A retreat in the woods

Ian Finlay describes a retreat which he attended recently in his own woodland

At the end of July the Tariki Trust’s yearly eco-retreat took place in the Rheidol valley near Aberystwyth. In the end there were only five people on the retreat including myself and Caroline Brazier who ably led the retreat.

Ian in his woodland

Ian in his woodland

This year there was a more overtly Buddhist theme, great importance having been put on forest retreats throughout the history of Buddhism, and we looked at some of the early sutras such as the Bhaya-bherava sutra in which Buddha discusses the difficulties of isolated forest retreats and the fear and terror that can arise if the mind is not purified.

I would not say that I experienced terror, but there were fears and difficulties aplenty. Some were purely practical, had I prepared the site properly, was there enough dry firewood, drinking water etc. We had also chosen (not deliberately) the wettest and coldest week of the summer so there were real physical problems but despite this we all managed to stay warm and dry most of the time and cook all our meals on the campfire outside.

Much of the time was spent observing nature closely, realising impermanence as the weather constantly changed, rainclouds racing across the sky in much the same way as thoughts and feelings race across the empty space of the mind. Buzzards and kites wheeled overhead, foxgloves and honeysuckle bloomed and faded, further symbols of impermanence. transient and fragile. Working with nature in this way we could see the impermanence of all things, how the mightiest trees would eventually fall, and decaying give their bodies to the fungi and other organisms, subject to the same forces of change as ourselves. We also meditated on the elements, earth, water, fire and air realising that nothing is as solid as it appears and all is interconnected.

By the fourth day I was feeling very clear, very present and confident, then came the solitary where we all went off to different places with sleeping bags, hammocks and tarpaulins in late afternoon to spend from then until the following morning alone.I had looked forward to it, feeling I would enjoy the solitude and I soon found a good place and set up camp quickly and efficiently. I then started to feel slightly uncomfortable, still four hours of daylight and what was I to do? Sitting in meditation and walking up and down past my site filled my time, but why was I so anxious to ‘fill’ it, does time need filling? I became acutely aware of my neuroses, my evasions and need for distractions.

As darkness fell I climbed into my hammock and felt a sharp pain in my back, the start of sciatica, a condition I have suffered from before. I am not used to hammocks and found it uncomfortable and difficult to move in with my increasing back pain. I lay as still as I could and listened to the owls. Late in the night it started to rain. Hard. I worried I would get wet but the tarp held and I was at least dry. I worried about the others, but after a sleepless night I stumbled out of my hammock and made my way back to camp. The others appeared, all had kept dry and were in good spirits.

My sciatica worsened and I experienced acute pain all down my right leg. My earlier feelings of confidence and clarity evaporated. I inwardly cursed God and the universe for the unkind fate that had dealt me such a blow.

A week later and my sciatica is easing and I see things differently again, as a great gift. The four noble truths, suffering and the way out of suffering. A practical demonstration of suffering which I could not let go of. I failed to find the way out, though I had been so wise  earlier talking about the space beyond body and mind, the unborn and uncreated. I cannot remember it exactly but there is a poem by William Blake about how easy it is to praise God when your harvest is in and your belly is full but it is a very different thing when it is not.

And I thought of Christ, the real message of the resurrection seems to me to be about overcoming suffering and death, not by rising again on the third day but by a total acceptance of it. ‘If this is my cup shall I not drink it?’  Can we say ‘yes’ to life, gladly accept all that it can throw at us?

The answer, I fear, is ‘no’ in my case. But I can practice with what I have now, the life and death of every moment, the sun, the clouds, the friends I have, and those moments where self is dropped and everything just is. And all with a little more humility, I hope.

All in all, a wonderful if challenging experience and one which I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.

If anyone is interested in eco-retreats or in using the wood for retreats, solitary or otherwise, please contact Caroline at Tariki or Ian Finlay.

Supporting tribal Buddhists in Bangladesh

By Ian Finlay

I first became aware of the Chakma people in about 1975 when Survival International published a booklet entitled ‘genocide in the Hill Tracts’. It detailed the atrocities being committed against the Chakma and other tribals in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. I then met several Chakmas at a conference in Bangkok but it was not until about 2000 that I went out to visit them in their homeland.. A Buddhist organisation had been contacted by Chakma refugees in India and I went on a sort of fact finding mission.chakma school kids

The tribal people of Bangladesh, of which there are 13 main groups, had not done too badly under the British and the Chakma particularly had a high standard of education. Their main problems really began in 1945 when India was partitioned. The Hill tracts should have become part of India, but because of dubious political deals their land was given to Pakistan, the eastern bit later becoming Bangladesh. The Chakma have always been Buddhist, the other hill tribes dividing between Buddhism, Hindu, Christian and animist.

