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Full circle, eh?

T’ai Chi has been good for me in different ways, but at this late stage in my life it mostly serves to reveal the state of my physical, mental, and emotional health: it’s all there, the good, the bad and the ugly, in the three rounds I do that close my morning sesshin. On very occasional days cohesion between mind and body is seamless, but more usually my concentration drifts in and out of focus; regardless, I do my best.

A few days ago as I was doing my rounds something surprising happened: out of nowhere a wave of nostalgia washed over me and I was flooded with a sense of loss, a feeling of certainty that I would never again experience the liberating upheaval of my middle years when the spiritual work I did with the Arica School broke open the depressive dam I was imprisoned behind. I was suddenly afraid that something vital in me had withered and died.[1] After my final round of T’ai Chi I checked the plants near the living-room window to see if they needed watering; they did; I watered them; I gazed abstractedly at the trees swaying in the wind along the back lane; then I re-filled the water bowl belonging to Xuan Zhang and Sun Wukong and the one belonging to the three Buddhas gracing the butcher’s block table in the hallway. After putting a load of laundry in the washing machine I made some breakfast, read while I ate, and as I read I became aware that the force of whatever had brought me low had begun to fade.

*

Although I am an ordinary man, all my life I have harboured what I think of as an extraordinary longing, but I am unable to describe what it is I long for, or even if it is “extraordinary” in the normal sense of the word. This longing has no substance, no qualities I can identify as exceptional; it is without form and is entirely subjective. Nevertheless, it exerts a powerful hold over me. There is a tantalising reference to this kind of yearning in Peter Matthiessen’s book, The Snow Leopard, where he says:

In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness, and some way, on this journey, I have started home. Homecoming is the purpose of my practice.

Matthiessen’s words suggest a gravitational pull towards something that may not be anything more substantial than a feeling. Something like this touched me just before I reached adolescence: witness a child kneeling silently at the altar in St Vinnie’s, bell in hand, waiting to signal the consecration of the bread and wine in the Roman Catholic mass. I was born and bred a Catholic, as were most of the other children in the parish, and the Latin mass was just one strand in the fabric of our indoctrination, or faith, which we knew it as then. Apart from serving at mass and an occasional Benediction, orthodox religion played only a very small part in my life, but here, on the high altar, I was a bona fide actor in the transfiguration of the wafer and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, the magic moment declared to the sparse congregation by the tinkling of my bell, a tiny sound that breached the early morning silence of the church. Afterwards I returned home and got ready for the long journey to school.

As I near the middle of my eighth decade and memory grows more unreliable I fret whether the tableau I am describing may be defective in some way, even untruthful. Yet there isn’t a great deal to depict: what I see in my mind’s eye is as composed and motionless as a still life, and as there’s almost nothing going on, there is barely anything to embellish. Yet the memory evokes an inexplicable feeling of tenderness towards the little boy in cassock and surplice, sticking up out of the past like a solitary flag flapping in the wind, his heart moved by an impulse that wrested him out of bed at an unconscionably early hour each weekday morning and propelled him through empty streets to a near empty church to tinkle a little bell in a cold stone space where no one took any notice of him. I think of the small events of these mornings as the inklings of a nascent spiritual energy which hasn’t changed a great deal in the intervening years; its emergence so early in my life is a glimmer of “the longing that starts one on the path”, and it has been tugging at me ever since.

*

Each day I woke up with a thick head and aches in my neck and shoulders from sleeping on the earth. After climbing out of my sleeping bag I peed in the long grass before brewing up some coffee. Wrapped up well in the comfort of a camping chair, hot coffee to hand, I scanned the heavens for breaks in the clouds being blown about by the Atlantic winds; there wasn’t a lot of sun to be seen here in late June. Mercifully, the rain, when it came, fell during the night, its noisy pattering on the sides of our canvas tent usually enough to wake me. I left Sophia and Owain undisturbed while I drank my coffee and debated whether I had the energy to do some calisthenics.

Despite a pre-bedtime, 10-minute session with a eucalyptus infused inhaler, slatherings of vapour rub on his chest, and Chinese cough sweets filled with honey, Owain’s coughing fits – along with his hay fever induced sneezing and nose blowing – mangled our slumber every night. None of the medication his mum and I plied him with seemed to have much effect, and it was only on the last night of our two-week sojourn in the Highlands that he slept soundly, due, he insisted, to quaffing three bottles of beer around a dying campfire before retreating to his sleeping bag.

But I wasn’t doing great. My addled state stemmed from the disappearance of my meditation practise after arriving on the island; I didn’t do any T’ai Chi either, and virtually no calisthenics. In the past when we’ve been travelling I’ve usually been disciplined enough to keep some remnants of my morning routine going, but on this trip the props supporting my inner life dropped away: the challenge of keeping to a meditation regimen with a sleep deprived brain and body in a tent on a cold and blustery hilltop in the Outer Hebrides defeated me; as the days went by my head became a sealed, fog-filled room with nowhere for light to enter. This is normal for me if I don’t meditate or practice T’ai Chi, the lucidity of a clear mind vanishes in the tumult that passes for ordinary consciousness. I didn’t talk with my wife or son about how beggared I was feeling; I didn’t know what I could I have said; best to just get on with stuff that needs to be done, I thought, and try to resist the lassitude creeping over me.

Our tent was pitched on a croft belonging to my wife’s younger brother, Calum. At this time of year he operated an open house policy to allow people to camp on his land who had come to celebrate the Summer Solstice at the 3,000 year old Callanish Stones situated hard by his croft. There were a dozen or more tents set up, most of them occupied by young potheads. Spliffs were shared in a capacious, tent-like structure referred to as “The Bender,” which had been erected by Calum to function as a social space for visitors. The Bender loosely resembled a large bell tent, with a drystone dyke where the skirt would be; its circular roof of overlapping canvas and plastic tarpaulins held up at its centre by a shaved tree trunk, with the tarpaulin drapes sloping down over the dyke and secured with stout rope and big stakes.

The heavy odour of marijuana was ever present in the Bender, or so it seemed when I passed by to fill up our water bottles or retrieve Caoimhe, our collie, who liked to hang out near the croft’s gate, watching the camper van dogs running around outside.

Being forced to inhale tobacco and drug fumes is repellent to me, so I was reluctant to socialise with the stoners in The Bender or when they were getting high around the campfire at night. The odour of marijuana has become so noxious to me I flinch if I catch a whiff of it; ironic really, given how attached I was to smoking dope when I was a young man.

The discomfort I feel if I involuntarily inhale dope fumes originates in my mid-20s when I attended a two week-long Transcendental Meditation retreat at the University of Birmingham. In one of his video lectures the Maharishi explained that it is impossible to meditate if you have been consuming drugs such as marijuana and that it takes two weeks to flush the residual effects of the drug from the body. I never forgot that: so I hold my breath if I catch the smell of hashish or marijuana somewhere around me: I don’t want that stuff entering my body, even in micro amounts, because of my fear of it impacting on my meditation practice.

But I was not insensitive to my anti-social behaviour on the croft, and more to mollify my sociable wife and son I found a spot around the campfire once or twice. But there were no cordial interlocutors to spark off, and I failed to strike up a conversation with anybody; the potheads must have had me down as a dreary old fart. As well as continuous drug consumption a lot of alcohol was being guzzled by the clannish potheads; there was no place for a sober old guy in their boozy, drug soaked community. On one evening I depressingly observed a young fellow selling a different, more potent looking drug from an eye-dropper to one of the visitors; I left the campfire and returned to our tent, pitched about 100 metres from The Bender, as far away from Dope World as it was possible to be.

On Midsummer’s Eve I retreated to my sleeping bag early. It was unseasonably cold and I was listless and bored. Sophia and Owain had joined the late night revellers collecting around the Stones to celebrate the Solstice, and most likely were enjoying some drug and alcohol fun into the bargain. Don’t get me wrong: neither of them are drug abusers; they partake occasionally, but when they’re at it I stay out of the way. I don’t know when they returned to the tent but I was woken up in the night by Owain coughing.

*

It was scary: the tent had turned into a tumble dryer and my head was rolling around inside it. I needed to remain absolutely immobile, I knew that as I’d endured a similar, more intense experience of paroxysmal positional vertigo once before, a few years ago: as I rose to get out of bed one morning for a pee the bedroom suddenly unhinged from its moorings and I was overwhelmed by an uncontrollable dizziness; it took some time before I was able to get to the bathroom – by holding on to the walls. This crazy loss of equilibrium took hours to sort itself out and it was several days before I returned to feeling normal.

I lay motionless until I felt composed enough to climb out of my sleeping bag and ease my way into the fresh air; I sat in a camping chair and began taking deep breaths. I was shaken, no doubt about that.

We had come to a campsite in Morayshire the night before because Owain’s Edinburgh pipe band were  participating in the European Piping Championships in Inverness the following day, and I had to take him to the venue. Given what had just happened, driving was definitely unwise; but where was the choice? I couldn’t not take the boy to an event he’d been anticipating with excitement for months. I explained to my wife what had just occurred and how unsteady I was on my feet, and now it was her turn to be worried. We decided not to tell Owain, still sleeping, about the events of the morning. It was a nerve wracking trip for the driver, but I was on high alert and drove very carefully; and the boy was none the wiser about his chauffeur’s shaky condition. After dropping him off we picked up some supplies at a supermarket and drove to a hill on the edge of the city, Craig Phadrig (Patrick’s Rock), where we climbed and walked contentedly in the sunshine. When we picked up the boy at the end of the afternoon I was much recovered. We spent a couple more days exploring before breaking camp. Owain and I said goodbye to Sophia at the city bus station – she was away to spend a few days with her 80 year-old mother, who was recovering from a mild stroke – before setting off on the long drive home.

Not for a minute did I anticipate being near felled with exhaustion after returning to the city; I wanted more than anything to take to my bed, but I couldn’t; there was too much to do: the hire car needed to be cleaned and returned, our damp canvas tent had to be unpacked and draped over the stairwell balustrade to dry out; the myriad bits and pieces of camping gear had each to be stowed away; the fridge was bare and I needed to go out and get groceries; there was a collie that needed to be fed and walked and meals to organise for a boy; and never mind the mountain of smelly laundry demanding attention. I was in a wretched state and needed to sleep so much I thought I might have been ill.

*

For the first few mornings at Calum’s croft, as Sophia and Owain slept, I drifted, my “journey” ditched temporarily. It was like being disconnected from the fountainhead, but I had no option but to wait out the time until I was in a position to tap into it again. I thought I would resume my morning routine the day after returning home, but three days went by before I was able to return to the mat.

After my wife came home from her mother’s I mentioned to her I had a tickle at the back of my throat: her too, she said. Soon afterwards the pair of us were coughing, infected with the same virus that had afflicted Owain. Four weeks of coughing, coughing, coughing ensued, in tandem with the raft of unpleasant symptoms associated with bronchitis. In the middle of the second week I tried meditating again, but it was impossible: I was too sickly. I returned to the mat at the beginning of the third week, resolving to sit, regardless. It was a challenge, the mechanical reaching for tissues to wipe away the snot leaking from my nose; the fogged brain that wouldn’t clear as I argued with myself about why I was turning meditation into an endurance contest. “This is absurd,” I thought; nevertheless, I persevered. At the end of each sesshin I remained on the zabuton for a few minutes more to gather my wits before clearing up the mess of tissues around my feet. Even though I had a thick head, a dripping nose, and a sore chest, I felt psychologically fitter from returning to the mat; there, the vexation of separation fell away and I felt at least that I had “started home,” albeit with clay feet. [2]

*

Last night I dreamed I was visiting the Samyê-Ling Tibetan Centre and was in conversation with Akong Rinpoche, the senior monk there. He was sweeping leaves along a culvert and as he swept I asked him: “Why is it, when I think of Samyê-Ling, I cry?” Before he was able to reply I woke up. A year-long sojourn in my early ’20s at his meditation centre in the Scottish Lowlands had been a life altering experience: I was young and wanted to meditate, and here I was, living cheek by jowl with Buddhist monks and meditating three, sometimes four times a day; I worked selflessly for the Samyê-Ling community and lived in an A-frame hut – with a woodburning stove – within gurgling distance of the River Esk, and for the first time ever I could identify and pick wild flowers. It was a nourishing life, radically different to what I had left behind. Living and working at Samyê-Ling, as with the Arica work, fed into my craving for a spiritual life; my imaginary tears are simply a clue to a hunger I have never been able to assuage. The nostalgia attached to my remembrance of how Samyê-Ling and Arica changed my life points to a sense of loss, the realisation that those liberating times won’t ever be revived.[3]

*

Loss has no end or limit; disturbances of all kinds swirl with the weight of hammers; worries and anxieties fall like rain; knots and afflictions sometimes seem ever present. I have never found meditation a straight or even an easy road. It’s not even a road; there is no direction as such. It’s taken me a lifetime to learn how to be satisfied with simply sitting: the mundane, quotidian problems that beset aspirant meditators such as myself cling like chewing gum to the sole of my spiritual shoes.

Buddhist monks don’t have to answer the doorbell for a mail delivery when they’re meditating, but they might hear builders nearby, busy hammering or cutting or sanding, or there might even be a police helicopter hovering somewhere round about; there will be dogs barking, for sure, and random shouting, or the hubbub of fellow monks chatting outside the meditation hall. On some days they might have to absorb the clatter of a refuse truck emptying the monastery’s rubbish bins, and there’ll be the noise of cars driving by. Presumably they sit through the din with customary stoicism. Though I am no monk, this is what I have been trying to do for years, the difference being that I am easily distracted by neighbourhood noise. It’s a mystery to me why I waited so long to rearrange my morning routine to address this. The solution was surprisingly simple: start my routine when the streets were empty and everyone still asleep.

When I wake up, if I have been plagued with bad dreams the nerve fibres of the adrenal glands – which are tied to the solar plexus and react to stress – will have contracted into a knot, and this makes diaphragm breathing during meditation difficult. Untangling this snarled bundle of nerves requires sustained mental relaxation; by consciously allowing such longings as the desire for calm, inner space, stillness, to drop away, the breath, though initially frustratingly shallow, is allowed to be how it is. There are no short cuts: one proceeds gently, then more gently, then even gentler than that, until inhalation and exhalation become effortless, by which time the adrenal glands will have untied themselves. I’ve had a lifetime of bad dreams and this process of letting go is what I do on many, many days. But not every day.

Sitting so early, as I do now, the only noise to be heard is the cooing of the pigeons on the roof and the occasional shrieks of passing seagulls. My wife doesn’t understand why I have to tumble out of bed at such an unconscionable hour, and I don’t really get it either. I am consumed by a propulsive longing I cannot quench, whose origins and purpose are beyond my ken.[4] Here I am, with a steadfastness birthed eons ago in a child’s cold bedroom in a third floor Council flat near the docks: a little boy become an old man who is still piling out of bed before the crack of dawn – full circle, eh? – on a mission to sit straight and count breaths.

Everything falls away, everything ends, including the body perched on the zabuton. There might be other ways to look at this austere reality, but I confess I know of only one way, to stare it down from the mat.

I met a famous poet once on a visit to Samyê-Ling who, at the age of 65, was ordained as a Zen monk and spent five years at the Mt Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles. Leonard Cohen wrote of that time:

“Sitting in the meditation hall for four or five hours a day, you kind of get straight with yourself.”

Cohen’s modesty is very appealing and his orientation chimes with my own: nearing the end of all things I have ceased to aspire to anything more than getting straight with myself.


[1] The word “nostalgia” is composed of Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain.” The Swiss physician who first used the term, in 1688, considered (nostalgia) a serious condition, a disease of the mind that weakened the body. The physician’s case studies included the story of a girl sent to a faraway hospital to recover from a bad fall. That girl began to refuse food and medicine, and would only repeat, “I want to go home.” The physician recommended treating the early stages of nostalgia by distracting the patient, inducing vomiting, and opening a vein for bleeding. If all that failed, the only option that remained was to return the patient to their native land. This, he observed, often resulted in a full recovery.

For hundreds of years, nostalgia continued to be considered a mental illness or a neurological disorder. Anyone could suffer from nostalgia, but it particularly plagued the displaced, and as late as 1938 it was described as an “immigrant psychosis.” Even now, nostalgia remains a pitiable condition in the popular imagination – not dangerous or life-threatening, but sentimental and backward-looking

Eula Bliss; “The Theft of the Commons”; New Yorker magazine; June 8, 2022.

