This month marks the fortieth anniversary of my first proper contact with organised Buddhism on a weekend retreat. Also approaching is the ten-year mark of my formal departure from aforementioned organised Buddhism.
In recent months I have been writing, off blog, about the period of my life prior to my engagement with organised Buddhism. This time, involving full-on commune living, 60-hour working weeks sorting and delivering mail in Oxford, free festivals and psychedelics, is one that I hold with great fondness in my mind. I had felt the urge to write about it for some while, but had demurred, as thoughts about hanging on to the past, wasting your short precious human life on things that have been and gone, made rapid orbits around my mind. Then, one day, I decided to drop all this theoretical objection stuff, and just do it. Write, and see what happens, rather than indulging that old bad habit of over-thinking, attempting to chart the voyage and understand the further shore before you've set sail.
One thing to come out of this: despite the confusion and the hard times, the psychedelic commune period in my life is one that I recall vividly, and with a high degree of personal affection and satisfaction. It is the Buddhist full immersion project that manifests as more problematic. Considerable periods of it are little more than a fug and a fog. This is all, on the face of it, a bit strange.
I intend to write a number of pieces based around this theme of immersion in organised Buddhism ('organised Buddhism' seems to be the phrase that I have settled for; why may become clearer in due course), partly for personal benefit, and partly because it throws up issues of more general concern regarding how to live a spiritual or creative or authentic or mystical or whatever life. Personally, I know that there are lessons for my soul to learn - and to me it's important that those lessons are learnt.
The personal Buddhist period divides neatly into three sections of roughly similar length, a little under a decade each. Phase One: full-on immersion, characterised by enthusiasm overall. Phase Two; serious questions come to the fore, and inspiration is increasingly sought elsewhere; Phase Three; steady withdrawal, to the point of official resignation.
The process of leaving was gentle, slow, almost unnoticeable. Involving, as it did, a remoulding of my conscious identity - who am I? - it had to be treated with utmost seriousness. I succeeded in leaving the Buddhist Order fairly free from those feelings of bitterness, anger, and rancour, that sometimes characterise such a change. The majority of my friends with whom I can share openness are from my Buddhist days, though some have, like me, renounced that Buddhist organisation, while others again are still there having come to their own arrangement of how to survive within that particular context.
A good way to begin this investigation might be with an inventory. I came across the notion of the inventory in relation to some of Carlos Castaneda's work. In 'Journey to Ixtlan', Don Juan advises Carlos, the eternal fall guy, to 'erase personal history'. This is a topic that I have returned to over the decades many times. What does it mean? And how do you do it? It is not, if I understand properly, a question of literally forgetting everything that ever happened in your life. But it is a matter of personal detachment, if you will; of freeing oneself from the emotional and energetic traces, blocks, left by what you have done in the past. Removing the sense of 'personal' from the equation. Disentangle, de-identify. Do this and energy flows freely.
Castaneda offers no techniques as such, but a number of his followers do. You engage in the recapitulation; you recapitulate your life. Every little bit of it. In order to do this, you first draw up an inventory of your life. Different folk provide variations on the precise details of how to achieve this - but the central idea is to write down all the people you have ever known, and all the events that you recall happening with them. Then, following a specific technique, you recapitulate the lot, not just remembering but, with the aid of the particular practices, actually reliving and thereby becoming free from the tangles, the binds, the complexes constricting your energy.
I have not attempted the recapitulation. It is a gargantuan task, methinks. However, just holding the idea in your mind seems to have a certain effect. I shall, nevertheless, present a brief and partial inventory of 'my life in organised Buddhism'. The good bits and the bad bits. So here goes.....
There were several great boons from this period in my life. Firstly, organised Buddhism provided a safe haven, a supportive environment, at a time when I most needed it. It was 1976, and I hit the beginning of that year inspired and confused in equal measure. The spiritual life was calling loud but not so clear. The commune project I had been involved in was falling apart, and so was I. Following a couple of years of LSD-assisted epiphanies, I felt I needed to steer a steadier course, as more psychedelic multidimensional experiences only served to create more chaos.
