Reporting back from Cheltenham 2018

The Cheltenham Literature Festival that is – they also have music and jazz and science festivals!

It is wet, thoroughly so, and there is a wedding in the village, and the mist is down, a still presence yet the wind blows the leaves in the ash tree, and the lawn, emptied of leaves when we mowed it close yesterday, is now covered again. We have a talk at the literature festival, Neil MacGregor, late of the National Gallery and British Museum…

We parked nearby, and scurried to the food tent, where we drank coffees without any form of literary aid, not even a newspaper. Though The Times sponsors. Where were they? Then another scurry, across the gardens to the Town Hall …

MacGregor subject in his recent radio programmes and new book is on sacred objects, and their place in society. They focus the connection between religion and community, whether it’s the Lion Man, carved from mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave near Ulm, dating back 40,000 years …  or a 19th century model from Siberia (a Siberian people under threat from Tsarist expansion putting down a marker) of a celebration of the solstice, also made from mammoth ivory, this time recovered from the melting permafrost… or Our Lady of Kazan, the protectress of the old Russia, and the new, with a photo of Putin and his torso bathing beneath the icon. (Not the original but a 16th century copy, but that hardly matters – and even the copy has a remarkable story.)

The icon supports power, and the state, whereas the Virgin of Guadeloupe marks a vision of a local peasant boy of the Virgin, which a reluctant church accepted as genuine, and it then became the symbol of all Mexicans, of the Mexican people. MacGregor also highlighted the statue given decades ago by America to France representing the flame of the Statue of Liberty, but given its situation above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died, now a shrine to Diana, who has become a modern protectress for many.

What I wondered is how a resurgent China fits into this picture. China has its own symbols, establishing continuities with the past just as the Cultural Revolution tried to remove them. This is the all-powerful State overriding the local and the individual – co-opting the individual. Will we, can we, ever re-establish our connection with the sacred? Will state symbols come to dominate? Or the symbols of mass culture? Will they be the limits of the sacred?

To the festival the following afternoon, for a debate on the financial crash and its continuing legacy, with Alastair Darling, Kamal Ahmed and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England. A high-quality discussion, with the hard experience of the first two providing insights – for example, the instant support from the USA when asked by Darling to keep the support going for RBS after the markets closed in the UK – would that kind of cooperation happen now? As for the banks, punishment has been meted out on a much bigger state in the USA, but accountability has hardly changed. And as for future issues – fintech, automation, AI – they didn’t really come to grips with any of this. But they only had an hour…

Back home, and hour or two’s respite, supper, then into Cheltenham again for a Leonard Cohen evening, with a conversation between three Cohen devotees, a rock musician, a music journalist, and a wonderful white-haired 70-year-old Canadian, Ted Goossen whose main job is translating from the Japanese (the new Murakami novel also features at the festival, and he’s translated) but he’s been singing Cohen songs in clubs since he was 16 – which suggest 1964 or 1965, beating me by a year or so.

Suzanne remains the first love of many. Chelsea Hotel was the journalist’s favourite – she focused on the word ‘that’ when Cohen says in the last line he doesn’t think of her (‘her’ being Janis Joplin) ‘that often’. Cohen returned to meditation seriously in his last years: Goossen spoke movingly about this side of Cohen, and the Zen connection. Likewise mention of Cohen’s love of Lorca, and duende, that mood of celebration and dance and melancholy that is so much part of Andalucia.

The second half of the evening had a big amateur orchestra and singers, The Fantasy Orchestra, combining in crazy yet wonderfully musical fashion to play and sing a variety of songs, memorably a big and bubbling lady in a cotton ‘William Morris’ dress who belted out So long Marianne, and had us singing along with the chorus… ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’- the message hit home. ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything,’ words that have cheered me through the recent dark times. They ended with Hallelujah – what I hadn’t realised is how long Cohen had laboured over the lyric – some eighty versions.

We all sang the chorus … not quite the usual Cheltenham event!

 

Buddhism and politics – never the twain shall meet?

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ (Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads.)

I don’t claim to be a practising Buddhist. But there is no better way in my experience of understanding the world. That’s why I began this blog. To explore how Buddhism, and Zen especially, might connect with the ordinary world.

Unhappiness, dissatisfaction – in the world and with the world – dukkha – are the Buddhist’s starting-point.

‘Unhappiness arises because there is resistance and rejection … Rejection and resistance are part of anger because nothing will ever be exactly as we wish. If we are still looking for satisfaction in worldly matters, we haven’t seen Dhamma [the Buddhist truth] yet.’ (Ayya Khema)

So do we put worldly affairs behind us? If we’re following a path to enlightenment then, it seems, we must. And yet of course, we can’t. Monks cut their bonds with home, they move as far from obstacles as they can. This requires discipline and sacrifice. For a higher reward.

