Shoes on, shoes off: Subhadramati’s week
I’ve been invited to give a talk on ethics to a hundred lawyers tonight. Better polish my shoes. I’m not used to giving talks in shoes. It’s Monday morning and it’s my father’s anniversary. I find his old cassette tape of Beethoven’s 9th. They didn’t play it loud enough at the crematorium. I’m sure he wanted it to blare out, taking us all up to the angels. The priest said, ‘May your love for him increase.’ I’m intrigued by the mystery of those words. I ask myself what can it mean to love someone who’s died, and know that if I could understand that, I’d know what love really is.
At the end of the lawyers’ evening everyone is handed a feedback form and pen. ‘Not much use to me anymore,’ says Paramananda, who has accompanied me to the talk, nodding to the pen. His eyesight is too far gone. I don’t know what to say so I ask him what that’s like. He gives me a long look then says, ‘Bit of a bummer really,’ and I feel crass for asking. Then he adds, ‘On the other hand it takes away the illusion that you’re independent.’ It’s dark by the time we leave so he slips his arm into mine as we walk towards Holborn tube. When we part for our separate escalators he takes his foldaway stick out of his pocket. Later I remember Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘At the Wellhead’, where he describes being with his blind-from-birth neighbour as ‘intimate and helpful, like a cure/ You didn’t notice happening.’
A few days later I’m in Dublin. Ireland is about to have its referendum on gay marriage. Feelings are high and I’m not surprised. The Catholic Church is leading the charge for a ‘No’ vote and I can’t help being appalled by the statements on some of the placards swinging from lampposts through the town. Buddhism doesn’t view marriage as a sacrament but simply as a social contract between two individuals; Buddhism would say it’s the quality of the relationship that counts. The thing I love about Sangharakshita’s take on ethics is that he’s always getting us to distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘conventional’ morality. I remember listening to a recording of a talk of his in which he says that ‘belief in sin is nothing but a stumbling block arising out of treating rules as ends in themselves,’ and being so bowled over that I kept rewinding and listening to that sentence again and again.
I’ve never wanted to get married so it was great to discover that in Triratna so many other possibilities are actively encouraged. I was celibate for a while in my twenties (that’s when I started writing poetry) and now I live with eleven other women in a community. My boyfriend lives in a community too and we see each other about once a month. Sometimes I see some of my married friends look a bit envious when I describe our arrangement.
In my talk at the Dublin Centre I’m telling how I used to spend hours of my childhood in chapel on my own trying to imagine the world beyond this one. That all stopped when I realized I didn’t believe in God. But recently I’ve been thinking back to that time, especially when I’m meditating, and trying to connect to that sense I had so strongly that there was more to this world than appearances. That night I have my favourite dream: I’m going on a journey somewhere, somewhere beautiful with scented air and silver water. All the time in the dream I know it is there, just around the corner. Soon I’ll find myself there, and when I do I’ll recognize it.
That open dimension can’t be reduced to my paltry efforts to cultivate more refined states of mind, but in some strange way it can’t be separated from them
I get back to London just in time for my poetry class with Mimi. It’s wonderful to be in the presence of a good teacher – and at the same time terrifying. While we fiddle around the edges of our own and each other’s poems, she waits patiently, then she comes in with the same message again and again. ‘Don’t just accept the premise of the poem as it’s presented to you. Listen for what the poem wants to be! The hard work is hearing what’s there in the poem itself. Find the music and follow that like the Pied Piper!’
And then it’s Monday again and Dharma night at the LBC, so the shoes are off this time. I place a rose in front of me. And I think to myself, where has it come from? Its colour, its sweet smell? We can’t reduce it to seed, sun, soil and rain, but we can’t separate it from those things either. It’s like the otherworldly moment of peace that the final bell of a puja always seems to bring no matter how distracted or bored I’ve been throughout. That open dimension can’t be reduced to my paltry efforts to cultivate more refined states of mind, but in some strange way it can’t be separated from them. The process is utterly mysterious.
As I’m talking I barely know what I’m trying to say yet at the same time I’m in no doubt. Jnanavaca is smiling. The lovely place with the scented air and silver water is just round the corner. ■