Saturday, July 21, 2007



It's quite common exercise in motivational and self development manuals, to imagine what people are going to say about you at your funeral, and then to write your own eulogy. The aim being to put you in contact with your core values, the things you hold to and most treasure, hoping these will be noted and found endearing by others too. It is actually an extremely effective process to go through on a personal level. Having now seen literally hundreds of funeral services and eulogies I have to admit that an edge of scepticism now circles around the whole purpose of eulogies.

The first things to say is that you are long gone so you wont hear it, at least not in this world. In a way a eulogy could be seen as the summary and conclusions that can be drawn from your life. It's like the final chapter in a novel that hopefully pulls all the strands together,what others understand of us and what it all meant to them, what our life story seemed to be about. Or it could be simply the fulfillment of a prophecy that was implied, in potential at least, by the moment of your birth. Though these are to an extent self-referential viewpoints, and as I've already stated you're no longer around to receive these accolades for a life well spent ( or mis-spent ). A eulogy is primarily out of our control, it will be given if we are lucky by a good friend or a perceptive relative. I have to say though. that in my experience eulogies will be given, nine times out of ten, by clergy/officiants who did not know you. They put it very nicely and tactfully say ' I never had the pleasure of meeting Jack myself, but I've had the good fortune to talk with Brenda and Charles last week, to hear and collect their memories and fond recollections' which is longhand for saying 'I never met the guy, but it seems he was OK' They will then read the eulogy from a prepared script, which sometimes has been composed by the family, but more often not. This will say where, when and to whom the deceased was born, where they were educated, what jobs they did, who they married, how many children, where they lived and where and how they died. The barest of bare bones of a lifetime. So if you are thinking you'll receive a fulsome rejoicing of your merits,be prepared, it may not happen.

Of course there are many reasons why this is what happens. The main reason is that your family and friends will be too distraught, still coming to terms with their loss, and will understandable feel unable to do it themselves. I have to say that the most moving eulogies I've heard, ones that have given me a sense of what has been lost to the world and brought a tear to my eye, are the ones given by family members and close friends. Brave and obviously emotionally hardy individuals, who manage to find the strength and courage to evoke a tangible sense of the qualities of the deceased. I have felt profoundly humbled and in awe at such moments. My heart has genuinely been captured and gone out to the family. This is particularly so when the deceased has died young, or their was immense suffering.

It is a bit of a cliche that we do not speak ill of the dead, and I feel the need to question that as an assertion. Mostly eulogies do focus on what a persons best qualities were, and that can be a rare and admirable thing indeed to do. These are generally universal in tone; appreciations of how loving the deceased was and how they were loved in return, their quirks and eccentricities of behaviour being fondly recounted. Any faults of character, if they are refereed to at all, are done so euphemistically or in a diplomatic and roundabout manner. Typically ' they knew their own mind and what they wanted, and couldn't be dissuaded otherwise' being short hand for they could be bloody minded and intransigent at times, or 'they knew when they were right, and had the strength of character and courage to say so,' meaning they were often infuriatingly pompous and an arrogant sod. I find it hard to think of anyone whose behaviour hasn't mildly irritated me on an occasion, some with greater frequency than others. So these references, however elliptical in tone, do give a fuller more rounded picture of our sense of that person. Vital tints of vivid, if not violent, colours to enliven the pastel palette of muted pleasantries. I think we must speak well of the dead, and by that I mean truthfully – a balanced review which with circumspect reflection should include some of the warts as well.

One officiant has said frequently, that they get very uneasy when all the information the family provides is praiseworthy and glisteningly pristine, yet they know there's a huge elephant under the carpet that no ones talking about – ie. Why or how the person died, such as a dissolute lifestyle, drug overdose, mental problems or suicide. These do need to be at least referred to in some way, or the eulogy will turn into a charade or travesty that is unbearable economical with the truth. Everyone who goes to a funeral will have known them to some degree, they know something of what they were really like. There is no point in anyone, least of all someone who didn't know them, trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Quite often a eulogy does comes across as a sanitised, and I have to say sentimentalised, version of the deceased's personality. Perhaps this is understandable, and all part of the process of coming to terms with what has been lost - to romanticise the person in our grief. Though I'd be surprised if being idolised was what any of us wanted when we wrote our imaginary eulogies.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


' "Tigger is all right, really,'' said Piglet lazily.
''Of course he is,'' said Christpher Robin.
'' Everybody is
,'' said Pooh.'


