Monday, 29 January 2018

Gone Forever: the Impact of an Unexpected Death



"In my early teens I used to cycle to school with a girl who lived quite near our house.
Jessie was a little older than me. She had gorgeous, healthy, long blond hair that always seemed to fall in perfect folds around her face. She was not beautiful but she was certainly attractive. Neither was she one of my closest friends, or a confidante, but I enjoyed her company on the long cycle rides to and from our college and over the years we had developed an easy going and pleasant friendship.

Every day we had to traverse many miles of road. We often found ourselves pushing into a strong head wind which made the journey seem that much harder and longer. Cycling together, Jessie and I would chat and joke about all sorts of things and the trip felt less tiring. Near the end while on our way home, we would push our heavy cycles together up the indomitably steep, ‘Tamaki Street’ which stretched up the hillside on the last leg of our journey. Alone, this last climb seemed interminable, but when there were two of us it didn’t feel quite so bad.

We made these trips two times a day and five days a week, month after month over a period of several years and because we shared this routine so regularly I seldom thought anything of it.

Then suddenly one day she was gone. I got the news from my sister, who heard it from a friend of hers. Jessie had been instantly killed when a motorbike, on which she was a pillion passenger, somehow missed a bridge, flew off the side of the road and crashed into a dry riverbed far below. It had happened two nights before word had reached my ears.

I was utterly stunned. Then, as the numbness began to wear off, a gradual and painful sensation of having been betrayed swept over me. I thought of all the days that we had cycled to and from school together. I thought of all the hours that we had spent in our respective classrooms, yet I could not think of anything that she or I had done in these past years that could have in any way prepared us for this!

I could think of nothing in my school or home life that came even near to addressing the fact of ‘death.’
The things which I had spent all my time doing up until that point suddenly appeared superficial and irrelevant. It felt as though the past years of my life had all been a dream.

All the days, months and years that we spent in our college, doing our lessons and then all the hours spent after school doing homework, suddenly all of that seemed like some kind of bad joke.

Despite my previous experiences, nothing I had done up until this point had ever really come close to addressing the issue of death. There quite simply had been no apparent place for it in the routine and predictable life that I had been living. But Jessie’s sudden demise completely shattered that illusion.

Suddenly everything felt empty and meaningless. There was something about this ‘death’ that made everything else appear unreal.

That life could be snatched away suddenly was something I had brushed against much earlier, but ‘I’ had gone on, life had gone on and once the old routines recommenced I had been lulled back into that shadow land which engrosses all of our energy and attention with things that we are somehow made to think are important.

That someone I had seen and shared time with almost every day for several years had now simply ceased to be; this was something quite new, strange and inconceivable. Of course I had heard about people dying but that was something outside my own personal experience.

With Jessie, it was different. I had walked and talked with her only days before. She had been so alive and so vital. Somehow to grasp that she had gone and that there was nothing that anybody could do to bring her back pushed through a barrier in my mind and challenged me to look beyond it.
I felt the presence of a ‘mystery’ which was simply unnameable.

That very day I made the cycle ride to school alone. It was a cold Monday morning. Never will I forget walking into the classroom and having to endure the silent stares of the entire class. No one knew what to say, no one knew what to do. Something unspeakably ‘mysterious’ had happened right in our midst and yet we all just sat there doing our lessons hour upon hour without even alluding to it.

In those days there was no pupil counselling to help students through any kind of crisis, there was no support at all.
One was simply expected to get on with it; with the same useless, meaningless grind, as though nothing at all had happened.

When Jessie died, everything felt different in a new way. I had reached an age when my mind was beginning to question and inquire. In earlier years I had simply accepted whatever came along, but now I felt no longer able to do that.

Her death left a completely unexpected, gaping hole in a day to day ritual that we had shared for several years. I found it impossible to accept that she had simply ‘ceased to be.’ The sense of absolute mystery about her disappearance from the world threw me into a sombre mood. I found no comfort in the words I heard in church.

I urgently needed to know what it actually means to ‘die.’ I did not want to hear some secondhand stuff that had been pulled from a book. I wanted more than that.

During that time, I discovered one thing that could bring a sense of relief and perspective to my life. I took to sitting outside at night and gazing up at the sky.

