Saturday, 4 February 2017

Travelling in India: A Conversation with a Buddhist Monk

The snake appeared quite unannounced, silently slithering over the red, dusty sand of the drive leading up to the imposing white, old colonial house, built for grandeur with little acknowledgement of the hot humid climate in which it is set.

We were quite a way from the snake and yet, in its shimmering brown progress, it seemed to turn its glittering eyes towards us before effortlessly ascending the low red cement wall and disappearing into the newly fallen leaves and branches. We looked carefully to see where it had gone; no trace was left.

He came into the large hall where wicker chairs had been put to one side for us to meet. His head was not shaved, but the thick covering of white hair was very short. Placing his hands together gently in greeting, he sat down to be introduced to us, arranging the deep maroon robes so that he was comfortable.

At the age of seven, having been recognised as the reincarnation in a line of important religious figures, he became a Buddhist monk and began his studies in a monastery in Tibet. When he was twenty years old he was part of the group that accompanied the Dalai Lama in his flight from the Chinese invasion, seeking refuge in India. In the years that followed he worked predominantly in setting up educational institutions for the Tibetan refugees that also sought asylum in India. Recently he had spent a term of ten years as the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile.

That evening he was to give a public talk in front of the white, colonial house entitled: 'Buddha's Teachings and Krishnamurti's Insights'. However, he had agreed to meet us for a conversation soon after our arrival at the end of a six hour car journey.

Towards the end of our conversation we observed that humanity was on an almost irretrievable course towards disaster; that, even if it was not to be precipitated by human behaviour, it might equally come about through some natural phenomena. This, he felt, had the possibility of bringing about some sense of realisation or understanding of the effects of self-centred or egotistical activity. The global economic system as it is currently, underpinned by violence and greed, with the existence of rapid environmental degradation, widening inequality between the poor and the rich, and increasing religious intolerance is destroying any semblance of balance or harmony in the world - negating the values and ethics that might give some avenue to ensuring the survival of the human race.

We talked of the education system as it generally is worldwide; the superficial approach to learning with the tendency towards the acceptance of information without examination or questioning. From this emerges a form of blind faith whether it be in religion, modern technology or in the economic system. In Buddhist terms, he explained, the process of learning is seen as a movement from the imparting and acquiring of knowledge through to the direct perception of truth, at which point it becomes authentic learning. Thus the individual, through reflection and meditation, gains an insight into the truth and therefore is no longer a second-hand human being, accepting what has been told. When asked about the relationship between teacher and student, he responded that the Buddhist view is to use the word 'friend', that is one who removes fear and explains with simplicity and clarity. And that this relationship, if it is lo lead to authentic learning had to be a collective, collaborative process, involving neither comparison nor competition.  In this quality of collaboration, doubts and difficulties would emerge, but in this collaboration there would have to be the removal of all authority.

The question was then put as to whether this process was also one that occurred in self-knowledge, or self-realisation. Learning about the self was entirely dependent on an understanding of what the 'self' and the 'other' is, as opposed to the misunderstanding that leads to the confusion of self and ego. He mentioned that the realisation, or perception, of the self leads to the transformation of behaviour and relationship, particularly with nature.

He left us with an apology for his limitations in the English language.

Learning, whether through the words of wisdom of another or the observation of the snake over the sand has the potential to be of extraordinary depth and endless.

Our travels in India continue until March 14th.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The ending of teaching.

So, that seems to be that, I think. Like the pathological darkness of these misty, dank days that span the end of one year and the beginning of another, the years of teaching in schools that have dominated my life gather together and hang in a veil of memories. I did not like school when I was obliged to attend as a student, and I have not really enjoyed the experience of the structure of schools as a teacher. The classroom could be a place of laughter, silence, boredom, interest, intelligence, or stupidity; yet I could never remain too long in that one place, feeling the need to move, to breathe and to release the brain. Some days I would watch children as they stared out of the window in a yearning to be free, or lost in some hazy story that would lead them through lands of inconsequential tenuous reality. Some days I would find myself disappearing through a gaze that would penetrate the grass and the trees with such uncertainty and incredulity that to return to the classroom was like wakening from the edges of sleep.

I have finished teaching almost in a way that could only have been designed for one who was distinctly averse to cleverness, whose irritating tendency was an inclination to find humour in everything, and who never felt any superiority to the children in the room. Not a successful career perhaps; no great status or salary, no invitations to impart wisdom gained from the years, no first-class degrees or glittering prizes, just the opportunity to listen and discuss with young people. And a delight in being with the young.

