from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

the map & not the territory

A death reinforces the fact that, whatever our beliefs, imaginings, hopes, fears, intuitions or psychic/transcendent experiences, we simply do not know what happens after death. We are brought face-to-face with our own unknowing, despite any spiritual practice we have followed for no matter how long. Or at least, I am.

TM and I disagree on this quite ferociously at times, but I'm with Karen Armstrong: questions are more useful, more valuable, than answers. The truth is, who can really know with any certainty about the nature of realms or planes of being beyond the purely material? Which of us has privileged access, a hotline, to the Absolute?

For many of us, there is, we think, a continuation of some sort – of the soul or even of the personality bundle, of essence – on more subtle planes of being. For some, we incarnate with the same group of people over and over, for the purposes of soul-growth. For others, materialists, nothing happens – everything is down to neural impulses, including 'God', and at death our atoms are simply dispersed.  

I'm with Jai Lakhani, who says: 'To imagine consciousness originates in the brain is like saying that electricity resides in the light switch.' In my view, everything is consciousness; and for sharpening my thinking on that, I have TM to thank.

There is some comfort, perhaps, whatever your belief, in the fact that in some way, as mere atoms or as less tangible essence, we are returned to All That Is; to the collective, in union. As I say in my header poem, we might dissolve but we can't ever disappear.

During the period of the recent gruelling hospital visits – the worst thing is seeing a loved one suffer and knowing you can do nothing about it – by way of light relief I was involved from time to time in an online conversation about the nature of spirituality with the head of a Buddhist order. (Light relief?? – Well, you should see me when I'm heavy! And I don't do 'retail therapy'.)

This came about because I was invited, by someone I respect, to 'like' the facebook page about the teacher's latest book. I also like and respect the teacher concerned.

But I found I couldn't in all wholeheartedness 'like' the page, as the book makes the case for Buddhism being a religion.

'Yes and...?' you might respond. Well, for me, having been very deeply influenced by Zen for 40 years now, one of the very things that Zen Buddhism emphasises in my view is a cutting-through the ideas, structures and belief-patterns that keep us trapped in delusions of ego, of 'self and other'. It's a path of psychospiritual awakening, rather than a set of tenets I have to espouse to 'be a believer'.

I have always seen Buddhism as, rather than a set of beliefs relating to some distant godhead, a way of liberation from the beliefs and opinions that hold us separate. To me, it doesn't require belief but living. The Buddha is said to have said (in effect) 'Don't take my word for it, try it out for yourself'. 

It's a path of life and thought that integrates spirit and matter, consciousness and form, and in my view (and I'm not alone) is a spirituality rather than a religion – as the latter comes with an organisation, normally hierarchical, and prescribed sets of beliefs and practices that are, in one way or another, supposedly 'God-given' (and this God is normally envisaged as a kind of a male, distant, rather stern father-figure, in my view an anthropomorphic projection). Practice usually revolves around this deity, who is somehow external to us and all living beings, whom one worships. (It was the phrase 'worshipping the Buddha' that got me going in the conversation I was having – this seemed to me so contrary to the Buddha's teachings.) These are some of the reasons I left the Catholic Church of my childhood. 

A spirituality, for me, is an awareness and acknowledgement that the material plane is probably a manifestation of greater more subtle forces, of collective realities which are likely to endure beyond the cycles of transience that we experience in the physical plane. A metaphysic, in other words. 

It's also a felt sense that we are all in this together, suspended in Indra's Net, the great 4-dimensional web of being: mouse, gnat, oak tree, amoeba, human. This is what Buddhism calls interdependent co-arising.

The trouble with organised religion, too (though I do understand the benefits of fellowship, community and a sense of belonging), is that it almost inevitably calcifies into 'us and them' – sectarianism, separatism, prejudice and intolerance. Look at all the religious wars – which end up being about one group being 'right' and another 'wrong', and translate into power and territory wars. What's more, some have it and some don't.

