Tuesday, 28 March 2017
The Greatest Teaching
Part One: Er, Me....
It was in the early autumn of 1976 that I left the relative idyll of life in the suburbs of Oxford for the grime and delapidation of north London. Archway, London N19, was squatland, and among those many temporary abodes were numbered a goodly few communities of Buddhists. I never harboured the least desire to live in London as such, but if that was what living the Buddhist life required, then I was up for it.
Living conditions were tough, and by nature precarious. For most of my time there, I was the junior in that particular Buddhist community, everybody else having already been officially ordained and boasting a Buddist name. My aim as I moved was clear: I was going to find part-time work, enough to survive on economically, then devote the remainder of my time to meditation and study. This, it seemed obvious to me, was what I needed to do in order to bring myself closer to absolute reality - which was what the Buddhist thing was all about, as far as I could see.
One day, not long after moving, I was approached by one of my fellow community members. He was in the process of starting a wholefood business, based in the much larger Buddhist centre under construction in East London. Would I like to go over and take a look? I said 'Of course, yes.' And it was at that moment I began to give it all away.
Very soon, I was a full-time worker in Bethnal Green, London E2, spending a goodly portion of the week in a basement mixing muesli and packing peanuts. When I wasn't in the basement, I could be found on market stalls in Brick Lane or Hammersmith, selling the muesli and peanuts which had been packed etc etc.
Things moved fast. Within a year I became an ordained Buddhist, committed to the path of the
Enlightened One. Two years further down the line, I found myself chairman of the modestly-named West London Buddhist Centre. I say 'found myself' deliberately. In the 'What do you want to be when you grow up, son?' scenario put to little boys, I never answered 'boss of a Buddhist Centre, please'. Or boss of anything else, for that matter. In this case, however, the previous chairman was moving on, to set up a retreat centre in Wales. When eyes were cast around for a replacement, they came to light on little old me. And I went along with the consensus. I mean, you do, don't you? Devoting yourself to the cause, the enlightenment of all, that's the name of the game. To do otherwise would be folly indeed.
In some respects, I was not a bad choice. Fairly friendly and approachable, so I'm told. Able to get on with a wide range of characters. Moderately well-organised. In other ways, I was rubbish. Particularly when it came to notions like 'developing', 'expanding', creating a really big, bold, important Buddhist movement. Not my cup of tea at all.
This is not actually the point. For a decade I soldiered on with a job which I did not feel completely at home in. That is not to say that it didn't have its beneficial aspects. It did. But it's simply that: I was not really at home in that role. It wasn't quite me. Eight years in, I resigned, only to be 'strongly advised' by my Buddhist teacher to un-resign, since nobody was at hand who was capable of taking over. So I entered the two most frustrating years of my life, until somebody else was finally deemed up to the job.
It's been a long trip. A decade ago, I moved from southern England to the Highlands of Scotland. For much of the past ten years, I've finally made it: worked part-time, spending the rest of the day studying, writing, meditating, walking, doing whatever else feels fitting to following the sacred path.
It took the benefit of hindsight, many years of it, for the underlying pattern to become clear to me. I had my path envisaged in my mind, only for my intent to be derailed, or diverted onto other tracks. And when I finally made an effort to change direction, that move was postponed in the interests of the 'greater good'.
Nobody actually asked me what I wanted to do - apart from being a Buddhist in a most general kind of way. You might well expect me to feel a bit cheesed off about it: not properly living my dream, blah blah. However, try as I may, I have been unable to get angry with anyone. I haven't felt manipulated or exploited. Other people may or may not have acted dishonourably, that's their problem or prerogative. But the stark and unavoidable fact is this: I was part of the deal. I did it. I brought my body into these situations, if you will. It's the most humbling realisation, bruising to the ego and not at all comforting.
Things don't 'just happen' - one of the basic truths, but properly understood by few. It's not a case of 'everything being my fault', or of having recourse to fancy theories of karma. Blame, guilt, the whole works. We don't need any of this stuff. It's simpler yet more elusive than this. The universe, it seems to me, works more like a giant kaleidoscope than a massive pinball machine. You somehow find yourself in situations that are congruent with the state of your being; it cannot be any other way. What happens reflects who, how, and what you are at that moment in time. As I said, it's a humbling realisation. All those crap situations, all those dodgy people who you are above and different from. No. You brought it on yourself. It's a magnificent co-creation. And if your consciousness is attuned to 'growth', then another element introduces itself.....
All those humbling situations present as the most valuable learning opportunities. The more humbling, the greater the potential. The lesson for me individually undoubtedly concerns 'personal power' on the path. Don't compromise it, don't give it away. Not even for the most magnificent, transcendental project. Learn, with devotion; sit at the feet of the wise ones, yes. But don't give it away. Not an ounce. This amounts to the real disavowal of ones path, which is individual, unique. Be fierce about it. If there is one thing that I may have learnt in this life, something I can carry forward, it is this.
Part Two: Teachers and Victims
My former Buddhist teacher is ninety-one years old now. If I had my way, he would be left well alone, to savour his remaining moments in this lifetime as he so chooses. But no, it seems not to be. It has been creeping around behind him for decades; now, his past - or selected aspects of his past - has jumped out full face, so neither he nor any of his disciples has a place to hide.
