Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Life as Pilgrimage - 1

Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? Not the organised trip to the Holy Land or the annual trek to Walsingham in the company of fellow-pilgrims. I mean the sort that takes you into the unknown. Your destination may seem clear but the way there is across seas and plains in those areas of the map marked "Here be dragons". Perhaps you are the sort of person who has done all the research and sets out, all preparations made, with confidence, light-hearted. Or perhaps, like me, your mind has been so dazzled by the goal that the way there has rather slipped your notice. And coming to the days before departure, we desperately try to foresee all the eventualities of such an undertaking.

This was how it was in the closing days of March 2001. It could so easily have been a well-planned expedition. There had been quite enough time. Particularly when it is realised how many years had led me to the moment when we were sitting in the Kuwait Air 'plane, waiting to take off for Kuwait City and New Delhi at the start of our pilgrimage to meet the Dalai Lama.

All the threads of life appear to weave together as I look through my memories to try and find the first moment that I became aware of the Dalai Lama. It must have been during the 1950s. Probably the first time that I came across any mention of Tibet was in Hergé's Tintin Au Tibet. The occasion of our decision to go to India was a film, Kundun, half a century later and one of the first questions that I asked Dorje, our guide in Dharamshala, was whether it was true that Tibetans stuck out their tongues in greeting: it was almost all that I remembered from Tintin. And, of course, there was Sam Jaffe in Lost Horizon and the lama in Kim.

Another memory is of the cover of another book, Lobsang Rampa's The Third Eye.

I have learned not to mention this book in the company of serious-minded people, particularly Buddhists. To most people, "Lobsang Rampa" was no more than a fraud and perhaps he was. But, to me, at about 14, even with my growing scepticism, I was entranced and not a little horrified. Some years later a girlfriend's father who was a Zen Jew gave me a more measured picture.

It wasn't until the late '70s and early '80s that I began to take meditation seriously. I can clearly remember the first time I experienced 'non-experience', the silence the other side of the inner (and outer) chatter, although I cannot be sure of the year, around 1978, I think. It was as if all the previous experiences of retreats and, particularly the Ignatian 30 days a decade earlier, had burst into blossom.

After that and especially during the times I was working with CF and people with AIDS, I became increasingly aware of both the power and the limitations of a meditation practice.

Buddhism came back into my life from counselling clients. One in particular was a Zen practitioner. It was my habit to discover as much as I could about clients' 'context': their reading, beliefs, musical preferences and so on. I would get them to tell me about them, particularly if they were unknown to me. I would read up and listen in so that I learned their language. As a result, I began to look at Buddhist texts and anything else I could lay my hands on. I was hooked.

During my training as a Spiritual Director, we were invited to find an image for our spiritual journey. My own was a sort of Monopoly board where the squares were people who have influenced or marked me. The dice take me in an apparently random order, from person to person, each with a gift - some good, some less good. In the past 20 years the number of 'random', 'coincidental' encounters with Buddhism and Buddhists has increased. They have reshaped my pilgrim's journey and have been a source of great comfort and challenge.

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