Sea Fever

trapped seal

The subject this week for my writing group is to write a parody of a well know poem. Here is mine.

Sea Fever

[Apologies to John Masefield]

I must go down to the sea again, to the dirty sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a Greenpeace ship and a cause to sail her by;

And the oil slick and the dead fish and the oiled gulls drowning;

And a green scum on the sea’s face and a poisonous dawn breaking.

*

I must go down to the sea again to rescue the beached whales;

Most are covered in oily sludge so our futile rescue fails;

And all I ask is a clean-up plan and a white surf flying,

And a pure spray and dolphins leaping and bright gannets diving.

*

I must go down to the sea again and offer up a prayer

For the dolphins caught in plastic nets and seals gasping for air.

And all I ask is a global plan to honour life on earth;

To work together for a green vision and a glorious new birth.

pulsar poem

pulsar

(Just trying out a new way of posting. This is a recent poem written quickly after listening to Jocylyn Bell talk about pulsars.)

travelling too close to a pulsar

at the start     only a throb

like a lighthouse beam     sweeping

the dark in narrow arcs     beware

spaghettification as you    get closer

you’ll find your head      separated

from your feet     your chest pulled

violently from your    abdomen

the magnetic field    will wipe

your credit cards    clean

along with     all your memories

Dogen Festival

throssel hole hall

It was the Festival of Eihei Dogen at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey last Sunday. Dogen (1200- 1253) is the Japanese founder of the Soto Zen Buddhist Tradition and his writings have been a spiritual revelation here in the west since some of the first translations became available in the 1950s.

When I first went to Throssel in the 1980s I was captivated by the style, subtlety and spiritual depth of Dogen’s talks, then translated by Rev Master Jiyu-Kennett. (I give some extracts later.)

On the first Sunday of every month there is a different festival at Throssel. The altar is adapted to the festival; this Sunday’s had a reproduction of a famous painting of Dogen at the front. During the ceremonial there are bows, a circumambulation of the hall while singing sutras and incense offerings at the altar. A monk weaves in and out of the moving congregation sprinkling water while another throws coloured lotus petals (made from fabric) which float down onto the carpet.

After the ceremonial and tea we had sitting and walking meditation.

During our meditation Reverend Master Leandra gave a talk in which she quoted from Dogen’s Gyoji (translated as Ceaseless Training). I can’t locate the particular extract now but know it had to do with acknowledging our circumstances fully and using them as our ‘training ground.’ This is a familiar theme with Dogen; no separation between training, ordinary life and enlightenment. (A modern-day Buddhist teacher who emphasises how to deal with the, often, ‘messy’ parts of our lives is Pema Chodron.)

In my previous blogs I have not mentioned that I have an ongoing struggle with depression. It is tempting for me to see this as an impediment, and even worse, to regard myself as at a disadvantage to other lay Buddhists who don’t have mental health difficulties. However, this is my particular circumstance; all I can really do is regard it as ‘a given’ and get on with trying to live by the Buddhist Precepts and continue meditation regularly! (At the same time I must be careful not to identify myself as a ‘depressive’ – the whole point of Buddhist practice is to allow us to drop off any fixed ‘identity’ and know the universal truth that the historical Buddha actualised. This deeper Reality is the birthright of every human being.)

Another point that the extract made was that ‘ceaseless training’ includes the times we fell off the straight and narrow or acted wilfully and caused harm to ourselves and others. How all-embracing this teaching is! At heart most of want to do the right thing; most people (whether they think of themselves as spiritual or not) know when they have caused harm and don’t want to repeat the same mistake. (For anyone reading this who feels despair or hopelessness and who isn’t a Buddhist and doesn’t follow any spiritual practice, I would encourage them to find out what spiritual groups may be in their locality. Often we first find a spiritual path when we are at our lowest and all else has failed; in other words, suffering, of one kind or another.)

I am now 70 years old, hence this extract from Gyoji! (It gives a flavour of Dogen’s style for anyone unfamiliar with him.) I should say that although I am in my seventh decade I feel I am only scratching the surface of Buddhist training.