DIARY 38 - Spiral Scratch.

There is an early song by The Buzzcocks called.'Boredom'. Typical of late seventies punk, it speeds along at an insane pace through the maximum length punk tradition allowed - of well under three minutes. Poorly recorded drums and guitars crank, buzz and thrash angrily away, whilst the lead singer inflected the maximum amount of apathetic derision into the repeated words boredom, boredom, boredom. The view was that everything about contemporary Britain was geriatric and boring, with a very large capital B. Boredom became the existential pose for a whole generation of musically aware youth, including me. Punk, for a brief moment, before it became entirely a music industry product, tried to rescue a fist of self respect from out of the ailing flames of disaffected idealism. For Britain at the time ( Pre – Thatcher ) appeared to be near the point of dissolution, politically dilatory, terminally crippled by strikes, and there was a sense of traditional morals and social structures being rapidly dismantled. The latter, because of our increased wealth and the obsession with individual choice in our service based economy ( Post – Thatcher ) has continued regardless. The disaffected now look quite ordinary, these thugs have knives hidden inside their Calvin Klein underpants. Punk made teenage rebellion appear dangerous, at least for a few months. The New Romantics who followed on after, looked in the mirror once too often and became as self absorbed as fashion models. To flirt with anarchy was the indulgence of the affluent, however angry, apathetic or asexually anemic the pose. Real anarchism was far from being marketable. Rebels have now become rather predictable and boring, though perhaps that's just what you'd expect to hear from a jaded fifty year old.

So thirty years on from 1977, I'm working in a Crematorium, and all that seems a bit beside the point, and boredom is just the way life is sometimes. When I'm stood outside a chapel all day for twenty five minute intervals, whilst a service proceeds within, I get bored. When I'm inside the chapel overseeing the music, listening to a litany of Christian waffle, full of empty unsubstantiated promises from God about life, death and the possibility of heaven, I get bored. When I've cleaned every carpet, lectern, door, brass nob and catafalque for the umpteenth time this week, I get bored. One can even get bored with being around death all the time. It is, after all, not a place for lively engagement with cutting edge music, religious dialogue, political debate or the venting of existential vitriol.

My good friend Saddharaja asked me recently why I frequently felt the need, if not the urge, to design improvements or radically change things wherever I worked. What would happen if I didn't do that? What was it I was trying to avoid experiencing by this transforming activity? I could say boredom, but that would be far too easy a response. Boredom can itself be a type of evasion, the convenient arising of an alienated response to distract you from experiencing something which has much much deeper ramifications. Boredom can be a great disguise.

Stamping my presence on a situation or environment,brings me a transitory sense of being in control of meaning and purpose. This goes back to my late teens, around the time of Punk, when I was at Art College, where eventually, for a brief time once I left, I became a graphic designer. A designers whole raison d'etre is to promote the belief that a perfect well designed interior, furniture, clothes and even sanitaryware can radically transform your well being and life. I can sometimes experience the world humanity has built as an ugly travesty of nature,mostly sullied, soiled and polluted by our blind endeavour to achieve meaning through progress. I just wanted to change the way the world looked, make it clean, colourful and a bit more polished. Consequently, like a soul doctor, I only desire to bring beautiful things into it to heal the tawdry anima mundi.( world soul ) I've inherited.

Punk was essentially a movement born of nihilism, it hadn't a redemptive bone in its emaciated body. Whereas I'm quite the congenital perfectionist, I seem to want to perfect the world in general, and me specifically. This is the naïve mantle I've held crumpled to my heart for most of my adult life. The world should be perfect, a place of beauty, but it isn't. Life should be better organised, but it's a shambles most of the time. I should be perfectly happy, deeply content with all aspects of my life and experience, but I'm not. I should not be bored at work or by my life, but I often am. I appear to act as if I'm constantly having to make the best of a bad job, of the decidedly rum hand that reality has dealt me this time. As if reality has got it's own back on me for a past slight or infelicitous remark. When my pristine ideals plough straight into the shitheap of reality, I can descend into a depressed ennui for the loss of my beautiful utopia. In this I suspect, my actions are no different to those of the rest of humanity, who are likewise blind to what the purpose of it all is. So it is that we find ourselves all floundering together, creating a lot of insignificant angst and trivial froth in the process .