Life is not circular, but moves in spirals, overlapping like the conical shells that can be found on the shores; beginning at a point and spreading until the emptiness inside is greater than the thin outer coating that is so fragile and almost translucent. The lifetime of experiences that do not only exist in memory are caught in the net of learning, not to be extracted and held as true, but rather to be left to flow loosely in the consciousness of all humanity.

Thus, my final work, whether it comes to some sense of fruition or not, is to delve into learning, to question the assumptions that have arisen over the years – particularly concerning the organisation of learning. Can learning be organised? What are the results of attempts to organise learning? So, my wife and I leave for three months in India, to travel, to observe, to listen and to learn. The work of Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti will feature as markers along this pathway of inquiry, of great significance, but not exclusive; and conversations will be had at every opportunity.

The next step is beginning……

Sunday, 11 September 2016

There are many graveyards...

There are many graveyards in this world that house the bones of humanity. These particular places are not, however, the cemeteries of the dead, but of the dying. Here the bones of the poets, the growers, the dreamers, the whistlers and the singers, are ground up and placed into moulds for reshaping. Similarly, traces of the painters, the artists, the actors and the thinkers may be found if you look hard enough … bare traces in the surrounding scrubland.
Listen to the whispering that curls like smoke from the buildings.  Hear the laughter that is not forced by cruelty, the joy that is a celebration of being together, the silence that connects with all that is living. These places are where the powerful coerce the young into conformity: some of these places are made mostly of glass, some of mud, some have no light, some have shade in the fierce glare of the sun. You may come across in these places the hum of electricity, like vast crematoria; others in which can only be heard the dry rustle of paper, enough to light the funeral pyres. Dull eyes watch screens on which endless movement distracts, heads held in invisible clamps, neatly locked by headphones. Whilst in other worlds heads are down and bodies with backs arched on the hard ground, endlessly repeat words in monotonous rhythm; too scared to look up at the sound of a bird, stomachs cramped by inertia and fear.
Meanwhile, in the corridors of the rich there can be heard the clipped footfall of the caretakers of the dying. Trim, and bearing rules and regulations, they are secure in the knowledge of their corrections. Outside they survey the limits that keep the bad guys out and the good guys in, fresh keypads ensuring that the adventurous may only pace around the fence like caged tigers. Thousands of miles away where money is sent to ensure that the standard choking grip of conformity is carefully put to good use, the keepers of the dying threaten the adventurous with their own poverty – starvation is a powerful master.
Dry knowledge crammed into bodies like Tagore’s parrot*; furnaces of wrong and right burn in the minds of embryonic humanity. Nothing is learned except the noise that inhabits the graveyard; for learning is now worth only what can be remembered, dragged from the chatter of the knowledgeable mind and spewed out to demonstrate such cleverness, like the raking vomit of the diseased mind.
It is time, my friends, to add our voices to the quiet stream that is questioning the view of learning that has given rise to current view of what education is, and to question fundamentally how we bring up successive generations of humanity. It is time to, in the words of Roger Waters, ‘tear down the wall’.

*The Parrot’s Training by Rabindranath Tagore

An integral element of this quiet stream of questioning is the film ‘Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

An apology: for the responsibility is ours.

I think that all there is that is left for me to say is ‘I’m sorry.’

You sit there by the window staring out at a world that is barren and colourless, and maybe you’re watching the soft fall of the snow on the road, or the raging of a monsoon breaking the iron heat of a parched land, or perhaps you’re stranded, looking out from your tower to the city below spread out like the entrails of a broken land.

I wish to apologise to you for the world that I will be leaving behind. Not for the Earth and all that grows and lives there. Not for the seas that roar and crash in their darkness and peacefully lap the shores in blue-green clarity. Not for the mountains, the lowlands and the air that you breathe. No, but for the continuing arrogance of my kind; the arrogance of knowing what is right.

Children, we have imprisoned you in your homes; we have made sure our cars can drive anywhere and destroyed your freedom to play; we have built on your playing fields and put fences around your woods. And to keep you quiet we have given you all kinds of entertainment so that you will never need to leave your bedrooms – you can live in a world of images and sounds that entrance, excite and exploit you. But your bodies want to be free to move, to discover and to play.

