Laying Waste Our Powers

I always thought the first poem I ever learned was by William Wordsworth, but it turns out it was by Kenneth Grahame (who wrote The Wind in the Willows). I’ve often stumbled as I’ve tried to recall it because my seven-year old self learned “Through the rushes green” instead of “Through the rushes tall.” Easy mistake to make, no? But it buggers up the rhyme completely.

Anyway, it’s the season during which many people suspend their disbelief and submit to the celebration of conspicuous consumption and the elevation os ‘family’ to a kind of hyperbolic spiritual absolute. Both make me feel a little sick. So, my antidote is something as unlikely to generate material gain as it is for most families to sit together and discuss the nature of ultimate reality rather than watch the Dr. Who Christmas Special: read a poem or two.

First the Kenneth Grahame, then one of Wordsworth’s most famous sonnets.

All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!

Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Christmas Organ Concert

The best bit of the concert we went to yesterday was that it took place in the beautiful Konzerthaus in Berlin (see photo). Not the greatest concert ever, I’m afraid. As we talked over the experience on our way to supper with friends, we came to the conclusion that the organist was at least half-cut and probably sight-reading.

Dinner was fun, but brought home to me just how middle-aged I really am. Although I was violently left-wing in my youth, even volunteering at CND for a while (in the parliamentary department where I learned all about lobbying—or should I say the ‘information-for-sex’ trade), as we ate I expressed affection for Prince Philip and Enoch Powell.  It was immediately pointed out to me (very sweetly) that both of them are considered to be rabid ‘racists’ these days (by the press, at least). And it occurred to me that if I were true to left-wing politics, their names should probably never have even passed my lips. So another self-affixed label has now hit the dust!

The truth is that I have a tremendous fondness for all individuals who refuse to toe the line, party-political, spiritual, or whatever. And neither the Prince nor the great parliamentarian (who was also an accomplished classicist) ever do, or did.

Sadly I’m too lazy to write about it properly today. But Enoch Powell also wrote poetry, once saying that when a poem came to him he had no choice but to write it down, however inconvenient the inspiration proved to be. So as a way of celebrating his sense of personal honour, regardless of the consequences, I have typed in one of his pieces for you to read. He may not have been a great poet, or even a good one, but I love the fact that he couldn’t resist the urge to paint a picture of his inner world in words.

(I should add that even in my dotage, I perceive not one redeeming feature in Margaret Thatcher, who was nothing more than a rapacious bully and devoid of any human feeling, let alone poetry. It was her pogrom of deregulation that laid the foundations of today’s financial crisis, so please don’t be taken in by the glamor Meryl Streep currently lends her.)

Strange, that neither wound nor sight
Nor least perception of our plight
Passes to the world without,
Though earth and we are whirled about
Into darkness crashing down,
Unrescuable there to drown.
All the air between is crying
And the walls vibrate with sighing
And our cheeks are drenched in tears –
But no one sees and no one hears. 

Senge Dzong (4)

The last photos of the pilgrims on their way back to Paro. The injis (six of them) shared the floor of a cupboard to sleep in on this occasion. Quite luxurious in comparison to some of their bedrooms, I gather. Thanks again to Emilie and Philip for these great photos.

Senge Dzong (2)

Here are a few pictures taken after Chokling Rinpoche and OT Rinpoche’s party arrived at Senge Dzong. All these images were snapped on the same day. And I’ve chosen pictures of the Rinpoches because there’s really nothing at Senge Dzong except a valley. Don’t panic, though, there will be a couple of photos of the landscape in the next post, so you’ll be able to see for yourself.

Senge Dzong (1): The Voyage Out

After the Chigme Phakmé Nyingtik drupchen in Bir last September, Chökling Rinpoche and his wife, OT Rinpoche and his wife, their kids (I think all of them), his brother Khyentse Yeshe, plus an assortment of monks and six westerners all set out for Bhutan. The westerners included Philip and Emilie H, and Emilie has very generously allowed me to post a few of her photos for your delight and delectation (thank you once again, dear Emilie).

