Saturday, 24 February 2018

Snakes and Fear, a True Story

You are the guardian of a treasure,

Oh, just like a sleeping serpent

And you shall see, I shall make you

Spin around like that sleepy snake.

Listen to me.

 Jalaluddin  Rumi 

India's Snake Woman,  the Nagini Druvinka Puri

Why do snakes inspire in us, two-legged creatures, a sense of wonder and fear?

Surely this has been so since earliest times? Their link with the primordial wisdom state and their connection to a mysterious realm not well understood by us, warm-blooded beings, does nothing to diminish our sense of their strangeness.

In New Zealand where I spent the earliest years of my life, there is nothing more poisonous afoot that a slimy little bug called, by the Maori, a Weta. Snakes in the land of the 'long white cloud,' are creatures that one only hears about. They are somewhere else; from far and distant lands. They could have been from Mars, for all I knew or could really envision in those formative years of my life.

Then, when I was sixteen years old, I moved to Australia and in a period of a few short months found myself in the wild northern territories. The lands of numerous peculiar, primordial, creeping and crawling creatures. Crocodiles, lizards and spiders of all shapes and varieties and of course numerous breeds and brands of snakes.

However, it was not until I moved to a patch of tropical forest near the small town of Kuranda in Northern Queensland, that I had my first close encounters with many varieties of these creatures.

I had moved to the forest in order to 'meditate,' but the good Lord had other plans for me. On the very first day in that new world, I had two very close encounters with a tree snake. Certainly, this breed is not usually poisonous, so as far as a gentle introduction goes, I suppose this was it. I quickly discovered that there were numerous and far more dangerous snakes also living in close proximity.

The tree snake and I, however, shared my forest hut for some six months or more. We respected each other's boundaries after the first two startling encounters and soon settled into cautious co-habitation. The snake lived in the loft of my forest abode where it had found access via some gap or other near the roof. I felt that this resident was infinitely preferable to a Boer constrictor, the likes of which very much favour such places.

I learnt many, many things in this new environment that I could never have gleaned from any book or college. In fact, in these few short months, a whole paradigm change took place within my mind, one that was, very effectively, to shape and prepare me for future adventures which were not very long in coming.

I went into this environment at the age of eighteen. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, had never lived alone in my life and was as naive and innocent as a newborn babe.

One among many adventures that took place during those months recently made an appearance in my little store of memories. It virtually bowled me over when the memory of it suddenly resurfaced while speaking with a friend on some related matter.

Until that moment I had quite forgotten about it altogether.

I would like to share it with you as it was one of those formative experiences, the likes of which we all encounter under different guises at one time or another in our lives. Very often we are shocked to the core of our being, but then somehow magically, we forget all about it within quite a short period of time. This was what happened to me.

I am sure that my body and psyche have retained and to this day continue to retain some imprint of the psychic impact of this experience, hence this post. Let me endeavour to unravel it with you, it may stir in you some long forgotten memory of your own.

While living in the forest in Kuranda I used to come and go from my hut to the village on a small road bike. At that time I was staying some distance from the town and the only access to it was via a gravel road which forded a small river and was soon after followed by a very steep dirt track.

I would make the journey into the town probably about once a week or more frequently if the need arose. One time I remember coming back from one of these excursions and noticing a small creek trickling down amid the dense foliage on the side of the road. It had been my experience in the recent past when with friends that at the source of these little creeks one could often find beautiful waterfalls and cool blue ponds.

We had made several such explorations in this area and they had all been well worth the effort. For some reason, that day, I was very much pulled to explore this particular creek even though I was alone.

My curiosity was piqued and I was feeling particularly buoyant and adventurous that morning. I parked my motorbike on the side of the road and took off up the side of the rivulet. It was a gorgeous morning and sunlight shone through the forest leaves in dappled strands. The coolness and the luxurious greenness of this landscape lured me like a promise and taking no heed of anything else I dove into it bounding from one rock to another as I made my way up the stream.

