Regular Everything, by John Aske

How often, acting upon our need for comfort and security, do we sacrifice our freedom and happiness?

Stupa (chorten), 17th–18th century Tibet. © Metropolitan Museum of Art We all like things to be regular, and what’s wrong with that, you might reasonably ask? We all want stable conditions as well. We don’t want anything to change, either — we want it to stay the same — or more or less, always.

Having a regular job, regular meals and somewhere regular to sleep at night can only be good, better than sleeping in a ditch and being hungry all the time. The gravedigger at Drewsteignton preferred to sleep under a hedge, he told me, because a roof ‘made the place stuffy,’ but he was an unusual man. Continue reading “Regular Everything, by John Aske”

Purpose and the Search for Happiness, by John Aske

The parallels with the story of the young Prince Siddhartha 2500 years earlier are clear. As childhood with its certainties (if we are lucky) and its securities, moves into adolescence and then maturity, we are all confronted with the opportunity of opening up to the world (and ourselves) and exploring it, or turning away from it and trying to restore the gilded cage we once lived in…

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Doctor Johnson wrote a story about Rasselas, a prince of Abyssinia, who lived in a Happy Valley supplied with everything the heart could desire. But after a while, the pleasures and distractions that had pleased him at the beginning, began to feel hollow and unsatisfying, and he became more and more thoughtful, and spent more time by himself. He began to ask his friend, the poet Imlac who had travelled out into the wide world, what there was to be found there and how people lived, and what happiness they found.

Scene of Temptation from the Sutra of Cause and Effect (Kako genzai e-ingakyo), late 13th century Kamakura period, Japan. © Metropolitan Museum of ArtImlac answered the prince as well as he could, but it soon became clear that he would have to leave the Happy Valley and explore the possibilities of the world beyond for himself. But the emperor, the prince’s father, had locked the valley with an iron gate to prevent the prince and his brothers and sisters leaving.

The parallels with the story of the young Prince Siddhartha 2500 years earlier are clear. As childhood with its certainties (if we are lucky) and its securities, moves into adolescence and then maturity, we are all confronted with the opportunity of opening up to the world (and ourselves) and exploring it, or turning away from it and trying to restore the gilded cage we once lived in. Continue reading “Purpose and the Search for Happiness, by John Aske”

Being Alone, by John Aske

‘Other people may offer a solution to our problems, but it is usually a solution to their problems, to something a bit different, and if it helps us, it is usually by luck.’

Crowd at the Seashore, William James Glackens © Metropolitan Museum of ArtThere are huge pressures in modern society that make us feel that in many respects we can only be happy in a crowd — until our intuition tells us otherwise. A lot of modern activities, like discoing and clubbing, for example, simply remove the individual, together with all the problems that go with it, and that gives us the impression of freedom.

But even gaining the whole world can be a worthless bargain if it lacks the rich colours and flavours of our humanity. It simply doesn’t mean anything if we are cut off from the very things that make life real. Continue reading “Being Alone, by John Aske”

The Mind and its Weather, by John Aske

Previously I had lacked the self-awareness to see a passing mood as ‘internal’ without absorbing into it or being absorbed in it, and saw it, for example, as ‘being depressed’…

Sam, Zeal, Golden Buddha CentreWhen I first read about walking meditation years ago, I decided to try it out. The place I was staying in was with a large group of other people interested in Buddhism, and it had a large lawn — and sunshine.

I took off my shoes and walked slowly up and down as instructed. Lifting, swinging, placing, I told myself, then turning, turning, turning at the end of the strip, and lifting, swinging, placing again, noting when my mind went off on what I call ‘shopping trips’. Continue reading “The Mind and its Weather, by John Aske”

The Last Buddhas of Bamiyan, by John Aske

They settled at the crossroads of the ancient eastern world, and from there commanded the silk road between India, China, and the great entrepôt of Balkh, from which the caravans journeyed to Rome and the west…

Smaller Bamyan Buddha from base, Afghanistan 1977 Photo: Phecda109 wikipedia.orgTwo hours north of Ghazni, on the road to Kabul, in an arid place, a dusty track leads westward. If you follow it, you enter a half-forgotten kingdom, and a legendary highway that traversed the known world. Beyond this, hidden in the mountains, are green valleys and rivers bordered with willows and hayfields. Even before Ashoka began spreading his empire through the western passes and into Bactria and Ghandara, traders had moved eastward and westward with caravans of silk and other precious goods bound for Balkh and distant Rome.

But at the beginning of the first millennium of our era, a new power arose in Asia. Its people had been driven westward by the consolidation of the Han empire. They settled in what is now known as Afghanistan, ending the rule of the Graeco-Buddhist kingdoms that had ruled there since Alexander’s conquest of Asia three hundred years before. Their empire flourished for about three centuries before they were overtaken by the expansion of the Sassanian kingdom in Iran, but their continuing influence was immense, and spread far beyond their borders across the whole of Asia. This influence strongly shaped eastern culture as we know it, and most particularly the development of Buddhism. This empire—the Kushan—seems to have been of people of largely Iranian stock, whose language had distinct affinities with the ancient Celtic tongues. Continue reading “The Last Buddhas of Bamiyan, by John Aske”

Impermanence: The Butterfly on the Board, John Aske

Because life itself as it unfolds is unbound, and as the barriers to our understanding fall away, the simple uncompounded freedom that the Buddha taught becomes our life, and our happiness.

Wild hedgerowWhen I was a boy, I had a headmaster who took us on nature walks. He was an entomologist and introduced us to all the birds, insects and plants on our way, and encouraged us to collect specimens.

Every early summer we put butterfly boxes along the space above the sports room and fed the caterpillars carefully. Then came the chrysalis stage, and after much waiting, the imago. The butterfly opened its iridescent wings and fluttered. It was sheer magic.

Then the boys prepared their jars of chloroform, put the butterflies in them and drew out the dead insects, hopefully with wings spread. Then they pinned them onto a board with all the previous victims—all except for one witless boy who, when the butterflies emerged, simply let them out of the windows into the garden and watched them flutter away, pursued by running boys with butterfly nets.

To me, they were much more interesting fluttering about in the rose gardens than stuck dead on a pin. I vaguely understood even then that robbing them of life also robbed them of interest. Their little lives were short enough, and to be able to enjoy that somehow set me free as well. Continue reading “Impermanence: The Butterfly on the Board, John Aske”