Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Same Ling 2: Chess, Yaks, Swallows and Siddhis

I am rubbish at chess, and was reminded of this by being thrashed in every single game that I played in Samye Ling. My own technique is roughly similar to Rick Mayall's in Bottom (see above).

My most formidable opponent was a Belgian lad who was also very good at playing the guitar and singing Jacques Brel songs. He also smoked rollups and volunteered to do a lot of mowing. He was just one of a number of interesting people at Samye Ling. Another one, who worked in the cafe, had just been to the wildwood in Poland, looking for wolves. I don't think he found any, but it sounded like a fantastic adventure.

My own animal quest was for Yaks, who lived in the bottom field. In theory, this should have been an easy search, but in practice, they proved elusive. See if you can see them in the photograph:

...And just in case this doesn't slake your yak-thirst, here's a rather nice relief of one:

Yaks were not the only animal visitors to Samye Ling. There were also swallows, nesting in the temple eaves. The broods were just about ready for flight.

The human beings, including myself, were all more concerned about Buddhist things than crapping on brightly coloured plasterwork.

As I mentioned in the last post, one of the founders of Samye Ling, Akong Tulku Rinpoche, was killed in 2013. An exhibition had been set up in his honour, in the temple grounds. 

'Tulku' means a custodian of a specific lineage of teachings who has been reincarnated. The last Akong was the second in his lineage, believed a reincarnation of the Abbot of Dolma Lhakang monastery near Chamdo, who died in 1937.

The first Akong allegedly exhibited paranormal abilities like clairvoyance, and during one retreat, an unusual red light was observed throughout his retreat house by the other monks.

These are examples of siddhis, paranormal powers that are believed to be the products of spiritual advancement and exactly the sort of thing that educated Westerners like me should completely dismiss if we know what's good for us.

My curiosity stirred by the exhibition, I decided to attend one of the Guru Rinpoche Drupcho rituals that was being performed in the temple that week.

Guru Rinpoche Drupcho is a ritual dedicated to world peace and Akong Rinpoche's swift rebirth. It involves a giant chocolate cake, a votive offering to the spirits, possibly Za, he who “guards the religious teachings, and his with his thousand eyes watches the happenings in the three worlds."

I attended one of these rituals, which took one and a half hours. It took place in the temple, and involved prayers, chants,  and the intoning of mantras, accompanied by the beating of a gong, the blowing of horns and drumming. There were also quiet bits where there was a sort of humming throat chant that was very hypnotic.

I felt, for a time, as if I'd been transported to another time and place, and the general effect was eerie and disorientating. However, most of the performers were Europeans, and apparently they're still fairly bad at pronouncing Tibetan properly.

Rebirth and siddhis are two things that simply do not map onto twenty-first century secularism. I have no idea whether there's any truth in either phenomena. As far as reincarnation goes, I've long been intrigued, if not completely convinced by, Ian Stevenson's cases of children who recall previous lives.  But ultimately, I just do not know.

I do think, however, that topics like this are suitable for scientific investigation. I've read quite a few pieces, recently, that suggest that phenomena x is so outrageous that it should not, under any circumstances, even be acknowledged by scientific authorities. This is because if phenomena x is acknowledged, then it will get undeserved credibility, which will taint the reputation of science.

This seems (arguably) a good strategy if we know for certain that phenomena x is false. We do not want to promote false or wrong knowledge.

It is a lousy strategy if phenomena x, however unlikely, just happens to be true. And I'd suggest that our ignorance of the universe is such that it's close to impossible, in most cases, to determine with certainty whether phenomena x is worthy of investigation without actually investigating it.

This does not mean that we should approach unusual belief systems uncritically, or reject science, but it does imply a level of respect. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has long favoured a dialogue approach with science and I support this, too. This is because both knowledge systems have something to learn  from one another.

The problem is that paranormal phenomena have become so taboo in elite Western culture, that it's virtually impossible to approach them sensibly at all without being considered a gullible moron.

Which probably explains my chess-playing....

Friday, 16 September 2016

Dark in the Day

Just a quick notice about Dark in the Day, a new anthology of Weird Fiction featuring multiple authors including Tanith Lee, Liz Williams, Liz Counihan, Michael Marshall Smith, and...yours truly. Storm was kind enough to reprint my first Interzone story from 2001, "City in the Dusk."

