In December 2021, just as I was about to send the final draft of my book on forgiveness to the publishers, The Forgiveness Project’s founding patron, Archbishop Demond Tutu, died. This was followed a month later by the death of the Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Both men had been courageous and radical peace activists, renowned for being visionary leaders. It felt like the world had lost two moral giants.
Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh were also two of the people who most inspired me to spend nearly two decades of my life exploring the complex geography of forgiveness. I appreciated them particularly as they were able to speak beyond the boundaries of religion and, despite having witnessed suffering on a global scale, were able to help people address all the familiar harms and resentments of their everyday lives.
Desmond Tutu would often dispel the commonly held notion that forgiveness means reconciliation. He once explained that if someone is constantly abusing you, being ready to forgive doesn’t mean you have to be a masochist and hang on in there. In fact, it is far better to release the relationship than to renew it. In other words, you can turn your back on toxic relationships and still forgive. He also often spoke about forgiveness being the best form of self-interest, a kind of self-preservation, counselling people to forgive not because those who have hurt you deserve forgiveness, ‘but because you deserve peace’.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s life of reflection led him to believe that forgiveness was the key to creating a peaceful, just and sustainable world, and he maintained that ‘only when compassion is born in your heart, is it possible to forgive.’ In the film The Power of Forgiveness he recites a meditation for the ‘many angry sons and daughters’ who cannot make peace with their parents. In a soft, measured voice you can hear him instructing a room full of people with the words: ‘breathing in I see myself as a 5-year-old child; breathing out I hold that 5-year-old child with tenderness. Breathing in I see my father as a 5-year-old boy; breathing out I smile to my father as a 5-year-old boy.’ The point he is making is that only when you are able to visualise your cruel father or mean mother as a fragile and vulnerable 5-year-old, can you begin to understand and feel compassion for the person they have become.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s process to soothe the wounded hearts of adult children may not be easy but it has been adapted in multiple settings.
So many people who have shared their forgiveness journeys with me, have managed to free themselves from mental angst and bondage. Forgiveness is a virtue based on the ability to love when others are not loving you. Only then will a shift or transformation take place; only then can relationships be rebuilt and restored.
The Buddha was born long ago and far away. He grew up in a world without writing, in an ancient civilisation that is no more. The buildings of his childhood, the trees under which he sat in meditation, and the dusty roads down which he once walked have long since vanished from view, buried deep beneath concrete and steel. Even the course of the mighty River Ganges has changed.
And yet something remarkable remains. Over two thousand years later his words continue to resonate and his teachings continue to inspire. Buddhist statues and shrines, temples and meeting houses can be found in almost every corner of the world. More than 500 million people alive today call themselves ‘Buddhist’ and look to him as their spiritual forefather. Never has interest in Buddhism been greater or more widespread.
How is it that a man with no home, no money, and no worldly possessions came to be one of the most influential figures in the history of humanity? What does his life-journey teach us today? Why do his words still speak to us so directly – even in our age of consumerism, cars, and computers?
The answer is simple: the fundamental questions raised by the Buddha long ago remain as salient now as they were in his day. Why? Because, for all our ‘stuff’ and self-importance, we, like the Buddha, remain nothing but the sum of our relationships with the world, our family and friends, with our communities, with each other, and, fundamentally, with our own inner selves.
That’s why, although circumstances change, the core Buddhist tenets have stood the test of time. The Buddha’s diagnosis of our spiritual malaise and his prescription for our well-being and happiness are no less powerful and relevant now than they were 2500 years ago. Finding a meaningful response to the challenges of our lives seems even more necessary and urgent than ever.
Since this book first appeared in paperback, five people named in the text have died: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Colonel Gadaffi, Leonard Cohen and Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s worth reflecting on which of them enriched our world – and why.
My father had an embarrassing habit. He would unexpectedly break into poetry at odd moments, and, more embarrassing still – his own poetry. He wrote colourfully, but mostly didactically, insisting that his methods add spice to learning. Since he taught homeopathy, his poems were embellished (or encumbered) with anatomical parts, bodily functions and psychosomatic turns of phrase – topics I rarely touched, especially over the dinner table.