Finding themselves part of Muslim Bangladesh was bad news for all of them as land hungry Bengalis moved onto the tribal land and violent ethnic and religious persecution followed. Most of their best land and their palace was flooded when the Kaptai Dam was built and their way of life became unsustainable. Some half a million fled into India, where they mainly live in remote communities in the North-East hill states. Here they desperately try to survive, preserving their unique culture (they are possibly the oldest Buddhists in the world, some believing their name Chakma is a corruption of Sakya, the clan of Buddha. Be that as it may, they have a unique culture and language with its own script.

I found the people tremendously welcoming and friendly, many men and a good few women speaking excellent English, just as well due to my own lack of skill in the linguistic department!

One of the Indian states where many of the Chakma people fled was Mizoram and I was recently contacted by Sudip Chakma who has started an organisation with the delightful title, ‘The ultimate truth teaching mission’. In fact this is a fairly humble and small scale attempt to try to help the Chakma people in the area retain their culture and gain some form of education. Thus there is a school where the children can learn basic skills and some English, a vihara or small temple for religious meetings and practice and workshops to encourage traditional crafts.

When I was in the North-East of India I remember seeing the Chakma women sitting outside their huts weaving beautiful material on their handlooms, and also listening to wonderful music, so I was pleased that these skills are being encouraged along with modern education. I am hoping to make a reasonable donation to Sudip’s project (The Aberystwyth Quakers are collecting this month) so if anyone is interested in this project they can contact me or Sudip for more information or donate through me or the Quakers. I am certain this is a very genuine and worthwhile cause.

Ian’s email address is genzan1@yahoo.co.uk.

The Buddhist precepts

By Ian Finlay

I think many people in the West are often put off the idea of the precepts because they associate them with the Ten Commandments and a rather unpleasant type of morality, imposing restrictions on us and limiting our freedom. Morality is often an unpopular word as it seems to imply something unnatural, imposed by the church from outside, as it were.

In fact the Buddhist precepts can be seen as the exact opposite of this: they are not commandments imposed on us by an authoritarian and paternalistic God, but pieces of advice designed to bring out our natural goodness so that we may live in tune with our true nature. As such they are the very heart of Buddhist practice and can be seen as promoting the positive values rather than simply the negative, forbidding ones. In this sense they are both restraining and liberating, restraining in the sense that they protect us and prevent us from getting lost in ‘the mire of samsara’, swept away by delusion, and liberating in that they help us to live in accord with the Buddha nature, ‘buddhata’, the reality behind our egoistic selves. They are in fact not only an essential part of Buddhist practice, they also provide a description of the enlightened person.

So what are the precepts?

There are five basic precepts common to all forms of Buddhism, although some schools use eight or even twelve precepts. As I said earlier, they are not commandments, and as we look more deeply at them we realise that keeping them absolutely is probably impossible.

The first one is the ‘Thou shalt not kill’ one of Christianity, which in Buddhism is expressed as avoiding taking the life of all sentient beings. It is really about caring for all beings, and we could add trees, plants and the earth itself to this. We do not wantonly destroy life. There may be times when this is unavoidable. As a gardener I know I cannot grow a lettuce without harming the slugs and greenfly that come to eat it. If my children were attacked by a pack of wild dogs I would kill the dogs to save my children. Nonetheless I have the intention to help all beings, compassion for all. As Zen master Shunryi Suzuki said, ‘Even though it is impossible, we have to do it, we have to get rid of our self-centred ideas. Then our inmost nature is revealed and nirvana is there’.

The second precept is not stealing, not taking that which is not freely given. This is about generosity, eliminating selfishness, realising that we do not really ‘own’ anything.

The third precept is not indulging in sexual misconduct. It is easy to get lost in sexual desire, it is a minefield, and I doubt if there is anyone here, certainly no man, who has not at some time behaved badly, exploited another person. It is difficult not to, especially when we are growing up. But again, the Buddhist view is that we are all interdependent, that we all share the Buddha nature, to harm another is to harm ourselves, to behave selfishly is to reinforce the ego creating more unhappiness and separation. Real love, real caring for each other, is liberation.

The fourth precept is about right speech. Is our speech loving and caring or are we harsh, criticising others? If the latter we will again reinforce our own egos, leading to separation and misery. Do we gossip, talking of others behind their backs? We have to have awareness, look at our motivation, are we simply trying to bolster our own egos?