I think I should point out immediately that this wasn’t an ordinary trek. It certain wasn’t an easy one. Senge Dzong is extremely remote and even the Bhutanese take three days to walk there up a narrow, treacherous path. And for Injis, altitude sickness is a constant companion. But no deterrent for hard-line Guru Rinpoche fans (like OT Rinpoche), for whom it’s a ‘must see’ pilgrimage spot, and particularly special for devotees of Yeshe Tsogyal who did all kinds of mind-boggling things there.

This particular trek wasn’t made any easier by the earthquake that struck Sikkim in the middle of September. Many of the roads and tracks in Bhutan were blocked and as the weather had been particularly wet, there was a great deal of mud to wade through. It ended up taking Chokling Rinpoche, OT Rinpoche and their party five days to get there, with no hotels or guest houses or even tea shops on the way. Everyone slept in tents and all the food for the journey (plus all the drupchen substances) had to be carried by the monks and cooked en route.

Once they arrived at Senge Dzong there was basically nothing there except a shrine room and a couple of outhouses. The drupchen etc. took ten or twelve days, and then they had another five-day trek back to civilization. Well, civilization of a sort…

I confess, I can’t imagine taking on such a challenge, but our intrepid friends tell me it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

With luck Emilie will post some comments once this piece and its sisters are online, and maybe Philip will too… let’s see.

Paro, on the voyage out to Senge Dzong

Eric and Ernie

Gott im Himmel, poxy Christmas. I can do without all the glitter and rich puddings these days, but the one thing I really miss about the Christmases I was brought up on is the Eric and Ernie Christmas Show and their silly, light-hearted humour.


A few months ago I took a three part bbc series with me to India to watch. It is called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ and is fascinating. The filmmaker’s thesis is that a number of popular theories currently underpinning so much of our lives are based on an entirely false premise. Our sick financial system is examined in episode 1, and features mad Russian philosopher Ayn Rand and her acolyte Alan Greenspan, and suggests that American policy was shaped by Greenspan’s obsession with Ayn and her ideas; and the theory of ecosystems, which I was brought up to believe are self-correcting and will maintain a perfect balance if left alone, is blasted to smithereens in episode 2; and the selfish gene is exposed as a fallacy in episode 3 (poxy Richard Dawkins is now ringleader of this particular bandwagon), and human beings are not, in fact, little more than programmable machines dominated by selfishness.

Basically, the rule of law in the universe is chaos (according to the film maker) and however much scientists may long to impose or uncover some kind of underlying system or balance, it just isn’t there. Just because a machine can be programmed, it doesn’t mean human beings can. If you haven’t seen these programmes, you are in for a treat. (Thanks to Phil for giving them to us.)

Anyway, I thought about this series today after I came across a list of one-liners about various philosophers I downloaded from the In Our Time site at the BBC (I’m a big fan). It started me thinking about how we love to come up with potted histories and simple descriptions of things (the ‘profound’ as opposed to the ‘vast’). Even Khyentse Rinpoche used to say that if you were asked at a dinner party what Buddhists believed, the short answer would be that where there are a certain set of causes and conditions, if there is no obstacle, there will be a result. Which I repeated ad infinitum because I am a sucker for pithy one liners. Here are a few which may be useful if you get stuck on a table of philosophers over Christmas, but lack the requisite quantity of mind-numbing substances to get through without uttering a word.

