Archive for the ‘1’ Category


April 14, 2010

This is way off the topic of this site, but some of you may be interested in the story of how my daughter finally – after ten long years – gave up her anorexia and returned to health and happiness.

She began her own blog on Psychology Today. The Daily Mail picked this up and printed a story about it (not totally false but with inaccuracies and a “tough love” theme which was certainly not how I saw it). Then ABC and other sites took it from there and finally I wrote up my own brief version for the Guardian’s CommentisFree. This has gone up today and is open for comments for 3 days only.

Oddly enough they (like the Mail) invented a headline that was way off the point. They wrote “The greatest challenge for the parent of a child with an eating disorder is holding onto the person in the grip of the disease”. Holding on? I would have thought it was fairly obvious that I was never trying to hold on and indeed that I thought this would be counter-productive. You cannot hang on. Anorexia takes them away.

I was also practicing Zen throughout all these ten years. I have no idea whether it helped, but it certainly encouraged me to accept what was happening and to “let go” rather than to “hang on”.

March 16, 2010

Here’s a little song (if you can call it that) that sums up how so many scientists can feel awe, delight, and a sense of mystery when contemplating the universe – without any hint of gods, religions, or any other superstitions. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve watched it three times already.

This reaction to the mystery of the universe fits so well with that found in Zen. You don’t go looking for worlds beyond, for strange powers or for any creator behind it all – you just open your eyes and your mind to everything that is here now. Underlying this is the Buddhist conception of dependent arising which basically means that everything that happens is related to everything else, and everything happens because of the causes and conditions that precede it.
As Dawkins says “Matter flows from place to place, and momentarily comes together to be you. Some people find that thought disturbing. I find the reality thrilling.”
So do I.
Please forgive my long silence but I have been over-worked and unwell – very un-Zen. So I am trying to throw off some of the excess work and let myself recover. I hope to get back to this blog in due course.

Are you here now?

January 7, 2010

Christmas is over and the New Year begun. My book is off to the publishers and I’m at last able to do other things, including getting back to those Questions!

Chapter 8 asks “Are you here now?”.

I like this question a lot because at first sight – like “Am I conscious now?” – the answer seems as though it must be an emphatic “Yes”. And yet my meditation experiences led me far away from “Yes”. This is not just because I have spent so much time questioning the nature of consciousness that I no longer have any idea what the word means, but because the whole sense of a persisting self has taken so many knocks.

In this chapter I describe a retreat which was extremely painful in many ways and included an interview with John which left me quite disturbed. He didn’t seem to understand me at all, and I didn’t really understand why not, or why he reacted the way he did. I suppose I was expecting a certain kind of help from him and that is not what I got. The way I have written about it makes it seem much less dramatic than the interview described in Chapter 6 but it was just as disturbing.

John clearly thought so too. In the “Response of a Zen Master” which follows the rest of the book, he writes “The interview on  p. 132 was a disaster for both of us. I failed to show you a way beyond your intellectual fixation and you persisted in a partial viewpoint that was intellectually convincing to you.”

If you’ve read his response you might like to comment – for I still don’t know what to think about it all this time later.

A different view on taking those precepts

December 8, 2009

I’ve just come across a totally different view from mine on the value of those precepts taken at Gaia House. This is an account in our local Zen group magazine, Dancing Mountains, by one of the four participants I wrote about. You can read it all here.
Reading this account I suffered all the same doubts and confused emotions as I did when watching the spectacle at the time. I hope this account from the other side may serve to balance things up a little.
You will also find in this newsletter some delightful cartoons about the burning house, and other ideas you’ll now be familiar with, as well as a very funny account of one woman’s half hour meditation session including sniffing, sneezing, worrying, and perfect ‘non-seeking mind’.

The other news is that I have at last finished the book. so once my room is cleared up and the heaps of other books all put away, I shall be able to get back to the Zen questions.

Final thoughts on the retreat – and on this blog

November 11, 2009

I had meant to write several posts about Reb’s retreat in quick succession and then get back to the book but I am (pathetic excuse) too busy – working on the second edition of my textbook Consciousness: An Introduction. It is extremely hard work (though I love doing it) and just doesn’t leave time for much else.