There were two great things about Buddhism. In brutal contrast to the belief and ideology-based style of orthodox Christianity, Buddhism adopted an eye-opening suck-it-and-see approach. There was no need to believe in all sorts of random unverifiable stuff; just try it out and see what happens. What a relief! And what happened was that meditation worked. A practical tool, it enabled consciousness transformation. Brilliant. I knew this, not because it said so in any silly book, but because I experienced it directly.
The other longed-for thing that Buddhism provided was apparent clarity. It had all sorts of things you could do, and all kind of maps intended to help you navigate through the muck and mire of conditioned existence. The Eightfold Path, the Threefold Way. The Four Noble truths, the Six Paramitas. It was like spiritual satnav. Sit back, follow the routemap, and bang, there you are, enlightened. It was Apollonian, a boon to this young aspirant who showed symptoms of Dionysian overkill. And nobody else - Hindus of different shapes and sizes, Taoists (you couldn't find them anyway), psycho-this or psycho-that people - had anything to match Buddhism's user-friendly maps and manuals. Just what was needed.
The second great personal boon concerned friendship. Unlike many other Buddhist groups and organisations, the one I was part of was big on friendship. It was viewed as focal to spiritual life. It's funny really. There is a multitude of fellow Buddhists who I worked and lived with over the years. Despite our being apparently kindred spirits, having committed our lives to the same goals, and despite living together, working together, meditating every day together, breathing the same air together. Despite all this, in the majority of cases, once the living or working stopped, it was as if it had all never really happened. We were almost like strangers. In a handful of instances, however, this proved not to be the case, and we have remained excellent friends. The majority of people with whom I can speak openly are acquaintances from my days in Buddhism, though some have, like me, departed the organised Buddhist thing. It has been revealing to observe how things have developed since I took myself off to the outer reaches of the known universe aka Highland Scotland, nearly eleven years ago. While a few of these old Buddhist-based friendships have become attenuated, others have remained, and a few have become stronger. I am exceedingly grateful for these friendships originating in my years as a fully-fledged Buddhist.
Curiously, - and this is the third boon - my days in organised Buddhism also provided a doorway into some of the best in classical western art and culture. 'We are the Buddha boys' was my own simplistic version of reality, wholeheartily rejecting anything ever conjured up west of Baghdad. The head of the Buddhist Order had other ideas, however, pointing to what he considered the best in the arts of the west as helpful in our quest for spiritual betterment. To begin with, I was having nothing to do with it. However, one morning, before setting off on the vans (I was doing a stint in a removals business we had going at the time) the boss of the business sat us all down to listen to the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven first. You could do that sort of thing those days. I recall the feeling as the melodies began to wash over me; calming and harmonising, not unlike a decent meditation. I also remember my introduction to paintings - self-started this time. I sneaked off one Sunday afternoon to the National Gallery in London to check out the Impressionists. Wandering around the rooms of late-nineteenth century art, I was stopped in my tracks by a painting of Van Gogh's. Entrancing, leading me into its imaginative world. I was soon hooked. After a while, art was providing more sustenance than anything traditional Buddhism could throw at me.
The head of the Order had his own rather proscriptive ideas about 'the arts'. He would be able to tell you at great length why Handel was better and more spiritual than Mozart and Beethoven; and why poetry was the real bees knees, above and beyond the other art forms. Nevertheless, I appreciate his encouragement of enthusiasm for western art, which is a mixed bag, but has served to enrich my life overall.
The last of the Buddhist boons I care to mention is meditation practice. This is not an unqualified thumbs-up. I don't think I had fantastic guidance on this, and I spent long hours on the meditation cushion not making the best use of that time as a result. Nevertheless, I felt - and still feel - pretty much at home with meditation practice. This was particularly so with the Buddha/Bodhisattva visualisation 'sadhana', as it is called, that I received on my official ordination (not as a monk-type person, in case you were wondering/alarmed). This frequently served as a lifeline, a thread, albeit sometimes tenuous, connecting me with the reason I was there in the first place. For this I was mightily grateful.
These are my Buddhist boons. For these I give thanks. That, I feel, is enough for one article. The non-boons will appear shortly......