Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Maggie Ross at Hay Festival 31 May 2015

I will be dialoguing with Rachael Kerr on Sunday, 31 May, 2015 at the Hay Festival in Hay-on Wye at 9 AM. The venue (appropriately, I hope!) is the Good Energy Stage. Tickets are £5.

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Thirty-seven Practices of a Bhodisattva Part One,

You see all phenomena
to have no coming and going,
still you strive solely for
the benefit of beings
Supreme Guru and protector,
Chenrezig, to you
I continually bow in respect
with body, speech and mind.

The source of benefit and happiness,
the perfected Buddhas,
they came about because
they accomplished
the Genuine Dharma.
To do so, again depends
on knowing their actual practice.
Therefore, the practices
of a Bodhisattva shall be explained.

Now that I have obtained
what is so difficult to find
the precious human body,
the great boat,
I shall ferry myself and others
over the ocean of Samsara.
Therefore, throughout day
and night without laziness
To listen, reflect and meditate.
is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Passion towards friends
moves like water.
Hatred towards enemies
burns like fire.
The darkness of ignorance
makes one forget what to adopt,
what to reject.
To abandon the homeland of such,
is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Leaving adverse places,
afflictions will gradually diminish.
Not being distracted,
virtuous activity will
naturally increase.
Through clear awareness trust
in the Dharma will be born.
To stay in solitude,
is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Longtime acquainted with friends
and relatives will separate.
Possessions gained with exertion
will be left behind.
the guest, will leave the
guest-house of the body.
To discard this life in mind,

is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Wise Words

Martha Graham was born on this day in 1894. Her advice to fellow dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille:

The greatest thing she ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have a peculiar and unusual gift, and you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time, she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Quoted from: Letters of Note

Monday, May 04, 2015


There has been a question about what constitutes dis-incarnation. Perhaps we need to start with a definition: dis-incarnation is any move that denigrates the body, that lowers the view of the human; that overemphasizes penance and suffering.

In a sense, the entire trajectory of Christian history has been one of progressive dis-incarnation. First, there was the establishment of an institution or institutions ("all the Christianities"). Institutions by definition are dehumanizing. The subject is reduced to a cipher to fit into the schemes of the hierarchy.

In early Christianity there were also groups that denigrated the body and the material character of creation. Many of these groups were suppressed as heretical, but the thread continues in one form or other throughout Christian history. It is evident in Celtic Christianity, whose pessimism subsequently infects western Christianity at large. It takes on particular strength at the time of the Counter-Reformation and the rise of Jansenism.

The emphasis of Christianity shifts from living a resurrected life in God to living life as a guilt-ridden sinner meditating on suffering. Instead of going to church to be educated and incorporated into resurrected life, people more often than not leave the liturgy feeling more guilty than forgiven. One might say that rules are substituted for grace. Western Christianity has lost most of the praxis that was inherent in the first centuries.

By contrast, Paul tells us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit; indeed, we might gloss this statement by saying that the body is suffused and animated by the Holy Spirit, which cannot work grace without the body. Body and spirit/soul are inextricably bound together; it is counter-productive to pick the scabs of wounds in any aspect of the body-spirit continuum. Paul also emphasizes joy and a cosmic perspective. These, too, have been lost in modern expressions western Christianity—including the forced gyrations, devastating noise and narcissism of extreme evangelicals.

By contrast, Tibetan Buddhism appears to have a profound emphasis on incarnation, not only in the methodology of visualisation, but also in every aspect of praxis. The beginner is told to meditate on 'precious human life' as foundational to praxis. The beginner is also made to understand that buddhahood already exists within, like a diamond covered with mud, and that the task is to wash off the mud by getting rid of negativities. 

The more advanced practitioner may undertake a four-year retreat. In the second year of this retreat, there is a five-week period devoted to both appreciation of and detachment from the body: no part of the body is cleaned in this five-week period. The effect is paradoxical: it makes acceptance of the body at its ripest unavoidable, and also stimulates detachment from vanity. The more advanced practitioner is also taught the rite of chöd, in which the body is offered as food to the hungry ghosts and other beings.

There are meditations on death, on the charnel-ground, on physical dissolution. These are not to encourage morbidity but rather to encourage the practitioner to accept death as a given and as a presence in every aspect of life. Equally, and on the other hand, there are visualizations in which the practitioner visualizes a deity and then moves to take the place of the deity in order to see with the deity's eyes.

