I very much enjoy Maria Popova’s Brainpickings and Kahil Gibran has long been a personal favourite writer of mine – Karen Richards
“Do Not Covet”
I have recently been considering the third of the 10 Great Precepts, perhaps due to challenges that my life is giving me at present. The definition of covet is ‘to crave or long for something, especially that which belongs to someone else – even to lust after’. In general, I think of coveting as cravings, perhaps jealousy, of material things owned by another or perhaps jealousy of their status or achievements.
I wonder if coveting could be extended to include health? Currently I am experiencing difficult health challenges, which are in part due to age. At times I can look at others (especially people of my age or older) who seem to be in much better health and feel a little frustrated at my situation. This is particularly so because at times things impact quite a lot on the many commitments I have.
Yet this coveting of the state of someone else takes me away from exactly what my life is right now. It is a lack of acceptance, a clinging to how I would like things to be and this causes further mental suffering on top of the physical difficulties. Of course, accepting does not mean that I should not do what I can to work with medical and health practitioners to improve things. But as the Buddha taught, the source of our peace of mind is completely within the mind and I am coming to accept that it is possible that there might not be a lot of improvement.
I have friends who enquire about my health, knowing that things are pretty hard for me at the moment. Of course, they do this out of concern and I am grateful for that but there is a danger that they and I can begin to define me by my illness. That is not who I am. Now I try to respond by saying that ‘it is what it is’ rather than saying that I have had a bad few days or week.
It seems to me that most dissatisfaction stems from a lack of acceptance of conditions as they are. This does not mean we should be fatalistic and not try to make positive changes if appropriate. Yet, in many ways, life happens to us and we have very little control over much of what comes our way. Over the last couple of years, I have come to a greater understanding of what acceptance means for me. This has been a great relief as I have always been someone who has gone out to plough my own patch; to do things, often against the odds. As a result, I have led a rich and varied life (for which I am grateful) but if I am honest it has often been far from a peaceful and contented one. Difficult though things are at the moment I am also finding gratitude as I can learn much from how my life is and acceptance of the conditions can help me find greater peace of mind. After all, ‘the koan arises in daily life’. The bedrock and practice of our Buddhist training is in all that comes our way each day.
Returning to Buddha
When I attended Jukai nearly 30 years ago, I naively thought that I had ‘arrived’. I had become a Buddhist, after a lifetime of spiritual exploration. This was going to heal me. I would move steadily (not necessarily quickly) but smoothly on this new path. What challenges awaited!
As I believe is the case for many trainees, there was a strong element of grasping in my early training. That is fine. It is just the way we are. We transfer our human tendency to grasp from things material and transitory to the spiritual path. Very slowly I have come to a much calmer state from which I try to approach this precious gift the Buddha gave us. Something that helped me was a period of some years during which I drifted away from formal practice, though something inside me hung on just enough. I learnt much during that time. I recall returning to Throssel after a gap of some years and I was greeted as if I had never been away.
The following Tanka poem reflects my experience of that drifting away.
Returning to Buddha
Chasing my desire
I became lost in shadow
Then my heart called
I turned towards the light
Shining as bright as ever
I am a terrestrial
Early morning and the sun makes streaks of golden light on the Common. September just around the corner. There is a heavy crop of plums and those we haven’t picked lie rotting on the ground under the tree, blue purple skins and yellow flesh. A dozen red admiral butterflies flit from one to the other and through the branches of the tree glutting on the sweet juice. Under the heavy heat, the countryside is still and there is a faint mist hanging over the trees along the edge of the field. Leaves now are the dark green of late summer. In the shallow pond, set among the flowers in the border for the birds to bathe and drink from, three frogs lurk, eyes and noses just above the water, watching me. We breathe the same air, we share in the same water. We humans are, as Germaine Greer once put it, ‘terrestrials’ – of and from the earth. I am one with the frog and the muntjac deer that browses on the edge of the wood.
Recently there was a news item about a firm which is breeding insects as a source of food. Dog and cat food can now be made from grubs and this provides sufficient of the right sort of protein for our pets to flourish. This is heralded as good news, because it means fewer large mammals being slaughtered and, they said, vegetarians would be very pleased. I am puzzled. There is a photograph of wriggling grubs. Whilst I understand that in one way to kill a grub is less emotionally difficult than it is to kill a cow, or, for dog meat, a horse, it is still killing and the taking of life. And I can’t really see why this would be welcomed by vegetarians. The grub becomes an insect of some sort. Both grub and insect are living beings.
It prompts me to ponder on what I mean by life. Because of course plants are life and recent research indicates that trees communicate with each other in ways we hadn’t previously understood. And we fell trees routinely for wood. Human life could not exist without taking life from some things – plants, bacteria even. I ponder a definition of life as something that is not rooted in earth, that can live freely and move about without having to be hard-wired to a food source. And this includes grubs and insects. Breeding insects as food stuff is surely the same as the wholesale breeding of prawns and shrimps, or even catching prawns and shrimps to eat. Catching fish. All these living creatures, however humanely reared, and many of them are not, certainly do not want to die.
Once you start to think about it, there is so much of heartbreak in this world. I look at the countryside around me in its late summer heaviness and my heart breaks to think that all of this will eventually be lost. And soon, in the evolutionary scale of things. And I ponder the question of attachment. I am so passionately attached to this English countryside with all its flora and fauna, its scenery, its lushness. Where is the letting go, the cutting of ties? I am part of this. Inseparable. I am a terrestrial, connected in every way possible to the raindrops on the sugar beet, the earth beneath my feet, the trees that provide such welcome shade in this hot weather. We are all of a piece, this world and I. I cannot but be attached.
