Diary of a London Buddhist

Thirty-six hours, last November. By Ollie Brock

When I’d heard about the Paris attacks the previous week, I had thought straight away about my old friend Ali. She lives in the exact area that was worst hit. I got to know her working at Time Out Paris, when at the tender age of nineteen I had briefly moved with a crowd that knew the tucked-away cafes and bars so well that they even left one or two of them out of the guidebooks, keeping them for themselves. I’d sent her a text – no reply.

It’s on my mind on Friday morning as I unpack no fewer than 120 little boxes of incense down in the bookshop. I lay them out on the rack, a different vivid colour for each of the twenty or so scents. I’m in the sort of mood to disrupt the colour combinations, rather then gradate them in a perfect rainbow. An old man who’s forgotten his glasses asks me to pick out the pine-scented one for him. ‘Just one?’ I ask, and he tells me I’d sell snow to an eskimo. As he pulls the money out of his pocket, a few bits of paper come with it, landing among a hail of coins that bounce on the space-ship white reception desk of the centre. They include his dog-eared birth certificate: 1935. Later he asks me to fetch his Bible, which he’s dropped in the fountain. It’s too wet to carry, and he abandons it.

I head back upstairs and get into the office just in time to pick up the phone. It’s Adam, to get the bookings list before leaving for a retreat he’s leading that weekend. Do I know ‘Horses’ by Ted Hughes, he asks me, as we wait for my computer to start up. He thinks he might read it out during one of the meditations. I tell him I don’t so he recites it to me over the scratchy iPhone connection while I log into the database. A bit bleak for a meditation, I say, when he’s finished – actually when he’s halfway through. He asks if I have other suggestions. I mention ‘The Silence at the Song’s End’ by Nicholas Heiney. Amid a persistent struggle with depression, Heiney had spent long, often happy trips at sea, on replica tall ships and training vessels, before he lost the battle and committed suicide aged twenty-six. I saw his parents launch a posthumously published book of his diaries and poetry, much of it written on those voyages, when I was volunteering at a literature festival after my degree and feeling rather lost. Perhaps Heiney would have developed a taste for meditation, too. The image of the ocean has always seemed to me an appropriate one for it – big vistas; moving into the unknown; using the weather to your advantage. The sea somehow makes physical work, sadness and beauty all reconcilable. But he had certainly loved sailing and all it came with, including the songs. The poem ends,

I catch the dew and set
a course amongst the ocean curls

The silence at the song’s end,
Before the next
Is the world.

Later in the morning I head up to Jnanavaca’s room to talk to go through three items with him. First up is Subhuti’s diary for his next visit to the LBC. Subhuti is the president of the centre, and a uniquely inspiring friend to the community – so understandably a lot of people want to meet him. It’s not so much a diary as a diplomatic dance. Jnanavaca and I also need to talk about arrangements for cooking for the big winter retreat that’s coming up. 120 people times ten days equals a lot of food.

But the main item on the agenda is wave-particle duality. I’m helping Jnanavaca put together an essay on Buddhism and quantum physics, from transcripts of talks he once gave on the subject, that hangs on this principle, and I still haven’t grasped it. (On another level, no-one has, but that’s another story.) The piece still wasn’t finished at the end of yesterday’s session, so we come back to it today as the deadline creeps closer. The winter light is paler but the instensity in the room is the same. Luckily, Jnanavaca isn’t content for me simply to transcribe what he says and edit it later; he wants me to understand. So transcribing and revising the essay comes with a blast of metaphysical Buddhist study. We’re on another ocean image, and this time it’s not so appropriate. Jnanavaca is cautious of describing something called vacuum energy – bear with me – using the metaphor of something as far-ranging and fundamental to the planet as the sea, as it might suggest an original ‘ground of being’, or essence from which everything else arises, a notion that Buddhism rejects.

We’re at the finishing touches, though. We ditch a rather dutiful summary at the head of the article in favour of a provocative Einstein quote about our limited perceptions and our limited love. It looks like a small adjustment, but in fact it’s like finding the right frame for a picture: the whole thing is lifted, brought to life. I make a final series of changes at my desk and put a print-out by Jnanavaca’s door at 5 o’clock.

In the community that evening, I’m sitting in front of the West Wing in a tracksuit. I’m daydreaming a (faint) parallel between the atmosphere of the fictional White House and this strange, full-time life at a Buddhist centre. The president’s senior staff are fully immersed in the White House and its project; there is no sense that their ‘work’ and their ‘life’ are two separate items kept in sealed containers. They may occasionally dash out to a restaurant in DC to refresh themselves, but really where they want to be is back at the White House. They are just trying to make happen the things they want to see happen. So if something’s not good enough yet, it doesn’t matter what time it is. Sure enough, just before 10pm, there is a knock at my door. Jnanavaca has spotted that we’ve referred to observable phenomena seeming to play out on the illusory ‘canvas’ of space and time. He wants to change ‘canvas’ for ‘stage’, as a stage is three-dimensional, like our apparent experience of space and time, whereas a canvas is 2-D. For reasons I’ve now forgotten, I argue it the other way. We stay with ‘canvas’.

The weekend arrives, and on Saturday I speak to Ali. She had indeed been in a local restaurant when the attackers struck – and in fact she and her friends had spent all night there after the owners locked them in for safety. She wasn’t hurt, and amazingly didn’t know anyone who was. But having to take one phonecall after another from distant friends and family the next day, going over the whole thing again and again after a sleepless night, was leaving her so drained that she had turned her phone off and gone to bed. We spend a while catching up on the phone, twentieth-century fashion, weaving together a few old bits of the canvas, and some new ones. ■

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