( See Quotation Marks No 13 )

Maybe life does have no meaning intrinsic to it whatsoever, which would quickly turn all my creative efforts into feeble attempts to paper over the widening cracks anyway. Perhaps this is what has really been driving my own pursuit of meaning, purpose and contentment all along– if life has no meaning then I must find it one - all this effort can't be allowed to go on for nothing, This is what brought me to become a Buddhist. Yet even the Buddhist- Path of Purification ,the practice of precepts , The Threefold Way etc,etc... can be easily misconstrued by me, or anyone else for that matter, as purely a path to personal perfection and self-development. In the end this path, if it's followed truly, must go beyond any sense of personal achievement, towards seeing realty and myself as they really are, however uncomfortable that may be. Whether reality or myself is perfect or imperfect would seem in the light of this, to be an irrelevant dichotomy - reality and myself might just turn out to be... boring. Transcendental Boredom!- you can see now why this idea hasn't caught on in a big way, but that paradoxically might mean that its true.

Whilst the transformation to the Enlightened state, the supreme insight into the meaninglessness and purposelessness of it all, still eludes me, I guess I'll keep finding myself devising these little stratagems and projects to engage with in it's absence - if I can't always be purposeful then at least I can be productive. Neither be a waste of space, nor lazy or indolent, but always keep busy - it's a bit of the Protestant work ethic lodged like shrapnel in my psyche, I was after all brought up a Methodist ( which is niether an excuse nor an apology, and certainly not a fatal condition). Ideally I'd find some form of contentment through activity I know to be meaningful. In the absence of that meaningful activity, I, like most people, have to make do with meaningless activity, or no activity at all. Though what happens as a result of too much meaningless activity is degenerative; it leads to mental disengagement, depressive mood fluctuations, disaffected behaviour and ultimately the caustic effects of resentful boredom.

At the moment I feel you can't really win until you're prepared to let go of winning.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


For a while now I've been considering what my main spiritual practices are as a Buddhist. Over recent years I've withdrawn from many of the institutions of the Buddhist movement I belong to, because I realised I was over dependant on them to direct my spiritual compass – if I was doing these 'dutifully done things' then my spiritual practice must assuredly be on track. Removing these props did dump responsibility firmly in my lap and a protracted crisis of spiritual self confidence ensued. This week, after quite some months, if not years, of cogitating and reflecting I've come up with six basic areas of practices that I'm confident I can and do appear willing to maintain. Half of them correspond to cultivating The Threefold Way - Sila( ethics ) Samadhi ( meditation ) & Prajna ( wisdom ) so I've not drifted far from the foundation teachings of the Buddhist tradition. Anyway they go in no particular order or hierarchy, as follows :-



Brought to all the following practices, but also more specifically to self – expression through my writing and painting.


I seem to want to maintain these regardless of whatever else is happening in my life. Friends are a vital component part of my spiritual barometer and support network.


Slips under the radar of being a conscious practice sometimes, so raising my awareness of my desire for ethical probity can only be good.


That is 'everyday' as in regular, but also 'everyday' as including the ordinary daily things which happen off the cushion, as well as what happens on it.


Primarily my own private study, but includes study I do with others. My writing on Dogen discourses cross over into this area, as that requires a lot of personal reflection.


Self explanatory I hope, but with the type of work I'm currently doing, keeping track on how I'm feeling and responding is a necessity.

DIARY 37 - Yes, yes, dear, dear, perhaps next year or maybe even never.

To begin on a bright note. The 50th Birthday celebrations continued on into this week. There weren't noisy street parties or loud ecstatic firework displays exploding across the Cambridge countryside. Just a rousing 50th Birthday Party at our flat with half a dozen of my friends coming round for a convivial buffet meal. David put in a lot of time and effort into planning the meal,and into making it happen, so a big thanks goes out to him. He made a delicious Carrot &Walnut Cake, and a Frittata and presented well a number of other nibbly delicacies we'd bought. I'd made a Potato Salad the night before and an unusual Super-food Salad on the day. It seemed to be appreciated by one and all. The whole evening was enjoyable and a lot of light-hearted fun. It was also a pleasure to entertain so many people in our flat, I feel so lucky to have such good and faithful friends.