The Last of the Ketchup
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 aren’t wasted.
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.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
– William Blake
I am brushing my teeth. I reach across to turn off the tap, as advised by the water conservationists. In the field at the back of the house, the irrigators are chucking thousands of gallons of water onto the potato crop.
We are told that sometime soon – in this century probably – the planet will run out of water. How can this be, I wonder, when earth is a closed system? Water circulates. It evaporates and comes back as rain; it seeps down to the water table and comes back through our taps; it flows back into rivers from effluent plants. How is is possible that it can run out?
I reflect that I don’t have enough understanding of physics, or even or geography. Why is drought? Boiled water becomes steam and condenses back into water. If the water molecule is somehow split into hydrogen and oxygen, does that molecule of water disappear for ever? And how might this happen? I consult with my step-grandson, who tries to explain how, with global warming, water will remain suspended in the atmosphere and never fall again as rain.
My human body is 60% water and, whilst it circulates, this amount effectively remains trapped. If this body is cremated, is this water lost to the system? If it is buried, is the water reclaimed? And does the amount of carbon released either way mitigate any gains? If the human and animal population of the world increases, does too much water get trapped in bodies, so that it is not available for the planet?
If humans start to use de-salination plants extensively, will the oceans become too salty for marine life to survive? When the icecaps melt and polar species are devastated, will this nevertheless mean more available water? Or will it mean that the planet heats up so much that life can’t survive anyway?
How fortunate we are to live in a time when streams still bubble down the hillsides and waterfalls plunge over rocks. How fiercely we must appreciate a draught of clear, clean tap water with a cube of ice clinking against the glass and condensation gathering on the outside.
How sweet the falling rain.
Taking up Space
When learning to walk again after surgery, my physiotherapist would often instruct: No stooping, elbows out, go up and wide, dare to take up space!
Standing erect, taking up space, walking tall even if our steps feel less then confident, speaking up, trusting the inner compass, it requires courage.
This shibori collar was designed as an expression of daring to go up and wide, of daring to take up space.
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
In February and March, toads, newts and frogs are all on the move, travelling from their winter hibernation places towards the ponds on the common. To get there, they have to cross the lane where they are in danger of being squashed by cars. They tend to linger, waiting for a passing female to jump onto, or just preferring the marginally warmer conditions of the roadway. To save them, they have to be moved to the common side of the lane or all the way to one of the ponds.
There is an official toad watch group: a number of volunteers who go out to rescue every evening. I am not part of this, but I find myself a reluctant volunteer because I walk my dog last thing at night and can’t avoid meeting up with amphibians on the move. I don’t like picking them up at all, but neither can I bear to leave them there to take their chances with the traffic. And if I don’t move them, I’ll be the one to find their flattened bodies early in the morning when next I walk the dog.
The toad watch volunteers keep records and dead ones have to be moved off the road so that they don’t get counted twice. Bizarrely, I prefer doing that, picking them up by one delicate, clawed foot, reciting the three homages and throwing the bodies into the undergrowth where at least they will naturally be recycled. What I dislike is picking up the living, getting hold of their little bony bodies, throwing them rapidly into the long grass where I pray they have a soft landing. Sometimes I drop them and they squirm on their backs, their pale underbellies exposed, their little curved mouths tightly shut, until they right themselves and I have to catch them and try again. I wear gloves, not being able to bring myself to pick them up with my bare hands.
The official volunteers, out just after dusk with head torches, high viz clothing and buckets, gather them up and carry them in batches to the ponds. But I can’t cope with a bucket as well as the dog on a lead and just have to chuck them one by one into the grass. I report numbers of each, but sometimes it is difficult to tell which are frogs and which are toads. If they hop, they’re frogs. But both species come in many different shades of brown, gold and green. Toads are supposed to be ‘warty’, and this means that they have a rougher, pebbly skin, whereas the frogs are shiny, gleaming in the torch light. And the frogs seem to be more angular, more powerful swimmers perhaps, built for moving faster through the water, though at this time of year the females have bulging egg-filled bellies which makes them waddle and wait.
Some nights I move around forty: frogs, toads, and often too newts, slim, golden slivers which are easy to miss in the darkness. The newts wriggle at amazing speed, their tiny legs just raising them off the asphalt, their graceful bodies propelling them along. Over the few weeks of the watch, altogether we move nearly four thousand creatures, though I’m not entirely convinced that I’m not moving the same ones, which could so easily have hopped back into my pathway as I return.
It is with some relief that I receive the message that the watch has come to an end. But to some extent it never does for me. On warm summer evenings along the lanes there are always toads, squatting on the asphalt, apparently going nowhere. I ought to move them and yet I just can’t bring myself to pick them up. I nudge them gently with my foot or with my torch. The frogs will leap away, the toads either lumber slowly a step or two, or simply refuse to move at all. Many of them are exquisite in their tininess, this year’s or last year’s hatchlings, some no more than the size of my fingernail, perfectly formed down to their little clawed feet, their tiny, shiny black eyes. I marvel at them. I love them. And yet still I hesitate to pick them up and move them to safety and then suffer agonies of guilt at my own ridiculous weakness.
Often, when I get home, there is a toad or two walking across the gravel on the drive or sitting on the flight of steps that leads up to the front door. ‘Welcome,’ I say to them. ‘You’re safe here.’ And I go in and turn off the lights and leave them to the warm and mothy darkness.