go anyway, the way I choose
I could live anyhow, win or lose
I could go anywhere, for something new
Anyway anyhow anywhere I choose
We have got used to this. Spiritually, infinite choice seems a negative thing. We get distracted by it all, obsessed by the products and opportunities that display themselves to us - clothes, vehicles, music, books, travel, communication, vocation. If we can have them we get dominated by craving and excitement. If we can't, the danger is anger, hatred or inturned frustration.
This is a typical opposition which Dharma practice sets us free from. No situation, however difficult, is good or bad in itself. The problems of feeling deprived, or elated, or afraid, are as illusory and changeable as all the images we have of who we are. If we look into them, it's not hard to change those habitual responses. What usually is hard, is to realise we can look.
Urban Dharma is a way to apply the teachings of the Buddha to contemporary living. Walking in city streets can be meditation. Guard the gates of the senses. You can be mindful, undistracted, reflective, watchful if you decide to. Life nowadays is broken up, jarring and discontinuous. So find ways to repair the breaches as they happen, keep reconstructing some kind of continuity and integrity. We use phones and computers for connecting to people and information, but too much information cuts us off from our experience. Sometimes take your eyes off screens and experience real distances, depth and colour. Nature seems to have no place in our protected city life. This is unbalanced and disharmonious, so find ways to appreciate the elements.
These seem to be the important aspects of City Dharma: to guard the senses, to repair breaches of awareness, to use info technology wisely, and to connect with the underlying natural world.
Putting the teachings of Buddhism into practice is essentially the same in every situation. In the Buddha’s last words it is to ‘strive, with mindfulness’ towards awakening [from the conditionings of the world]. In this one develops mindfulness regarding the body, the feelings, mental states and the dharma itself. You can then apply that awareness in all the diversity and challenge of nitty gritty experience.
I'm a married man!
Since a ritual that took place on the eve of the solstice, at Camden Registry Office, London, I’m now officially married to my partner of several years, Yashobodhi. It's a decision that I know has surprised a few people I know. Actually, I’ve been looking for a committed partnership ever since deciding, in 2003 after my long retreat, it was time to move on from being an Anagarika (a homeless, celibate, renunciate, ordained Buddhist practitioner in the Triratna Order of either sex, who wears a golden kesa instead of the usual white one. However Anagarika is not considered a higher ordination. He or she may also wear yellow robes similar to those of a traditional bhikshu)
Personally, I feel I no longer benefit from the renunciate, celibate approach, and that what is spiritually vital for me, at my time of life and in a wider social context, lies in something broader. But why marriage? The immediate reason is because otherwise, under present English Law, when either Yashobodhi or I dies or becomes incapable of making decisions, responsibility for our life support switches and funeral arrangements will be taken, not by our partner, but by our respective families. Of course, we could have drawn up legal documents that would prevent that. However marriage reflects the truth of our commitment far better, and is marked by a ritual that is certain to have a deep effect on us both.
In marrying, I am not advocating marriage, or any particular way of living
MY CONCERN IN WRITING THIS is for those who feel betrayed by the apparent affirmation of the dreaded 'household' life that marriage seems to represent. The image above is a good expression of the horror many younger people have of an enclosed domestic life, no doubt conditioned by their parents and feelings about the older generations.
I realise that for much of my Order life I have carried, whether in fact or fiction, some kind of archetype of more committed, renunciate dharma life. I appreciate the value of that for others, and I really don't want to discourage anyone from living in that way themselves. Personally, I do not feel disconnected from those original aspirations and understandings. Believe it or not, ritual commitment to a relationship feels to me like a positive continuation of that momentum.
If you are inclined to doubt my motive, I recommend you suspend judgement, forget the issue in principle for now, and look at me personally. What kind of temperament do you remember me having? What I have emphasised in my life and what I have developed over my life so far? Also, remember my time of life, and consider what my needs and options might be now, as I approach my mid sixties, not in the best of health. I see a lot that’s positive and freeing FOR ME in a committed relationship. I don’t feel inhibited by that in other departments of my spiritual life, though I certainly would have when I was young. There is plenty I know I need to do in my dharma practice, but as someone who has led a fairly isolated and intense life, this feels like a positive new direction that builds on what I’ve done before.
