The moor wears her autumn colours; after a misty start, rust-reds, purples and chrome-yellows emerge. I'm travelling to my old favourite-nearest-moorland town, Chagford. Yesterday was the meeting of my regular poetry group here at home, a rich and much-anticipated monthly feast. Today I'm off to catch the tail-end of a retreat I attend, usually in its entirety: the Network of Engaged Buddhists' annual retreat and AGM.
Ken, 80 now, ex-Marxist, Zen teacher and political activist, has come down from his Welsh mountain to lead several days of questioning designed to dig deep into our ways of being. He greets me warmly; a little gaunter, still smiling, still playful, still meeting the world with all he is.
And here in this woodland garden: autumn breeze coming up stronger from the west, still a few swallows not quite gone south, Tibetan flags tattyrags in the swell, a waterlily on the point of bursting, rowan berries cusping. And there in the arbour the wooden Buddha, hand raised in blessing, decaying back to garden, like us all.
I have just missed one M, but hug four other Ms, two Js and a(n) H – all of us very different, all of us joined by our conviction that the best way to change the world is to change ourselves, and then get out there and do it. And there are some new faces, including some younger people people keen to get involved in the work we do as activists and spiritual practitioners.
So these old dharma friends with whom I sit in meditation year after year: here we are asking the difficult questions as usual, trying not to strive too hard to be certain that we have the 'correct' answers – just the ones that will enable us to live more mindfully, seeing every moment as a chance to wake up.
Just before we enter the morning groupwork, Ken gets up and disappears. He's gone for a while. When he comes back, he's smiling wryly. 'Queuing up outside an empty loo,' he says. 'That just about encapsulates the whole of the dharma.'
Later, I have some time out in fine moorland mizzle with the dog by the river. Between the pink exuberance of Himalayan balsam a dipper flashes briefly.
The river flows on, in continual conversation with itself.
My life is underpinned by a spiritual path which is my own personal combination of transpersonal psychology, Western Mystery School teachings (in the shape of nature-based bardic and druidic practice) and Buddhist, specifically Zen, thought and practice (following the 'dharma', 'the Way').
What these two paths have in common is an awareness of interconnectedness as being fundamental, an awareness that our thoughts, speech and actions have an effect on the world, and (Zen being rooted in Taoism as well as Indian Buddhism) a recognition of the importance of the natural world.
What neither path involves (and this is partly what appeals to me) is a belief in 'God', or adherence to a dogma.
For me, the focus is on inner work to support my outer practice – or inner practice to support my outer work. This way my life, hopefully, has congruence. The particular Buddhist path, or dharma, that I follow is that of 'engaged Buddhism': that is, we don't feel that we best serve the world only by focusing on our own growth (though we do that too), but also commit to non-violent action in support of confronting injustice, inequality, cruelty, harmful activities and oppression in all external spheres.
In our way of working, the changes start with oneself and are put into practice in challenging established external ways of being, in ourselves and in others, that cause harm (a central tenet of Buddhist teaching is exploring the ways in which we cause self or other to suffer).
Each of our members in the network is involved in some way with global change, whether by attending climate camps and demos, protesting at arms fairs, promoting causes for human or animal rights, doing hands-on work with poverty and starvation in Africa, or being involved in UN or various other bodies working to bring peace to situations such as the Middle East. Some people are Green Party councillors; some are involved in global Buddhist groups tackling social injustice. Others teach mindfulness and meditation, or give talks and lectures.
At the AGM we are discussing, as usual, the future of our forum, the Network of Engaged Buddhists, and exactly what we mean by that term, as it seems useful to continue to examine what we exist in order to do.
Our views on what the network is about, gathered through a few sentences that we pen privately and then share are, thankfully, all very similar. We still share the vision, which is, loosely, that the Network of Engaged Buddhists exists to promote information about and education in mindful action for radical socio-political change, and support those who wish to combine spiritual practice and inner work with activism in the fields of political, social and environmental change and sustainability.
AGMs can be stimulating, infuriating and occasionally challenging, and this is no less so in a Buddhist context. (But there is a also a lot of laughter.) Here we have heard some members of the current executive speaking of feeling worn out and stale, after in some cases 30 years of involvement with this forum. An hour later, though, we suddenly have some fresh blood on the committee and some exciting new ways forward. (There's a noticeable shift in the energy levels of the group, and I swear it's coming from the enthusiasm of the new members, not just the fact that it's nearly supper time!)
Ken, sitting in with his eyes closed and listening in his own inimitable dharmic way, suddenly lifts his head and grins. 'There was I fearing the old boat was holed below the waterline,' he says, 'but instead I find myself in a bloody great speedboat!'