[2] As it turned out, I was struggling with the onset of pneumonia.

[3] See post: “3 Monks, a Fraud, & a Coalminer”; November 11, 2014.

[4] Scottish verb meaning “Beyond one’s range of knowledge or understanding”.

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In the dream I was engaged in a heated argument with a mathematics professor about my decision to drop out of the course he was teaching. I don’t recall how he persuaded me not to, but after his class we agreed to go for a beer; en route to the pub we were joined by Samuel Beckett, the minimalist playwright; he and I went up to the bar together and just as I was about to ask what he fancied to drink I woke up.

Some of the dream I could interpret: mathematics for me represents mystery; the professor: education; but Samuel Beckett, the Francophile dramatist who upended the staid theatrical world of the 1950s? I was reading about Beckett’s life around the time of the dream and the more I read the more I came to admire him, but the main thing I got out of my reading was an appreciation of his goodness. Those who spent time in his company spoke of his humility, his warmth and intelligence, his “infinite kindness” and “indeflectable courtesy.” [1] He was, by all accounts, a witty and exceptionally generous man. Approached one day in a Paris street by a beggar seeking a handout, Beckett emptied his wallet, but when asked by his companion why he’d given such a large sum of money to a fellow who was so clearly a con artist, Beckett replied: “I thought he was, but I just couldn’t take the chance.” In my dream, Beckett I suspect represents the frailty of the human condition: he exemplifies the struggle to keep the precarious business of life going; he has no answers to anything; he manages, that’s all. In the example of his writing I include here, a brooding voice shivers at the edge of oblivion:

You must go on. I can’t go on. You must go on. I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any – until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it’s done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.) It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. [2]

The only second-hand bookstore worth visiting in downtown Vancouver is MacLeods Books on Pender Street. The seven books on my bookshelf authored by the Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa came from there. Trungpa was a very singular type of teacher; categorised as an exemplar of “crazy wisdom” and highly intelligent and perceptive with it, I read each of his books closely. Too, Macleods is where I found Damned to Fame, a Beckett biography. Reading about Beckett’s life, his struggles, the success he was so ill at ease with, I began to feel a kind of impatience, not with Beckett, but with Trungpa. Beckett, it seemed to me, was the better man because, to quote George Orwell, he was “…prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life…” My increasing admiration of Beckett was the catalyst for my waning interest in Trungpa and his doings.

Chogyam Trungpa had an enormous number of admirers, but he was also an unabashed alcoholic and drug abuser and was, at least when he lived in the Scottish Lowlands in the 1960s, a family wrecker (my wife’s, in fact). I saw him in person only once, at a Quaker Friends’ Meeting House in London, where he was scheduled to give a talk. He was very late and when he finally appeared onstage he had to be helped to the podium, where he stood in awkward silence, eyes downcast; he was obviously in distress and after about five minutes exited the stage without addressing the audience.

The thousands of followers Trungpa attracted in Europe and the USA (including stars like Ram Das, the former LSD guru Richard Alpert until he found religion, [3]) were unfazed by his drinking, drug abuse, and sexually exploitative behaviour; his eclectic, predominantly hip audience, were drawn to him precisely because of his crazy wisdom style of teaching. [4]

Grounded as he was in the Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism – renowned for its emphasis on meditation practice – he knew his subject and wrote about it well. Despite a hedonistic lifestyle, his knowledge was rooted in the ageless wisdom of Vajrayāna Buddhism. But being a serial abuser of stimulants it’s hard to see where the self-discipline could have come from that would have allowed him to continue writing. As a young man he would have used a pen and written on paper, or even tapped away on a typewriter, but his later publications, the thinner volumes published in the USA, are padded with the laboured content of Q&A sessions culled from his talks, with the whole transcribed and edited by his followers.

The contradiction between the rigorous monastic education of Trungpa’s early life in Tibet and the recklessness of his later life in the West is tragic and perplexing: this is the terrible paradox at the heart of his work, and it is a challenge to accommodate the profundity of his ideas, expressed so eloquently in his books, with the reality of his dissolute lifestyle.

His mental acuity would have progressively deteriorated to the point where the clarity of thought necessary to engage with the creative process of writing would simply not have been possible, and given his partiality to stimulants the habit of meditation too would have fallen away long before his descent into alcoholism; perhaps he felt he’d been there and done that, no need to bother anymore.

There is a YouTube video of Trungpa and Jiddu Krishnamurti in conversation, the two celebrity gurus having been brought together to discourse on spiritual matters. Krishnamurti, preened and very much the urbane senior partner, rambles on in his superior way; Trungpa, squeezed into an ill-fitting suit, sits mute and glassy eyed. At the end of a lengthy preamble Krishnamurti gives some elbow room to his fellow interlocutor by asking, “Why should one meditate?” Trungpa pauses for a few seconds before replying: “Don’t you think in the living situation of a man that meditation happens as part of life’s situation?” It was a thin response to his companion’s haughty peroration. One can see how the prospect of getting these two spiritual big guns together in the studio would have been an enticing prospect, but the Old School luminary, unable to get out of his own light, and our New Age guru, his lights much dimmed, were distressingly ill-matched. They were like two old heavyweights shadow boxing.

Bill Shankly, the iconic manager of the football club I’ve supported since childhood, said of one of his under performing players, “Aye, he talks a good game.” I began to think of Trungpa in that way: he talks so lucidly about the nature of mind as seen through the prism of Mahayana Buddhism; and the books he wrote – Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, Meditation in Action, The Myth of Freedom and The Way of Meditation – are profound, informative texts and display a deep understanding of the nature of consciousness. Trungpa talked a terrifically good game, yet his life was a train wreck. Go figure.

When Trungpa Rinpoche lay dying in 1986 at the age of 47, only an inner circle knew the symptoms of his final illness. Few could bear to acknowledge that their beloved and brilliant teacher was dying of terminal alcoholism, even when he lay incontinent in his bedroom, belly distended and skin discoloured, hallucinating and suffering from varicose veins, gastritis and oesophageal varices, a swelling of veins in the oesophagus caused almost exclusively by cirrhosis of the liver. [5]

I’ve never been without the desire – desire when I was young, but a visceral need now that I’m a decaying old geezer – to embed daily meditation practice into my life, cack-handed though my attempts to achieve this over the course of my life have been. For a number of years in my late 30s I was immersed in the work of the Arica School, though my eventual disenchantment with the philosophy of its founder, Oscar Ichazo, and his sometimes delusional followers led me to sever my connection with the school. I slipped into a depression that went on for so long I gave up meditation for 17, perhaps 18, years. But I returned to it, as I have always done.

Maybe it was the pristine air streaming in off the Pacific, or the abundance of majestic native trees; or the fact that my wife and child were happy in the green environment we were living in, but not long after leaving Hong Kong to go and live in Canada I took up meditation again. It took a while to establish a regular practice but during this time I was holding on to the idea that I ought to seek advice from someone with insight into the meditation process. To this end I began scanning the holy flyers pinned on the notice board of another Vancouver bookstore I used to visit in the hope that something would catch my eye. Banyen Books & Sound is the only bookstore in the city given over to the literature of world religions, esoteric disciplines, alternative therapies, etc., and I thought it likely that I’d spot something there eventually. One summer’s day a flyer did get my attention: a visiting Tibetan monk was giving a talk on Buddhism at the Central Library; “That could be a start,” I thought.

The basement auditorium was filled to capacity, but I had arrived early and had managed to bag a seat. The young monk began by reading from a prepared text on his laptop screen; this, as it turned out, was the style of his delivery, without any digression into extemporaneous speech; and what with his poor pronunciation and avoidance of eye contact with his metropolitan audience it was no surprise when bums began vacating seats. The monk’s incomprehensibility didn’t deter me from attending another “talk” he gave a few days later, conducted in the same fashion as the first. At the end of the evening I signed up for a meditation programme he was leading the following weekend. All I can say is that I was needy.

In a packed, airless venue early Friday night the monk’s explanation of the historical origins of the type of meditation he had planned for the weekend, read from his omnipresent laptop, was so lengthy and impenetrable the bubble I was in burst: whatever I thought I needed wasn’t to be found here. I was sitting in the middle of a large group of people and didn’t feel bold enough to stand up and head for the exit; instead I began furtively looking around the room; everyone was attentive and concentrating on the monk’s slippery English.

A young man in front of me was perched on a stack of cushions and holding himself ramrod straight, but whatever was going on in his brain was dilating the trapezius muscles in his neck and shoulders and swelling the musculature of both arms; the backs of his hands rested on his knees, the fingers on each hand forming a wiry gyan mudra, but it was the deep concavity in the lumbar region of his spine that highlighted how tightly wound was his self-absorption. A few of the older participants were sitting on plastic stacking chairs around the edge of the room; one or two seemed as distracted as me. Spiritual hunger had driven me to follow the monk to this crowded place, but my appetite had gone; when his mumbo jumbo discourse came to a close I made for the street door; early next morning I called the event’s organiser to apologise for dropping out of the programme.

Some months later another flyer on the Banyen notice board caught my attention: a group called the Mountain Rain Zen Community were organising a weekend Retreat in the Liu Institute, a venue on the grounds of the University of British Columbia’s Asian Studies complex, which, fortuitously, was just a short distance from where I lived. When I returned home I put a cheque in the mail, hoping a spot could be found for me.

The Liu Institute sits on a coastal ridge high above the ocean and is just a stone’s throw from one of the most beautiful museums in the world, Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology. Behind the Institute are the walled grounds of the Nitobe Memorial Garden, a traditional Japanese garden; and across the road, at the bottom of hundreds of twisting wooden steps, runs an extensive foreshore littered with tide wrack from up-country logging operations.

I cycled over to the Institute on a midsummer Friday evening; I felt nervous about spending the weekend with a group of complete strangers, but there was no need to fret, all was low key and unhurried. Three walls of the room in which the Retreat was to be held – the zendo – were made of glass and one could look out onto a meadow. I’d brought my own big cushion, the zabuton, and a little cushion, a zafu; I unpacked them and found a space to lay them out, sat down, and waited. A young, black-robed Canadian monk got the proceedings underway by explaining the monastic formalities and rituals we were required to observe over the weekend, the rules of behaviour, and instructions on how to do zazen meditation; and for the duration, all activity was to be conducted in silence. This was my idea of fun.

I hadn’t come on the look-out for a teacher; after the let-down of the Tibetan weekend my yearning for spiritual pedagogy had dissipated; I went to the Institute with the simple idea of doing more meditation than I was able to at home. I spoke barely a word over the weekend, and even declined the invitation to put my name on a list to do dokusan, a face-to-face meeting with the No.1 monk; an innocent refusal as I knew nothing of Soto Zen practice.

The No.1 monk gave a talk each afternoon and presumably spent the rest of his time working through the dokusan queue. His talks, though by no means pabulum, weren’t overly illuminating; he self-deprecatingly volunteered that he was devoid of charisma. More than once I imagined him sitting at home in California: hands poised by his keyboard, staring into space, waiting on the inspiration that would stitch his thoughts into a discourse. I thought of his talks as simply a break in the meditation schedule.

I don’t recall how many hours we sat or how much walking meditation we did; I ate my frugal meals in silence and at the end of the day I cycled home to my wife and our little boy. But in the silence of the zendo by the Salish Sea my meditation practice underwent a change, a process best described as a falling away of unnecessary things. It happened without drama; I sat, I walked, and counted breaths; essentially, nothing more than this. In any case, the hours passed and the zazen and walking meditation generated a welcome internal clarity. It was enough. I had no wish for more on my plate; I clocked in, did my shift, then clocked out.

During the Retreat I heard The Heart Sutra for the first time. It is the shortest of all Buddhist sutras and elucidates the concept of emptiness: mu. If the sutra was a quiver and its words arrows, I was a sitting target. It would serve no purpose in this narrative to theorise about the Buddhist concept of emptiness, but if I were to paraphrase jazz trumpeter Miles Davis when he said, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” I’d say: “Don’t listen to what’s there, listen to what’s not there.”

I participated in three Retreats organised by the Mountain Rain Zen Community. The first two were held in a room with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that overlooked a meadow resplendent with wild flowers and tall trees. But the organisers could barely squeeze the bodies into the little zendo for the second Retreat, and because the third Retreat attracted even more people a bigger space had to be found. They didn’t have to search far: a venue was located just around the corner in The Asian Centre complex: but the new zendo, a windowless hall, was an airplane hangar.

The form for the third Retreat was familiar, but some things were different: the intimacy of the old zendo had gone; there were no wild flowers or trees to gaze at in idle moments; an antique air conditioning system was intrusively noisy; and the two lines of forlorn looking meditators sitting opposite each brought to mind a picture of refugees waiting to be processed But more to the point, I was out of sorts even before I turned up.

The rituals are still the same: lots of bowing: to the zafu; to each other; to the assembly of meditators; to No.1 monk before and after his Dharma talks; chanting of incomprehensible Japanese texts; sitting through ceremonies for the dead and the ill. And never mind the ceaseless whispering as bodies shuffle in and out to attend dokusan with No.1 monk. And after every sit, kinhin, walking meditation.

I spend most of the time in fruitless negotiations with my breath, trying to nudge it past my knotted solar plexus, seized up as a result of the acrimonious breakdown of a relationship with a one-time friend. It’s a seemingly unresolvable conflict; we are unable to agree even a simple practical arrangement to allow our children – who are devoted to each other – to play together. So much excruciating effort-trying-not-to-be-effort observing my constricted breath; endless mental re-plays of imaginary scenarios where I get to be wise and Friend X gets to understand how unreasonable and weird she’s being; but I’m unable to dissolve the numbness paralysing the centre of my body.

The absence of daylight gives a gloomy cast to the new zendo; sitting under the cold glow of the fluorescent lighting and unable to zone out the clamour of the air conditioning, I begin to feel grumpy; having to endlessly put on and take off my spectacles to bring the action at the far end of the hall into focus only serves to aggravate my ill-humour. But it is the two chattering monks I encounter in the bathroom that make me realise how much of a square peg I have become in their round hole: the older one, stripped down to his underpants, is swabbing his armpits with a damp flannel and chattering to his younger colleague idling in his black robes in front of the only urinal; he moves aside as I step up to pee. I take in their sidelong glances and am relieved neither of them choose to speak to me as I am observing the Silence rule, which they should be doing too. I’d clocked these two fellows at different times during the previous sesshins, in their monk’s gear and frowning mien, and here they are, wittering on like a couple of fishwives.

To give each meditator an opportunity for a one-on-one talk with No.1 monk, ex-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, a lot of time was taken up with dokusan, but I had no burning questions I wanted to put to the monk and did not meet with him during any of the Retreats. For an hour each day he talked to us about Buddhist doctrine or commented on the significance of a Buddhist text; he was an erudite man and evidently gave serious thought to what he wished to say in his discourse. As a scholar and teacher, he was, as far as I was aware, highly regarded in Canada, North America, Mexico, but on this particular day he began his address by saying, “People seem to be being nicer to each other these days, don’t you think?”

Perhaps the absence of natural light had affected me more than I realised, but No.1 monk’s fatuous utterance stayed glued to my agitated mind like a housefly to flypaper.

There we sat, safe and replete in so many ways, and if the monk’s remark was anything to go by, self-satisfied. The austere regimen, the proliferation of shaved heads, the black robes worn by twenty-somethings, the endless bowing, the droning of incomprehensible Buddhist liturgy, the rituals, had all begun to pall; I suspect my inner worm had begun to turn when the hall doors swung shut against the daylight.

At the end of the Retreat the monks were scheduled to perform a ceremony for some of the meditators who wanted to publicly embrace Buddhist precepts. When the senior lay nun asked for a show of hands to see who would prefer not to stay for the ordination ceremony I raised my hand, the only person to do so. In the space of a few minutes, zafu and zabuton were stowed in my rucksack and I’d left the zendo; not a word was spoken; coming or going, standing or sitting, the rule was Silence at all times.

An hour later I was in the company of my family, wandering in the woods close by where we lived. It was peak season for salmonberries and the woods were awash with them. I spent the remainder of that summer afternoon filling up three yoghurt pots with the multi-coloured berries. Sunshine poured through gaps in the leaf canopy and Owain was a good little helper. As I plucked the berries I made up nonsense chants to amuse him, and then out of nowhere he chirped up, “I have the best mummy and daddy in the whole world!” That night after dinner we enjoyed a delicious salmonberry cobbler.

