Slack Water (part of the Ebb Tide feature) ~ by Karen Richards

As part of the Ebb TIde feature that we are currently running, Karen Richards writes about an event that changed her perception of the ideal of training.

I came to Buddhism in my mid-twenties. Initially cautious, perhaps even a little sceptical, once I had learned the basic principles and heeded the advice given by monks on how to establish a practice, I applied myself with a certain vigour. Along with my husband, we soon developed a daily routine which involved sitting soon after rising in the morning, and a period of reflection at the end of the day, after our three small children had gone to bed.

We went on regular retreats, taking turns to visit Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, whilst the other stayed behind to look after the children. We helped the monks with out of monastery events and eventually became part of a small group of lay people who founded a priory in Telford, in the centre of England. We encountered the usual difficulties of course – fatigue, juggling the responsibilities of daily life and all of the other little tensions that arise in training but, all in all, practice had a sort of buoyancy that moved us forward and kept us afloat.

Then came a series of events that seemed to scupper everything. My husband, David, became seriously ill and nearly died. After many months in hospital, he returned home, but he remained an invalid. Only months before the illness struck, I had been promoted at work and now found myself trying to juggle being a carer in the evenings and weekends (my eldest daughter covered the weekday shifts) and working a responsible job, full-time. Inevitably, after several months of trying to manage, I was a physical wreck. I began to make mistakes at work and eventually got managed out of my job.

I remember that time as being one of exhaustion. I wasn’t unhappy, but I became almost robotic in my actions. Sometimes, I would just stop, feel my skin, watch my breath, and remind myself that I was still alive. The Buddhist practice, that we had established over a period of some thirty years, seemed to ebb away and we simply existed, side by side. We still meditated, in our own way. There were long periods of simply sitting in our armchairs, occasionally chatting, but mostly just sitting, interspersed with me helping David to simply stay alive.

But tides turn, and slowly but surely, a sort of equilibrium returned and, with renewed motivation, we found ways of adapting our practice to accommodate our physical limitations. In some ways, it seemed like nothing occurred during that period of slack water but, looking back and reflecting, it was a time when ambitions and ideals about what Buddhist practice looked like ebbed away and we found a deeper sense of  ‘being’. We never doubted the practice itself, merely our ability to do it. Doing it, it turns out, isn’t always what we think it is. What we learned,  is that the little rituals of daily life, which can be very helpful to us, are not ‘it’. “It”, is something that runs deeper than that. It is taking refuge in the Buddha, even when we are looking into the abyss.

And when the sea seems to have receded, so far out we can barely see it, there is life still playing out on the shoreline. I think this poem, written by E Nesbitt, author of The Railway Children and Five Children and It, is a lovely illustration of that.

Ebb Tide by E Nesbitt

NOW the vexed clouds, wind-driven, spread wings of white,
Long leaning wings across the sea and land.
The waves creep back bequeathing to our sight
The treasure-house of their deserted sand,
And where the nearer waves curl white and low,
Knee-deep in swirling brine the slow-foot shrimpers go.

Pale breadth of sand, where clamorous gulls confer,
Marked with broad arrows by their planted feet;
White rippled pools, where late deep waters were
And ever the white waves marshalled in retreat
And the grey wind in sole supremacy
O’er opal and amber cold of darkening sky and sea.

Ebb tide ~ by Chris Yeomans

In the coming weeks, we are featuring artwork, photographs and articles on the theme of Ebb Tide. The first in the series is a poignant reflection on the corporeal aspects of death, by Chris Yeomans.


I don’t seem to be very good at death. Over the years I have read articles about meditating in graveyards (or is it more accurately, in charnel houses?) to come to an acceptance of mortality and impermanence. And I read of monks keeping vigil over dead bodies. I learn about American funeral rites; and in American funeral homes, I witness the visiting of the dead in their open coffins. And I quail. Whilst all the time thinking that I am not being a good Buddhist here, and need to be more accepting.

But in truth, dead bodies freak me out. Even animals and birds and amphibians. I remember being shocked by pictures of the Head of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, dead in her coffin, in the OBC Journal and spooked by a dead cat on the altar at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey.

Perhaps there was too much death in my family in my formative years. I seem to be over-sensitised to grieving and loss. I don’t want to look upon the lifeless forms of those I love.

Living in the country, I’ve got better about the animal world. I can’t bear to leave little bodies to be pulverised on the lanes and can now move them into peace and shade in the undergrowth and verges so that they have a little bit of dignity as they decay. But experience of human cadavers hasn’t helped me to be less freaked out by them.

And so now, as I grow older, and contemplate the death of my elderly and ailing partner, I find the whole business to be a constant part of my thoughts and indeed of quite a lot of discussion and debate. Dignity in dying. Euthanasia. Assisted suicide. The rational part of me can deal with this. The emotional part recoils. ‘Yes, but…’ I hear myself saying.