Thales (c.585 BC) – Everything is made of water
Pythagoras (c.570-495 BC) – The universe is underpinned by mathematics
Heraclitus (c.535-475 BC) – Everything changes, fire is the basic matter of the universe
Parmenides (c.510-450 BC) – Nothing changes, change and motion are illusions of the senses
Confucius (6th/5th century BC) – Founder of Confucianism; the highest moral ideal is jen (humanity or goodness) which is achievable by all; the rites and traditions of society are to be followed but not without question.
Gorgias (c.485-380 BC) – founding Sophist; believed there is no truth, only argument; mastered the art of rhetoric
Socrates. Socrates (469-399 BC) Said “All I know is that I know nothing” and yet was prepared to die for his beliefs. Saw philosophy as the pursuit of moral good.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) – The first scientist; emphasised direct observation of nature and believed that theory should follow fact. Hugely influential on Islam, Christianity and Judaism; also tutored Alexander the Great.
Epicurus (341-271 BC) – All sensations are true; pleasure is our natural goal.
Zeno of Citium (335-263 BC) – founder of stoicism; pointed out that humans have two ears and one mouth so should listen more than they speak.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) – Reconciled faith and reason for the Christian church.
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) – Political philosopher and father of Realpolitik; believed morality is subordinate to power. Set down his ideas in The Prince.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – people are inherently selfish and need strong governance, otherwise anarchy will reign and life become “nasty brutish and short”. Such social contract thinking influenced Rousseau, Spinoza and Locke.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) – Declared Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) as the only proposition not open to doubt. A dualist, he separated mind and matter as incompatible substances.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) – Pantheist; believed the universe to be a single substance with infinite attributes; God and nature are therefore the same thing. Influenced German idealism, especially Goethe
John Locke (1632-1704) Founder of British Empiricism; the mind is a tabula rasa (a blank canvas) in which knowledge arises from sensation and is perfected by reflection. Science is possible because the senses faithfully represent reality.
Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) – Claimed we live in the best of all possible worlds; believed the universe possessed a divinely established harmony and developed the calculus to unlock how it worked.
George Berkeley (1685-1753) – believed matter cannot exist independent of perception, thus reality only exists in the mind. However, God organises sensations to give the impression of a real world.
Voltaire (1694-1778) – Enlightenment rationalist; based religious tolerance on empirical scepticism – if we cannot know things ourselves, we cannot persecute those with whom we disagree.
David Hume (1711-76) Reason is subject to the emotions; knowledge cannot go beyond experience.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) “Man was born free but everywhere he is in chains”. Philosopher of the French Revolution.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) “Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law” (Kant’s Categorical Imperative or moral law).
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) – Founder of Utilitarianism; believed morality was a question of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) – Man is a slave to his will, pleasure is merely the absence of pain
Karl Marx (1818-83) – “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) – Suffering is necessary; the individual must stand alone against the crowd.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) – God is dead; man is governed by the ‘will to power’.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) – Analytic philosopher; argued philosophy should be conducted with the rigour of science; masterful logician.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – Analytic philosopher; philosophical problems are primarily confusions about language; language is a game without formal relationships to reality.
Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) – The mind belongs to the body and is not “a ghost in the machine”; philosophical problems are usually problems of language not logic.
A.J. Ayer (1910-89) – Meaningful statements must be empirically verifiable; otherwise they are simply expressions of like and dislike.
Karl Popper (1902-94) – philosopher of science; conceived the falsification principle – a claim must be capable of being proven false to be a proper scientific theory.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80) – Grand existentialist; “Man is condemned to be free”
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) – Meaning is internal to language; language must be deconstructed to reveal how its assumptions and ideologies masquerade as reality.

The Entabulator

I need help. Just now I was getting ready to brave IKEA on Christmas shopping Saturday but had to interrupt the process of getting into my underwear (I went to the loo just in my knickers—don’t try to visualize it, it was not a pretty sight). Within a very few mintes I returned to the bedroom to finished getting dressed and found myself putting another pair of knickers on over the ones I was already wearing. Sad, don’t you think?

Actually, I was thinking about the video I’ve posted below. Suyin sent it this morning (thankyou Suyin) and apparently it’s a kind of warm up for a serious information video for something highly technical. It was entirely unscripted and done for fun, which I think is pretty obvious when you watch it.

I showed it to Andreas first thing, even before he’d taken his first sip of tea (usually a dangerous time that I recommend you steer clear of if humanly possible) and it took him 30 seconds to crease up laughing.