I had no further contact with the The Mountain Rain Zen Community. The group may have organised more Retreats in The Asian Institute’s cavernous arena, but the thought of spending a weekend cloistered in an ill-lit, noisy hall had no appeal. And I no longer pored over the Banyen Books & Sound notice board. The bookstore was on my route home from the organic supermarket in Kitsilano I biked to once a week for supplies; it was an eight-mile round trip and I usually broke up the ride to dawdle among the Banyen bookshelves. I scanned the notice board each time I was there, but only from idle curiosity about who was in town offering comfort to the city’s more affluent lost souls.

The Zen Retreats made a deep impression on me, including the last one: regardless, I sat through all the distractions; counting exhalations, from one to ten, again, and again; I breathed, the diaphragm rose and and fell; the mind roamed, like a dog after bones; it returned to the count, and wandered again after a few exhalations; so it went, ad nauseum. This is how Soto Zen monks corral the mind. Twice over the weekend, unheralded, tumble-dryer mind stopped spinning as my breath receded almost to nothing; my spine was straight and I had no muscle pain from the extended sitting; everything quiet. Just being there, nothing else; no unspooling B-movie to sit through.

I was surprised by how the simple discipline of zazen touched me and how it had evolved into such a good fit. I cannot now imagine not doing it. I can’t say the practice of zazen makes me a noticeably better human being, or that it holds out the promise of Enlightenment, whatever that may be; except for its ameliorating effect on my numerous shortcomings, it provides no obvious solution to any of my problems. But to be sitting upright and alert in the quiet of the early morning is its own attraction: one breathes, one counts each exhalation until, gradually, the turmoil of the mind subsides; or it doesn’t.

Amid the jumble of turbulent thought that crowds the start of a sit any one of a constellation of jitters is likely to flail out of my unconscious: anxiety about my child’s future, or the probability of synaptic collapse and the likelihood of ageing into a slack jawed old dribbler are recurring fears. But regardless of whatever fright assails me, it is generally subsumed into the meditation: after putting on the timer, closing my eyes, and folding my hands into the dhyana mudra, the mayhem is navigated with the breath; and when the mind wanders it is brought back and the counting begun again. Occasionally, the froth of chaotic thought is so batteringly persistent it colonises the sit; or, if not all, most of it. Then all one can do is observe the chaos with whatever detachment one can manage. I find even this chaotic state preferable to not meditating at all.

This morning a big wind from a North Sea storm howled around out back, the double glazing muffled the engine noise of passing cars, rain lashed the windows, a clock tick-tocked in the kitchen; small noises, heard but not heard in the silence. In the not far distant future I will cease to exist and whatever I’m constituted of will be absorbed into energies disconnected from human intelligence. Until then, I stare down cognitive decline by learning how to speak, read and write Scots Gaelic, a very difficult language which challenges the shrinking elasticity of thought and memory; and when time allows, I walk around the city. In addition, I’m a dumbfounded witness to my son growing into adolescence; and time spent with my wife is ever more precious. Still, I can feel in my marrow that life is approaching closure, but I won’t bang on about that.

Given the absence of teachers and gurus the daily ritual of zazen may very well see me to the end of things. That isn’t to say I’ve never wished I’d had a teacher on hand to offer guidance, or (in my dreams) a guru to exemplify The Way. But it’s a disappointing fact that the teachers I’ve known, in the flesh and in print, have all been men – and nearly all of them unmarried – each one willing and ready to explain the mystery of what constitutes a spiritual life; all of them figuratively – and literally – hawking techniques to achieve Enlightenment. Krishnamurti referred to “the truth” as a “trackless land;” and I suppose this is where I see my corporeal self: somewhere that leads nowhere. This is the reason I enjoy Samuel Beckett’s gift for extracting humour and poetry from a darkness that is literally just a breath away.

Two shelves of my living room bookcase are loaded with books on meditation and spirituality, teachers, gurus, etc., but I haven’t opened any of them for a long time. I don’t know any meditation teachers, and am unlikely to get to know any at my age; spiritual goals as such just seem to have evaporated – Enlightenment, if such a state is to be found, has to be be experienced in the place I live with my wife and child, amid the grocery shopping and laundry and vacuuming, and dog walking. I’ve been reading about this mythical state and hearing references to it for decades; if I was a resident of a Buddhist monastery and meditating 10 hours a day I might have a clue or two about it, might.

My home is the monastery: the alarm goes off, I get up and walk to the kitchen, open a window to let in some fresh air, then drink a glass of water; I wrap a woollen shawl around my shoulders, then lay out the zabuton and the zafu and sit; when I’ve finished I make a cup of coffee and a slice of toast and wake up my wife and son so they can start their day. I live in a big city; Owain is in the first year of high school, my wife goes to her office at the university. This is The Way for me; how can it be otherwise? Enlightenment, if there is such a package, I strongly suspect is all in the commonplace; always here, not there. I eat what is on my plate; I can’t eat what isn’t on it; full plate, empty plate.

I’ll end with this, from Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet: “All is worthwhile if the soul is not small.”

Endnotes
[1] Robert Scanlon; Beckett Remembering Beckett in Uncollected Interviews with Samuel Beckett & Memories of Those Who Knew Him; Bloomsbury; 2006.
[2] Samuel Beckett; The Unnamable; Grove Press; 1958.
[3] Ram Das; It’s Here Now (Are You?), Broadway Books; USA, 1997. He spoke of the prevailing atmosphere at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Colorado: “The party energy around [Trungpa] was compelling. In fact, that’s basically what Naropa was: a huge blowout party, twenty-four hours a day… It was all too much.”
[4] Such as R. D. Laing, renegade psychiatrist; Allen Ginsberg, beat poet; William Burroughs, beat novelist; John Cage, avant garde musician; Marianne Faithful, Joni Mitchell, musicians.
[5] Katy Butler; Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America; Common Boundary Magazine; May / June 1990.

Over a six-month period in my late thirties the nerves in nearly all my teeth went berserk and I had to endure a horrendous number of root canal treatments, virtually one after the other. Toothaches developed where enamel was intact; a vicious abscess in the root of one tooth turned me into a jabbering wreck; and I won’t forget or forgive the pasty faced dentist who broke a needle inside a root canal he was excavating and left it there, sealing up the tooth and sending me home after I paid his bill.

The pain was quick to come on and relentless, day after day, 24/7. I traipsed around dentists’ offices all over London trying to find out why my teeth were behaving the way they were. A specialist at London’s National Health Dental Hospital curtly informed me that because I wasn’t a referred case he wasn’t even going to look inside my mouth; and when I protested, somewhat helplessly, he replied, “Blame Mrs Thatcher!” (the then Prime Minister who eviscerated the National Health Service). I got through the days and interminable nights with over-the-counter painkillers, more than 600 of them during six months of purgatory; needless to say I was a zombie most of this time.

One day driving to work, numb from medication, I pulled out of a side street to join a busy road but neglected to check the oncoming traffic in the lane I was joining: a car smashed into the side of my vehicle. Another time I loaded my van so poorly with lumber for a job I was doing that when I braked for a red light the stacked lengths of wood, resting on the edge of the front and rear bench seats, slid forward and smashed through the windscreen.

There was some light relief, from a young Australian dentist who tried (and failed) to make sense of the chaos inside my mouth. He was sleeping in his surgery, he told me, because his wife was driving him mad. I was his first appointment one morning and had to go and buy him a cup of coffee to help wake him up; he drank it while he lay in his sleeping bag, and when I told him I wasn’t in a hurry he reached for his guitar and strummed it for a while before getting up; he was still in his pyjamas when he went to work on me.

On my first visit to a dental surgery in New York, the dentist took a scornful look inside my mouth and laughed: “Don’t tell me: British dentistry!” He compared the work that had been done on my teeth to Russian dental practice: “When someone needs a filling,” he said, “they steal a hubcap from a parked car and bring it to the dentist; he cuts a piece from it and hammers it around the patient’s tooth.”

More than a decade after everything had settled down a dentist in Hong Kong University’s dental clinic told me that when stuff goes awry in the mouth, as it had done with me, it’s often the case that the patient is depressed and run down. This simple diagnosis, very obvious yet elusive at the time, pinpointed the cause of what had happened to me: I’d been in withdrawal, not from drugs or drink, but religion.

I lived an isolated life in single rooms; I was lonely and conditioned from an early age to believe I lacked intelligence, and I had a truly terrible diet; these were the staples of my existence for an inordinately long time, added to which was an incapacity to sustain for longer than a few months any romantic relationship; I was programmed for failure in every endeavour I undertook. Life with my future wife followed this pattern: escalating difficulties of one kind or another had eroded our relationship to the point where I couldn’t keep my end up anymore; we’d split once before, gotten back together again, only to fall back into the same old patterns of self-destructive behaviour that had driven us apart in the first place – we just couldn’t figure out how to be together. Two options loomed: change or separation. Partly as a reaction against my inability to come to terms with separating I took a leap in the dark and threw myself into the Arica School’s ‘The Nine Hypergnostic Systems’ training programme – because it held the prospect of change.

This was where I was introduced to the spiritual philosophy of self-described mystic Oscar Ichazo, of whom I knew nothing, and his school, of which I was equally ignorant. For a period of two weeks I left home early in the morning and came home late at night and saw little of my partner. I had a brief affair with a Spanish woman on the training, and for a while it was touch and go whether my relationship with Sophia would survive. Immersion in the Hypergnostic training was intense and productive: when it concluded I was in a radically different state of mind from the addled condition I’d been in at its start, and it was because of how this change had been ordered that I thought if Sophia and I did some of this work together it would help us clarify the issues we were finding it so difficult to address as a couple. At the very least it offered hope.

The Arica School’s stated purpose is to provide the tools needed to achieve spiritual enlightenment through the clarification of consciousness (clarify: make something clear, intelligible and free from ambiguity) by refining and transforming the energies of mind and body. A lot of this work is done on trainings presented by sponsors licensed by the Arica School; the trainings are numerous, complicated and demanding, but they can induce distinctive refinement in the quality of individual consciousness. A substantial part of the effort devoted to generating these subtle states of mind derives from the use of meditation techniques and kinaesthetic disciplines sourced from the mystical storehouses of old religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Sufism and Christianity. And woven through the grid of trainings is a web of philosophical and intellectual theory developed by Oscar Ichazo. In general, Arica work promises to:

Formulaic trumpeting aside, this is pretty much how it happened. The ambience of the trainings we participated in, their composition and design, were conducive to identifying why we had grown into the kind of people we were, and why we were unable to be the kind of couple we wanted to be. Most often this was done by employing an analytical process Aricans refer to as “karma cleaning” and we used it to examine the emotional and psychological obstacles preventing us from being a loving couple. As the pieces of the puzzle fell into place we began to see how our respective behaviours had been conditioned by our personal histories: the kind of upbringing we’d had, parental expectations, the failure of previous relationships, frustrated expectations of each other, to name a few of the fields dug over. Thus began a healing process.

….open and accelerate the path towards spiritual and transcendental knowledge by clarifying one’s process, culminating in the attainment of a higher state of happiness, equilibrium and understanding.
http://www.arica.org/system/abttrain.cfm

It wasn’t too long before an example of my own psychological disfigurement pushed itself to the front of the line: I was afflicted with a crippling reticence about showing physical affection – for example, I disliked being cuddled; it made me really uncomfortable. The ability to express and receive physical affection had been extinguished so far back in my family I couldn’t imagine it into existence; how to take even a first step in dismantling this physical frigidity was beyond me. I have written about this chilly corner of my consciousness and I can see that what I say below should be edited further, but I can’t do it, I cling tenaciously to these scraps of memory:

In my history are pockets of silence, moments of sweetness suffused with an overarching sadness, such as this ghostly clip which unreels across my synapses: I am 11 or 12 years old, curled up in bed beneath a few old army blankets and unable to sleep because I am cold; I never wore pyjamas, I’d never had them. In the half-dark mam floats to my side and spreads her winter coat over me, then turns and slips noiselessly out of the bedroom.

There had never been hugs or kisses from her; she’d never wrapped me in her arms and I’d never felt the heat of her body against mine. She never pulled her children close – no one had ever done that to her, not even as a child; she’d never known the warmth of a loving embrace; neither had her children.

When I was a young man I’d sometimes turn up out of the blue, having arrived from God knows where, the front door of the flat would open, and there she’d be, her eyes lighting up, her face softening at the sight of me, her head tilting a little to the side as she said, ever so softly, “Hello, lad.” The impulse to put my arms around her would surge up, but I couldn’t do it – it was an action sealed in permafrost. I’d step over the threshold and walk along the hall to the living room, where my dad, no matter how long it had been since he’d seen me, would remain sitting in his armchair by the fire; the most I’d get would be a sidelong glance and a twitch around the lips. “Hello dad,” I’d say; and there might come an acknowledging croak.

Poor dad. At meal times the dining table was a minefield: the evening’s Echo or the morning’s Daily Post, would be spread out in front of his plate, claiming all his attention; not a word would be uttered by him or to him while he read and ate; his children and his wife might as well have been invisible. If he did speak it was usually an explosive outburst because mam had put something inedible on his plate or his children were not behaving.

I have two unerasable snapshots of him and me together. One evening when I was very young he took me to an amateur boxing tournament in a converted cinema; we are sitting in the gods, looking down on the illuminated stage at the teenage sluggers banging away at each other; just the two of us, watching neighbourhood kids boxing. Another evening: I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten; he took me to the circus in Sefton Park, but just before the show began he handed me off to another man outside the entrance to the Big Top, someone I’d never seen before in my life. I remember looking up at their two serious faces, watching them talk but unaware of what was passing between them; then my dad left; I don’t remember him even saying goodbye. Of my night at the circus I recall only the feeling of bewilderment at being in the company of this stranger, and wondering all the time where my dad had gone. When the show ended he was waiting for me outside and explained away his absence by saying there’d been something wrong with his ticket; it didn’t occur to me until years afterwards that he’d probably gone off to see his fancy woman, the one mam always screamed about in her drug and alcohol fuelled rages.

The extent of my father’s interest in my scholastic life began and ended when he bought me an Oxford Geometry Set for use at my new school, an institution tailor-made for well brought up boys from middle-class homes in the suburbs. If I wasn’t a misfit when I started at my new school it didn’t take long before I became one. Beatings, harassment, rugby and cricket (games I never played anywhere else), verbal and physical intimidation were my lot, but I never mentioned any of this to mam or dad. As soon as I was old enough to leave home I did.

In the years after mam died I didn’t see much of my dad; I visited, but infrequently: it was a 200-mile drive and there was nothing to look forward to at the end of it. I’d bring him a bottle of whisky and books, but I could only take him in small doses: we had nothing to talk about, no back and forth; we’d had a lifetime of non-communication and it was no different now. A confusion of mismatched emotions assailed me when I took in his decrepit, friendless state; his life now revolving around meals on wheels, a book to read, a glass or two of whisky perhaps, cigarettes, and spartan rations; early to bed, early to rise; no day different to any other one. Each time I left I did something he’d never done to me: I kissed him – on the cheek – and watched him squirm.

Imagine growing up and only being touched by your parents when they hit you; and never being able to touch them, ever. The core achievement of the Arica trainings was liberation from the wreckage of my early life. Extricating myself from the stranglehold it had on me was a testing struggle as so much of the man I’d become had been seeded in early childhood; disengaging from destructive patterns of behaviour was only possible by gaining a deeper understanding of the damage done in those early years.

Digging to reach an uncamouflaged self was gruelling, but there was no alternative, as a couple we had to excavate the bad history before its grip on us could be broken. Deconstructing the past in the way we were doing enabled me to say to Sophia: I want to be loved; I want to be a loving person.

The Arica work gave us an extraordinary boost and provided much more than we had bargained for; it put our lives on quite a different footing, especially with regard to cuddling. It’s not exaggeration to say it was a life-changing experience, and we were aware of that. Arica took up more and more of our time, so much so that it began to mesh with our social life, but this was no bad thing: we’d made new friends in the Arica community and the intelligent, interesting people we formed relationships with exerted quite a strong influence on us. But our indebtedness to them for their support through hard times blinded us to a weakness in the way our friendships worked, as we were to discover.

