It took a Frenchman to make the image of Britain!

Claude Monet came to London in the early 1870s to escape from warfare in France, fearing that he would be conscripted. He returned to London thirty years later at the turn of the century, now a successful sixty year old, to stay in the Savoy hotel and paint the Houses of Parliament. In 1899, 1900 and 1901 he painted them again and again, particularly fascinated by the effect of light on fog and fog on the precision of one’s perceptions. He thought that, “It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.”  Oscar Wilde said that the painters “invented fog,” a typically striking exaggeration. As my friend Francis points out, Dickens did fog very well in Bleak House half a century earlier.

Monet painted parliament in sunrises, and in sunsets; he tried to find the place on the South bank from where he could get the sun to shine directly above the parliament, reflected on the water. He continued working on the whole group of canvases on his return to France and in 1904 exhibited thirty seven of them in Paris. The exhibition was a great success.

The central image is of the Houses of Parliament, blurred by fog into an archetypal fortress shape, with a tower. Parliament is apparently surrounded by water, as if an island in the middle of the sea. As a portrait of Britain at the height of its imperial pride, the pre-eminent naval power in the world, reduced to its essence, it could not be bettered. And although the first impression is of solidity, the massy structure enduring the blasts, the aftertaste, of course, is of the strength of democracy and ancient inherited freedoms under the people’s law made in parliament.

French painters paint the quaies of the Seine, but as promenades, not as a surrounding sea. English painters paint parliament, but as a piece of intricate architecture. It took Monet to make the image and reduce it like a French chef to its intensest jus. Boiling off the steam, he repeats it into significance, its aroma arising, its resonances ringing: the sea, the parliament, the fog! In his sixties he wanted to “sum up…impressions and sensations of the past.” No doubt the idea of parliament in London’s marvellous breadth of fog, seen across the river from St Thomas’ hospital, had stuck in his mind from the 1870s.

 

The image for France is Liberty leading the people, with Marianne the embodiment of French liberty.

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

If I look for a great portrayal of Britishness I think of The Monarch of the Glen, Rowlandson’s Portsmouth Point, or a crowded Hogarth print, perhaps The March of the Guards to Finchley.

 

 

 Turner painted all around the British coastline, but perhaps the image that sticks in the mind is The Fighting Temeraire, a sad piece of nostalgia for a Britain once great. It took an obstinate, repetitive Frenchman with an outsider’s eye on our weather, to spot what was right in our noses.

  

Fishy Economics

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The unintended consequences of Labour’s price-capping policy will be shortages, corruption and widening inequality. This outcome is inevitable. It is clear the moment you work out what will happen to a fish dealer.

Alfie Bass is a Portsmouth fish-dealer employing a dozen or more people. He is squeezed from below by fishermen who want the best price for their fish, and from above by wholesalers at Billingsgate market, and restaurateurs buying in bulk, who want the lowest possible prices. Alfie has only remained in business for forty years by being very clear about negotiating price. He has to acknowledge the fishermen’s right to a margin, and explain to the wholesalers his need for a small margin, and still arrive at a competitive price in a market where the other South coast fish dealers and those in Normandy and Brittany vie for business. He has a good reputation and is trusted by all parties. You can’t fool any of them anyway, as they all talk to each other. If he wasn’t honest and clear he would not have lasted.

Price is the key mechanism. It changes hourly sometimes, according to the weather, the tides, the movement of shoals of fish, the size of catches, and the euro exchange rate. It is a delicate, and sensitive instrument at the heart of all that makes the business swing. The competition, and the incentives built into the price negotiation, keep Alfie Bass honest.

Now suppose that a well-meaning Labour minister of Food in Mr Corbyn’s government decides to price-cap fish, so that poor people can eat more cheaply. (Price capping is Labour’s manifesto policy in the energy market and in the rental housing market). The first consequence of the price cap reducing the price of cod will be that Alfie Bass sends all his cod to the markets in Normandy and Brittany where he will get the proper price. Before half a day has gone by, the Minister has achieved shortages in the shops, and turned an honest man into a criminal smuggler.

Only the worst fish will be sold at the fixed price – fish that a week before he would have thrown away – and within a week or two a black market will develop at Alfie’s back door, selling good fish to rich customers. The poor get rubbish, if anything, after queuing, and the gap widens between the privileged and the poor. Alfie is now a black marketeer.

Ah, but Alfie and his employees and his dependent fishermen will be compensated by subsidies, I hear you cry! Maybe, depending on how Labour intends to pay for the cheap fish. If they just intend to force Alfie to sell cheaper, the consequences will obviously be shortages, dangerously poor quality and a black market. If they fund it through subsidies the consequence for Mr Bass and his business is that instead of concentrating on fishing, keeping the fish fresh and getting it to market as soon as possible, his main job will become claiming subsidies. If he turns over £200,000 worth of fish a week, and half of that is subsidy, then snaffling subsidies will be the way to earn a living for his family. He will fill in forms for an ignorant bureaucrat in Whitehall, who does not chat with fishermen and restaurateurs on the dockside, and does not understand tides, and fish. Just like all the other fish-dealers, Alfie will be tempted to weigh all his stock twice, or thrice, for inflated claims, to claim for rotten fish, which on paper looks as good as real fish, and to game the system.

When it becomes clear that the market is no longer honest an inspector will be sent down to the fish dock to check the catch weights as trawlers come in. But £200,000 a week is a goodly amount to split between claimants and the temptation to collusion and corruption with a little double-claiming will be very strong.