The fifth precept is not to use drugs which ‘cloud the mind’. This could include our consumption generally, the food we eat, television programmes we watch, pornography etc. Interestingly, The Buddha mentioned alcohol specifically because he felt that alcohol consumption led to loss of mindfulness and the breaking of all the other precepts as well. One only has to look at our local paper to realise the truth of this, that the vast majority of violence and anti social behaviour is committed under the influence of alcohol. Drunken drivers have killed more people than have ever been killed by nuclear weapons. It is true that many people use alcohol responsibly and small amounts may be beneficial, but at the same time we are supporting an industry which kills millions of people each year. We have to look closely at our use of alcohol and other drugs – are they really helping us or are they taking us away from a place of clarity, leading to further confusion? To return to what I originally said about the precepts, is our action, our consumption, ultimately liberating or is it in fact restricting?

Please look carefully at this, and try to be aware and mindful at all times. This seems to be the real message of the precepts.

Ian Finlay

Expressing what’s alive in us

By Jane Powell

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Harold Whitman

It’s a common belief that meditation is about calming the mind and developing a detached view of life, so that we don’t mind so much when things go wrong. There’s a lot of truth in this, but it certainly isn’t about cultivating an unfeeling tranquillity. Rather, as the surface agitation of the mind settles, we become aware of deeper feelings and become more sensitive. We may say that our heart opens, and we feel connected to other people and the wider world. We become more awake and alive.

Something similar happens in our communications with others. If we try to smooth away the difficulties that so often arise when we share our lives with family, friends and colleagues we can so often end up with a dead and even hostile politeness that is the opposite of what we really want. If on the other hand we talk freely, saying whatever comes into our heads, we run the risk of chaotic and destructive arguments, and worse. So what are we to do?

Just as in meditation, the key to good communication is go deeper inside ourselves and connect to what is alive in us, and to speak from there. We will all be familiar, whether from our own experience or the stories of others, with that switch from fighting to vulnerability. Often it happens when all other possibilities have been exhausted and our clever minds have run out of tactics, so that we are forced to appear as our naked selves.

There are some very inspiring stories of reconciliation in the most desperate of circumstances. If you want to read some words of hope in these times of heartbreaking global conflict, take a look at the Forgiveness Project, which visited Aberystwyth a couple of years ago, and tells of meetings between murderers and the families of their victims and the new life that has sprung from that.

Then there are the small breakthroughs – children making up after a playground fight, colleagues finding a way through with a project that had got stuck, friends clearing up a misunderstanding. These everyday challenges are the training ground for the bigger questions of war and global conflict over resources.

It might seem that these moments of connection are miracles that cannot be contrived, and indeed they are, but there are certain habits of communication which make them much more likely to occur. One formulation of the principles of skilful communication was developed by the American Marshall Rosenberg, who called it Non-Violent Communication (NVC).

Rosenberg identified the common mistakes in speech and writing which lead other peopleto close off from us and resist what we have to say, and pointed out more skilful alternatives. And just as important, he pointed out that there are ways of listening to others (and to ourselves, for that matter) which provide a safe place in which resistance softens, allowing genuine and respectful conversation to take place.

A key insight is to notice that when we criticize others, we are really talking about our own needs, that alive part of ourselves which drives our behaviour. If I say my friend is selfish, what I may really mean is that I am disappointed that she hasn’t given me the support I so badly needed. Here the shift is to stop making her wrong for that, and instead to feel my own fear and sadness, and my need for support. At that point I may already feel better, and maybe I can go on to ask someone else – but it will be a request, not a demand.

The good news is that communication is a skill that can be taught and practised, and indeed people are doing it all over the world, even in schools. You can find out more about courses and training materials at www.nvc-uk.com. There are trainers in Wales, and soon we plan to run events in Aberystwyth, so watch this website for more details.

By Jane Powell

The Six Vajra Verses

At a recent meeting, Paul shared these verses which are from the Dzogchen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism:








Science and Buddhism: personal thoughts

By Maurice Kyle

The rise of science and technology since the Industrial Revolution has accompanied the decline of traditional ‘theistic’ religions, and for good reason. Models of the Universe in many diverse societies have involved the intervention of a divine intelligence (God) in the cosmos to explain what seems to happen ‘out there’, and this God also intervenes in human affairs to try to make sense of human interactions ‘in here’. Science seems to be able to deal with both of these things; physics and cosmology have proposed theories that increasingly explain the workings of the cosmos, psychology and neuro-science with society and the mind, and evolutionary biology with the diversity of species. The need for an interventionist God seems to have disappeared.

So a tradition has arisen that sees science and religion to be in conflict, and science to have largely ‘won’ the contest, despite there being huge areas of scientific understanding that are open to question and current theories sometimes remaining contradictory. The beliefs of the fundamentalists and creationists of various religions appearing pitiful and antediluvian in comparison, appealing only to those harking back to some ‘golden era’ of certainty in an uncertain world.

And yet despite all the evidence, there are many eminent scientists still identifying themselves with the major world religions. Something in the human psyche still requires something that science cannot seem to provide, and people have come up with vague notions of ‘spirituality’ as a concept, a ‘something’ missing from a purely materialistic, rational view. Even militant atheist Richard Dawkins has admitted to a wonder, almost verging on the spiritual, when observing the complex patterns of the physical and biological universe.