The ebb tide gently leaves the shore, but death may not come as easily as that. And those of us who remain may be left on the beach at slack water, longing for a different outcome.

“I am” ~ Self and Self Image ~ The Tale of Narcissus by Anna Aysea

“I am” Self and Self Image; The Tale of Narcissus by Anna Atika

I am male, female, tall, fat, skinny, white, black, smart, stupid. I am a mother, a sister, a daughter, a father, a son. I am old, young, beautiful, ugly. I am a teacher, unemployed. I am British, Dutch, an Arab, a Jew. I am a citizen, a freedom fighter, a terrorist.

Every qualification following “I am” is a label on the naked being of the Self.
Our being, the Self, is beyond any form, label, role or function. In the process of socialization, the self-image, the persona is formed. We internalize how others mirror us and become identified with the roles and functions we fulfil in society. This is a limitation because the Self is always more than the sum total of labels, roles and functions. Conversely, we learned to label others and contribute to their imaging. The mental self-image that is thus created is a reflected image. It is the mirroring of the Self in the external gaze. The self-image, the persona is the “mantle” the Self wears to function in the world.

The Greek mythology of Narcissus represents the theme of Self and self-image. Upon seeing his reflection in the water of a lake, the youth Narcissus becomes enamoured with the image in the water. This symbolizes the identification with the self-image. Narcissus becomes so captivated by his reflection that he forgets himself, and pining away for himself, he withers and eventually dies.

In the current era of the selfie, we have much more sophisticated mirroring devices than the water of a lake that reflect us back. We see our reflection manifold in the virtual world where the mental image of identity is everything. The problem is not so much the reflection, after all, the sky reflected in the water of the lake has great beauty. It is when we believe that the self-image is our identity; like Narcissus, we become so fascinated with the reflection, the mental image, that we overlook the Self and become alienated from our own being. The search for who you are, your true identity beyond labels, roles functions, stems from that alienation. After all, only one who has forgotten the own being embarks on a search for the Self

Materials & technics
 Satin weave fabric, plexiglass, origami folding, textile pleating

“I am” Self and Self Image; The Tale of Narcissus by Anna Atika

To represent the Self beyond form, I have chosen the negative of the human figure. Axis Mundi is the idea that man is the connection between heaven and earth. The vertical aspect of the human figure represents the being and spirit, and the horizontal aspect represents form, and matter. I have increased the vertical aspect and elongated the human figure to emphasize the being that is overlooked.
The mantle, traditionally a symbol of role or function, represents the self-image, the persona. Cloth does not have a form of its own and has the potential to take any form. Origami folding turns the two-dimensional surface into sculpture. Fire (heat of the pleating) transforms cloth into a multi-faceted surface. The rippling of the origami folds evokes an association with water and refers to the mythology of Narcissus.

Video journal of the making process:

Video logbook | Video journal

Reflecting on lessons of Nourishment ~ by Mo Henderson

We all need nourishment, as does every living being and the world itself. Good nourishment sustains a healthy life. As I was creating headings for what I intended to write about, I discovered how being self-fulfilled in terms of nourishment, was linked to just about everything and everybody in my daily life. Before long I had a list as long as my arm! Indra’s net came to mind. How was I to prioritise when each area reflects a meaningful interdependent link?

“Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”
Alan Watts

I remember as a young woman, there came a point in my life where I felt ‘undernourished’, on reflection, it was more like a calling, something was missing and I needed to find out what that was. I decided to go on a retreat, which I now understand was a ‘searching of the heart’.

On that first retreat, I was introduced to sitting meditation and the formal mealtime ceremony. The food was served in bowls which were passed down the table. It was suggested by a monk to take as much as you need, but not more than you need. You accepted the food offered with a Gassho (palms together) and then offered it to the next person with a Gassho to them, in gratitude for the food and the sharing of it with each other.
I remember feeling really strange doing this and also concerned in case I wasn’t doing it properly. On reflection there is so much teaching in that mealtime ceremony, the simple mindful repetition of the mealtime scripture’s words can slowly reveal much teaching. I believe the experience of doing so, together with the other daily scriptures sang or recited over the years while on retreat, for me, plays an important part in bringing awareness of needs and wants and how I leave enough in the ‘main bowl for others’. In other words how my own decisions and lifestyle reflect both within and without towards others.

When younger, I had previously taken much for granted, in terms of food, grabbing a sandwich at work, eating too speedily in order to get on with the next thing, without stopping to digest the experience and feel gratitude. For whatever reasons, I unintentionally (probably mostly unconsciously) reflected this attitude of mind in most other areas of my daily life. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, it was that my mind was veiled with other ‘stuff’ which affected my decisions. Getting on to the next thing was a priority in those days, I wasn’t giving space to truly see what was coming through my own senses, the eyes, ears, nose, taste and touch, my mind was continually projected to what I needed to do next. I thought this was the only way to cope with a busy job, family life and all the other identities I had at that time. I guess it is similar for many who have busy lives, always doing something, while thinking about the next thing to do. This kind of habitual process can rob us of many precious moments, rather than just being where we actually are. The sitting meditation became a part of my everyday life and I began to notice much more through being still and more in touch with my own senses.