And how are the fishermen paid? If through general taxation, then everyone is paying for the fish anyway. We are not avoiding the cost. Using bureaucratic subsidy-claiming is the worst possible way of getting good value for money, so in the end we will all pay more. We will be weighed down by taxes, vegetarians as well as pescatorians.

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If you insert an expensive bureaucracy between the fishermen and the fish-eaters you incentivise corruption, inefficiency, and turn everyone involved at every stage into cynics. Give the poor money so that they can afford good food, by all means, but don’t bugger up the price mechanism that keeps everyone honest and keeps the market in fish lean and fit.

Those notorious East German shortages, long Polish queues for basic goods, all that notorious Chinese corruption, the thriving Soviet black markets for the elites, characteristic of all socialist economies, are not some weirdness attributable to nasty Communists (nothing to do with us Socialists). They are the inevitable results of price-capping, and will be playing on a street corner near you very soon.

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The Actual Realisation of Emptiness

This is a retreat report on the Western Chan Fellowship retreat called ‘Shattering the Great Doubt,’ held at Maenllwyd, in September 2014. The retreat was a nine day silent meditation retreat in the Chan (Zen) tradition of koan study. The focus of one’s meditations is a self-selected koan from one of the classic collections. In addition to the long periods of silent meditation, there are daily talks by the teacher, and occasional one to one ‘interviews’ with the teacher (dokusan), usually about once every two days. One hopes to break through to Enlightenment, an experience variously described in the literature of zen as ‘the falling away of body and mind,’ or ‘seeing the nature,’ or ‘the realisation of emptiness.’

The first evening, before the rule of silence takes effect, each of us says why we have come. To simplify, simplify, simplify, I said. I did not want elaborate conundrums. I wanted to strip things down to as little as possible. When the koans were offered on the second day, there was the perfect one for my purpose: “Ordinary Mind is the Way” (Mumonkan, Koan 19). It continues: “If you try for it you will become separated from it.” And, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.” It was an instruction manual in how to simplify.

The koan in full goes like this:

I had a new agenda to work on in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. But it did not work because I began finding out shocking things about myself. Simon’s next talk pushed me further into the pretentions and complacency of my sense of self. I realised I was only interested in other people if they had something to offer me. I realised that even my caring for dying friends was contaminated by bits of ego, and limited by my other priorities. The koan was right. If I was seeking some satisfaction or sense of goodness from the encounter with a friend, then we would, “become separated” from the Way. I recalled many instances of feeling sadly separated when I had wanted to feel intimate and open with someone. I found ludicrous examples of pride wherever I looked. Even my relationship with the sense of mystical bliss, The Mystery itself, was selfish: I wanted it when it suited me, and for it to go back in its box and wait for me at other times. It should not disrupt my pleasant, busy lifestyle.

In the next interview, a day later, as I reported these dreadful findings to Simon, he said, “You have got plenty of time for yourself, not much for others. It is controlling. Is there a fear of letting others in? The Mystery might take you anywhere.” I wanted to get rid of myself, shoot the greedy little selfish so and so. “Just relax,” said Simon. “Soften. Open to the Mystery.”

I did now realise how ridiculous and insubstantial all my cherished bits of pride and ambition and complacency were. I let go of them. Then the last piece too, had to go: the affection I had for my pride, the attachment to my idea of myself. All of these ideas I had about myself were flimflam. All my favourite beliefs, my specialist knowledge, my attainments, my hopes, my doubts, the life-story I repeat, they are all flimflam. They are unreal. They are bits of invention, imagined fantasy productions. Let them go. Open yourself to what you don’t know.

With this insight, I could now proceed with my simplifying agenda in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. The following morning, Thursday, in that beautiful first hour of meditation, I did it. I monitored my mind for any trace of the things Nansen warns me about in the koan; any trace of seeking; any trace of knowing; any lack of trust. Instead of having ideas about The Mystery (that it would deepen and be more blissful and explode into enlightenment) I just examined it. It has absolutely no concern for my absurd hopes and fears and ambitions and pride in attainment, I realised. None whatsoever. And why should it? The whole lot is absurdly trivial. And not really there. Not there at all. The universe flows on. Thousands of generations of creatures grow and die. Their wanting and attachments and ego concerns are all empty imaginings. It’s not just that they are self-serving – we all know that when we think about it – but that they are not there, and nor are the people constructed of them, such as me. Flimflam. Not there. I’m not really there. I feel like a root and nothing growing from it but an awareness of space. It is a jolt. I am not now thinking empty, I am really not there. It is a vivid and dramatic experience and emptiness is the right word for it, a word that has for years been elusive and ultimately incomprehensible to me. It is now clear to me how to be with my dying friends. By letting go. Death is empty too. All that cloudy stuff of wishing it away, clinging, protesting – that stuff is not real. It is empty. What dies is the body. All the highly valued personality that we are so profoundly attached to was never there in the first place. Life is the value. But what it is, I have no idea. There is a great Mystery but nothing for a self to seek or attain. There is the ordinary sublime to wonder at, but our reactions are neither here nor there and we can’t know anything about it. I sit through the beautiful morning service and as others eat their breakfasts I do many prostrations of gratitude to the Buddha.

Simon’s next talk was on, “All our world of experience is created by the mind. There is nothing that is not produced by the mind.” Wonderful. He manages to explain these abstruse ideas in very down-to-earth terms and make them perfectly clear. He guides my practice and I can feel the profound changes happening within me.

