The loss of which we are unaware

I recently watched footage of the killer Anders Breivik entering a room with the Press watching on, and my heart did a brief flip as I realised that the ‘applause’ I thought I was hearing, was the constant clicking of the photographers’ cameras. This man is responsible for the horrific Oslo bombing and subsequent shooting massacre of 69 youths who were the young political thinkers of their nation. These victims were the next generation’s decision makers, policy changers, revolutionaries, leaders.

While Breivik’s justice is coming one year on, this week – decades after the crimes – we are witnessing the trial of Ratko Mladic, the man who oversaw the slaughter and persecution of Muslims and Croats, from what he considered Serbian territory, including the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebenica in July 1995.

8,000 men and boys. 8,000 brains, bodies, loves, hates, hearts, dreams, hobbies, thoughts, memories, habits, sleeping patterns, skills… 8,000 lives that could have – would have – been something.

That’s this much potential the world never saw live and die naturally:

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These men did not have to die.

This year, we lost (yet another) teenager to bullying-induced suicide. A gorgeous young woman decided to end her life, after posting a sad, but beautifully made YouTube video, flipping through small placards of her message that explained her story, her hurt, and her abuse.

How does this happen? An obviously intelligent, talented young woman has taken herself out of this world. Her death will be greatly felt amongst her family and friends, as she has already imprinted her personality and style in her school and social groups.

[Action taken this week against workplace bullying (“Brodie’s Law”) is a welcome movement in the hope of stopping bullying and associated deaths in the workplace.]

In World War One, C.S.Lewis fought alongside J.R.R.Tolkien. What void would exist in the literary history – and present – of the world had these men perished alongside the many that did?

More importantly – what if the man, shelled on the front line, who was advancing next to the writer of the Lord of the Rings, had been a great composer, a great sportsmen, a wonderful father? That man has been taken from the world because of war. Because of hate, greed, intolerance or just plain stupidity. THESE are the losses that we cry for, when we cry over war.

At my uncle’s funeral, we heard eulogies from his family and his ex-wife, with whom he shares a son. She declared him as ‘the very best of men’. And that he was. He never wrote a book, or discovered something in the science realm, but he worked nights in the infectious diseases unit without telling her, to feed the family. He cared for all his family relentlessly, and gave money to charities when he had none for himself. His loss is a great loss to his loved ones, and his friends, and his community.

Every child that breathes in this world has potential. Whether they are wearing elite school blazers, or playing hacki sack alone in the Himalayas. When you look out over the 25 heads in a Primary School, or Secondary School classroom, each of those bodies is a brain and soul worthy of ‘having a go’ in this life.

In a country far away, or living next door to you, could be the next Tolkien, or the next Obama, or the next Fred Hollows, or the next Cathy Freeman.

About 40 children have died since you started reading this blog. They would have died due to poverty or disease that could have been stopped. They might have died in Syria, victims of cruel oppression and relentless violence, or they could have died in the most remote regions of Nepal, where access to toilets and clean water might have saved them.

That’s this many lives:

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…that could have changed the world – and what they could have done and who they could have been, we will never know.

PS. I am a Buddhist. I believe that we come and go into and out of this world, and even in a short visit, we can do great good and spread great love. But this horrible sadness we feel when we know it is just too soon – it is not right that we lose beautiful lives due to war, genocide or conditions that could be avoided. I guess this is the lesson we learn.

Why I’m (trying my best to be) a Buddhist

I sank down into the aeroplane seat and blew out, long and hard. Wow. I was moving on, leaving Nepal. And I was truly heartbroken to, although we were yet to leave the tarmac. I touched my beads around my neck almost unconsciously, but realised there was no need. I felt at ease. I felt so truly at peace, like I had for quite a few weeks now.

The plane was in the air and escaping the Kathmandu valley before I had even realised. I looked longingly out the window, and wondered whether I should have left at all, with so much love for this country’s people, culture and landscape.

I was exhausted. The man next to me smiled and leant back so I could watch dirty Kathmandu disappear as the jet slipped out through the gaps of the mountains, and left the smoggy, hidden city behind. We had flattened out before I realised that I had just had the most painless, stress-free aeroplane take off since I was a child. My youth and adult years have seen me a fretful flyer. Paranoid, frightened, and always gripping the sides of chair is the usual ‘me’ when it comes to taking off and landing.

I spent four weeks in a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Nepal, living with the nuns to whom I taught English, participating in prayer and festivals. At the Losar New Year festival I had a private meeting with the nunnery’s Rinpoche (a holy man a step down from my sect’s equivalent of the Delai Lama) and he gave me a Tibetan name, and cut a piece of my hair, and basically, made me a Buddhist.