I guess the final conclusion for the retreat was that the next day, after that upsetting ceremony, Reb gave another of his extraordinary lectures and talked about the choice the historical Buddha faced.

This choice was between saying nothing because he knew that the truth could not be put into words (vehicles, stories, instructions and the like) and making up ways of  saying something, such as ways of pointing people towards the unsayable truth, giving them prescriptions to follow that might help them follow the way he had taken, and so on. What to do? Hence the story that the Buddha thought we are like lotus flowers rising out of the mud and his teachings might help people still down in the pond slime.

My instinct is always to prefer the truth in the silence – but then I would never have learned to meditate or practice mindfulness had someone not begun explaining it to me and urged me on.  So – very, very reluctantly – I accept that that horrible ceremony and those impossible vows may have some justification.

But … to other things.

To all of you out there reading this blog (the graph tells me there are quite a few of you!).  Shall I now stop? You have all seen enough of the book, and had a chance to join in an interesting discussion, and that might be quite enough. Shall we call it a day ??

Or does anyone want me to put up the last few chapters and carry on to the end? Let me know!


Nausea at the precepts

October 24, 2009

So here we are, living our lives in the burning house, meditating, walking, doing our retreat jobs, all in the burning house. But if the way out is our self and there really is no self ….

In an interview I get the chance to ask Reb at last. We are sitting facing each other in the library with the great trees and Gaia House’s lovely garden outside the windows. He is attentive, alert and his eyes seem to contain the whole universe.

“So who gets out of the burning house?” I ask him.

“The one who made it” he says in a matter-of-fact tone. I’m shocked. He’d already said that there is no creator, no maker of the universe.

“But no one made it” I protest “Wasn’t it just made by the whole universe tangling things up together?”

“Yup” he says “and that who gets out – the whole universe gets out.”

“So the white bull and the computer that never crashes are all a con too?”

“Yup”. He smiles.

I am so relieved I want to hug him. I feel such a weight of confusion clear away as we go on to explore the parable and its strange implications.

But this con is a serious one – not just for me I realise as the retreat draws to its close. On the last night there is a ceremony in which four people take the precepts. I notice there are a few visitors and even some children sitting at the back of the hall to watch them take this great step in their lives. I begin to feel uncomfortable.

The whole process is done with precise coordination and seriousness, with the four lined up in front and Reb presiding. It reminds me of going to church but without the lovely music and beautiful surroundings. Here are four people, with deadly seriousness, dressing up in special robes and taking vows that are – by any normal standards – completely ridiculous. Not killing is fine unless you accept that by simply being alive and eating food you are responsible for others dying. Not intoxicating oneself or others is fine if you really think you’re going to live without drink, smoke, or any interesting drugs for the rest of your life (and don’t count tea, coffee, or those nice cold remedies that send you off into a woozy sleep). I suppose not misusing sexuality is fine if you have a clear idea of what use and misuse are in the case of sexuality. But I shiver at the whole idea of taking these sacred vows, and intending to become a Boddhisatva and live your life forever more for all others.

Worse than the impossible vows is the apparent clash with everything we have been learning. Didn’t Reb say that the mind of intention is wrong mind? Why then pile on all these intentions? Haven’t we been learning that we are nothing other than all beings in the first place, so vowing to work for all beings is superfluous. Hasn’t he explained that the inside and the outside of the burning house are really one and the same, and the promised mega-computers and fancy vehicles are just a trick to lure the children out? Why then dress up in fancy robes, put silly bits of cloth round your neck and make all these promises?

I didn’t want to be there. I really, really didn’t want to be there watching all this yuk unfolding …

With my new found tendency to notice pride I realised that at least part of my revulsion was due to pride. I didn’t want to spoil the occasion for others by creeping out. So I stayed, and watched, and listened, and wished I didn’t have to. I remembered Reb’s book on the precepts and how he make sense of them all but I went off to bed understanding for the first time in my life what it means to have a bad taste in one’s mouth from something that never touched a mouth.

The next day a lot became clearer, and I’ll write about that soon.