At the end of the day I had the opportunity for an interview. I had seen empty, Simon implied, but not entirely emptied myself out. You are dying, he insisted. What do you feel about that? I was stumped for the moment. Tired now, hours after the morning’s elation, my sense of an empty self was not secure. Keep practicing, he said.

The next morning, Friday, with new energy and the wonderful clarity of the dawn sit, I pushed on with my stripping down, simplifying, and letting go. I had to loosen control, receive rather than transmit, and be wu wei, empty of ulterior purpose. I monitored my mind clear of self-concern and the last vestiges of wanting, to just accept the experience of the present, with no expectations.

I saw how it corrupts to have any views or intentions, even well-meaning ones (in caring for my dying friends, for example, or in any kind of loving relationship). I was now convinced that my selfish little bits of wanting were standing in my way and really needed to be rid of them. I followed the guidance of Nansen in the koan, watching out for seeking, knowing, and doubt. It was surprisingly easy. Everything opened up. It was “vast and boundless like outer space”, as the koan said. As I emptied, the whole universe emptied, and there was no centre. The root I had yesterday was gone and there was no viewing position for me at all. Vast undifferentiated emptiness. It is not just a bigger version of the oceanic sense of spaciousness one gets in a clear meditation but a completely different experience, very distinct and vivid. Not that the world outside had gone, or that my body had really disappeared, of course, but that there was no bit of me in the way. How extraordinarily straightforward it was. The mechanism was simple: root out all the deluded flimflam of the seeking, wanting ego… and there is nothing but the boundless Mystery. Later, outside, the world shines, fully itself in perfection, pristine. You’d have thought that to make the world perfect all those bloody people with their half-baked beliefs and violent reactions would have to be emptied out, but no, it’s nice little me who has to be emptied. How extraordinary. I can answer the question Simon challenged me with. The proper attitude to my death is to go through it without wanting anything to be different, because I can see how futile that is, and any wanting at all gets in the way, ruining your joy in the present, closing you down to one needy issue. Acceptance. I should start now, because as Simon has pointed out with relish, I’ve already started dying.

Simon quoted Master Shengyen distinguishing between Contemplating Emptiness and the actual Realisation of Emptiness. He thought my Thursday experience was Contemplating Emptiness. As we talked, he acknowledged that the complete emptiness of Friday was the actual Realisation of Emptiness. Keep practicing, he said.

I am deeply grateful to Simon for his teaching. I have the greatest possible respect for him. The koan retreat at the Maenllwyd is a rare and beautiful experience, beyond all valuing. If only people knew what an amazing resource it is! It is a national treasure. I think it is the perfect way of doing these things and I would not want to go to any other kind of sangha. I love the place, and I love the flexible, helpful, but brilliantly focused spotlight of the teaching. And I am grateful to Simon for transmitting the magnificent Buddha dharma of compassion and wisdom passed down through all the teachers from Shakyamuni all the way to Masters Shengyen and John Crook, and transmitting it with humanity and humility.

In a Shoreham garden by Samuel Palmer with grateful acknowledgement to the Victoria & Albert museum.

Is this life or is this death?

A koan is a teaching tool to challenge you to solve the insoluble. It is a most ingenious Chinese invention in the history of Zen education. It is not entirely silly. You can solve the insoluble, but you do not get a ‘solution’ that is transferable to other people as a gobbet of knowledge. And you do not get an ‘answer’ that is in the form predicted by the question. What you get instead is a series of insights about the assumptions built into your thinking, your language and your perceptions. And you somehow mysteriously come to a sense of satisfaction with the meaning even though you have no ‘answer.’

As an example, take koan number 55 from the Blue Cliff Record:  

One day Dogo, accompanied by his disciple Zengen, went to visit a family in which a funeral was to take place, in order to express sympathy. Zengen touched the coffin and said, “Tell me please, is this life or is this death?”

Dogo said, “I would not tell you whether it is life or it is death.”

Zengen said, “Why don’t you tell me?”

Dogo said, “No, I would not tell you.”

On their way home Zengen said, “Please be kind enough to tell me. If not I’ll hit you.”

Dogo said, “Strike me if you like, but I would not tell you.”

Zengen struck Dogo.

Blue Cliff Record Case #55

Your task, on a koan retreat, or in your practice at home, is to meditate upon the koan. At the heart of it is the burning question, “Is this life or is this death?” Can you resolve the disciple Zengen’s anxiety?

In your meditation the question becomes an examination of your own sense of life, which includes your own sense of your dying.

You carry the koan around with you in your mind in daily life and apply it like a measuring instrument to all that you encounter: chicken tikka – Is this life or is this death?” Dead leaves, fading flowers, flourishing mosquitos – Is this life or is this death?”   In the end you have to make your own peace with the conundrum, in your own way.

I start my notes like this: The question is about life and death; all life and death, not a specific corpse; and it challenges me to investigate the life and death in me. I start by feeling the life in my belly, as I breathe, in my meditation. It is consciousness, whatever that is. I feel it, or, at least, I am conscious of it. Is it inside me or outside? Is it generated by my biology, or by the environment that makes the food, the air, water and sunlight? Impossible to tell. Is there a “life force,” and is it inner, or universal? Impossible to tell.

It is life; or it is some inspiration in the universe that keeps life going and is beginningless and endless. My life is short, I know, so why does “life” feel beginningless and endless? I have a striking insight: it is not personal. It is not “my” life. It is greater than me, and indifferent to me, in a benignly neglectful way. In that sense “my life” is empty. The “myness” of it is an illusion; my sense of being in charge of it is empty flimflam, a fantasy of self reassurance. There is life, and I am hitching a ride on it for a short while.