Bird’s Nest Head

The lady round the corner just cut my hair. She’s slightly unbalanced and uncomfortably intense, but her great selling point is that she cuts without gabbing. I feel a bit sorry for her, actually, because her own hair is rather thin and fuzzy (looks like hormonal problem to me) and I think it bothers her. She’s always alone in her shop, and always scowling at herself in the mirrors. Never once in eleven years have I seen another hairdresser, or even an assistant, in her salon, even though it’s really quite large and has lots of sinks. I wonder, is she ‘difficult’? Even ‘temperamental’?

The repetitive cycle I appear to have submitted to over the years is that I get sick of split ends, go to her to get scalped, and then vow for the next 6 months to look for another hairdresser. Then, when I can no longer avoid seeing the bird’s nest on my head, I sigh deeply and surrender myself, cringing, into her power once more. Ach ja. I’m sure therapists have a revealing name for it.

Anyway, I’m sharing this drivel with you because today, even as she was hacking away at my grizzly locks, I had a feeling I’d seen the style she was busy recreating before somewhere. And sure enough, I’ve just found this photo that Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche took a couple of years ago at a temple in Kangra of one of the goddesses to whom the temple is dedicated (I think) and I must say, her ressemblance to me as I am today is really quite uncanny.

Berlin Shop Window

True, there’s a horrible reflection in the window, so this doesn’t rank among my most accomplished photos. What’s interesting here, though, is that the models in the Calvin Klein shop on Friedrichstrasse were breathing and really rather gorgeous. Bizarrely, they appeared to enjoy sitting in their undies (well Calvin Klein’s undies) on a Saturday afternoon, looking out at the rest of us battling through rain, freezing cold winds and an unaccountable quantity of poxy foreign tourists. Very graciously, they posed especially (I think they were supposed to be on a tea break). I wish I’d found a better angle, but I felt I had to take the snap quickly and buckled under the unlooked for pressure…

All Passion Spent

As most of you will already know, but I had forgotten, the line in Milton’s incomprehensible epic poem Samson… something or other, that ends “all passion spent” begins “Calm of mind”. Such calm still eludes me, but as yet not quite all passion has been spent, although the vein is open and the leak rapid.

The idea of passion, for so long dormant in this rusty mind, recently dragged itself from the corroding recesses of memory and limped around in conscious thought for a bit. I noticed it first when I reacquainted myself with Eric Clapton’s Layla, an album I wore smooth when I was 16. To my surprise, I find I have to really concentrate to listen to it now, I can’t just let it pour in. Why has listening become to difficult, I wondered? Why is it such an effort?

You won’t be surprised to hear that the root of the problem is that bloody awful, unturnoffable moment-by-moment audio commentary, now omnipresent in this idiot ‘mind’, ceaselessly obliterating this-moment-mind with a never-ending rattle of words. I feel like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. “Words! Words! Words” she sneers contemptuously as she describes the advent of the talkies, remember?

For example, at 16, I didn’t ever wonder who the other voice singing with Clapton belonged to. Or who played the other guitar(s). Or who wrote the songs. Or who the other members of Derek and the Dominos were. Or even if they made another album. None of these questions existed for me. I just gave myself up to the passionate responses the music inspired and to my longing for a relationship of such intensity that some kind of ‘art’ would be its product.

Yet, not having listened to the album for thirty-odd years (very odd some of them), a mere 30 seconds into the first track of side one (“I Looked Away”) and I was surfing the net to find out who wrote it and who Clapton was singing with. I went on to think about how different it is to listen to a playlist rather than a four sided double album at the same time as glancing through discographies, Clapton’s website, Bobby Whitlock’s website, Amazon’s website (to order Clapton and Pattie Boyd’s biographies—which I devoured, in spite their dreariness, his more than hers), and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum. Before I knew it, “Thorn Tree in the Garden” announced an hour and a quarter had passed and I’d barely listened to a note.