Imagine my concern when I found myself following in his footsteps.
Teaching mindfulness to students is a blessing of a job. My classrooms are full of people who actually want to be there. There’s no marking, no exams, and we follow that most engaging of curriculums: the human heart and mind. And as I hear about my students’ mindful journeys, it inspires me to follow my own. I’m sure I learn as much or more from their insights than they ever do from me. Then again, my approach is never to teach, but more to share. Forty years of tumultuous inner life comes in handy – so I have been spared the imposter syndrome that plagues some teachers. That is … until I started sharing my poems.
One of my greatest pleasures in meditation is to take time afterwards to write. I search for a way to describe to myself what went on. Can I find a way to express even the most humdrum meditation let alone the most profound? I play with words and metaphors; and feel an exquisite pleasure when they fit ‘just right’. Often they tell me something about myself that I did not know.
The occupational hazard of all this is the way it lingers. I’m liable to turn up for a class with a poem still in mind, and when a hapless student unwittingly asks a question that touches on the same theme, I can’t help myself. ‘I wrote a poem about that this morning!’ I proffer. The words are out of my mouth before I know it. ‘Oh help,’ I mutter, turning red, ‘I’m turning out just like my dad.’
Possibly more forgiving of me than I was of him though, my students encourage me. They like the poems (they say); it helps them understand their own meditation. And so my Gentle Guides to Meditation came to life, including both poems and prose. If my poems could help me learn – might they also help others?
Journeys to the Deep is the first of three slim volumes, each exploring different aspects of meditation – in this case Setting Out, Curiosity and Enjoyment, and Listening Within. I hope you enjoy the book. Who knows? Perhaps it may even inspire you to write, or draw, or sing about your own inner journeys too?
Travelling is my life – and Buddhism is my compass.
My very first expedition took place when I was only twelve months old: a journey by train from my birthplace in Milan to Aalborg in northern Denmark (my mother and grandmother are both Danish). From the age of three onwards every holiday would alternate: one summer in Denmark with its windswept, green flatlands and wide skies; the following summer far to the south in the remote heartland of Basilicata, with its chirping cicadas and sleepy ancient villages perched on the top of steep hills. Most of the time we would travel in my father’s small car – three full days to reach Denmark, another three days to get to Accettura, his native village …
At the age of 16 I took my first solo trip abroad – to Norfolk to work in an international Summer Camp. It was a momentous experience. For the first time in my life I felt I was a citizen of the world, surrounded by young people like me from all over Europe, Asia and Africa.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered Buddhism through a book I came across by chance in the small library of my secondary school; but it was a further ten years before I started practising meditation.
Aged 27 I left a teaching job in Italy and spent several years studying and working in the UK, Spain and the Netherlands. I continued to take every opportunity to travel: to Japan where I managed to see the giant Buddhas in Kamakura and Nara, to North Africa (Morocco in particular), to the Middle East and to Cuba.
It was when I got a university post in Brunei on the Island of Borneo that my fascination with Buddhism really took off. I had maintained an interest in Eastern spirituality through reading and meditating twice a day, but it was travelling through Buddhist countries that brought up the urge to write and document my various encounters.
After leaving Brunei and before starting my present teaching and research activity here in Malaysia, I embarked on another epic journey: a five-month backpacking tour of Southeast Asia and China. Many other travels followed (including the sites described in this book). All the time I was immersing myself in the world of Buddhism, thanks to the many Dharma talks and retreats I attended in this wonderful multi-ethnic and multicultural country of Malaysia, where the presence of Buddhism is so strong.
Travelling and living in so many countries has been not just a discovery of places, languages and cultures; it has given me a deep sense of connection with the planet and the people living on it. Whenever I have found myself in a different Buddhist country, it has made me appreciate Buddhism’s social, spiritual and artistic achievements even more.
