Stupa at Amarawati

To bungee jump or not to bungee jump?

I’m lucky enough to live within cycling distance of the Realm of the Deathless!

Well actually it’s a Theravadin Monastery in Great Gaddesden, just outside Hemel Hempstead, called Amaravati which, in Pali I believe, means The Realm of The Deathless. I’ve biked up the hill today, Easter Sunday, and I’m writing this is the delightful little library.

Death rather that deathlessness has been on my mind over the last few weeks and days. My own elder brother died a few weeks ago and over this weekend the father of a dear friend died suddenly. There is nothing like a few shufflings off the mortal coil along with the presence of some more grey hairs and aches and pains to bring to mind the transient nature of our own little lives, as the bard would call it.

Yet what’s to be done and thought about it? Up on the Regents canal in London there is a huge chalk board. The passers by are invited to suggest things they want to do before they die. The list is long and varied with everything from climbing Mt Everest to swimming with dolphins. As we went past in a boat my friend Andy summed up his reaction. The “commodotisation of experience” he declared. He has a point. Its as though experiences have some marketable value.. that one is more worthwhile than another. They are to be bought, sold and accumulated or our lives cannot have been worthwhile.

I’m not saying that I would not prefer some experiences to others. A full stomach courtesy of a good restaurant over hunger for example. Its rather that this discounts most of our time spent in rather mundane or frustrating experience. It seems to implythat if you are not bungee jumping you are not living.

Mindfulness is about valuing ALL of your experience, moment by moment. The deliriously blissful as well as the painfully boring. Well it’s an aim – opening up to those things we would rather push away and noticing those things so obvious they barely get a look in to our consciousness.

Curiously bungee jumping does not figure largely in our top regrets when we die. They tend to be regrets like: not having lived life authentically, not having expressed our feelings enough and wishing we had let ourselves be happier. My brother would I think agree with this and told me how much family and friends were the real joy was to be found. He made the most of this in his last months.

So what I/do we do? and what is the Deathless Realm?

“Live every moment as if it were your last” some say. What a crazy and impossible notion I say. Do your best to remember to be in every moment is more realisable plus we have some practices to actually help us with that. However feeble any extra connection to the moment is a bonus. Oh! and don’t try to pick and choose experiences, we all get a mixed bag whether we like it or not.

The Deathless Realm.. well that’ll be where none of this matters very much.

In case you have not read it here is Clive James’s poem written in anticipation of death – he has terminal cancer. He captures one fleeting moment beautifully.

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable.
You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Gods and hungry ghosts

The discussion about the corporatisation of mindfulness is getting interesting. Thich Nhat Hanh has joined in the discussion during his recent visit to US where he held workshops at, among other places, Google and The World Bank. His view: that as long as business leaders practice “true mindfulness” it does not matter if the intention is triggered by a desire for bigger profits, because the practice will “open their hearts” and will develop their desire to end the suffering of others.

He goes on to say (or so it is reported) that having the wrong intention e.g. wanting lots of money, will bring about only be an “imitation” of mindfulness – “you will not have touched its true purpose”.

I can understand this but I am not sure it will prevent the self-help industry for business people offering a shallow version of the practice and for many to be satisfied with it’s limited benefits. The 7 Effective Habits of Successful People will not, I suspect, be quickly replaced by the 8 Fold Path.

Mark Leonard uses the following analogy (I paraphrase – apologise if inaccurate) “If you are throwing life rings to drowning people you do not ask their politics/intentions before rescuing them”

At the time it made me think of an old thanka (wall hanging) I have of the Buddhist “Wheel of life”. It’s a complex early teaching aid but part of it depicts the six realms of being: gods, demi gods, human, animal, hell and hungry ghosts. In each realm the Buddha is shown bring the dharma (teaching) and pointing the way off of the turning wheel.

I got to thinking that we have our own gods and demi-gods these days. Wealthy business people who wield enormous power through their companies and technologies, we have even called some of them “Masters of the Universe! Perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh was just visiting their realm and pointing the way – throwing them a life ring.

Would I prefer to keep meditation unsullied by the world and kept in monasteries. No I think not. It has and will survive misinterpretation in the past. A taste of something beautiful is a powerful thing.

Another news story caught my eye this week that I feel has some resonance. Caroline Murphy is the heir to the Murphy Group (building contractors). She took a proposal to her board to hand the company to the 3,500 staff creating a worker co-op, albeit more like John Lewis. She would have ceded her £40m personal stake in the company creating a staff share ownership scheme. The board and shareholders rejected the proposal. Caroline said she was inspired by her fathers philosophy “ you can only sleep in one bed and only wear one pair of shoes at a time” (coincidentally my own father had his own version but it involved the number of shirts you can wear)

Caroline looks like she will be working for courses outside of the business including workers rights. Here is a business woman taking brave and radical action, and giving away her wealth, to change a business. What happened .. the shareholders blocked it. Maybe they are in the realm of hungry ghosts? – beings who are never satisfied no matter how much they have or eat.