I don't mean to overemphasise this - marriage is one of numerous things I am doing. I have an excellent situation in London and feel in a good position to engage with life in the Order and with my friendships. It's true some of those have got a bit sidelined over the last decade as I have been in retreat a lot and generally lived in seclusion. So if anyone reading this feels I've neglected them, it's probably true, and I'm sorry. Please understand that that's never been my intention, and please get in touch soon, immediately!
Chastity and the Monastic impulse
Chastity has been a crucial source of spiritual focus for me. That has helped me over most of my Order life since joining the movement at age 22, and I really recommend it - for anyone, man or woman, but especially for young people, perhaps particularly for younger men (I'm not so sure I can speak for younger women here, but I suspect it can be as galvanising for them.) Chastity is something that can sharpen the spiritual impulse and channel energy into deep, intensive dharma practice. I have always felt strongly that the Order I belong to needs a 'monastic' core, and I have worked to bring that about in various ways, including long participation (as the Order's first UK based Anagarika) in the early 'semi monastic' phase of community life at Vajraloka, Triratna's meditation centre. I think my example has inspired a number of Order members to become Anagarikas.
But in all these years, why hasn't it caught on more?
Yet after 45 years the Triratna Community still has no substantial monastic component. I have come to think that a condition for this, paradoxically, has been our rather one sided emphasis on single sex activities. I notice that Buddhist movements who do not encourage single sex activities often evolve a strong monastic Sangha. Please don't misunderstand me - I consider our emphasis to be a rare, precious and excellent thing in a world that severely undervalues such things. Single sex living is a well tried, completely traditional structure (not only for Buddhism but throughout the premodern world). For us over those 45 years it has given thousands of men and women space to find themselves more deeply. Yet the way we promote it IS very exclusively expressed, and in advocating it we can often be (it seems to me) quite harshly critical of other, less radical lifestyles. Moreover, the fact that most of our serious, relatively unattached younger people are enjoined to live in this particular way may short circuit or even repel the potential for deeper commitments: to chastity or to full time monastic life, for example. We celebrate our Order as being 'neither lay nor monastic,' and it is a great thing that Triratna offers all seriously committed men and women an equal opportunity to realise Enlightenment. It bridges the traditional gap between robed monks, seen as the only real practitioners, and lay people, who see their best aim in merely supporting the monks. However it is unfortunately my impression that in practice this 'neither lay nor monastic' lifestyle often falls between two stools, missing the positive aspects of monasticism and of spiritually minded approaches to family, partnership and marriage. On one hand, were it to come about, a strong monastic wing would surely create a higher standard of personal practice; on the other, would it not be helpful if, along with our enthusiasm for single sex lifestyles, we could recognise the positive ethical potential of the responsibilities of family life, sexual partnership, and committed marriage for those who wish to live in that way? We could all co operate more in our Sangha - instead of, as we tend to do, making disharmonious and simplistic criticisms of monasticism as extreme and unnecessary, and of sexual partnership as selfish and exclusive.
Some of the ethical aspects of marriage, sexual partnership and single-sex lifestylesInterestingly, despite the difference in standpoint, long term commitment to a partner goes deeply into the same ethical territory as chastity - into, that is, the third precept of abstention from sexual misconduct and the development of contentment and simplicity. I am surprised that more Order members do not see this. For reactions from others in the Sangha have been very mixed. All I think have been friendly, but with frequent puzzlement. One card read: "Congratulations to you and Yashobodhi on your marriage. I'm curious about what decided you in taking the step?" Other reactions have been less polite. On Facebook one Order member posted the image at the head of this article, showing an aged couple in a tiny kitchen. A confused-looking husband pokes at a unappetising meal while the wife stands grumpily in her pinny with folded arms and pursed lips. The caption is 'Don't marry - be happy!' and is obviously intended to be funny, yet the message is clearly critical. This is very interesting. Possibly the notion of marriage, for those in settled relationships, is a challenge - after all, why aren't they doing it too?
Yet everyone knows that marriage represents a deeper commitment to a sexual relationship. And in principle this is a good thing, for it reduces the likelihood of sexual longings straying outside the relationship and promotes sexual simplicity and contentment. Sexual contentment is the aim of the third Buddhist precept, kamesu micchacchara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami: "I train myself in abstaining from sexual misconduct," and unless one practises chastity it would seem that a committed relationship would be the best way of containing the sexual impulse.
