A bench and a mat

Last week I went out to join in with a local ‘mixed’ meditation group.  It being late when I got home, I left my meditation bench and zabuton in the back of my car.

The following day, having to transport some passengers unexpectedly, I took the equipment out and left it temporarily on the roof of my husband’s car which stands next to mine in the garage. And forgot all about it.

My husband rarely goes anywhere in the car, but, unusually, was taking his grandson to the train station that morning.  By sheer chance, I looked out of the bedroom window to watch them drive off and was horrified to see my meditation equipment still on the roof of his car!  I yelled out of the window but of course he couldn’t possibly have heard me.  So I rushed downstairs and jumped into my car in pursuit, (Follow that car!), thinking it would certainly have fallen off at one of the series of bends on our country lane.

Not a bit of it.  I reached the main road and, about 100 yards from the junction, there were my bench and zabuton lying in the middle of the road.  I stopped, put on my hazard lights and retrieved them. What a relief.  But the whole episode prompted some interesting thoughts.

I have had this bench and mat for nearly thirty years, having bought them in the days when Throsssel Hole Buddhist Abbey still made and sold such things.  Although mostly these days I sit on a chair, (old age, disease and death), they are still very precious to me.  And I treat them, as we treat, for instance, our kesas and our altar equipment, with respect and love.  So to see them lying in the middle of the highway was truly shocking.

Of course, my mind ran on, as it does, and I imagined how it would have been if they’d been run over by traffic, which had in fact clearly avoided them.  But one big truck would have wrecked them, smashed the bench and ground the mat into the mud.  How unbelievably fortunate that I happened to look out of my window, sentimentally really, to wave goodbye.  Because if I hadn’t, I might never have realised what had happened, and even been baffled and distressed by their apparent ‘disappearance’.  And would I ever have seen the mangled wreck on the road, or even identified it?

The whole episode reminded me of a trip we made years ago to Disney, and one of the rides which took us through various ‘scenarios’ (before plunging us over a precipice to certain, well almost certain… death).  One of these was some sort of desert scene, with sand and a smashed buddha statue.  Landscape, cinema, but I remember being shocked and actually offended at the time, that something that represented important beliefs for me was lying broken and used as part of a tourist experience.  

We invest objects with importance beyond their value.  And we need of course sometimes to be aware of that. Bells, gongs, incense, water have no magical properties; but how fortunate we are to have human brains which allow us to value things in different ways and to use objects and association to bring us back to what really matters to us.  A smashed bench would not, in the order of things, have been a huge tragedy, but the pain for me, because of all that I have associated with it, would have been very hard to bear.  

The Healing Buddha (accessible) Retreat

Shallowford House, Shallowford, Stone, Staffordshire, ST15 0NZ – Karen Richards

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 retreatants.

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 the stay.

Please contact Karen Richards at healingretreat@tbpriory.co.uk for further details. You are also welcome to speak with Reverend Saido or Reverend Mugo if you prefer.

“Do Not Covet”

Charlie Holles

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

Charlie Holles

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

Chris Yeomans

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

Watery reflections

Chris Yeomans

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

Anna Aysea Shibori collar

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.