us into twisted harmful counter-productive activity or enlightens us and puts us onto a spiritual path, that is, a path that expresses our love more directly.

Creativity (both practical and artistic) is directly related to love, is the expression of love and its struggles. Creative acts either celebrate or sustain the things we love or they enhance our love, either making things that might not have initially seemed so loveable, or carrying us through our disappointments and defeats in a more constructive way.

So most spiritual practice commonly involves some kind of contemplation or meditation or prayer. These practices keep us focussed on pure love in one or other of its manifestations and this sustains and cultivates the love in our lives. The art of mediation or prayer, therefore, like other art, either celebrates love or transforms adversity into love. However, there are limits to what one can do by contrivance.

The Buddhist precept ‘Right effort’ is a where effort flows from inspiration rather than something that can create inspiration in the first place. Love could be called eternal life – and much has been written in all traditions to describe love as a more alive kind of life than mere animate existence.

Grounding one’s life in love is thus an antidote to worry. Love protects us so that we do not then need to be always on guard, or in a state worry or to act defensively. ‘To love’ is not the same as trying to sustain a particular emotion or a state of mind. It is not possible to sustain any state of mind indefinitely, but it is possible to have a sustaining faith in love. We are recipients of love even when we are asleep and we can have confidence in it without having to think about it all the time.

Eileen taught me that through this understanding we are able to love others and truly enjoy this life and all other lives hereafter. Love appears in the ephemeral world but it belongs to eternity. The person who lives by love is rooted in eternity rather than ephemerality. This part does seem to be something that one can learn, at least to some extent. One can make a conscious shift from the position of attachment to ordinary things into the world of love.

However, this is only an option if one has a strong sense of the love and this sense is associated with gratitude for eternal life. I think it was Krishnamurti who said that where love is lacking, there is karma. Karma is the dead side of animate existence. Karma is mechanical, inexorable and deadly, whereas love is alive, unpredictable and joyous.

If Krishnamurti is right then love lifts us above karma. Love is the only thing that can rescue us. If we do not have the consolation of love then we go on being dead. When bad things happen, if we have confidence in love and eternal life, then we can remain grounded in that and not be overwhelmed by the soap-opera of life.

This seems to me to be what spirituality is all about. There are many people who play around the edge of spirituality but when some upset comes along in their life they do not rely upon love but turn back immediately. For such people worldly attachments are really what is more important, but it is a sad state because they are closed to the blessing that is at hand.

Love is a circular blessing. The more love enters one’s life the happier one is and the more grateful one feels and the more grateful one feels the more easily love seems to enter. And so it goes… spirituality is a matter of living in a simple way, nothing special, and having a practice that enables one to return again and again to love and the consciousness of its all enfolding blessing so that confidence is always growing.

Many blessings.

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.