When I did this I could feel the ‘mystery’ and the ‘something’ which is so unfathomable about our existence. To look out and see countless stars and universes helped me to bypass my questioning mind and feel directly something which I could not name. When I looked into the vastness of infinity I could feel at once that there is so much more to our existence than the petty day to day concerns that ate up all our time and energy. This helped me to cope with my grief and frustration.

I suppose that is when I began to understand that the society I was growing up in would not be able to satisfy the deeper, inner questionings that this event triggered.

The intense and actual mystery of so-called ‘death’ loomed up before me as a huge and solemn unknown.

How was it possible to continue on with petty, boring daily life knowing that we all faced this huge ‘thing’ and that one day we too would die? Surely there was something more which we needed to know, something which needed to do to address it. This all welled up inside me with a great sense of urgency.

Western societies are not known for prolonging their mourning. In fact, the feeling one gets is that as soon as the loved one is buried or cremated, as the case may be, it is expected that there should be a sense of closure or, at least, the expectation of closure and everyone then goes on with whatever it was they were doing before.

To me, at that time, that felt like a travesty.

I felt that ‘death’ was not being given its full due, it was being brushed over in a way that seemed superficial and inconsistent with the fact, that each of us would have to face it at some point.

Why was it that no one seemed to wonder where she went or what actually happened to her? Why was it that people were able to believe, so unquestioningly, what they had merely been told? I knew that could never work for me.

It takes some unravelling to get to the bottom of the complex feelings that can accompany the loss of someone who has touched our lives. Most of the time, these feelings are glossed over, ignored, or buried beneath a load of distraction. There are endless ways of not confronting the reality of loss and death directly.

We avoid the confrontation by filling our time with self-centered and artificial distractions. Very often we are preoccupied with all manner of things that are not in the least bit vital and this is primarily how the days, months and years of our lives are filled. All the while, we know very well, that the ‘clock is ticking,’ that our time is running out, yet we are no closer to understanding what its all about.

Inherently we are so much more than we are led to believe. There is a mystery in that. A mystery far beyond the confines of what our day to day ‘thinking mind’ is willing or even able to comprehend. We can get a striking sense of that even very early in life.

Surely death is the greatest of teachers.

The fact is that we cannot escape ‘ourselves’, where ever we go, whatever we do. The inescapable fact of our existence is bound to  confront us, sooner or later and ‘death’ is one of the most powerful ways to bring this before our attention.

This is why it is vital to look more closely now in the midst of so-called ordinary life, with all its cares and distractions, because the ‘now’ is itself filled with immensity and holds the key to the deep, disclosing recognition of who and what we really are.

The now is all that we really have!

Jessie’s life came to an early and abrupt end and she did not know herself  beyond the body and mind and the routine day to day needs and preoccupations of worldly life. But it can be different for us. We have the chance to look inward and discern beyond what appears to be true to what actually is true.

Life gives us a push and in some instances a sharp and hard slap, forcing us to look further and more deeply. We are not bound to believe all that others would have us believe, we must discover the truth for ourselves and the signposts that rise up on our individual journeys are often uniquely and perfectly tailored to help us do just that and thereby, wake up.

May the inward journey for each of us begin now; fresh and renewed with each passing moment!"

*****

This excerpt is taken from my latest book;
Who Lives? Who Dies?
What We Need to Know Before We Go

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Whispering Ones, Secret Lives of Trees



Tane Mahuta. Lord of the Forest
I was deeply touched when my mother shared with me an experience which she had a number years ago with her younger sister, my Aunt Carolyn. Carolyn passed away several years ago from breast cancer and this particular incident of which i am about to recount took place a year or two before she died.

My mother was in Auckland visiting Carolyn at her beautiful home on the outskirts of that big New Zealand city. The two became very close in later years and my mother often made the trip north to spend time with her. 

The later visits were particularly poignant because of Carolyn's illness and yet despite this they were also joyful visits and deeply satisfying as Carolyn never tried to hide or ignore the fact that she might not overcome her illness. She was honest about it and honest about the fact that she was not quite ready to face the ultimate challenge and yet one could sense that she was nevertheless facing her fears with enormous courage and coming to accept them in her heart.  She took the fruits of this precious 'teaching' into her everyday life with the understanding that every moment was precious. 

There was none of the anger that can often accompany an unexpected and serious illness. Instead, there grew in her an implicit understanding that sooner or later we all must face the 'great leveller' and being an utterly gracious and compassionate woman, she knew enough of 'truth' to know when to bow down to it.

