Diary of a London Buddhist

Dhammadinna on life as a walk in the park…



Sitting on a bench in Victoria Park, looking out over the lake, I notice that the fountain spray is creating dancing rainbows in the air. Everything seems to be in motion: the leaves in the breeze, the ripples on the surface of the water, the fountain and the rainbows, the ducks, geese and swans. People are constantly walking or running by, and children and dogs chase the pigeons. I relax, enjoying the many shifting sensations, including the warmth of the cup of flat white coffee in my hand, and the soon to be eaten, freshly baked, turmeric bun. Gradually it seems to me, that everything is like the fountain-rainbow, vividly present, and yet vanishing in a moment, when the play of water, wind, and sunlight, changes. The ancient lines of the Japanese Buddhist poet Issa drift into my mind.

The world of dew
is the world of dew
And yet, and yet…

Back in the early 80’s I was a co-founder of a particular women’s community associated with the recently opened London Buddhist Centre. I was then in my mid-thirties, living with five other women of around the same age. After a stint living in our women’s retreat centre in South Wales, I moved back to London in 2005 and now share a household with eleven women whose ages range from early thirties to early seventies. My young friends remind me of my younger self, and how things were then around the Buddhist Centre in the early days. The Centre had only been opened for four years, but was lively with classes, courses and retreats. We were at the beginning of developing team-based right-livelihood businesses, which later flourished as cafes, shops, printing and design studios, typesetting, a housing co-op and health centre, as well as many local residential communities. The area was much more run down and the beloved park itself was quite scruffy and not always that safe. We were all young and it would have been hard to imagine then that we would one day need to start young people’s activities at the Centre, or that so many of our flourishing businesses would subsequently close. It would have also have been difficult to foresee the rise in housing prices in the area, as then most of us lived in low-rent short-life properties, which were part of our housing co-op.
A couple of years ago I contracted an auto-immune inflammatory condition. Although not life threatening, it has certainly been life challenging. A simple walk to the park can now involve overcoming quite strong initial resistance. Sometimes just trying to put on my walking shoes is a hurdle. Stepping onto the pavement, the park gates that once looked like a hop and a skip away, can seem far in the distance. The only thing to do is to put one foot in front of the other.

As a young woman I would get very upset and frustrated at all the things that I couldn’t do. Now I appreciate all the things that I have been able to do, and can call them to mind in my memory. Back then my emotions and physical discomfort seemed to be closely entwined. Now I have more patience and an ability to experience physical pain whilst being in happy mental states. I am also much more able to ask for help. Being really ill a few years ago was hard, painful and worrying for my fellow community members, but I was pleased to hear that I was easy to look after! I could be reasonably straightforward in asking for what I needed. I also felt that I experienced the kindest aspects of all of them, in their different ways.

This year I decided that in order to give my health a chance of improvement, I would give up all my current responsibilities in Triratna, some of which I have held for 20 years. This is a big change and I am at the beginning of seeing how that will unfold.
I recently went to see my GP and said: ‘I have come for sympathy and science!’ He offered plenty of sympathy, but understandably had no answers to my ‘why’ questions.
Three years ago, a dear friend of mine caught a cold and within a couple of days was seriously ill, sedated and intubated, in the ICU at the Royal London Hospital. I watched the wonderful team search for causes and reasons for her illness, whilst trying to do everything possible to help her to survive. Between my long daily visits, I was listening to a hero of mine, Dr Atul Gawande, give the 2014 Reith Lectures, the first lecture of which was called ‘Why Doctors Fail’. According to him, they fail due to human error, something he is committed to lessen, and also because medicine and science, contrary to our expectations, do not have all the answers.

Sadly, despite their best efforts, the day came when the doctors told us that there was nothing more that they could do for my friend. Her sudden illness and death left us with so many unanswered questions: Why her? Why now? What did she do? Of course, if we can just stay with the questions, often deeper truths can reveal themselves.
‘Why’ questions tend to mean that we are seeking to control our experience in some way. But we learn over and over again that we cannot control events. My experience of being so closely involved with her illness and death, though painful, has helped me to work with my own feelings, having suddenly become so ill myself, only a few months later.

The world of dew,
Is the world of dew,
And yet, and yet….

How mysterious is that “and yet, and yet”. Perhaps unexpected wonders wait?
At some point I’ve soaked myself in the beauty of the trees, lake, fountain and rainbows for long enough. Then it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and making my way home, knowing that I will never return to this particular combination of sensations and experiences. ■

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