At some point it occurred to me that I could combine travel writing and my interest in Buddhism: hence Buddhism and Pilgrimage. My hope is that readers will feel at least part of what I’ve experienced during my pilgrimage in India and Nepal to the four key Buddhist sites – Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar. It is a pilgrimage that the Buddha himself recommended:
‘Ananda, there are four places the sight of which should arise emotion in the faithful. Which are they?
“Here the Tathagata was born” is the first.
“Here the Tathagata attained supreme enlightenment” is the second.
“Here the Tathagata set in motion the Wheel of Dhamma” is the third.
“Here the Tathagata attained the Nibbana-element without remainder” is the fourth.’
Whenever I mention ‘Buddhism and Computing’ as a title, the response is almost invariably the same: surprise followed by curiosity. Google seems a bit taken aback too, for typing that phrase (in quotation marks) into its search box initially indicates hundreds of thousands of matches, but barely two pages of actual results. So it’s official: ‘Buddhism and Computing’ is a rare pairing because Google says so! Well, not necessarily, but it is worthy of special interest.
I originally set out to write only about the phenomenon of social media, which, despite its vocal advocates, I’ve long felt is deeply flawed. It fosters a dwindling quality of attention, an impoverished sense of friendship and a growing sense of bewilderment – yes, there are good uses, but in many ways it’s anti-social. I’ve been trying to understand how we come to be in this situation since 2007, when I was persuaded to register for a Facebook account. It has meant carrying out historical detective work and delving into the nature of the human mind, often facilitated by walks in Wytham Woods, fortified by refreshments at the village shop. Many ideas occur to me in the midst of nature, away from computers.
Digital technology is increasingly tied to the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms. The implications of this trend often get lost in complexity, jargon and mind-boggling sums invested in futurology. There’s always plenty of potential and room for speculation. But what of the here and now? How come so many people’s subjective experience in the present moment is a growing sense of dis-ease and unsatisfactoriness?
For the Buddha the problem was not technology per se; it was dukkha. Human flourishing could come about only with the eradication of dukkha, and in order to achieve that we need to follow a clear and balanced path. Nearly all of today’s online ‘journeys’ involve digital technology of some kind or another, so understanding what that path entails means exploring fundamental questions about mind, machines and intelligence. That’s basically how this book began. I found myself writing a series of thought-pieces about computing as seen through the lens of Buddhist ethics, each chapter somewhat self-contained, but leading by degrees from the past to the present, and from first principles to application. This particular Mud Pie ‘Slice’ is, therefore, made up of several smaller slices.
What about the growing body of literature on cultivating ‘digital wisdom’ by drawing on various philosophical and religious traditions? The reflections may be profound, but I fear they are having little effect on the juggernauts of ‘Big Tech’. That’s because the ancient teachings are rarely applied to the specification and design of software systems. Instead, they are mainly used to adapt to and accommodate them. The tech companies, meanwhile, under pressure from financial interests, continue to massage and manipulate the ‘attention economy’. More dukkha.
The Buddha’s teachings were delivered over two thousand years ago, but they have never been more relevant. In this book I show how they can readily be applied and incorporated into systems architecture and user interactions. Yes, we can indeed enhance our cognitive abilities and thrive – but only so long as we are vigilant and everyone actively participates in these developments. This is how to flourish in the Age of Algorithms.
It was singing ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ that did it.
We have the great good fortune to live in a street with wonderful neighbours and it’s always a pleasure to invite them round on Christmas Eve for a noggin and a carol or two. It was during one such Yuletide singalong that an idea was sparked for a book based on numbers. I began to think of it as a kind of countdown to enlightenment – hence the rather provocative subtitle.
All religions seem to have a penchant for numbers – especially the number 3 – but Buddhism goes further than any of them in its numerological fascination (probably to do with its Chinese influence). The Buddha is supposed to have delivered 84,000 teachings – though why that precise number and who was counting is a matter for debate.