Many scientists have been drawn to Buddhism in search of this lost ‘essence’, for a number of important reasons which I will touch on, but it is first necessary to be clear about what we mean by ‘science’.

There is a very common confusion, in the media especially, and in the non-scientific community, between ‘science’ and ‘technology’. Although these two distinct activities are interrelated and interdependent, they are very different.

“The process of its development (science) in recent times can be described as follows. One performs experiments and makes observations; and then, by thinking about the results obtained, , in the context of already existing knowledge and understanding one may…… be able to create some model, in either conceptual or mathematical terms, which will not only fit results already obtained, but will enable one to make predictions.

Experiments and observations are then designed to test these predictions; if the tests fail, one may attempt to modify the theory or create a new one, then make further predictions with the new or modified theory, and so on.” (M. Hookham, unpublished)

Technology on the other hand involves the application of scientific understanding to solve a practical problem, and therefore to some extent tests the prediction(s) made by the scientific theory. For example, the Apollo moon missions were dependant on the theories of Newtonian physics, whereas particle accelerators must be designed and built to take into account Einsteinian time-dilation effects, predicted by the Special Theory of Relativity. Thus a theory is a working model (not a wild guess, as the media might have us believe!) which makes testable predictions (in these examples, about how dynamic bodies behave).

The fact that science employs only ‘provisional’ knowledge may be illustrated by a very trite but simple to understand example:

A person who has never seen a swan before is told that ‘a swan is a large white bird with a long neck that swims on water’. Not a bad theory until the person sees such a creature walking on dry land…But all is not lost, the theory is expanded to include ‘can walk on land too’. But then the person sees a black swan, and the theory must be modified again. Very young swans are also a brownish colour and have short necks…you can see the problem… The act of observation is testing the theory to destruction.

Proper scientific theories are constantly tested and either they withstand the test, or they are expanded, or their limitations are further restricted, or they are thrown out altogether to be replaced by something new and hopefully more durable in the face of further testing. Thus science NEVER ‘proves’ anything; scientists should not be asked for proof, but for supporting evidence. Testing can of course, DISPROVE a theory.

So what about Buddhism? There are parallels between the ideas of ‘unknowing’ that Ian has written and talked about, and this idea of ‘provisional’ knowledge. The scientist’s version of the state of ‘unknowing’ is the understanding that the paradigm within which he/she is working (e.g. Newtonian physics) might one day be superseded by a conflicting paradigm (e.g. Einsteinian Relativity). Notice that this state of unknowing is certainly not ‘ignorance’, but actually is a certain type of insight, or even ‘wisdom’. Where there is no concrete data available, a scientist will be in a perfect state of unknowing, claiming nothing, whereas a Buddhist practitioner might be able to use intuition to construct a workable model or hypothesis, science tending to deal with the external world, Buddhism with the internal mind (although both not exclusively, of course). ‘The mind is everything’, as the Buddha said.

In fact uncertainty has become ‘institutionalised’ in quantum physics, in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle proposes that the subjective act of observing determines reality…uncannily similar to the Buddhist idea of the mind subjectively creating the reality that is observed. Experiments like the simple double-slit light beam experiment suggests that whether light behaves as a wave or particle depends on how (or even whether) we observe it…i.e. this reality is subjective This is a far cry from the Victorian scientific paradigm of an absolute, objective, unchanging reality in which everything is the same and unchanging for every observer.

We have to exercise caution in drawing parallels between the actual content of scientific and Buddhist theories. Scientific theories change rapidly as research progresses…Buddhist thought changes more slowly, but change there is, and where there may be a coincidence today, there may be divergence tomorrow. However, many interesting parallels have so far stood the test of time.

Science seems to have done away with a need for God to intervene to make things happen as we see them. Newton didn’t need God any more to push the planets round the Sun, but He was still required to explain the ‘action at a distance’ of the force of gravity. Einstein’s curved space-time did away even with the remaining duties that Newton required of God. Buddhism says almost nothing about ‘God’ and modern-day Buddhists tend not to accept the existence of a divine interventionist for reasons of fairly basic logic. Buddhism is also undogmatic, asking practitioners to test the ideas against their experiences in everyday life…similar to Gandhi’s ‘experiment with life’ using ahimsa (non-violence), and similar to a scientist’s willingness to subject every pet theory to the rigours of testing.

