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?’.
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
The world is very noisy, right now. Competing voices vie for your attention, your allegiance and your vote. Cheers of celebration resound from the victorious. Deep groans of despair emerge from the defeated. Shrieks of jingoism juxtaposed with cries of betrayal can be heard on all sides. Even if you are reading this in a place other than the UK, there will be similar chants, tussles and rumblings. It’s easy to get caught in the noise – trapped by it. It can be addictive, like a drug. I know – I’ve been there.
As a society, we seem to be most attracted to those who speak loudest. Not just in politics but in life generally. Wild gesticulations excite us. Rousing speech moves us to action and to acceptance of action done in our name. I have seen it in the workplace as well as the wider world. It can be difficult for those of us who have a quieter voice to be heard.
How can the ‘quiet voice people’ have any influence in a world gone mad for noise? I don’t have all the answers but I do know they can have an impact on those around them. In meetings, I have often looked to the silent colleague at the table to speak, once those who bluster have piped down, and found they have the most useful thing to say. And I was shocked when a friend asked me to come to her husband’s funeral, a man I didn’t really know. I queried why, as she had numerous colleagues, friends and family who knew the couple well, to support her, did she want me there. She replied, ‘I need to feel your quiet presence in the room’. I was, of course, pleased to go and both humbled and in awe that she sensed and valued something that was helpful, by virtue of the absence of something else – unnecessary noise.
In an age when personality, celebrity image and clever sound bites seem to ‘get the job done’, it feels even more important to listen carefully to the ‘sound of silence’. In Buddhist practice, we nurture this daily but I am always encouraged to learn that it is not just those of us who meditate as part of our training who tap into this universal pot of gold. I am attaching a piece from Brain Pickings that illustrates this point. May we all know the joy of silence and then let silence roar!
A retreat aimed at people who train with long-term physical illness and disability and who feel that they would benefit from some time with others in a similar situation is to be held during the five days of Monday 13th of April and Friday 17th April 2020. There will be the same spiritual focus and purpose of a regular retreat but with a high degree of flexibility and time for rest and personal reflection. Both Reverend Saido and Rev. Mugo will be attending.
All activities will be made as
accessible as possible and one of the key features will be the opportunity to
explore different postures and ways of meditating that work for the individual.
There will be time for sharing experience of training with a long-term physical
illness or disability both in a group but also more informally with the other
Arrival is between 2 pm and 4 pm on Monday 13th April 2020. The rest of the day will be ‘settling in time.’ From Tuesday through Thursday there will a flexible schedule of optional activities so that people can judge for themselves when they need to rest. The retreat will end after breakfast on Friday the 17th.
Shallowford House is very
welcoming and accommodating of people with illness and disability. Most
bedrooms have an en-suite bathroom. There are limited bedrooms on the ground
floor but there will be a lift, able to take people (and wheelchairs if used),
up to the first floor. Apart from one small internal step, it is fairly easy to
move around the building. We are asking people to let us know their specific
mobility and general comfort needs so that we can make the retreat work for
them. This might include aids to help them shower, sleep, sit comfortably and
rest well. Just ask and we will try our best to provide it.
For people who need a carer,
we have some limited accommodation for them to stay, too. Carers are welcome to
take part in the retreat itself or simply take time out to enjoy Shallowford’s
walks and scenery.
We are asking for donations,
in the usual way. We do not want anyone to be excluded on the grounds of
finance. However, for guidance, a suggested donation would be £340 per person
for the 4-night stay, to include all meals, towels and soap. Please do not send
money in advance of the retreat; there will be a begging bowl available during
Please contact Karen Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details. You are also welcome to speak with Reverend Saido or Reverend Mugo if you prefer.
I used the last of my dad’s ketchup today. It was one of the things I took from his
house when he died earlier this summer. It seems to be what you do when someone
dies. You take their stuff, ask, ‘Who want’s this?’ and carry it away in boxes
and carrier bags, as if you are carrying them
away, so that nothing is wasted; so that they
I didn’t have a traditional father: daughter relationship with my dad. He left us when I was eight years old and my younger sister was four. He was absent for huge chunks of my childhood and adult life, had a second wife and family and until recently that is what I remember most about him, the pain of him not being there. But in his illness and old age, there was a pragmatic coming together. He needed help and I did what I could; with incredulity and tears at first but his need softened old hurt. His eyes, if not always his voice, said both ’Sorry’ and ‘Thank you’ and life became just life and death just death. No blame. No need for forgiveness.