Do not regret your reaching old age. It is difficult to know what this thing called life really is. Is a person ‘really living’ or ‘not really living’? Is a person ‘old’ or ‘not old’? The four perspectives are completely different; all the various types of perspectives are different as well. Just concentrate on your intention and make your utmost effort to pursue the Way. In your pursuit of the Way, train as if you were facing a life-and-death situation: it is not simply your pursuit of the Way within life-and-death. People today have become so foolish as to set aside their pursuit of the Way upon reaching the age of fifty or sixty, or upon reaching seventy or eighty. Although we are naturally aware of how long we have lived, this is simply the human mind energetically engaged in discriminating and has nothing to do with studying the Way. Do not concern yourself with being in the prime of life or having reached old age. Just be single-minded in exploring the Way thoroughly. . .

Elsewhere Dogen says we should train ‘as if out hair were on fire’! This is not to make training appear a grim, tenacious activity, merely to show that we need to make it the centre of our lives if we are serious about it. To not waste time.

Here are two more of my favourite extracts from Great Master Dogen’s writings:

Awakening To The Mind Of The Bodhisattva (From the Shushogi)

When one awakens to True Wisdom it means that one is willing to save all living things before one has actually saved oneself: whether a being is a layman, priest, god or man, enjoying pleasure or suffering pain, he should awaken this desire as quickly as possible. However humble a person may appear to be, if this desire has been awakened, he is already the teacher of all mankind: a little girl of seven even may be the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the mother of True Compassion to all living things. One of the greatest teachings of Buddhism is its insistence upon the complete equality of the sexes.
However much one may drift in the six worlds and the four existences even they become a means for realising the desire for Buddhahood once it has been awakened: however much time we may have wasted up to now, there is still time to awaken this desire. Although our own merit for Buddhahood may be full ripe, it is our bounden duty to use all this merit for the purpose of enlightening every living thing: at all times, there have been those who put their own Buddhahood second to the necessity of working for the good of all other living things.

Trans Rev M Jiyu-Kennett

Genjo Koan – Actualising the Fundamental Point

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the

water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air.

However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is

large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of

them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its· realm. If

the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be

the bird and life must be the fish. It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies.

Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it,

this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where

you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way

at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the

way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not

carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the

practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing

one practice is practising completely.

Trans Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi

I hope I have given a taste of Dogen’s teaching here. If you look at my previous posts there is a little more about the nitty-gritty of Zen training.

Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey (UK) – www.throssel.org.uk

Shasta Abbey (USA) – www.shastaabbey.org

Achalanatha and the Spectre

achalanatha

Achalanatha symbolises the determination required to stay still when we are subject to hatred, greed and delusion within ourselves. To acknowledge these three poisons, as they are called, is part of the battle; if we pretend they have nothing to do with us we could project onto others and so compound delusion and hatred. (This is what happens when people gang up against minorities or ‘aliens.’)

The flames are the three poisons and the sword is to cut through delusion. By meditating and trying to live preceptually (do no harm, watch what you say and do etc.) we gradually purify the poisons ( as fire purifies). This is a lifetime’s work!

In Blake’s ‘system’ the Spectre is that part of our psyche which is equivalent to the discriminative mind of Buddhism. It can be thought of as thef egocentric self; elsewhere Blake talks of Selfhood.  (The ‘ego’ in Eckhart Tolle’s books.) Foster Damon writes in his Blake Dictionary:

The Spectre is ruthless in getting its way, and cares nothing for the individual it obsesses; it will drive him into unhappiness, disaster and even suicide.

Eckhart Tolle calls it the ‘pain body’ when it suffers in extremis like this.

Many religious traditions talk of ‘renunciation’ and how neccesary it is to go beyond the egocentric self with its selfish desires. This is a huge topic and it is not possible to explore it here. (I’d recommend Ken Wilber’s work for an in depth exploration.) All I want to do here is make a connection between Buddhist thought and Blake – as this is the theme of my book. It is a necessary simplification as I am limiting my wordcount on this blog!

