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.”

Acceptance, Gratitude and Giving

Courtesy of Javier888

As I go on in training it seems to me that acceptance and gratitude are deeply intertwined. In coming to accept all that comes into my life, I am more easily able to feel gratitude for whatever happens. Recently one of my neighbours made the comment to me of how horrible this wet and misty weather is. I did not contradict her but that is not at all how I see it. Actually, I think the misty mornings with that lovely half-light are exceptionally beautiful. But the weather is something we cannot change and having lived in hot dry countries; I know only too well how blessed we are to have rain here.

In not simply accepting something (especially something so much beyond our power to change) we cause ourselves great suffering – complaining, feeling fed up at the weather, frustrated at being unable to go outside. Finding acceptance of whatever is, brings inner peace. From that place of peace, it is natural to feel gratitude for whatever comes our way. As our acceptance and gratitude deepen, so an inner warmth and love for all beings is fostered.

2000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote:

“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act.”

Surely Seneca is describing what we would call the way of the Bodhisattva. We give because it is natural to give without thought of return in trying to follow the Bodhisattva path. Indeed, if we give with an ulterior motive, the act of giving is debased. As the American author Annie Dillard says: 

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes. 

When we give to our fellow beings, we can face a conundrum, particularly when undertaking voluntary work or doing charitable acts. It is natural to feel good in the act of giving; one may well receive thanks in return but the extent to which these are part of the driving force can devalue the spiritual value of the acts, even though they may benefit other beings on some level. Giving from a place of gratitude is of paramount importance.

I have experienced much learning and also much heart searching in some voluntary work I do. I go into a primary school every week (though sadly not at present due to covid) to help 6- and 7-year olds with their reading. The teachers are so overworked that it is hard for them to find one on one time with the children.

The work is important and of course my prime reason for being there is to help with the reading. However, there are other benefits in that the children can develop a relationship with an adult (inter-generational contact is valuable) and I can offer them love and acceptance simply for who they are, no matter their reading ability and especially for those struggling who may feel inferior.

I am grateful for my life; I have time now that I am retired and giving to these little ones feltlike a good thing to do when I started it. Since then I have been amazed at the love and warmth that has blossomed with these wonderful little ‘teachers’ – so honest and open in their interaction with me. Not having had children, this has been an eye-opener for me. Sometimes I worry that I might be tending towards being there because of what I get from them. I constantly try to remind myself that my focus is on each child, not on me. I worry that selfishness is creeping into my being there.

However, dealing with this is made a little easier by the fact that at the end of my 2 days I disappear from their lives till the next week. I can then focus on other things.

And even in the worry and concern that I have, there is the lesson of acceptance. This worry, self-questioning and concern are what I have to deal with. I must accept them and not push them away. Indeed, if I can sit with these feelings and go behind what brings them up, then I am sure that I will be able to take another small step in training. So, I am grateful to my little ‘teachers’ not only for the love they give me but also for the heart searching they cause me.The cycle of acceptance, gratitude and love continues.

Charlie Holles

Live in the present – but it’s so hard

Living, as I do, with a partner whose brain is deteriorating is fruitful territory for reflections about life, training and relationships.  My husband and I got together six years ago but he has, now, no memory of anything much of that whole time.  

On a minor level, his condition makes daily living challenging.  He can’t actually change what he does, since to change your behaviour means that you have to remember what it is that you wanted to do different.  So he goes on making the same ‘mistakes’ in small things, like for example where to put things away.  But on a more important level (or it seems more important to me), he actually doesn’t retain much information about me either and regularly asks me things about my past life that I have told him a lot of times. This makes me feel ‘not known’.  And yet he is certain (and I do accept this as a truth) that he knows me very well.  Which raises the question – what or whom is it that he knows?  It’s certainly not the sum of my history, not my ‘stories’, and he seems to have a ‘knowing’ that is separate from my stories.  Which is a surprise to me as I would normally say that, without our stories, we are not the people we believe ourselves to be. 

So J doesn’t know any of my ‘stories’, but, more than that, of course he doesn’t know any of ‘our stories’ either.  He knows this is a loss for him and he feels sad about it.  And it is a loss for me, as I realise more and more what comfort and pleasure there is in looking back at good times and re-living shared moments.  Thus a walk with J very often starts with the words ‘I have never been here before in my life’.  It all becomes a new source of pleasure for him.  But for me, walking beside him, it is also a palimpsest of all the other times we have done that walk together, and inevitably that includes the sadness of remembering how different it was, maybe two or three years ago.  

For me these days, much of life is a return to familiar and loved places, and for him it is a host of new experiences.  Except that it’s not as easy as that, as he is aware of all that is lost in terms of memories.  As well as being sad, it also makes me reflect, and raises for me the question of why we do things at all.  Big events – our wedding, his 80th birthday party, holidays, trips, visits – have all gone.  I guess they were pleasurable for him at the time, but they have now simply disappeared for him.  And it so often comes to me to recognise how much of our everyday conversation refers back to a past event.  I trip and stumble, trying to start a perfectly innocuous exchange, to talk about something and then suddenly I am asked ‘Do I know her?’ ‘Who is that?”  Even trying to make future plans runs into the same challenges. ‘Have we been there?’ ‘Did we do that before?”

And so I try to sit still, breath slowly, think ‘This is the moment.  This is all we have.’  And who can deny this?  Except that as humans, in our minds at least, we do have memories of the past and they do inform our future.  And life without memory of that past is a challenge to all of us.

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?

Increasing not decreasing not?

Veil nebula-Hubble Space Telescope
Veil Nebula – Courtecy Hubble Space Telescope

I very much enjoy listening to a BBC Radio 3 progamme called ‘Private Passions’ presented by the composer Michael Berkeley. It’s a sort of upmarket Desert Island Discs which you can find via the wonderful BBC Sounds App.  A few weeks ago, it featured Patricia Wiltshire, who turned out to be a rather engaging forensic ecologist.  I was struck by what she had to say about her beliefs, which were emphatically not religious.  

“The only life after death is what you leave behind, which becomes incorporated into life. So you are decomposed, you break down into your constituent little bits.  The energy all drains away because it dissipates.  You can’t do much about that. But the bits of you that are left, and all the molecules that make up your body are dissipated and then they are recycled.  So you will be recycled.  So that’s the only life after death that I can imagine.  I don’t have any spiritual feelings.  (…) This is the natural cycle and of course there is only so much matter, so if it weren’t recycled we couldn’t have birth at all.”

It was the throwaway phrase ‘There’s only so much matter,’ which set me wondering, as it seemed to resonate with the words in ‘The Scripture of Great Wisdom’.  The matter which makes up this planet must indeed be ‘Increasing not, decreasing not’.  And all things (being pure or empty) ‘are neither born nor do they wholly die.’ 

And so we talk of finite resources; we say that our planet is a ‘closed system.’.  And, I wondered, with the ever increasing numbers of human beings (matter) does this inevitably mean fewer of other beings (also matter.)  Thus as we watch animals, plants, birds, insects disappearing from the earth, is it because there isn’t enough matter left for them to be born and sustained?  And as we convert resources into non-recyclable materials like plastics and burn fossil fuels and convert them into damaging gases, are we gradually and not so gradually reducing the amount of matter that can sustain life and putting it into forms which are effectively dead? Such that in the end there can be no birth?

Perhaps this is all obvious, but that little phrase somehow gave me a different sort of insight into what is happening.  It didn’t really cheer me up.