Saturday, 31 May 2008

Just On The Spur Of The Moment

The wonderful thing about being a Myer's Briggs P type personality is being able to make decisions without any planning. It's a long weekend. My niece is being married tomorrow in the Anatoki Valley, behind Takaka . With about 2 minutes thought and 10 minutes planning we are going to go. We'll leave in an hour to drive the 10 hours or so to my sister's house at Kaiteriteri. On Monday Clemency will fly home via our daughter Bridget's place in Wellington. Sometime next week I'll wend my leisurely way southward taking pictures all the way down the length of the South Island. I mightn't add much to this blog between now and then, but who knows? They have the power on in Nelson now, and even, so I am told, internet.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Who Am I?

I've had two pieces of news in the past 24 hours. One is a date for my operation: Saturday June 21. The odds are that they'll whip out the prostate and, apart from the possibility of some embarrassing and, I hope, temporary side effects, I should be good to go for another couple of decades at least.

The other news is that I am sick. I have a piece of paper, signed by an actual doctor, which tells me so. Of course I already knew this but now, it's official and I am on sick leave not study leave. I'm an invalid, not a scholar. I marked my new found decrepitude by getting over -well, almost - the hacking cough which I've had for almost 3 weeks and by going for a long vigorous walk and taking some photographs.

It's odd how different I felt walking out of the doctor's office with my envelope in my hand. I was free not to sit with my tricky books. I was free to think about this illness, and what the rest of my life might bring, and how I might reshape my lifestyle to extract every bit of life I possibly can out of the (extremely long, if you don't mind, please Lord) time left to me.

What we believe about ourselves determines almost everything else. Our self perception will determine our values, our way of relating to others, the care or otherwise we display to ourselves, the love we will lavish on this lovely planet gifted to us, the measure of faith, hope and love which we will carry with us always . And I mean, always. The determining nature of our self perception is why personal faith is perhaps the most important single attribute of our lives. As Carl Jung said, there is not a single psychological or lifestyle problem that is not in the final analysis a spiritual problem. This time is important for reflection on my being -body, mind and spirit, and I have a new freedom to pursue it. No more dry scholarly stuff for me!

So now, poor invalid that I am, what will I do tomorrow with my new found freedom? I think, early in the morning, after my Bible reading and prayer/contemplation, I'll sit down, with the sermons of Meister Eckhart. I'll read some of them, and make notes and ponder the difficult points he is making. I think I'd really enjoy that.


Thrice holy God,
come as the morning dew
hold us in your love
which draws all lesser loves to you

-Celtic prayer

Monday, 26 May 2008

Form and Reflection

I set out, some weeks ago to read the French philosopher Levinas. I got sidetracked because, a couple of pages into the book, somebody mentioned in passing that they had seen a video called Monte Grande and that I might be interested in it. I got the video. I watched it. It was a documentary on the Chilean cognitive scientist Francisco Varela. I bought one of Varela's books and began to read it. Levinas went back onto the shelf for the time being.

As those who have been reading this blog know, Varela is a Buddhist, and this dimension of his thought raised questions for me, who has struggled with the interface of Buddhism and Christianity for many years now. There are enough Buddhists in my family to stock a reasonable sized monastery, although I haven't spoken to any of them on the subject of faith much at all in the past year or two. At the very time I was reading the Buddhist bits of Varela, however, most of them made contact, for the good reason that I was sick and they were concerned. With the renewed contact, my brother sent me emails which I have posted on here. It all smelled a bit of what Jung called synchronicity and the rest of us call coincidence.

Just when I got through Varela's Buddhist chapters, Clemency's brother Jonathan phoned me, again, because I was sick and he wanted to wish me well. In the midst of a long conversation he mentioned that he was writing for this website. He asked if I would look it over and give my opinion, in the course of doing which, I came across some interesting articles on the subject of evolution. They were so interesting in fact, that I put Varela on the shelf beside Levinas, printed off the stories and read 'em. Fascinating stuff.

They were all about how Darwinism (that is the theory that natural selection acting on random mutations is the main force behind evolution) is not a sufficient explanation to completely account for the process of speciation. They shared some insights from the rapidly developing science of genetics and speculated on what mechanisms might be responsible for the development of species.

I finished the articles. I took up Varela again, and opened the book at where I had left off. The very next chapter was about evolution, and how Darwinism was not a sufficient explanation for speciation, and how some insights from the rapidly developing science of genetics might help us find the mechanisms that were responsible for the development of species. Good afternoon Mr. Jung. What are you smirking about?

I find these sorts of synchronicities deeply reassuring. They tell me that the universe is ordered and that unexpected patterns of interrelatedness make themselves known in the great and trivial details of our lives. The geneticists, evolutionary biologists and philosophers who will meet in Altenberg in July to rethink evolution and potentially alter the entire direction of Western science, are looking for such patterns in the mechanisms of evolution. And me? I can't wait to finish Varela and get on with Meister Eckhart, because Eckhart speaks of just this phenomenon: of Being finding expression in form. I've got maybe an hour and a half to go on Varela, but, until I can finish one tricky book and get on with another, I know this:

My bone scan is clear and the great mind who ordered the universe has plans for me. And even better, as he has shown in his dallying amongst us, he loves me, he loves me, he loves me.

All things shall be well, and all things shall be well and all manner of things shall be very well.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Now We See The Real Similarities

So now we see the REAL similarities between Buddhism and Christianity.

I could of course write a Christian equivalent to Murray's reply, but it would seem like a competition and we couldn't have that now could we. Especially as he's wittier than me, and I wouldn't want that to be publicly known.

But really, the real reason I refrain from writing the equivalent is that we Christians do so little rowing. We write about rowing. We have rowing schools and training courses for rowers. We run workshops on rowing and have rowing discussion groups. We have rules and standing orders and canons and statutes and bills and memorandums of understanding and accepted precedents about rowing. We all agree on the vital importance of rowing. But as for actually sitting in a boat and putting an oar in the water..... well.....