Like science, Buddhism attempts to make sense of the Universe and is clear that our sensory idea of reality is ultimately illusory, based on the destructive power of ego to influence the mind.   Science also tells us that the concrete, solid world we observe is illusory, dependant on the limits of our sense perception. Apparently solid objects are mostly empty space (according to extremely well-tested theory), perhaps analogous to the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’. The perception of sitting on a hard floor during our meditation, for example, is created by electrical repulsive forces between atoms…a sort of hovering, quite unlike our common-sense view of what’s going on! Another analogy to the concept of emptiness from which all things originate is the idea of a quantum field in physics from which particles arise, in fact particles and fields being interchangeable, two aspects of the same thing.

Buddhism teaches ‘dependent origination’ and ‘interconnectedness’ in which the existence of objects is provisional and temporary, and have no discrete independent existence of their own, despite appearances. Scientists have long ago accepted the transitory and evolutionary nature of existence, and in modern quantum theory there is an important idea called ‘entanglement’ which suggest that when two particles interact, they can become ‘entangled’, seeming to act as one entity, even if separated by unlimited space-time between the two.

Impermanence is simple to demonstrate, but taken to the extreme, it is interesting to realise that ALL the actual atoms that make up our bodies seem to have been formed from simpler particles in the intense furnace of a stellar ‘supernova’ explosion, to where they may well return.

Maurice Kyle

Whatever you think, it’s more than that

By Ian Finlay

When the Buddha was asked whether there was a God or not he famously observed a ‘noble silence’. Later, when asked why he had not answered, he explained that any answer given would be confusing, that he would have been ‘taking sides’ in the debate that was going on at the time. Perhaps though, that silence was answer in itself, for we live in a world that craves certainty, understanding, explanation and meaning for our lives. This is perhaps why every people, from the most ‘primitive’ Amazonian Indian or New Guinea tribe, has had a religion, a system that explains existence.

And most religions explain everything very well. There are creation myths and we are told what happens when we die, but I would argue that the deepest truth, and the real religion (re-connection) is not knowing, that somehow if we hold ourselves in this moment, where we have no answers to anything, then we are close to the source of life itself, from where all creation springs.

Of course it is not only religions that attempt to give meaning to our lives. Science is a modern attempt to explain our universe and is no doubt successful in explaining many physical mechanisms. But as a retired professor of physics said to me the other day, ‘we don’t really know anything – even if the big bang theory is right, what came before the big bang?’ His comment reminded me of the old , ‘if God made the universe, then who made God?’ Such questions always bring me up short, for I realise that there is no answer to them, that there is always a step beyond, that the thinking mind alone cannot answer the most fundamental questions. Where did we come from? Where do we go when we die? Why do we have this inner consciousness, a world of feelings and emotions that so often appears to reflect the outer world that we also barely comprehend? As The Incredible String Band sang, ‘Whatever you think, it’s more than that.’

Richard Dawkins mentions the childhood awe that he felt as a boy when he contemplated nature, ‘tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way’. He says these feelings are common amongst scientists and rationalists and describes them, perhaps somewhat disparagingly, as ‘quasi mystical experiences’. It was this sense of wonder that led him to science and I certainly relate to that, for I too find nature amazing, the tiny eels in the streams that have swum all the way from the Sargasso Sea, the migrations of butterflies, the orchids that mimic female bees to get pollinated. Or just being in the wild wood where I spend much of my time, aware of the gentle swaying of hundred-foot-tall trees in the wind. I am filled with a sense of wonder, a sense of being that goes beyond narrow definitions of self, and I would not be ashamed to call it mystical experience. Very often, it seems, these experiences can only come when the thinking mind is dropped and we can be and act with spontaneity. Building a stone wall, one can search and dig for exactly the right stone but when the builder disappears so often the right stone appears, and the wall will seem to build itself.

Zen koans point to this experience. I once worked on the koan ‘how is life fulfilled?’ I struggled for days, thinking it was about my life, how is my life fulfilled. Then the penny dropped, it was not about my life, it was about life, and life is fulfilled all the time, there is nothing I can do about it. Or once I was sitting outside my hut in a tropical rainforest waiting for my interview with my Zen teacher, the Japanese master Hogen Roshi. I sat thinking, working out everything I was going to say to him, then hearing his bell and walking barefoot across the forest floor, my head full of the answers I was going to give him. Reaching his hut I bowed low then gasped in horror as I noticed a huge leech gorging on my toe. The teacher knocked it off with a piece of wood and it went looping off across the clearing. I burst out laughing, all my thoughts and answers completely blown away. Such a lesson, so much more real than any thoughts I might have had about Zen and enlightenment. ‘Whatever you think, it’s more than that.’ Or perhaps, of course, so much less!

