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Monday, 11 July 2016

New Order

Card number twenty in the Tarot is often titled 'Judgment'. Or 'Judgement'. Take your pick with the spelling, it would seem. The typical depiction, found in the classic Waite-Smith Tarot for example, shows an angel in the sky blowing a trumpet-like instrument, with people rising as if from the dead in salutation. The problem with the idea of 'judgement' is that it comes burdened with twisted notions from orthodox Christianity, of the good going up to heaven while the bad suffer eternal damnation. Resurrection and redemption are further problematic aspects to the narrow and literalistic view of 'judgement' offered up by Christianity, and ones which spread their pernicious influence over some Tarot decks.

In the Thoth Tarot, that pious Christian saint Aleister Crowley ditches the term 'judgement' in favour of 'Aeon'. Good move, I suggest. It is a new age, a moment of change, of transformation, of ushering in the new. The deeper meaning of the twentieth card in the Tarot is expressed more properly in the image of the phoenix, that miraculous bird arising from the flames. It is depicted rather beautifully in the image here, from the Chrysalis Tarot.

'The phoenix renews her youth
only when she is burnt, burnt alive, burnt down
to hot and flocculent ash.
Then the small stirring of a new small bub in the nest
with strands of down like floating ash
shows that she is renewing her youth like the eagle,
immortal bird.'

From 'Phoenix' by D.H. Lawrence

Card number twenty was face up on the centre of the dining room table forty years ago. The commune project for which I had shed blood, sweat and tears for three years had fallen apart, and with it a good slice of the meaning of life for me. Fear not, however. The phoenix rose from the ashes, splendid in all its glory. I spent a goodly portion of that endlessly hot sunny summer on Buddhist retreat, and in a whole variety of ways felt wonderfully reborn. A year later, I was due for ordination into Buddhism. The intervening period had seen the feathers of the phoenix dampened by the less-than enlightening experience of 'working for the Buddhist movement'. Nevertheless, the magical bird was able to shake off the heaviness of the water like dew on a sun-blessed dawn as I prepared for that momentous event.

New age, new life, new everything: this was what was signified by entering the Western Buddhist Order. It is a matter of identification. Everything that I previously considered myself to be was gone, to be replaced by a new identity, a consciously-expressed new direction, a new me. And that wasn't all. Being reborn into a Buddhist Order meant rising up out of the flames to discover a new family, full of people doing the same thing as yourself. Sounds great...... doesn't it?

I offer a couple of reflections related to that ordination here. Not as personal indulgence, but because issues beyond the details of my own life may be hinted at here. Vamos, vamos....

What's in a name?

One of the primary aspects of my Buddhist ordination was getting a new name. Coming in Sanskrit, it denoted both the path and the goal. It purported to encapsulate the Ideal in personal form, if you like: what I was to become. It also signified a psychological rebirth into a new family, that of aspirant Buddhas. These were my new brothers and sisters, fellow phoenixes arising out of the death of everything that had gone before. It never occurred to me to ask my blood parents what they thought about all this. Were they disturbed, pissed off? Did they feel existentially disowned at this swapping identity, my successful transfer application? Did they feel that the blood, sweat and tears they had put into bringing me up amounted, on my part, to zilch? Bloody hell......

More recently, I have had occasion to mischievously muse over how my former Buddhist teacher came upon all these names. Did he receive a gusty blast of transcendental inspiration to order on the eve of every ordination? Or did he pick names out of a hat? The answer probably lies somewhere between the two.

In translation, my Buddhist family name comes across as 'Jewel hero', 'hero of the Jewel', something like that. And for a decade I lived up to the appelation. I practiced meditation daily, and taught it. I studied Buddhist texts, attended seminars on Buddhist themes, and led study groups. I worked for the Buddhist movement, then became chairman of a Buddhist centre. My jewel shone so brightly that people had to wear sunglasses if they wanted to meet me. 'There are no flies on you' another Buddhist commented to me after I had given an inspirational and doctrinally spotless talk at a Buddhist gathering. Then I went to New Zealand and fell apart.