Here is Blake’s poem which shows the conceptual comparison.

Each man is in his Spectre’s power

Until the arrival of that hour

When his Humanity awake

And cast his Spectre into the Lake.

Note the important word, ‘awake’ – this is an injuction found in all spiritual works. How much Blake managed to awake from ‘spiritual slumber’ in his own life is not possible to ascertain.  It is said he ‘died singing’ – perhaps this suggests that he did put his own visionary ‘system’ into practice?

POSTSCRIPT

When I posted this I was unaware that an Achalanatha Festival was to be celebrated at Throssel Buddhist Abbey, my local monastery. A fortuitous email enabled me to go on Sunday 5 Feb. Here is part of a scripture we sang:

If any human being is prone to entertaining despair, beset by hopelessness/That peron should meditate on the ever vigilant One, – and thus learn to stay rooted in the present moment./The Eternal present is the realm of Achalanatha Bodhisattva;/He severs entaglement with the past and the future, – leading beings to realize the joy of sitting still withiin body and mind.

People are sometimes surprised by the amount of ceremonial there is in Soto Zen. The point of all this ceremonial is to allow us to get in touch with the reality that the Buddha realised and taught to his followers. The singing engenders a kind of joy (not always) and points to the true self in each of us. When I first went to Throssel this part of Zen appealed to me as much as the meditation. The words of course blend with the movement in the ceremonial and the music (which is mostly based on Western plainchant) To sum up: the ceremonies are carried out in the mind of meditation, they also have a devotional element to them.

 

Shushogi & Blake

buddha-image

I am, as previously mentioned, writing a book about Blake and Buddhism, attempting to find correspondences between the two. The writings and teaching of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) are studied by Soto Zen schools of Buddhism. His teaching is very forthright and sometimes challenging and puzzling because he writes in a metaphorical, non-literalist style and it comes from his deepest spiritual realisation.

Like Blake his writings are always fresh as if written yesterday; in other words the truths he writes about are timeless. I have, and continue to find, them helpful in my spiritual practice. Zazen (meditation) is the central practice of Soto Zen and is said to contain everything else. (Preceptual daily living, ceremony, study of teachings etc. etc.) The other feature in this tradition is the emphasis on training and enlightenment not being separate.

The following is a translation of part of Shushogi by Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett.

* * * *

The comparison I see with Blake is from his Proverbs of Hell. One line only!

The most sublime act is to set another before you.

Okay – as I’m in a generous mood, here is a quatrain:

But vain the sword & vain the bow,

They never can work war’s overthrow.

The Hermit’s prayer & the widow’s tear

Alone can free the world from fear.

* * * *

Shushogi – From What is Truly Meant by Training and Enlightenment

Great Master Dogen.

The Four Wisdoms, charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, are the means we have of helping others and represent the Bodhisattva’s aspirations. Charity is the opposite of covetousness; we make offerings although we ourselves get nothing whatsoever. There is no need to be concerned about how small the gift may be so long as it brings True results for, even if it is only a single phrase or verse of teaching, it may be a seed to bring forth good fruit both now and hereafter.

Similarly, the offering of only one coin or a blade of grass can cause the arising of good, for the teaching itself is the True Treasure and the True Treasure is the very teaching: we must never desire any reward and we must always share everything we have with others. It is an act of charity to build a ferry or a bridge and all forms of industry are charity if they benefit others.

To behold all beings with the eye of compassion, and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. If one would understand tenderness, one must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children. By praising those who exhibit virtue, and feeling sorry for those who do not, our enemies become our friends and they who are our friends have their friendship strengthened: this is all through the power of tenderness. Whenever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed; if a kind word be spoken in his absence the impression will be a deep one: tenderness can have a revolutionary impact upon the mind of man.

