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?
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 interdependence – 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. So Buddhism And: Interdependence, Emptiness, Non-Duality.
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.