One day, during this particular visit, she surprised my mother by asking her to get ready to accompany her. She would disclose nothing at all about where they were going. It was all rather mysterious.

They put a few things into the car. Loaded the picnic basket and took off into the cool and pleasant morning. Several hours they were driving along, stopping often to gaze out at the contrasting colours and beauty of the New Zealand countryside.

Eventually they turned onto a dirt road and followed it along on the loose metal surface for several miles until they reached a small car-park. Still without giving away anything as to the purpose of their visit, Carolyn climbed out and beckoned to mum to follow.

They wandered along a gravely pathway until suddenly they turned a bend in the path and right there before them was Tani Mahuta. The name was given by the Moari and translates as Lord of the Forest. It is a huge and very ancient kauri tree. 

The sheer size, the silent power and majesty which rose before them so suddenly in the shape of this whispering giant made my mother gasp. It simply took her breath away. Never, in her entire life, she later recounted, had she felt such an instantaneous and overpowering sense of awe, quite spontaneously the tears had begun to flow down her cheeks and her immediate instinct had been quite simply to fall on her knees in homage.

In those days Tani Mahuta was not as famous or as frequently visited as it is today. One could approach the tree along a forest trail that was completely closed in on all sides by thick and towering trees and undergrowth. It could not be seen from the road or even the pathway until one came to a bend in the path and turned the corner. Then it suddenly appeared right in front of ones vision in all its immensity and splendour.

Now there is a wooden walkway in place which carries one right to the base of the tree but not close enough to be able to touch it or  trample the immense roots beneath. These are now all protected very tastefully by wooden walkways and the whole tree has been fenced in, so there is no more the possibility to embrace this mighty giant even if only a tiny part of it.

Perhaps my mother and Carolyn were among New Zealand's earlier tree-huggers and in those days, they had ample opportunity to do just that.

Tani Mahuta, is the largest known surviving kauri tree in the world. Its age is unknown, but it is estimated to be somewhere between 1,000 to 2,500 years old. It is from the Argarthis australis genus of trees and stands today in the Waipoua forest north of Auckland.

For my mother, this occasion was a deeply spiritual experience of which she never spoke without a renewed sense of reverence and awe.


Tane Mahuta
This extra-ordinary world in which we live is a dynamic and living web of interconnected life. How is this so? What is the unifying factor which pervades this universe? Like one breathing organism, our world expands and contracts in a continuous revolving cycle, the very centre of which is unmoving and unchanging. The source of all being is a common factor which binds us all inextricably together whatever outer form we may may find ourselves in.

In this instance, i make mention of 'trees.' Often they surround us on all sides. They are the silent witnesses to our lives and yet how much attention do we ever give them? Most often they are simply there on the fringes of our awareness, present and yet largely unseen.

It is time to pay homage to 'trees.' How they have blessed my life and i am sure have blessed yours as well, is a fact for which i am immensely grateful.

It is so easy to pass them every day and barely notice them at all and yet there they are, the whispering ones...
With complex and sophisticated networks of communication between and among themselves and a sentient life all of their own, they most assuredly deserve our attention.

Jai Krishnamurti asked; 

How do you look at a tree? Do you see the whole of the tree? If you don't see it as a whole, you don't see the tree at all. You may pass it by and say, 'There is a tree, how nice it is!' or say, "It is a mango tree," or "I do not know what those trees are; they may be tamarind trees." But when you stand and look -I am talking actually, factually- you never see the totality of it; and if you don't see the totality of the tree, you do not see the tree. 
Seeing the Whole, from the Book of Life.

As with all things in nature, trees give us another opportunity to witness, first hand, our interconnect-ness with the world in which we live, move and have our being. These silent warriors, are like sentinels guarding the very portals to awareness itself.

All trees are interconnected with one another in ways in which we are barely even cognisant and the trees, in their turn, are connected to us within a vast network of interlinking, breathing living-ness.


Tree Temples
When i was very young, forests always appeared to me to be very lively and mysterious places. My parents favourite picnic spot, when i was growing up in Nelson, New Zealand was a large forest of pine trees which grew on a piece of land that jutted out into the bay, called Rabbit Island.

We often visited there. Whenever entering its precincts i was immediately overcome with the fresh scent of thousands upon thousands of pine needles and cones from the many acres of looming coniferous trees. They emitted the delicate, fragrant scent of cedar and pine.