We have an excuse of course. We're too busy holding meetings and workshops and discussions where we fret about why people are leaving us and going to the rowing machines at the gym.

Rowing Lessons


I very much enjoyed reading 'Brother are you saved?' and concur with your second metaphor, which is pretty much the Buddhist position. The problem for the Buddhist of course is that before being able to row he would have to arrive at a deep and thorough understanding as to the true nature of an oar taking particular care not to reify the oar into a 'thing'. In addition he would have to have a complete understanding of the elemental make up of the oar in addition to understanding it's symbolic place in relation to visualization and mantra recitation meditation pratice.

The Theravadin would only be able to use the oar if it was ochre yellow on all surfaces and that the procedure for rowing was in complete and minute accordance with the rowing techniques laid down by his remote ancestors who were fisherman before Christ was born, and who rowed fishing boats in accordance with the customs of a pre global, pre industrial revolution, village agrarian society.

The Mahayanist on the other hand would need to be able to demonstrate to the masses imagining themselves to be drowning that the oar was indeed of the same substance as Buddha nature, and that the action of rowing with the oar was in fact a means of transcending ones self centred habitual tendencies. Furthermore he would point out that it was not necessary for the oar to be yellow or that the rowing action needed to be in accordance with the customs of old, and that new rowing actions might even be better. The main thing of course being the spirit with which one rowed. By way of ensuring that prospective drownees were left in no doubt as to the 'good news' the Mahayanist would be able to draw upon several scholarly Sanskrit texts recently translated into English with particular emphasis being paid to the sanskrit original term for oar and new information revealing the actual roots of the discipline for rowing which differed in three major laws of discipline and 24 minor laws of discipline dating back to texts written on palm leaves during the reign of King Asoka in India 250 BC. And finally out of great compassion the Mahayanist would, him or herself, spend ten years writing a treatise on the subject of rowing for the benefit of the masses which would be published under the title of ' The Rowing of Not Rowing - Radical Fear Therapy in Action' (Wisdom books, 2008, with an introductory article taken from Tricycle magazine written by one of the new crop of American meditation teachers).

The follower of Tibetan Buddhism on the other hand would intuitively understand that the action of rowing symbolically represented the primordial nature of the diamond vajra mind and would see that in the act of rowing each dip of the oar released a flight of beneficial mantras into the atmosphere blessing all beings imagining themselves as drowning. Once the Dalai Lama had given his official blessing to the venture, and the astrological charts had been consulted for the most auspicious day to undertake the rowing, a Rinpoche would join the crew and rowing could begin. Instructions would be given in Tibetan, with a translator, as the most suitable language for conveying the subtleties of rowing. Some work would need to be carried out on the structure of the boat to ensure that when all were seated the Rinpoches head was at least 3 ft above that of everyone else, being a symbolic representation of the Buddha himself. The harmony of the rowing would be maintained by strict adherence to 1200 year old practices of rowing and in accordance with heart instructions given to each individual member of the crew by the Rinpoche himself.

Of course there would be the inevitable debate between the three boats themselves as to the actual direction of the rowing with particular attention paid as to whether instructions should be given in Sanskrit, Pali or Tibetan and whether the navigation techniques were actual, relative or absolute. Much attention would of course have to be given to the nature of the food during the journey with the differences between the vegetarians and the meat eaters needing to be resolved before the journey could progress. Most importantly, the issue of whether or not the consciousness of a dead animal, eaten by the crew, was blessed by fueling such meritorious action as rowing would have to be 'aired', in addition to which some people would feel they couldn't row in a boat where meat was eaten as it compromised their practice of metta, or loving kindness.

And finally, the Mahamudra and Dzogchen people would not want to row at all as they would recognise that the act of imagining oneself as drowning was none other than the nature of Buddha mind itself and that outside of the mind there is no suffering, so that any attempt to go anywhere involving mind would be to add to the delusion. They would therefore concentrate their efforts on maintaining pure awareness of the situation in refined dialogue with other people of a like mind bobbing around in whatever boat spontaneously liberated itself into their presence.

I hope that this is helpful in presenting the Buddhist perspective.

Kind regards

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Brother Are You Saved?

P.S. Murray - one more thing.....

Jesus began his ministry proclaiming "think again! The Kingdom of God is as far away as your own hand!"

For many Christians the ground has got to shift before they could even begin to talk to a Buddhist. I started in the Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition as you know - you were there at the time, though you didn't stick around for as long as I did. So, here's a metaphor for the faith we once shared, you and I, though both of us have moved, in our own way, beyond it:

God gave the people of the world a beautiful luxury ship, but unfortunately they sank it. So now the people are adrift and alone in a vast ocean, treading water, and beyond any possibility of rescuing themselves or others. They are waiting for certain death. Fortunately God, being loving, has sent a lifeboat, paid for in some mysterious way, by his son. The way into the boat is simple. You just have to ask. There's a set way of asking. You've got to acknowledge that you're wet, admit that it's your own damn silly fault and promise to obey the captain and not to leave the boat once you're aboard. If you don't ask in the right way you can't get in but despite this oddity, many people clamber into the lifeboat and are safe. Once safe aboard, the survivors, in gratitude set about rescuing others. In fact, the main duty of being in the lifeboat is this rescue work and the survivors do it with enthusiasm, cheering themselves along with jolly songs and finding ingenious ways to make the boat visible and inviting - but never for a moment forgetting the entry rules. Unfortunately there are other purported lifeboats, also doing some "rescue" work, but anyone can see that these are leaky vessels, and offer no real hope to those foolish enough to accept their offers of false help. So the lifeboat works tirelessly on, getting very full at times, but never moving across the ocean very far from where it began.

