A week or two ago my brother, Tim, witnessed a motorbike accident. It was the morning rush hour in Edgebaston, Birmingham, and he was driving his van along a busy duel-carriageway on his way to a carpentry job. Directly in front of him was a stocky, middle-aged man in full leather gear riding a motorbike. This man was no doubt on his daily run to work, just like everybody else. It was a typically ordinary start to a day that would prove to be, for one person at least, devastating.
As is the case with these things, it happened quite suddenly. A woman driver – with her view of the road obscured by an approaching lorry, but being impatient to cross the main road – pulled out. She didn’t see the motorcyclist. He saw her, but it was far too late and he hurtled full-speed into the side of her car. Bones and rubber, flesh and chrome slammed into glass and steel. The momentum of a body flying at 50 mph was halted instantly and the man’s crumpled, shattered form dropped to the road. He might as well have ridden straight into a brick wall.
It’s the classic mistake: we resolve to do something, set the bar too high, smash into it, and give up.
We do it with food: Not one chocolate Hob-Nob will pass my lips ever again! And exercise: I will somersault off my mattress at four every morning and perform one hundred Sun Salutations! And writing blogs: I will write at least one post a day, and always have ten in reserve! And Hardcore Himalayan Hermit meditation programmes: I will meditate for three hours every morning before work, and every evening before bed, sitting full-lotus… Without moving… Or scratching… Or breathing…
Religion, I feel fortunate enough to say, was never a part of my home life when growing up. My mother, although refreshingly open-minded, had far more pressing concerns: there were fish-fingers to fry and muddy football kits to wash. And my father (who lived elsewhere) not only looks a little like Richard Dawkins but has views and a tongue to match – though he never once tried to persuade me one way or the other.
My primary school, on the other hand, was Church of England. And so that meant the usual humdrum of hymns, church outings, nativity plays, and even a cantankerous old Welsh pianist who, during choir practice, would threaten to have our guts for garters if we failed to squeak to his satisfaction. I never saw any intestines dangling around his shins, so I assume it remained an unfulfilled fantasy.
(Lucky bunnies. Imagine having a built-in sleeping bag.)
The other evening a student at Warwick University asked me a now familiar question: Were your early days at the monastery difficult? Yes, I answered, they certainly were. And I admitted that during those unforgettable first few weeks, in that particularly chilly September, I plotted my escape several times. My home was within walking distance; I could have been shovelling down one of my mother’s speciality hot-pots within three hours. But the desire to not give up (and to not be seen giving up) kept my freshly shaven head and flip-flop toting feet within the monastery hedges. It was a close call, but I survived.
It is a practice of mine to try to ensure that first thing in the morning, before my day gets going – before I straighten out my duvet or become suitably attired; before I open the main gate or drink my cup of sweet and strong Assam tea; before my mind is stirred by the rising currents of the day’s worries and vain desires – I calmly introduce into my awareness certain thoughts. Thoughts of death.
The fact that this could be my last day. The fact that one day I will wake up and it will be my last day, and that this could be the one. The fact that many people are waking up at this very moment who will die on this very day. The fact that my time is limited and that the time I have with those people whom I care for and value is limited. The fact that one day they won’t be here any more, and neither will I. The fact, the only fact, that I will die.
It’s early February and the grounds here at the Hermitage are looking rather tired, to say nothing of the soggy fields and woodland that surround us. It is all, to be frank, a bit grim. The days are mostly overcast. It’s cold. The ground is saturated with water and in many places swimming underneath it. The trees are shivering in the wind, while the blackened leaves from last year decompose at their roots. Grey. Grim. Wet. If nature here was any more tired it would be tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle.
(Freshly fired alms-bowls)
Just before I left for Thailand towards the end of last year I visited a school in Coventry and spoke to three classes of 10/11 year olds. The school was in quite a deprived part of Coventry but the children turned out to be some of the most inquisitive and mature I have met in my long and varied experience of teaching Dhamma in schools. Following the visit I received an email with some questions from the children but as I was about to jump on the plane I didn’t have time to answer. So, being back in Blighty and having finally responded, I thought I’d share the questions and my answers here.
(Bend me, shape me, any way you want me.)
You may not have thought of it before, but Blu-Tack can teach us a lot about the practice of meditation. For those of you on foreign shores who might be unaware of this cornerstone of British office stationary, Blu-Tack is a – you guessed it – blue putty-like substance that can be rolled, stretched and pulled apart and is used to stick pieces of paper and the like onto walls, notice boards and other flat surfaces. People even use it to make figurines.