In this mood of great exuberance, I continued to climb on and on always hopeful that the expected waterfall and icy pool would soon appear. Probably about an hour into my climb I found myself among a sea of boulders and the stream had disappeared beneath.

All along the route, I had begun to discard various pieces of my clothing. It was getting hotter and hotter and I did not for one moment even consider that I would ever meet anyone in such a place. I continued for a while longer until it became clear that the stream was not issuing from any nearby waterfall but rather perhaps some hidden spring which was well beneath the boulders over which I was climbing.

Taking a moment to catch my breath I suddenly noticed a movement in the corner of my eye. I looked towards it and saw a very large brown snake glide soundlessly beneath the large rock on which I was standing. I froze with fear.
An instant terror just rose in my belly and I suddenly felt paralysed.

By that time I had, of course, encountered many snakes in and around where I was living. However, what I discovered that morning in this completely isolated place was that I had climbed into an area that was literally crawling with these creatures. I became aware that I was being watched and not by human eyes. There were snakes basking on the rocks to my left and to my right, above where I was standing and beneath the rocks I was standing on. Finding myself in their midst suddenly left me feeling incredibly alone and vulnerable. I became painfully aware of my nakedness as though someone had just thrown icy water all over me.

Somehow the myriad eyes which were watching me were unspeakably strange, alien and frightening.

I had climbed into this place unmindful of the dangers and completely engrossed in my mood of joyful curiosity. Becoming aware of my foolishness and the danger that I was in was unspeakably discomforting. I stood rooted to the spot, utterly petrified. The mood had shifted from joy to terror, without anything in between.

This shift was so sudden and shocking that it froze every cell in my body and I simply could not move. There was no one to call, nothing to do, no apparent way to escape.

I could not imagine how I would retrace my steps all the way back to the road without one of these creatures lunging out at me and yet I had to try to get back to the road and my bike.

On every side I felt the cold and piercing gaze of countless silent eyes watching, waiting. This was their place, I was an intruder and my instinctive fear created a barrier between them and me and rendered me supremely vulnerable and in their power.

With the utmost care and as slowly as I could I began to move back down the boulder-strewn creek. In agonising horror, I could only pray and move one shaky limb after the other hoping that these 'lords of the realm' these 'serpents of wisdom' would let me pass by unmolested.

The descent felt as though it took an eternity. The stress and tension in my body turned every fibre in my being into a mass of straining nerves. The blood was pumping through my body so intensively that all I could hear was its pounding in my ears.

I picked up the pieces of clothing I had discarded along the way and
by the time I finally reached the road was fully attired and utterly exhausted.

The gratitude and relief that I felt at seeing my little Yamaha bike sitting exactly where I had left it some hours before was something I could never have anticipated when I had parked it there earlier that morning.

I made my way back to my forest hut, thoughtfully and much chastened by the morning's unexpected adventure.

In those days I was encountering my 'mind' in ways that I could never have even dreamed of. It felt as though the forest around me was conspiring to teach me the ways of 'awareness.' The very environment in which I lived and moved became my 'guru,' pushing me towards discoveries that were to prove pivotal and life-changing.

I escaped unharmed from that place which was crawling with snakes but that left me with no sense of victory, rather I was quite taken aback by the shameless fear that had risen up in me so unbidden and so uncontrollable.

Fear is a useful mechanism for keeping us alive in certain situations but many of us seldom, if ever, examine it for itself. If I had not been consumed by fear during the encounter with the nagas in the forest in Queensland, I can't help but wonder as to what frontiers of 'awareness' these creatures might have led me.

Certainly, in India, snakes are feared but they also respected, even revered and the Nagini Druvinka Puri provides us with a striking example of how one kingdom can cross a threshold in order to encounter another. What are the boundaries which separate us in the first place?

Surely these boundaries exist only in our minds?