The issue really is this: a majority of people in my Buddhist Sangha are in committed relationships, however they rarely marry. Most do not live with their partners but in single sex communities, havens where men and women live free from the problems involved with relating to the opposite sex, and where they feel they can be more truly themselves. Yet of course they are living something of a double life, and the relationships they are conducting 'on the side' are powerfully affected. Conducted at weekends or at less frequent intervals, such relationships may remain at a romantic, immature level or be exploitive of one or the other party who has decided to settle for less than what they would ideally prefer.
For many, this may be an ideal solution. I don't think it is necessarily harmful to anyone. Yet there is clearly a potential for harm. These relationships vary so much that generalisations will always fall short of the reality. My main point is that on the whole these issues are not addressed in our movement. Despite the fact that most of us are in them, relationships are generally discouraged and seen as a second best lifestyle. The ideal is chastity, having all of one's energy free for Dharma practice - and little is said about how to work with situations that are less than ideal.
Anyway, I did not really mean to write so much about the need for a more holistic view of Sangha in western Buddhism, it is too big a topic for now. More later, probably...
Buddhafield had approached Madhyamaloka for a President, an ally and contact with the wider movement. No one wanted to do it. Devamitra, I recall, was the hot candidate, but he didn’t really seem to want to do it either, since he tried to persuade me to take it on. He thought it would suit me. I can’t remember the sequence of events, but eventually I led a retreat or two on the land, and was immediately hooked!
Buddhafield drew me because it supplied a lot of what I missed. Buddhafield changed my life and I’m tremendously grateful. Not to any one person, strangely – though so many people have helped me and I owe a lot to several people, Rupadarshin for example. No, my gratitude is for the opportunity to be in nature. Just to be in nature – to have something to do there, to have anything at all to do among leaves and trees and sky – that’s what’s transformational.
I learned so much about how to teach meditation just from being in the elements – from the special challenge that gives, the special conditions that are so uncompromising and real. I found a way to connect to my deepest feelings and desires, to my humnan heritage, to my ancestors – to the land itself. What Buddhafield gave me in the 90s inspired a completely new approach, led me to doing my long retreat in Tipi Valley; led me, when I lived at Trevince House with Andy, Yashobodhi, Rupadarshin, Satyajit and Abhayajit, to trying to get this land based community going that is still moving slowly to a conclusion after (six?) years. It led me to move to EcoDharma for 2-3 years, which turned out to be a mistake for me, but it was a learning experience I don’t regret. It led me to realise that I no longer needed to be an anagarika to engage deeply with the Dharma.
I am so grateful for all this and I have spent my time moving between Buddhafield and the more mainstream elements of the Triratna movement, always promoting what I see as its values.
I remember some of us Order members going and having tea with Bhante some years ago. I remember Bhante himself giving his talk at the Buddhafield festival and me teasing him on stage, saying he’d grown his hair especially for the event. I’ve seen Buddhafield increasingly respected; seen Bhante more recently write about the importance of animism, living a life that appreciates the living presence of non human beings like trees, mountains, badgers and birds. I’ve seen Subhuti write about the importance of the natural world, of a more animistic perspective, as part of extending and deepening the human imagination.
This has had little to do with me – Buddhafield’s continued existence has simply made it easier for them to introduce these topics in a realistic, lived manner in the movement. Because it shows the ordinary people in their flats in the cities how they can be in nature. Simply that. There’s a way they can do that… There is a strong need for that. You might also say that the whole development of Festivals has come from that need – from our tragic cultural alienation from nature. Anyway, Buddhafield certainly opens a bright doorway out of the alienation of western industrialised society.
I’m grateful for Buddhafield’s existence because in Buddhafield, two things I love come together: Buddhism and Nature. It so happens that these two are crucially important for our present society.
Buddhism coming to the west is arguably crucial for its spiritual survival. People don’t like to appear to exclusivist, and obviously there are great, inspiring ideas and truths that come from other traditions. But to me Buddhism has something that is more alive, critical, practical and flexible. It fully fits our time. It has things to show us about our very nature as living beings that have a capacity to liberate us in ways I’ve not seen yet elsewhere.
As for Nature there’s a need universally to be more in harmony with the earth, with what is natural and not artificial, and to come down from our proud, self made towers of glass and steel. This is not easy for us, and it’s not easy to see how our culture can make this transition.