If one creates wise ways of helping beings, whether they be in high places or lowly stations, one exhibits benevolence: no reward was sought by those who rescued the helpless tortoise and the sick sparrow, these acts being utterly benevolent. The stupid believe that they will lose something if they give help to others, but this is completely untrue for benevolence helps everyone, including oneself, being a law of the universe.

If one can identify oneself with that which is not oneself, one can understand the true meaning of sympathy: take, for example, the fact that the Buddha appeared in the human world in the form of a human being; sympathy does not distinguish between oneself and others. There are times when the self is infinite and times when this is true of others: sympathy is as the sea in that it never refuses water from whatsoever source it may come; all waters may gather and form only one sea.

Oh you seekers of enlightenment, meditate deeply upon these teachings and do not make light of them: give respect and reverence to their merit which brings blessing to all living things; help all beings to cross over to the other shore.

Job’s Dark Night

jobs-charity

The story of Job is at first read puzzling for Christians and open-minded atheists alike. Why would God punish a man who lived an unblemished life? As is usual with Blake, things are never as simple as on first sight!

Lets dismiss all ideas of an anthropormorphic God to start with. In any case such depictions of God in Blake are always used as symbols (and personifications) of the state of mind of the interior person, in other words they are psychological and spiritual. Blake did not believe in a transcendent God, (which he called, Nobodaddy)!

Before looking at number 5 plate ( there are 21 altogether in Blake’s Job) how about thinking about contingency in present day life. How about the person – you may be that person – who suddenly gets a diagnosis of cancer? What if your husband leaves you for a younger woman? What if your son gets addicted to heroin? What if you spend a lonely Christmas day because of mental illness? I am not being over-dramatic I hope; all these scenarios happen to millions of us! This is what the Buddha calls, Dukkha. It’s life!

So, looked at in these terms Job isn’t getting punished; he is being brought up sharp against the facts of life afer living what he thought was a ‘good’ Christian life. In fact complacency and self-righteousness is his main ‘sin.’

The flying figure in the middle of the picture is Satan or Job’s corporeal self – the self who thinks being a good husband and father is all there is to life. Forget about your childhood exposure to horned devils – in Blake’s system Satan is (among other things) any thought or feeling which sparates you from  ‘Heaven’ – or in more worldly terms – peace of mind. Remember those moments in childhood when all was well with the world – don’t dismiss those moments as childish, they were a taste of reality. As Joseph Wicksteed writes in his commentary on Job, ‘. . in Blake’s system falsity of thought can turn any act however noble to his (satan’s) ends. If we think wrong we are wrong, for Mental things are alone real, and the devil can make a virtue as damning as a vice.’ How like the Buddhist system of the Eightfold path where right thought precedes appropriate action or the Dammapada where in the beginning it says; ‘ What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday. . . our life is the creation of our mind.’

In the picture Job is giving a loaf of bread to a beggar. Very altruistic you may think. But Blake is showing us that outward acts carried out self-righteously are missing the mark. None of Blake’s system is straightforward; especially in the Book of Job he is going way beyond our humanistic, materialistic understanding. All I can do here by isolating this one picture (which in itself is a disservice to Blake!) is to point to his profundity and suggest that his system is relevant to today.

The belief that in performing works of mercy in any shape whatever we are doing something meritorious poisons every act of humanity, making it a subtly selfish  attempt to save our souls in the name of love and religion; it is, after all, the worship of Satan in the belief that it is a tribute to God. Job’s thought makes him divide his meal indeed but not something of greater worth. ” (Joseph Wicksteed.)

Harsh words indeed and probably not what most people want to hear at Christmas time! And what of the gift ‘of greater worth’? Well you will have to study the Book of Job yourself (the peak experience is plate 18) if you want to find out!

Plate 5 is early on in Job’s story. To summarise what happens, he is inflicted with boils, loses his sons and daughters, his house and his reputation. Apart from the boils, does this remind you of anyone? It is a case of pride before the fall; Job loses all his material wealth and therefore has to ask, why? and ‘what is real?’ Rather like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich he looks back on his life and reviews it. He has to face his ‘dark night’ and salvage something of a different order to his previous material existence.