I could not rise to fully meet the occasion of that unique challenge, but even so, my curiosity is still piqued. No longer am I concerned about the imagined cool blue pond giving rise to a stream but rather the lives that dwell near the stream and whose consciousness existence appears to be so alien and strange.

As with all who dwell in this world, in whatever form, the naga snakes have their own peculiar lives and are an integral part of the mystery of our existence.

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 gravel pathway until suddenly they turned a bend in the path and right there before them was Tani Mahuta. The name was given by the Maori 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 one's 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 extraordinary 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 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 they 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 hold a deeply nostalgic significance in my heart.

There is nothing of the mental in this and yet everything of 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;


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.)


Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Are Smart Phones Making Fools of Us All?

In this age of smartphone technology, most people are distracted pretty much most of the time. Constant inattention can and will have serious implications for this and future generations.

Many people are not aware of the fact that they are almost constantly distracted. We tend to have an almost addictive need for some kind of emotional engagement and smartphones fill this need on a number of different levels, very effectively. In fact, they have been designed with just this 'need' in mind. 

Various kinds of social network messaging, digital games, news and or information feeds can keep us engaged for inordinate amounts of time and in one way we may feel more connected than ever before and yet, ironically, the levels of disconnection in our societies and among our young people are higher than ever before.

As artificial intelligence begins to penetrate our lives in various subtle and invasive ways we would do well to take into account what this can mean and how it can affect the way we live. 

There are not many of us who have not experienced the frustration of trying to sort out a problem on the phone and having to deal with a digital answering service.

Certainly, the changes now taking place are unprecedented in both the speed with which these technologies are being developed and the manner in which they will completely change our mode of living. 

I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.

These words have been attributed to Albert Einstein but regardless of whether this is, in fact, true or not, they are relevant and sound out as a clarion call. May we wake up in time and shake ourselves out of our zombie-like infatuation. It appears that a whole, vast section of humanity is sleepwalking. Will we look up from our devices long enough to actually notice that we are distracted in the first place and from what we are distracted in the second? 

It is not that this is anything particularly unique to our current civilisation. As says the Biblical injunction; 'there is nothing new under the sun.' We may think we are on the cutting edge of technologies that have never before seen the light of day and yet countless civilisations have passed through this earthly realm and the remnants of their passing are a continuing cause of wonder and mystery to many in this current day and age. 

Whatever the mind is capable of dreaming up and even what has not yet been dreamed, all these things are possible and can and will become manifest in due course of time, if the will to manifest them arises. This is the innate power of the mind.

What has not changed, however, is our perpetual state of 'distraction' in one form or another. The fact is that these emerging technologies can capitalise on this apparent human weakness to target and harvest our attention on a massive scale never before witnessed. We should all be alert to the implications of this.

What we see happening now with the rise of modern technologies which have quickly become seemingly indispensable to the vast section of humanity in just the brief space of a few decades, is at base just more of the same old, same old... There may be a new look, a new flavour, a new brand, but strip that all away and our basic human instincts continue to propel us all in the same old direction.

We can dress up our confused emotions, we can varnish over the fundamental impulses which propel us through life, but century after century, decade after decade and day after day, they remain intact and they are the motivating force behind all that is manifest in this world. This is and remains the case as much now as it was a thousand years ago.

What is troubling now is the fact that this trend is being directed by a tiny minority. If we lose our 'attention,' we lose our power. If we are not aware of or have never considered what impact the current technologies are having on our human civilisations then it is certainly time to become aware now!

As long as we remain subject to the ebb and flow of our hopes and fears we cannot know our true inner freedom and at this time and in this age we are so vulnerable en-mass to being manipulated by a minority. 

The sheer scale of what is taking place, virtually unnoticed, is indeed a cause for concern. When a minority is capable of quietly manipulating whole populations for gain and profit can we call this anything other than a negative trend?

