Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Chapter 8 - "The Way to Nowhere". In case you have not read the introduction and preceding chapters please click on "November" in the archives.

Chapter 8

You cannot destroy your illusions by creating other illusions in their place

                                                                            Siddhartha Buddha

Zen and a Roshi with Relish

After moving to Cornwall I started practising Zen meditation with a zen teacher who was a lay Buddhist monk – Bill Pickard.  He belonged to the Soto Zen sect and was associated with the Roshi Jiyu Kennett, who was the first English woman to become a Zen roshi. She had made her way to Japan where she found a Buddhist monastery and where the abbot accepted her as a novitiate, but she was given menial tasks such as cleaning the toilets and sweeping the yard. As the only woman there and also as a foreigner she suffered many privations but was determined to study and meditate in order to achieve her goal of bringing Zen Buddhism to the West. Her abbot helped her along her path and she was given the transmission and became a Zen Master.

There is a story about her dinner with Christmas Humphreys and a group of Buddhists from the London Buddhist Society. The members ordered vegetarian meals but she ordered chicken and chips. They were aghast and asked her why? “Buddhists don't eat meat”, they said. “When I eat I eat with relish!” said Miss Kennett and she devoured the chicken. She went on to found the monastery of Mount Shasta in California. Later she published her book, “Selling Water by the River”.

Our meditation group met in an attic room in a building in Penzance with seagulls wheeling and catawauling overhead creating what one would regard as a less than conducive atmosphere, but Zen teaches the acceptance and awareness of what is, without Mind getting in the way but purely reflecting its surroundings and concentration only on the breathing, a natural and involuntary process. I spent three years with Bill and the meditation group he had formed in Cornwall along with Daiji, a British Buddhist monk who had founded the Throssel Hole Buddhist retreat near Hexham in Northumberland.

Another centre which had been established in 1967 was Samye Ling, a former hunting lodge called Johnstone House, a Tibetan Buddhist centre managed by Akong Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa, both Tibetan lamas of the Karmapa (red hat) tradition.  They were shortly joined by the thangka master-artist Sheran Palden Beru and the monk Samten. 'Samye' refers to the first Buddhist monastic university in Tibet while 'ling' means 'Place'. Trungpa had written two books: “Meditation in Action” and “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”.

In the latter book he describes how those who seek and follow a particular spiritual path, for example the path of the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho), Sai Baba, the Hari Krishna movement, Transcendental Meditation  and others are often taken up with the idea of spirituality, or a devotional approach, without getting to the heart of the matter. There are few “gurus” who have the ability to guide the seeker to the realisation of his truth. Ramana Maharshi is one of them. Another is a protegee of Krishnmurti, Vimala Thakar. In 1969 the musicians David Bowie and Leonard Cohen stayed at Samye Ling and later Chogyam Trungpa left and went to America.

After I had been meditating with Bill Pickard for three years Roshi Kennett paid a visit to Cornwall and together with others I took the Precepts and received the transmission. I also began attending meetings of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order which had been founded by an English Buddhist teacher named Sangharakshita. This was based on the Tibetan tradition known as Vajrayana and involved chanting and the Puja ceremony.

Soon afterwards I sold the farmhouse in Cornwall and bought an apartment in a mediaeval building dating from 1535 in Fore Street, Totnes. I had moved into a historic and legendary place where one can find the Brutus stone commemorating the legendary founding of the settlement by Brutus, almost 2,000 years before. Totnes had gained a reputation as a centre for alternative living with many young people taking up residence who had an interest in healthy living, yoga and meditation and spiritual philosophy. It had become a lively and vibrant town, with musicians performing in the streets on market day.