Over the years, I have seen something apparent to you almost from the start: that the faith for which this little story is a metaphor proclaims a God who is greatly at variance with the central tenet of our faith: that Jesus of Nazareth presents a window or a picture of the great loving mind at the centre of all reality. Further, this type of faith is a digital faith. It's 0 or 1. You're in or you're out, and once in, that's it really. You're saved, so there's not a lot of incentive for much else, so there is a preoccupation with finding faith, and a not a lot of energy devoted to its continuation.

I have a similar metaphor which I believe is closer to what Jesus actually taught. It's certainly closer to what he lived.

The people of the world BELIEVE that they are adrift and alone in a vast ocean, treading water, and beyond any possibility of helping themselves or others. In fact they are not adrift, for God, being loving, has sent a lifeboat, paid for in some mysterious way, by his son, and the people are already warm, safe and dry inside it. They have, in fact, never been adrift. The job of those who know the true state of things is to tell the others. Unfortunately most of the others simply can't believe it: such good news is simply too good to be true. So, believing that they are adrift they continue to act as if they are: they tread imaginary water, they cough, they splutter, they feel cold and alone.Some, remarkably, even manage to drown. For those who know, the best course of action is to go quietly about the business God has set them: that, is, rowing for shore, which is still a good way off. Rowing takes some effort and knowledge but strangely, in the rowing, people are strengthened and made happier. They feel the breeze and see the sky. They watch fish and whales. Other people, seeing their new enjoyment of life, become interested, and soon their delusions begin to fade and, tentatively, they also begin an interest in rowing. Or, at first in oars, at least. There are of course other lifeboats. Whether they are going to the same shore, who can tell? What I know is that much can be learned about rowing by watching them, and talking with their friendly crews.

Think again. The Kingdom of God is as far away as your own hand.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

OK, You've Got Me Thinking.


It's not courage to look at what cannot be avoided and decide not to waste time and energy fretting about it - it's just common or garden variety laziness.

In a discussion on Being, we Christians are at a decided disadvantage because of what we believe about our Lord, as compared to the Buddha. Jesus had pretty much nothing to say (at least, directly) about the self, and about Being, and all the things in which I am so interested right at the moment. The teachings he left are slender, fragmentary and concerned more with behaviour than with metaphysics. Furthermore, his sayings were not recorded by himself, but by his followers who may or may not have fully understood what he was on about and who set them down in writing some decades after his death. Some of the most influential commentary on his life and work came from Paul who probably never met him - at least not in the everyday sense.

For Christians our faith is about Jesus - it is CHRISTianity after all, and although his teachings are vitally important who he was and what he was is even more important. We make the improbable claim that in the person of Jesus Bar-Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee who lived in the time of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, the "primordial purity, luminosity of consciousness, unimaginable wisdom and infinite love that spontaneously and freely gives expression to the universe" did an absolutely bizarre thing - became incarnate within the confines of the universe created by that infinite love. By this we don't mean the divinity which can be reasonably argued to adhere to all sentient beings (or indeed, to all things). We mean something else - that the transcendent God has taken form with all the limits that form implies. Further, the death and resurrection of Jesus have completed the act of incarnation in that they have wrought some change in the structure of the universe and in the relationship of human beings with Being. Our heritage is not a carefully worked out window into the human soul such as the Dharma. We say that when God chose to reveal the nature of ultimate truth God gave, not teaching or spiritual practice, but a person. We have to work out ourselves, in the light of our experience of that person, what our teaching and spiritual practice is.

We Christians worked at it for 300 years, then got terribly confused when the Church as an institution became integrated with the larger culture of which it was a part and the needs of the institution, the needs of the culture and the need to be a body mediating spiritual truth became horribly intertwined. We still worked on it all, of course, but often with restriction and compromise, not all of which was conscious and/or acknowledged. Now in the early 21st Century the intertwining has become frayed; the institution, at least the bit of it in the vestigial Roman Empire is fading and we are free, free, thank God almighty, free at last to be what we were meant to be. (Admittedly this freedom is a bit worrying to those of us with a stake in the church's pension fund.)

So my Christian task is to explain to others Jesus and what he means for the nature of Being and how we relate to it. Many of the explanations worked out over the last couple of millennia don't mean much to many Christian people these days, let alone those who have left the fold or never been part of it. We need new explanations and of course to explain it all to others I must first be able to explain it to myself. The Buddha's analysis of the nature of humanity is, in my opinion, faultless. He anticipates psychoanalysis and cognitive science (and in many cases, quantum physics) by 2,500 years. His prescription for practice cannot be ignored but how does this analysis and his wisely enunciated path gel with the experienced presence of The Old Wise One taking form in Mary's son? Surely there is a bridge that can be formed between the wisdom of the East and particularly of the Buddha and the experience of the West? Karen Armstrong calls this an Axial Age, a time when such bridges- new explanations and syntheses - are spontaneously arising in many different places. Is she right?

I have the answer in two words: Meister Eckhart. Particularly, what you say about the void resonates with ME's concept of The Ground, and with his conception of God as No-Thing. However, this also gives me a problem. Although I have a good grasp, or so I think, of what Meister Eckhart is saying, finding the words to explain it to others is a personal challenge. As C.S. Lewis said, "any fool can speak learned language. It is the vernacular that is the real test. If you can't put your faith into it then either you don't understand it or you don't believe it."

I hope this gives a couple a leads as to where Buddhism and Christianity can perhaps speak to each other and be mutually informed, speaking from the friendly eye of the Gospel.

Lots of love,

A Letter From My Brother

My brother Guhyavajra (Murray) is two years younger than me. He owns a building company in Norwich and is an order member of the Western Buddhist Order. Below is an email he sent me today, as part of the continuing dialogue between Buddhist and Christian thought. I found it illuminating and helpful, and there's one or two points I will respond to later when I gather my thoughts properly.

Come to think of it, I haven't asked his permission to reproduce this, so Murray, if you're reading, sue me why don't you? But remember I'm the one who's got a lawyer for a daughter.