‘What is my “Original Face” from the time before my father and mother were born?’ (that is another koan) – and, I add, as I think about it, ‘What is my Original Face after my grandson will be dead?’ It is a universal life, the possession of no one. To name it would suggest that it is a great thing, and that it could be worshipped, but that would be inappropriate.  It is not an it. It does not give a damn for me, and it is wonderful. What is it?

 

No doer of the deeds is found;

No one who ever reaps their fruits.

Empty phenomena roll on,

This only is the correct view.

No god or Brahma can be called

The maker of this wheel of life.

Empty phenomena roll on

Dependent on conditions all.

Buddhagosa, 5th century.

 

My death would not be a personal thing either, I reflected. There is a great impersonal living process going on, irrespective of anyone’s opinions or desires, and we are all grist to the mill. The universe churns out life, all of which ages, decays, transforms, dies and is recycled. Like my life, my death is also “empty” of myness. It is quite unconcerned with notions of deserving, justice or care. “Death is just the end of the assumption that there is someone who owns Life” (Unmani Liza Hyde). “Empty phenomena roll on.”

On retreat in Normandy I had another insight, feeling for the first time the full force of the phrase, “The life and death of each moment.” It began when I tried to recreate in my mind the pleasure of being hailed by Mathilde, daughter of my friends. She appeared in a garden, to my surprise, and called out, running towards me. I was delighted to see her again. Can one keep hold of a special moment like that? Can we recreate it? Can we sustain its life in nostalgia’s aspic? No. It lives gloriously, and then it is gone.

 

Greeting Mathilde!

Can I keep the moment

like dew in the fridge?

 

A second insight came quickly: if one is living vividly in the present moment the potential for experiences of great joy and fullness is all over the place, all the time. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “M’installant dans le moment présent, je sais que c’est un moment merveilleux.”

Mathilde may be specially wonderful, but, in fact, watching any old bee nosing in any old flower is beautiful, as generous a gift as the universe has to offer, and available at this time of year all over the place. When one is completely clear in Ordinary Mind and focused on the present marvellous moment, all moments are vivid bliss. But time moves on. You can’t hold any of them. They die, all of them. You have to move on to the birth of the next.

What an incredible waste of life it is that we miss so many of these gorgeous, vivid experiences all around us all the time! They are born in their fullness and then fade as our attention shifts to the next.

What do I mean by “born”?  The same flowers are here in the garden today as were here yesterday, a little older, but to a quick glance, the same. The trees are the same. Some things have relatively stable continuity over time, relatively much longer than flowers or even trees, – so how is glancing at them the “birth” of them? Do I give birth to Rouen cathedral by looking at it?

Yes. It is the noticing. Instants are born in one’s consciousness. There is no continuity in the mind’s vivid perceptions, in full attentiveness. It is in constant motion. It flows without stopping. It is time. The noticing is not a copy of yesterday’s noticing of the same flower, the same tree, the same cathedral, and cannot be so. The perceptions flare and die, flare and die, flare and die, moment by moment, each one the distillation of the whole universe, and all its life, in this second. This second is the only bit of time that is alive, and it is already dying.

The great mystic William Blake saw it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

The continuities are reassuring constructs in the background. They are a notional framework, but they are not where we live. We live and die each moment, in our beady looking, riveted on a close-up; or listening, note by delicious note. Tasting. Touching. That is how we are alive in the present. We live where our attention is fully focused. “Eternity” and “Infinity” are concentrated there. The relationship is best expressed by Blake again: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

In the following morning’s service we chanted The Heart Sutra. I was struck by how lines of text are like our journey through time. They remain the same through a thousand years as ink printed on paper, but when your eye travels along the lines, and you voice them, your mind flares with the imagined fullness of a word or phrase. It leaps into an idea and its implications and then attention smoothly moves on, echoing or resonating with the idea and adding to it the next one. The silent symbols spring into life and speak their meanings.

You lose attention for a bit, distracted, or recalling an earlier phrase, and miss half a sentence, which lies there dead, as you pass by without bringing it to life. According to how focused you are in the moments of your reading, the words leap into life briefly and then fade and die as you move through the space-time continuum of the text.

 

Phrase by phrase

The Heart Sutra

bursts into life

 

There is a physical landscape of short-lived or long-lived stable things, a mix of continuities, through which one moves, carried by time: flowers, trees, cathedrals, and the culture of historic texts. But one lives in the mind’s awareness. Living moments flare in one’s perceptions, fade and die, flaring and dying. Is this life or is this death?”  

I would not tell you.

I would not tell you, but my answer to myself is this. It is. Life and death. Each of them separately. Both of them together. Neither of them. It’s impossible to tell them apart. The words are nonsense. But I am content.

 

 

 

 

 

George Marsh 1652 words May 2017

Photographs: Tom Moulson

 

 

Who Will You Call? & April in Dublin

Krystyna

Krystyna Jankowska

Krystyna sings another of our songs, Who Will You Call? What a voice!

I like songs with characters in a specific dramatic situation. In this song we have a highly intelligent man who sees through hypocrisy and mediocrity but is cynical and unforgiving. He is loved by a woman who can see his qualities but also sees that he is destroying himself with sour despair.

And here Krystyna sings April in Dublin. It is a song which breaks into kletzmer music in the last section, for a change of mood.

April in Dublin has a bit of the mood of Cotton-Eyed Joe about it: the sense of regret; the sense that lives were forever changed by something that happened – or failed to happen – long ago. And there is deep respect for someone very special, who was not fully appreciated as they should have been.