I was raised a Catholic, and am grateful for that. But I was always a cynical little Catholic girl. I absorbed the wonderful, loving elements of the religion, but questioned everything I didn’t understand or agree with. Intense reading of non-fictional books on religions of the world and the supernatural meant that even as a youngster, I believed in reincarnation, and other things that didn’t fit into the Catholic doctrine, and found myself observing the congregation, thoughtlessly reciting prayers and creeds, wondering whether they were actually believing everything they were saying.

After high-school I went with a new friend to watch his worship band at the local Baptist church, and then entered into an intensely religious year or two of my life. God was important to me, I had so much faith, and I listened to Christian rock. This was a wonderful time of my life, but at the same time, brought much pain and conflict to my soul – issues like sex before marriage, having gay friends who I loved and respected, the interpretation of the bible were a source of much inner debate and confusion. I slipped back into what I would only say was non-practising Catholicism, a faith always lit largely due to my amazing love for religious history, and interest in the unexplained, such as the many appearances of the Virgin Mary throughout history.

My first night in Nepal I went to dinner with another volunteer and he asked me the question – “Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?” I realised that no matter how I tried to say that I did, no, I didn’t. I believe that he existed, and he was a wonderful, spiritual healer, and he was one of the many prophets to come to the world with a message of love and compassion, but when it came to the Holy Trinity, I wasn’t really there on all three sides.

Perhaps I was always destined to call myself a Buddhist. When I was younger I used to threaten my poor mother that I would run away, to Tibet, to become a Buddhist nun. And at the age of 26, I did this, and unexpectedly found Buddhism to offer me a faith and lifestyle that I loved and respected. (Travelling after my time in Nepal with my non-religious boyfriend, also changed my opinions on so many aspects of Christian history – where I used to see amazing monuments as great symbols of faith, I have come to see them as symbols of greed and hardship – the church denying the people their livelihoods to build these massive structures.)

This is not meant to be a Christianity bashing. I have a god-son, who I will enjoy teaching about Jesus’ message, and always be there though his religious life, and support him in whatever his spiritual journey might entail. I was a Catholic when I undertook this role, and will not dodge my responsibilities.

Buddhism is faith in people, and the world. It is about compassion and love, and about Karma. You get what you give, you pay it forward, and all you need is love. I have always believed that we are all part of the greater living entity of the world, and we are affected by the good and bad that flows in and around us. It is also about impermanence – everything is coming and going – from people to possessions, to pain and happiness. Nothing will remain for ever. This is an amazingly freeing concept once you begin to feel it.

Meeting up with my boyfriend in Thailand after flying in from Nepal, he watched as I opened my backpack to find that a sunscreen explosion had occurred in my bag. There was sunscreen over at least half my things. “Oh! Sunscreen has exploded in my bag!” I said, and proceeded to calmly extract, and wash my things. Troy watched me do this with amazement, expecting at any moment that I would cry, scream, swear or break down. Later he said that he thought I was having a mental breakdown. He also watched as I calmly allowed people push in front of us in the passport queues, something I never would have let go without a narky word or my blood boiling, or at least obscenities under my breath. “It’s okay, love. One day someone’ll push in front of them, and they’ll know how we feel now.”

Cliched and preachy, I know, but true. I was Zen. To my boyfriend, I was a new person. His stress-head, tension headache suffering, depression prone girlfriend had been replaced by a cool, calm and Karma-ed up person with no fear, no regrets, and no worries.

Sadly though, I have lost this Zen-ness since leaving Nepal, and leaving the nunnery. Life here can be stressful. It is also full of ‘things’. My life in Nepal was very simple. There was only food, love, fun and prayer or meditation. But I’m sure I can find this Zen-ness again, even in a busy, working, materialistic life.

So this year, I will try to regain that unbelievable feeling of freedom, love, calm and fearlessness that made be a better, more pain-free, and happier person last year.

A great book exists – “What makes you not a Buddhist” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.

Kindness of Strangers #2 – Nepal

I shouldn’t be out walking so late by myself, and the sun seems to be getting low – not too low – but I know how quickly it will disappear behind the mountains. Tom and I have left it too late to return to our monasteries. We got a taxi together from Thamel, the main tourist district in Kathmandu, where we had been having an afternoon drink with some other VIN volunteers. We had been out the night before, and this time, have put off returning to our reclusive homes for just a few hours too many.

Saving money is a priority, so the taxi together towards Tom’s monastery seemed a great idea at the time, where we would continue on foot – Tom up the hill, and me having to traverse the mountain in between our two monasteries. Tom had reassured me as we parted, “It’s just a short walk, and you’ll be able to see your nunnery”, but now I find myself walking briskly along the road, alone and concerned.

I turn off from the village, passing a group of youngsters. “Namaste!” I say, to the boys, and smiling towards the adults who are watching them play. The adults stare, and the boys pretend to chase me as I hurry on off the main road.

“Night time, dangerous! Silly girl!” One of the boys screams at my back.

“Yeah, yeah I know, I know,” I mutter as I quicken my step even more.