I do have a strong metaphysic; that is, I am fairly sure that there are subtle planes of being behind the material world, out of which the material world arises and into which it dissolves. I don't know this but it seems extraordinarily likely, and it's very clear to me that we live our lives within a great interconnected and interpenetrating web of being that can be sensed, intuited and experienced, if not proven to exist (though I'm interested in the new science's agreement with, basically, mystics' experience from forever, and an acceptance of the notion of an ecosystem is a good illustration of the principle). 

My own path is, loosely, a blend of nature-based spirituality, our indigenous British Mystery Tradition and native shamanic practices, mystical experience, poetry-as-soul-medium, psychotherapy and Buddhist methodology.

But what I noticed in our conversation, which was at times, let's say, 'firm', was our individual attachment to our own maps, beliefs and opinions. A belief is merely that; an opinion is merely our own; and both are ways in which the ego attempts to shore itself up. It's an emotional reaction to a 'territorial' threat, basically. 

As practitioners of the Middle Way, we were still not immune from that. These are attributes of the personality, not the soul, or essential nature, and perhaps what all spiritualities offer is a way to transcend the dictates of the 'small self'.

And to the extent that we all shore up our little egos, we're all focusing on the finger, not the moon; the map and not the territory. To really pay attention to the moon, to the territory, to Other, we need to come empty – to attempt to see reality as it is, or seems to be, not as we are. So easy to say. But that, too, is the heart of Buddhist practice. And it's of course a lifelong apprenticeship.

Meantime, I 'believe' there are many paths up the sacred mountain; many different maps. 

And having said that, in the spirit of Zen paradox, I'll stay with Antonio Machado's words: 'Pilgrim, there is no path / the path is made by walking.'


  1. A terrific post, Roselle. I do enjoy reading you, and found myself saying yes, yes and yes again to all your points. (I myself have also been strongly influenced by Zen, nature-based spirituality, pantheism, mysticism — I suppose that's evident from my blog and some of my more serious poems.) I'm reading Armstrong at the moment, and like that quote of hers you give. And Machado is wonderful, of course.

    The question, the problem of ego, is perpetually interesting. We all have egos — though some of us have more prominent egos than others — and we all catch ourselves shoring them up when threatened or insecure. But, if we are aware of what's going on, we find ourselves smiling, being super-conscious of the process, and feel an enormous surge of relief at being able to dissolve them a little! Having deep awareness of our knee-jerk human reactions/perceived frailties/petty vanities/deceptions/taught behaviours and all the rest gives us comfort, and provides insight into that 'interconnected and interpenetrating web of being' you describe.

    This is all fascinating, and I'd like to go into it further, but a comment box is probably not really the place.

    (Zen) Buddhism — despite all historical attempts to give it the accretions of organised religion (temples, rituals etc.) — is not a religion in its truest sense, as Alan Watts, David Brazier and many others would attest; indeed, it stands for the complete opposite of what most of us mean by religion. However, and this is true for all religions, ritual/prayer/formality/whatever can provide a 'way in' — as long as we do not mistake the means for the end, the medium for the message — the finger for the moon or the map for the territory, as you put it.

    Thanks for this fabulous and inspiring post.

  2. 'Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find anything that agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.'

    Siddhartha Gautama

    Now THIS is Buddhism — from the master!

  3. Robert, your opinion (even if we know they're fleeting!) means a lot to me, and your taking the trouble to engage, too. And I'm grateful for your own insights, and particularly for the Buddha's words that you post, since I couldn't lay my hands on them myself this morning.

    Deep thanks. And btw I'm going to msg you via fb.

  4. A very thoughtful and insightful post. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Thank you, Sophia. Glad you found it interesting.

  6. Many wonderful threads woven into this post. Much to contemplate. Thank you Roselle!

  7. David, I so appreciate knowing that you, from across the ocean, visit and engage with my blog posts, especially since we have some similar views. And I'm glad that you could pick your way through my at times rambling thought processes!


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