You are being put in chains by our ideas, by our certainty that we know better than you and we know what is best for you.  We like to dress you up in uniforms so that you look the same as all the others, force you into vast buildings, have you divided by age and coerced into tests and examinations that will determine whether your life will be a success or a failure. I’m sorry that we’ve made you into faceless, disposable, mechanical units. You, with all your beauty, life and energy, will be bound into a colourless book that contains the story of your lives before you’ve had a chance to live it. And we’ve sought to dominate you through fear; fear that divides; fear that paralyses; and fear that makes you fight your fellow beings.

We’ve forced you into thinking that to compare and to compete is the only way to live. So, quickly you will forget to help, to listen and to share, and instead you will be required to lie, to force your opinions, and to take all you can for yourselves.

Have you seen the images of children lying lifeless on the shore, in the bombed ruins of their homes, and the hungry deserts of the world? Have you seen the tidal waves of rubbish that choke our seas and strangle all creatures? Have you seen the scars where once were trees and where all manner of living things moved freely? And have you seen the grinning men and women who tell you that they know the way to make your life better, while they make the money that keeps you in chains in a room with no doors and a screen instead of a window? 

You may not have seen them yet, but they are there, I assure you. And you know what? I put them there; I am sorry.

So, I’m participating in this story of which you are part, a story consisting of conversations from the past and the present; a story that is not just made up of words. It’s probable that I will not see much of it, but you will. And the first few words of this story are: ‘Does it have to be like this?’... Our lives will be the answer.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Division, Unity and a Fox.

The fox comes towards the kitchen window on its walk down the drive, oblivious of the watcher. Its sharp muzzle and bright eyes feel out the surroundings. The setting sun emphasises the red, russet brown and dark sleekness of its body trotting undisturbed over the tarmac towards the grass. The shape of animal intensity and intelligence exudes a kind of youthful freshness that may belie its age – ageless and sexless embodiment of a life.
The watcher, on the other hand, represents the grey/white hair of the of the turning year; his beard a determination of fatherhood and more in a world that stumbles towards the self -destruction of humanity like lemmings trying to find the nearest cliff to jump from, eyes tight shut and jabbering away. This watcher is unable to join the crowd, his eyes, though blurred by tears, are still open and he is aware of his connection with all humanity.  He, like many, regardless of gender, sexuality, wealth, education, nationality does not recognise separation in a world that is desperate to divide and destroy.
You are the watcher – an individual that is indivisible from humanity, from all that lives on this extraordinary Earth. You do not live in isolation either inwardly or outwardly, and this connection does not exist in ideas, thoughts or language. You are held in a web of life and death that exposes the ebb and flow of the tide of relationship.
However, we continue to cling onto the belief that we are involved in some kind of competition; comparing ourselves to others, desperately seeking signs of superiority and clambering over the bloodied and burnt bodies to reach the top, the summit of decay. So many global institutions are founded upon this way of being; not least schooling – that bastion of exploitation and brainwashing. 
So you are stepping out of the entertainment and acknowledging that there are no ‘others’; calmly and quietly you are stepping from the tracks that hold the speeding vastness of the runaway train. You are living as a creative human being, not self-consciously clever, not clamouring for power or status. You may dig the garden, paint pictures, film the ugliness and beauty of your surroundings. You may write words, sing songs and dance the dances. And with it you are bringing the light that can be glimpsed through the crack in the darkness of our collective misery.

The fox continues on its journey, but hesitates for a second and meets the gaze of the watcher. Its dark eyes are not reflected in the blue, for it is unaware of the watcher. Sleekly it makes a right turn and disappears under the tree, its burnished tail a flick of final copper light.  And the watcher is overwhelmed by the memory of the tiny hand of the child in its mother’s arms opening and closing, as if feeling out for the shape of this new life.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Connecting with Death

Grey-black against the sky, broad-winged, long-necked and legs trailing like sticks, the heron beats over the long remembered wood.  The house, its windows misted by neglect and the leaves of spring spreading into the peeling wooden frames, seems solid enough from the outside.  Inside the smell of disorder and decay expose the loss of routine, the continuity that held sway for nearly sixty years and ceased some time ago.

Cold, dark north-easterly rain held the backdrop of the previous day when the coffin was lowered into the ground, woven bamboo bright against the newly dug earth.  Maybe she did not want such a cradle at the end, perhaps preferring the deep mahogany gloom and Victorian brass handles. Its brightness eased the path to her resting place and held her empty body in a gentleness that reflected her final days.  The eldest grandchild stood tall in the church she occasionally took him to as a child; he read his poem
 ‘When I knew you were leaving us,
my memory spun in a hiss of gravel,
rustled through the trees, ….’