I always felt so refreshed by this fragrance whenever we entered these forests and to this day the smell of pine needles and the sound of a breeze among the pine trees holds a deeply nostalgic significance in my heart.

There is nothing of the mental in this and yet everything of a direct and emotive experience. I will always be grateful for what the forests of this earth have and continue to teach us. Their wisdom is given so freely and simply and points towards the very highest of truths.

Our forests and our trees are the precious earthly heritage that links us to that essential nature which is present within all living things.
This is a sacred link and must be treasured and guarded.

It is fitting to conclude with the verses by Joyce Kilmer;



Trees


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree

*****


Sunday, 7 January 2018

Chatral Rinpoche and the Importance of Saving Lives

Honouring Chadral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, who passed away (30.12.2015) in Parping, Nepal.

*****

Homage to the Beloved Lord of Refuge. 
 Your Kindness is as Boundless as Space. 
Merging into the Expanse of Wisdom 
you continue to Benefit Countless Beings...


"Limit yourself to just a few activities 
and undertake them with all diligence."
Kyabji Chadral Sangye Dorje

One of the activities that Chadral Rinpoche undertook with all diligence, was the annual fish release into the sacred Indian river, the Ganges. This continues to take place each year, right at the point where this vast river finally flows out into the Bay of Bengal and the wide open sea.

He began this project in the 1960,s with little more than an old wooden canoe, a few bucket loads of fish and a couple of helpers. Today the work is carried on primarily by his wife, Sangyum Karmala and various sponsors and volunteers. It is now a large operation involving many helpers, a number of boats and many truckloads of fish which are purchased from the fish farms in and around Kolkata and then released with prayers and auspicious mantras into the milky green waters of the great 'Mother Ganga'.

During the 1990,s I used to wonder about the little black pouch that Rinpoche always wore around his waist. He guarded this pouch very carefully as it was stuffed full of various denominations of Indian and Nepali rupee notes which devotees had offered for the purchase and release of fish. 


He was thoroughly scrupulous about the offerings which came in ensuring that all the offerings intended for the fish release were carefully added to the bulging purse. All offerings were assigned to its designated purses which denoted different causes, but somehow the funds for the 'fish release' were always very abundant and the little black pouch was often seen around Rinpoche's waist fairly bursting at its seams.

However, this had not always been the case. When Rinpoche first began this project, he was only newly arrived in India as a refugee from Tibet and extremely poor. In those days he was establishing the very first Buddhist Meditation Three Year Retreat center in the Sub Continent and as they could not afford to hire many workers, he rolled up his sleeves and took up a shovel, carrying, digging and labouring on the repair work site with everyone else.

Funds for the Fish Release were very scarce. One time the monastery caretaker walked into Rinpoche's room with tears in his eyes. He had just discovered that Rinpoche had sold a lovely piece of precious brocade, one of very few items that they had managed to bring with them from Tibet. With these funds he had bought a dial up phone so that he could call Kolkata to order fish and keep tabs on progress for the annual end of year release!

The caretaker was in a state of utter misery a good deal of the time during those years of scarcity. He was always wondering how on earth they would all be able to eat and carry on the general business of very simple living, but Rinpoche was never concerned and always waved him away with words of solace, telling him that ‘all would be well.’

I know that Rinpoche would have given the clothes off his own back in order to keep on releasing fish into the Ganges. In fact he ordered Lolu, the caretaker, to sell some of his scant personal possessions in order to do just this, on more than one occasion.

I used to watch Rinpoche's handpicked group leave from Salbari Gompa every year for this great event, with tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever have enough merit to be allowed to go with them and help. They all stayed at the house of a Marwari Hindu who had taken a 'shine' to Rinpoche's project and Rinpoche, ever mindful and sensitive about respecting others, was always careful never to take more people with him than was absolutely necessary for the task at hand. He did this so as not to over step or impose on the kindness of a generous donor.

One year, however, I decided to take matters into my own hands. At the time, I was living in a small retreat hut in the forests of the Darjeeling hills and had come to know that Rinpoche had arrived at his Salbari Temple. He had journeyed from Nepal and was already on his way to Kolkata. I did not want to ask for permission and risk being sent back to my hut, so I just packed a few things, went down the hill and caught the night train. At that time i was living at his retreat place at Das Mile Gompa, a small monastery in the forests of Lopchu. 