But the ordinary outside world will and must go on as before.

The Venerable Myokyo’s comments on Zen Master Daie help. (Zen Traces, September 2018.) Master Daie highlights the contrast between ‘gentlemen of affairs’ and ‘home leavers’ (meaning monks of course).

A gentleman of affairs – a nobleman back in Tang dynasty China. ‘Affairs’ – the daily grind, affairs as we understand them?  No, ‘this affair, this great affair of birth and death.’

What if we substitute ‘men and women going about their ordinary daily affairs’ for ‘gentlemen of affairs’. Bring ‘this great affair of birth and death’ down to earth.

If we are mindful in our daily affairs there is always something blocking our path – something we want and can’t have, something that simply isn’t right, something beautiful but beyond our reach, something ugly and too close to home. (I’m paraphrasing the Venerable Myokyo.)

For men and women in their daily affairs, as for the gentlemen of affairs, there is one route to follow. Faced with all the wants, likes, dislikes, loathings that block the path – ‘just sit down in meditation: not to get rid of them, but to look at them. To look at them clearly and recognise them. In that recognition they lose their power.’

We don’t all sit down to meditate.  But if we step back (meditation in its simplest form) and look at all our likes and loathings, and see them for what they are – our own projections on to the world, and not of the world itself – then they will lose their power.

Their emotive power. But we do not lose, surely, our power to distinguish between right and wrong. If we are political in that sense we can’t put our compassion behind us. We want to ensure that a world in which everyone may follow their own path, free from hindrance, and follow a path to enlightenment if they wish, will always be there.

There can be no guarantees that will be the case.

Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.

 

 

Never moving from a small patch of land…

Ten days of silence, no communication, ten days to meditate, and inbetween times to think a little.

The site must once have been a small farm, and on its eastern edge there’s a delightful patch of mixed woodland, and over the ten days I watched the leaf canopy reduce, and the leaf cover and mulch underfoot increase. The wind caught the birches rising above the canopy, and the sycamores and the beeches still held their colour. One morning the first rays of sun poured into the woodland from across the valley below the wood, and the beeches glowed, and a redbreast hopped in alongside me as I stood, motionless for ten minutes, watching, and there was a brilliant moment of colour when it turned to face the sun.

All the while the moon was waxing, from a crescent to full (the moon closer and therefore larger than at any time since 1947 I learnt afterwards) and I could just catch sight of Venus above the horizon as an evening star. Bed at 9pm. We were up at 4am, and Orion, Sirius and all the winter stars were brilliant, a crust and crunch of frost underfoot. Meditate for two hours, then breakfast at 6.30, and if the morning was bright back again to the woods.

A clearing gave big views of the sky, and vapour trails snaked across, the silver of the planes just visible as they began their descents to Heathrow and maybe Birmingham. To the west, a line of low hills, all meadow, green, a patch of woodland or two, and beyond I knew more open fields and the Black Mountains. And silence. I couldn’t even hear church bells. That puzzled me. Where were the villages? Curiously leaving on the Sunday I drove past Llanwarne, not more than a mile or two away, and the hollow shell of its parish church. (Abandoned in the 1860s because of constant flooding.) No bells ringing there.

My paths never varied over the ten days, and I picked up on all the nuances of the weather. No forecasts of course. But the wind backing south-easterly I knew probably meant rain would come the following days, even if the sky was blue and the sun brilliant at that moment. And the rain came. I felt like the farmers of old must have done, knowing what wind and wisps of cloud might presage for my small patch of land.

Meditations and musings, quiet perambulations, mealtimes where we observed noble silence – silence of body, speech and mind. So maybe I allowed myself too much licence with my musings. But watching weather and landscape I was, I think we all were, in the moment, and while the meditation could be hard, and the hours strict, my thoughts were gentle, and my burden was light….

Back to the world after ten days of silence 

I posted the message below on Facebook last Sunday. I wanted to put my feelings down while they were raw. Time inevitably anaesthetises, and I didn’t want to lose the impact of those morning hours. 

I’ve been out of all communication on a silent retreat in Herefordshire for ten days. (Why – another story and not for now!) I knew I’d be missing the American election but I had confidence. This morning a message from my daughter, Rozi, apologising for all the dreadful things that had happened in the world in my absence from it, concerned I might want to head back to my retreat and never come out again. That’s when I realised, 7.30 Sunday morning, that Trump had won.

Returning to the world after so long and so quiet away is emotional anyway. The Herefordshire countryside, the Black Mountains a high ridge out to the west, and the mist still lying in frosty fields, music on the radio… I was coping, just.

