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Archive for March, 2012

birth-and-deathIt was a few years ago in the depths of rural Hertfordshire that I first heard Luang Por Sumedho talk about the nature of birth and death. Speaking at one of the Sunday talks held at Amaravati Buddhist monastery each Autumn, he described how each of our lifetimes is characterized not by one single bold entry into and exit from this world, but rather by a constant series of births and deaths. “Every breath we take”, he said, every rise and fall of our lungs “is in itself an experience of birth and death”.

Curious though it seemed at the time, it couldn’t be any other way. “We couldn’t just keep breathing in”, he said, laughing in his jovial way, “our lungs would explode! We have to breathe out so that we can breathe in again”. In other words: death has to exist, so that birth can too.

These words stayed with me. Somehow they rang so true. They startled me for their description of something I had often recognized but not “known”. Not only, said Sumedho, is experiencing birth and death from moment to moment important to come to terms with the impermanence of life, it is also a reminder of life’s utterly fluid nature: a reminder that change is the only constant.

The more I reflected on this, the more I began to see that everything we experience and so much of who we are goes through a constant cycle of creation and dissolution: moments in time, thoughts that preoccupy us, people who come into and leave our lives, experiences we love and hate, personas that rise and fall, even our very understandings about the way things are. Everything is born and ebbs away, emerges and dissolves. It is this that is the substrate of change, and remembering this is not only a means to be aware, it is a tool for eternal release from those things that bind us.

In many ways Sumedho was simply stating the obvious: that nothing lasts forever and that everything is impermanent. Yet somehow his way of seeing things took me deeper than that. It helped me to acknowledge not only what is transient in life, but also what is possible. Allowing death to take place within life is essential to allow us to live our lives fully.

Our perceptions of birth and death are often so loaded. One with intensely positive emotions, and the other, more often than not, with the reverse. Rarely do we come to reflect on the deep interconnection between and necessity of the two. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is considered vital to “practice dying” to come to terms with impermanence, and to practice non-attachment, as a means to reduce our own suffering. Although I can rarely think of death in its realest form without something of a shudder, wondering if I will simply cease to exist, observing these two forces and their intimate relationship with one another can bring a deep sense of perspective and even peace.

Sumedho’s words, in their profound simplicity, remind us to absorb every precious experience as fully and deeply as we can, because it will inevitably end. They also remind us of the need to eternally seek to expand beyond what we know – to allow new things to be born, to let go of parts of ourselves and our lives that no longer have a place, and to remember that change is not only always possible, but inevitable.

Remembering and engaging with this idea, as with everything in life, is a work in progress. But whenever I remember to listen to my breathing — to the rise and fall of my lungs — I am reminded of the possibility that exists in each moment, dare we grasp it!

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“He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

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Travels in Kerala – April 2010

The wind had lifted and the waves were loud as they syncopated against the side of the boat. I was watching the world slip by as we passed green feathery paddy fields and palms that yawned over inky water. Four bright green waterlily shoots approached, bobbing along by the side of the boat. Their tightly curled, bright green leaves sprang from swollen bulbs with earthy roots that hung into the water below. They would soon find others in this aquatic wilderness and weave together to form the swirling, floating islands that were refuges for birds, fish and, these days…. plastic bottles.

I have been seeing India through a haze these days. Its beauty is as startling as ever but sometimes I feel as though I am having to peer through a veil to see it; a veil that is increasingly obscuring the view. Let me explain. Have you ever noticed how you shift your camera ever so slightly right or left to squeeze out unsightly objects from the most picturesque of views? You might remove a telegraph pole in front of a mountain, the concrete building on a hillside, a rubbish pile next to a flower stand or a 4×4 parked next to a statue. I’ve done this countless times and have been noticing the frequency grow. It’s as though as we look out into the world, we consciously choose what not to see.

As a case in point, our journey from Cochin to Alleppey was bathed in incense. But it wasn’t the sweet jasmine or gentle rose of the temples that pepper the country; it was the strong, sickening smell of burning plastic. Plastic coats more and more of India’s landscape now; from the fields of rural Rajasthan, to Kerala’s roadsides and waterways – a modern day snowfall that is harder and harder to ignore. It is not only seas of plastic that we passed on the way, with fires dotted along the way to transform this pile up into toxic smoke (a homage to the non-disposability God), it was stagnant pools of water and bottles bobbing in the rivers.

It’s the case the world over; perhaps in our chic highrise megacities most of all. What would happen, for example, if waste collections stopped in London? Behaviour would change fast, that’s for sure. No-one wants mountainous, unattractive rubbish tips building up in their gardens or outside their house-fronts. Yet it is made so easy for us to shift the frame away in cities today as rubbish trucks faithfully chug waste away to “somewhere not here”.

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