I’m grateful that Buddhafield makes that experiment of bringing Buddhism and Nature together. That is enough for me. There are so many applications of that, I don’t too much mind which we explore. I can see that a community on the land is a logical next step, but what I mainly see is Buddhafield’s many strands of influence in the world. Buddhafield has something truly unique. A few other Buddhist groups have their ecological approach, but nothing as lived and as experienced as this. There are many other non Buddhist groups working in nature, but no other Buddhist based ones, that I know of.
In particular I see Buddhafield influencing the mainstream, as all experimental groups do. I see people in Triratna who would never camp and lie on the ground to sleep, who are slowly coming round and facing up to the needs of nature.
This is an important change because contact with the land, contact with living nature, dissolves in a positive way the pride and arrogance, the hubris, that characterises our industrialised society and causes so much of the mental suffering that traditional Buddhism also addresses. Contact with the earth gives something very beautiful as it dissolves our arrogance: with its collapse comes a letting go into life that is lovely and which is liberating. To me, Buddhafield is all about that and I feel very proud, in a good way, to be associated with it.
And despite my reservation about all that, my insistent idea that nature is as live in the city as anywhere, what I lack is, somewhere, to do with having to stand continually on concrete and see only walls and human fixtures. I've been to the Heath twice and it's where I wrote this. The trees and grasses there have been my only nourishment. Home, even my lover's arms, are not feeding me what I need. In my comfy flat I pace restlessly, can hardly detach from my 27" iMac, and worry (quite rightly) about my spreading girth.
Here, meditation is a life saver. The Elements practice finally drops something I can value into the dissatisfying mix. Consciousness: blue skies like those of the recent heatwave absorbs every perception, every sight, sound, smell, taste and feeling. Earth, a single ochre square,
Doing that in my practice connects me. Connection is enough. From there, life can always begin afresh in each moment.
I wanted to say that, because connection is all there is to this Buddhism-Nature-EcoDharma-Pagan Buddhism trip I go on about. People easily jump to conclusions. It is not about special doctrines, or even much about practices or precept - though the connection must bring all these to life as well. I only know that I cannot practice the Dharma without this, and I dare say no one else can either, at least for long or very well.
I have just completely re-written the original 1992 Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight. It will be published early 2012 - here's one of the roughs for the cover.
When I started the project in the mid 80s, meditation and Buddhism were hardly known about in the general population, and certainly not widely practised, as they are today. A comprehensive manual of Buddhist meditation practice from a western teacher was virtually unique. But since 1992, so much has changed. Everyone knows about meditation, Buddhism is a standard subject in schools in the UK, and mindfulness has become an important form of therapy. Meditation is well taught by many western teachers in numerous traditions, and there is an abundance of good written advice on meditation if you know where to look. So can such a well-aged book add to or enhance any of that? You'll have to buy a copy and let me know!
The main change is that the whole book is now explicitly oriented around the ‘system’ of meditation devised by Sangharakshita in the 70s. This brings out how the practices I described fit together as part of an integrated path to awakening. I have also woven in an appreciation of a view of the nature of mind that in western tradition is known as the Imagination, since that makes an accessible link to our own philosophical and cultural traditions. Imagination is just another way of viewing our mental and emotional reality, but it is useful connecting with one that’s familiar from our own arts and literature, and which speaks in a more poetic voice than the technical language of the Pali texts.
The other major change is a greater emphasis on the Buddha, who taught most of these meditation methods in the first place. In the earlier edition I cited many other teachers, but the practices in which they taught all derive from the Buddha himself and aim at the state of awakening he discovered. So I have tried, within the limits of the original text, to establish the Buddha as the principal reference point and inspiration for the whole tradition of Buddhist meditation. I have made more references to the historical Buddha, and also updated the material on sadhana to include less formal, more experimental ways to connect with the living reality of the awakened mind. Finally, I wanted to emphasise the balance required in an effective meditation practice between active and receptive approaches. So the Buddha’s teaching of mindfulness has a larger place in this new edition, along with the practice of Just Sitting.
In the original edition I quoted Ryokan:
Not much to offer you – just a lotus flower floating / In a small jar of water.
In re-offering my lotus along with some fresh water, I feel the same tentative and ironic pleasure. I’m somewhat more aware, twenty years on, of this book’s failings as a container, yet I know the lotus flower of Dharma floating in it is the real thing. So I hope I have made this understandable, so you can accept, use and enjoy it.
I'll be including many extracts from the new book in the pages of this site.