It’s The Shortest Day

The Shortest DayToday is the shortest day of the year, here in the UK, and strangely some may say, it’s my favourite day of the year. Why, I can hear you asking, isn’t the longest day of the year more favoured, all those lovely hours of daylight, and often sunshine too. Well it’s because today marks the nadir of the year in terms of daylight. From now on we get an extra minute or so more light each day, and that’s something to look forward to.

Daisaku Ikeda has some very wise words for these long dark days, and offers a welcome ray of hope …

“Even if today may seem to be a time of total darkness, it will not last forever. The dawn will surely come if you advance, ever forward, without being defeated.

The day will definitely come when you can look back fondly and declare, “I am savouring this happiness because I struggled back then.” It is those who know the bitterness of winter that can savour the true joy of spring.”

~ Daisaku Ikeda

Being Limitless

Being LimitlessWhen we are open and engaged, we experience the greater self. When we are closed off, we are exhibiting our lesser self.

The lesser self is a deluded condition, whilst our greater self is synonymous with our Buddha nature.

To live for the greater self means to recognise the universal principle behind all things and, being awaked in this way, rise above the suffering caused by the awareness of impermanence. A belief in something eternal is needed to enhance our quality of life.

By believing that this world is the be-all and end-all of existence, we will miss out, we will not live a truly profound life. When our viewpoint expands beyond the boundaries of our present existence to include the entire, eternal universe, we can finally live deeply fulfilling lives, unconstrained by our own limited experience.

A Buddhist Perspective Of Death

A Buddhist Perspective Of DeathThe sudden and tragic passing of a local chap, due to a motoring accident, led me to think about how fragile life is, and how we often take it for granted.

It also prompted me to find this well known poem about death, from the Buddhist perspective.

Though we may relinquish our body in this lifetime, we are not gone, nor will we ever be.

For me, it holds a number of consoling thoughts …

This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born, and I have never died.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and seek.
So laugh with me, hold my hand, let us say good-bye, say good-bye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

A Worthy Goal

Buddhahood In This LifetimeOften we hear about the different attitudes of religious doctrine around the world, some we are happy to embrace, others we find unsettling. But whatever the doctrine, religion must teach us an ‘attitude to life’.

To live a life of true human dignity is certainly difficult. Life is change, it is continuous change. Nothing is constant. The  four sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death are an eternal theme that no one can escape.

Amid harsh reality, people yearn from the depths of their beings, to live with dignity, for their lives to have meaning, and they make efforts towards that end. The product of these human yearnings, these prayers, is religion. Religion was born from prayer.

What is Nichiren’s response to these prayers of human beings? What attitude towards life does he teach? The answer, in short, is the principle of attaining Buddhahood in this lifetime through continued practice.

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

Such A Sad Day

My DadToday is one of those days that none of us look forward to, because as I post this, it is exactly twelve years, almost to the minute, since my Dad passed on.

The day is made all the more strange, because the 27th of September had always been a special day, it was also his mother’s, my Nan’s, birthday.

Just another one of those coincidences that life turns up occasionally.

On that day, 12 years ago, we knew that Dad wasn’t well. He’d suffered from Angina since his early sixties, but that was under control, as were his cholesterol levels. But he had had a silly little accident, dropped a heavy wooden box on his shin, and the resulting wound refused to heal.

Because he was forced to rest the leg, he stopped going out for walks and could usually be found sitting reading, or sleeping, in his chair in the lounge. He started to put on a bit of weight and whenever he did venture out, would have to stop occasionally to draw breath.

But that wasn’t really why he was in hospital that day. He had gone, the day before, to have some routine tests. During the tests they noticed that he had a rather swollen belly, and asked him a bit about it.

It turned out that he had been having a bit of trouble with his ‘plumbing’ and actually had a very distended bladder. They used ultrasound to take a look inside, and decided that they should drain it using a catheter.

Now my Dad was a rather private and quite shy man, always kept himself to himself, and would have been most uncomfortable with this procedure. Not only that, but he was never one for staying away from home, even if it meant driving long hours to be in his own bed that night.