I've read your blog and let me say that I hope I have as much courage as
you when I discover that my intestines are dropping out my backside as
they inevitably must. To cut to the chase you raise a couple of interesting questions in relation to Christianity and Buddhism which to my mind can be resolved with reference to the first verse of the bible.
Good old Genesis. This is the Revised Standard Version and I suspect not a great translation of the meaning of the Hebrew but sufficient to get some philosophical traction nonetheless.

' In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was
without form and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.'

If the earth was without form then the earth didn't exist because the earth, and us, is the world of form. So without form no earth and all the rest. But without an earth there are also no planets and no universe because the whole unimaginably vast system is interconnected and mutually interdependent, so that without the smallest butterfly the greatest planet cannot be; and where does that leave our atmosphere and seas? So at the beginning of Genesis we have the void, and God breathes upon the face of this deep. So what is the void?

The void, it is worth noting, predates form, predates anything conditioned. This void is unconditioned inasmuch as it is not dependent upon form, upon that which is conditioned. But clearly it is not the void of black space that the astronauts experience when walking in space because imbued in the void is the primordial purity, luminosity of consciousness, unimaginable wisdom and infinite love that spontaneously and freely gives expression to the universe. Perhaps God breathes upon the face of the void in a purely poetic sense because God and the void are not two. The unimaginable power and potent intelligence which allows for the fact that anything is here in the first instance, not to speak of the wonder of a consciousness possessing spiritual creativity, points to the fact that the face of the void is imbued with colour, vitality, wonder and spiritual potentiality.

The Buddha's teaching correctly applied is the principal means for seeing directly through to the nature of this unconditioned void here now in the present moment experientially and immediately. Given that God exists beyond time, beyond form, before creation, means that God still exists unconditioned in the present. If something stands beyond time then it is eternally present, and this is immediately visible to the wise. The joke is we seek it in every place and under every stone, but it is right under our noses all the time. How can we ever have been separate from it except in our deluded imaginings?

The Buddha does not deny the existence of self except to say that the self is impermanent, conditioned, subject to change and not master of events. He points out that we reify self in the sense of the Platonic noumena so that our relative self is viewed as being permanent, separate, solid and master of events. (Actually the Buddha himself didn't know about Plato but he did understand the phenomena of reification) This delusion is a refraction of consciousness in much the same way as a stick bends when you put it into a swimming pool. It's a refraction of light but a real refraction all the same. For the initiated kid it seems bent, but for the older brother showing kid brother, he knows it's a refraction. So with our view of self. We are convinced that without self being ceases. In fact the opposite is true, fixed personality view is a parasite on existence holding us to the bottom of an 8000 mile gravity well. In the process of transcending this dynamic, going beyond it one discovers, almost unwittingly, the unconditioned nature which is the true and solid foundation of ones being and crucible of ones true individuality, that stands beyond birth and death. We call it the Buddha nature, Bodhicitta, Prajna. For this there is no preparation, nothing that one can do and nothing that one has done that can deserve it. It is a pure gift. An unbelievable miracle, the basic fact of life. The great tragedy is that most people have both feet up in the trough of life happily munching away oblivious to the fact, which means their happiness has an underlying existential anxiety that makes the process of life a rather fragile business.

I hope this gives a couple a leads as to where Buddhism and Christianity perhaps see eye to eye, speaking from the friendly eye of the Dharma.

Lots of love

Saturday, 17 May 2008


Yesterday I had a bone scan. It involved being injected with something that was mildly radioactive, going home and returning a couple of hours later to lie on an extremely narrow bed while an immense machine gesticulated around and above me. I was trussed up like a chook for dinner, albeit really quite comfortably, and asked to keep still for about half an hour. I couldn't quite manage it. I had a cold you see, one of the sort that behaves itself when you are standing up but not when you are lying down. I managed to control the urge to cough reasonably well except for, I think, three times where there might now be a little blurry line on the picture. I came home with a blocked nose, red eyes, sore throat and went to bed for the afternoon feeling miserable. Odd really. The disease which is potentially lethal causes me no trouble whatsoever - I wouldn't even know it was there if they hadn't told me - but a common cold causes me a great deal of inconvenience and distress.

Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for straining out gnats and swallowing camels which is the same sort of thing. The minor issues are the ones that take all the time and grab all the attention. The big issues, the life and death ones, we pass over quickly if we even see them at all.

For example...

... I spent the first 9 years of my ministry in co-operating parishes, which were somebody's bright idea sometime back in the '70's. The plan was to combine Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian parishes into one happy family. It was a good idea, and a lot of effort was put into administrative matters: making sure property rights and regulations for the length of time a parson could stay were all sorted out, for example. A whole new book of rules was written to be put on the shelf beside the individual denominational ones. The trouble is, no-one but NO-ONE bothered to work out the theological issues involved in combining churches with very different spiritualities and traditions. No one thought through the sociological issues involved in combining a number of different communities. Gnats were strained. Camels were swallowed - or at least the attempt was made with fairly predictable results. Co-operating parishes, with one or two notable exceptions, are not one of the churches' brilliant success stories.

And today I look through the papers for the synod my diocese will hold soon, and which I won't be attending. I am encouraged that there is a real attempt to examine the malaise of the Anglican church but, to my eyes, the solutions suggested look like Coldrex, not the required radical surgery.