In fact working with Hogen-san was a continual challenge to be in the here and now, to accept the totally unexpected, and the examples I could give are many. We always used to go for a run in the early morning and once came across a children’s playground, whereupon we all had to follow Hogen as he climbed to the top of the slides and slid down and played on the swings! Or on another occasion we were running backwards down a Devon lane at 5.30 in the morning. The rest of us all heard the sound of a motor approaching, but Hogen, who suffered from the cold and was wearing earmuffs, did not, so to our horror a somewhat shocked local milkman suddenly found a Japanese Zen master sprawled across the bonnet of his truck. No harm was done and a laughing Hogen picked himself up and carried on. My memories of Hogen are of tremendous presence coupled with absolute unconditional acceptance and compassion, but also a childlike quality which reminds me of Jesus’s saying about becoming as little children before we can enter the kingdom of heaven.

But one does not have to go to a tropical rainforest to find a leech as a good teacher, nor have bizarre experiences in Devon lanes. The teachings are all around, the cry of the buzzard, the plaintive note of the curlew or sweet song of the thrush. Like the wakeup bird in Aldous Huxley’s Island they can all bring us back to our true nature and the mystery of being. These sounds of nature seem particularly effective for me, and I am often brought back into the wonder of this present moment as I walk the hills and woods of Wales. The power of nature as opposed to the wisdom of men has been acknowledged by the mystics through the ages, especially in the east.

You’ve travelled up a thousand steps in search of the dharma,

So many days in the archives, copying, copying

The gravity of the Tang, the profundity of the Sung make heavy baggage

Here! I’ve picked you a bunch of wildflowers,

Their meaning is the same,

But they are much easier to carry.’

(Xu Yun)

Or as the contemporary western singer/songwriter Robin Williamson put it, ‘All that the wise men can say, the birds sing’.

But being and working with nature is not romanticism. Every time I walk through my woods I am confronted by death. A dead woodcock, entrails spilling out, part eaten by a fox, or small mammals, maybe victims of owls or polecats, always give me a slight shock and remind me that as I get older my own time here is running out. I have lived much of my life as if I was eternal, planning for the future, but now I am aware that I must face the great mystery of my passing. How will it be? How will I go? It is not that I want to go, far from it. I love this life now perhaps more than I have ever done, but I also feel less concerned at the thought of leaving it. I certainly have no particular faith in the certainty of the resurrection or anything else but I have a strange confidence. If I can fully accept this moment with all its mystery and unknowing, I will somehow be able to accept future moments with all their mystery and unknowing.

In fact it has come to me that certainty is a form of death, or suicide, that it precludes any form of growth, of real living. I even find myself uneasy at all the things I thought I believed in. Recently at a gathering to discuss climate change and ecological destruction I found myself getting increasingly uncomfortable. We all agreed how terrible it was, how we are facing catastrophe and those who disagree are indoctrinated by consumerist advertising and the oil industry. But what about us, I thought, Is it not possible that we have our own indoctrination, our own agendas?

It seems we cannot know anything for certain and everything is subjective to our own consciousness and way of seeing things. We do not even know what the ‘I’ is that does the knowing. We talk of the ‘I’ as a third person (I am doing it myself), as if there are two ‘I’s’, one that does the seeing and another that can dispassionately observe the first ‘I’. Most people like to feel they know who and what they are, there is a great sense of security in that knowing, and I freely confess that for much of my life I have been one of those people. In fact it was very much my own desperate insecurity that led me to study Zen and the mystics. Long periods of the most severe depression, terrible confusion and feelings of isolation and despair, not knowing who I was at all. Those feelings have long left me, but I do still suffer from bouts of extreme insomnia, which, while terrible while they last, do seem to act as a reminder that I am not in control, that I am not, perhaps, quite as sorted as I thought I was! A lesson in humility, that all my attainment and wisdom, the incredibly wise things I am writing about at the moment (!) have to be given up, for the intellectual understanding even of the so-called deepest truths is a trap and no substitute for the actual experience of not knowing.

Now I increasingly find that this not-knowing is a place of adventure, creativity and honesty. It is a place where we accept the here and now, things as they are without labels, where we can die and be reborn each second. This seems to me to be what many scriptures from different traditions are talking about, that creation is not something out there, separate from us, but something we can continuously participate in. All we have to do is let go, have the courage to forget all that we thought we knew, to climb to the top of that Zen pole and take that one step further, to let ourselves go into that ‘cloud of unknowing’ (if I may mix metaphors from different traditions).

It is there that the real revelation occurs, where we leave certainty behind and enter the great mystery, where ‘love knocks and knowledge stands without’ (St Buenaventura). It is there that we not only come to know nothing, but truly know ‘no thing’, as we ‘pass beyond everything into unknowing’ (St John of the Cross). In that place we might be ‘holy fools’ or the ‘little children’ that Christ spoke of. There we would no longer be condemned to live a half life with our security and set beliefs, but dwell in a total not-knowing, regaining the lost Eden before we ate of the fruit of that tree of knowledge which can be such a dangerous thing. And there perhaps we might truly enter a kingdom of heaven where every moment is fresh and pure and revelation in itself.