So when they told him that he had to remain in the hospital overnight, just as a precaution, so they could keep their eye on him, he would have been put under further stress. Whether it was as a result of this stress, or maybe the fact that having been drained of five litres of urine allowed his organs to settle into unfamiliar positions, we will never know, but that evening he had his first heart attack.

The medical staff made him comfortable and although it was worrying, when my Mom rang to tell us, we all felt he was in exactly the right place to be looked after and to recover. We talked about coming up to see him at the weekend and left it at that.

I don’t think I had even mentioned the new Jaguar I had picked up that day, but I was looking forward to showing Dad the car, he always loved Jags, though he’d never owned one. But driving to work the next morning, I was unaware that everything was going to change that day.

My mobile rang at about 9:30am, I was in the office, suited and booted as usual, it was my Mom. She was clearly upset, and told me that Dad had had a second, more serious heart attack a couple of hours earlier, and that I should come up to Sutton if I could. It’s a journey of about 100 miles, and I set off at once.

You can do an awful lot of thinking during a journey of that length. I wasn’t chanting back then, though I was a practicing Buddhist. Even the journey was strange. To start with, I was driving this brand new car, all shiny and bright, and trying to get there as fast as possible whilst still trying to break it in gently.

As I came off the M42 at Curdworth, I decided to take the back road to Bassetts Pole and come into Sutton from the North, to avoid any congestion. Big mistake, it was the Ryder Cup, being played at The Belfry, and I drove straight into all the hullaballoo.

A very nice Policewoman stopped me at a checkpoint. Understandably, wearing a sharp suit and driving a brand new Jag, she mistook me for one of the players, or an official, definitely somebody connected to the golf. I explained the situation, that I was rushing to get to the hospital, that my Dad was very ill, she asked me to wait.

I was sandwiched between two pairs of Police motorcycles and we set off at pace. The two riders in front went ahead to clear the route, stop the traffic at islands, lights etc. while the two at the rear leapfrogged at each junction and went ahead to continue the process.

I have never driven so fast on a public road, they were amazing, and we reached the hospital in double quick time. One officer took my keys and told me to go to find my Dad while he parked the car. After it was all over, I wrote a letter to the Chief Constable, thanking them for their help.

I rushed to Intensive Care, where I found Mom sitting in an ante-room. She was looking very worried, but was pleased to see me, we talked about what was happening. Then a doctor came in, asked us to sit down, and gave us an update. I asked whether I could go and see my Dad, I had a heavy cold and didn’t want to make things worse. The doctor explained that I couldn’t make it any worse and ushered me into the room.

My Dad was covered in wires and pipes. A respirator, heart monitor and all manner of machines were gathered around the bed. He was unconscious, and the nurse explained that he had been sedated to stop him from suffering any pain. We sat with him for a while, just watching his chest moving up and down as the machine kept him breathing.

The nurse asked us to go back to the ante-room and told us that the doctor would be in to talk to us shortly. When it came, the doctor’s message was short and to the point, and although he spoke very quietly and calmly, there was no easy way to say it. My Dad was being kept alive by the machines, the damage to his heart was too severe for him to recover, and they asked us whether they could turn the machines off.

I don’t really remember what was said, but they went away to turn off the apparatus, to remove the wires and pipes and to clean Dad up a little. We just sat and waited. When they were ready, we went back into the room, the machines were gone and Dad was lying motionless on the bed.

I say it was Dad. But actually I remember thinking it looked like a waxwork model of him. The total absence of life had changed everything. It looked like my Dad, but it wasn’t my Dad, something very essential was missing.

We took a little while to say our goodbyes, the staff were very kind and looked after us, but their jobs were done. I don’t remember whether I cried, I don’t remember Mom crying, we just looked after each other.

I do remember walking down a long, long corridor towards the hospital entrance. There were people laughing, whistling, running about. Life was going on as usual. But my Dad had just died, what were they thinking?

But slowly the truth becomes clear. We are all part of the Universe, all connected through the universal life-force, and when we die, the Universe continues, life continues, the Wheel of Life continues to roll inexorably on.