My copy only arrived yesterday, but from what I've read so far, this volume's a bit of a cracker. 

From the press release:

This collection celebrates evocative tales of oddness that span the genres of magic realism, the supernatural, the fantastical and the speculative. 

Dark in the Day is an anthology of weird fiction, penned by established writers and also those new to the genre the latter being authors who are, or were, students of Creative Writing at Staffordshire University, where editor Storm Constantine occasionally delivers guest lectures.

Immanion Press, the publisher, was founded in 2003 by Storm Constantine and publishes horror, science fiction and fantasy novels by new and established authors. Their website's worth checking out, as they publish genre fiction of a very high quality.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Return to Samye Ling, Part One

I first visited Samye Ling in 2011, when a friend of mine was conducting psi research on meditators. Samye Ling is a Tibetan Buddhist centre of the Kagyu lineage. It was founded in the 1960s by three Tibetan exiles, and in the early years hosted David Bowie and the Beatles.

Originally, it was a single farmhouse, but today, it’s grown into a complex of buildings, including a magnificent temple. There’s also a garden, with a stupa (a memorial to the dead), a gateway, statues of Buddhist deities and notable figures. There are also yaks, which hide in a large field opposite the car park.

By August, I had a pressing need to go into retreat. The first half of 2016 had not been terribly pleasant: I’d been ill, physically, and had experienced several bouts of the horrible, exhausted paralysis that for me often follows a long period of anxious stress.

I’d also been finding life in the UK to be increasingly unpleasant, partly because of the ugly wave of nationalism leading up to and following the EU vote. Many of our worst qualities have been on display this year, and irresponsible politicians have fanned the flames of hatred and fear. By June, the general atmosphere seemed poisonous, and the tragic shooting of an MP only underlined for me where such destructive emotions could lead.

I’d also been feeling emotionally poisoned, bitter, angry and constantly afraid. I was becoming more emotionally reactive, and losing sight of the more positive aspects of life. Worse, I was aware that my own, pained inner state was causing discord around me.

One of Samye Ling’s founders Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who was murdered in 2013, once said that the Buddhist principle was to be everybody's friend and not to have any enemy. The problem was that I’d got to the point where I was seeing enemies everywhere.  So gradually, I came to accept the need for healing, and the exorcism of inner demons.

Buddhist worldviews (there are many, developed from a core of common concepts) have had a profound effect on my life. The practise of meditation has helped with personal distress far more effectively than any medication or counselling ever has. So I knew from past experience that the best chance for healing lay in a benign atmosphere, in nature, and in disciplined, meditative practise.

Arriving at the centre was a relief. Samye Ling is situated about twenty miles from Lockerbie, in the Scottish hills. I had a very nice talk with the taxi driver who drove me up there. She had swapped a high-pressure job for her current, part time profession, and was much happier for the change. This seemed a good omen.

I began to meet decent people almost the moment I arrived. Samye Ling attracts all sorts of folk who are travelling, for lots of reasons. Some are curious. Others have reached a crossroads in their life. Still others are, or have been, seriously ill (I spoke to several cancer sufferers there). Others seek refuge.

There was a meditation weekend in the temple, during the time that I was booked to stay at the centre. This was a crucial part of healing, and I felt a strong need to practise in a supportive environment.

The meditation was hosted by a monk, and the first challenge was sitting on a cushion comfortably. This did not always work: by the end of the first session, my back was aching quite a lot. Eventually, I opted for a wooden sitting thing, which felt a little more stable.

The first thing that happened was that those inner demons came out to play. This occurred over the course of the first day. At the end of the session, a little dazed, I went to the garden, and wandered through the stupa, reading the memorials of pets and people who are now lost to us.

I realised that I had been foolish, letting anger and fear rage about inside my head, unchecked. I also realised, reading the memorials of those who had died at my age or younger, how precious life really is. I felt the kindness and compassion of the people who had set up these memorials. And I remembered how much more important compassion was than anger and defensiveness.

I felt a great release of overpowering emotion, which was tough to experience, but necessary. The healing had begun.