North Wales, Manchester and Brighton

Over Xmas and New Year, Vijayamala and I spent two weeks in North Wales. The first week was at the Hermitage, Lama Shenpen Hookham’s retreat centre on the Lleyn Peninsula; the second was at Vajrakuta, the home/retreat centre of Prakasha and Padmadevi.

Our visit to the Hermitage wasn’t quite as meditative as usual, as we arrived on Xmas Eve and left on New Year’s Day. Lama Shenpen usually follows quite a strict schedule, but she eased it back in order to see friends and celebrate over some of that period. So I ended up watching a few videos: a couple about the Lleyn Peninsula, some old footage of Torvill and Dean, the ice-skating champions (Lama Shenpen’s Xmas treat for herself), and then on New Year’s Eve Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. In between, I spent several days meditating. We also did ritual and recited sutras so see in the New Year. On New Year’s Day we went out to a beautiful valley to make auspicious offerings for 2007. It was very good to see the Hermitage again, and to meet up with friends form Lama Shenpen’s sangha.

For me the most significant event of the visit was a talk with Lama Shenpen in which she encouraged me to teach what i have been learning from her. I had been introducing one or two ideas into my teaching already – as Lama Shenpen said, faced with people trying to understand the Dharma, you naturally use everything in your Buddhist arsenal! But it was very affirming to feel her confidence that I had grasped at least a little of what her teachers had imparted to her.From the Hermitage on the southern side of Snowdonia, we drove across the hills to Corwen, the small town near which our friends Prakasha and Padmadevi live. They have put a tremendous amount of work into Vajrakuta, and it has become a very special place. Their main shrineroom, which they use for their group retreats centres on a very large and striking statue of Padmasambhava. With such an environment, and Prakasha’s excellent teaching, I’m not surprised that the retreats that they run at Vajrakuta book up almost as soon as they are advertised. I half expect people who have got places on the retreats to be selling them on Ebay for 4-figure sums.

When the four of us get together, it is always a special time – a chance to talk in depth about meditation and Dharma, as well as to practise together. I value these opportunities very much. Prakasha and I are co-leading a retreat at Vajrakuta in May. This isn’t entirely straightforward as he likes to prepare in depth, and I like to be free and spontaneous, but we managed to meet each other halfway!

The rest of the month was taken up with moving house (for reasons that I won’t trouble you with, Vijayamala and I currently move twice a year within Cambridge), a weekend in Manchester, and a week’s visit to the Brighton Buddhist Centre, of which I’m the president.

My teaching weekend at the Manchester Buddhist Centre concerned the nature of wisdom in Buddhism. In particular, it focused on the Wisdom of the Dharmadhatu, which is symbolised in some forms of Buddhist tantric practice by a figure called the Sovereign Lady of Infinite Space. So I and the more than twenty course participants spent time looking at issues of spaciousness as well as at what Buddhism calls shunyata, which is often translated as emptiness. This translation, on first hearing, takes you completely off the track of how Buddhism see the nature of Reality. Emptiness conjures up images of being lost in space somewhere, a nihilistic vision. Whereas the aim of exploring shunyata is to bring us to life by freeing us from fixed patterns of thinking about life so that we can plunge into direct experience of life.I’m very grateful to Alice Plummer for encouraging me to come up to Manchester and do the weekend, and for all her organisation both beforehand and on the event.

Shortly after Manchester I found myself in Brighton visiting the Brighton Buddhist Centre. I was the second Chairman of the Centre, back in 1976. (it feels so long ago now that it might as well be 1876…) So I have a very long-standing connection with Buddhism in Brighton and it is always a pleasure to visit, to see how the Centre is doing, and to meet up with old friends. I spent my week meeting up with people one-to-one; attending a meeting of the Centre Council, and giving a talk. The Centre was about to spend time focusing on the so-called Tibetan Wheel of Life, so I was asked to give a talk on the hub of the Wheel, which I called The Dance of the Animals.

The Wheel is a depiction of how we constantly frustrate ourselves and create suffering by hanging on to unhelpful patterns of thinking and responding to our experience. The driving forces of this process are represented graphically by three animals at the hub of the wheel: a cock, snake and pig, all running round biting each others’ tails. While it isn’t the most inspiring of subjects for a talk, I felt I managed to make some useful points. Hopefully I can get a transcript up on this site before too long.