In June of 2016 I was ordained as a Bodhisattva in the Soto Zen tradition. I was asked to choose an ‘Elder’ in the Sangha… Someone to keep in contact with and be in relation to as my journey unfolds.
The following emails are to my elder, Heather Smith. She and her partner, Jay Clifton, were my first Zen teachers in Brighton (although they like to deny the t-word).
In the emails I am describing 3 Buddhist/ Meditation places I went to last year. I was sort of spying (but not really… I’m slightly too honest/ vain to be a good spy) to see some of what Buddhist practice is going on in Britain at the moment.
The first email is about a Zen monastery called Throssel Hole, the next, a New Kadampa Tradition Monastery called the Manjushri Centre and the last is a description of the Vipassana Centre close to Hereford.
I have sent them (with permission from Heather) to Bodhi Cheetah as they might be of interest. If anyone reading would like any further or fleshier details, you can email me.
Best wishes to all,
Heather and Jay,
Firstly, thank you so much for coming to the party. I felt very honoured to have you there and was so happy to see you among my family and friends. In a speech that I would have given had I been more composed, I would have talked about being born, how being born happens more than once and named some of the people who have helped me to experience new lives within my life. You two are on that list!
Thank you also for the gifts… the biscuits are going down a treat, mainly in the mornings and mainly me and Lettice eating them and the charger became immediately essential as I wandered through the countryside with just the torch and map on my phone to guide me. Seriously, that night would have been even more scary without it!
I have just been ‘released’ from Throssel Hole Abbey. This is part of the project to learn more about whats going on in the world of Buddhist practice in the UK. I am learning!
Their practice is very much like ours. Their temple however is very different to any I can imagine us putting together. It was opulent! In the meditation hall: Golden Buddha, orange carpet, gold_blue clouds and sky mural, lotus flowers, huge fake purple flowers, purplebluepinkyellow columns, blue dragons flying about the upper walls, etc etc. Zen in full colour. I asked about this in relation to the monochrome pallette that zen is most commonly associated. A reverand told me that the truth can be represented in monochrome or colour. They wore brown robes and purple rakasus. Every morning they sing the heart sutra and the patriarchs. They do Sing. The singing is churchlike and beautiful. All the singing we did was in English but I think the monks chant in other languages as well. Jiyu Kennett studied music and worked as an organist before monkhood which explains some of this.
The monks built the temple themselves… They had help from architects with the design and then got on with it! It took years but I forgot to ask how many. Because of the location, they had to make their buildings look a certain way from the outside, thus had to sacrafice the Japananese for a more English countryside aesthetic. It is an excellent place. About 20 monks, all shaved, all celibate!
Lots more to say but I have come away, predictably, with thoughts about us lot and our missing temple. That is something that, with the trip to India coming up, I won’t pursue right now but don’t be surprised if I start making compassionate noises about it when I get back.
Hope you and the animals are alright and that you’ve managed to find everything I hid from you.
I hear you.
I’ve let Katherine know about the mat.
My goodness! I have just spent a week at the Manjushri Centre in the Lake District and it is crazy up there. I’m writing this email from a pub before getting a train back to London. Their version of Tibetan Buddhism is very very different in feeling to Zen. So much asking for things. Not a lot of meditation. Offerings, talk of past lives, people searching for the meaning of death. Although the teachers and practitioners (at Manjushri) keep their practice very streamlined, the people who are attracted to it seem to also be attracted to all kinds of things. I can now see more clearly why you and Jay may be wary of people coming in and talking about Energy Work and such like. It can all spiral off into vagueness.
It is a huge institution up there. Felt corporate and like a business. In their bigness they seem to have lost an eye for detail in some aspects of the running of the monastery. I was disappointed by certain aspects (e.g. they treated me the same way a disrespectful, power-hungry boss treats their low waged workers) but that all goes into my learning and so am very thankful for the seeing and feeling I was able to do there. Also to experience the feelings of disappointment and to bring them into my practice. I saw more clearly the importance of nurturing the self.