The Anglican church is not in decline because it is badly administered, so it's fairly obvious that we won't cure its ills by administrative means. Jigging around the way we organise our clergy or how we pay them or how we draw diocesan or parish boundaries just won't do the trick. Neither will arguing the minutiae of our liturgies. The big issues eating away at our church are spiritual and theological. This is why, in this sabbatical, I have decided to think about Being rather than ministry models. To some this path of enquiry seems effete and esoteric, but this is where 30 years of parish ministry has led me. If the church is going to survive, we must reassess ourselves at the deepest, most profound level. People are as hungry as ever for answers to the big questions of life. If such answers can be found, people are seldom really bothered by the surface details of how and where they are delivered. There are camels everywhere, but I fear that the church is intensely preoccupied with the blueprints for gnat sieves.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Last Step

Today I made a phone call I had been procrastinating about for days, the one to the travel agent. There's no question that it had to be made, but to pick up the phone and ask for her to cancel our tickets was a final and complete admission that no, after all this planning and all this anticipation we were not going after all. Another little step. Another little loss.

I know about operations. I know what to expect: the kind people who will put me on one of those odd, movable beds, put a mask on my face and wake me 15 seconds later with a furnace burning in my belly and tubes sticking into my arms. I know about this and I'm apprehensive but not frightened. The real grief of illness is over an accumulation of small losses and some not so small: Travel of course; privacy; dignity;freedom of movement; physical fitness; the belief in the indestructibility of my body; My sense of infallibility. Some losses loom threateningly just over the horizon, too bewildering to contemplate in their entirety:continence; sexuality and therefore my identity; perhaps even life itself.

There are two things about this sense of loss that I have got to remind myself of: 1) that all these things which I may be about to lose have been given to me absolutely free and undeserved and I have had unrestricted , well almost, use of them for decade after decade after decade. 2) I am going to lose all of these things eventually anyway. Not one of them is going with me into eternity, no not one, not even a little bit. The grief is not so much the loss itself, as having a date set on the loss.

There is a last time for everything. There will be a last time I hear the double D concerto or see a sunrise or take a photograph. There will be last meetings, last views, last tastes. Just as there was a first kiss there will be a last one. We all know this to be true and pretend mightily that it isn't. Illness strips away that pretense. It sets a date. It reminds us that life is not an endless loop but a cord of finite length.

These little losses also bring a new question. All these things that I so valued and so dread the ending of - how much did I need them anyway? It's amazing how easily each of them slips away, and how easily the idea arrives of how I might get on without them. So I can't get to England? Kant changed the world but he never traveled more than 100km from his birthplace. For that matter, Jesus probably didn't either.

So I call Travel Partners and ask for Denise; kind, capable, knowledgeable Denise, and ask her to undo all that she has done on my behalf. Perhaps on another occasion I shall see Iona and Jerusalem, so it's not the end of hope but It's one small step towards removing the lovely illusion of my own infinitude - one small step towards the reality that is best revealed to us as death and resurrection.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Shape We're In

I found this little fossil pipi in a crumbling cliff face near Raglan. I am told it is from the Jurassic period. To think about that, imagine a time line with a space of 1mm for every year; OK? Now, the width of your computer screen would be about 1/2 a metre - that is, it would represent the time from Christopher Columbus until the present. Now imagine the line shooting off the side of your monitor, and continuing on for another 140 kilometres and you'd get an idea of the span of time since this little guy was filtering yummy tidbits out of the sludge on some Jurassic seabed. It was once a living thing, like the hand that holds it. Now it's not a live thing anymore but a stone; yet something of it remains: the pattern of it, the shape of it. Or at least a faint semblance of the shape of it has persisted across that vast, almost unimaginable chasm of time. The shape has outlived the transformation of every atom that once made it up.

The hand too is just a pattern or a shape. It's made of atoms, none of which are alive. The atoms are made of .... well, nothing really, as it turns out. They seem, as far as we can tell, to be shapes or patterns of energy in a similar way that a whirlpool is a pattern or shape of water. Or, another metaphor I quite like is music. Music is a shape or pattern of sound, that exists completely independently of the instrument that plays it. The pattern or shape is what matters, not the stuff that gives the shape some sort of form. We people are shapes the universe has formed in the kind of energy we call matter.

The big question for me is: what exactly is this shape? What is this thing I call myself? Descartes, responding to various people who thought that the self didn't exist said "Cogito Ergo Sum: I think therefore I am" What he meant was that because there were thoughts that he was aware of, something must exist to be doing the thinking. Well, OK, that's obvious, but it doesn't get us very far, because it doesn't explain what exactly is this thing that is cogitoing.

Where do you look for it? How do you study your own consciousness? It's impossible really, because the thing being studied is the thing that is doing the studying. Trying to examine your consciousness is like trying to bite your teeth. It's like trying to photograph your camera: it can be done but only by using a mirror or another camera. We see ourselves, in other words, only as we are reflected in the world and people around us or as another perceives us. What we are seeing is not our consciousness but only an image or a shadow or a copy of it.

Despite the difficulty of perceiving ourselves, most of us do have a very strong sense of self. We know our shape, more or less. We know the sorts of things we like and feel. We know how we act. We have a sense of continuity, that the Me who played in the sandpit at 5 is the same Me who plays on the computer at 55. Now here's the tricky bit. This Me, this self we are aware of, is not exactly the same thing as the consciousness who is aware.

Varela, and before him the Buddhists, say that this self we are aware of; this Me who seems to have such strength and such a continuous existence, is in fact an illusion. It is sort of a mirage; a little piece of sleight of hand that is being played out in the universe. It's a very persistent and strong illusion, and it seems, for most of us, to have taken us over to the extent that most of what we do is an attempt to reinforce the idea that the illusion is in fact real. I think Varela is right but to say that the self we perceive is an illusion is not the end of the story, because there's something bigger, deeper, more real than ourselves lying under the illusion: something that is as much richer and more complex and more exciting than our illusory selves as a real pipi is from a stone facsimile. I think there is a deeper reality that we can only arrive at when the illusion we call the self is seen for what it is. Which is more easily said than done. Perhaps this process of seeing through the illusion to the real life beneath is what Jesus meant when he told us that 'whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it' (Mtt 10:39)

So what's the nature of this deeper reality? Aha! Good question, that.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

The View From The Other Side

Back in 2001 I had a burst appendix which required a week in hospital and some recuperation time. The experience was a far better learning for pastoral care than anything I was ever given in my theological college. I learned, for example that a 40 minute hospital chapel service was way too long, and that 20 or even 10 would have suited me far better. The best pastoral visit I received, also for example, was from my colleague David Crooke. David arrived at my bedside in his clerical blacks. He didn't ask me to talk - at that stage I was more or less incapable of it anyway - and he didn't give me any pre-packaged words of advice. He expressed his sympathy, held my hand, said a prayer and left, all within 5 minutes. Perfect. He didn't need to fix me. He didn't need to appear useful. He didn't have any of his own issues about illness or death to work through by ministering to me. He respected where I was and he was present, which was enough. And his lack of drama about the whole deal was deeply reassuring - his manner told me that this illness was a normal part of life, and was not the final say about who I was and what I was going to do with myself.

