|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1999|
A First View of Buddhism
I rise at 4 a.m. and walk under a fading moon towards the communal hall. The world is still and cold. I slip my shoes off in the entrance, go inside, then sit and wait.
People come in: I can just make out their shapes in the darkness. By about 5 o'clock I know that there must be thirty people around me but there is no noise, no movement. Somebody lights a candle, and that's all. I am inside myself, yet there is the comfort of being in a crowd.
The voices start to chant. It is a deep monotone that sets up sympathetic vibrations in my chest. I don't know what they are chanting but I like the sound. When it stops, I also like the silence.
I am in a Buddhist monastery; one of the twenty or so that accept visitors in Britain. You can live there for a while or stay for a weekend or just drive over for an hour's lesson in meditation. There is nothing to pay: you give what you feel like.
"I worked in a town centre," says Richard, a security guard, "but the noise got on top of me. So I've come here for a time. Living on my savings and, when I get my act straight, I'll go back and get a security guard job again."
But there are Christian retreats: why not go to one of those?
"Because I don't believe in God", says Richard.
I realise that the getting up before dawn, the listening to chants, the meditation, the very philosophy of buddhism itself...are no more than tools to help me sort myself out.
Neither did the Buddha. Two thousand five hundred years ago, maybe in a close parallel with our royal family, he gave up his role as a prince to find some purpose in life. Then, at the age of eighty, he died -- as we all do. No rising from the dead, no flying up to heaven: he just died, an ordinary man, and an extraordinary one.
He was probably the only religious leader who neither claimed to be a god nor said that he was a mouthpiece of God. He certainly was the only priest who told his followers not to believe a word he said. You shouldn't believe something just because there are years of tradition behind it, nor should you blindly believe everything that you read in print.
So why visit a retreat?
Says architect, Marion: "I don't intend to become a Buddhist. I'm here this weekend because it's ..." and she seems to put capital letters on the words "a Good Place To Be."
"It is to make some sense of our lives. There are things in life that we want and don't get, and things that we get and don't want," says Tom, a pharmacist - Then he shakes his head to deny that this is what he really means, and re-phrases it with a very Buddhist expression - "We are here because we choose to be here."
And I realise that the getting up before dawn, the listening to chants, the meditation, the very philosophy of buddhism itself...are no more than tools to help me sort myself out.
For instance, there is only one meal, at 10:30 in the morning, and it's eaten in silence. At first, this is disconcerting. Then I realise there is no demand to make smart, over-the-table conversation: no need to play a charming host. So I relax. After the meal, I can work if I like, and, as I emulsion paint a wall-it's not my wall, there's no deadline to finish it. So I relax still more. There is meditation in brushstrokes.
Before meditation classes, it helps if you have done yoga. Because as soon as you sit cross-legged and compose yourself, your nose starts to itch. So you need a technique to focus your mind briefly on the itch, then...and this may sound daft to anyone who hasn't tried...to breathe it away. You find after a quarter of an hour, you are also having to breathe on agonised ankle joints!
After the session, people ask questions that range from the magnificent. "What is the meaning of Self?" to the jokey, "Why do I keep getting a tune on my brain?" As the questions go on, you begin to think that, maybe, there are no answers.
The aim of meditation, say the monks, is to get beyond thought. You can't think your way out of a persistent problem: you just have to empty your mind and set the problem free. Then it will no longer nag you.
And as I walk and meditate, a great well of tears bursts inside me. Yet I am able to think: This is sorrow. I am not being harmed; there's no pain. If self-awareness brings happiness, maybe it can also bring sorrow. And I've met that before. So I cry and, when the tears stop, wipe my eyes and carry on walking. No bother.
About the monastery there is such a silence that I am reluctant to destroy it. As I talk, I listen to the silence in between my own words. And when it comes to the end of a sentence, I hang on to that silence for a minute before breaking it with sentence two. And my listeners smile because they too know what I am feeling.
"In my family, nobody listens." says P.E. teacher Jo, "I'll be talking to somebody but all they are doing, is waiting for a gap so they can jump in with their opinions. It is not talking: it is two monologues running simultaneously".
"You have to be nice to yourself," say the monks. "Don't keep blaming yourself for things going wrong."
"That's the opposite to Western ideas," says 80-year-old Muriel, "we are not supposed to praise ourselves. We are brought up to feel guilty."
"Why run yourself down?" comes the reply, "The earth itself isn't a perfect circle; it doesn't keep perfect time going round the sun. We have atomic clocks that are more accurate than Time. So why should you worry about not being perfect?"
So I recharge my batteries with a weekend of silence. I say goodbye to the monks and they predict: "This won't be enough for you. We don't run a crash course in self-awareness."
I get into my car and find all the traffic on the main road going too fast. Then halfway home the car has a breakdown, which is annoying.
Well...I think...there's no way I can repair a wheel bearing. But I can handle annoyance.
I am beginning to think like a buddhist.