After three or so years I'm finally going on retreat again at the end of July, and I'm really looking forward to it. I've been re-reading The Dhammapada in preparation, using two stylistically very different translations. The first is by Sangharkshita, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order I belong to. This 'Dhammapada – The way of truth' struck me as being some what remorseless in tone, as it drew out a clear, but hard line, and read as a little unsympathetic towards the plight of us ordinary conditioned mortals. The other was styled as a rendering - A Dhammapada for Contemplation - composed by Ajahn Munindo. The ' for contemplation' seems a curious appellation, as if other translations aren't, though I think he just meant it to be easily comprehensible. I found the content did indeed begin to colour and seep into my consciousness. Sangharkshita translation extensively uses phrases fixed ( in brackets ) which. I know as a style of translation, is meant to highlight interpretive or connecting insertions not found in the original, but I find it visually encumbered the flow of sentences, in the manner of a rather stubborn nitpicker constantly interjecting. Munindo, by comparison uses a very colourful flow of imaginative language, with a very urgent but contemporary feel. His approach to rendering allows much freer modes of expression and is consequently less stilted and literalistic. It remains approachable without softening the Buddha's uncompromising edge, which Sangharakshita ,I felt, rather heavy-handedly over emphasised.

Contemplating these at work proved beneficial, as I've been in the Cremation Room, burning dead people all week. I've now got my Intermediate Cremation Technicians Certificate sellotaped to the wall. So, strangely, I feel like I am a professional now, rather than a bumbling, anxious amateur. Qualifications aside, I still want to leave working for the Crematorium. I've even been considering a return to Windhorse, though with, at present, a contradictory mix of feelings. I'm really not sure whether that's a good idea or not. Yet, having some idea of where to move on too, a means of escape, seems important at the moment. Without it I sometimes feel imprisoned in a very dingy bardo ( an in-between state ) indeed.

The ramifications of last weeks acupuncture session role on, and continues to accentuate the sense of an inner 'divided self'. This week I've been feeling a wider mix of emotional responses, but increasingly I've been an uncharacteristically irritable, angry and resentful being. On Wednesday, the day after my Birthday Party, I recognised I actually felt quite morbidly depressed. This, as you can imagine was not helpful, particularly as it felt not to be in reaction to anything in particular. It appears to be darker aspects of my psyche arising from being contained in my back and emerging into consciousness with greater intensity. If this is what my back has been holding onto,its no wonder its been troublesome. The pain in my back has been noticeable easing since these mood shifts.

Now studying The Dhammapada is all very well, but by Friday I felt the urgent need to apply the Dharma more assiduously to my current situation. I began reflecting on my relationship with aversion and craving. I've been experiencing severe aversion to my work for a few months now. Considering what I'm doing I guess you could say that's understandable. But I've been aware its as much the result of my mental state and approach, and not solely the effects of this context. My craving is for a happier, more consistently pleasurable and content Vidyavajra, though a way of helping this arrive has not transpired as yet. This leaves me experiencing both aversion and craving endlessly in a sort of perpetual loop. Frustration, irritability, boredom, lack of engagement and depression follow in the wake of this self- enforced passivity. What I find I tend to do in such situations is apply more emotional leverage. I pile more pressure on myself in an attempt to shift the apparent stalemate. This makes things fraught, complex to resolve and emotionally over loaded, so I can often see no further than the imperative to make an immediate change. When nothing improves it gets very black in here I can tell you. I'm like one of those Arthurian knights who, not being able to remove Excalibur from being wedged in the stone, will return armed with a pneumatic drill, or if all else fails dynamite! When a door wont open you push harder don't you, or dismantle the door? So lets just say I think its all about me putting in more energy and effort. In reacting to perceived passiveness in relation to my own feelings and needs I go to the opposite extreme and becoming intolerantly aggressive towards them. I duff myself up good and proper, and then wonder why I've got depressed. Well, for the moment at least, I've decided to stop pushing. The immediate change has been to reduce tension and a freeing up of energy. For the time being at least I feel more relaxed about the present and the future. We'll see what follows from this change in tactics.