In plate 11 Job is completely alone; this is surely the bleakest point of his Dark Night of the Soul. It is a magnificent image and as Kathleen Raine says in Golgonooza – City of Imagination, ‘he is alone; as we are each alone in the darkest hour.’ Remember Satan is the self-centred ego and if we allow it dominance over our lives we will eventually end up ‘burned up’ and alone. Apparently Blake used to address his satan (remember; not the biblical devil!) as, ‘my Satan, thou art but a dunce!’ How like the advice we are given nowadays not to believe our inner self-talk.

All of Blake’s work can be applied to our self-inquiry and self-knowledge in this manner.

As I have already said, to see how Job is transformed you will have to investigate (I use the word deliberately) the Book of Job yourself. I have not said much about the incredible quality of the drawings in themselves; they are masterpieces of composition. Who can forget, once seen, the image of Behemoth and Leviathan – illustration 15?

The best way into Blake’s supremely relevant and visionary Book of Job is with the detailed dissection by Joseph Wicksteed in his Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Also Kathleen Raine’s book has a chapter which is brilliant.

A Material World

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 26 x 25cm, Richard Hamilton, 1956, Tubingen.

richard-hamilton

This very small collage ostensibly showing a muscle-bound man and a pin-up girl with sequinned breasts is usually thought of as representative of Pop Art but it also bears some influence of Dada with its photo-montage. It was exhibited in 1956, in an exhibition in London called, This is Tomorrow.

British artist, Hamilton selected images from magazines which represented different aspects of modernity – tape recorder, vacuum cleaner, television, cinema, pornography and so on. Many art commentators think that the artist was approving of consumerism but surely he was being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, especially with the title? Be that as it may we can certainly consider it in an ironic light; what can it tell us about the values and drawbacks of consumerism? First of all, let’s take as given the many advantages of living in a consumer society compared with living in, say, 1800.

Let’s start with the collage, then, and investigate what is actually there. Firstly, are there any signs of actual human beings anywhere? I hope you’ve answered in the negative! Both simulacrums of humans are commodities – the man from a men’s health magazine and the woman from a girlie magazine. Is that a lamp shade she’s wearing? If so, more evidence of Hamilton’s humour and irony. I’ve also read that the two figures could represent a modern Adam and Eve surrounded by modern temptations!

Oops, sorry, there is a woman using a vacuum cleaner at the top of the stairs. But, wait; isn’t she a role-figure, a stereotype, a housewife, and therefore not a living flesh and blood human. Perhaps she is an android like the housewives in The Stepford Wives? You see how Hamilton’s world is slipping remorselessly into unreality? What else can we see? There is a tin of ham on a coffee table. The single item which isn’t manufactured is a plant behind the pin-up figure. Everything else comes from a factory assembly line whether it is made from wood, leather, nylon or plastic.

So much has been written about the ills of consumerism that it is difficult to know what else to say. Perhaps I should take a hint from Hamilton’s collage and collage a few random, but relevant, ideas together.

  • Recently a children’s publisher excised these words (among others) from a dictionary: acorn, swallow (as in the bird), snowdrop and substituted words such as I-Pad and emoticon

  • There are hundreds of people sleeping rough in big cities world wide every night

  • People walking on their own in the countryside today are often regarded with suspicion

  • Many people are so cut off from the natural environment that they have no idea of basic astrophysical facts such as what causes the length of the day, month or year! (See Richard Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth)

  • At least17% of forests has been destroyed in the Amazon in the last 50 years. Does the meat from cattle grazed on the newly created ranches end up on our supermarket shelves?

  • 15 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted in the UK every year (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs)

  • Between 1970 -2014 breeding birds on farmland in the UK declined by 50% (RSPB)

  • What about those indigenous people who are uprooted from their native settlements and end up in reserves as addicts or alcoholics, all because of the greed of multinationals?