We hope you like these songs! Let us know your feedback.

Psweet and Psour Psychology

User comments

 

For the purposes of this argument we’ll identify five elements to our psychology: The Self, The Personality, The Brain, The Child Mind, and The Unborn.

The Self

is a piece of software running in babies from birth which looks out for its needs and wants: primarily food, warmth, attention, interaction, and whatever takes its fancy. It looks out for our interests, and as we grow up it wants more sophisticated things, like reputation, success, appreciation, status, love. It compares itself with others and veers moodily between feeling superior and feeling inferior, feeling powerful and feeling powerless. It is self-obsessed and churns out excuses, denials and rationalisations necessary for its self-regard. It reacts instantaneously with its likes and dislikes, constantly alternating, as the Buddha taught, between attraction and aversion, going towards (the movement of greed), and running from (the movement of hatred), fight and flight. The funny thing is that we fondly imagine that this really is our self! “Me.” No. It is the same self-concerned stuff as everybody else’s. But all that attraction and aversion, picking and choosing, dignified with the name of “good taste” (judged as appropriate to your cultural group), leads directly to….

The Personality

A mixture of

  • Taste in music, design, books, clothing, cars, entertainment, lifestyle, friends and so on, based on the Self’s likes and dislikes, picking and choosing as appropriate to one’s class and ambitions in a self-defining, self-projecting way
  • Identity attachments (culturally a Celt, a Manchester United fan, a Labour voter, a feminist, a Buddhist), the grander expressions of attraction and aversion choices
  • Education, special skills, specialist knowledge, profession, management experience, manner of wielding authority
  • Habits and conditioning, much of it from parents and childhood experiences, shaping one’s emotional disposition (I, for example, am terrified of anger, from a family that suppressed all expression of anger ; I have a friend who is very much at ease with anger, a familiar friend to it, from a family happy with flare-ups)
  • Inherited dispositions (tall, strong, athletic, intelligent, clumsy, prone to heart trouble) and learned behaviours which may have developed often admirable qualities of character: courage, determination, confidence, patience, kindness, for example.

The Brain

Which comes into its own at work, discriminating, reasoning, assessing, arguing on the evidence, drawing upon experience and knowledge, reporting accurately, taking objective decisions. Not used as much as we like to think.

The Child Mind

Which persists into adulthood and old age. It likes fantasies, magical explanations, blaming, sulking, and extremes (things are either perfect or dreadful). It clings to what it wants to think, even in the face of conclusive evidence to the contrary.

The Unborn

The Original Face, the Deep Self, the Ground of Being, the One Mind, the Essence of Mind, the Buddhanature, or whatever you call it: the sense of life that you find within you, and find mysterious, not sure whether its energy comes from inside or outside, and not sure what it is, except that you find it nourishing and strengthening. It is the peace at the heart of you that you find in meditation and at times when you forget the Self and merge with nature, giving yourself up to something greater. But is it something special with its own qualities? Or is it simply the sense of life of the default state of an ordinary mind when undistracted, cleared of conditioning and self-concern? The Unborn is perhaps a default state that is both luminous, and “nothing special”! One can experience it, but not know it.

Our task in this life is to stop the Self, Personality, and Child Mind from obliterating the Unborn.

Chattering mind, fantasies, busy busy-work, entertainments, anxieties about self, fears for the future and endless trains of circular, repetitive thought blot out the sense of life in the present, the sense of being vividly alive now. To set the Unborn free we must get control of the Self.

 

With grateful acknowledgements to A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Field (Marion Milner) Chatto and Windus 1934, Virago 1986.

Self at Ease

 

 

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An ecstatic man dances, looking serene. Perhaps he is part of a group of dancers, now lost in the sea off Sicily. Perhaps he is involved in a sacred ritual of transcendence. Perhaps he is a satyr or nature spirit. Whatever the circumstances, he is beautiful, unafraid, at one with nature and at ease in the world. In the two thousand years since this man was sculpted in bronze there are astonishingly few images of human figures with those same qualities, perfectly at home in the world and feeling good.

 

But look at modern man!

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Or Rodin’s image of man, a thinker but confused and uncertain:

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In the Renaissance, the age known as the age of flowering confidence in ‘Man,’ heroes were those who had cut the heads off their enemies: David with the head of Goliath, Perseus with the head of Medusa and Judith with the head of Holofernes.

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The most fascinating image of woman from the period may be many things but not perfectly at ease and serene, at home in a simple world of joy. In fact, the reason she fascinates us is because she makes us uneasy.

monalisa1-large_transeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengrumaIn subsequent centuries portraits of aristocrats will furnish us with images of complacency, but not serenity and wholesome true confidence.

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And images of the poor will be sentimental and patronising accounts of victimhood.

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Where has that wonderful Greek confidence gone? Go through the centuries in a great gallery collection and ask, “How confident and at ease in the world is this person?”

As women become more liberated in the twentieth century do they glow with inner confidence?

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Or is that body language too thrustingly assertive, over-confident?

Do the iconic images of modern men show us enlightened beings dancing with ecstasy? No, they are holding guns or leading an army. Elvis. Lenin.

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This might be more sublime, but it is an oddly inflexible and static form of flying:

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This, from Matisse, might be the nearest thing to an ecstatic dance, but you cannot see the faces.