Overlooking the river Dart was Sharpham House where Talks and meditations were held for the growing number of young people interested in spiritual teachings and an alternative way of life. Nearby was Dartington Hall where films, art exhibitions and concerts took place and various crafts were on display. There I met Ustad Imrat Khan, an accomplished musician from India who played the surbaha, the big brother of the sitar. I appreciated Indian music and had bought my own sitar, and enjoyed my LP records of Ustad Bismillah Khan playing the shenai. Ravi Shankar came to Dartington and gave a concert there. Close to Dartington was a Rudolf Steiner School, where New Age parents sent their flower children to benefit from a wholesome child-centred type of education. Totnes was a stimulating place in which to reside with all these activities going on and the colourful Friday market was an opportunity to meet and mingle with the free-thinking people who had been drawn to this alternative haven for a variety of reasons. Without really knowing why, they were on the journey to themselves.

An Illustration of Attachment

Two monks were walking together and came to a river crossing. On the bank was a beautiful girl who wanted to cross the river but was too afraid to attempt it.  Without thinking, one of the monks gathered her up into his arms and waded across. He set her down and the monks continued their journey. As they were walking along the other monk questioned his companion, “Why did you carry that girl across the river. You know that we have taken vows not to touch a woman.” he said.
“I put that woman down an hour ago,” retorted the first monk, “but you are still carrying her!”

A Path to Awakening

When Bill Picard was a young man he was connected with the Men of the Trees, founded by Richard St Barbe-Baker, who had ideas of replanting the Sahara desert. Bill lived in West Cornwall and he became interested in attaining satori through meditation. He spent many months in isolation camping in a tent on the cliffs of West Penwith. One day he reached a state of extreme desperation – the “dark night of the soul” - and went down to the beach and swam out to sea determining never to return. But something made him turn around and strike out for the shore. He managed to reach land as it grew dark and, totally exhausted, he walked inland until he sank down and fell asleep. In the morning he woke up with the sun shining and was astonished to find himself in a beautiful Japanese garden, lying at the foot of a large stone Buddha. He had stumbled through a gap in the wall without realising it and later found that the garden had been created by a Colonel Paynter.

Bill and his partner Biddy opened a craft shop where they sold pottery which they produced at their home in Penwith. At this time a Zen monk in Japan won money in a lottery and had an unusual dream. He told his abbot that he had dreamed of a sign which depicted a mouse jumping out of a jug and he saw a peninsular of land. The abbot told the monk to use the money he had won to travel the world and find out the meaning of the symbols. The monk visited Europe and several peninsulas and eventually was about to give up the search and return to Japan.

He was in a travel agents' office in London and noticed a map on the wall which showed Cornwall, and as he examined it he made out the name of a village, Mousehole, which intrigued him. He just had enough money left to take a train to Penzance and found the village. As he walked around Mousehole he came to an alley and there was a sign, hanging outside a craft shop named Bill & Biddy's. The sign depicted a mouse jumping out of a jug. Bill was pleased to meet him and offered accommodation until the monk returned to Japan. They began a correspondence but Bill noticed that the letters were written in perfect English. He enquired the reason and a letter came back saying that Roshi Kennett was helping the monk with his English. This was the beginning of the introduction of Soto Zen to England and the establishment of the Zen retreat at Throssel Hole in Northumberland. The writings of D.T. Suzuki were also gaining readership.

Meditation is not an exercise in calming the mind. Neither is it a means of wafting off into a blissful state or to obtain some kind of benefit as a reward for the effort of sitting for long periods with aching limbs. In meditation we are not seeking for anything at all. Real meditation is to enter into a high state of alertness where the mind is no more than a mirror reflecting everything around but not allowing thoughts to interpret, to question or to judge, but to fall into quiescence through concentrating only on the breathing, an involuntary process. It is not an exercise in acquisition but one of negation, peeling away the layers of the onion, as it is said, until nothing remains. Many are fearful of attempting this method, afraid of the outcome when nothing is left of the self, meaning the illusory self of ego or psyche. However, these fears, which stem from the psyche, are groundless and there is no greater purpose in life than to take the path of awakening on the way to nowhere.

One of his students asked Buddha, "Are you the messiah?"
"No", answered Buddha.
"Then are you a healer?"
"No", Buddha replied.
"Then are you a teacher?" the student persisted.
"No, I am not a teacher."
"Then what are you?" asked the student, exasperated.
"I am awake", Buddha replied.

The nature of mind
does not differ from the tree
that stands before me


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