When a whole civilisation appears to be sleepwalking towards a precipice we do indeed face a grave danger.

Is it not intrinsically against the whole ideal of democracy to intentionally keep the mass of humanity distracted by what is unimportant? If we create devices that are geared to monopolise our attention and keep it focused on the trivial instead of the vital we can imagine what the outcome might be.

Don't we have a moral obligation to wake up and notice what is really happening here? It is up to each one of us.

And there is a tapping at the door of our awareness. The inmost core within each and every one of us is trying to get through, trying to jolt us out of our torpor.

Do you ever get the feeling that something is missing in your life?
You should trust that feeling because it is a true one. Something is missing in your life. It's called 'attention.'

If our attention is hijacked by a mobile phone or some other kind of smart device do we not then become the plaything of that device or thinking which has created it? Where is our cherished freedom if our ability to avoid the subtle manipulation, inherent in the designs of modern technological innovations, is woefully inadequate.

There is something infinitely more dangerous about an addiction which slips into our lives unnoticed. Modern technologies exploit people's impulses thereby robbing them of the ability to choose wisely. 

Have you ever heard of the term, 'persuasive design'? Until very recently I hadn't either. I have, however, long suspected that our very modern deficiency of attention or perhaps we could term it; partial attention syndrome is a very insidious new-age kind of illness with momentous implications. Are we not distracted most of the time?

Persuasive design is a term that describes any kind of technology that has been created with the intention of grabbing people's attention and holding it. It involves the subtle art of subversively
capturing our interest, overpowering our attention and bringing it back repeatedly to that thing, whatever that may be.

If we are beginning to recognise this trend then it is none too soon. The problem is, that even upon recognising this very recent affliction we are nowhere near addressing and or managing it.

Learning to pay attention to our attention is a very crucial piece of advice. It points to something utterly fundamental about our existence.

Do we really notice what is going on around us if we are distracted? We lose our inherent freedom the moment our attention is compromised. Smartphones are not only very efficient in creating a 'vacuum' in our lives, but they are equally efficient in seeming to fill that vacuum as well.

The moment our concentration is directed towards something or other, then, at that moment, whatever it is that we are perceiving becomes our 'world.' 

This is what is meant by the spiritual dictum that we so often hear and yet fail to truly understand. Namely; nothing has an inherent existence in and of itself. Another way of saying this is; whatever our mind is drawn to, that is our reality at that moment.

If something or someone hijacks our attention we become little better than automatons, walking zombies moving past one another in the vast ocean of time and space, scarcely even aware of each other or of the fact that we exist at all.

We don't need any evidence that this is in fact already the case, we have proof of it in every direction that we may turn our gaze in our so-called modern and technological societies. These technologies have entered our lives and are completely and utterly changing the ways we live and think and behave.

We urgently need to become aware of just how pervasive and insidious these changes really are.

In our so-called 'money economy' it is regarded as perfectly acceptable to manipulate people's attention in order to capture that attention and direct it towards a 'product.' Isn't this the very basis of capitalism?

Therefore capitalism is geared towards exploiting human vulnerabilities for monetary gain. Smartphones have already become tools of mass manipulation on a scale, the likes of which we have not seen before. This is a deeply worrying trend and deserves our thoughtful attention.

Ultimately all of this leads to nothing but a profound and insidious d
isconnection from who and what we really are.

If we are not in control of our attention, then something or someone else is... We can be absolutely sure that if we feel that something is missing in our lives, it most assuredly is our attention.

In days to come we will be forced to grapple with this problem  head-on. Given how pervasive our distraction has already become, this will be a mammoth undertaking.

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
Albert Einstein

And herein lies our salvation if we can in fact rise to the challenge.  We will have to recognise what has always been nearest and dearest.

It has become an urgent necessity to expand our vision beyond the current distraction and pre-occupation with smart devices of one kind or another, towards what is fundamental to our very existence.


Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Case of the Curlew

The Wisdom

Look! Look! he is climbing the last light 

who knows neither time nor error, 
and under whose eye, unforgiving, 
the world, unforgiven, 
swings into shadow.

 –from "Evening Hawk" by Robert Penn Warren

Have you ever had one of those pivotal moments in which everything you had previously thought of as true and real, no longer seems so because your whole sense of reality has shifted gear and opened out into a wider dimension?

This 'new' perspective is so near and so natural we can't help wondering how we had never noticed it before.

I think most of us have experienced such moments during our lives. When they happen we feel that nothing will or can ever be the same again and 'truth' seems so very near and obvious. But alas, all too often and all too soon we lose the lofty heights of our momentary perspective and sink back into the dream...

And the 'dream' is addictive and compelling. We believe in the story of our lives and almost everything that we do or say or think feeds into the sturdy edifice of our story. It is almost as though we cannot help ourselves because the story-line seems so believable.

And sadly, we almost never think to question our story or to investigate the nature and origins of our inmost sense of 'self.' As a result, our attention remains locked onto the drama of our unfolding life and we remain none the wiser right up until the time it is about to end.

Most of us are not even aware that we are fixating on a drama which is neither true nor real and we are accustomed to living almost all of our lives this way. For us, what is nearest and true, as our inmost nature, has become but a distant dream and what is dreamlike and passing is the obsessive focus of our day to day attention.

There is a nocturnal bird that lives in Australia, called a Curlew. It has a tendency, on occasion, to turn up outside windows and reflective surfaces where it appears to be mesmerised by its own image. It is not that it thinks the image is another bird, rather it knows instinctively that the image it is seeing in the glass has something to do with itself. There is an almost fatal attraction which compels the bird towards what it is perceiving.

Bush Stone Curlew
In a similar manner, we human beings are infatuated with our sense of self-identity. We are convinced that we are what we appear to be.

We can learn so much from the natural world around us, from the wildlife, from the plants and in fact from every living thing.

Since I was very young I remember hearing stories about birds that
would appear just before or around the time of someone's death. In fact, I personally witnessed such a thing on more than one occasion in my younger years.

In New Zealand, where I grew up, these untimely or timely, visitations were considered, by the Maori, to be an omen.

Modern societies have forgotten about omens. Everything has been reduced to the small and narrow focus of what is apparently provable. As though the only reality we can identify with must be scientifically accounted for.

And yet, whenever something rattles our attention and gives us pause for thought, or better still, arrests our thought altogether, we have come face to face with the 'unknown.' In such confounding moments, we have entered the realm of omens of awareness. We cannot understand them with the mind and yet on an almost subliminal level we feel deeply unsettled by them.

Getting back to the interesting case of the Curlew.
Some years ago, while I was visiting Kuranda, a small settlement, in the far north of Queensland, I was surprised to see groups of birds occasionally gathered here and there around the town, usually near bushes and leafy parklands.

They were most often completely still and immobile so that one might not actually notice them until very near and then be startled by these strange, still and graceful creatures. They certainly made an impression on me.

I asked a friend about them and he told me they were called Bush Stone Curlews and that the Aboriginal people feared their appearance in a locality as harbingers of death.

Whether that is actually true or not remains to be seen, however,
I was particularly impressed by these birds and the feeling of something other-worldly which I always felt when I saw them or happened upon them on my way.

They are said to be primarily a nocturnal bird explaining why they move so little during the hours of daylight and have an almost dreamlike quality about them. Dream-like as in sleepwalking.

Then, in March of this year, I came across a story of a bird that appeared in a busy Brisbane suburb. One of this particular breed had planted itself very firmly outside an office building and was seen to be gazing at itself in the glass of the shop front for hours on end. In fact, it would come at the crack of dawn with the very first rays of the sun and leave again only at dusk when it became dark.