And with this came the slow remembering, not of the tightly held misery but of the little joys that I had chosen to forget. The pearls of wisdom that he had shared with me, like, ‘You should never see a runner bean twice in May’ – a reminder not to plant the seed too early in that month, so that the first shoots come through in June, when the frosts have gone; this is a lore that I have always adhered to. And, ‘You can’t make happiness from someone else’s unhappiness’; an acknowledgement, perhaps, that peace of mind cannot come from the suffering of others. I remembered walking with him in woods and by rivers and riding pillion on the back of his motorbike (six years old and no helmet but feeling perfectly safe). In short, the landscape of suffering changed. It still wasn’t easy but insight changed the experience and I was content.
Letting go comes in different forms. It can be sudden, like dropping a huge weight that you can no longer carry. It can be slow and gradual like water wearing away stone and it can come in the re-framing of memories that surface in times of passing; the photo albums that are revisited, the cards and letters that get re-read, the stories of past events that resonate differently when re-told from someone else’s point of view. At these times, old resentments lose their fire and become silent at last.
I’m grateful for the things my father left me. His apparent indifference toughened me up to cope with the world. The attitude of independence I acquired, though needing cautious awareness, was a good thing. His illness was a struggle but also opened doors of understanding that led to the peaceful resolution of lingering hurt. I’m also grateful for the things I took away in carrier bags – the carpentry and garden tools, the shampoo and bubble bath, the yoghurt, pickles and ketchup. These bits of him I have been putting to good use, enjoying and savouring them, as I joyfully remember him and quietly let him go.
I learned what a Rupa is, today; in essence, it is how something appears and holds our attention. An example, on a mundane level, is the effect the glorious taste and smell of the coffee that I am drinking has on me and how that then affects me, spiritually. I learned this definition from a book by David Brazier, called Not Everything is Impermanent. I was looking for an inspiring and sustaining read. Life is full-on. Amongst other things, my dad died recently, my mum is starting to look like she might not be far behind him and gazing out at the political landscape, it feels like we are already halfway to hell in a handcart.
Brazier’s title caught my attention (another Rupa) because it was positively worded and I suddenly realised that I had acquired an interesting attitude to the word ‘Impermanent’, that might need a little tweaking. Anicca or Impermanence really relates to the ‘flow’ of existence. It is neither positive nor negative; it just ‘is’. The Pali word Anicca is both descriptive and neutral. However, by using the prefix ‘im’ meaning ‘not’ in the word Impermanence, the mind can easily pick up on a negatively charged connotation. It wasn’t until I read the ‘upbeat’ title of the book that I realised I had done just that – not overtly but subtly – and in part, the cause was simply the etymology of the word ‘Impermanence’.
So, when I noticed this, I helicoptered out, away from the word itself, and took a look at how I accept the changes or flow of my own life. I’d give myself an 8 out of 10 for accepting and embracing the things that I cannot change – the things that are out of my control and just happen – like old age, illness and death (I’m a school teacher, by profession, so forgive the grading). On the other hand, I’d probably get a 4 for acceptance that I’m not personally responsible, either for preventing the suffering of those around me or for ‘fixing’ it. There are earworms and reactions to events in my past, some culturally originated, some from individual experience, that jangle around me, clouding my judgement sometimes. Catching such jangles in the light, understanding them, not just intellectually but deep down in the very cells of our being, can take a lifetime. That’s the work that I hope I’m doing on myself – the one thing that I can do.
I really like the word ‘Rupa’. It has alerted me to the effect that seemingly insignificant things can have on me, giving me clues about how I operate, what motivates me and what holds me back, spiritually speaking. David Brazier’s book is turning out to be a good read, which presents Buddhist teachings in a slightly different but nevertheless powerfully engaging framework to the one that I’m used to. Most importantly, it reaffirms the existence of that which is Eternally enduring and how to awaken to it.
Not Everything is Impermanent – Zen Therapy & Amidist Teachings of David Brazier is published by Woodsmoke Press and is priced at £9.99