It Ain’t What you Do, It’s What it Does to You

Karen Richards

At 65 years old, I have travelled far less than the average Westerner, of a similar age. It’s not that I have an aversion to travelling, far from it, but both the cost and the lack of opportunity have prohibited me from going very far and certainly not often. And yet, I do not feel that I have missed out on the richness of human experience.

Travel may broaden the mind but everyday experience surely deepens it. Or, more accurately, opens us up to that which is Universal, if we approach each day, openheartedly. I count myself fortunate to have experienced the many joys of living an ordinary life, right here, on my doorstep.

I first came across this poem by Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, around twenty years ago, when I was teaching GCSE English in a local secondary school. I heard him recite it live, at The Grand Theatre Wolverhampton, when I accompanied my class to a special poetry reading, based on the anthology for the course. The truth of it struck me, immediately.

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does To You
Simon Armitage

I have not bummed across America
with only a dollar to spare, one pair
of busted Levi’s and a bowie knife.
I have lived with thieves in Manchester.*

I have not padded through the Taj Mahal,
barefoot, listening to the space between
each footfall picking up and putting down
its print against the marble floor. But I

skimmed flat stones across Black Moss on a day
so still I could hear each set of ripples
as they crossed. I felt each stone’s inertia
spend itself against the water; then sink.

I have not toyed with a parachute cord
while perched on the lip of a light-aircraft;
but I held the wobbly head of a boy
at the day centre, and stroked his fat hands.

And I guess that the tightness in the throat
and the tiny cascading sensation
somewhere inside us are both part of that
sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.

*Armitage was formerly a probation officer, in Manchester.

After I had written this blog piece, I happened upon a quote from Virginia Woolf’s, The Common Reader. In essence, they are saying the same thing, if differently. I love both. What do you think?

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”

Rooted Stillness by Paul Taylor

“Rooted Stillness”, courtesy of Paul Taylor

The stillness of this scene surprises me. So much not in view. The clouds’ cover being blown, hide-and-seeking sun, me chasing shadows, and, roots. Here the bright field and dignified tree. And I wonder what part have walls to play.

The photograph was taken on a short walk not far from Lancaster, in the direction of the Yorkshire Dales – I was really struck by the tree’s rootedness, the fast-changing light,  the illumined and cloud-shaded field, all flowing with the wind, and a quality of stillness within it all.  I was fortunate the wind, clouds and  light were as they were. How to do it justice, if indeed possible?  How to catch the wind, as Donovan, a singer-songwriter when I was young, would say. 

Paul Taylor

What is Enlightenment?

By Charlie Holles

I was recently reading something by Great Master Dogen. I would like to quote it first and then share my feelings and the insights that seemed to arise. It is taken from ‘Being-Time’, A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji by Shinshu Roberts.
Dogen tells the story of a student’s progress in ‘Zuimonki’ (Record of Things Heard) prefaced with this simile:
An ancient has said, “Associating with a good person is like walking through the mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp. This means that if you become familiar with a good person, you will become good yourself without being aware of it.”
In the main story, a young man was a student of Master Gutei. This student didn’t seem to realise what he was learning or practicing. Dogen comments, “a boy who attended Master Gutei, without noticing when he was learning or when he was practicing, realised the Way because he served as a personal attendant to the master who had been practicing for a long time.” In the course of attending to Master Gutei, he attained realisation.
………the student was not aware he was being trained. He probably spent his time making the master’s bed and fetching tea. Yet these activities, in accord with Master Gutei’s instruction, created his passage from student to master.
I think we often over-intellectualise about enlightenment, realising the truth, however we put it. In my own case, as a hippie in the 70’s and a then devotee of an Indian guru, I developed all sorts of notions about what this state would be. Many were fanciful, although they were part of the journey that brought me to Buddhism. When I took Jukai, 30 years ago, I still carried a lot of these ideas and expectations about how my Buddhist practice would or should unfold. Gradually I have shed most of them as they caused me quite a lot of suffering.
Dogen emphasised that meditation is the foundation of our practice. But he also made it clear that we must manifest whatever that teaches us in our daily life; in our actions from moment to moment. We do that by living simply from one moment to the next, doing whatever is good to do in response to whatever presents itself to us. It is not enough to sit on our cushion and retreat from the world.
My life used to be full, hectic, some would say glamorous. I travelled all over the world. I went on Buddhist pilgrimage to India. I did exotic things and so on. Now being retired, my life is much simpler, in part because my health won’t let me live as before. I do some voluntary work in a primary school each week; I have many more still days, perhaps just reading or sitting quietly; I work in the garden at the social housing complex where I live; I have interaction with the other residents.
Slowly I am understanding that realisation can simply be wherever and whenever I am. There are fleeting moments when my ego and discriminatory mind are quiet; I am right with what I am doing and the person I am with and I have no intruding desires for something other. Maybe that is a moment of enlightenment – I don’t know.
What I do know is that slowly I am letting go of wanting the ‘flashing lights and rainbows in the sky’ that once might have been what I thought my goal should be! Perhaps illumination is akin to cleaning one’s spectacles. The view doesn’t radically change but everything is clearer and sharper around the edges. I try simply to be and to be content with that. As Dogen teaches, Buddha Nature is our essence therefore we are already ‘realised’. It is just that we allow our focus to be on the dualistic world so for most of the time we simply do not live in and from what we truly are.