In Tibetan Buddhism there seems to be a profound understanding of every aspect of human psychology as it relates to the body; if it were possible, it would be helpful to Christianity to understand the psychology that underpins Buddhist practice, to help Christianity reestablish both praxis and lineages—for the practices are embodied and transmitted through unbroken lineages of practitioners.

I am not saying we should all become Tibetan Buddhists. I am saying that ironically, in many cases, Tibetan Buddhism is far more incarnational than western Christianity, which purports to be an incarnational religion, and that there is a lot to be learned from it. There are parallels and correspondences between the two, but we should never make the mistake of saying that this or that aspect is "the same" in both religions.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

First-Hand Report from Nepal

Greg Sharkey, SJ, is a very dear friend of mine who lives and works in Nepal. He happened to be Stateside at the time of the earthquake, but was at the airport headed to Kathmandu the same day. He has just written to me as follows below. Please pray for him and for everyone in Nepal, and please donate as much as you can to the charities sending supplies and medical assistance. The lives of eight million people are on the line.

It is so hard to keep up with emails, while organizing efforts that have to be made immediately, in these early days, in order to save lives. Apologies for my cybernetic silence.

The death toll is now well above 5000; but I am sure that very large numbers of the dead will never be counted. It is wrenching to get daily updates from the Tamang and Newar villages of Kavre, Sindhuplachok and Dolakha Districts, in which I’ve lived and done research. Many of the numbers have a beloved name and face attached. 

The official count of serious casualties — i.e., requiring surgery — is over 10K. I spent the morning at Dhulikhel Hospital — about an hour outside Kathmandu Valley. It’s the place where many of the wounded from the above-mentioned districts are brought. We brought orthopedic surgery supplies, which are desperately needed here. The hospital is so overstuffed that patients awaiting surgery are lined up on mats in the lobby. I thank God for my various stints as a hospital chaplain during formation; otherwise the sights would be overwhelming. 

In the afternoon I took a group of Taiwanese doctors and volunteers to Bhaktapur, the ancient medieval capital. Nearly all the historic buildings are reduced to piles of broken brick. Search and rescue teams are still struggling to extricate those who were trapped in the mountains of debris. (In some of the narrow lanes, 3-4 buildings collapsed into one pile.) At this point, however, it’s a matter of removing the dead. I spent some time comforting a Newar couple whose son was trapped on the ground floor of one such pile. He was able to text his pleas for help for two days; and then the phone went dead. A Korean search-and-rescue team removed the body today. Even cowboys cry at that stuff…

It’s all quite draining; and the knowledge that villagers out in hundreds of hill villages have received no help yet, is daunting. But knowing that our efforts truly matter is a great consolation that keeps us going. We are looking after each other and taking time to step away from it all and breathe deeply. We are also holding daily meetings to discuss what’s going on. That lets us share what we are experiencing. Asians don’t do that the way Americans would; but it’s working. We’re standing strong for the good of the afflicted. I drag myself home each evening, have a good, quick cry over the reports of friends’ deaths, go to sleep, then get up to make the coffee. What else can you do?

I’m too busy to write all my friends. Feel free to share this as broadly as you like.

Love, Greg

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Separate Universes, One Heart

Whenever I talk about the island the question inevitably arises as to what I, as a Christian, was doing at a Buddhist monastery (a question often asked with a certain suspicious tone, as if Buddhism were some sort of apostasy), so perhaps it is a good idea to write a bit about how I approached the retreat—and approach Buddhism.

First of all, Buddhism is less a religion and more of a philosophical psychology, a statement that immediately has to be qualified because there are many forms of Buddhism, some of which are in conflict with others. Also at the Tibetan end of the spectrum, one begins to encounter practices and insights that echo Christianity, especially as regards symbolism and sacrament. The relationship between Buddhism and Christianity is anything but uniform, according to Buddhists—and indeed, there are, of course, many forms of Christianity. 