But already I have said far too much. My words and thoughts are as last year’s dead leaves that are blown by the wind on the path. It is a sunny day. Shadows play across the garden as the wind stirs the trees. A bumblebee collects nectar from the fading camellia blossoms. The bluetits that nest in my wall are busy feeding their young. And somewhere a robin sings. Have we the eyes and the ears to see and to hear?

By Ian Finlay

Watching the breath

By Jane Powell

Once we have found a suitable position in which to meditate, we have to get on and do it. There are very many different types of meditation, developed in different religions over the centuries, but the standard Buddhist practice involves calming the mind by bringing it gently and repeatedly back to a single point of focus. This could be anything at all – a word or phrase, the flame of a candle, a spot on the carpet – but traditionally the approach is to watch the breath.

Why the breath? There is a great deal to be said on this topic, but perhaps as good a reason as any is that it connects us with our bodies, linking us in to a rhythm that is both automatic (we don’t have to remember to do it) and under our conscious control. It tends to have a calming effect, and it’s something we can link into at any time of the day. Having said that, it’s common for people to report that watching the breath actually stirs up anxiety that is counterproductive. In that case it is a good idea to find a body sensation that is more neutral, such as the pressure of the buttocks on the seat, or the feet on the floor.

Assuming we are watching the breath, there are many different ways of doing it. The simplest is perhaps to count the breaths. You count one on an outbreath, breathe in without forcing the pace, breathe out again on a count of two, and so on. When you get to ten, start again. If you find you have lost concentration – it can be very hard to get past two or three sometimes – just start at one again. Alternatively you can count the inbreaths.

Another method, possibly more interesting, is to follow the breath in through the nose and mouth, feel how the rib cage expands, feel the diaphragm move down and the abdomen expand, and then follow the breath back out again. With practice you might feel subtle movements in your back, shoulders, and indeed your whole body if you are sensitive enough. This can be a good practice for working with anxiety or distress, as it brings us out of the thinking mind which causes us so much trouble, and links us into the immediate and yet mysterious experience of the body. It’s an opportunity to feel pleasure and gratitude that our breathing, which we barely understand or pay any attention to most of the time, works so well to keep us alive.

Yet another way is to choose a particular point in the breath, maybe the cooling of the nose on an inbreath, or the rise and fall of the abdomen, and keep returning to that. You may notice that placing your awareness lower down in your body has a more grounding effect which may be helpful sometimes, while placing it higher up is better for staying awake. Experiment and find what works for you.

As the meditation progresses, if we keep coming back to the breath, we are likely to find that the mind becomes calmer and our awareness deepens, bringing a sense of wellbeing. At some point, we can let go of watching the breath and simply rest in the space of the mind as thoughts come and go. It’s important to note however that it might not work like this at all. Our minds may be so agitated that we don’t see much change in half an hour or even an hour, or we may unconsciously place expectations on ourselves that produce tension and amplify our anxieties, or we may rebel and daydream our way through the entire session, only realizing at the end what we have done. This doesn’t mean that we have failed. It is all practice, and eventually we will get some insight into how our minds work and become a little more at home with ourselves.

Meditation instructions on the breath usually focus on the meditation aspect, taking the breath for granted. However there is a lot to be said for working with the breath as an end in itself, because how we breathe makes a difference to how we feel. We tend to breathe in a very shallow way, into the upper chest, and making a conscious effort to relax the chest and breathe right down into the abdomen can really make a difference. Singing is a good way of getting us to use more of our lungs and can really lift our mood, and there are many traditional and modern techniques for working with the breath to improve our general functioning. If anyone knows of any good ones, please let me know and I’ll post links here

Finally, see our News page for details of a work/meditation retreat at CAT and a Mindfulness course in Aberystwyth.

Jane Powell

Sitting with confidence

By Jane Powell

Sitting meditation is a central practice in Buddhism and it’s worth looking close at how we sit, because that sets the stage for everything else.  What posture should we adopt, and why does it matter?

There are two main things to think about when we settle ourselves on our meditation seat. One is that we need to be able to hold our position for 30-60 minutes or more without getting uncomfortable, and the other is that it needs to be a posture that puts us in the right frame of mind, getting us off to a good start.

Starting with the first point, it’s important that we do not rely on excessive muscular tension to hold us in place, because if we do, we will quickly get tired and uncomfortable. It’s also important that we are not pressing too hard on our limbs and cutting off the blood supply. And of course we may have particular injuries or physical problems that we need to look out for, such as a bad back, in which case we may need to get professional advice.