I wanted to be far more concise. To the well-known numbers – Three Jewels, Four Truths, Five Precepts, and Eightfold Path – I wondered if it might be possible to add a few others, thereby setting out some of the key ideas of Buddhism in a clear and simple format.
Here’s the full set:
TEN Worlds; NINE Consciousnesses; EIGHT fold noble path; SEVEN Seas; SIX Paramitas; FIVE Precepts; FOUR Noble Truths; THREE Jewels; TWO but not Two; ONE-eyed turtle and the floating sandlewood log.
Several of these number/chapter/themes will be familiar to readers of this Mud Pie blog – but there are a few which might be surprising, especially my favourite number ‘Two but not Two’. In this chapter I explore the idea of interdependence or ‘inter-being’. It is impossible, I argue, to overestimate the importance of this concept for the future of life on this planet.
It was tempting to end the book with a piece on the all-important number of Zero – but such a chapter could have gone on for ever! For, as the Buddhist concept of Sunyata makes clear, nothing gives rise to everything. I did, however, indulge myself by craving an audience with the great Professor Marcus du Sautoy whose book The Number Mysteries is full of fascinating games, brilliant insights and intriguing challenges. He confessed that he has always been drawn to the prime numbers 17, 41 and 43. And he also admitted to having a bit of a soft spot for the number 108 (3 cubed x 4) which is considered a sacred number by Jains and Hindus as well as Buddhists.
Which got me thinking. What’s your favourite number? And why? Everyone seems to have one. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post it on the website. If enough people do this we could end up with a galaxy of interesting numbers – and no doubt some fascinating reflections on different aspects of Buddhism.
Why should Buddhists think about God? Why should Christians or other theists think about Buddhism? Answer: to get beyond the quick dismissal based on an abstract caricature. Surely, the central concerns of these religions involve facing up to challenges, engaging with the Other? Yet too often Buddhists dismiss God, and theists dismiss Buddhism based on a shortcut abstraction, a mere piece of groupthink in which the complex experiences that underlie the other tradition are turned into a reductively conceptual belief. Belief in God is eternalist error, say Buddhists. Buddhism is a merely human religion with no link to the true inspiration of God, say theists. All is one, say universalists. Surely qualities valued in all these traditions – faith, mindfulness, love, or wisdom – require us to go beyond these inadequate brush-offs?
There are two underlying problems. One is what people are attached to a particular account of what is ‘essentially’ meant by God or by Buddhism. Another is the assumption that religion is all about ‘beliefs’, so that opposed religions are just set in intractable opposition. My own process of thinking about this subject, based in an understanding of the practice of the Middle Way, leads me to question both of these unhelpful sets of assumptions. The Middle Way is not just a Buddhist practice, but a more general way of making sure that we base our judgements on experience rather than dogma, whatever tradition we may be working in.
That we should let go of our supposed ‘essential’ definitions is perhaps the hardest thing for many people. What is God, for instance? An abstract definition of perfection and infinity? A source of certainty? Or a massively empowering archetypal experience of potential, going beyond what we recognise in our current limited lives? The abstract definitions of God, which become a matter of ‘belief’, set conflict in stone before we begin, because absolute assumptions inevitably conflict with each other.
If, however, we recognise God to be an experience, there are no such necessary conflicts. Recognising that experience to be archetypal is a way of understanding its power without in the least underrating it. A symbolic God is no less powerful in our experience than a ‘real’ one, and far from being psychologised away or made ‘relative’, can be seen as all the stronger once liberated from the tyranny of abstract ‘beliefs’.
Of course, much of the perspective that might help us sustain such an experiential attitude to God comes from Buddhism, with its emphasis (at least as interpreted in the West) on practical engagement and working with mental states. But, despite these advantages, Buddhists have no call to be triumphalist, because all the same tendency to use absolute ‘belief’ as a shortcut (in enlightenment, or in the Buddha’s revelation, for instance) can be found in Buddhism as well.