Back in Cranham – I learnt that Leonard Cohen has died. And that finally did bring out the tears.

I first sang Suzanne in a folk club in Oxford maybe fifty years ago, and I sang it again at an open mic evening just two week ago in Cranham. A few weeks before I’d sung That’s no way to say goodbye … And there was that wonderful radio programme recently about Marianne, and how they were in touch again shortly before she died.

‘It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,’ in Cohen’s own words.

I and my generation have lost a hero. And there are new villains to fight. But there’s a new generation taking up the good fight and, thank God, my own children are out there among them.

Time to chill out?

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Herefordshire for ten days’ vipassana (insight) meditation. Up in the very small hours and no contact with the outside world, and silent throughout. I will put all politics behind me. I will have no way of knowing the American election result until five days after the result is announced. Much as the result concerns me I will be better for it. Clinton or Trump, the world will take what direction it will. Likewise Brexit. I in my small corner will re-engage when the time comes, just to be part of the process.

But continue with my blog? Time to let the world loose, spare the world – and myself – my take on it? Who listens, who reads? All along, over seven years, I’ve tried to put over my own considered view. To understand the world from a (sort of!) Zen perspective, but at the same time to engage.

Some of us may choose to stand apart, others to engage. Both are equally valid. As I put it when I stared this blog seven years ago I wanted to [take] the trash and the hyperbole out of politics and [try] to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are. Can be very hard to find these days. Zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future….

The downside? Blogs take over. You organise your moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour thinking in terms of how it might appear in a blog. It’s harder to skim, to browse, to just absorb what you read or hear.

Worse, blogs and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows. There’s a randomness, an complete unexectedness, something of the suck-it-and-see about poetry. You’ve a starting-point and a sense of direction. And no idea of an ending

With a blog it’s all about argument and conclusion. Though occasionally, as in my last All Hallows post, a little bit of creativity creeps in.

So will I return to this blog when I’m back from my time-out?

There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me. To walk and run and sing and play my guitar; to meditate and dream, to create; to give practical help to a charity, a church, even a political party. To go with the flow of the world, rather than try and arrest it – try and put it down in print and words.

We shall see. Maybe I’ll start Zentravel blog, and the Tao, the Camino, the way, will be my inspiration. Maybe Zenpolitics will become occasional, and less politicised. More chilled.

Do come back and take a look sometime

 

 

 

 

Rights, compassion and all that serious stuff

Our concepts of justice and social justice are closely tied to our ideas about the rights we enjoy as human beings. Rights easily taken for granted, and all too easily abused.

That takes us to another question, one that’s long concerned me – what lies behind the rights we enjoy? An external authority? Or something beyond that – are the rights we enjoy innate in who we are?

If this sounds heavy duty, please do bear with me. It gets to the core of why I set up the zenpolitics blog: how we can relate compassion, and the practice of compassion, to our everyday lives, and beyond that, to political life.

Negative rights assume self-interest is paramount: we respect the rights of others to pursue their interest to the extent that they respect our rights to do the same. Our loyalties are tied to family and community and to country: emotions attach to those loyalties, but they link back to our own selfish interest.

Positive rights assume a wider concept of interest, where the interests of self and others are ultimately the same, based on a natural justice common to all. From this derives everything from the right to vote and to an education, to the rights of the child, as in the UN Charter, and indeed to natural justice, where justice, and the legal system that enacts it, is common to all.

A natural justice common to all? Based on what? It can’t simply be a convenient construct, or rely on a hypothetical contract between citizens, which can be interpreted many different ways and swing as mood and opinion swings, or government or media interests dictate. (Though for many a construct or contract is as far as they’re prepared to go, following a trail blazed by Thomas Hobbes.) It must rely on something that goes deeper.

Religions avow an external authority, but I’m not sure we need religion as such. When we put ourselves beyond the addictive emotions, beyond anger, fear, desire, pride – beyond the attachments which cloud our judgement in everyday life, we find in the silence – a silence of mind – that compassion and fellow-feeling come entirely naturally. Compassion isn’t an emotion but a state of mind.

In Buddhist terms, your ‘original face’, in Christian terms, we’re back before the Fall, for the humanist we’re simply in touch with human nature. In the debate whether mankind is intrinsically evil or good I come down firmly on the side of good.

Silence – we have to find silence. Not a few moments walking to the station, or even walking the hills. Silence is silencing all the voices and emotions that take over our lives without our realising it. That’s where we go beyond our selfish selves, and find something else. Where the feelings of others are as important as our own.

The ‘others’ are not just our family, our peer group, community, country – they are by definition (compassion isn’t partial) all mankind.

We fall short all the time of course, sometimes a million miles short. But silence is our reference point.