The three fancy vehicles are a con

October 13, 2009

The days go by – every day the same routine; every day different states of mind, different troubles or joys, peace or not. Reb has a strange routine for his dharma talks. First he gives the talk but if anyone interrupts or asks a question – whether during the talk or afterwards – that person has to go up onto the low stage and sit on a cushion right next to Reb and address the whole hall of 60 or 70 people. This has extraordinary effects on the people who go up there.

One day a man struggles to understand Reb’s lecture and begins talking about the Creator. No, says Reb. In Buddhism, unlike in the monotheistic religions, there is no creator, he explains. The universe is self-moving. “This means we can play with the scientists” he concludes, which delights me. How wonderful it is to find a practice like this that does not entail believing things that are scientifically rubbish.  I keep sitting, keep working.

The three fancy vehicles are a con, we learn. When the children find their way out of the burning house there is instead one grand carriage drawn by a great white bullock that flies as fast as the wind; the one Buddha vehicle. Aha. And the gateway is oneself. Or another way of putting it is that everything is both the burning house and the way out of the burning house. Even the outside is really the burning house and the way out; being out is really only knowing that you are in the burning house. I suppose that flying like the wind on that great one vehicle is also really being inside the burning house. I begin to see everything around as the burning house, as the world of delusion.

“We seem to be sitting here, silent and still” says Reb. He urges us to sit wholeheartedly with body and mind. Indeed we must do everything we do wholeheartedly with body and mind. I had never thought of sitting meditation as something you do with the body but obviously it is. Being wholehearted about what you do now seems to me to be the opposite of having pride. As I sit the pointless conversations with myself sometimes start up but now I can see them too as more pride; things I want to tell other people – more pride, reasons why I did things in the past – more pride. It is amazing to me how pride there is!

In one session I go up to the platform and, like others, find the experience daunting (not like giving lectures to hundreds of people which I’m perfectly used to!). I tell Reb that I have seen all sorts of little examples of pride and almost feel ready to face the bigger prides – not just the little ones here on retreat that can’t hurt anyone, like being annoyed with people during kinhin. He is quite sharp with me and tells me not to judge pride as small, medium or large, or to decide in advance which will be easy or hard, or which will hurt people and which won’t. “People are easily hurt”, he says. “Right here being annoyed about kinhin all by yourself can hurt people”. I see his point – we are easily hurt, aren’t we!

We are easily hurt in this burning house; this world of delusion.

(I’ve got one final post to add about the retreat – troubles with a ceremony)

More from Reb’s retreat

September 28, 2009

Here are some more thoughts from the notes I wrote after Reb’s retreat last month.

In the early mornings, up at 5.30, meditating by 6, we sit in silence and suddenly Reb’s voice is there. Clearly and slowly, in his soft American voice he says (as closely as I can remember it)

 “The early morning breeze has secrets to tell
Silent and still.
You have to say what you really want
Silent and still.
Beings are moving back and forth at the threshold where the two worlds meet
The door is round and open
Silent and still.”

The early morning rooks and blackbirds are starting up. All 60 or so of us keep sitting, silent and still? Not really – rampaging through thoughts all too often, still being horrified by all that pride, but sometimes silent and still.

The mornings are easy. There are only a few half-hour sits with the morning service (I cross my fingers in all the religious bits), the work period outside weeding and digging under the trees, and then Reb’s long talk and question session. It’s the afternoons that are tough. From 2 p.m. until 5.30 there is relentless sitting and kinhin with no break. I make it through every day, missing only one 10 minute kinhin to get a fast cup of tea and go to the loo. Lots of people miss several of the half hours I notice. Ah there comes the pride. I am so much better than them. I don’t miss any. And yet the funniest thing is happening. Now that I am noticing and labelling the pride it seems to lose its power. Oh – there it is in a new form – and whatever it is seems to fizzle out as I stare at it.

Last year I was SO annoyed by the people who walked too fast or too slowly in the kinhin, or didn’t start walking quickly again when the end bell sounded. This time I am not annoyed at all. They still do the same thing but I laugh at myself for feeling superior and thus getting into all that ridiculous anger. It’s only slow walking! And the same is true with the people who clatter their plates when Reb has told us to eat silently.