Many Buddhist dismissals of the experience of God come from an out of date error theory that charts the path as one between ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’. If you see the Middle Way in such fixed terms, it is likely to become fixed itself – just another piece of metaphysics. To stop Buddhism also being a matter of ‘belief’, based on inflexible assumptions about what it ‘really’ means, we need to focus, not on concepts of the ‘dharma’ as ‘truth’, or of enlightenment as an end point, but rather on the principles we apply to judgement at each point in our lives. The Middle Way is not a metaphysical abstraction, but a principle of judgement – avoiding both positive and negative absolutes, seeking experiential meaning and justifiable provisional beliefs at each point.
Finally, too, apart from fixed assumptions in theism and in Buddhism, there is a third kind of dogma – the naïve universalism that claims that Buddhism and theistic religions are ‘all one’ because they all point to the same ‘ultimate reality’. There may be a genuine attempt to overcome conflict in such an approach, but its claims about ‘ultimate reality’ are just as dogmatic as anyone else’s. In my book I argue not for a naïve insistence that ‘all is one’, but rather for a critical universalism. In critical universalism, we don’t assume that all traditions are of equal value, but we do subject them all to the same standards, seeking to sort out what is helpful and unhelpful in them. Thus we do not need to abandon our traditions for any kind of vague mish-mash, but can nevertheless be empowered to get beyond the habitual abstract assumptions that entrench us in conflict.
After a lifetime in book publishing I’ve grown accustomed to the art of the elegant disclaimer: the modest suggestion in the Acknowledgements that the author couldn’t possibly have written it without the support of his/her (long-suffering and devoted) family; the invaluable input of (Great and Good) colleagues; and the helpful comments of various close (namedrop) friends.
This is customarily followed by an apology for any remaining errors and oversights (slavery, the empire, global warming etc) and/or a declaration of monstrous self-effacement. The most immodest author I ever worked with began his magnum opus with the statement, ‘Nothing in this book is original.’
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found myself penning words which I can only describe as sincere. When I wrote that this was ‘a genuine case of the more I found out the less I knew’ it was nothing less than the chastening truth. I was, I admit, being slightly less honest when I thanked various friends and scholars for their advice and comments. What they said was often dispiriting because it exposed my all-too-obvious limitations – though I did find some consolation in the fact that none of them seemed to agree with each other. After all, ‘The jewel of Buddhism has many wonderful facets.’
Another unfortunate by-product of a lifetime in publishing is a tendency to be more excited about the book that hasn’t yet been written than by the one that’s about to appear. Pocket BUDDHAalready felt very old by the time it popped up on Amazon. Moreover it‘s slightly embarrassing to confess that the 128 pages (including Preface, Endmatter and of course Acknowledgements) took me two years to deliver.
In fairness I had other things to do along the way, and the final 22,500 words were culled from more than five times that amount, after at least thirty rewrites. In fact when I think back to how long it really took me – it’s been over half a lifetime. My desire to write a biography of the Buddha is as old as my interest in practising Buddhism.
I’m struck by three words from that last sentence: ‘Buddhism’, ‘practising’ and ‘biography’.
Who or what is a Buddhist? I have a long-held scepticism of all ‘isms’ (including Scepticism) and the more I found out about the varieties of what is labelled ‘Buddhism’ the more difficult it became to generalise with confidence. It was all so much easier before I started!
As to practising, I’ve always struggled with sectarian divides and ‘faith’ groups; but the paradoxical effect of bumping up against the limits of my intellect was just that – a recognition that Buddhism is about more than merely rational argument. I think I’d always known this in my heart of hearts. Deep truth lies in poetry rather than prose.
In terms of biography, the more I wrote the more I was struck by the essential paradox of trying to encapsulate the ‘life’ of a man whose teaching was all about impermanence and the idea of ‘no fixed self’. I remain convinced that the Buddha was an actual historical human being. But the idea of writing a ‘biography’ with its conventions of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ became increasingly difficult as it was obvious that the evidence was so distant and had been so elaborated over time.