Assuming though that we are in good health, we should be able to find a suitable position if we experiment a bit. Sitting on a chair is perfectly acceptable, though it does need to be one on which we can sit upright, with the knees no higher than the bottom. The sort of chair you find in a classroom or an office is ideal, and it might help to sit on a cushion if the chair is very hard.

Then there is sitting on the floor. The important thing here is to ensure that the spine is straight, which means that the bottom needs to be higher than the knees, and so a cushion or stool is essential. You could use a yoga block, a meditation cushion, even a rolled-up blanket or a few bricks with a cushion on top – anything that will raise your bottom and allow you to sit comfortably. Your legs should either be crossed in front of you with your knees on the floor (again, you might want to rest them on cushions) or tucked under you if your stool or cushion allows, as if sitting astride a horse.

Finally you might want to support your arms by resting them on a cushion on your lap, so that your shoulders don’t get pulled forward by their weight. Your head will be looking at the floor a few feet in front of you, gently balanced on your neck. Take a few minutes to find a comfortable position, and if it becomes painful after sitting for a while, adjust it, but try not to move too often. Give each position a fair try and make adjustments in a way that doesn’t interrupt the meditation.

The other important thing about posture is that it is a way of setting ourselves up for the session and giving meaning to what we are about to do. It’s perfectly possible to meditate lying down for instance, but we don’t normally do that, because lying down is associated with rest and going to sleep, and sitting practice is about waking up and being more fully present. It’s important therefore to assume a position of dignity and confidence, one which says ‘here I am, taking my place’. It’s not a time to slouch or apologize or be half-hearted.

Other aspects of posture have their own symbolism. Closing the eyes means going inwards, focusing on the body perhaps, while keeping them open means staying connected with the outside world, and both are good. Joining the hands completes a circle; placing them one on each knee leaves the body more open. Kneeling astride a cushion may remind us of Christian prayer, while sitting cross-legged is more oriental, or perhaps it reminds us of junior school. Find a posture which links you to something inspiring. If you go along to a group run by a particular Buddhist tradition they will tell you how to do it their way, but otherwise it’s up to you.

Finally, meditation is not about concentrating on the mind and forgetting about the body, though it might sound like that sometimes. In fact the body is central to all that we do, meditation included, and it is important to look after it. Diet, sleep and exercise are all important to keep it in shape and support meditation practice. In particular, yoga and tai chi have been developed in the eastern traditions as a form of moving meditation, and both can be a very helpful addition to sitting practice.

There are plenty of opportunities to practice yoga and Tai Chi in Aberystwyth. Local yoga teacher Alyson Tyler has posted a list of classes on her blog so you can find one to suit. For a series of yoga positions devised by the Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham of Shambhala International, see this YouTube video. These are just some I know about, and if anyone has others to recommend, let me know and I’ll add them here.

Jane Powell

Mindfulness and Buddhism

By Jane Powell

Mindfulness these days has two meanings. Spelt with a small m, it means bringing our experience into conscious awareness, in order to see it as it really is and awaken to reality. It is a practice found in Buddhism and many religious traditions, one which over a period of time helps to develop equanimity and well-being. With a capital M meanwhile, it is the name of a fast-growing movement to bring Buddhist meditation practice in secular form to anyone who feels in need of calm, grounding and mental clarity.

The modern Mindfulness movement began in the 1970s with John Kabat-Zinn, American doctor, Zen student and author of Full Catastrophe Living. He developed it to help his patients work with pain, finding that if they could see how they were making their pain worse by the way that they thought about it, then they would be able to choose other ways of responding and so find some relief. In this he was very successful, and the practice later spread to other settings, notably the treatment of mental illness, where Mindfulness is now recommended by the NHS as an effective treatment for depression.

Taken up by the universities of Oxford and Bangor and other groups in the UK, Mindfulness Based Stress Relief is now a standardized product delivered by accredited tutors in hospitals, schools and workplaces or as an eight-week evening class to the general public, and it has been shown to have all sorts of benefits, from pain relief to improving the concentration of school children and helping people lose weight. Here at Aberystwyth University, Mindfulness is being investigated for its potential to support whole populations to change their behaviour in response to climate change.

What do Buddhists think of this? On the one hand it is surely very encouraging that a practice that increases people’s happiness without dependency and consumerism is being made widely available. And many Buddhists have found that Mindfulness in fact can do a better job of teaching a fully embodied practice than many Western schools, which have tended to be excessively cerebral. But Buddhism has a greater vision than this. It is not a self-improvement project – quite the reverse, it is about cutting through our natural selfishness and awakening compassion for all living beings, and it invites us to challenge cherished assumptions about what we call our ‘self’. This is hardly the spirit in which Silicon Valley asserts that Mindfulness is ‘not just about inner peace – it’s about getting ahead.’

So do a Mindfulness course – but remember, it’s about developing compassion for yourself and others, not just learning a technique.

Jane Powell