It's deja-vu now. Sometime in the next few weeks I will be admitted to hospital and they will perform a piece of surgery of about equal seriousness to that for fixing a burst appendix. As with my former procedure, there is some risk, and the possibility of serious, even fatal consequences, but I'm an optimist: I fully expect to fully recover. I know there will be a period of recuperation, following which I will function pretty much as normal. There is a high probability of some long lasting side effects but there's only two of us who need to be concerned - or even, for that matter to know - about them.

For now, it's waiting, hoping I can get it all over and done with as soon as possible. I am being supported right now by my family, my friends and my parish, and again the view from the other side is a huge learning curve for me, whose calling is the care of others. The phone calls, visits, txt messages, cards and emails have been streaming in, and all are welcome and treasured. People have expressed their shock, and sympathy and best wishes for recovery, but the most helpful have been the people who don't make too big a drama of it all.

Many people get cancer and I am just one of them. Many people recover and I intend to be one of them.

Friday, 9 May 2008


Why is a bit of me corroding away?

"When a man's folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the Lord." - Proverbs 19:3. This verse was part of my daily readings this morning. Now I'm a theologically sophisticated man but still, with my guard down, this verse did surface a naive question that's always there, bubbling away under the just under the surface, out of sight. Why me, God? Is all this my fault? Has my folly brought my way to ruin?

Well, naive or not, the short answer is, I guess, "yes" although the long answer is a bit more complicated.

Prostate cancer is a very common affliction, but the rates at which men acquire it and the rates they die from it differ significantly from country to country. The percentage of men diagnosed with the disease in Britain has trebled over the past 30 years, and this is typical of developed, Western countries. The increased rates are partly because men are living longer and thus giving dormant cancers more time to show up; but partly also they are because there is a link between the lifestyles we lead and the diseases we get afflicted with.

Certainly animal fats and possibly also pollutants, smoking, chemical additives and some industrial processes are linked to the cancer. Stress, diet and sedentary living don't help either. The lifestyle I have co-operated in acquiring for myself is the one that is strangling the life out of the planet and it is the same one that is, partially at least, causing me to rust away from the inside. My folly has brought me to ruin. It's no use asking the really silly theological question:
"why me?" The answer is
"well, why not?" Praise God he's preserved me from the effects of my folly for all these years 'til now.
"Is God punishing me?" No. I'm managing the whole business of actions and consequences quite nicely for myself without having to drag God into it.

There is a theological problem here though, that I am still hoping to work on despite the distractions that have appeared over the past few days. As well as the lifestyle thing, there is the simple point that I am a man living in a body designed to last about 70 years. Bodies, like all things in the Universe follow a common pattern. They come into existence, they increase in strength and in their presence in the world, they reach full expression and stay there a while, then they decline in energy and presence and finally they go out of existence altogether. If you trace it on a graph it's a pattern like a bell curve. Everything does this - atoms, gophers, continents, solar systems, microbes, governments, civilisations, relationships, ideas - and I am doing it.

I have never seen it explained quite so well as by Francisco Varela in "The Embodied Mind". But here's the problem. His explanation of the pattern and the dynamics of existence behind it, which all makes so much sense to me is Buddhist. While I can't deny the truth of Varela's explanation, neither can I deny the reality of all I have experienced over 35 years of the living presence of God in our Lord Jesus Christ. Can both of these perspectives, Christian and Buddhist, be true? Where is the link between them?

I suspect I have an answer, but only at an instinctive level and not in a fully formed way which I could explain satisfactorily to anyone else. The link is Meister Eckhart, the Catholic Christian mystic whose writings resonate so closely with the Dharma and yet are completely Christian. Eckhart, the exponent of the mysticism of Being, has greatly influenced the later German philosophers of Being, Hegel, Heidegger and Husserl. His influence is mediated through them to Levinas and the contemporary Phenomenological Existentialists. There's a bridge hidden in here, between Christian experience and the insight of those who wrestle with the great questions of Being. I hope to find it, despite my body needing a bit of rust work before it can pass its W.O.F. Or maybe not despite. Maybe because.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

To Be Or Not To Be

It's been a long day. I'm on study leave but I didn't get much study done today. At 9 I was invited by the Urologist to come to his office at 4:30 and have a chat. The receptionist who made the call was pleasant and matter of fact and didn't give away any information but there's no way of disguising the intent of a call like that. Something is wrong.It's been a long day, which, as an introvert, I was pleased to spend on my own.

Clemency came home a little early and we went to see Mr. Samalia together. He's a tall man, white haired, dark skinned. Large gentle brown eyes. He spoke with great kindness but with absolute candour. I have cancer, in my prostate. Cancers have a rating system - a number assigned to them from 1 to 5 to mark how much they have disrupted the cells around them. I have a patch of 4 cells, and some, who have been trying particularly hard, have made it all the way to number 5. None of your namby pamby little 1s or 2s or 3s for me, thank you very much. The rotten bits are not very big at the moment but it's not a good thing for them to have appeared so quickly in a man my age. This particular brew is little but very determined. There's a number of ways to treat prostate cancer but for me, given the speed of growth and the likelihood of it spreading if left too long, it's probably most sensible to have the whole prostate removed. Mr Samalia outlined what would happen. He spelled out the risks and the likely side effects. He is a Hindu, a man of faith; a man of considerable spiritual stature. We made a mutually knowing and respectful connection and I trust him.