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The only place where I can find images of human faces which can compare with the Greek dancing satyr’s for confidence is in East Asia:

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These are the faces of people who know that they are in the right world, and accept it as it is, with gratitude. They are perfectly adjusted to their reality and have no fear.

dscn0459 sakyamuni-shanghai-mus

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The Angel’s Wound

ajuba

I’m in Kew Gardens where there seems to be a temporary sculpture exhibition amongst the barberry shrubs, under full-leaved summer trees. I pick up a leaflet: Emily Young, sculptress, descended from the singing pirate, Admiral Sir George Young, and the widow of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, has made this Spangle Stone Fool Boy who looks at me with an idiot’s lack of reserve. I can make a relationship with this head. I know him, and he is easy with me.

My older son was difficult to read at breakfast, with a give-nothing shrug and so-so eyebrow. He’s no idiot. He learned refusal – it toughened him – during the Rejection, twenty five years ago. His mother left him, and rejection came down to her through her mother, who talked to blot out listening, and her father, a non-singing pirate who ransacked Borneo’s rainforest. And it came to them from who knows how much further back, way back…

sculpture park –

fossilised snail shells

polished to a warrior’s head

 

I’m a product of the long English tradition of stony childhood.

 

tourists pass –

gold flecked onyx streams

from the angel’s wound

goldenonyxangel

I once read a Venetian traveller’s account of England he wrote in 1500. “The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children; for having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people…” The astonished Venetian relates that the children, “never return, for the girls are settled by their patrons, and the boys make the best marriages they can, and, assisted by their patrons, not by their fathers, they strive diligently to make some fortune for themselves.” As my favourite cockney mystic put it, three centuries later:

The Angel that presided o’er my birth

Said, “Little creature, form’d of Joy and Mirth,

Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth.”

I took on history and reversed the culture. I loved my babies, changed nappies, sang them to sleep, and hugged them.

But you don’t buck the dread English family that easily. To love your children won’t be enough. No no no no. You also need to create a sweet understanding with the mother. Out of nothing, make joy, like a vaudeville conjurer pulling a spreading rosebush from his dusty sleeve. So the boys got rejected anyway. She abandoned her infants.

four thousand million years

of yellow quartzite deposits

roughly shape a woman

My younger son and I now understand one another, nevertheless, more or less. We swap guarded exchanges over the crossword, and coded commentary on football and cricket.

peering from thick foliage

a Pleistocene rock

with a gleaming eye

The shrewd Italian writes that, “Although their dispositions are somewhat licentious, I never have noticed anyone, either at court or amongst the lower orders, to be in love; whence one must necessarily conclude either that the English are the most  discreet lovers in the world or that they are incapable of love.”

moonlight caresses

the black surface

of the marble girl

I don’t regret that I was never indiscreet. If you’re English, you should know, without all that. I feel admiration for ex-lovers and I delight in other women friends too, I do, really, and I will, unless, and until

marble man, still shrub –

in the heart of one of them

a squeaking wren

 

emilyyoung

Note: Passages in quotation are from A Relation of the Island of England c.1500, published in The Portable Renaissance Reader ed. Ross and McLaughlin, Penguin.

Facing the criminal Self

Murderers are the extreme example of people who are carried away to catastrophe by the rigidity of their false world-view. They are in ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ long before they are put behind prison bars. As the very first verse of the Dhammapada puts it, “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it” (in the translation of Eknath Easwaran).

The many years of a Life sentence can be very constructive ones for those who suffered a hectic, tormented, frightened childhood and youth and have never had the time and sobriety to get a perspective on their behaviour.

I met Karl in Kingston Prison, ten years into his Life sentence. He was short, with a battle-scarred face and tattoos. He had a poor level of literacy and very little education, but was throwing himself into learning. I quote below from a little book he wrote with me in my capacity as writer-in-residence at the prison (Hand on the Glass by Karl, Waning Moon Press, 1999, available from me).

“Fear seizes the body with shivering. You read about the techniques in reports of torture.” Karl is the child of a sadistic mother. “I was stripped naked, thrown in the corner, slapped and shouted at, slapped again and again, the slaps accompanied by continuous screaming, anger and spitefulness pouring down on me. She was ill. She was devious to the point of insanity. You could see the hatred in her smile, her posture, her eyes. She’d steal my sweets and smile at me. I got sneaky and told lies like her. It turned me into an arsehole like her. The hatred is vivid for ever.”

Karl went to Borstal, and what he had learned from his mother set the pattern for how to cope. “I knew that the weak are vulnerable. I wasn’t going to let anyone take advantage. I was frightened, and the only way I knew to be safe and gain respect was by aggression. I weigh a man up: if he’s going to stand up I’ll have to dive straight in, very hard, and use extreme violence. If threats will do, I’ll manipulate him through threats. When Officers want to hear “Yes,” I’ll say, “Yes.””

As a young adult he was a hot-wired volatile mix of hatred, fear, heroin, alcohol, pills, greed and violence. He was extremely dangerous, I have no doubt, and as criminal as can be. He would be your worst nightmare, standing at the bar at lunchtime in a Brighton pub, smiling. He describes his companions: “The people I was knocking about with were not decent rational people. We’d pull stokes on others all the time. A criminal isn’t just someone who steals or breaks the law. He started at the age of 5 or 6. He’s been through approved school, Borstal, DCs and all the time he’s picking up new ways of intimidating and manipulating people. The criminal will always tell you what you want to hear. I’m lying – I don’t know why yet, but I’m doing an oil painting of myself, and I’m hoping to take you with it. Knowing I’m a failure, to keep people at bay, the easiest thing is to be aggressive.”