I move a little more slowly too. I am always rushing everywhere and realise that that too is a kind of pride – I can do everything faster than you can so there! So I enjoy going more slowly (still probably rushing quite a lot) and feeling all the people around me as all those beings we can love – whether we like or dislike them – and how can I really like or dislike people when we are all in silence and all working hard without looking at each other.

“When our minds dwell in delusion we are turned by the Dharma flower: when our minds dwell in enlightenment we turn the Dharma flower” says Reb, “Fully appreciating this teaching is the Dharma flower turning the Dharma flower.” Ah – so this is the point of the retreat “Dharma Flower turning Dharma Flower”

This flower is in fact the entire universe, he says, so when we are deluded the universe turns us and vice versa. I am confused by this. It feels to me as though I am always struggling to control the universe – isn’t that a deluded me trying to turn it? Yet I know enough just to wait and see how these difficult idea clarify as we go along.

Reb’s Retreat

September 21, 2009

I promised to report back from my recent retreat so here goes.

The retreat was Reb Anderson’s annual week long Zen retreat at Gaia House in south Devon. I was there last year, and previously went on other retreats of his elsewhere. This year, unlike last, I arrived early to make sure of getting a gardening job. Isn’t that pathetic! I am used to retreats (e.g. at John’s in Wales) where no choice is given in anything, which is a relief from normal life, but if there’s going to be choice then I’m going to choose, and I was glad I did; getting outside and doing physical work for an hour a day makes the sitting much easier. In his talk the first evening Reb asked “Who is proud?” I slowly put up my hand, as did a few others. “No, he said “I want a more whole-hearted, or whole-bodied, response” So I jumped to my feet. Pride is not something I have thought about much or thought I had any problem with but somehow something clicked, and for the rest of the retreat I saw my own pride everywhere. The topic for the retreat was “Dharma Flower turning Dharma Flower”, a saying from Dogen’s commentary on the Lotus Sutra. In his daily lectures Reb shared with us his love of the Lotus Sutra. “You must love it” he insisted “You don’t need to like it, you may dislike it, but you can still love it”. When he added that the same is true for the Bible and the Koran there were a few sharp intakes of breath (mine as loud as any) but I think he would say the same about everything – indeed he did say that last year – you can love all beings while liking some and disliking others. After all, we are doing this practice for the sake of all beings – not just sentient beings, people and animals and so on, but all thoughts, images, objects – everything that we turn into a thing. So we heard stories and parables and were introduced to all sorts of difficult ideas about vehicles, flowers that are the whole universe and just sitting that is Buddhas meeting Buddhas face to face. Perhaps most memorable was the parable of the burning house from Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra. A man owns a huge, expensive but decaying mansion and inside are all his many children, playing with their precious toys. When the mansion catches fire there is only one tiny gate out. The man knows that he could lift all his many children and carry them but they would never all fit through the tiny gate together. So instead he lures them out with promises of even better toys – carriages pulled by deer, goats and oxen. Or in Reb’s version they are lured with fantastic computers that never crash. This burning house is our lives of delusion. We are all living in the burning house but too preoccupied with our email, jobs, troubles, toys, relationships and other things to notice that it is on fire.

I have been acutely aware of living in the burning house ever since …

More to come ….

When are you ?

August 28, 2009

Isn’t this a peculiar question ! ? Just three words – each of them a simple and obvious word. How can anyone spend an  entire week trying to do nothing but ask this question and observe what happens?

Well that’s what I did and Chapter 7 is about my struggles and confusions over “When are you?”

I must apologise. I had it in mind that I would put up a new chapter (shortened version of each) towards the end of each month. I did quite well until last month. I was sure I had done it but looking now I see I missed July. Ah well, perhaps it was because my birthday is at the end of July (pathetic excuse).  I have no excuse.  But here is Chapter 7 . I look forward to hearing how you get on with this question.

Meanwhile I am off on retreat again. This time I’m going to Gaia House for a week of Zen practice with master Reb Anderson. The retreat is called “Dharma flower turning Dharma flower” (???).  As ever I am part looking forward to it and part dreading it. I’ve so much work to do, the garden is lovely and needs work on it, I don’t want to sit indoors for a week and meditate all day ……

I’ll report back.