So then it was phone and txt and email to family and friends. There's no way you can keep this sort of thing secret and neither would I want to - this is life; this is where I am now. My Catherine rushed home and held me. My Bridget is coming tomorrow. My Nick is a globe away and I hope I'll see him soon. We all know what has to be done but over the next couple of days we've got to figure out when. Is the sabbatical trip to the UK and Israel still on? Mr. Samalia thinks it would be OK, but perhaps it might be as well to get the deed done as soon as may be.

I took this study leave to reflect on Being: what does it mean to exist? What does it mean to be conscious? What does it mean to be a self? I am also interested in the church's Being: what does it mean to be the Church, the body of Christ? What can be changed and still have the Church be the Church? And now I have another set of issues prompted by my unexpected and involuntary contemplation of my own non being. It strikes me tonight that these three sets of questions are actually the same ones being asked in three different contexts. Perhaps I will be able to come up with some answers. After all my concentration has been sharpened up amazingly in the last few hours.

Monday, 5 May 2008


Over the road from Maori Hill Presbyterian Church is the old Coronation Hall, a place where little girls learn ballet or drawing and where the local people gather to hear school concerts or protest about sewage. Four years ago, responding to a dream to 'let down their nets on the other side' a group of about ten people from the church began an 8:30 service there called B@tCH - Breakfast at Coronation Hall. The idea was to provide an informal place where people who had become alienated from the usual sorts of services, or perhaps those who had never been at home in any kind of church could find a place to express themselves spiritually. By all accounts it seems to have worked. I've always been curious about it, but yesterday, having no obligations of my own to fulfill, was the first time I have been able to attend.

Coronation Hall is large, and although it is airy it is also somewhat dark. It has a sort of lived in shabbiness, with childrens pictures all over the walls and one of those bare echoey wooden floors. Yesterday at 8:30, even with the heaters on it was still cold enough to leave my coat on. There were tables and chairs set out in about 2/3 of the hall, and in the front some old but comfortable theatre seats lined up facing the stage. Down the middle of the hall was a large table laden with a most inviting looking breakfast: a fruit salad that didn't come out of a can, Danish pastries, muffins and real coffee. The food came from a local supermarket and was the sort that needed a minimum of preparation. It was also food that was worth getting out of bed for. There was PLENTY of it.

The place was filling with people when I arrived: people from all age groups, and, surprisingly for a church service, about equal in the numbers of men and women. I was greeted warmly. I'm known in this neighbourhood, but that wasn't the only reason. I learned later that they have a 12 second rule: every stranger who enters must be greeted by a regular within 12 seconds of arrival. I sat with a small group of people who knew me and we were joined by others. Nearby was a table of teenagers. On the other side of the room a children's area had been set up with a range of toys and activities and young families were congregating around it. There was a buzz of conversation and of children's voices. 8:30 may seem like an odd time for families to be up and about but, on reflection it makes perfect sense. There's no dress code at B@tCH. People get out of bed, throw on the clothes they will wear for the rest of the day, and stumble off down to Coronation Hall for a breakfast that someone else has prepared, knowing the service will be over in time to let them have a whole family day to themselves.

A middle aged woman I sat with told me she was a confirmed Anglican but she had not been in a church for years. She had come along to B@tCH about 3 years ago in response to a letterbox drop and had been every Sunday since. She told me that most people were like her: they had not come from other churches but were lapsed Christians of one sort or another or had no previous church background at all. As the congregation had grown past the 100 mark however this had changed, and now people were leaving other churches to be there. This was worrying to the organisers.

At about 9:00 people were invited into the seats at the front. The coffee pots were refilled and left steaming within easy reach. People ambled slowly to their seats, clutching the last of their pastries as a music group began to sing, surprisingly, the old standard 'Praise To The Lord The Almighty The King of Creation'. This set the tone for the rest of the event. I was surprised at how liturgical and how conventional the service was. It was well led by the local ordained minister, Barry Kelk whose enthusiasm and energy held the whole thing together and gave it direction and shape, but, in terms of what happened, it was not that different from anything that you might see in many other Protestant churches on a Sunday morning. There were votive candles lit. There was a children's talk on Noah's Ark which involved singing that old Irish Rovers song about the green alligators and long necked geese. There was an extremely competent sermon encouraging reflection on the next stage of growth at B@tCH - which may prove to be the development of small group ministry. Music came from a variety of sources and was well led by a music group I would be very pleased to have in my own church. The atmosphere was unhurried, relaxed and casual. I left impressed. This was not something that my church could easily imitate, even if we wanted to.

What impresses me most is that a congregation of over 100 has been built from a very small seed group in just four years and these particular sheep haven't been flogged from anybody else's flock. Other congregations in the city have grown larger and faster, but inevitably by shuffling around the population of Dunedin's existing church goers. I was also impressed by the absence of an offering. There was a collection box by the door, but I had to ask someone where it was.

I am interested that much of what my own denomination has been putting a lot of energy into over the last couple of decades was notable by its absence. There was no apparent cause de jour. Worship and theology were essentially quite conventional, albeit conducted casually and with humour. This was not Mutual Shared Ministry. It was definitely a team effort - a lot of people worked and organised hard in order for the whole thing to flow so smoothly and so apparently spontaneously but paradoxically, it had all the marks of decisive leadership and visioning from the minister. There was no sign of adherence to any pre-set programme or method. This church was, after 4 years, still in the process of being invented within the walls of Coronation Hall. The best part, was the strong sense of forward momentum. B@tCH is still growing, still progressing, still figuring out how to make God accessible to those who want to know him but who are put off by the way we have packaged him in the past.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Is Something Amiss Down Below?