Heroin was the best solace. “I was depressed, tense, angry when I had my first mainline given by a friend and the effect was immediate. My inner feeling was serene, for the first time in my life, and it became my favourite drug instantly. It cut me off from my feelings, all those bad feelings, a lifetime of humiliation, bitterness and aggression. Then I was sick. Whoosh. That was a problem, but then I got another lift, even higher.”

The second of my four daily Buddhist vows is, “The afflicting passions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them all.” Karl and his like struggle to overcome the suffering of being endlessly assailed by the afflicting passions, using the onefold path of intoxication. I am told that Jung wrote a letter to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous saying that he had always thought that the craving for alcohol and drugs was a desire for God or a religious “spirit.” I worked with criminal teenagers at one time and got them writing poems about LSD. Darrell wrote, “The normal world is shit. / When you’re tripping / the sea is a living thing, / the sea-breeze is a voice… You’re aware, / every little thing seems more alive. / Nature is more beautiful when you’re tripping.”

Tastes of serenity, awareness and beauty in the bleakest of “shit” lives: drugs are the poor man’s transcendence (many of the rich like them too).

Karl was arrested for murder. “If you’ve always received smacks, dished out smacks, never thought, got away with it, surviving day to day, not caring, no outlook, no character, you’re a disaster waiting to happen. It’s a terrible shame for his [the victim’s] family that it has taken his death for me to see what an arsehole I’ve been,” he reflects.

He describes his attitude when he got to prison: “Create an incident and run. I’m scared of myself. I might get violent and do something again. I don’t want to be alive. I’m running. I don’t talk to anyone except for necessary drug deals. Stay away, keep clear of me – I’m angry.”

Again he analyses it: “Somebody comes up and strikes up a conversation and I cut them off, give a short answer. I have no trust, wary, suspicious. I’m the one who is going to take advantage of you, I’m projecting my thoughts into you: you can’t be trusted. My mother took advantage, so I expect everybody to. Friends are a no-no. It’s lonely, very lonely, a loneliness you come to like. I’d go in arrogant and demanding, to create a bit of fear, or, with a dangerous man, go in subtle, drop my body-language, keep eye-contact to create a bit of trust, then I’m off with whatever I can get. You can’t build friendship with people you’ve took advantage of.”

Four years into his sentence Karl applied for group therapy. “It’s hard to let go. It’s tense in my chest and arms. When I begin to open up it’s scary. I have to let the barriers down. I feel weaker, I feel I’ve got nothing. Instead of being domineering I just back off and don’t try to control. I have to listen to your opinions though it doesn’t feel right. Sitting there through my discomfort I learned to listen and understand. I used to just walk off ranting and raving with my own opinion in my head, but now I walk off with a sense of achievement – what’s achieved is you’re listening to me! It feels good. Puts a bounce in my stride.”

He heard that others had suffered like he had. “I’m not the only one!” He heard people tell how they had changed. And he felt the change: “When I first went I was hostile. I didn’t care. People told me I was an arsehole. But I let slip my birthday, and they surprised me, gave me presents, and I cried. You’ve got to give. Give to others. It’s what opens everything else for you. Put yourself out. It’s done so much for me.”

Hugh Collins, notorious Glasgow gangster and murderer, wrote an account of his transformation in the therapeutic community which was the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison (Hard Man, in Granta 46, 1994). He was severely disoriented when he first arrived because nothing fitted his world-view. The toughest criminals were being friendly with the screws, the enemy, “joking and laughing and talking as if they were normal people.” Jimmy Boyle, the most famous of Scotland’s dangerous men, was the “undeniable leader” in the Unit. He came to Hugh Collins on his second day and said, “You’re fucked up. You don’t think you are, but you’re completely fucked up. So was I when I arrived here. It took me six months to recover.”

Collins took a cocktail of drugs and his rage exploded. He demanded a transfer back to a normal prison and threatened staff. He was ‘hotseated’ in a community meeting. “The meeting’s resolution was not to mete out punishment, but to develop ways of supporting me through my difficulties. What the fuck was going on?”

The man who had never in his life received sympathetic treatment, hated it. He drank a bottle of whisky and attacked Jimmy Boyle. “I was put in a cell so I could sober up in peace. I didn’t understand.” He was bewildered by the lack of a violent response. He always expected to be hit back, especially by the prison system, and he wanted it to be that way, fitting in with his image of how things operate. Next morning Jimmy Boyle came to see him and said, “You have to understand how really fucked up you are,” and suggested he write out all his emotions. “Try to find out who you are and what has made you this way.”

That question, ‘Who am I?’ familiar to all of us in the Buddhist community, is what proved to be the key for Hugh Collins. He realised, examining it, that he had dedicated his whole life to a fantasy image of his father as the hard-man master criminal. He had hardly known his father, of course, during childhood, because the old man had always been in prison, but he had absorbed the legends of derring-do and the sense of awe felt by weaker people in the presence of the brute.

Collins in his twenties: “I knew what it was like to take someone’s life. I was a very powerful man, and I was powerful because I was dangerous, and I was dangerous because I was prepared to be, and everyone knew I was fully capable of being so very, very violent. I had become my father… Or perhaps I had become nothing more than what I thought my father was.” Collins recalled that he got to see more of his father at that time and had to keep rescuing him from scrapes. “For the first time, I saw him for what he was. My father was not a hard man. The hard man was a lie. Robin Hood? He was a drunk, poncing money from a burnt-out prostitute half his age. He was not someone I wanted to be. What I wanted to be had been a lie. It didn’t exist.