No wonder middle age zips past so quickly! That absurd, unstoppable roar of endless questions and commentaries drowns out all spontaneity and doodles over the pristine white page that distinguishes ‘youth’ from ‘maturity’. And all fed by the ease of the information highway. Goddamit!

One interesting distraction did come from all those mouse clicks: I discovered on youtube a ‘new’ song, or at least, one I hadn’t heard before, ‘Old Love’ and this performance of it. I’d edit out the latter half if it hadn’t been a youtube steal, but for 7 minutes or so it’s really not bad, for an old man.

Is it interesting to tell you that Mr Clapton is my 16-year old self’s ideal? I simply couldn’t resist men who were egocentric, desperately insecure, uncommunicative (except through their chosen art, usually music), chauvinistic (do you remember the term ‘male chauvinist pig?’), who had addictive personalities, were extraordinarily talented and harboured a death wish. Fortunately, I grew out of it after much bitter experience. In retrospect I realize I spent a massive chunk of my allotted passion on such creatures way before I hit 25. And only then discovered the vajrayana.

Bill Shankly

Phil reminded me yesterday of a great football quote that Rinpoche always laughs at when he hears it. It dropped from the lips of the great Bill Shankly (a Scot who managed Liverpool way back in the day) and, for a time, seemed to mirror Rinpoche’s own feelings about the beautiful game. For those of us who love football rather less than Rinpoche, his embrace of this particular ethos was a little worrying.

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Sadly for Rinpoche, these days watching football is a real luxury. He had to fight tooth and nail to move his centre of operations to Berlin for the last World Cup so he would be able to watch as many games as was humanly (well, in Rinpoche’s case super-humanly) possible. And, Rinpoche being Rinpoche, throughout the four weeks of intense football mania he plumbed the depths of its philosophy. How that translated into the manifestation displayed in this photo, though, is anyone’s guess.  

Tea and Shirts

Khyentse Rinpoche has always loved quirky humour. I wish now that I’d kept a record over the years of all the slogans I’ve seen on his many T-shirts. This one, from Paris 1998, isn’t a great example, I’m afraid. But who can forget “Buddhist Jihadist”. Naturally, I have forgotten the great football slogan he loved. Was it the one based on the Socratic saying, a life without football is not worth living? But T-shirts aside, I do remember him loving Philip’s declaration that watching the World Cup every four years was the only thing that made this human birth precious. And given the current state of the world, you can see his point.

For some reason (middle-aged nostalgia?) I’ve been reflecting on all the mistakes I’ve made over the years. Most are rather banal, and far too many for a list to be interesting. But there was one time in Paris that I often call to mind.

I think we’d been to the Picasso museum (Rinpoche couldn’t see the point of Picasso), and then Rinpoche wanted to visit a particular tea shop somewhere in the 6th. It was a very chic establishment with authentic Parisian prices. The waiters were uncharacteristically friendly and the cakes (which I could still eat back in those halcyon days) spectacular.

Anyway, when it was time to leave, I noticed Rinpoche, who is incredibly generous, getting ready to pay. It was particularly kind of him as we were quite a motley, unmoneyed crew—mostly Dharma bums who would never had considered spending any time in Paris under normal circumstances because it’s one of those places where money evaporates. Anyway, I’d kind of anticipated Rinpoche’s intention and caught the eye of a waiter who, being a French heterosexual, responded more quickly to me than to Rinpoche.

Once the bill was paid (was it a group effort? who knows who actually stumped up the cash…) I felt triumphant and very proud of myself. I was, I thought, beginning to get the hang of this game. And I’d done the ‘right thing.’ But my euphoria was short lived.

Rinpoche put his wallet away and seemed disappointed, even a little sad.
“I wanted to treat you,” he said, quietly. And my heart sank as I realized that on this occasion, seizing the bill had spoilt Rinpoche’s fun. So much for ‘getting the hang of things.’ It was a humbling experience, to say the least.