A project Sophia and I got off the ground was a newsletter, Afterwords, intended for an Arican readership scattered around Europe; its purpose being to keep alive the friendships made during Arica trainings. It was an unofficial publication, a rough and ready, cut-and-paste job in the days before email and desktop publishing. It never had a big circulation but it was, for a brief period, a labour of love and was well received by its readers. The penultimate issue contained an interview with Brian, a major sponsor of Arica in England, which I gave the artless title “A Long Interview”. Sophia, my co-editor, conducted the interview but there was no spark in her fellow interlocutor’s responses to the questions she put to him and the finished piece was a dull read.

Unknown to us both, some of Brian’s peroration touched on historically contentious issues within the small Arica community, prompting one of its disgruntled members to pen a pugnacious rebuttal of his views. As editors we took transparency seriously and published the letter in the next issue, which set the cat among the pigeons and led to a call for a general meeting of the senior Arican clergy, to which the editors were invited; the author of the letter was pointedly not invited. I was too sick with flu to attend but Sophia went along; she phoned me mid-way through the evening, sobbing as she talked. She had been trashed by the conclave and accused of power seeking.

Last night, cleaning up after dinner, I asked my wife how much of that long ago meeting she could remember; not a great deal, but being accused of wanting power for herself she did recall: “They thought we were after their power,” she said. We stood talking in the kitchen, incredulous still at how setting up ourselves as independent publishers had ruffled the clerical feathers. Our friendships thus became tainted with a mistrust we were never able to adequately resolve.

Despite this upset, we signed up to do the Hypergnostic training, the second time for me. I was short of money and I asked the sponsors, still smarting from our perceived betrayal, if they would sponsor me as a teaching apprentice; they did, though without much enthusiasm. I’d got it into my head that I wanted to learn how to teach the Arica work; it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The first step in the process was to participate in the karma cleaning groups as a facilitator. I’d had sufficient experience of this activity to know that a sensitive prompt at a decisive moment could trigger a person to “jump their level,” as an Arican expression puts it. It’s something of a balancing act, in that you must keep a low profile but at the same time be forward enough to encourage frankness. But the speaker may circle around a memory, instinctively keeping it at arm’s length because its complete resurrection would be too unsettling, and when this happens questions or prompts are liable to skip off them; or they might be feeling a charged emotion, for which no words can be found. Or the reverse may happen: an emotional issue opens up, an unburdening occurs and intractable tension evaporates.

Chloe was relating an incident which illustrated her mother’s pervasive influence on her adult life; at a key point in her narrative I asked her a question (now forgotten) about what she was describing, which caused her to pause; she held my gaze for a moment before turning her head and looking off into the middle distance; after a few beats she turned to look at me, an expression of shock written across her face. Since early childhood she’d thought of her mother as a helpful person, too much so in fact; it was an irritating but harmless character trait she’d long ago come to accept. But in a flash of insight she realized her mother’s obsessive helpfulness masked a serially controlling personality who was forever coaxing her daughter to make sacrifices on her behalf. The emotional jolt came from the realization that for her whole life she had been unwittingly complicit in her own exploitation.

My questions were a little too uncomfortable for two incorrigible haverers: a skeletal old queen I’d shadow boxed with on other trainings and the prickly younger sister of one of the sponsors. They found my forensic probing in the karma cleaning sessions too uncomfortable and refused to be part of any group I was part of. This led to my being summoned by two of the pious bullies who’d worked over Sophia. I’d witnessed similar occasions in the past when Aricans had decided an individual’s ego was out of control and needed to be checked: the weapon reached for was the Vajra taser, Manjusri’s Sword of Wisdom, wielded to cut through ignorance and reduce the ego, a procedure the Arica lexicon defines as ‘a reduction’. The two men set to like middle-managers scolding an employee who’d upset the customers. But even before this unpleasant encounter I had already begun harbouring doubts about the Arica School.

The zealots imbued with Arican theology were so wired with its circuitry, so protective toward ‘The Work,’ that it set them apart; their proprietorial reverence for their teacher wasn’t so different to the behaviour of cult followers who elevate their leader to a level beyond criticism. I never came across anybody who questioned Oscar Ichazo’s claim that the Arica School was a different entity to other, older schools of knowledge, that it was unique, in fact, because it:

 …provides a contemporary method of enlightenment, employing biology, psychology and physics in order to clarify human consciousness with modern knowledge, producing freedom and liberation.
The Arica School: http://www.arica.org/overview/arica.cfm

One hears echoes of the fairground barker’s pitch for his snake oil. Promises of freedom and liberation are taken with a pinch of salt, but here they are vouchsafed as the outcome of a contemporary method of enlightenment (Something wrong with the old one?) produced with modern knowledge, of which a great deal is sourced from this ancient mystical school or that arcane source, then buffed and incorporated, most often without acknowledgement, into the body of Arica work. And then copyrighted.

Disenchantment began working on me like rising damp. The motif of Chogyam Trungpa’s seminal publication, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, began to influence my thinking: Trungpa uses the term “spiritual materialism” to refer to a process where spirituality is accumulated and measured, as if it is a kind of wealth. Rather than scaling back the influence of the ego, this capitalist model of spirituality instead nourishes an antithetical state of mind which the seeker, despite his or her best efforts, is blind to.

Once I began thinking along these lines I saw spiritual materialists everywhere! Dropping by to check in with a few friends who had just finished a weekend-long training in a hotel on the other side of town, I was introduced to Gene, an ageing, grey-haired New Yorker over on a visit. We shook hands and without preamble he asked, “What level are you?” Translation: How high up the Arican ladder had I climbed; ergo how far had I gotten on the road to Enlightenment? Gene’s ghoulish pallor, his half-lidded eyes and leery expression were momentarily distracting, but his question, with its underlying assumption that ascension through these trainings automatically conferred a higher level of consciousness, filled me with despair.

Little things, minor irritations that would have just slid by not so long before, fed a growing disaffection. One lunchtime Sophia and I took the training’s sponsors to a local café, The Quality Chop House, in Clerkenwell, the neighbourhood where Charles Dickens lived when he was writing Oliver Twist. We explained that it was, as it said on the signage, a “Working-class Restaurant,” and had been open for business since the 1870s. It was a historical curiosity and was perhaps the last remnant of London’s nineteenth century Chop Houses, unpretentious eateries where workers could eat a meal prepared from quality meat cuts, presented and served without frills, and still have enough money left over for a glass of beer. We slid into one of the cubicles with banquette seating and the waitress brought menus. When she returned to take the orders, our companions were still deliberating over their meal choices, asking the waitress if it was possible to have this or that dish without meat, or was it possible instead to have a combination plate of vegetables from other dishes? Our server, pen poised over her order pad, and visibly flustered, stood for a few moments in silence, then turned and walked off. She returned a few beats later, in the slipstream of the cook, a giant in check shirt and white apron; even before he reached our cubicle he was demanding to know why we were upsetting his helper, but with barely a pause his right arm swept towards the door: “All of you, out. Now!

I thought of the Quality Chop House as living history: for more than a century its modest premises had been providing working-class men and women with affordable, nutritious meals; but my fellow diners, I could see, weren’t remotely charmed by the café’s unassuming ambience. It had been a mistake to bring them there; plain meat and two veg was too carnivoral for their sensitive palates. I was so ashamed by what transpired I never visited The Quality Chop house again.

Around the time we began disentangling ourselves from Arica, Andrew, an old T’ai Chi colleague and an investment banker, was gorging on its entire menu, eventually becoming qualified to teach several of Arica’s major public trainings. He went through everything, from Level One to Level Eight, but came to a halt before the delivery of Oscar Ichazo’s opus, the ninth and final training, which was being touted as the one that promised Enlightenment; but by then the wheels had already come off the bus for Andrew:

There is now (by my calculation) three and a half times as much work in the eighth level as in levels one to seven combined… we have no idea where the end of the eighth level is, except that we know there will be many more parts. It seems to me obvious that the eighth level goes on and on and cannot be brought to a close…

His disillusionment reached critical mass in Rodomontade (rodomontade: boastful or inflated talk), the website he created for the sole purpose of publicly excoriating his former teacher. The site catalogues Ichazo’s history of broken promises, his repeated failure to publish this or that book he said he was writing on this or that innovative feature of Arica theory; the unattributed borrowings from the work of others; the inflated claims made about the numbers of people who’ve done Arica work; the declining membership of the School; allegations of incest by his daughter; financial impropriety.

A comprehensive listing of institutional and individual sins charts the rupture of Andrew’s relationship with the Arica School and its founder, yet the grief I’m sure he must have experienced from the corrosion of faith is barely hinted at. He’d handed over the money and ploughed his way through Arica’s congested catalogue of trainings, edicts, decrees, manifestos, proclamations; but then concluded, somewhat belatedly, that his investment wasn’t paying the dividend he’d been promised. Andrew had believed he could achieve Enlightenment on an instalment plan that provided him with patented mystical exercises and meditations, but his escalating doubt tipped the scales and at the eighth level he terminated his contributions to the Oscar Ichazo pension plan.

With our friendships splintering, the drift away from the Arica School had a certain inevitability to it. Sophia made the telling observation that Aricans think it’s inconceivable that anybody could grow out of it, that there could ever be a time when the Arica work ceased to be a good fit. It had taken over our lives for several years but we had come to chafe at the amount of time, money and energy it required – that and the shenanigans of its more fetishistic practitioners.

Arica had been tremendously helpful when we were at a very low point in our lives and had straightened us out in a way we couldn’t have managed alone: after five challenging years I began to fall in love with the woman I eventually married, and for this I am indebted to the Arica School, but then we moved on. Sophia and I went to live in New York and embarked on a different kind of life.

Our first contact with Aricans in New York occurred in unusual circumstances: we received an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party in Manhattan; not free though, $50 entry fee for each head. We decided to go, thinking there would probably be a concessionary price for students and the unemployed; my wife had just started a Master’s programme in journalism at Columbia and I hadn’t yet landed a job. Anyway, we’d been hanging out with Aricans for the previous few years and we knew hardly anybody in New York so we thought it would be sociable to attend and hopefully get to know a few people.

When we asked the two ladies on the door if they were offering concessions to students and the unemployed, they turned to each other, as if to say, ‘Who are these people?’ They had no conception of what we were referring to. We explained that in the culture we’d just left it was accepted practice for cinemas, theatres, art galleries, concerts, social events and such like, to offer a discount to financially challenged citizens. But our two Manhattan ladies said, “Sorry, we don’t do that sort of thing here.” We paid the full fee and spent the evening circulating in a room full of strangers; we were two new faces in the Arica community, but there was no curiosity about who we might be, nobody approached us or were interested in making us feel welcome. We left well before midnight and returned to our apartment in Red Hook.

What has assumed mythical status in the history of Arica is the work Oscar Ichazo did in the early 1970s in Chile, where for ten months he taught a group of 50 Americans from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California; and after that New York, where he and his Arica graduates mounted 40-day and 3-month trainings. One has no doubt about how deeply the work must have affected those who engaged with it, and with Oscar himself, but he would have been a different creature back then, something like Gurdjieff perhaps, a charismatic teacher capable of mesmerizing those who came into contact with him. But thirty, forty years on, his claim that his body of work could bring a person to the highest level of spiritual illumination, achieved through training programmes formulated by himself, lost its heft. As the magic of his spells wore off the old wizard’s power faded. He passed away in 2020, aged 88.

I found more disillusionment on another disaffected Arican’s website, Metaton, authored by Stirling Doughty, another castigated malcontent. From it I have included an extract from a letter written by Oscar Ichazo, dated 2002, and directed to members of his School. It is in parts boastful and adrift from reality, and for these reasons alone is compelling reading:

You have been elected by the Arica Institute membership to proceed in the most delicate part of the historical life of our School. This is so because in the next year Arica will be presented in full to the general public worldwide. It will consist of the three major and final accomplishments for the School, related to the presentation of the first public work of the Arica theory in a book authored by me. Following this accomplishment we will present a completely restructured form of presentation and distribution of Arica trainings, scientific techniques, and personal instructions at various levels for the general public, professionals, and academic institutions. This material is designed to produce the most enthusiastic reception for the Arica news toward enlightenment and Humanity One. I can assure you that it will be an explosive event of enthusiasm toward the Arica work. This will attract a phenomenal amount of social energy in terms of actual money as well as human work and dedication. At that point Arica will be able to produce an ordered flow of information and assimilation of people in our School, which will acquire gigantic proportions.

The most significant outcome of the book is that it will catapult Arica into the attention of the world. I will also prepare, at the same time, the trainings which will be adapted for producing public acceptance that will make the School immensely popular, prestigious, and resourceful.

All this most important and delicate historical process will be in your hands, and since you have been elected, by a direct line of the School, you must feel the mantle of Archangel Gabriel upon you, which means the Divine Mind of Essential Will acting within inexorable certitude towards the accomplishment of the School as the transcendental tool for achieving the special goal of Humanity One. This great responsibility is upon you…

There is still a short period of time that the School will be living off its very limited resources; however, it will still be necessary to raise funds to finance the Institute’s basic operations, for consolidation, and to honour our commitments. During this very last period of internal tranquillity we have to dedicate ourselves entirely to complete the Telegnostic Meditations, so the School acquires the eighth Bhumi known in the Buddhist tradition as Acala Immovable, or the Third Holy, known as Non-returner, and this equals our Sixth Divine Gnosis under the title of the First Arica Holy or the Telegnostic Degree.

The tub thumping; the clarion call; the eager prose; the prediction of success to come; the ambitious eye on an unrealisable goal, veer toward delusion. The Arica School has only ever been a marginal presence among the religions and creeds of the Western world; its current membership could probably be counted in the few hundreds, perhaps less, a far cry from the 1970s when Arica rode a ripple of popularity in the USA and its founder was heralded by a few well-heeled New Yorkers as a Messiah for the New Age. Since then interest in the Arica School has diminished so significantly it may well be a defunct organization.

If one takes the claims Oscar Ichazo made in his letter at face value, he evidently regarded himself as still a player, but like the charismatic leaders of the sects and cults scattered around the USA in the twentieth century, he has made an almost invisible impression on the global stage. He and his School might amount to a footnote in the historical narrative of new religions; or most likely will not.

My disillusionment with Arica was crushing and for a time I remained profoundly depressed. In the aftermath of my disentanglement from the School and the concomitant loss of friendships, I resorted to heavy cannabis use and this helped anaesthetise the pain of separation, but it was too ferocious to be suppressed, hence the great uprising in my teeth. But in time I got over it, as one does with such things.

My breakfast reading this past few mornings has been Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite, published a few years before the launch in Chile of The Arica way to Enlightenment. This caught my attention:

I might suggest a fourth need of modern man which is precisely liberation from his inordinate self-consciousness, his monumental self-awareness, his obsession with self-affirmation, so that he may enjoy the freedom from concern that goes with being simply what he is and accepting things as they are in order to work with them as he can.

I cherish the Catholic virtues of my childhood: compassion, charity, humility; they still mean something to me, but such old fashioned ideas have no place, even minimally, in the Arica world view. It may be my working-class upbringing, leavened with my father’s radical Socialism, but Arica always struck me as a bourgeois kind of religion, best suited to people on the up with disposable income. I realise this is a perception based on my own prejudices; nevertheless, it’s a view that came to colour my relations with Aricans: the way they behaved – on both sides of the Atlantic – served to increase my disaffection; the relentless preoccupation with self, which seems to be an instinctual requirement for pursuing the Arica Way, and the often blind attachment to the words of Oscar Ichazo, were things I could not reconcile myself to.

In the years after Arica, with the anchor of zazen practice, the writing of authors like Chogyam Trungpa and Thomas Merton have been a source of inspiration and have contributed to my improving ability to fail better. Trungpa, despite his wildly aberrant behaviour and alcoholism, was an original and illuminating thinker. I included the short extract from Merton’s writing because it manages to fuse the essence of two apparently disparate religions; as he casts down he lifts up: his spare counsel, pure Zen and pure Catholic, sans frills, manages to convey the warmth of the old virtues I hold dear.

Tank Man

This is a story written by my son, Owain, when he was 16. His High School English teacher asked his permission to use the story to show to future students as an example of exemplary creative writing.

*

I began working as a waiter at one of the busiest restaurants in the city, the Wang Fu Jing Banquet Hall, about two years ago. Despite the longer hours it was an improvement on my previous job in a factory out in the suburbs. I work in sweltering heat amid clanging pots and pans and the endless echo of orders being shouted across the kitchen. It had been an exhausting day on one of the busiest periods of the year; I wiped the sweat from my brow as I collected the last of the greasy plates and bowls from the tables out front. I was very relieved to reach the end of my shift. I put some leftover food sitting on one of the kitchen worktops into a plastic bag to take home to my family.