Of course, many people noticed it and the occurrence began to spawn much attention. So much so that a notice soon appeared on the window just above where the bird would stand in isolated and determined vigil gazing at itself in the glass.

"I'm a bush stone curlew," the sign read.
"I'm fine. I just like to stare at myself in the window."

Many people were alarmed by its behaviour.

The Brisbane City Councillor, Ryan Murphy, humorously named
one such bird Sir Kew Llew, when, on a separate occasion, one appeared outside his office and took up the post of a vigilante for several days on end.

He wrote;

The situation is rapidly spiralling out of control. Despite it being clearly signed, the Curlew ignores all instruction. What's worse, patrons of the nearby Dominos have gifted it a generous supply of Classic Crust, allowing the bird to maintain its siege indefinitely.

I am no stranger to odd constituents. Indeed, one once threw a burning tyre through the very window that now consumes this Curlew. The affection of some constituents burns red hot, but the obsession of this avian interloper is more than a man can bear.

RSPCA refuse to pick it up, so I guess Sir Kerr Llew must stay. Like an ‘office volunteer’ who hangs around a lot, eventually, I will be forced to put it on my staff.'


Australia is blessed with many unique and extraordinary birds but there is something mystical about this one. It has a bone-chilling and piercing cry which can often be heard if they are nesting in the local vicinity. Their call is very haunting when it sounds out in the early, silent hours of the morning.

As with so many things in nature, we can find, in their seeming eccentricities, things which are entirely relevant to our own lives.

We are so surprised and even quite unnerved by the behaviour of the Curlew. To us it appears extreme and irrational and yet we do not notice that we also behave in a similar fashion.

We may not plant ourselves in front of reflective surfaces for days on end gazing at our own images in the glass and yet, are we not mesmerised by our sense of 'self' and the seeming reality of our lives and the part we appear to be playing in them?

This infatuation can compel us to move through an entire lifetime like a sleepwalker, awake to the dream and yet asleep to what actually is. Like children engrossed in watching the pictures made up of moving dots on a screen, we fail to notice the screen itself.

To be present and yet absent from our presence is a dilemma that ensnares our modern societies. The fatal attraction of a pseudo pleasure which is always somehow just out of our reach is a modern version of an ancient human problem. Smartphones and our digital technologies play into this dilemma very conveniently by creating devices that snatch away our attention and subvert it very efficiently into channels that do not in any way serve our best interests.

At the end of the day, the wise will remember that life is brief. Of what use is it to spend so much of our precious time and attention gazing at a screen? Better by far to waken from our dream and become aware of what it is that makes the whole show appear in the first place!

The only truly meaningful thing to do in this world is to understand who and what we really are and yet we find endless ways with which to distract ourselves from this vital investigation.

We are fatally attracted to what we perceive and yet fail to notice what it is that perceives.

This points to what is missing in our lives. Many feel that something is in fact missing and yet cannot quite say what it is. The answer is shockingly simple. Our attention is missing. When our attention is distracted we are not aware of the only thing which is actually real and true. Without it we are merely puppets dancing to some frenetic tune from which we finally collapse, exhausted and lost.

Unwittingly, we have become sleepwalkers. From the moment of waking until the moment when we sink into sleep, we are the plaything of our perceptions and of the very technologies that promise to free us. The lines between waking and dreaming have been dangerously blurred so that we scarcely notice them at all.

Is this not a strange turn around of events? Unintended repercussions are often the result of fundamentally good intentions.

May the omens of awareness come to shake us out of our torpor, out of our dreaming. Infatuated with the images on the so-called screen of life we fail to see that we are swallowed by the abyss of inattention and when our death comes to greet us, as it surely will, we will suddenly wake and wonder how it all has come to pass.

Like the Curlew that has planted itself in front of the glass, we are fixated and lost. We are not able to free ourselves from our obsessions.

Let us not forget the most precious of all gifts which each of us has right now, in the very palm of our hands. It deserves our unswerving attention now and always...