More and more I realised the importance of a book I’d read many years ago – Siddhartha by Herman Hesse – and the love affair I’d had with the beauty of his writing and the sublime quality of his vision. This, I realised, had shaped my quest for someone (no doubt idealised) who not only asked the questions I had, but actually embodied the answer to those questions.
I guess what it boils down to is giving myself permission to find out what I thought and why I thought it. That way, I figured, at least one reader would be happy. I’m not sure I succeeded; but I excuse myself that, in the pursuit of an essentially selfish goal, I may have reached out to some other people along the way.
So there you have it. A disclaimer to a disclaimer! I just hope the Buddha would have understood.
From charcoal grey through to lightly-toasted brown, from ochre to gaudy leopard-print yellow, the colours of rusting, rotting leaves lie thickly layered underfoot. Under this dense blanket bulbous, ankle-twisting flints and hefty chunks of chalk are lurking; you need good boots for an autumn walk in my local woods.
For over five thousand years these tracks have witnessed the coming and going of humanity. Some are worn into deep, scooped hollows and rounded above by overhanging branches to form magical tunnels. Few people come here now. It’s a place of peace and silence, left to the fallow deer and the badgers, the solitary heron and garrulous mallards.
I’ve been watching the beautiful decay of this particular wood for several years now. Its creaking grandeur, like all the natural landscapes I have lived near and loved, is tracing the same, inescapable cycle of birth, decline, death and renewal. I go into the landscape to feel part of that cycle, to be at peace with the impermanence of my own physical self.
As a student in Yorkshire, nearly forty years ago, I loved how the beech woods sagged under heavy rain and the distinctive, unapologetic smell of mud. At weekends I regularly tramped the seven or so miles cross-country from Horsforth to Otley wearing inadequate boots and with no return bus fare. I had just enough money for a bag of chips and the energy to be certain of making it there and back before dark. Through snowy copses, past flocks of skittish ewes and herds of ponderous dairy cows I walked and walked, a feeling of contentment expanding in my chest at every step. The embrace of the landscape was tangible; crags didn’t judge me, the wind blasted hawthorn had no expectations of my behaviour. No matter how fierce the weather, the scenery remained trustworthy, a safe companion. Here, emotional burdens floated off and scudded out of sight. I had faith in our connection, the landscape and me, and it never disappointed. The call of rooks from blackened winter treetops still makes my heart sing.
Several years later, at a time in my life when they were almost forgotten, those feelings of joy and connection were reignited by the Buddhist teacher, Daisaku Ikeda. Meeting his writings marked the beginning of a spiritual adventure I’ve now been enjoying for thirty years. Mine was not a conversion but a homecoming. Buddhist teachings articulated for me what I already sensed to be the truth of my existence. In Nichiren Buddhism I found a framework within which I could develop and deepen that understanding. But Buddhist practice was not a place to retreat into from time to time, like a landscape; instead it taught me how to build courage and carry it with me into the whirl and worry of everyday life.
As I moved into middle age, and the existential shift of the menopause, hot flushes, fatigue and loss of confidence temporarily shook my equilibrium.
There were days when I wondered if I was sliding into my grave and would be found one evening, propped against the kitchen sink, still clutching a mug of cold tea. At my funeral my husband would say, ‘She died staring out at the overgrown garden, unable to reach it.’ These feelings were the tangible result of decreasing hormone levels. The chemical tides that once turned on a monthly basis, lashing me to woman’s most primitive biological purpose, had ebbed. They slipped out silently and without warning, wreaking mental and biological havoc on their way.
I returned to long walks in the landscape for space, solitude and reassurance, but this time they were enriched by several decades of Buddhist practice. Unlike the young student who walked for temporary relief from social awkwardness or exam pressure, I now walked as if with an old friend. Solitude in the landscape remains one of my great spiritual joys. When I am walking those bumpy, ancient tracks I reflect with contentment on the decomposition of leaves and the steady erosion of the hillside. Nothing is being lost but space is being made for the new. Everything, including our own lives is subject to this impermanence. The falling leaves of autumn are a reassurance that seasons continue to turn, that life at a molecular level is never extinguished but only re-formed.