I walk for some time and hear footsteps behind me. I turn to see a man appear from around the corner of the road. He looks dodgy. I slow down to allow him to pass. “Namaste.” He nods.

He turns off on a different route, so I speed up again, always looking behind me. A lone cow approaches me. It looks menacing. I slow down. “Now you stay over there, and I’ll stay over here,” I tell it nicely. The cow stops to munch on some grass.

I have only walked this way once. I’m confused. It’s darker now, as I skirt around the building I remember as a landmark, and reach the stupa from where I can now see my nunnery. That leaves the ‘jungle’ in between. The nuns told me not to walk after dark. It’s like a jungle, they said. I had laughed, thinking the not-so-dense bushy area was nothing like a jungle. But now the path is disappearing from sight.

I ring my friend James.

“You’re not home yet?!”

The battery light flashes red on my mobile. Dammit! I talk to him whilst nearly sliding down some muddy parts of the path, using my other hand as an emergency tree gripper.

“Can you see the main road? Just get off that path and onto the main road where there are people and some more light.”

I hang up with the promise to message when I am safe, and find the path onto the main, winding road that ends at my nunnery’s gates. There are a few people around, and I am very happy when I reach the colourful entrance. It’s nearly 7pm, but I know that once the sun goes down the gates are locked, and the nuns essentially are locked within the nunnery walls.

I try the gates. Locked. I try the door to the side of the gates. Locked. I try my friend Yeshi on her mobile. It’s right on dinnertime, she doesn’t answer. I send her a message.

[Yeshi, I am locked outside the gates. Can you let me in?]

I contemplate climbing the walls. There’s crazy barbed spiky things along the tops of all the walls around the nunnery. I could get hurt. That would be stupidly embarrassing. Then I remember the back entrance that cuts through near the cook’s house, at the base of the nunnery, down the hill. I walk through a small field to where I think the house is. I really cannot see, and am using my dying phone as a pathetic torch. I reach a house, tripping over near their door. There is a man and a mother and baby sitting near a fire. (There is no electricity in Kathmandu for up to 16 hours a day.)

I say hello, and ask, in terrible Nepali, “The nunnery, is it here?” pointing behind their house.

The old man looks disgusted at me, and waves me away. “No, no.”

I apologize, and walk away. Within a few seconds of me looking lost and possibly near tears, a woman comes through the dark and takes my hand. I have seen her around the nunnery, collecting water and working. She smiles at me, and begins to lead me, along the path, past the cook’s house, and I finally recognise where I am. She trips over things, and I try to tell her to go back. I’m fine. She grips my hand tighter and continues to lead me. Past the scary goats, and to the steep stairs, to the gate that, thank the Lord Buddha, is open.

I can’t thank her enough, and in a country where the people rarely say the word thank you, I say it many, many times.

“Dhanyabaht, dhanyabaht!”

I visit Yeshi in her room to tell her I am fine, but conscious that I smell of smoky pubs and beer, head to my room.

The Monastic Time of Your Life

The nuns told me, through Bhupendra, that breakfast will be at 6:30, after the morning prayers, but somehow I don’t think life here actually runs on time. It runs on the activities that fill the time. They don’t stop chanting at 6:30, they just stop when they stop. Likewise, dinner on my first night was some 40 minutes after the designated ‘time’, so I stood around awkwardly not knowing what to do or where to be, before someone pointed at a table in a separate room from the nuns and in the end, I was served first.

As I waited, some of the friendlier women brought me tea (Tibetan Tea – butter, milk and sugar), although I had declined, and I watched apprehensively as they filled an un-dried cup after roughly washing it in tap water – a drop of which might make me extremely sick. I wiped the drips of water from its edge and sipped the tea whilst mentally chastising myself to remember my safe, dry up next time.

Looking out over the Kathmandu valley, it is a sea of cloud, but the men’s monastery, apparently a favourite of the Dalai Lama, clearly rises above the white, an imposing and beautiful structure, with peaks of the Himalaya, in the distance behind. I wished I had been placed at that monastery, but VIN are hesitant to place a woman volunteer there after the last one “stole one of the monks”.

I hear the last drone of chanting and the last bars of drumming ring out through the monastery, and after some time see the nuns outside their rooms, brushing their teeth and washing their faces, and eventually (about 7:15) taking their bowls down to the kitchen. I join them, and am given Tibetan Porridge, a sticky stuff made from some sugar, milk, and a type of flour. “Mix, mix!” the nuns say, laughing at my complete un-coordination, as well as my plastic cutlery and crockery. I eat in my room, whilst chatting to the resident spiders who insist on dive bombing onto my bed, and traipsing through my clothes (I guess they were here first). The porridge is filling, but tasty, and the tea is just too sweet for the morning, and ends up down the sink.

So now, it is 8am, and I wonder what to do with my days of monastic life – as I will teach a group of nuns every day at 5:30, and really, Buddha only knows what time that will be.