For the first half of my marriage I was a “part time Buddhist”, I suppose I was a BINO, a Buddhist in name only. I had married Champa, Dr C, in 1971 when we were postgraduate students together, both doing chemistry PhD research in the same laboratory. I was instantly and lovingly accepted into her large Buddhist family in Kathmandu and slowly absorbed their philosophy as I wandered around temples and monasteries, observed Buddhist festivals, special days and ceremonies, and learned a great deal from conversations with both family and new found friends. Something else happened during our visits to Kathmandu …….. everything slowed down, most noticeably my walking speed, as after a few days following arrival I got into “the Kathmandu shuffle” as I called it. Now this might seem a small thing, but when it happens to you and your awareness of it hits you in the face, it takes on a particular significance. Firstly I had become mindful of it, I was exploring it and asking myself why it had happened, was there any benefit to it. Each day as I left the house in Ason Tole and took my first few steps towards my destination I became acutely aware of it ….. and couldn’t help smiling to myself, but something else happened too, I became much more aware of my immediate surroundings ….. the smells, the sounds, people, buildings, the sky, the packed Earth streets beneath my feet.
During my first family visit I was in absolute awe of the Buddhist temple complex of Swayambhu, known to tourists as The Monkey Temple because of the surrounding hillside leading up to the stupa (dome) being full of monkeys. I walked to the top of that hill every day, circled the stupa and spinning the prayer wheels, and listening to the mesmeric chanting of the monks if I arrived just after dawn. I did this every day for 30 days, and it took some understanding because I certainly didn’t go to the village Methodist chapel every day as I was growing up. As I have already said I was in awe of Swayambhu, and not just in a physical sense like visiting a castle or a cathedral in England and admiring the architecture. It seems almost crass to say it was atmospheric, but I was never alone as there were hundreds of Nepali folk with me, silently climbing the hundred of steps up the hill, walking clockwise around the stupa, lighting and placing incense sticks, then back down the hill to their homes. Nowadays almost 50 years later it is different; as a “white man” I must pay to visit, tourists abound posing for selfies, there is no silence, it’s a place to “tick” on the bucket list with a selfie on Facebook and a few lines on Twitter. I’ve stopped going and instead visit Shree Ghah Chaitya in Sigal Chowk in the centre of old Kathmandu. It’s a similar experience to the old days as it involves a walk through the old city passing near my wife’s old family home, it has a beautiful monastery nearby, and there’s only the occasional tourist who finds it.
On that first ever visit I believed that it was my duty to not only be part of regular family Buddhist practices, but also to read some locally written books about the history of the country and the background to Buddhism in Nepal, despite it being classified as a Hindu nation. However, once we returned to England after an idyllic month, the pace of life quickened as did my speed of walking. Life was so different with a hectic career in corporate life, a big mortgage to pay, and my ageing mother living a couple of hundred miles away compared with the extended family proximity in Kathmandu. It seemed like we’d switched planets! However something had changed WITHIN our small family of a married couple with two young children. Conversations had changed, tolerance had increased, “appreciation” of simpler things in our lives had changed such as mealtimes, growing our own vegetables, going for walks. We could now discuss together with greater understanding different cultures, poverty, Dr C’s family and childhood, and …….. Buddhism ……. from a very practical viewpoint which I had just experienced as opposed to reading in books.
It was 15 years later that a family tragedy triggered such grief and despair that only a much deeper understanding and practise of Buddhism saved me from oblivion. Our son, Michael, died from cancer.
I will not dwell on the details of the experience and how it affected Champa, Sharon and myself, but we were a strong enough family to support each other emotionally in many different ways as we each handled the trauma in a different way too. And this brings me to the reason and way that I became more involved in Buddhist philosophy and and it’s practice on a daily basis. I was no longer a BINO, this was for real and the part of my brain that was more an “intellect controller” suppressed the “emotion controller” and I spent hours each day reading books on the history of Buddhism, the story of Buddha’s life, Buddha’s sutras (teachings), methods of meditation, the structure of leading a Buddhist life. I attended a Buddhist residential centre and separately attended counselling with a Buddhist practitioner. Champa and I went to Nepal one year after Michael’s death, took part in various ceremonies to mark his passing, visited shrines and temples including the site at Lumbini in south Nepal, Buddha’s birthplace. I was being transformed into a different person with quite different beliefs, different values, and a completely different outlook on life.
It is now 25 years later and my efforts to lead a life based on Buddhist philosophy are like the wind that blows through the trees in our garden; sometimes it is so strong the branches bend and the trunk sways, other times it is gentle and merely rustles the leaves, most of the time you wouldn’t know it is there because it is nothing more than air, but essential to sustaining life. Sometimes conscious and on the surface, sometimes subconscious and deeply buried. At an intellectual level my Buddhism is organised, it is systematic, and it guides my mind and my behaviour in a way that the Ancient Greek philosophers called The Good Life, and that Buddha called The Middle Way. Here is the basic structure as I have morphed it into what I can understand and have internalised:
1. The Three Essential Elements of Buddhism
- Moral Conduct
- Mental Discipline
2. The Four Holy Truths To Be Understood
- Wellbeing and its causes
- Wellbeing is possible
- Suffering and it’s causes
- Suffering can be ended
3. The Path To Wellbeing
- Right Speech
- Right Actions
- Right Livelihood
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Effort
- Right Concentration
- Right View
- Right Intention
These three sections are common to all forms of Buddhism and whoever writes about them, although some of the wording varies such as The Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path compared to my own wording. There are also many Sutras/teachings from the Buddha and many of his quotes written in the Dhammapada long after his death. In subsequent posts I will write about many of these elements related to modern day and typified through my own life. Sometimes I will also explore connections with several philosophers from Ancient Greece including Epicurus and Epictetus. I hope you will comment and join in, you don’t need to be a Buddhist, just be mindful and reflective on your own personal philosophy, your own way of life, and see if there are any connections to the Buddha that is within all of us!