So September the 27th is a day I hate to remember, but it is a day I shall never forget. My Buddhist faith has put a different slant on the events of that day. I know that my Dad is back, somewhere, leading his new life. Knowing that takes some of the pain of losing him away, and for that I am very grateful.

I love you and still miss you Dad, it’s a pity you never got to see the Jaguar.

True Friendships

True FriendshipsWe had a really nice meeting of the Bournemouth veggie/vegan group today, great food at the Mad Cucumber and scintillating company as always, and some blossoming friendships however you care to measure them.

You cannot judge the quality of another’s friendship by superficial appearances, especially when things are going smoothly.

It is only when we have experienced the worst, most crushing of times, when we have plumbed the depths of life, that we can truly experience the joys of genuine friendship.

Only a woman or man of principle, of resolve, a person who stays true to their chosen path, can be trusted and a true friend, and have real friends in turn.

The Learning Process

Look Both WaysI love the way this poem beautifully encapsulates the stages of learning, and the long, long road to enlightenment …

  1. I walk down the street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
    I fall in.
    I am lost…
    I am hopeless.
    It isn’t my fault.
    It takes forever to find a way out.
    ~~~~
  2. I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I pretend I don’t see it.
    I fall in again.
    I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
    But it isn’t my fault.
    It still takes a long time to get out.
    ~~~~
  3. I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I see it is there.
    I still fall in…it’s a habit
    My eyes are open; I know where I am;
    It is my fault.
    I get out immediately.
    ~~~~
  4. I walk down the same street.
    There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
    I walk around it.
    ~~~~
  5. I walk down another street.
~ Portia Nelson

Flowing Ever Onward

The River AvonBehind our office in Ringwood, runs the Bickley Mill stream, a small tributary of the river Avon.

In winter it can be quite a torrent, but since the recent dry spell, it has slowed to little more than a trickle, and for a couple of minutes today, I stood watching the water flowing slowly past.

I have always found water fascinating. The conjunction of reflected and refracted images mean that there is a merging of environments. It is not possible to see the bottom of the stream clearly and yet you are offered glimpses of clarity as the water ripples produce the perfect angle to see through the surface. An instant later that view is gone.

I can see a similarity between this phenomena and our lives. You may have experienced times when you have a sudden flash of clarity, regarding a problem or opportunity, then moments later it is gone, cloaked by the smokescreen of everyday life. I know that I have woken from a particularly vivid dream, where the memories are so clear that it has taken a second or two to realise that it was a dream. Almost as soon as that realisation kicks in, the memories start fading, so quickly that within minutes it would be quite difficult to relate the dream to someone else in all its detail.

Another thought popped into my head. The flow of the river, the flow of time and the passage of our lives are all one and the same. Specialist subject ‘stating the obvious’ you might be saying, but it was one of those clarity moments which almost takes ones breath away. I think we should all take a second to remember, that moment by moment, our lives are moving like the river, from future, to present, to past, in an unstoppable flow. Wishing for the weekend to be here, waiting for that special event, all miss the immediate imperative, that every second is precious and should be used to the full.

Nobody knows when their time will be up, when they have no more future, only past. That, in my opinion is a good thing, imagine the sense of panic that would be induced by seeing that ‘life clock’ ticking down to 00:00:00. What is important is to use your time wisely and never, ever, waste a single second.

Missing Mouse

The Wheel Of LifeThe passing of my pet rat Mouse led me to think about a Buddhist poem about death, from the Buddhist viewpoint.

Though we may relinquish our body in this lifetime, we are not gone, nor will we ever be. Animals are no exception to this, they are simply closer to the start of their path than are humans.

We are all animals after all …

This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born, and I have never died.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, manifestations from my wondrous true mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and seek.
So laugh with me, hold my hand, let us say good-bye, say good-bye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Staying Young

Keep Calm And Stay YoungI’m no spring chicken, though I have to say, that I am fitter and healthier now than I have ever been.

The trick, in my opinion, is to eat the right food, get plenty of exercise, enough sleep and maybe above all, view everything life throws at you with a calm and mindful attitude.

Easier said than done? Maybe.