As I left the restaurant through the rear door, the chilly evening air dried up the perspiration on my face. I was getting the bus home with Chen, a friend who lived in the same neighbourhood as me. We met up on the corner and made our way to the bus shelter, where we sat down next to an old one-legged beggar. 

“No point waiting,” he muttered.

I looked at the old man, slightly startled: “What do you mean?” I asked him.

 “They’ve cancelled all the buses. No point waiting.”

 “Why’ve they been cancelled?”

All I know is I’ve been sitting here for three hours and I haven’t seen a single bus pass by.”

Well. That was a nuisance, especially as our apartment block was roughly a two hour walk away. I called my wife from a nearby pay phone and told her why I wouldn’t get home till late.

As we set off on our trek I was struck by how deserted the streets were, which was unusual for a Friday evening. The few people we did see hurried by in the opposite direction to us.

Turning into a side street I was almost knocked over by a running man with a wild look in his eyes. He fell to the ground and I noticed that he was bleeding profusely from his right leg.

“Are you okay?” I asked as I helped him up. The blood had soaked through his clothes and was dripping onto the pavement. He staggered to his feet and stared at me with a dazed look. Without saying a word he limped off, dragging his bloody leg behind him.

Chen and I called after him, but he ignored us. Obviously he was in a state of shock.

We continued walking, bewildered by what had just happened. Who or what had injured the man? We didn’t know, but I couldn’t get the image of his face out of my head. He was scared of something and whatever he was running from, we were heading towards it.

There was something in the air, we could feel it. In fact I’d sensed it from the moment we found out the buses had been cancelled, and then there was that frightened young man. It was obvious something was amiss. I had an uneasy feeling that whatever had caused the buses to be cancelled, that injured man, and the empty streets, would undoubtedly cause more misfortune.

The side street opened up into a larger street which in turn opened onto a boulevard. There was surprisingly little traffic, and not many people were out, despite it being the rush hour.

We walked about twenty minutes more before we heard it, a faint sound that I couldn’t decipher at first, but as we got closer to the Square I could hear it more clearly: thousands of voices chanting in unison, shouting slogans, over and over. Everyone had heard rumours about the protest, passed around by word of mouth, but the only official information on it came from the TV; which usually churned out generic messages like: “There has been a minor disturbance in the Square.” But this was no minor disturbance.

We came to a steep upwards incline in the road, the chanting getting louder by the minute. When we reached the crest of the road we got a big shock: there were thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, packed into the Square, and everywhere were huge banners with slogans daubed on them, such as “Down with corruption,” and “End Dictatorship.”

The noise was deafening. “We demand Liberty! Down with dictatorship!” the people chanted. Chen and I were stunned. We had both heard about the “minor” protests of course, but we had also been told not to go near the Square; so many people didn’t really know what was going on.

“I’m going down there” Chen said.

I jogged along to keep up with him, but I was distracted by the tumult around us and couldn’t keep up. Chen was getting further away, disappearing deeper into the crowd. I called after him but he couldn’t hear me. It was so congested, with everyone roaring slogans at the top of their lungs. I felt claustrophobic and a little panicky. I needed to get out of the crowd. I wanted to get home and be with my family.

I pushed my way through the milling protestors, until they began to thin out and I started to hurry away.

CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! With the sound of gunshots ringing in my ears and bullets zipping around me I sprinted away from the crowds, and when I chanced a quick look behind I saw bodies crumpling. The People’s Liberation Army Soldiers were stood atop of trucks, shooting their own people! Catching sight of a sign saying I was at the North East section of the Square I made a quick decision: make a dash for Chang’an Avenue. From there I could get far away from the chaos.

Panting and sweating, I raced out of the Square. As I got further away, my fear slowly turned to outrage. Our own army, firing upon students demanding liberty! And it wasn’t just students, ordinary people were there too, protesting for their rights. Hell, my best friend was probably still there.

Almost out of breath, I reached Chang’an Avenue. I’d only ever been down the Avenue in a bus, and now on foot it looked huge. Once I got across Chang’an I would be safe, I could get home. Bracing myself, I ran out into the Avenue.

Not looking left or right, I began sprinting across the highway; the only thought in my head was that I had to get to the other side of this enormously wide road. So intense was my concentration I hadn’t heard a sinister sound that seemed to be growing louder by the second; I stopped running and swivelled my head to see if I could spot where the noise was coming from; what I saw was terrifying: in the near distance a line of tanks were rumbling directly towards me.

I should have run but my feet were rooted to the spot. I could barely control my anger. Ordinary people were being killed, students, workers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, were all about to be attacked.

I was very scared, but also extremely angry. Angrier than I’d ever been. I felt the tears on my cheeks, and then I felt myself running, running like an automaton towards the tanks. They had to be stopped, the killing had to stop.

They were thundering along, getting closer and closer. Would they shoot at this solitary pedestrian? Would they try to drive over me?

I was mad with rage: ordinary people, students, workers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, were being murdered!

I stopped. The tanks were about ten or fifteen metres away. Right in front of me. I wanted to run away but I couldn’t. I stood my ground, determined to stop them. Determined to stop the killing. They tried to go around me, and I moved to stay in front of them. The lead tank advanced until it was right in front of me. I could see the driver, as he poked his head out of the turret, but I had only one thought in my mind: They shall not pass!

*

The image of tank man was broadcast all around the world in the days after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. To this day his identity is still unknown.

Written by Owain Woodman Carr

Yugen

An awareness of the universe that triggers an emotional response
too deep for words.

On a solitary hike in the Trossachs, a wild area where the Scottish Highlands begin, I stopped to look at a country kirk near the village where Rob Roy, a Jacobite folk hero, is buried. It was a very modest building, tiny, in fact, and may have been a private chapel for an aristocratic estate, but on my walk I’d seen only old stone cottages and a few recently built houses, nothing remotely grand; I saw no aristocratic presence thereabouts, but that’s not to say there wasn’t one. The kirk stood in a flower filled meadow and the high wall that enclosed it was pitted and mottled with age, its capstones all grown over with lichen; chained and padlocked gates set back from the roadside barred entry to curious idlers like myself. The diminutive chapel and the lovely meadow which it graced was invisible to motorists speeding by.

I’d left one forested trail and was on my way to another that would take me over the hills to where I was camped; to get to it I had to tramp a few miles along a tarmac road, but this was no hardship as the weather was fine and the country air bracing. That morning I’d stood and watched an eagle circling on the thermals, and shortly afterwards I caught sight of a hawk going like a bullet into a nearby copse; gorse the colour of gold flowed down the hillsides; the sounds of birdsong and the gurgling of rocky burns had accompanied me all the way; passing by a steeply sloping field I stopped to watch two rams butting heads. And then I stumbled on the chapel.

There wasn’t a great deal to see: a gravel path leading away from the gates, a scattering of slender trees leaning over the roof of the kirk; sunlight sparkling through the leaf canopy and speckling the dressed stone; long grass growing right up to the walls.

There wasn’t a whisper of a breeze; an extraordinary stillness enveloped everything and was so palpable it vapourised my internal clamour in an instant. It was no more than the cessation of motion and noise, but I remember very keenly how the unearthly silence permeating the little meadow affected me: what was inside felt like outside; what was outside felt like inside; no difference; same, same.

Was it my imagination playing tricks? Too much chi in the air? I’ve tried to write more, to distill the essence of those few moments standing at the gates of the kirk, but it was a vain effort and I gave up; I just couldn’t find the words. The best I can do is refer you to a telling observation from the English playright Harold Pinter: “The more accute the experience, the less articulate its expression.”

An incident from my youth points up an aspect of the experience: one afternoon I got into a foolish argument with a neighbourhood boy who was an amateur boxer and before I realised what had happened I was laid out on the pavement: he had decked me with a punch I never saw coming. I hadn’t even felt the impact of the blow. The sudden transition from vigorous hiking to overarching stillness was as immobilising as that.

*

It wasn’t till we were about to leave Renèe and Bao Pu’s apartment that I saw the Lohan; he was just by the door and we had walked by him, unaware of his presence as we stepped into the apartment. The wood carving was very old and, going by the square holes in its base, was missing a lower half; not a trace of the paint that had once coated its surface remained; though the ravages of time and circumstance were plain to see, the wear and tear of centuries had failed to diminish the wooden monk’s undeniable allure.

Lohan

The monk’s hands are folded into the dhyana mudra, the same mudra assumed by the Buddha as he sat under the pipal tree before his Enlightenment. His robes drape naturally over his body and are without stylistic adornment; the upright posture is devoid of any sign of physical tension: the shoulders, the place where the weight of the world bears down, are free of tension; the torso is relaxed and suggests a deep repose. But it is around the mouth and the half-closed eyes that the monk’s internal composure is most noticable.

I don’t think the woodcarver just imagined up what can be discerned in the monk’s bearing. Wielding iron gouges and blades to re-create the serenity of deep meditation is immensely skillful and must have been sourced in experiential knowledge of such a state. I have no doubt it was a monk who did the carving.

Before the work of cutting and shaping would have gotten underway, the woodworker monk would have had to find a suitable piece of timber for his project, and most likely would have found it amongst a store of logs stockpiled to season somewhere in the monastery, a workshop or a lean-to perhaps. Inventory would have been inspected, a few lengths picked out and scrutinized, and from them one or two pieces selected. The face of the wooden monk is so distinctive it wouldn’t surprise me if the inspiration for the work had been a sage, or perhaps a revered teacher living in the monastery, whose charisma our master carver wished to replicate; it’s no stretch to imagine him, mallet and chisel in hand, pausing to reference such a being in his mind’s eye.

Renée described to me how she and her husband discovered the meditating monk:

Bao Pu and I were walking down Hollywood Road in Hong Kong, in the very early days of our jade collecting. We were looking for antique furniture, nothing too fancy, just something for our apartment. We walked into a shop selling mostly antique Chinese furniture; however, towards the back of the dimly lit store a spotlight picked out a worn out old wooden Lohan statue. He spoke to me instantly; his presence was so alive I immediately pointed him out to Bao Pu. I mentioned how much his face resembled my father’s, who had passed away years ago. Bao Pu asked about the price, and then with no hesitation or haggling, said, “We’ll take it!” I turned to him in surprise, but said nothing… Neither of us buy many things, but we were both certain we wanted this statue. The shopkeeper told us it was a Ming Dynasty carving from Jiangsu Province, from a temple that had since been torn down.

To have been able to tease out a bewitching portrait of a Lohan, a realised being free of suffering, from an unforgiving block of hardwood is a truly exceptional accomplishment. It is the woodcarver’s skill manifest at the very highest level. In the facial aspect of the meditating monk one sees the aesthetic expression of Lao Tzu’s laconic observation, “He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak.” The indescribable remains indescribable, but the enigmatic monk from Jiangsu, seems to hint at the very thing which cannot be spoken of.

*

My father-in-law, an American from WASP stock, is prone to dramatic mood swings; alcohol loosens him up, but after a few drinks he’s liable to become mawkish and juvenile, which Owain, his grandson, finds amusing. The narratives of our respective lives have followed radically different trajectories and we remain emotionally and intellectually distant from each other, though I wish this were not so.

On our last visit to Chiangmai, the principal city of northern Thailand where he runs a spa with his Thai wife, he treated us to an excursion to Chiang Dao, an unspoilt stretch of hill country en route to The Golden Triangle. It was, on the whole, a peaceful expedition, but sullied on our departure when Christopher got into a spat with the owner of the bungalows we’d been staying in: he was convinced he’d been overcharged, but only complained after the bill had been paid. The proprietor angrily responded by throwing the bill money into the back of the truck where Owain and I were sitting; it was retrieved and re-presented, but hurled back again, the wad of baht somehow ending up in Owain’s lap, where it stayed; then we drove away.

On the day before our departure we went for a walk that took us through a forest wat. The forest monastery tradition in Thailand is a recent initiative ­– begun in 1900 – whose purpose was to revitalise monastic life by drawing on ancient Buddhist practice, and to achieve this by retreating into the forest to lead a morally disciplined life revolving around seclusion and meditation. It was from this action that the forest monastic culture in the north-east of the country emerged.

It was a hot and humid afternoon, the sky was a louring grey smear and the mosquitoes were out in force. The wat was very quiet; I clocked the monks’ houses as we walked by them: single-room, cinder block dwellings with tiled roofs, raised off the ground atop brick piers; rubber sandals outside many of the doors. Christopher is a tall man with long legs and is a fast walker; I’m more of a stroller, but my wife’s walking speed is more like his and she has no trouble keeping up with him; I usually lag behind with Owain on these outings and am content to remain out of earshot.

I saw Christopher come to a stop up ahead and then veer off towards a nearby clump of trees. As Owain I and caught up with Sophia she told us her dad had gone to see if he could rouse the abbot, who he’d met on a previous occasion, and was going to ask him to unlock the gates of a nearby sacred cave he wanted us to see.

I was sweating a lot and had become irritable from the remorseless attention of the mosquitoes; and the prospect of having to feign interest in the holy cave’s collection of market-stall Buddhas and plastic gewgaws only served to put me further out of joint. As we waited for Christopher to return we zig-zagged and shuffled about in a fruitless attempt to avoid being bitten. After what seemed an age he reappeared, loping towards us in the company of an ochre-robed, shaven headed man, the abbot; sotto voce, Christopher told us that he’d interrupted the monk’s afternoon meditation.

I remember the abbot’s surprisingly grubby robes and our awkward manoeuvring around the cave’s mementoes left behind by visitors: bleached photos, candles, beads, cheap figurines of Ganesh, the Hindu deity with the power to remove obstacles, tacky Buddhas; dust laden paper flowers. I don’t recall which of us asked the abbot if he’d be agreeable to posing for a photo; in any event I arranged the bodies on a bench just outside the cave: Owain in the middle, Christopher on his right, the monk on his left, looking ill at ease. Then I asked Christopher and Owain if I could take a picture of the abbot alone; when they moved away he relaxed visibly; you can see in the photograph on the previous page that he has no mask, his face is open. And his ear lobes are a sight to behold, just as elongated as the wooden sage’s from Jiangsu.

This portrait of a nameless monk lay amongst the digital clutter of my desktop for several years, a reminder of a brief but memorable encounter: this is a man who has renounced a material existence to spend his life following in the footsteps of the Buddha. But I wish one of his bhikkhus would do his laundry for him.

Nameless Abbot

Though we could hear the Swami’s voice drifting up to our room from the courtyard below, he was too muffled to understand, but when we headed out we could hear what he was saying quite clearly: he was reading aloud and from his inflection and tone it was obvious he was enjoying himself. In our daily audiences with the Swami I sometimes became preoccupied by his elocution rather than what he was talking about – the way he spoke. I never did enquire of him how he came by his posh, Home Counties accent; most likely it derived from proximity to an expat school teacher or a university lecturer from his youth. He was shameless about showing off how well he could speak English; and we were respectful enough to listen passively, but, it must be said, we were being talked at a lot of the time.

The Swami would’ve spotted his two guests crossing the courtyard on the way to the street door, but he paid us no mind. We were slipping out to the cantonments to meet Rhadasham, a local idler (“Hashish? Yes; excellent for direct action upon the mind!”) who, because of the Swami’s strict dietary restrictions – no meat, no fish, no fowl – had arranged for us to consume a discreet omelette with a couple of his artist pals; hence the secrecy. The double-doors of the room where His Holiness Bal Yogi Ananta Sri Vishushita Swami Paramanand Saraswati Ji Maharaj had installed himself had been opened wide and we could see him reclining on a waist-high platform, his head supported by a hefty bolster, his orange robe pulled up to mid-thigh, one bare leg crossed over the other, a paperback held aloft in one hand; my guess was that as it was so hot he was staving off lassitude. But even from a distance I recognised the distinctive cover of the book he was holding: A Translation and Commentary on the Baghavad-Gita: Chapters 1-6 by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the same paperback that I’d read from cover to cover during a stint as a dishwasher at a grand hotel in Southport.

