August 30th 2020

In the middle of August I had my 74th birthday. I seem to be in reasonably good health but I do occasionally wake up in the middle of the night anxious about the prospect of getting seriously ill, physically incapacitated, or confused by dementia. Death, or perhaps I should say a painless death, seems far less frightening. But this year on my birthday I was fit enough to enjoy a climb up through the narrow streets of Sella with Akashavira to the shrine that overlooks the village and the valley below. Then we joined the Guhyaloka community, Vajranatha, and his friend Reuben, for tapas and tinto de verano in the cafe in the village square. We headed back for the mountains at about 10:30pm just as the band came out to practice in the open air and the square was filling with locals and small children running about among the tables. The cool of the evening air was delicious – as were the tapas.

Akashavira left on his motor scooter for Switzerland a couple of days later. He drove 800km in one day to make sure that he got into France before any potential closure of the borders, but then took several more days to get to St Gallen where he will stay with his mother until he is able to go back to his wife in China. We’d spend several enjoyable hours during the previous few days looking at photos of his adventures over the last few decades– mainly in Asia.

Alone again at Uttaraloka I continued to ponder on one of my main themes – companionship and solitude. These two conditions present quite different feeling tones – the first is more comfortable and the second has more of an edge – and it takes me a little time to move from one to the other, especially from having a companion to being alone. This morning was particularly quiet, cool and bright and I felt the kind of connection with my natural surroundings that gives me such great pleasure but which seems quite elusive when there is another human being present.

I continue to build my relationship with Vajrayogini. Sometimes a sort of declaration keeps popping into my mind – particularly in meditation. Just recently: “I have discovered the Secret of Eternal Life, (by which I do not mean infinite extension of individual existence,) and it has been revealed to me not by the Lord Jesus Christ but by the Lady Vajrayogini, and the reflex of this discovery is that existence always needs a ‘story’, which can be very complex, but which is both essential and illusory.”

I have been mulling over this for the last month and making all sorts of connections – particularly with the five skandhas and the kind of stories with which I interpret my experience. I can see the story as sunyata but the emptiness of other skandhas is not so immediate. The ‘story’ is of course the myth by which we support our existence. It is learned, imposed, and created; both consciously and unconsciously; it can be true or false, skilful or unskilful, leading to liberation or not, and so on, but to hold it lightly is the secret of freedom. As I said last month I think that of all the general categories of stories the Bodhisattva Ideal is the greatest.

Recently I have been reading and watching films that portray dysfunctional worlds or individuals, and I’ve realised how deeply depressing I find them. Bhante once advised me to read Carson McCullers and Nelson Algren – and after I’d been in their bleak worlds I asked him why he’d done so. He said that not only was their writing very good but the worlds they described were ones he was never likely to inhabit but to know other worlds, especially dark worlds, was helpful. Knowing them may be helpful but entering into them can certainly be very painful.

I have also been fascinated by Vajrayogini’s seed syllable. I’ve never previously been particularly interested in mantra or seed syllables but hers has captured my imagination. I even started carving it in wood from Uttaraloka’s almond and olive trees – although I then realised that those woods are too hard for beginner carving. Vam feels like a very direct and living symbol of her essence and a place in which I feel deeply contented as well as having a multitude of connections and meanings. It has become the main element of my visualisation practice.

I’m keeping up a good connection with meditation but also engaging with some very frustrating worldly activities – mostly concerned with banks and Spanish bureaucracy – as well as preparing for what promises to be a very productive almond harvest. Guhyaloka is about to start the three months ‘Forest Retreat’ which is much better attended than we’d feared, and similarly the three-month Uttaraloka retreat looks as though it will be full.

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