The aspects of his past which continue to snap at his heels - not so much like a terrier (though they can be tiresome enough) but like multi-headed Cerberus dragged up fresh from Hades - concern his propensity for sexual activity with younger male disciples. Over the years, an increasing number of these disciples, a goodly proportion of them ordained Buddhists, have come out of the woodwork and told their tale. Some have been pretty OK about it all, some a bit so-so. While others still have felt confused, hurt, damaged, traumatised, and the rest.
One, in particular, has hounded my former teacher for years. What his purpose is eludes me (though I should make clear that I have not followed the entire blow-by-blow story: I have other things to get on with). But what does he want? Justice? A nebulous and problematic term, I suggest, to the point where it no longer makes any sense to me. Revenge? Well, at least I understand what that is. An uncovering of the hypocrisy of the affair, maybe? Fair enough - but why go to all the bother?
The story was taken up voraciously by those fashionable protectors of victims in the mainstream media, notably the Guardian and the BBC. A few months back, a 12-minute slot on a regional BBC show was devoted to the subject, including reportage and interview with aforementioned particular person.
Now I'm a softie - just this morning I collected a woodlouse from the living room floor, but didn't have the heart to put it out in the rain, so deposited it in another warm, dry room instead. So, putting aside cynicism about how people on television always manage to choke at precisely the right time, I could not help but feel affected by the pain and upset which he (the former sexual partner, not the woodlouse) clearly still felt. Nevertheless, I looked hard: what exactly was the source of the pain which continued to haunt him? Well, I can't tell for sure. But the answer which came through took me by surprise. The pain coming through wasn't much to do with the Buddhist teacher at all, really. No. It was aforementioned person's own inability to accept the most unpleasant of realities: he had been part of it; he had participated; he had allowed it to happen - for quite a while, willingly. So it's not much about the Buddhist teacher, but about the 'victim' and his past behaviour, which he would dearly like to erase.
Part Three (Recap of Sorts)
Life can be tough. It can appear mean and nasty. But for anybody claiming to be following a 'spiritual path' it behoves them to try and look at things from a wider dimensional perspective, not that of the mainstream media and the current fashions in thinking and moral acceptability. In order to do this, a whole load of conceptual and perceptual baggage needs to be let go of. Let go of the hand-me-down concepts, the mental constructs, which serve to manipulate the mind, to cloud its innate clarity. Constructs that most folk don't even realise are constructs at all, instead conferring upon them the status of a given reality.
Blame, fault, unfair, unjust. These have to go. 'Whose fault is it? Who is to blame?' - not appropriate questions for anybody trying to lead an authentic life. 'It's your karma': do we need this? Victim, perpetrator. Yes, especially these: the victim - perpetrator syndrome has to be chucked out. While we consider ourselves as 'victims', whether of an unjust social system, a predatory guru, or a global elite, we remain helpless. The System, Empire, call it what you will, loves victims, and deliberately perpetuates this way of looking at things. Women, blacks, other ethnic groups, gays, transgender folk, disabled people, those mistreated by religious figures: all are cast as victims by the mainstream, and it does them no favours. It keeps them locked into a way of thinking which blocks the individual's unique capacity to unfold. It prevents personal responsibilty for ones life, and sustains a perpetual dynamic of confrontation between 'victim' and 'perpetrator'. Which suits Empire just fine. Divide and rule, geddit?
For anyone seriously trying to 'grow', all this needs to be left behind as interpretative mechanism. It's the most difficult and scary thing: to be able to look, listen, feel, touch, intuit, think directly.
I am not saying that bad things don't happen, or that people who harm others should not be brought to task and punished. Not at all. I am saying that a lot of the conceptual baggage which accompanies such scenarios is not helpful. In fact, it takes us away - maybe is designed to take us away - from our sense of personal power, our ability to live our lives with initiative, honour. It is uniquely disempowering, and is ironically the most abusive thing we can do to ourselves. Play the victim and it is just not possible to walk a sacred path, or however else we choose to frame it. In this case, teacher and pupil - young, confused, impressionable (the media prefers the more emotive 'vulnerable') pupil - experienced a certain confluence of being. And that's it. For both, it's a tremendous learning opportunity, should they be looking for such treasures amidst the pain, conflict, and suffering. A real chance to learn invaluable things that can be taken forward.
It is a cliche, but it is said that, should a person really know what 'leading a spiritual life' involves, nobody would start in the first place. It is a walk on the wild side and into the unknown: by definition, we can have no idea what it will throw up. All our ideas, preconceptions, and book learning are worse than useless when the confrontation with deeper reality properly takes place. Thus it is with the teacher - and with ourself as a student, a pupil, a disciple. The greatest teaching of my former teacher may, indeed, be just that: his brilliant yet erratic and contradictory life. It should force each and every one of his followers, to look within - the deeper the better - to sink into her or his own unique resources and being. What the hell do I make of this? Do I need to make anything of this? What am I doing here in the first place? Where is my life? Why are there no simple off-the-shelf answers? To walk in perpetual uncertainty, maybe, forced back into ones own life. As the Buddhist parable says: the jewel is to be found in the dungheap.
Images: (Top): Cor blimey, it's changed since I was there: Balmore Street, Archway
(Below): Strength, Anne Stokes Gothic Tarot