Our relationship with food and self-nourishment can be a metaphor for all activities in life. I had been self-absorbed in being in control of the next thing and that simple action of being mindful when eating during the mealtime ceremony, was an opening for me to base my practice on experiencing my own existential reality and its interdependence with so much more.

Being human and prone to mistakes, I need reminders towards diligence and care, there seems so much distraction in today’s world to be seen from a small-minded point of view. Therefore, for me, daily meditation practice and time out to rest and renew is part of a way of offering to myself and others.

The Five Thoughts:
We must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come:
We must consider our merit when accepting it.
We must protect ourselves from error by excluding greed from our minds.
We will eat lest we become lean and die.
We accept this food so that we become enlightened. 2.

Mo Henderson

1 Indra’s net of jewels; each jewel is reflected in all of the other jewels, an infinite reflecting process. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.
Avatamsaka Sutra

2 From Mealtime Scripture-Dogen Zenji:
As recited at Throssel Hole Abbey in Northumberland following the Soto Zen Tradition.

Feeding the Snails ~ on the theme of Nourish ~ by Karen Richards

When I first came to live in Damson Drive, I inherited a square patch of garden that consisted of three ornamental trees, two borders supporting some hardy shrubs, an expanse of lawn, a small shed and a colony of snails. The garden was modest in size and would not have won any prizes but from the first time I saw it, I loved it. The snails not so much!

I wanted to grow things: romantic plants like larkspur, hollyhocks, poppies and peonies; and vegetables like cabbages, lettuce and peas. But the soil was poor and needed nourishment and so, it turned out, did the snails. All attempts to cultivate the borders ended in disappointment. Even when, through the use of composts and frequent watering, I managed to grow something, the snails would slope out in the night and eat it.

I tried growing in tubs and pots, which I raised up and bound with copper wire or tape – I had been told by gardening friends that snails would not cross a copper barrier – but the snails in my garden were made of sterner stuff and tender shoots made a flavoursome breakfast.

It was a dilemma. I felt very unkindly towards those little creatures; so frustrated that they had the audacity to ruin my gardening ambitions. I was told, by several more pragmatic gardeners, to lay down slug and snail pellets and put an end to them but this was never an option. I remembered the story of the Buddha and the snails. How when the Buddha was meditating, in the heat of the day, the snails came and covered his head, sacrificing their own lives, so that He could reach enlightenment and that is why the Buddha is depicted most often with little swirls around His head: not curls but snails. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of this story, of course, but there is wisdom in a tale that makes someone stop before taking a life, any life, and look for a different solution.

Over the years I have done just that. One particularly warm and wet summer evening when I stepped outside my backdoor to find an army of them sliding across the patio. I took a gallon bucket, filled it with the snails to the halfway mark and relocated them on the edge of a woody thicket, over the road from the house. It was ineffective. They found their way home.

It was around this time that I started seeing them differently. Not as pests but as interesting beings in their own right. I started to see the garden differently too – not as ‘my’ garden but as a habitat for all the creatures that lived there. I was merely one of many. So, I stopped trying to grow plants unsuited to the soil. Over time, the lawn became smaller and eventually disappeared, altogether.  There is a pond there now, which birds and insects drink from and which, I am delighted to say, Lillies thrive in, during the summer months.

The soil is still not the best but better for letting the things that thrive in it, grow. Foxgloves seed themselves in parts of the borders on one side but not on the other. Roses seem to love it wherever I plant them. The more hardy soft fruits, such as loganberries and tayberries climb up a pergola alongside a rambling rose, jasmine lollops over some old paving by the shed, meadow grass full of clover and other wildflowers, loved by the bees, has replaced part of the lawn and what vegetables I manage to grow are placed in raised beds.

The snails are as prolific as ever, as are the slugs, but we get along fine. They still eat the lettuce and tender young beans but I have come up with a few ways to discourage them, which we can all live with. One method is to overplant so that even if they eat some, there are still some for the kitchen. The other is to take my vegetable waste, from the evening meal, and place it around the growing plants so that the first thing the snails come across when they are out for a feed, are bean pods, carrot tops and cabbage stumps. It works, for the most part, or at least it gives the tender shoots a fighting chance to get established. It is not an exact science – currently, the leaves on the sweet potato look rather like a doily – but it’s the best method that I have found to date. More to the point, I have come to feel a certain joy in going out in the early light of summer mornings and watching the snails feed. Sometimes, I even find them something special, like a slice of ripe pear, and tell them how beautiful they are and how welcome they are to stay.

See also: Mo Henderson’s book review


Dew on the Grass
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