On my return to Britain, everything was different. People who had once queued up to speak to me now looked askance as my darkened presence approached. It was as if I had fallen into a deep pit full of horse shit and come up smelling not too good. I gave up giving talks and bought an electric guitar with a bunch of effects pedals instead. I took to a basement rehearsal room in a friend of mine's house, where long hours were spent with friends playing dark, spacy riffs through flangers, phasers, and any other weirdness-enhancing effects that might have been around at the time. Rarely has an apparent Buddhist manifested in less jewel-like garb.

As for the 'Hero' side of my nature, I undertook a serious study of Jung, then archetypal psychology under James Hillman. In the worldview of Hillman, the hero in myth is none other than the ego sallying forth in conquest, marching its narrow-minded march forward in an effort to take over the entire psyche. According to Hillman, the true way forward is not heroic at all, but lies in 'relativising the ego': putting it in its rightful place rather than granting it carte blanche to run riot and identify itself with the entire psyche. During my final years as an official Buddhist, I wrote a number of articles for the Buddhist journal about how the heroic ideal was limited in perspective. It had to go; and so did I.

It is ironic how the ideal laid out in my name became turned completely on its head, rather like the Hanged Man of the Tarot. Yet there may be a further layer to this name stuff. There is a story in the White Lotus Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism, where a jewel is found in the most unlikely place, at the bottom of a dung heap. This has proved to be my experience as the years have passed - the jewel at the bottom of the dung heap. And maybe the more heroic act is the one that dares to question the entire notion of the heroic ideal in the first place.

Good Chakras, Naughty Chakras

Another aspect of my Buddhist ordination was the receiving of a visualisation and mantra meditation based upon one of the many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the different imaginal embodiments of the enlightened state. This invocation and creation of an image of awakening suited me down to the ground, and I performed the entire practice, involving verses, mantras, building up then dissolving visualised images on a daily basis for ten years. During this period the sadhana, as it is known, was focal to my spiritual life, probably the most important thing that I did, and on many occasions when my spirits were lower than low, it saved my bacon.

A time came, however, when a creeping sense of discomfort began to descend upon my often complex, troubled being. The Buddha spirit wasn't reaching into my depths. The transformational element was not complete, failing to touch some aspects of my psychology.

There came a seminar, to which I was not invited, on which one upstart asked a telling question. During this meditation practice, variously coloured lights were seen emanating from the Bodhisattva form and entering the body of the meditator. These lights streamed out from between the eyebrows, the throat, and the heart, corresponding roughly to three of the upper chakras as enumerated in the conventionally-used seven chakra system. What, asked our bright spark, about the 'lower chakras', solar plexus and below in the human body? Didn't transformational light need to beam into these as well? No, the reply came loud and clear, there was no need. Transform the 'higher' energy centres of mind, speech, and heart, and the 'lower' chakras would be transformed automatically, of their own accord.

Seen from the space that I nowadays occupy in this marvellous universe, I suggest that this is a big mistake! It is a suggestion that comes oozing value-laden notions of higher and lower, better and worse, sacred and profane, the stuff of false dualisms that have distorted two thousand years of thought and life in the western world.

Why this bias? Why transform 'higher' energy centres and not 'lower' ones? Is there something we're afraid of? Our strength, maybe, our physical vitality. The viscera. Sex. Shadow. Our drive, our will. Yes, that's the rub. It's a bit of a psy-op, I feel. All of our energy has to come for the ride if personal transformation is to be effective. No need to discriminate, that's just a mind distortion. All energy centres from top to bottom can express our innate divinity, provide contact with that sacred level to existence, act as portals to the infinite. No high and low; no black and white; no good and bad. These are all veils that get placed upon our own direct experience, veils designed to deceive, to delude, to blind us to a remarkable truth that is staring us in the face all the time, should we be so courageous as to look. Energy centres are energy centres, that's it. End of story. The reality is so beautiful, so simple that it's...... unreal.