At the twilight, a moon appeared in the sky; Then it landed on earth to look at me. Like a hawk stealing a bird at the time of prey; That moon stole me and rushed back into the sky. I looked at myself, I did not see me anymore; For in that moon, my body turned as fine as soul. The nine spheres disappeared in that moon; The ship of my existence drowned in that sea.
Had this book just been published today I would highly recommend you buy it. But it wasn’t, written in 1954, it tells the story of ‘Strongheart’ a famous actor-dog and his relationship with the person looking after him. It tells of a bond of friendship which formed between them, an extraordinary ménage of curiosity, observation and study by the carer which was quickly mutually reciprocated by Strongheart. An attitude of curiosity, openness, patience and humility became a catalyst to forming a connective bridge between the human and the animal, a universal ability many ‘modern humans’ have lost.
The author describes receiving a lesson on how humans connect with dogs by an American Indian Mojave Dan:
‘There’s facts about dogs and there’s opinions about them. The dogs have the facts and the humans have the opinions. Get the facts straight from the dog, opinions from the humans’. 1.
This information was invaluable to him and led to the ability to detect motives and intentions, a sense of ‘mind reading’ between Strongheart and himself, a synergy, bridging silent questions towards an intuitive ‘knowing’. This Indian philosophy of recognising mental and physical communication as universal and natural between humans and animals is expressed in the book with this quote:
Ask the very beasts, and they will teach you;
ask the wild birds-they will tell you;
crawling creatures will instruct you,
fish in the sea will inform you:
for which of them all knows not that this is
the Eternal’s way,
in whose control lies every living soul,
and the whole life of man. 2.
From his friendship with Strongheart he goes on to describe his relationship with other sentient beings, including ants, earthworms and his fascinating relationship with ‘Freddie the fly’. The latter by changing his attitude, from finding flies irritable and wanting to swat them, to ‘right see’ with an ‘all good heart’. His practice of a loving attitude towards even a small fly resulted in a sense of friendship. Freddie the fly used to sit on his typewriter as he worked, follow him from room to room, until eventually he sat on on the palm of his hand getting his wings stroked. Freddie was transformed from a ‘worthless little bum’, a nuisance who deserved swatting, into an intelligent lively companion. All this happened with the offering of a loving attitude.
For anyone who has the opportunity to live or work with animals this book is a must for understanding the principles a loving connection with others. It illustrates how fellow members of nature’s own family communicate with others who understand them, whether a person, dog, earthworm, ant or fly.
‘To behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. One must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children.’ 3.
Kinship With All Life (page 47)
Kinship With All Life (page 108)
Shobogenzo: Shushogi-What is truly meant by training and enlightenment, from Zen is Eternal Life by Rev Master Jiyu Kennett (page 160)
For those who wish to read this book it is still possible to buy on Amazon or Waterstones.
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.”
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 Senecawrote:
“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.
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.
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.
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.