It snowed yesterday. The spell of warm settled weather we have enjoyed since early December finally ended and Dunedin reverted to form. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I love the cold weather. In celebration of the weather I spent the afternoon having a biopsy taken of my prostate and recovering from the same.

I'm not usually much aware of the prostate, although it is a part of me which has a pivotal role in some bodily functions of which I am very much aware when they happen. My GP told me, after a routine annual blood test, that what I should be aware of is that it may not be behaving itself, so there's been a string of other tests and examinations culminating in yesterday. They wanted to take some core samples. The prostate is an organ that's about as hidden away as it's possible for an organ to be, so the process of taking the samples is tricky. I'll spare you the details, but when it was being done, a song came to mind which will be familiar to boys who went to school the same time I did, but which I haven't thought of in years. It begins:

"I stuck my finger in a woodpecker's hole,
the woodpecker said, 'well bless my soul....' "

...and so on for as many number of ribald verses as you can think of verbs that begin with "re-".

At the end of the process I was sent home in a nappy with instructions about what to do when the anaesthetic wore off, and what to do if I developed septicemia and needed intravenous antibiotics. In the event it was fine. The whole process was about as uncomfortable as a heavy duty trip to the dentist and this morning it is as though nothing has happened. This is in large part due to the knowledge and skill of Mr. K.P. Samalia who did the deed with great courtesy and gentleness. But there's another factor.

Many people prayed for me yesterday. Clemency and my daughters. Friends. People from my parish. My mother. My son and others, with no particular religious affiliation told me they were thinking of me. Somehow it seemed to work. I had a sense of being held, and all the potential problems failed to materialise. This in itself is a mystery. I remember years ago being part of a faith community where one of our members contracted cancer. We all prayed. We had vigils for her in the church and laying on of hands. She got more ill and she died. Why? I don't know.

Possessing faith and praying are no defence against the problems common to human kind; after all, it is the facing of these problems which is probably why we're here in the first place. But, if Varela and Levinas are right, then our consciousness is, to some extent, what makes our environment. Yesterday, several people all thought of me at the same time. They were still before God; that is before all that they had experienced of the numinous and all that they believed to be best and holiest in the Universe. In that place of truth and openness they wished me well. They imagined and asked for a universe in which my surgeon was skilled, and in which I was protected from the problems associated with the procedure. Some of them are people greatly experienced and skilled in the ways of prayer; over years they have developed methods and reasoned out theories and perfected techniques of concentration. All this concentrated consciousness had an effect. Today I am well.

The results of the biopsy will arrive on Wednesday, and it is anybody's guess what it will reveal. At best it will prove to be a very inconveniently timed false alarm; at worst, a quite treatable cancer .There's no need to book the flowers and hearse just yet, but it has all brought me face to face with my own mortality. I am only on this planet for as long as I have need of this particular classroom, and who knows what the divine wisdom means my length of stay to be or what I am intended still to learn. What I do know, though, is that whatever the results, to be held lovingly by a community of people is empowering and enriching; it is a life giving and healing thing to pray and to be prayed for.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Aramoana and Dr. Phil

I woke very early today and before dawn drove out to Aramoana with my camera. Yeah, I know, what the world desperately needs right now is another photo of a sunrise...

...but really, I was just wanting to think on this first day of my sabbatical and to be present in the world and a camera is something that helps me do that.

Try as I might I couldn't think of any profound or holy thoughts even though the morning was a beautiful one. Instead I kept thinking about Dr. Phil. Catherine watches him sometimes and yesterday I wandered into the room when the mustachioed one was dispensing advice. A young girl had apparently developed a hopeless crush on some pop star or other. Her infatuation had taken over her life to the extent that there was room for nothing else and Dr Phil was pretty blunt with her.

"You're emotionally lazy" he told her. By being infatuated with her idol she had made for herself an attachment without any of the difficulties or hard work of a real relationship. She had found an easy and safe way to be emotionally alive, but of course although her manufactured feelings were real, the relationship was illusory and its sheer size took up all available space and left her no emotional or intellectual room to be getting on with what was really happening around her. Emotionally lazy. That's profound. And it's not far from what Emmanuel Levinas rattles on about.

In his early life Levinas was a student of Heidegger the great philosopher of Being. Heidegger was interested in what it meant to exist. He argued that it's a mistake to get too preoccupied with all the various things that exist - that is, with beings; he said that behind all these beings is something bigger and more profound, that is Being (note the capital) of which all beings are merely a manifestation.

Unfortunately Heidegger got a little too keen on Naziism for Levinas's liking and Levinas became critical of his old teacher. He thought Heidegger's philosophy was too coldly objective, too distanced from what it actually means to be human. So Levinas, drawing on his Jewish heritage, and his experience as a scholar of the Talmud, developed Heidegger's thought and arrived at a philosophy based on relationship. While we might treat the various things in the universe as objects and use them as we wish, we can't do that with people. In the presence of another person we have to recognise something that is completely Other - distinct from us and able, as we are, to manipulate the universe for its own ends. We relate to the Other, and in relating, discover who we ourselves are. In this way, it is relationship which makes us who we are, and relationship is difficult and problematic and never under our control. An adequate philosophy of Being, said Levinas must be ethical - that is, it must be all about how we act and treat the Other.

I don't know if Dr. Phil reads Levinas, but he is making a not unrelated point. I dimly grasp it. Today, and later,I will plough gamely through Levinas' books. They're the sort you read with a pencil in your hand because underlining bits and making notes is the only way to maintain concentration. It's a difficult relationship but a rewarding one, because it pulls me away from the fantasies my own emotional laziness has constructed and points me to the whole real, engaging world. God calls me out of fantasy and into painful and demanding engagement with the actual, real people who fill my life every day, every where.