Poetry Readings

In a memoir of saints, sages and swollen ankles Helen, a Buddhist walks from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela across the Catholic heartland of Spain. It’s a long way from the comfort of her home and a twenty five year relationship.

How will she survive for a month with just one change of clothes, a bar of soap and a toothbrush? Who will she meet? What will it be like to travel alone? Treading mountain paths and endless wheat stubbled fields, through vineyards and the cobbled streets of forgotten villages it’s a contemporary Canterbury Tales of sorts. Along the way Helen meets fellow pilgrims with their all too human quirks and Quixotic foibles as well as locals who ply travellers with offerings of house wine and the bounties of an autumn harvest.

A medieval road becomes the perfect antidote for an ever accelerating twenty-first century. In this slowed down world - what takes her a day to walk, a bus covers in twenty minutes - Helen’s inner pilgrimage unfolds. Amid the bustle of a city plaza and in the solitude of ancient forests there are moments of deep personal reflection. Despair transforms into gratitude and love finds a way in only when she lets go. The simplest truths she finds are often the most profound.

Maps and guidebooks, in the end, are superfluous. As she strides into the unknown, memories and miles intertwine spanning not just the country she walks but her Christian upbringing and later life as a Buddhist. Through recollections of early retreats and Burmese monasteries and encounters with the gilded Saints and Madonnas of Spanish cathedrals Helen contemplates the heart of two religions. She discovers two paths can lead to the same destination.

Excerpt from Chapter 5

Mermaid in a Viper's Nest

In full modern pilgrim regalia

I breathe in for a count of three steps and out for ten. At the end of each cycle all that is left is a primal urge to breathe in again. Maybe this long walk to the end of the earth will give me the courage and the time to peel away a few more layers, let my fears loose on the wind, tread away my doubting mind till not one doubt is left. Maybe a month of the rising sun warming my back, of breathing in the air of wheat fields and wild grasses, will give the raw places inside me the chance to surface for air.

A sea of horsetail, a herb for healthy hair and bones, clings to the banks of a ditch. Each bright green stalk, like a jointed needle, has a delicate spike for a flower. Two hundred million years ago it grew as a giant fern like tree. I bend down and brush my hand across their resilient stems. It’s a soft tickling sensation that belies their ancient use as a scouring pad. A bunch of dried leaves can polish metal clear as a mirror and as a final sanding leaves wood smooth as new skin. A little like meditation I think, polishing the mind clean. Seeing the moment afresh, as it is, without the barnacles of judgement.

Small cultivated fields of asparagus, Navarra’s ‘white gold’, appear either side of the path, their shoots peeking out from mounds of soil. Each day offers another feast of blackberries and grapes, of comfrey and apple mint. Little wings have sprouted on my feet. It is not that I have a destination to reach over six hundred kilometres away, it’s not even that I want to reach the next village. My sprint to the next rise is joy enough.

Excerpt from Chapter 8

Alice Through the Laundry

Well-trodden path leads to the ancient village of Ciraqui.

I unlatch the gate to a small garden of knee high zinnias and a green front door. “Por favor, iglesia?” I ask the lady who answers.

Momento,” she whistles through a gap in her front teeth and returns with a key. Smiling she takes me by the elbow and we walk back to the church.

Inside is a perfectly proportioned octagonal chapel and I am instantly drawn to the middle of the room. Reminiscent of Eunate, it is all the more enchanting because it is empty. Its frame of Islamic style arches and cupola have a symmetry that seem to defy the gravity of stone and were it not for the crucifix, austere and angular, hanging in the altar niche I could be standing in a mosque. Nowadays it is often only in the marriage of architecture that poignant reminders of true religious harmony are found. I imagine, in this unadorned space, a service where Christians and Muslims prostrate together each to their own God for this is how both religions prayed thousands of centuries ago in Byzantine Europe.

I look up to the dome, across to the unadorned arches and crucifix and down to the smooth stones under my feet. What mortar is strong enough to hold all these elements together? Could it be as simple as Mathew’s message, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or Shantideva’s words, “Give away yourself for others, holding others dear as now you do yourself.” I feel the nape of my neck lengthen as if pulled by a fine string to the dome’s centre. Thoughts arise and then burst like soap bubbles in this ingenious configuration of stone and space; science and spirit. Two chattering pilgrims enter and the spell is broken. The old lady returns to her table near the entrance with a fresh vase of flowers and taps her fingers on the donation tin. With a shaky hand she dates the Santo Sepulcro stamp in my passport and I drop three euros into her fountain.

