Welcome, Namaste, Peace, Shalom

Welcome, Namaste, Peace, Shalom, Benedicite. May the peace of the Lord always be with you.

Annapurna (Goddess of the Harvests) range, Nepal. Machapuchare, Fishtail Mountain, sacred to Shiva and never climbed.

Friday, 11 June 2010

A New Hero

A New Hero for my Collection

One of God’s many blessings and gifts to me is that over the years since I committed my life to Him I have acquired a number of unlikely friends, role models, exemplars and mentors. Many of them have been dead in the flesh in this world for a very long time, but their examples and words live on to inspire me. Some of these are the Saints of the Christian Church.

In recent years I have taken up a new hobby. I collect heroes and heroines. Not just anyone. I am very discriminating. Quality not quantity is the hallmark of my collection.

My Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and my husband are of course my top Premier League heroes. Anyone who wants to dispute my husband’s seat at the Lord’s right hand should try being married to me for over 30 years.

Next are Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu. St Therese of Lisieux, Margaret Smith, Evelyn Gray (no, you are unlikely to have heard of Margaret and Evelyn!). In no particular order or hierarchy.

In Nepal I met (metaphorically speaking) an another. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, God King of Tibet in exile. And I would like to introduce him to you.
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I had heard and read a bit about Buddhism generally and Tibetan Buddhism in the West but knew very little about the country.

I had heard of the Dalai Lama. I vaguely knew that he is supposed to be the reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas and was found at a very young age. This being the way Tibetans choose their leader. I knew that the Chinese had taken over Tibet and pretty much destroyed their spiritual culture and heritage. But that was about all.

Then last year I read Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer. A Nazi officer, he escaped from a British POW camp in India in 1944 and ended up in Tibet where he became a tutor of the then young Dalai Lama. A rattling good yarn (couldn’t resist that, sorry), and a fascinating insight into Tibet before the Chinese invasion.

I still didn’t make much connection with the Dalai Lama as he became after the invasion.

Hinduism and Buddhism are the majority religions in Nepal. The Lord Buddha was born in Nepal. One of the largest Buddhist Stupas in the world, referred to as the Buddhist Vatican, is Boudhanath in Kathmandu. A World Heritage Site. The Nepal government welcomed the Tibetan refugees when they fled Tibet and built a camp for them which is still occupied by the Tibetan refugees today. We visited it. Here you can see some of the houses and the monastery.  It is all very well kept, neat and tidy.  There is a gift shop, plus a lot of stalls selling touristy stuff.  Also a large carpet shop which also sells traditional handbags.

India also took in Tibetan refugees and became the permanent home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

But the world generally and also India and Nepal found it politically inconvenient to give too much encouragement to theTibetans, or show too much partisanship, preferring not to put relationships with China at risk.

Our guide and minder was a Nepali Buddhist and we heard a lot about the history and political situation. The tourist shops are full of books about Buddhism, Tibet and about and by the Dalai Lama. I have been reading: “The Art of Happiness” A record of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Dr Howard C Cutler. Also ‘A Policy of Kindness’ an anthology of writings by and about the Dalai Lama. I also have, but have not yet read, ‘Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life’ by the Dalai Lama.

The gift shop in the Tibetan Refugee Centre gives out free copies of the Dalai Lama’s Address to the Plenary Session of the European Parliament, Dec 2008 and the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People. I was very moved by the shop person’s insistence on giving me several copies of these to give to my group members. Sadly only one person took them.

The reason he has joined my company of heroes is that, in the vernacular, he has walked his talk. His religion preaches non-violence and kindness and compassion to all sentient creatures. And this is how he has led his people in responding to the appalling actions by China.

He believes that we can and should be happy and that the practice of Buddhist spiritual principles in our lives, especially kindness, compassion and service to others will result in an increase in our happiness. I think that is a reasonable summary. His photographs often show his face smiling and alight with joy. Religion is not a grim thing for the Dalai Lama. I think he could teach us Christians a few lessons here.

He lives a life that exemplifies his monastic vows. He eats frugally. He lives modestly and frugally. He has few, if any, personal possessions. He does not travel first class.

In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of his leadership of his people and his contribution to world peace.

How easy it would have been to give way to actions of violent resistance and revenge as in so many other places of conflict. All the while protesting a desire for peace and an end to conflict. He has certainly come under pressure to sanction such things from younger Tibetans as time has gone on and the Chinese occupation and depradations continue.

Not the way of the Dalai Lama. It is thought that he may be the incarnation of the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, Avaloketeshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezi) although I do not think he claims this for himself. His daily prayer, with which he ended his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, is:
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For as long as space endures,

And for as long as living beings remain,

Until then may I, too, abide

To dispel the misery of the world.

Amen to that.

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Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Silence of Eternity Interpreted by Love

The Silence of Eternity

There was a particular quality to the silence in the country in Nepal. Kathmandu was bedlam. The noise was so unremitting that I couldn’t think. But away from city and the main roads the silence had an extraordinary depth.

It was more than just the absence of noise as you might get in any area away from traffic etc. I have been trying to work out why it was so distinctive.

I think it was because the countryside is about as close to pre-industrial as it’s possible to get.

There is very little motorised transport. Feet, bicycle, rickshaw or bicycle powered carts, ox carts, rowing boats are the means of transport. Little electricity. No motorised agricultural machinery – or not where we were. The fields were ploughed by hand or by ploughs pulled by oxen. Not many planes passing overhead.

No TV or radio noise coming from houses. Some people had TV but most didn’t. Few telephones or mobile phones, no ring tones.  No dishwashers, washing machines, or all manner of pinging or buzzing devices.

No TV or radio in the camps where we stayed. No electric sockets in the rooms so no means of plugging in any devices.

On the river we were asked not to talk because it would frighten the wildlife. I thought people would be unable to stop talking, because that is often the case. Silence for many is interpreted as ‘not applying to the very important things I have to say as long as I just hiss and whisper’. And it makes some people so uncomfortable they just have to say something to relieve the discomfort. But we all seemed to come under the spell of the silence. We had been told that Narayani River is holy because it leads into the Ganges, and it felt like sacred space. The emotion was one of awe.

There were no villages or tourist attractions on the banks. No power boats or water sports. No petrol engines at all. I don't think they are not allowed on the holy river.  No industrial developments.

A funeral site, the remains of the wooden pyre at the edge of the bank.

There were occasional groups of fishermen and their families camped on spits of land. But no noise from machinery. They did not have any machinery. It would probably frighten the fish anyway.

A very thin place.

I think the quality of the silence was so immense because of the complete lack of background noise we take for granted and are often unaware of because we are so accustomed to it and it is so rare to be in place so remote as not to be able to hear it at all.

Perhaps people’s lives are much more in tune with natural diurnal rhythms than ours. Without electricity it is normal to sleep when it is dark and be up and about in the daylight. The day and the night are less interchangeable.

With no street lighting, the ever present risk from the wild animals, and no transport, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go when darkness falls.

So the silence deepens as the sun sets and the night arrives.

As always it is important not to romanticise the apparent attraction of life without modern conveniences. But maybe it is important to consider that the price of our comforts may be more than we realise.