Daisaku Ikeda has a few years start on me, but he has a few thoughts for all of us on the subject of staying young …

When I was younger, I thought I had nothing to do with those who were elderly. I think most young people find it hard to believe that they themselves will grow old. The reality is, however, that now I am among the “elderly,” and I can’t move with the speed and ease that I once did.

My teacher used to say that the last years of our life are the most important. If those last few years are happy ones, we have had a happy life.

Old age is a time of spiritual fruition and completion. When people are no longer pursuing position or status, money or material possessions, they can look closely at themselves and at the reality of life and death without the distractions of superficial concerns.

When you reach old age, you know in your heart if you have lived a satisfying life or not. No one else can know this or decide it for you. The single greatest challenge we each will face is whether we can honestly say at the end of our days on this Earth that our life has been well spent.

I believe that whether we can live a truly satisfying life to the end depends to a considerable extent on how we view death. Sadly, many older people are anxious and fearful about death. But, as a Buddhist, I find it helpful to compare the cycles of life and death to the daily rhythms of waking and sleeping. Just as we look forward to the rest sleep brings after the efforts and exertions of the day, death can be seen as a welcome period of rest and re-energizing in preparation for a new round of active life. And just as we enjoy the best sleep after a day in which we have done our very best, a calm and easy death can only follow a life lived to the fullest without any regrets.

It is natural for trees to bear fruit in the harvest season, and in the same way, “old age” is a period of ripening. It can be the most valuable time in human life, when we have rich experience, deeply polished character, and a pure and gentle heart. The loss of certain capacities with age is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, I feel the various infirmities of age should even be seen as badges of honour and worn with pride.

There is a saying that goes: “To a fool, old age is a bitter winter; to a wise man it is a golden time.” Everything depends on your own attitude, how you approach life. Do you view old age as a period of decline ending in death, or as a time in which one has the opportunity to attain one’s goals and bring one’s life to a rewarding and satisfying completion? The same period of old age will be dramatically different depending upon your own outlook.

I received a letter a few years ago from a woman in Kyoto who was then 67 years old. Her advice was as follows: “We need to banish any expression of defeat from our minds—statements or thoughts such as ‘I can’t do it,’ ‘I’m too old,’ ‘There’s no point in my trying,’ ‘I’m past it,’ or ‘It’s too hard.’ Instead we should be telling ourselves: ‘I won’t give up yet,’ ‘I’m still young,’ ‘I can still do it,’ ‘I’ve still got plenty of energy.’ Just by changing the way we speak to ourselves and others we can change our pattern of behaviour in a positive direction.”

Research shows that when people make continuous use of their powers of memory and concentration, these abilities need not fade. An active interest in others, finding new pastimes and making new friends—such positive attitudes have been shown to slow physical and mental decline.

Even though our bodies may age, if we maintain an active, positive attitude, our hearts and minds will remain “youthful” as long as we live.

To quote the poet Samuel Ullman, “Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of imagination, a vigour of emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.”

It is vital to always look to the future, to have plans and aspirations—such an outlook is crucial to making the last years of one’s life rewarding and fulfilling.

One woman whose youthful attitude greatly impressed me was the American painter known as “Grandma Moses.” She had produced around 1,500 paintings by her death at the age of 101. Yet she didn’t even start painting until she was 75. She had never studied painting and was an ordinary farmer’s wife until then.

She had faced many difficulties in her life. Five of her ten children died young, and she lost her husband when she was 66. She said that though she had experienced real pain and hardship, she refused to be dragged down by suffering and always looked ahead.

Whatever she encountered, Grandma Moses strove to make each day and each moment shine with her smile. After her surviving children left home and her husband died, she refused to give in to loneliness or step back from life. She took up the challenge of painting, and her last years glowed like a beautiful sunset. She wrote, “I look back on my life like a good day’s work. It was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented. I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it; always has been, always will be.”

There is a great difference between simply living a long life and living a full and rewarding life. What’s really important is how much rich texture and colour we can add to our lives during our stay here on Earth—however long that stay may be. Quality is the true value, not quantity.

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