Exceprt from Chapter 19


Tomas the Templar, preserving the traditions of knighthood

The precise moment between sleeping and waking escapes me. On insight meditation retreats by day six or seven life has slowed down to a snail’s pace. I can almost catch that elusive slip back into consciousness. Almost. The split second transition between a dream and awake is slippery as a fish. But through the day, as awareness fine tunes, the relationship between the intentions of the mind and the actions that follow begin to be more accurately witnessed - the way a fisherman knows, as he flicks his rod, the hook will land where the fish are biting. Nothing is exempt from this arc of mindfulness. It’s as if we walk, sit, see, hear, and eat with an internal microscope scanning out from our mind to our fingertips, our ears, nose, eyes and tongue. We begin to observe how relentless the bombardment of sensory information is and how the mind perpetually busies itself finding ways to relate. It is, at first, a disquieting realisation.

Eventually, even the microscope drops away. After a day fraught with knee pain and restlessness, I’d return to the hall for one last meditation before bed; slowly plump up my cushion, cross my legs and start over. Breathing in, noticing my abdomen rising, breathing out and noticing it fall. Breathing in, hearing the bell, noting ‘hearing’ then back to the ‘rising’ of my abdomen then breathing out and noting "falling." Cumulative hours of effort, of ease then frustration or boredom, sharp mind, dull and daydreaming mind – all are building blocks for what happens next.

I like to think of it as a rough idling motor car on an ice cold morning. Once you warm up the engine you pull out of the driveway. You travel through familiar and unfamiliar territory until eventually you come to a place where you can take your hand off the wheel, your foot off the accelerator. Momentum happens by itself. Effortless effort replaces effort. From this place of non-doing tathata arises. It’s another one of those Pali words difficult to translate. Things are as they are. A state of absolute presence or "suchness", a relationship with life as light as the weight of a dragonfly on a willow leaf and as encompassing as the sky.

Or think of the violent floundering of a drowning woman; if instead of struggling she lies on her back, opens her arms and breathes. She is held afloat by the very ocean that at first terrified her. Tenderness, too, is implicit in the experience of  tathata. Having never given birth I can only imagine how a mother touches the skin of her child for the first time. Like this.

In the seventeenth century a monk called Brother Lawrence was assigned his first job in a monastery as cook for a hundred mouths. After fifteen years he was moved to the office of sandal repairs. Despite a crippling war injury and chronic pain he found a way to go about his work, much like the mindfulness practice of vipassana. ‘Keeping my mind in His holy presence and recalling it as often as I found it wandered from Him. I made this my business every hour, every minute.’ In his letters, "The Practice of the Presence of God", he goes on to explain the outcome of such a life, one that in many ways parallels tathata. ‘In my affectionate regard for God I find myself often attached with greater sweetness and delight than that of an infant at the mother’s breast. If at any time, my thoughts wander from this state, from necessity or infirmity, I am presently recalled by inward emotions so charming and delicious that I cannot find words to describe them.’

Brother Lawrence speaks of the grace of God and the Buddha speaks of Dharmakaya, that omnipresent and boundless state of truth. Are these truths really so very different? Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Everyone who sins is a slave of sin. If you obey my teaching, you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." What are sins but actions propelled by the loop of desire and hatred. The Buddha’s antidote for this endless cycle of craving and aversion came in a teaching called the Four Noble Truths.

The bell is softly struck ending the hour; you slowly open your eyes to one candle flame in a room filled with the shapes of other meditators. You uncross your pins and needles legs and wait for feeling to return before bowing and standing up, not needing to mentally note each intention and movement because there is only sensation and presence. Outside is a galaxy of stars and you are not separate from them. Then you see the Southern Cross; the mind jumps in and labels it, "Southern Cross." The union of seer and seen is broken. So you return to noting. "Seeing ... thinking ...right foot ...  left", all the way back to your room. The noting continues - brushing teeth, toilet, climbing into bed, lying down until the final task of the day comes, watching through that internal microscope each sensation in the transition from waking to sleeping. Consciousness to unconsciousness.

I can only imagine what I dreamt last night. The wind howled and whistled under the eaves outside and the yard full of tents, straining at their ropes and pegs, billowed in and out like a collective blue lung. Half my mattress bobbed over the stairwell like a boat adrift in a black void and I remember nestling close to the wall for stability. Did I dream of sirens I wonder pulling me down to the ocean floor or a Templar knight throwing me an anchor?

Waking up this morning was not an easy transition. My awareness surfaced like a heavy weight well after my body. I did what I always do: dress, roll my sleeping bag into a tight ball and pack it away, splash my face with cold water, put on my boots, walk out to the road and turn west. It’s neither night nor day and an unforgiving concrete path runs parallel to a bitumen road, past a meat factory and through wasteland. On the horizon, where the sun should be, looms a nuclear station, its white funnel ominously shaped like a sandglass and flanked by chimney stacks spewing out jets of vapour. I yearn for the wilderness of yesterday.

Further along, in the small village of Campo I cup my hands and take a long drink from its ancient stone fountain. Cool water tasting of mineral. It’s as if I needed to drink from the earth in order to quench my separation from it and I’m comfortable again with the weight of my pack; happy to be walking with the dawn. The last lights of Ponferrada twinkle in the distance and I choose the longer route down a country lane.