In writing Buddhism and the MenopauseI wanted to share this feeling of ‘reassurance in impermanence’ and to encourage other women to sense that the passing of each season is not just another milestone on the way to being older, less attractive and less useful, but a glorious reminder that everything turns and returns in its time.
When I was first invited to consider writing a Mud Pie Slice, I thought of all the subjects I could attach to the title ‘Buddhism and’: Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, Emptiness, Attention, Mindfulness, Meditation … All these topics were tempting; but they were revisitations of themes I had explored earlier. So wilder suggestions arose, fired by my other enthusiasms – Buddhism and Art, Buddhism and Gardening, Buddhism and Horse-riding, Buddhism and Ecology.
And, and, and …
Suddenly I was struck by the repetition and the transformative power of that little word ‘AND’. All of the books I had written, from psychotherapy (The Resonance of Emptiness: A Buddhist Inspiration for a Contemporary Psychotherapy, 2000),to its expansion in the world of neuroscience (Beyond Happiness: Deepening the Dialogue between Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences, 2008),to the concept of emptiness (A Philosophy of Emptiness, 2014), and most recently to practices of attention (Attention: Beyond Mindfulness, 2017), could be tied together by the phrase ‘Buddhism and’.
The ‘and’ had been the stepping stone from one topic to the next, each linking in some way to the previous one and each gaining something in the process. All of these issues (and their interdependence) acquired extra resonance and richness from being viewed through the lens of Buddhist thought and considered in the light of age-old Buddhist insights and practices.
So this brief conjunction ‘AND’ has allowed me to cast my net wide, to include all the facets of Buddhist teachings that seem most alive, relevant and rewarding to me today. The central wisdom of Dependent Origination – the net of Indra which supports the world and our consciousness – is its foundation. Its other face is emptiness – the dynamic quality that goes beyond all fixity, mediates between all duality, and, far from being a lack, is the very basis of abundant fullness, the space that allows for form.
I’ve always been what I term a ‘freelance’ Buddhist, attached to no particular school or sangha (whilst attempting to evade accusations of eclecticism and possible superficiality by careful study of its many branches). What attracts me are the Dharma’s psychological insights and supremely practical message about living well. I first came across Buddhist ideas as a teenager in the Zen writings of Hubert Benoit and Alan Watts. Later, in my twenties, I visited Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Centre in the UK, where, sitting by a lily pond, I received meditation instruction from Akong Rinpoche. Much later came both formal study and organised retreats. I studied Buddhism at SOAS, where Learning was comprehensive but Belief frowned upon. At the same time I began training as a psychotherapist using a Buddhist-influenced approach, where, by contrast, all theory and intellectualisation were devalued in favour of attention to emotion and intuition. I found that attending to both aspects at the same time enabled me to keep as sense of balance and perspective, which I now see as a helpful example of ‘AND’ at work.
Writing this Mud Pie Slicehas allowed me to explore further the teachings of Buddhism which I have found most personal, practical and relevant, and the many ‘AND’s to which they can beneficially lead. This has been a springboard into the world of writing, art and other experiences that so enrich my life. Just as the early psychology of the Buddha illuminates the way our minds work and has so much in common with the findings of contemporary neuroscience, so the creativity and attention of artists and writers reveal the contextuality and the emptiness of which Buddhist texts speak. The ‘AND’ points in all directions, a small yet vital indication of interdependence.
So I have come to greatly appreciate the importance of that little and so often neglected word, which stitches a Buddhist approach to each and every subject – the brief conjunction which reveals the rich, complex interdependence and the impermanence of everything. If a modest mud pie expressed the noble intention of a gift to the Buddha, so may the humble ‘AND’ convey the wonder and richness of Buddhist thought.