After arriving in the wee hours of the following morning and finding myself a suitable lodging, I made my way to the place where I knew the release would be taking place. I was able to reach the banks of the Ganges just as they were all preparing to begin work that day.

It was naughty of me to go without his permission, but I never once regretted my decision and Rinpoche never said anything to reproach me nor showed any sign of displeasure at my unasked for appearance. Within an hour i was chugging out onto the river on a funky old wooden tugboat together with one of the Lamas. The two of us had loaded our boat with the help of a band of Indian workers, with large, waist high buckets filled to the brim with fish.

Four other boats, each with two helpers to unload the buckets came and went in a constant procession as we began to release the truck loads of fish that were being bought down to the river.

It was hard work in the unforgiving sun, but we barely looked up to notice it. Throughout most of the day, Rinpoche sat quietly on the banks and watched us come and go. There was such a special atmosphere, like a rain of blessings enfolding the whole procedure and although we laboured for hours with only occasional breaks, none of us faltered or felt tired.

Many times I found myself with tears in my eyes and spontaneously, mantras and prayers flowed from our lips as we lifted bucket after bucket-load of fish and poured them in droves into the waters. The moment of their release was so exhilarating. It was a joy to watch them flicker away like sparkling darts as the rays of the sun's light flashed for a moment off their silvery fins.

As it turned out, the year I went was one of the last that Rinpoche, already well into his nineties at the time, could attend in person and his wife, Sangyum Kamala and others have come forward now to carry on the work.

Just think of how relevant and how meaningful this work, which had such humble beginnings, has now become. This is not just a symbolic act that shows remarkable foresight and conveys a powerful message; this is a living demonstration of something much deeper, which has profound implications.

It is true that the fish in our seas are being caught indiscriminately and in droves and who is giving anything back? Can we take and take without end? But there is also another point to be made and one which needs to be repeated far and wide again and again.


All sentient life is aware and its existence is sacred. The Buddha recognised this more than 2,500 years ago and repeatedly pointed our the significance of this truth and yet we have been slow to recognise it for ourselves. Chadral Rinpoche found a unique way in which to honour the Buddha's teachings. When he released the fish which had been reared in captivity at farms in and around Kolkata he did so with the universal wish that each and every one of those numerous lives would find their way to liberation. 


However, this story does not end here, there is a twist in this tale and i want to include a mention something that happened to a young newly-wed couple who were about to embark on their honey moon in the Andaman Islands. Their story is a remarkable tale that reveals the intricate and subtle underlying threads between the motivation and the activities of those who live, work and exist in this world only to benefit others.

On the day of their departure, the young, newly-weds were walking through the Kathmandu airport, when they noticed an elderly Lama sitting to one side with his family and entourage. It was Chadral Rinpoche, about to set off for Kolkata to undertake the annual fish release.

As the husband’s family members were all long-time devotees of Rinpoche, he immediately went over to receive the Lama’s blessing. During this encounter Rinpoche made some comments which the young man was not able to fully understand at the time. He had asked Rinpoche to bless them on their trip and this Rinpoche had graciously done. However, he had also said something to them that they had both found very unexpected and disturbing.

He had said something major was about to happen and that much life would be lost as a result. As a political conflict was raging in Nepal at that time, the couple attributed his words to this. Rinpoche had told them that he was going to Kolkata to buy and bless fish which had been raised in fish farms. He had told them that he would release the fish into the Ganges and that he was praying that by doing this, he could save a few lives.

The couple offered a donation towards the purchase of the fish and he thanked them and then added that it would be offered in their name, but not only for their long life, but for the benefit and long life of all beings.

It was mid-December in the year of 2004. Exactly two weeks later there was the huge 9.1 earthquake near Indonesia. The massive quake released a gigantic tsunami which devastated a vast swathe of south-east Asia and took with it some quarter of a million lives. It happened just off the coast of Aceh, not far from the Andaman Islands where the couple was still holidaying at that time. The newly-weds lives were spared but their known world thereafter was completely shaken and they could never forget the timely words or the powerful blessing of the Lama.

(This excerpt is from the chapter called Ransoming Lives and is quoted from my third book, Masters, Mice and Men, in the Series, Shades of Awareness.)

*****