A more benevolent perception would have him innocently idling away the mid-day heat perusing a new analysis of one of Hinduism’s holiest scriptures while he waited for the mercury to fall. The book interested him more than it would have done if he hadn’t once shared living space with its erstwhile author: the Swami and the Maharishi had once been acolytes of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, a renowned and much loved teacher in northern India, known more simply as Guru Deva. Charged by his teacher with the responsibility of teaching meditation to the masses, the Maharishi set off on a two-year journey around the country to do precisely that; three years after the completion of his Indian journey he embarked on a world tour to extol the benefits of a meditation technique he referred to as Transcendental Meditation (TM). In 1967, in a coup which exponentially increased public awareness of his mission, he persuaded the Beatles to give up drugs and take up TM. They followed the Maharishi to India and lived in Rishiskesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, practicing meditation under his guidance. Intrigued by the diminutive, giggling yogi who offered instant bliss with his simple meditation technique, other Western rock stars, actors, and hangers-on joined the Beatles in Rishikesh.

The Swami’s absorption in the speaking of the book rather than the reading of it prompted the uncharitable thought that he was getting his voice box in shape for his daily lecture to the poor, and not so poor, who crowded into the ashram at 7.30 a.m. every morning to listen to him discourse on religious themes. They came in their hundreds to receive darshan, the blessing a devotee receives from being in the presence of a saint. His hour-long talks, given from a dais elevated above his audience, were preceded by the communal singing of a devotional mantra led by a blind harmonium player. The blind musician’s pre-lecture, half-hour rendition of Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai, Jai Ram, crackling out of a hefty, old fashioned horn loudspeaker hanging off the balcony of our room, functioned as an alarm call, which we two comatose pilgrims usually greeted with sotto voce curses. The Swami would have preferred us to be in the audience listening to his lectures, which were given in Hindi. We did attend one of his gatherings at the beginning of our stay but not being able to understand what he was saying it was hard to pay attention. But I remember the devotion of his audience, the flowers placed in front of the dais, the fruit laid at his feet; and the bodies crouching up to the dais to touch his wooden sandals and then bringing the hand that touched the sandals to the forehead. It was disagreeable being stared at by so many adoring people, so we stayed in bed during the Swami’s perorations, listening but not listening to him broadcasting from our balcony to the litter strewn wasteland across the street. One morning, standing on the balcony drinking tea, I saw a several cyclists climb off their bicycles and stand and listen intently to the Swami’s lecture booming out of the loudspeaker.

Unlike the Maharishi, the Swami elected never to leave his beloved India, citing his fear of spiritual pollution. As a sannayasin, one who has renounced all social and family ties, he travelled from town to town, teaching, and talking to whomever wished to hear his message, before moving on, forbidden by his vows from living permanently in one place. A group of wealthy householders had invited him to come to Meerut for an extended stay, and that is where we met him, in the town that provided the spark that ignited the great uprising against the Raj in 1857. Our ostensible reason for being there was to assist in the translation of a book he had written. Our sojourn with the Swami came about entirely by chance, by an extraordinarily circuitous route whose starting point was a seaside pub in northern England.

But before going to live with the Swami I came within a cat’s whisker of leaving India: I had been separated involuntarily from my two companions and was in a very distressed state, but in the blink of an eye the appalling mess I had gotten into evaporated. This is what happened.

I

In my early twenties I read everything I could lay my hands on about mysticism and meditation in India and Tibet, but in the small circles in the small town I lived in, I didn’t know anybody who was interested in such things. Until, that is, I got into conversation in a bar with a lanky, tousled haired chef who was to become a bridge to a world I only knew from books: he had actually practiced meditation in an Indian ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas – in the company of the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Possessing an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, he had been engaged by the Maharishi’s ashram manager to prepare Western style meals for the famous foreign guests whose arrival was expected at any moment.

I looked out for Mike each Monday evening, his one night off from his restaurant job, in whatever ale house I thought he might be found in. Our conversations, as would be expected, frequently turned to the subject of meditation. After closing time we drifted into late-night sessions at one back street drinking club or another and talked about TM and consciousness, and the mystics who populated the books that so absorbed me. Out of these conferences grew the idea of actually going to India to seek out monks and swamis, and even receive an initiation or two. Mike was very keen to return; there was some unfinished business there, I thought.

I had a hodgepodge of ideas about the practice of meditation and the changes in consciousness it caused but I didn’t really get it. In the sort of texts I had been reading – such as Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda; A Search in Secret India by Dr Paul Brunton; Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David Néel – the miraculous was commonplace; and soaking up this niche literature the way I did, my perception of what was involved in meditation practice became somewhat skewed. I imagined meditation as a form of magic, and I wanted to do it because I thought it would make life more entertaining.

In the meantime, I achieved my goal of becoming a bona fide meditator: I went on a 35-mile journey up the coast to a suburban house in Blackpool where Mike introduced me to a teacher willing to initiate me into Transcendental Meditation. The initiation ceremony, a subdued, unfussy process, took place in a quiet front room graced with a picture of Guru Deva and a bouquet of fresh flowers. After being given a secret mantra and instruction on how to bring about the blissful state promised by TM the instructor left the room. I spent 20 minutes immersed, effortlessly it must be said, in this my very first attempt at meditation. I can’t say exactly how long it persisted, but my mind effectively divided into two parts: one half morphed into a detached entity, an uninvolved silent witness to what was happening in the distinctly separate mental space that was the other half: I observed myself, in a garage, engaged in the close inspection of a car which a Chinese man was trying to sell me.

II

It was the hottest time of year to contemplate a visit to the subcontinent; and the distance didn’t bear contemplating: a prodigious 6,000 miles by land transport across nine countries; nevertheless, propelled by the mindless optimism of youth, four hungover travellers set out; I had never been out of England before. We squeezed ourselves into an overloaded Austin minivan that, miraculously, carried us over the Alps and down the length of Italy to the port of Brindisi, from where we boarded ship, bus and train to eventually fetch up at a frontier post separating Pakistan from India. We were now three travellers: Mike, his lifelong friend Roly, and myself, with meagre funds insufficient to meet our needs.

Mike’s portable battery operated record player, which had survived the long journey intact, caught the attention of one of the Sikh border guards. She asked us to play some of the music from one of the LPs Mr Mike had been carrying in a plastic shopping bag. The record player’s batteries were still charged, so the guard and her companions were able to listen happily to a couple of songs by Donovan, a popular English troubadour of the time. Enquiries as to why we were travelling with so little money were deflected by insisting ample funds were waiting for us at a bank in Delhi. After examining our teeth – yellow staining indicating a predilection for hashish – the guards stamped our passports and waved us through.

On Mike’s first visit to India he had gotten to know a very minor Bombay film actor, Quadir Khuroo, a resident of Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, who he thought might be able to help us get out of the pickle we were in. It was to his home we headed, a mere 333.7 miles, the greater portion of which was a precipitous road snaking its way up and around the foothills of the Himalayas.

Without apprising Quadir of the true extent of our poverty, we agreed to rent from him the upper floor of a little cottage on a tiny island on Dal Lake, the ‘Lake of Flowers’, where he lived with his extended family. The cottage was boxed in between two houseboats, one of which was home to the Khuroo clan; the other, ‘The Khuroo Palace’, consisted of exclusive accommodation for tourists with money to burn. Getting to and from the island necessitated crossing a narrow stretch of water in a shikara, a kind of gaudy water taxi attached to the Khuroo estate.

Quadir generously agreed to defer payment of the rent until our funds arrived, which were, in a manner of speaking, in the pipeline. It was intended that I would go to Delhi (a 1,000 mile round trip) and sell the American Express traveller’s cheques I had fraudulently obtained by reporting my original cheques stolen. They were replaced, over the counter, no questions asked, at the busy American Express office in Athens, thereby doubling the money I had to hand. The black market cash would be used to purchase 100 handmade embroidered shirts, kurtas (stylish hippy leisure wear), from a local tailor in Srinagar; the kurtas would then be air freighted to England where a pal of Mike’s would offload them at various retail outlets and remit the proceeds to us. We were sure this hippy attire would sell quickly, and with the funds raised we would settle our bill at the Khuroos and begin trawling for mystics.

I took a bus to Delhi, found a dormitory bed in a hostel, and in a short time was inside a shop selling my cheques at lucrative black market rates; it was all very easy. Keeping a little back for a side trip I wanted to take before returning to Srinagar, I telegraphed the money to Mike and Roly, who set in train the order for the kurtas.

A few months before leaving Southport I had gotten into a routine of paying a weekly visit to a shrine belonging to a family of affluent Sikh dentists; they had converted a ground floor room of a rather grand house they owned but did not live in, into a sanctum for their guru, Maharaj Charan Singh, the head of an extensive spiritual community – known as Sant Mat, or Rhada Soami – located on the outskirts of the town of Beas in the Punjab. On Sunday afternoons middle-aged and elderly men and women converged on the house and congregated in the shrine room, whose centrepiece was a large framed photo of the heavily bearded Sant Mat guru, surrounded by flowers; somebody would give a talk on spiritual matters, after which the flock gave themselves over to devotional chanting; afterwards tea and biscuits were served to all. Because of my youth I felt awkward and out of place at these pious gatherings, but at the same time I found participation in them mildly comforting. During the talks I stared a lot at the guru’s photo: he measured up to what I imagined a guru might look like, but was he really as serene as he appeared? When I knew I would be going to India I thought that if it could be managed, I would visit the Sant Mat community. I felt unconscionably shy amongst these upright strangers and could not bring myself to speak a single word to the hosts or any of the guests. Not even to tell them I intended to pay a visit their revered guru on his home turf.

Beas is not very far from Amritsar, the city I had to pass through on my return to Kashmir. After getting off the bus from Delhi I went directly to The Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, to escape the pulverising heat. The Sikhs are admirable people, always the first religious group to step up with aid when calamity upends a community. At The Golden Temple they operate a kitchen and serve a simple vegetarian meal to anyone with an empty stomach, for free. Later in the day I caught a packed local bus to Beas; it had no air conditioning and after a sweaty 28-mile crawl I fetched up at Sant Mat soaked. A custodian welcomed me without formality or form filling and took me to a room where I could stay the night; no charge was made for my accommodation, neither was payment requested for the evening meal or the breakfast that was brought to my room. I had noticed that there seemed to be very few people about and when I asked a softly spoken administrator when I would be able to see Guru Maharaj Charan Singh, he told me that this would not be possible as he was in London.

It was a tiring, bumpy ride back to Srinagar. The shirts had been bought, packed, and dispatched; now we just had to wait. Our faces had become familiar to the neighbourhood residents and in our social interactions we were familiarly addressed as Mr Mike, Mr Roly, and Mr Alex. We twiddled our thumbs in the cottage, read what few books we possessed, I wrote my diary, we tried to meditate, which was difficult and sometimes impossible due to the endless racket of domestic life emanating from the Khuroo domain. And also because we sometimes smoked hashish, which is antithetical to the meditation process, a fact which I was clueless about. We were always on the lookout for things to do to pass the time until we could extricate ourselves from the Khuroos.

One day we took a bus to a village near Srinagar to visit the venerable Swami Laxman Joo, recognised as the foremost authority on Kashmiri Shaivism, an ancient tantric system. Laxman Joo had been an acquaintance of Mahatma Gandhi and the acclaimed sage, Ramana Maharshi; Meher Baba, the renowned spiritual master, had been a visitor to his house; likewise Baba Muktananda, the originator of Siddha Yoga. By all accounts the Maharishi was friends with him. Actually, I didn’t know who Laxman Joo was at this time, it was Mr Mike who knew he was living in a village not far from where we were housed. I subsequently read about him in Paul Rep’s Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, where Reps says the yogi “presents the 112 ways to open the invisible doors of consciousness” and was entranced by what I read. I also listened to an audio recording of him talking about Kashmir Shaivism: his voice had the hypnotic timbre of a cello, which made this listener sit up and pay attention. We eventually found his house, perched on a hillside above the lake: his housekeeper came to the door and told us the Swami was not at home; he was giving lectures in a distant place and would not be back for some time. Some weeks later Mr Roly and I paid another visit, but we had no more luck catching him this time than we’d had before. Foolishly we never sought him out again.

Living in a monk-like cell in a Hindu temple not far along the road from Dal Lake was a young man Mr Mike had a passing acquaintance with. His tiny living space in the Durgaganj Temple was barely large enough to squeeze us all in for the meditation sessions we did together. I liked the temple and its environs, liked retreating behind its walls: it was a refuge whose ambience pointed to the reason for coming to India. Exploring the grounds on our first visit our attention was caught by an orange-robed sannyasin (a person who has renounced material possessions), sitting in the doorway of a tiny house and engaged in nothing more leisurely than watching the world go by: as we approached him he greeted us with a warm smile. Apart from having perfect teeth he spoke very good English and was more than happy to engage in conversation with the three foreigners. At one point he showed us a photo of himself in the company of the singer and pianist Nina Simone and claimed to be her Guru. Could the great diva have been this swami’s disciple? After we returned to Dal Lake I couldn’t get this charismatic fellow out of my mind and decided to return to the temple the next day to talk to him further. As I walked along the lakeside I rehearsed the questions I thought I might ask him, but when I reached the temple the house where we had seen him was empty: he had left that morning and no one knew where he had gone or even if he would return. For some desperate reason I had set my heart on seeing and talking with him and was painfully disappointed by his disappearance.

On another occasion I went to the temple with the intention of simply spending time there and seeing what I could see, but coming through the gate I saw a large crowd had gathered, with everyone staring intently at something. Squeezing through the bodies I caught sight of what was commanding the crowd’s attention: sitting upright in a full lotus posture was an orange-robed sannyasin: his face was ashen, all the blood and life having drained away. An elongated, T-shaped wooden support had been wedged under his chin to prevent his head from tipping forward. I was told that he used to live at the Durgaganj Temple and had been away on an extended pilgrimage and had returned the previous evening; shortly after arriving he chose a spot to meditate and sometime during the night left his body. Whether the sannyasin had died from illness or had been in the deep trance state of samadhi – sometimes used by adepts as a means to exit this material world – nobody I spoke to was prepared to say.

III

Murphy’s Law is universal: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and our shirt project followed that trajectory perfectly. For reasons we were never able to discover our parcel had been delayed at the export shed in Delhi; and it was also impounded at the airport in England because of non-payment of import duty, so the money for that had to be found before the parcel could be released. Compounding the difficulties, Mr Mike and Mr Roly hadn’t taken the precaution of examining the shirts that had, supposedly, been handmade for us: many of them were spoiled with stains of one kind or another, and the seam and hem stitching was poor. In the days before mobile phones and the internet a long distance telephone call was difficult to make – it had to be booked in advance – and it was expensive; the next best alternative, post office aerograms, were unreliable and slow; drip by tortuous drip we were apprised of unfolding disaster: in a nutshell, the kurtas were impossible to sell. It was all very difficult. To raise a few rupees during the poverty stricken wait for funds, Mr Mike sold the swindling tailor middleman his remaining LPs and his record player, which, soon after changing hands, broke down and could not be repaired.

We had been living in the cottage on Dal Lake now for a considerable time and had not paid a single rupee in rent; we had lost every penny and were unable to vacate our accommodation because of what we owed to our benevolent landlord. Day by day the debt escalated and became progressively more challenging to pay off; the Khuroos were, quite understandably, pissed off.

However, there was a Plan B, but we could exert no control over it. We had been waiting – now very anxiously waiting – for the arrival of Mr Mike’s UK income tax rebate; after an interminable delay the cheque finally materialised, which, in those pre-internet days, could only be cashed at a Delhi bank. It was Mr Mike’s turn to go off and save lives. He went off to Delhi; we waited; there was an inexplicable delay in telegraphing the money, then came distressing news: the money which would have liberated us from the Khuroos had been stolen, by a Hindu monk.

The thief’s name was Rhaghavendra and he had been a member of the Maharishi’s entourage when Mr Mike had been cooking in Rishikesh. He and Rhaghavendra had become friends, and when Mr Mike finally got his hands on the tax cash he went to Jabalpur to look up his old pal; he arrived exhausted from hard travelling and fell into a deep sleep, which was when the cash was lifted. As Mr Mike reported it: “Rhagvendra happily told me that he had been praying for this gift to arrive because a great friend of his desperately needed money – so he gave him mine. I never thought of it as stealing but just thought it was a pain in the neck the way all of these karmic wheels were grinding us down.” Obviously it would have been unwise for Mr Mike to return to Srinagar, so he continued to hang out with Rhagvendra. Mr Roly and Mr I were now captives of the Khuroos.

IV

The angry shouting went on the whole day and into the evening. We didn’t dare go out and had no option but to stay at home and listen to various Khuroos raging below us. They were trying to figure out what to do about the foreigners and the money owed to the family. It was an intractable problem: they didn’t know what to do with us, and neither did we. It was all very uncomfortable. I was sure the only thing preventing the situation deteriorating to the point where something bad happened to us was the presence on the property of a fakir, Pia Baba, a revered holy man, who was on one of his periodic visits to Srinagar and was living on the ground floor of the cottage. Such was his fame that whenever he was a guest of the Khuroos he received a never ending stream of supplicants, which included Hindus and Sikhs as well as Muslims. As long as Pia Baba was around his proximity would, we hoped, exert a pacifying influence on the overheating Khuroos. He was our insurance policy.

It was impossible to simply disappear – easily done in most other parts of India – by jumping on a crowded bus or a train. There was only one road out of Srinagar to Jammu, the winter capital of the Indian union territory, and it was a rugged 165 mile journey; there were no other routes, no side roads. It was dangerous road to drive on at night, so if you needed to get to Jammu and avoid mishap you left at dawn and made the perilous trip in one day. But if you could afford to fly, that was a simple 45-minute journey. Our ignominious fame ensured that however we tried to leave Srinigar our attempt at flight would be spotted.

If we were serious about flight the only option was to resort to devious means to achieve it. Mr Pushkas, a meditator whose house we had visited for TM sessions, devised an escape plan which involved hiding us under a tarpaulin in the rear of a truck going to Jammu, and our TM companion had even found a trucker willing to help us. The prospect of getting out of jail lifted our spirits enormously; in the late afternoon of the day prior to our departure we left the island with only passports and a change of underwear, carrying nothing else with us so as not to arouse suspicion in the minds of the watchers. We were so desperate we had not even discussed what we would do after we had left Srinagar; we were focussed only on putting as much distance as possible between ourselves and the Khuroos, and beyond that we were incapable of thinking clearly. When we met up with Mr Pushkas again he told us, very regretfully, that the driver had had second thoughts and had become too fretful of the consequences if he was stopped by the police and his truck searched, which sometimes happened. How would he explain the presence of the two foreigners hiding under a tarpaulin in the back of his truck? It would be obvious we were on the lam.

But our indefatigable helper was not discouraged and hatched another, more audacious means of escape. Meeting him in a tea house a few days later, he outlined the plan he had concocted. Once a month a forest sadhu, a mendicant ascetic who he knew, came into town for supplies; our friend had told him of our predicament and somehow persuaded him to let us accompany him on his return to the forest. I have to say, I had fantasies about us both becoming his disciples and learning whatever it was he would teach us. Two days hence, we were to go to an intersection in a nearby suburb at a certain time and wait; the sadhu would approach us, make contact and away we’d go, all boats burned.

Once more the prospect of adventure lifted our spirits. After we left the tea house and were on our way to Dal Lake we saw a colourfully garbed sadhu jangling towards us: I guessed from the three ash lines and the red mark on his forehead, and the trident in his hand, plus the various bells, whistles and beads arrayed about his person, that he was a follower of Siva, the God of Destruction. When we were nearly face to face he flicked his matted locks away from his face and said: “Hey man, how’s it going? Wanna come down the temple for a smoke?” We declined his offer and made our way home.

On the Sunday, despite being wracked with nerves, we left the island for what we hoped was the last time. We did as we had done before, taking with us only the clothes we were wearing, our passports, and a change of underwear. We shuffled from corner to corner at that intersection, but no one approached us. To be disappointed yet again was hard; neither of us spoke as we trudged back to Dal Lake, our spirits in disarray. I can’t say I blame the sadhu: he must have seen us and concluded we were ridiculous; we were so obviously ill equipped for the austere existence of forest life, and I’m sure he realised how unwise it was to carry passengers like us. We were too far gone with frustration to see the absurdity of what we had been prepared to do.

V

A detective came to the island, and interviewed us in the presence of the elder Khuroo, and asked a lot of questions, the answers to which always returned to the same point: we had no money and there was nobody we could ask for any. I suggested we arrange for me to be repatriated to the UK and then by some means raise the funds to cover the debt, but Mr Roly thought this was an atrocious idea, principally because he would have to stay on alone with the Khuroos until our sorry saga played itself out to a finish. We had already been resident on the little island for four months; Mr Mike had been off the radar for about six weeks and we had no idea what he was up to. We had sent several telegrams to Rhagvendra, begging for aid, but nothing came of our pleading. Mr Roly and I began arguing and in no time at all we were shouting at each other, with the elder Khuroo and the policeman reduced to listening to us in shocked silence; but we couldn’t work out any kind of strategy to address our predicament. For the foreseeable future we had to submit to incarceration in a pretty little cottage on a Himalayan lake in one of the most beautiful valleys in India. We were both very down and Mr Roly became virtually catatonic and only spoke to me when I spoke to him.

In the end there was simply no other option. We tried to organise my repatriation from Srinagar via the Tourist Office, but they couldn’t do it; then we visited the Tourist Registration Officer, who said No, they couldn’t help either; we must go to the C.I.D, they said, but they were useless; finally we made an appointment with the Director of Tourism for Kashmir, who was… unhelpful. The only place where the kind of assistance we needed could be found was at the British High Commission in New Delhi.

VI

On the morning of my departure I wake up early, everyone asleep; it is very still, the only sound to be heard comes from Pia Baba quietly chanting. He gives me his blessing before I leave the island.

It’s a fine day and I walk and walk until I come to a weary halt a considerable distance from Dal Lake; the hours have gone by and there’s little to no traffic; it’s mid-afternoon and I’m still at the same spot, cursing my immobility. A truck stops and when I tell the driver where I want to go to he laughs and explains I will not get a ride to Jammu this late in the day; everyone leaves very early because it is such a long road. I ask him if he can take me as far as he’s going. I clamber into the cab, grateful to be moving at all. About 10 miles further on the driver pulls up alongside a row of shops and tells me this is where he turns off. Through the cab’s side window I can see the pyramidal spire of a temple through a gap in the shop fronts and wonder if it’s a spot where I can spend the night. I thank the driver for the lift and climb out and cross the road. Unusually for India, the temple grounds are deserted and quiet. I inspect a roofed-over wooden platform-cum-shelter; it is spotlessly clean and the perfect place to roll out my bedsheet. At dusk a young man approaches and introduces himself: he is the local schoolteacher and lives at the temple, and it is his responsibility, he says, to ensure pilgrims staying overnight are cared for. He says he will prepare some food for me a little later. I am a pilgrim of sorts, though I do feel I have lost my way. But yes, something to eat would be very nice. After dark the young man returns, carrying a tray with a freshly prepared vegetarian meal, and a cup of hot tea, for which I am effusively grateful. The tea is Masala chai, made with milk and aromatic herbs and spices, and uses jaggery as a sweetener instead of sugar. It is prepared in heaven for lost pilgrims.

I wake at dawn and return to the road. Two Sikhs going to Jammu give me a lift; there is nothing to hold onto and for the entire journey I am unmercifully banged about in the rear of a 2-ton truck with worn shock absorbers. When we reach our destination the driver stands by the tailgate of his truck, waiting for me to tip him for the ride, but I am unable to give him anything. My poverty shames me. To bankroll this journey Roly sold his watch, a 21st birthday present from his mother. The night before I left, the Khuroo’s cook came to see us and using sign language communicated that his trousers were torn and tattered and please before I leave would I give him some trousers. That day I had sold the only other pair I possessed. A few days earlier Mr Roly had sold his sweater.

I get off the bus from Chandigarh late at night and have no idea where I am. I point myself in what I think is the general direction of the Embassy district and start walking. Around midnight, dead beat, I lay under some bushes in the middle of a traffic island. When I wake in the early morning I discover with horror that my shirt has a big rip in it; but there’s nothing to be done about that. Without eating, washing or shaving, I walk to the British High Commission, where I’m told the person who arranges repatriations is not in the office at the moment, and won’t return until after lunch; please would I come back then. I spend the rest of the morning in the British Council Library reading newspapers. When it’s time to go, I collect my hungry, dirty, exhausted self and point myself towards an air ticket home. Minutes after leaving the library I am slippery with sweat in the debilitating humidity.

I had set off from Srinagar with 60 rupees and have five left, enough for a breakfast of sorts, which I will see to after I have done my business. Turning a corner I am just a block away from the High Commission when I encounter Mr Mike ambling along the pavement towards me: “Jai Guru Deva!” he exclaims. Stunned by the unbelievable coincidence of meeting up again like this we are unable to speak and instead embrace each other. Sitting on the grass outside the Indonesian Embassy we talk about the likelihood of such a chance encounter in a city as densely populated as Delhi (Population: 3.531 million+); go figure. We talk about Mr Roly, now a prisoner in Srinagar, and we two, free.

VII

I got no closer to the High Commission. We found a cheap hotel charging seven rupees a night for a bed; after a wash and a shave we went out and bought me a cheap shirt before disappearing into an air conditioned disco, this Mr Mike’s idea. Next morning in the company of a German medical student I enjoy breakfast at a café whose external signage declared that it housed the “Committee for the Change of Food Habits.”

After breakfast Mr Mike took me to meet a fellow who had been extremely kind to him. This was Mr Pathak, a Brahmin politician from the highest rank of India’s social classes, who he had met in unusual circumstances. Shortly after saying his final goodbye to Rhagvendra, Mr Mike was standing on the platform of the Jabalpur railway station waiting to board the train to Delhi when he was approached by a liveried servant who asked him if he would be so kind as to walk with him along the platform to meet his master. The servant led him to the last carriage of the train, which was, reported Mr Mike, so luxuriously appointed it would not have been out of place on a Bollywood movie set. The man he was introduced to claimed to be the middle-aged son of a Maharaja, acting First Minister of the State of Madhya Pradesh, and had been educated at an English public school and an English university.

Though Mr Mike was travelling on a 3rd Class ticket Mr Pathak suggested he accompany him to Delhi; on arrival he was given a room, gratis, in the Madhya Pradesh State House, supplied with fresh clothes, and fed. Next afternoon, taking the air around Delhi’s upmarket Embassy district, he bumped into a bedraggled young man in a ripped shirt dragging himself along the pavement to the British High Commission.

A plan was concocted for us to accompany Mr Pathak to see his Guru, currently residing in an ashram a 3-hour bus ride along The Great Trunk Road.

VIII

Mr Pathak introduced us to the Swami on the understanding that, being native English speakers, we were well positioned to help in his Guru’s efforts to translate a book he had written into English. But the Swami remained, understandably, a little aloof from the two dead broke hippies who turned up on his doorstep, though less so after we started work on the translating and he realised we weren’t inarticulate idiots. The modus operandi we contrived was that as the Swami perused the Hindi text he would extemporaneously dictate an English translation, and either Mr Mike or I, as scribe, would record his words as he uttered them. The book, called ‘Sparks’ in Hindi, was a slim volume of aphorisms, nothing too weighty; he fancied the English translation should be titled ‘Scintillas’. Our job was to suggest lexical and grammatical improvements as we went along and, in a general way, improve the readability of the text. We had a look at the Preface, which the Swami had composed in English, and told him there were a few things we could do to tighten up the prose and make it a more fluid read. We did that and read the results to him, which he approved of. So began a ritual of morning meetings, the Swami dictating, one of us taking notes, with the rest of the day spent editing the text into good shape; we worked hard at our task as it justified our bed and board at the ashram. And there was a small but much appreciated perk: a daily delivery of a packet of cigarettes – ‘Charminah’, the cheapest of the cheapest smokes – delivered to our room every morning by Rampal, the caretaker.

Not long after we had arrived the Swami had asked us about our respective occupations, and I, unthinkingly, as I had just spent two years at art school, told him I was an artist; cue a visit to the local stationers to buy art supplies and subsequent sessions spent drawing portraits of His Holiness perched on his dais as he talked to us, with Mr Mike on recording duties while I laboured at art. This was the pattern of our days: listening, recording, and editing and re-writing, interspersed with bouts of sketching and colouring.

The Swami ensured Mr Mike and I had enough to eat. In the early evening an old hunchbacked woman came to the ashram to prepare dal and potatoes for us, and this would be the last food of the day. She returned in the morning to make chapattis and milky tea for our breakfast. After each meal we opened the shuttered door of our balcony room and hurled the single-use clay bowls the food had been served in across the road onto a rubbish tip; we were obliged to do this to ensure zero pollution from our low caste status.

After our morning meetings the Swami would occasionally say, “We will have lunch out today;” and then an hour or two later he would be chauffeured and we transported by truck to whichever house in the city the he had been invited to perform a puja, a ritual offering of light, flowers, and food to the divine. The residents of Meerut considered it a signal honour to have this revered holy man in their midst and vied to receive him in their homes to perform this sacred ceremony of purification.

The presence of the Swami obliged the householder to feed whichever members of the community were inclined to visit while he was in residence. Invariably it was the poor, in significant numbers, who were to be found waiting patiently until the holy business drew to a close before being invited to step into the house and tuck into the free lunch supplied by the host. Mr Mike and I took our place among the lines of hungry guests and ate our fill of the vegetarian food. Afterwards we returned to the ashram and waited out the heat of the day. Towards evening the hunchback would come and prepare our dinner, and when night fell we would repair to the ashram roof and discuss the meaning of life with our Hindu provider.

We didn’t eat meat, fish, or fowl and neither did we, as far as I can recall, consume any fresh vegetables or fruit. We followed this dietary routine for the duration of our stay with the Swami, about three months or so. I don’t know when it was exactly that I began catching an occasional whiff of something in the air, a phantom odour that teased my nostrils for a brief second or two; it wasn’t a food smell or anything else I could categorise; it was an elusive, tantalizing fragrance. But then it dawned on me what it was: our spartan diet had recalibrated our digestive landscapes and as a consequence we had unwittingly cleansed our insides. The salty tang of dried sweat had been superseded by a scent which had taken me utterly by surprise: it was the smell of my own body.

Conversely, at one point during our stay I became sick with an intestinal infection that turned my shit to bloody water; and as well as being given glucose injections and various medications by the local doctor, the Swami insisted I go on a fast. Mr Mike became ill too, with jaundice, which stemmed from a bout of hepatitis, and he had to be taken care of. It was the Swami who orchestrated our medical care and monitored our progress back to good health. He never said anything about it, but he arranged and paid for the doctor’s visits and the drugs he dosed us with. I liked that side of him, not broadcasting his good deeds.

After an energetic start our enthusiasm for the Swami’s little book began to wane: there just wasn’t very much to it, but the wind disappeared from our sails completely when we discovered lightly camouflaged plagiarisms, bits and pieces here and there which had been lifted from the Maharishi’s master work on the Bhagavad Gita. The Swami too lost enthusiasm for the project, though the reason for that never emerged; I suspect that, in the end, he realised his slight work didn’t bear comparison with the Maharishi’s magnum opus. Nevertheless, we continued to meet with him every morning as usual, but we would just talk, us endlessly plying him with questions about religion and spirituality, and him occasionally tossing us a question. We had little to no contact with him during the day, but in the cool of the evening he would repair to the roof and sit under the stars and converse for an hour or two with a small group of devotees and the two impoverished Englishmen.

Being around the Swami for such an extended period conferred on us a bogus status we could do nothing about. We were universally seen as disciples of the Maharaj (Sanskrit: ‘Great King’), and received numerous invitations to people’s houses to eat a meal, usually breakfast. The Swami was always aware of who had issued an invitation to us, but generally he refrained from commenting about our dining out; only occasionally were we discouraged from accepting an invitation from someone he disapproved of. Despite occasional reproofs we rarely turned down an invitation to a meal as it was something we liked to do: it got us out of the house and, more significantly, our host could be relied on to provide more savoury fare than chapatis and milky tea. One morning we were enjoying marvelous local food in the house of an Air India steward; he was a nice man, though the Swami didn’t think so, spoke perfect English, and had a big family, who had arranged themselves around us in a group, silently watching us put away a delicious breakfast. Nobody else was eating, which made us feel a little uncomfortable, but more disconcerting was the unfailingly stern gaze of the grandmother. After finishing the excellent repast we made small talk with our host before diplomatically making a move to leave. At this he reached over to his grandmother and pressed a wad of rupees into her hands; she stood up, came over to us and fell to her knees, fully intending to kiss our feet. I don’t think we let her, and we refused to accept the cash she was trying to press on us, though we certainly could have used it. The whole family bowed in our direction as we left. To these devout people we were venerable English yogis and disciples of the great king currently in residence a few streets away.

And we were prone to attracting odd but sweet people, like the man who lived next door to the ashram, a bank teller who couldn’t stop smiling and who had been on hunger strike for higher wages. We often received invitations from him for dinner – the food I cannot remember, or his rather limited conversation, but his regular greeting was memorable: “Goodnight!” he’d say as we entered his house. And when I asked him when the photo of himself hanging on the wall was taken, “Next year!” he replied. He was a sociable, unfailingly kind man. I don’t know if he ever got a pay rise.

A letter bearing terrible news from Mr Roly arrived at the ashram: he was under house arrest and would be formally arrested in a few days. The Swami was fully informed about the roots of our plainly reduced state – the debacle of our business venture and the theft of Mr Mike’s money – and our exasperating inability to pay off the Khuroo debt and extract our friend from his confinement. I am at a loss to know how it came about, but Mr Pathak reappeared at the ashram and told us he had to go to Kashmir and would make it his business to call on the Khuroos to see what could be done about Mr Roly’s situation. Mr Roly, it transpired, was now in a position to pay off a portion of the debt hanging over him – about a quarter, or perhaps even a third of it, I think – with money his impoverished parents had scraped together. After a prickly arbitration process Mr Pathak was able to persuade our financially exploited landlord that this part payment, coupled with a solemn promise that the balance would be paid after Mr Roly returned to the UK, was as good a deal as the Khuroos could expect to make; this was the settlement reluctantly agreed upon by the Khuroo patriarch. After negotiations were concluded Mr Roly and Mr Pathak departed Srinagar by bus early the next morning, but as they were leaving the terminus a man was seen – and heard – running alongside the bus, banging his fist against the bodywork and shouting loudly: this was the dhobi wallah, the laundryman, who had not been paid what was owing to him by Mr Pathak, who bellowed to the driver that he should not stop the bus to accommodate this rascal. The bus sped up and the poor man was left inhaling diesel fumes.

A skeletal Mr Roly finally reached Meerut, visibly traumatised by his detention; we were enormously relieved to be reunited with our friend, much diminished though he was. After my departure from Srinigar, Mr Roly said, the Khuroos were so paranoid that their foreign tenant would escape their clutches without settling his debt, they insisted that wherever he went he had to be accompanied by a Khuroo lackey to ensure there was no flit. The Swami cross examined the grey faced Mr Roly about his experience at the hands of the Muslims, a religious group he was not inclined to be generous to. In our very first interview with him, he had asked us about how we had gotten to India, and when we told him that we had travelled by train through Pakistan to the land border in the Punjab, he asked us, with serious mien, if we had noticed the distinctive smell Pakistanis had. No, we said, we failed to notice that.

We wanted something the Swami was in a position to give us but wouldn’t; nevertheless, we nagged him about it more or less continuously: in TM and meditation circles in general, ‘initiation’ was the thing, being inducted into the arcane business of refining consciousness through a particular type of meditation. It was Mr Mike’s initiative to begin with, asking to be initiated into pranayama meditation, the ancient practice of breath control, but the Swami havered always, saying we were not ready. I wondered too if our lack of unquestioning reverence may have coloured his reluctance; because we were not displaying sufficient devotion to a sannyasin of his elevated status. He cited the deference shown to him by a Dr Hoffman, a German disciple who corresponded with him regularly: in one of Dr Hoffman’s letters which the Swami showed us, Mr Mike and I burst into laughter at the Dr’s reference to the “horrible, western material atmosphere” in his country. Swamiji was not amused by our reaction, but then we found his unrelenting gravity a little trying. But another, more pertinent reason was that he thought it unwise to be a practitioner of TM and a practitioner of the kind of meditation we were asking him to initiate us into. But one morning he teasingly said to me, “Don’t worry, you will not leave me emptyhanded.” He finally relented, saying we should speak to Mr Pathak, and if he thought it was ok, he would seriously consider our request. Mr Roly was thinking about leaving early and going on his way, but at Swamiji’s urging decided to stay for another week, attracted I presume by the dangling carrot of an initiation.

Mr Pathak taught us a puja, a devotional homage to celebrate the occasion of our initiation and a preliminary cleansing and purification of the mind before the act of meditation. These were the initiatory instructions given to us by Swamiji:

  • Begin by forming the Gyan mudra, the mudra of knowledge, with each hand.
  • Comfortably incline your head forward so it points to the space between the collarbone.
  • Concentrate your attention on the roof of the mouth.
  • Inhale; the sound of the mantra in the mouth will be RA. Concentrate your mind on the vibrations emanating from the mantra.
  • On the inhale feel the subtle breath passing right down to that place between the penis and the rectum; the end of the breath is when it touches that place.
  • The sound of the mantra when the breath touches that place is MA
  • Exhale.
  • Exhalation and inhalation should be of equal length.

Another strange phenomenon: towards the end of our stay the caretaker began delivering two packs of Charminah to us each day instead of the usual single pack. Mr Roly didn’t do nicotine, so the reason for the extra smokes was a mystery.

IX

The Swami’s sojourn in Meerut was coming to an end. As an expression of their indebtedness to him for gracing the town with his presence, the burghers decided to honour him with an official parade. On the day of the procession a flatbed truck parked up outside the ashram and a team of men got to work decorating it with streamers, enormous quantities of flowers, baskets of fruit, and lots of multi-coloured neon. A golden, garlanded throne was built up high on the truck bed, and it is here the Swami would sit cross-legged during the parade. In front of, and below the throne were stacked the great holy books of Hinduism, the Vedas. At dusk, a workman fixed in place above the throne’s backrest an illuminated portrait of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Jyotimath, and the Swami’s Guru. I had painted the watercolour of Guru Deva at Swamiji’s request.

As night fell, the truck looked splendid, all dazzle and glitter. And when Swamiji ascended the throne, with all the light and colour around him, he radiated the aura of a true Maharaj. The truck pulled slowly away, we three walking beside it. The route of the parade had been set out so that the Swami’s transport could file through the streets unimpeded by other traffic. We were soon walking among dense crowds of onlookers; families waved to us from windows and balconies, and in every street the truck drove down there were hordes of people milling about; the multitudes parted to make space for us to walk; ice cold water was brought for us to drink, and we were given an unending supply of sweets. The number of people who came out to say goodbye to Swamiji was unbelievable; it dawned on us that we had grossly underestimated the scale of the event we were participating in. In any case, the three English disciples were soon helplessly submerged under garlands of sweet smelling flowers. At one point Mr Mike and I were persuaded to play the cymbals in the band accompanying the parade. The business went on for 2 – 3 hours, and everywhere people swarmed about us, smiling and laughing, wanting to pay their respects to the English yogis. At one point a thirsty Mr Mike approached a public water dispenser for a drink: after lifting the cup to his mouth he violently spit out what he had imbibed: cow’s urine, a traditional medicinal drink with powerful cleansing properties. Prior to our departure the following day a local journalist, who had come to the ashram to conduct an interview with the Swami, sought us out for a chat. We asked him how many people he thought had turned out the night before: easily more than 100,000, he said confidently.

Our goodbyes to Swamiji were subdued and respectful. I cannot recall what I said to him at the moment of departure, but whatever it was it elicited touching last words from him: “Your heart is my concern.”

On a solo visit to India more than a decade later I needed to visit a photographer’s studio in New Delhi to get some visa photos done; waiting to be served I strolled around the shop, idly glancing at the photographs on display; I got a jolt when I spotted a framed headshot of the Swami, with his curly black hair cascading over his shoulders. I had a sudden pang and desire to see him once again and though the photographer thought he was in Delhi somewhere he had no idea of his whereabouts. In the intervening years I have been unable to unearth a single thing about him on the Internet; he has disappeared completely.

Mr Mike and Mr Roly were able to get their hands on sufficient money to cover the cost of returning to the UK, but I couldn’t raise enough to get all the way home. For a reason I cannot now recall I separated from my companions and travelled alone through Pakistan, across Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey; I stepped down from a train in Istanbul, penniless, and got the business of repatriation in hand. I returned to my parents’ home and stayed with them until I found a job. When my employer realised how unsuited I was to the work I was doing I was fired. Within a week I had relocated to a Tibetan monastery in Scotland and was soon meditating each morning and evening.[1

I am sorry to say the Khuroo debt was never paid.


[1] See post: 3 Monks, a Fraud & a Coalminer; November 11, 2014.

Super bowl

Each Thursday in a part of Tianjin not yet colonised by building sites can be found the Shenyang Street open-air antique market. I was there early one mid-winter’s morning, wandering around the alleys and lanes where the market sprawled, clocking the chancers and solid citizens milling about, the smells of incense and smoke from cooking fires mingling in my nostrils.

Drifting aimlessly I turned into an alley: paintings, old and new, crass and fine, on canvas, board and paper, plastered the alley’s decaying stone walls; the artists, indistinguishable from the hawkers, hovering nearby in hopes of a sale. I stopped at a pile of large water-colours spread out around the feet of a wiry old painter, a local Georgia O’Keefe sans teeth: her compositions, on rice paper, were of chickens and cockerels, and visibly superior to the efforts of her fellow artists. I picked out one of the cockerel paintings and asked how much she wanted for it; we stood around in the cold, bargaining in a friendly way, eventually settling on half of her asking price. After having a good look at the painting after I returned home I regretted not paying in full the small amount the old lady had asked for what was a very accomplished piece of work.

Most of the rest of the market was laid out on bedsheets and old blankets arranged on the sidewalks, the proprietors’ faces as intriguing to me as what they were selling. Passing by a line of vendors, an endless assortment of wares laid out at their feet, my eye was caught by a small porcelain bowl amongst a collection of oddments; I took off my gloves and picked the bowl up; it was so finely wrought that when I held it up to the light to check for blemishes I could see the shadow of my fingers through its surface. I pulled a calculator from my bag and offered it to the seller, curious about his asking price: he tapped in 800; at 6.85 yuan to US$1.00; I winced and pocketed the calculator, but I continued to hold on to the bowl. Its owner said something which I took to mean, “How much will you give?” I took the calculator from my pocket and tapped out “50,” which made him and the proprietors of the two bedsheets next to him roar. 600 yuan was his next best offer; 55 was mine. More laughter. Then silence; calculator back in my pocket again. More chat, unintelligible to me; calculator out again. My final hopeless offer was 60 yuan. Silent shuffling in the cold, then more palaver between himself and his neighbors, but no laughter. Very gently, I placed the bowl back on the ground and put my gloveless hands in my jacket pockets.

Looking into bowl man’s eyes, I took my hands out of my pockets, bent my arms outward a little, palms upward, and shrugged. After a protracted pause he pointed to the bowl, nodded, bent down and picked it up, then wrapped it in a piece of old newspaper and handed it to me.

I gave it to my wife for a Xmas gift, still in its original wrapping. It lives now on a shelf in the living room, next to an anonymous Buddha and an exquisite woodcarving of Guan Yin, the female aspect of Avolokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion. I fill the bowl with water once week.

Mr Allah’s House

We lived for a short time at the top of the longest outdoor escalator in the world. It begins in a weather-protected pedestrian corridor above Des Voeux Road, one of Hong Kong island’s busiest streets. Shortly after the escalator begins its climb, passing the old-school Gage Street Wet Market, where meat, fish, flowers, fruit, vegetables and clothes can be purchased at open air stalls, it negotiates a dog-leg around another busy street before making a steep ascent up what was once a hillside on Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. After gliding by the boutique restaurants and wine bars of Soho the commercial real estate gives way to Mid-Levels, a vertically populated neighbourhood where we had our home, a spacious rented apartment on the sixth floor of an old building a stone’s throw from the escalator terminus.

Imagine, if you will, the dawn-to-dark pounding of a quartet of pile drivers in concert with a chorus of jackhammers… coming from a construction site across the road from our apartment, supplemented with a road crew in full throttle outside our street door. Living in central Hong Kong requires co-existing with the clamour of heavy machinery and the unending white noise of traffic, but sometimes it can all get a bit too much: as I dressed Owain – then just two years old – I told him we were going to escape from the awful racket; he asked me where we were going: on a visit to Mr Allah’s house, I said.

The presence of the Jamia Mosque in our neighbourhood was an anomaly and a blessing: built in the 1840s it is still there after every other structure from that time has disappeared; nestled behind a brick wall whose crumbling capstones are a meal-time perch for feral cats waiting to be fed by a resident from the nearby flats, the mosque is a refuge from the ferment and a place of unexpected tranquillity. In the grounds are a number of decaying residential buildings housing the local Muslim poor, allowed to live there for free by the Trust which owns the property.

For the faithful and the merely curious, the escalator’s design engineer incorporated a stepping off point adjacent to the mosque’s entrance, a stone arch enclosing a pair of elaborate wrought iron gates, both iron and stone coloured a vivid turquoise. On our frequent journeys up and down the escalator I would always acknowledge Mr Allah’s house to Owain by singing a mantra to him consisting of the name Allah repeated in thirteen cadences; sometimes, if we had no pressing business, we’d step off the escalator and hang out in the mosque.

Owain and I were sitting on one of the old stone benches and I was explaining to him that just as we remove our outside footwear when we come home, the shoes he could see outside the open doorway to the prayer hall belonged to the people who had come to visit Mr Allah’s house. As I was explaining this to him we could see the caretaker through the doorway sweeping his way across the prayer mat covering the prayer hall floor. “Mr Allah,” pointed out Owain. Couldn’t deny it.

Another man who had been hand washing his laundry in a trough under a lean-to meandered over and graciously greeted Owain with a “Good morning”; equally courteously Owain replied with a “Good morning” to him. As the three of us sat in the shade talking Mr Allah, who had finished his sweeping, wandered over, with a smile for Owain and a gift: a lurid looking bubble gun, which Owain was immensely pleased with. Thus concluded our visit to Mr Allah’s house.

Day 18
Early on
as the day breaks,
I can be found
sitting cross-legged
in a darkened room
in an empty house.
Eyes closed;
inhaling, exhaling;
body unmoving;
mind adrift, stumbling
among the detritus
of a permeable unconscious.

Late on
the body is as
still as a stone statue.
The kath, poised,
balanced in movement
without motion.
Nothing to be done;
no fast forward,
no rewind,
mind focussed
on where it should be:
here; now.

Day 19
I wonder about the wisdom of doing my meditation as early in the day as I do. The mind isn’t acclimatized to wakefulness at such an early hour; but one does one’s best, by inhaling and counting exhalations up to 10, then doing that again and again. But this simple process is frequently bedevilled by the involuntary mingling of an unevenly submerged unconscious mind with the conscious mind, with the count disappearing in brain fog. Such lowering activity can persist from beginning to end of a meditation session, even for two sessions, but to have to endure it for three, as happened this morning, was unsettling.

But then… yang, as it does, grows heavy and as it’s increasing fullness reaches critical mass it rolls over, allowing the seed of yin to take hold. Unexpectedly, an internal movie screen switched on: I saw with startling clarity a garden, a flower bed, a wooden fence, stone paving slabs, and curtains of rain. The sound of raindrops spattering on stone was very refreshing, and was so soothing to my disordered mind that the turmoil which had been oppressing me since the beginning of the day melted away. Then the timer went off to signal the end of the session, but when I opened my eyes the sound of rain falling continued: through the space between the bottom of the bamboo screen and the threshold of the patio door I saw the rain dancing on the paving stones in the backyard. How the internal and the external fused to become identical is a mystery to me. I uncrossed my legs, crossed my arms over my knees, and sat motionless for a while.

Day 20
All quiet on the western front.

Day 21
My father-in-law, a poet himself, once told me he doesn’t like Zen poetry; it’s too simple, he said. I like it precisely for its brevity. To convey a depth of meaning – or feeling – with as few words as one can contrive, seems to me a virtuous aspiration. On the day I will be reunited with my wife and child I close this retreat with two poems from the brush of the renowned Zen master, Dogen:

Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home;
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;
But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.

Zazen
The moon reflected
In a mind clear
As still water:
Even the waves, breaking,
Are reflecting its light.

Missing you

Each morning
when I make the bed
I see the indentation
in the pillow
made by your head;
I fluff my pillow
but I don’t touch yours.

Day ten of your absence
and I haven’t the heart
to erase the place
where your head has lain.
Since you left
our two pillows
have gotten quite close,
but it’s just me
edging nearer
to where you were.

When you’re next to me
I have no set way of going to sleep:
it could be on my right side,
my left, or on my back.
But each night you’re gone
I sleep on my right side,
always the right side,
to help ease my way
into the space
where your ghost
is sleeping.