“But just look at what the lie had created.”

I have been trying to avoid the word “awakening” for the turnaround in understanding that eventually dawned on Karl and on Hugh Collins. Of course, it is not enlightenment. But it has the structural characteristics we find in enlightenment literature. It involves destroying and discarding an entire world-view and set of false values, values which are deeply rooted as the main prop of the sense of identity. It involves a recognition of ‘Who am I?’ and a sloughing off of the false identity. It involves a breakthrough to seeing things more nearly as they really are, and accepting them without needing to hammer them into another shape to make them fit the world-view. It involves feeling a renewed rewarding reciprocity with other human beings. It brings joy.

The Dhammapada continues, in verse three, “ ‘He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” And verse five explains how to break the cycle. “For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.”

I am sure many gangsters and violent brutes never receive a surprise birthday present, or loving attention in the form of, “You’re fucked up.” It is an unalterable law that they must receive some love to change. They must be in a state of readiness too. Karl writes, “I was not seeing people. I was blind. It happened a few times that someone was genuinely concerned about me, but I mistrusted it. I didn’t let anybody in.”

Many gangsters and brutes may not have the intelligence and strength of character to face up to themselves, accept how wrong they have been, and determine to change. I see them in prison and amongst young offenders: men and boys who have intimations of the right Way, but will backslide weakly, put off the necessary work by running to alcohol and drugs, and cave in to peer group braggadocio. They are not going to loosen up, admit cracks in their rigid systems of thought, or climb out of the carapace of identity they have forged for themselves and their kin.

Those who do change, as Hugh Collins and Karl have done, show remarkable and impressive human qualities, the finest of all human qualities, shadowing the path to enlightenment. The great adventure of being human fetches up here. Unfortunately, it also seems to be an unalterable law that such understanding costs a fortune in suffering. “It’s a terrible shame for his family that it’s taken his death for me to see what an arsehole I’ve been,” writes Karl. Yes. The martyrs to thugs like Hugh Collins, and the unreformed political criminals on the left and right to whom ideologies were more real than people, who became what they thought, are legion.

Beheading the Tigers

In five months the Sri Lankan government crushed the secessionist rebellion of the Tamil Tigers after years of civil war and terrorism. The Tigers had invented suicide bombing, had taken control of the North of the country, set up their own military, police, laws, government, and taxes. It had been a running sore for twenty five years marked by extreme violence.

LTTE_leaders_at_Sirumalai_camp

The Tamil Leadership

The crushing involved heavy bombing and a military sweep kettling all the Tiger-controlled population of the North into smaller and smaller areas until the last tens of thousands were all crowded on one beach at the mercy of the victorious army. United Nations personnel had been expelled and media kept away. Areas the government designated No Fire Zones and Safe Zones at the prompting of the UN and Red Cross were heavily bombed. Hospitals seem to have been targeted (the Red Cross gives the GPS co-ordinates of hospitals to attackers so that they can be avoided).

At the final victory the leaders of the Tamil Tigers were assassinated, although they surrendered. The leader’s twelve year old son was shot. Women were raped and murdered. Prisoners were summarily executed. There were many war crimes (targeting civilians, shelling Safe Zones, rape, the execution of prisoners).

This raises difficult questions for me because the crimes are terrible but I can see the ruthless and necessary logic of some of them. You do not want, after a long civil war characterised by horrible violence and endless terrorist attacks from the Tigers, a messy inconclusive outcome. If they are not going to negotiate an agreement on a federation with degrees of autonomy, one that ends the conflict, and you have decided that you must crush them, then, if you are the responsible power, you must make a clean sweep. You do not want the end to be left in the hands of civil rights lawyers, with violent leaders grandstanding in courtrooms. It would be dangerous to leave martyrs incarcerated, organising mayhem from their cells, and waiting for rescue so that they can rise again. Kill the leadership. End it. If it is a dynastic leadership, kill the heir. The hopes of revival have to be crushed. Biafra has not come back again. The Albigensians and Cathars are finished. The Confederates are not going to secede any more.

Nobody thinks it was a great injustice to get rid of Ceaucescu, Milosovic, Gaddafi or Osama Bin Laden when surrendering. Saddam Hussein was quickly tried and hanged. Violent, rabble-rousing mischief-making political leaders live by the sword, perish by it, and good riddance. We cannot write this into international law, but the vast amount of harm they can do makes these leaders an exception to the usual rights of defendants. It may be necessary to ruthlessly eliminate them, all trace of them, and leave no shrine, no relics, no successor. But how far should our ruthless exceptions extend?

The exceptions should be exceptional and should not ever be stretched to executing common soldier-prisoners, or shelling civilians in designated Safe Zones and hospitals. The rape-murder of captured women is monstrous criminality. The exceptions are limited to the leader and the leader alone, in my view, and will have to be covered up, as far as possible, with lies about accidents and regret. A sacrificial scapegoat will be required. An old general or Prime Minister will have to be sacked, or even prosecuted. Otherwise you completely undermine all the legal principles of the Geneva convention; the moral high ground has gone; your right to castigate violent dictators has gone.

I understand the Sri Lankans beheading the Tamil leadership. But they should indeed be condemned for taking the same brutal path with civilians and common soldiers.

Justifying the exceptions will take hypocrisy, moral fudge and weasel words. It is nasty work. It is a crime, a necessary crime, and will have to be redeemed by magnanimity to the defeated, compensation, lots of investment, and careful, generous nation-building.