Poem After the Retreat – Not Two

Photograph by Kathleen Campbell

by Kathleen Campbell

The self feeds on desire
However noble.

The self puts the self down
And puffs the self up.

The habits of many years
Seem hard to undo.

Yet what else is there
But ongoing training?

Transcendent and immanent
Are not opposites.
Through this

We free ourselves
From suffering.

Silent Illumination

Early morning by the River Trent at Attenborough Nature Reserve – photograph by Tom Kirwan

“In darkness it is most bright, while hidden it is all the more manifest.

The crane dreams in the wintry mists. The autumn waters flow far into the distance.“

From the Guidepost of Silent Illumination

Zen Master Hongzhi, trans. Taigen  Daniel Leighton with Yi Wu

Attenborough, April 2019.

Walking with Alice

Editorial note: The author of this poem has motor neurone disease. He used to enjoy his walking holidays with his wife, Alice.

Alice needed a rest after nine months of lockdown and care as my functions melted away.


A hurried phone call as she explored north Derbyshire

“I only want to do this walk with you”


The shock of our temporary mutual isolation
The foresight of the end of this story.

Tom Kirwan

Singing, Breathing, Connecting – Karen Richards

Along with many other socially based activities that used to be done ‘in the flesh’, since the Coronavirus pandemic, our local Sunday morning Sangha meeting is now done via Zoom. Conducting our lives on the internet can have its limitations but there is also a unique quality to it, in terms of staying connected, that more conventional methods lack. Obviously, a phone, tablet or other form of compatible technology is needed and it helps to have enough IT ‘know-how’ to troubleshoot any minor technical difficulties but aside from that, anyone can join in, making it accessible to all.

Recently, I have been taking it in turns to precent at these meetings. The precentor’s function is to facilitate the singing of the scriptures along with striking the gongs to signal the offering of incense and striking the inkin or hand bell to signal the bowing, which helps to harmonise the ceremony and keep it flowing. When we are all together, in the same room, there is plenty of opportunity for the precentor to take a breath because once the scripture is underway the congregation carries it forward. The congregation will be chanting together online, of course, but the difference is that because of potential feedback, people’s microphones are muted and the only voice that can be heard is that of the precentor.

It’s an interesting experience singing on your own, knowing that others are listening to you but not being able to hear them back. There is a feeling of being exposed, a self-consciousness, and it’s a challenge to get the breathing right, so that you don’t suddenly find yourself gasping for air. As a result, I have become much more aware of my breath, the function of breathing and how the breath is affected by any emotion that I may be feeling – that is any residual emotion that may already be there and those that arise during the ceremony. The latter sometimes applies if the words of a particular scripture touches me (this happened during the recitation of The Scripture of Great Wisdom, shortly after my mother had died) or if I am concerned that someone might bang the front door and affect the sound, as has happened on more than one occasion. In short, I find this offering both a joy and a challenge.

Sometimes, it’s good just to accept the foibles and idiosyncrasies of both the situation and yourself but, trying to get it as ‘right’ as I could, I decided to get some online singing lessons, not to try to be ‘perfect’ but so I could understand the technicalities of breathing and singing and maybe relax a bit more.

At my first lesson, the teacher spent most of the time getting me to stand properly, become aware of all of the tiny muscles in my head and face and relax my jaw. She also asked me to observe the bodily sensations that arise from humming, as opposed to blowing – closed mouth v open mouth. It was helpful and I was grateful but once I’d listened and practiced a few times, she said, ‘Really what you’re there for is to support other people. You need to adapt your tone and pitch to help them. Pow!

Of course, it isn’t always possible, when you are connecting via the internet, to know exactly what other people’s needs are but the principle of moving from awareness of yourself, to awareness of others and their needs was a bit of a game changer. Strangely, it made me relax.

Dogen said, To know yourself is to forget yourself’. I thought it interesting that in Buddhist training we start by becoming aware of ourselves and what is going on with us. Then when we have done this for awhile, the barriers soften and we see our connection with others more clearly and can harmonise.

I don’t think that all the singing lessons in the world will prevent me from continuing to find precenting and managing my breath both a joy and a challenge but that is the point, I guess. It’s not meant to be easy, is it?

Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I have always found the Serenity Prayer quite beautiful. It was written by the American theologian, pastor and social commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr could be called a ‘middle way thinker’ who, throughout his life, reflected on, wrote about and tackled some of the most contentious socio-political and religious issues in American history. Several US presidents, including Barack Obama, have credited Niebuhr as having influenced their own thinking.