Going to the famous Vipassana retreat in Hereford on Wednesday. 10 days, 10 hours meditation a day. Very intrigued.
Hope the kesa sesshin was good. Warm insence wishes to Dan’s rakasu beginning.
Lots of love
A note from India.
I’ve been here for just over a month. I can’t work out whether it feels like a long or short time has passed. Its weird time. I’m teaching and learning.
Disconnected from my communities, I feel a growing sense of my beliefs, positions, habits etc.
Daily practice continues and feels more and more like a part of life rather than a puzzle.
Before I left our sinking shores I went on a buddhist sight_seeing tour, ending with 10 days in Hereford at the Vipassana centre there. Since I wrote to you about the other places, it only feels right to continue. Also, Llew Watkins (my first inspiration to look into Buddhism) has invited me to contribute some writing to a Buddhist website that he and his sister run, so I might contribute some extracts from these letters to you as they are quite direct descriptions of places and might be of interest to anyone practicing in the UK. It might change the writing style of this email. Apologies for that. Self conciousness is still all around me like a fart. At least I can see it now though!
Many people turned up… about 150(!) And there was a corporate feeling there too (you might remember my feelings from Manjushri) but it very quickly became obvious to me that this was only because of the amount of people who needed to be processed and it soon went away. So many people!
We sat 10 hours a day. The people who had done it before at the front and the rest of us at the back. The back all wriggly and the front bolt upright. After 2 days it felt ridiculous and scary to think of sitting any more. The pain in the knees was getting worse and worse and I could feel the same happening to all the other little wrigglers. But then, miraculously, by day 4 or 5, everyone settled. Everyone. Pain is understood only as a signifier of a mental or emotional tension. Everything is very clearly described. There is no mystery and no poetry. Just suffering and a path that leads from suffering. And bedtimes, mealtimes and discipline. Vipassana teaches discipline very very well. I am really thankful for that.
I was lying in bed there one day, amazed by how clear the practice of meditation can be and by how Vipassana meditation was helping me to see Zen and why it is Zen thats held me all these years. The question of zen is asked (or rather, not asked) the very first time one sits zazen and keeps going for years and years. Other practices don’t allow so much room for confusion and guide students through stages. I love zen for so skillfully using just the produce of the student as its content! It is each zen student that comes up with the questions and the answers until they stop. I see this now (and keep coming up with stuff of course) and have to thank my experience at the Vipassana retreat for showing me such a scientific, unpoetic, un_zen approach to meditation!
By the end I had been through all the appropriate highs and lows… all those highs and lows that felt designed by the course (I could feel others rising and falling with me and my experiences would often be predicted or described afterwards by the teacher). The teacher, S.N. Goenka, gives his dharma talks from 1991 every evening, projected onto the meditation hall wall. He’s great. Fat sweaty storyteller from Burma.
Throughout the 10 days I would take most opportunities to go and see the Assistant Teacher (there was a male and a female teacher facilitating the retreat and offering one_on_one interviews). I don’t know why I kept going back because he was almost totally useless and unfeeling (even patronising and egotistical at times). Assistant Teachers there seem to be employed to parrot EXACTLY what is said by Goenka. This is fine, of course, but I was upset at the end to hear that my neighbour (who was having a really bad time and who kept on going to see the Assistant Teacher) was not given any specific advice/ thoughts/ observations. I felt like his time could so easily have been enriched by a tiny few words but these words were not given because the Assistant Teacher either wasn’t skillful/ wise enough or wasn’t allowed to say something that wasn’t in the videos.
Apart from that, it was great… a strong reminder of the importance and possibility of discipline. I think it was great for me. It took me about 3 days to remember how to sit zazen afterwards and then it all came back.
I know one of your students has done it too and had a very different response… I think she might even have tried to escape through a hole in the fence!
Hope the group is well. Is it? Some news from Brighton would be received v.warmly out here in a world I don’t recognise! What of Marius? I’m sorry you might lose him. Has he made any plans yet?
Lots of love,
To Jay too please pass.