  • Viruses are mutating to resist antibiotics……

Shall I go on? I haven’t even mentioned climate change!

Some of these collage items are obviously symptoms of something going radically wrong but I’d like to consider chiefly how our consciousness may have changed for the worse, mainly due to consumerism.

It is often said that consumerism has lead to a commodification of life. We are so used to paying for goods that we take the ‘transaction model’ unconsciously into areas such as personal relationships. We see everything in terms of how much satisfaction can be obtained, rather like in Mick Jagger’s song, although he actually is giving it a negative spin so his is more akin to the Buddhist view. It is as if consumerism has put the finishing touches to our view of ourselves as separate egocentric beings facing the world to see what we can get to our advantage. No wonder alienation is the defining characteristic of modernity.

It is important to realise that the problem here is not merely with the accumulation of material goods; it is also to do with psychological ‘goods’ – my status, my success, my relationships, my career. Investment in such concerns takes up an extraordinary amount of time and effort and they are perhaps more difficult to let go of than to let go of material goods. I am not suggesting that we all become hermits, only that we can shift our reasons for being alive from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘what is good to do in these particular circumstances?’ And ‘am I ceasing from causing harm in my speech, thought and actions?’ The bottom line, according to Buddhism, is that egocentric craving is the cause of our mental dis-ease. The opposite of craving is ‘aversion’ – a hatred of something; wanting things to be different to how they are. If we can change something for the better, all well and good. But often, things have endless multiple causes so we are better accepting that we cannot influence those situations very much, if at all.

Buddhism’s idea of anatta can be translated as no-self. We believe there is no such thing as a self or soul which is unchanging. This conclusion is corroborated by some neurological and psychological experiments. In Bruce Hood’s very readable The Self Illusion, after he has spent over a hundred pages describing such experiments he writes:

These studies reveal that the vast body of evidence undermines the notion of a core self, but rather supports the self illusion. If we are so susceptible to group pressure, subtle priming cues, stereotyping and culturally cuing, then the notion of a true, unyielding ego self cannot be sustained.

Needless to say, most of us rebel in the face of such conclusions. We like to think we are very much an individual with strong character thank you very much!

Hood goes on to describe an extraordinary case from the tragedy of 9/11. Tania Head had been on the 78th floor of the South Tower when flight 175 slammed into the building. She was badly burned by aviation fuel but managed to crawl to the stairs and climb down. She even encountered a dying man who managed to give her his wedding ring. She was eventually rescued by a fireman who himself lost his life by returning to the burning tower. Tania’s fiancé was in the other tower and she later learned he had died. Like other survivors Tania felt afterwards she needed to do something to deal with her own emotional turmoil and that of others. In spite of being disfigured she set up a survivor’s group and championed the group’s right to visit Ground Zero. She became a figurehead and a symbol of the human spirit . . . the only problem was that she had never been in the Tower. It was all a lie!

What has this to do with consumerism? Poor Tania Head felt so alienated from society that she had to create herself like Walter Mitty. We all have our life-narratives but if the evidence in Hood’s book is anything to go by even they are pure fiction! I would suggest that our consumer society has exacerbated this need to create and promote our fictional stories, perhaps because we feel so much adrift compared to ages where religious faith provided meaning. And I’m convinced that we have lost a connection with the rest of nature by abandoning rural life and moving into cities. That was the warning of the Romantics and there are many strands to it, even now some of the consequences of urbanisation are unrecognised and need to be investigated further.

However there is a ‘positive’ side to the doctrine of anatta or no-self. If our selves are ‘self-invented’ and we can be self-aware, we should be able to allow for our conditioning and prejudices and hence be more peaceable and non-confrontational. Also, this view does not go against having distinct personalities. We are not saying that Jones doesn’t have an earthy sense of humour, that Smith isn’t quick-witted! We can still contribute to the common good through our personalities. But we no longer have to feel threatened by others or indulge in one-upmanship. And perhaps, we may even begin to put Gandhi’s statement into action: there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.