His voice uncovering the years as he read on, his eyes revealing the light of childhood, and the eyes of the congregation wet with the recognition of time passing.

When I last saw her the shock of her withered face, sparse hair, and eyes that seemed to have watered down the blue to a greying incomprehension, had disappeared and was replaced by the understanding that what lay in the bed was the body of a human not long before its passing.  To sit there by her bed in silence and watch the flitting of such a murmuration of thoughts: shaping, pulling apart and then reshaping, enabled communication that could not be tethered to words or rationality.  Fingers delve into the past as if searching in mud for something that had been lost and find that all that has gone before no longer has any form.  Just to be there was enough and to say goodbye to the person who brought you into the earth, brings an end to it all.  In the opening of those eyes there is recognition and in their closing there is also liberation; in a gesture of thanks and the quiet turning away - a new freedom. 

Life has its own movement in its circular form with time measured in years, a small part is an individual existence.  As the winter holds old bones and frail bodies allowing the opportunity for some to gently take their leave, and spring begins the transition from sleep to an awakening, there is an ancient rhythm.  To watch this closely, observing the falling of leaves and the emerging of delicate green shoots, is to learn to be part of this movement; not to be a casual observer, nor to be some commentator – explaining away all that has gone before in a comfortable phrase or glib statement.  To be aware of the deep pulse of life and death and watch the response of emotion without the sense of what should be felt, is to be connected.  And after all this, is it possible to be alive to death?

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Passage of Time.

It is as if the seasons have shifted and the cold that would so often have been associated with the beginning of the year is now spread over the land in the sharp glinting sunlight of an earlier dawn.  Large clusters of snowdrops hang their heads under the trees and beside the hedges.  Sporadic daffodils nod their yellow trumpets, testament to the false spring of a warm winter.  Now there are primroses at the side of the lane, soft colours beneath the tiny, fledgling leaves tentatively appearing in the shorn, stubby hedges.

What is a life?  A period of time between birth and death?  A life is not confined to time though: a baby born dead, a child taken from its parents, a life ‘cut short’, a ‘long and fulfilled existence’, are all lives.  The trees, the animals, the birds and the rocks are all lives – not lived by a human definition, but lived all the same.  So what is the life of a mother that moves from independence to immobility, from the sharp focus of a mind honed on manipulation to vague recollections surrounded by scatterings of the past?

This is her life - slumped in the chair that is the centre of her existence.  Sparse white hair covers her head; it is dropped forward, nodding in a deep sleep.  A huddle of unrecognised clothes, white knitted socks loosely cover her swollen, discoloured legs and there is the unmistakable smell of indignity.  The carer gently shakes the old lady’s legs to alert her to the arrival of two of her sons.  Her head is lifted in a movement that manages to express incomprehension and pain.  Her eyes are red, the right one shows a raw exposure and there are unnatural crimson blemishes creeping down each cheek, violent against the white grey folds of skin.  After a few brief seconds she recognises her sons and greets them in a high forced voice that neither had ever heard before – the voice of an imperious duchess from another age, a caricature of control and superiority.

So the mother is no longer the mother, but has shifted into some kind of creature that exists beyond any attempt to influence, to shape another’s existence; instead she clings with the desperation of the drowning to some semblance of living her own life.  She is profoundly deaf and can only be effectively engaged in communication through writing on cards; though this does not dilute the cascading, unrecognisable sound of her voice – high and penetrating.  Yet she does not seem to be unhappy, the bitterness of a few weeks ago appears to have been superseded by a more childlike connection with what is going on around her; a connection where she is centre of attention.

The slow ebbing of life is visible in the body that deteriorates over the time between each visit.  She eats with some relish and the rose tinted wine is enjoyed, but food spills over her clothes and there is a frustrating mouthful of liquid that cannot be drunk as her head has dropped to a point where she is no longer able to make that final, satisfying tilt to sink those last dregs of wine.  She moves with pain on account of a fall she had two days ago, lifting herself out of the wheelchair is slow with stoic facial expressions and subdued intake of breath.  She is as determined as ever and will not demonstrate any weakness.  As her sons leave there is a look of desolation in her watery eyes, not of anger as there might have been in the past, but of abandonment – a look that may have had its genesis many years ago in her own childhood.

This is the life of an individual, unique as a product of environment, culture and experience; separate, fulfilled or not, independent.  Is it then that a life is the process of individual progression from birth to death?  Or is there something that goes beyond the individual, that division between mother and son: an expression of humanity that is not divided?  Is there life that is indivisible beyond humanity? 

If so, then what is death?