In one book, Thich Nhat Hanh [Living Buddha Living Christ] suggests that Christianity and Buddhism in the end are the same. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama says it is very important not to confuse the two. Just to complicate matters, these two positions don't necessarily contradict each other. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking from a Zen point of view, and writing about the similarity of ethics of the heart. Tibetan Buddhism is something altogether different, and much more complicated—one might even say, thorough, in its understanding of the permutations of the human psyche, and its practices and symbolism reflect these subtleties.

That Tibetan Buddhism appears perhaps to have much in common with Christianity is probably due to the fact that there were Christian bishops in Tibet from the 8th-12th centuries. Tibetan Buddhism as we know it doesn't really coalesce until the 13th century, and so it is no surprise that some of the practices and insights seem to resonate so thoroughly with Christianity. Having said this, it is, in my view, a mistake to speak of more than 'correlations' or 'resonances' between the two—even in such situations as I described above in which the English teacher for the Karmapa's monastery pointed out that the word that is translated as 'merit' in Buddhist texts should really be translated as 'grace'. The Tibetan context is so utterly different, at least in its early and middle stages, that the word 'grace' takes on a completely different set of nuances to those that occur in Christianity. That is not to say that there is not some overlap, but it is better to err on the side of caution.

One might point to the Buddhist image of the person as a diamond covered with mud; all that needs doing is the cleansing of the diamond. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the human person; we are just ignorant and confused. A Christian might immediately suggest a comparison with Athanasius' statement that the human person is a portrait that simply needs to be cleansed. It sounds so similar, yet the two images are universes apart.

What enables any dialogue between the traditions is not a 'perennial philosophy' which, as this blog has frequently noted, is a fallacious concept because it is interpretation based on interpretation, but rather a perennial psychology. There are markers along the way but again, no claim can be made that even these are 'the same' because the contextual mindsets are so different.

I solved the problem for myself on Holy Island by simply practicing the Buddhism that I understood, aided by the very delightful and generous lama with whom I had some fascinating conversations about the comparison/confusion problem. She is French and had been raised Catholic—she has a sister who is a Carmelite nun—and she told me that Buddhism had made some of her Catholic background come alive again. One of the biggest stumbling blocks, we both agreed, is that over the centuries Christianity has dis-incarnated itself—a kind of self-refutation for a religion that purports to be about incarnation—while Buddhism has retained and indeed heavily emphasises the incarnate aspect of practice. More on this later.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


It is now a month since I left Holy Isle—or rather, since my body left Holy Isle, because a large part of me is still there. And I hope to go back one day. Perhaps telling you, Gentle Readers, a little about the place will help me heal the split.

The transition has been more than difficult, especially since after arriving in Oxford I came down almost immediately with one of my notorious chest infections. I have not been able to work and barely to think.

Holy Isle sits about a mile and a half off the SE coast of Arran in Lamlash Bay. It's about two miles long and a mile wide. Parts of it are very rugged, and it has the same sort of basalt formations that you can see on Staffa or the Giants' causeway; there are also sandstone and other types of rock, attesting to a lively geologic history. 

The retreat centre has made minimal impact on the island. The conference centre is on the North End, and the facility for the long (1-4 years) retreats are at the South end, created out of the old lighthouse keeper's cottage. Also at the south end are three 'pods' for permanent nun retreatants. If I weren't going on 74 years old and if I had some money I might try for a pod myself. In a sense I have been pod-hunting all my life. It's good to know that three people at least are living that life even if I am past it physically to make it at the South end.

At the North end there are a lot of polytunnels and gardens; the island tries to be a self-sufficient as possible, though in the deep winter additional supplies have to make the crossing when the wind permits.

The beginning of the retreat was delayed by the wild weather we had right after Christmas. I finally arrived a week late, along with the lama who was directing the retreat and has one of the pods at the South end, and a few others. We crossed the stretch of water between two worlds accompanied by rainbows. It was like going through a time-warp.

The retreatants and resident volunteers were an amazingly varied lot. An architect, two doctors, an herbologist, a construction expert, several therapists, a physicist, someone who worked for Virgin trains and so on. The atmosphere was very laid back and low key, while at the same time those doing Buddhist (or other) practice were very serious about what they were doing without being obtrusive about it. It was an unusual and welcome combination I've never encountered before. Often at retreat centres there is a certain preciousness, an 'in' group and an 'out' group; there are some engaging in competitive piety, etc. But there was none of this, and I sank thankfully without resesrve into the open arms of the island.