The original prayer was much longer, with courage to act on change coming before serene acceptance of things that cannot be changed but the central message has remained the same. In the 1950s, the prayer was adapted and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and it became a cornerstone of the organisation’s recovery programme for those struggling with addiction. It has had many other incarnations, with people changing the wording to fit a particular purpose and audience.

As a Buddhist, I do not use the word ‘God’, for instance – or at least I conceptualise ‘God’ differently – so instead of viewing the qualities of serenity, courage and wisdom as attributes outside of ourselves to be ‘granted’, I see this trio as a state of being that is naturally occurring and can be found through deep reflection and which we align our body and mind with, through Buddhist Practice.

Niebuhr’s treatise, in its original form, began: ‘Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other’, which points to the openness needed to face both the events happening in our lives and the wider world and our willingness to look at our reaction to them. To change what must be changed is just as much a call to work for self-change, as it is to act compassionately and responsibly to change the world around us.

In the earlier version, courage came before serenity. Is this because serenity is synonymous with reflection and this has to be our first step? The Merriam Webster Dictionary associates serenity with ‘depth of ocean and expanse of sky: clear and free of storms and shining bright’ and gives the descriptive metaphor ‘steady the moon, serene in glory’ to exemplify this. This is imagery familiar to a Buddhist and points to the source of Truth and Truth itself.

And yet, in this regard, we cannot separate courage and serenity. We need courage to seek serenity and serenity to find courage. Intrinsic in both is wise activism and acceptance.

The prayer has a second, longer verse, which begins:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace

These words sit easily with me as a Buddhist. They are the essence of Practice. In living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, fully accepting both joy and difficulty as equals, we find peace.

However you wish to tap into the prayer’s message, it is awe-inspiring to me that, despite various adaptations, words that were first spoken from a pulpit in 1940s America, have stood the test of time. This, I conclude, is because the message is both simple and True and by ‘True’ I mean that, irrespective of their religious origins or which version of the prayer is used, the words align with a universal honesty about the human condition and how we can approach the days of our lives.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/serene

Which Way?

Karen Richards

At a recent meeting, the Dew on the Grass team asked the question of ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of our website?’. We quickly came back with the answer, ‘To express what Buddhist training means to us in our everyday lives.

So, as one year closes and another begins, I thought I would share a feature of my personal altar that I am especially fond of. This little figurine came from a playset that one of my daughters had for Christmas circa 1990. The other bits of the set got lost or were passed onto other children, over the years but I laid claim to this one.

At the time I claimed her, she resembled me in some ways. I used to have a purple cardigan that looked a bit like the one she is wearing. I still had colour in my hair, too! More characteristically, is the position she is holding. One arm outstretched, open-handed and the other to her forehead; looking, searching – which way?

For many years, she was placed by the front door on a small window ledge but the advent of grandchildren meant that she often got knocked over or got drawn into a game and I would find her abandoned under a table. Of course, she was meant to be played with but to me, she had become a reminder to always keep an open heart, to accept what comes in life and to keep asking the question, ‘Which way?’.

We wish you all a peaceful and joyous 2020!

Dancing in the Dark

Karen Richards

It is the shortest day of the year and I am sitting in my conservatory, looking out across my garden. The rain pounds against the roof; a deep, primaeval sound. We are set for more storms and floods in the west of Britain and yet across the world, down under, the Bush is ablaze.

I have the naive thought – if only Britain’s rain could put out Australia’s fires and short phrases of the Scripture of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisatva pop up in my mind – ‘the fiery pit’; ‘when rain in torrents pour’….

I become still and into my awareness comes the young couple who live next door. Only days ago they lost a baby; a much-longed-for child born dead. I lift my eyes across the yard, past the shed to their back door and silently transfer merit.

The news had shocked me to my core. ‘If there’s anything I can do’, I said and then anxious not to leave the words empty of meaning, took in parcels, put away their dustbin, offered to shop. I had knocked the door sheepishly, not wanting to intrude but the pale face that greeted me said ‘It’s s ***t’ and I nodded in agreement. We hugged in a swaying embrace on the doorstep and I joined her in her chant of expletives – a sort of song and dance of solidarity in sorrow.

‘Have coffee with me’, she said. So I did. I hoped it helped her. I know it helped me.

‘In all the world, in all the quarters, There is not a place where Kanzeon does not go’*

I’m still again. The garden is starting to take on its twilight shades and I notice, on the windowsill, a spare set of fairy lights, left over from my festive house decorating. It would be nice to put them up around the shed, I think. They will sway and twinkle in the long, wet and windy night ahead and I will remember, what the Ancients knew, that even in the stormiest of times, compassion is still dancing in the dark.

  • The Scripture of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisatva from The Liturgy of The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives