house on a hill

23-05-2010 09-13-22OLD NOTEBOOKS: Chiang Mai: I used to have a house on a hill in England, so far away from here – it’s just a memory now. I had it for 36 years and it was sold just a few days ago… feels like a part of me has become extinct. Another part of me says, what’s gone is gone, let it go because I never really lived there. I’d stay there for a while, go away to Asia for a year, then come back; very long grass in the garden and generations of spiders.

Curiouser and curiouser it was part of a larger building owned by my Great Aunt Liz, a spinster, a recluse and she could read fortune-telling cards. Aunt Liz gave me the house by Deed of Gift in 1978, then became a bit distant and elderly and quite stubborn about allowing me to help.

I’d send Aunt Liz postcards from the places I’d been and bring back gifts but she became more and more remote. Our communication dwindled and in the end she hardly spoke to me. When I knocked on her door, she would open it on the chain, smile and say: ah, so you’re back. You’re looking well… then close the door. I’d hear the lock go: click, and I was left outside.

This is how it was, a kind of companionship, no more than that. She was probably disappointed that I wasn’t going to just come and settle down in that place and be what she’d imagined I’d be. But what could I do? Her decision to create a situation for me to have a ‘home’ next door to her was just so kind. There I was in the centre of rural life and the simple rumbling-along of things, but… never for very long, always moving on to somewhere else.


She died in 1989… I was in Japan and it was impossible to return. I negotiated with a relative who inherited Aunt Liz’s part of the house and to cut a long story short, eventually I owned the whole building. Contractors were hired to renovate the place, but it was two or three years before I managed to get back. The house on the hill had long since become a dream… years and years spent thinking and planning how I could go live there in the end, and just get old sitting by the fireside. These last few days I have revisited that same place in the midst of these rememberings, knowing that sometime soon I have to disengage from it – it’s not my house anymore it’s somebody else’s. People I don’t know walk around in these rooms where I used to be, sit by the fireside stare into the flames.

02062011038How long do memories remain? One time I was sitting there burning some old floorboards removed during the renovation of Aunt Liz’s bedroom. The wood was dry and old and good for kindling. They were also painted along the ends – she had a carpet in the middle and painted floor boards all round the edge. It all came back to me when I found it… stuck in the paint on a piece of the floorboard, a human hair – a single strand of hair, quite long. It got stuck there as she was applying the paint. I kept it for a while; would hold it between thumb and forefinger for a moment and pull the tension of it gently… still attached to the painted wood. Then one day I placed the wood piece in the flames and watched it burn away.

Everything is always in the process of ceasing to be, turning into ash. There’s a reluctance to leave, drawn towards the extinguished fire; something peaceful about the absence of everything…

As fire, through loss of fuel grows still [extinguished] in its own source, so thought by loss of activeness grows still in its own source… For by tranquility of thought one destroys good & evil karma. With tranquil soul, stayed on the Soul, one enjoys unending ease. [Maitri Upanishad 6.34]


story within a story

IMG_0095aPOSTCARD #15: Rutnin Eye Hospital, Bangkok: I’m back in the outpatients for a routine eye examination after surgery – the peppermint green and menthol coloured room, etched glass and white ceiling. Receptionist gives me a number, 109, and I look around for a seat. It’s crowded in here today… are all these people in front of me? It’ll be a long wait. What to do to pass the time when I can’t read? I need glasses to read and have to wait 3 weeks for a new lens prescription; the eye has to settle after they take out the stitch – okay, let’s not talk about needles and eyes… the eye of the needle? Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God… they don’t make it easy. For ‘rich’ substitute ‘greedy’ lobha and it makes sense.

Generosity is the antidote for the ‘holding-on’ disease; fixating on a thing we think we need to make us happy. Apply the sense of generosity to the problem of being a compulsive reader and I should be able to let go of this reading habit – see what it’s like to do that. For backup I have the basic Kindle 6” with the font set nearly to maximum; digital words, the physical substance of the book is absent – switch it off and there’s nothing there. I like the emptiness of it, yet a whole library could be on this small device that fits in my pocket. Yes but I forgot to bring it with me today… terrific, so I have to learn how to sit in this waiting area doing nothing for maybe a couple of hours.

Language creates fiction – a story carried over from a former life, kamma, an extension of another story written long ago, once upon a time…. a story within a story, in which one of the characters in the narrative will pause and say, ‘this reminds me of a story…’ and goes on to relate a story inside the current story that the reader gets so immersed in the starting point is forgotten and it becomes just part of the whole; a vast structure of inter-related, nested stories enclosed by the original, frame story. Lost in the samsara of forgetfulness, caused by the holding-on disease, greed, tanhã (craving) passed on from former lives; seeking gratification in whatever sense object presents itself and wherever it finds rebirth.

‘… if I were born again as a fruit fly I would think that being a fruit fly was the normal ordinary course of events, and naturally I would think that I was a highly cultured being, because probably they have all sorts of symphonies and music, and artistic performances in the way light is reflected on their wings in different ways, the way they dance in the air, and they say, “Oh, look at her, she has real style, look how the sunlight comes off her wings.” They in their world think they are as important and civilized as we do in our world.’ [The Essence of Alan Watts, Vol. 4: “Death”]


the holding-on habit

2012-06-01 17.46.31A village near Hat Yai: Sitting in the house with M, it’s been raining and the farmyard is a plethora of muddy things. M is inclined to stay indoors and that’s how it is today, a day of uncertainty, the catastrophe of failed projects, unfinished paper structures, and fooling around with the camera phone. M is tired with the stories in her 9 year-old world. Some excitement and interest when: clacka-clacka, the sound of the cow with the bamboo bell around its neck, energetically chomping the grass that grows around the house – all this thick lush grass in the wetness. The other cows, four altogether, have been brought home because it’s the end of the day and soon they’ll be herded into the cowshed and closed in for the night. I ask M if she’d like to go out? We can get the big umbrella and go look at the cows? But this is not a good question to ask right now.

Complex emotions, M is suffering a disappointment. We took her to the bookshop in town. There was a book about science with a ‘SUPER SCIENCE KIT’ in a large box that went with it. The thing is, it was really too advanced for M but she became convinced she had to have it. So we got it, came back to the house and I started to look at the instructions. Opening the box and assembling the pieces of the kit, test tubes and small pieces of plastic equipment – all that goes okay, but following the instructions to carry out the experiments, has no meaning for her. She simply doesn’t know where to begin and I can’t explain because of our limited communication. She tries to enter a created story with a ‘pretend’ thing but science doesn’t work like that. Somebody thoughtfully removes the difficult SUPER SCIENCE KIT and all that can be done now is damage repair. M is quiet. I ask her if there’s anything I can do, and she says, ‘… no, is OK, Toong-Ting.’ (Toong-Ting is M’s pet name for me.) I suggest we read a book or play with the iPad… then I remember there’s no Internet and some of her apps don’t work. That’s part of the problem. ‘No, Toong-Ting, is OK,’ she says.

So I sit with her, everything is dull and meaningless – I can feel it too. M makes small, whimpering sounds like her digital kittens on the iPad. She’s holding my arm, cuddled up in a small ball next to me, eyes closed and face hidden away, struggling with the uncertainty of her world. Thai children are taught othon [khanti] patient endurance – or it could be an inherited character trait. I don’t have any children of my own, so no experience; having M in my world is an opportunity for me to learn. What I notice is, there are no tears or tantrums that I’d expect (from Western children). Here, it’s more like a locked-in holding. I’m available, ready to support, but I can’t do much to divert her attention. It’s the holding-on habit and what this is about is just allowing for these moments of not knowing that we’ve all got to get through, somehow, and the uncomfortable feelings that go with it. Just letting them go…

I’m affected by the mood, it’s really tense, but can sit quietly without making a ‘thing’ out of it. The self is a sensory experience. The experiencer is itself an experience. Consciousness is the sensory organ of the void. There can be nothing separate from this, except the ability to think about things. The question, then, is: what is thought? And thinking about thought, itself, leads only to the empty space where the question used to be…

Some time after that somebody finds a small bottle of food colouring in the kitchen and I show M what happens when you put a tiny drop of it into a test tube of clear water. The violet colour is like a tendril of descending smoke curling around the inside of the test tube and her whole attention is focused on this extraordinary event; the world is opening up again… wow! how to develop this? The uncertainty of the moment has vanished and suddenly everything seems full of wonderful choices….



‘What effort should I make? Should I do something about this situation or simply watch my mind?’ Such moments of not-knowing are precious. Uncertainty does not have to be seen as failing. In fact we might lose something important if we are in a hurry to push past it. The actuality is I don’t know what to do and there is not necessarily any fault in that. If, however, I’m completely caught in the momentum of wanting to escape suffering, I may miss the truth of the situation, as it is, and learn from it. With the confidence that comes from our commitment to precepts we can afford to trust in being patient and aware of ‘not-knowing’, and the uncomfortable feelings that come with it. Feel the force of the momentum of wanting to get away from it, to ‘solve it’; stubbornly refuse to be drawn along. We can experiment with waiting until the feeling of being driven subsides and quietly listen to what intuition suggests we could do.’ [Ajahn Munindo, Dhammapada v. 276]

 [Note: There are references here to, ‘the experiencer is itself an experience’, taken from an Internet source I can no longer find. If anyone knows the origin of it, please let me know, thank you!]
Upper Photo: My pic of M taking a photo of me. Lower photo: The cows coming home

space and thoughts

white buddha dreamstime

New Delhi: It’s that Sunday morning feeling again; so silent, the neighbour’s dog feels uneasy about barking too loudly – maybe there’s nothing to bark at. Sadly, it walks to its place on the balcony and looks out… nope, still nothing happening out there. No intruders on the property, no people anywhere to be seen. The world is asleep… the zzz, zzz ZZZZZs, slow breathing of sleep; the no-work-today comfort zone. No need to get up until early afternoon. Sleeping off the excesses of the night before; dinner started at 10pm and the party went on until sometime after two o’clock in the morning.

I didn’t get to sleep until late but it wasn’t because of partying, it was the neighbour (not the ‘dog’ neighbour, the other one). These people decided to have a medium/large social event last night – verging on the mildly-obstreperous. The noise and kerfuffle became kinda abstract to me, drifting in a coma of half-sleep, sounding not like people having a party, more like a party among the animals at the zoo; two or three hippopotamuses (hippopotami?) trying to get comfortable in a room too small for them – getting up and sitting down again and disturbing each other in the process, smashing small breakable things, reversing into corners and making squelchy sounds along the side of the wall with their great weight squidging around awkwardly. Slightly frenzied but not ‘losing it.’ A bit farmyardish too, with yelps and howls, crowing chickens and meowing cats and geese and ducks; somebody with hiccups. On the other side, the dog barking on the balcony – dogs of the mind bark – and the whole thing reached a kind of pandemonium of people talking over each other in a flowing jibberish of words, scraps of music mindlessly playing in two different places, punctuated with the odd crash, squeak and shout. Other percussive noises, the smell of beer floating out into the air and a cloud of cigarette smoke from men standing outside the house, speaking on the phone, lengthy shouted monologues in a language I don’t understand.

It’s really noticeable that the mind grabs at something immediately; velcro fastening, unpleasant rip as it comes apart, so you leave it attached: Yep, I could get really angry about this… There is nothing pleasant about this feeling at all, no reason for it to be there other than simply the desire it has to adhere-to, and ‘be’ something. It’s ‘birth’ in the Buddhist sense. No matter how mindful I am, there’s that driven brooding thing, the scenarios of outrage. I concentrate on letting the mind untangle itself from the problem; just letting it get on with it; it goes away for a while. Then it comes back again and eventually I move through to the front room, wrap myself in a blanket, sit on the cushion, and get ready to remain there until it’s over – watch the breath…

See where the mind leads, where it goes how it reacts to ‘me’ trying to hold it, how it is able to concentrate and how it does that. A bit like getting to know it as if it were a stranger, rather than thinking it’s ‘me’ and I can control it. It really is undeniably noisy next door, it needs attention and I give it what it needs and what’s left over gets focussed on the struggle to be in a state of peace – not a placid thing, mostly it’s like swimming in dangerous waters, but knowing that as long as mindfulness is maintained, there’s no threat at all from the carnivorous species of the deep. Just letting them be there. Anger/distress is a passing mental state, same as everything else, nothing special.

There is the body, the heat, the cold, the hard, the soft, and the thinking mind starts to drift. Let it go where it wants; a sense of travelling behind it, follow it, be curious about where it goes. Disengage from the attachment, just enough to feel safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, flying around dangerously and ricocheting off the walls and ceiling.

There is Rupert Spira’s example [Link below] about a room filled with people. ‘I’  am the space in the room, the people are my thoughts and images, bodily sensations and world perceptions. All kinds of people in the room, large, small, kind, unkind, intelligent, unintelligent, loud, quiet, friendly, unfriendly, etc…, each doing their own thing. But what they do or say has no effect on ‘I’, the space of the room. The space is there now and it will be there when the people go home. The space, is/was there before the building was constructed and will be present after it is demolished, it’s always present.

Now it’s later, the morning after. Am I the only one awake? So quiet, the electric hiss of the computer seems loud. It may have been on a morning like this, in those historical times, that Siddhartha Gotama, the prince who became the Buddha, woke up in the rooms in the palace, where the  endless parties had taken place, surveyed the devastation of spilt drinks and furniture tumbled over, and seen the true reality of the event… he just knew, this is not where it’s at. Left the palace, gave away everything he possessed and set off across the landscape…


‘Our objective experience consists of thoughts and images, which we call the mind; sensations, which we call the body; and sense perceptions, which we call the world. In fact we do not experience a mind, a body or a world as such. We experience thinking, sensing and perceiving. In fact all that we perceive are our perceptions. We have no evidence that a world exists outside our perception of it. We do not perceive a world ‘out there.’ We perceive our perception of the world and all perception takes places in Consciousness.’ [‘The Transparency of Things’, Rupert Spira]

how it seems (1)

2013-01-09 11.48.37I SEE THE WORLD through a built-in selection process that reflects and supports the default state of mind; it’s like fish cannot see the water they swim in; so obvious, yet… but I can get it to fit, more or less, according to my likes and dislikes and fall deeper into the dream. I make it into something good or bad or whatever and the fact that I can’t see it – well, it just does that. I call it reality. How I perceive the world is dependent on causes and conditions that were here before I was born; you could say it comes with the software. I think I’m an independent being not affected by anything or not affecting or influencing anything else. I can’t see this is a work of fiction and it’s all being monitored by the ongoing needs and requirements of an entity I created; a ‘self’ that has no real substance. I’m dismayed, of course, by how it all gets swept away in randomness; subject to the kamma, unknowingly created at some earlier time.

 ‘… It’s because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond the cycle of the planes of deprivation, woe, and bad destinations.’ [Tanha Sutta: Craving” (AN 4.199)]

The outer world just rolls along, as it does, in all its diversity, and totally neutral. Whether there’s belief it’s this or that, makes no difference; it’s just how it seems. The devastating emptiness of it all means the population is driven to get and do and attain and protect and defend. It’s a battlefield. To avoid and deny, to have fear and anxiety and be controlled by authority and feel threatened with the flimsy nature of existence, although the absolute fragility anicca, is the beauty of it. But the population can’t see it like that. They are clutching at straws but don’t see it like that; don’t see they are maintained in an unknowingness of the world like penned animals are by the farmer, well intentioned though he may be, in order to cultivate a special kind of hunger, upadana tanha (clinging and craving) – and the economy depends on this. The greater the craving, the faster the turnover of stock and the Western style of God together with governments and the corporations are simply involved in farming the population.

I can understand why the Buddha was thinking the Dhamma was too subtle and there was no point in teaching it because no one would understand. I can see how, in those historical times of feudal hierarchy, it would have seemed impossible to create social change…. and is it any different now? It seems just as impossible for people to understand today. I wonder if I really fully understand it myself. I’m no different from other people, this is our shared suffering. But the Buddha changed his mind about it being too subtle. He said there is a way out and we can find it in the framework of the Four Noble Truths. The teaching has survived 2600 years. Understanding replaces misunderstanding; ignorance is pushed out. There’s a simple curiosity and this quiet state of at-ease knowingness….



habituality of former lives

WatPohGuardianChiang Mai: 07.00 hours, alarm rings…. It takes a moment and then I remember I’m in the Chiang Mai apartment, arrived from Delhi last night. Heavy curtains over the window; a darkness I’m not used to. It’s quiet here, the sound of monks chanting anumodana on the edge of hearing… takbat. A motorbike whizzes by in the distance; nothing else. Senses are alert, listening, feeling, searching for a way to ‘become’ something that will establish ‘me’ in this place, at this point in time and all the clutter and stuff that’s associated with that. But I can’t fall into habitualities right now, I’m distracted by these new surroundings and keep returning to the minimalism of no thought. There’s an opportunity to leave it all in the impersonal state of not becoming.

I go to the window to see the monks, through the empty rooms as yet uninhabited; space/time occupied with the moving of its integral parts – chapters from a book about tenants moving into a new apartment, the ending hasn’t been written yet and the beginning is a continuation of what happened before. Future time slides into present time, tomorrow becomes today, and ‘now’ becomes yesterday – here we are in the awareness of this moment, the means by which we arrive at this point in time remains a mystery. More chanting, open the curtain and all the windows. Three monks in orange robes and a small group of kneeling Thai tourists from the hotel opposite. Ah yes, many people are on holiday today and it’s quiet like this because it’s Christmas day 2012, I’d forgotten about that – here in a Buddhist country where, really, Christmas is just an ordinary day.

Jesus and all the other great teachers in history were really saying the same thing. In the peace and quiet emptiness of the moment there is no hungry ‘self’, no driving ‘urge’ and it’s possible to see that this world of suffering is a self-created delusion. We are continually re-born into this state due to the habituality of former lives; trying to get what we want or to get rid of what we don’t want, thinking that this is how to get it right. But still caught in attachment upadana; the desired state belongs to ‘me,’ the act of possessing it requires that there has to be an ‘I.’ Everything I have, everything I want, all of this is ‘mine.’ Even that which I consider to be ‘my’ enemy, this is also ‘mine.’ Thus creating a self that is incomplete, unfulfilled, I’m searching for the truth in this and fail to see that it’s the searching that maintains the state of being lost.

In the same way belief in an external creator creates attachment and unthinking devotion to this returns me to the same point of entry, again and again. It’s not about taking refuge in the Jesus or Buddha of the mind. It’s about sila, samadhi, pannya: virtue/ mindfulness of present time/ and the applied intelligence that goes with it. Slowly waking up to this awareness of reality….


‘If those who lead you say to you, “See, the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.’ [Selected Sayings of Jesus from Gospel of Thomas, Nag Hammadi manuscripts]

Photo: Elaine Henderson