Buddhism

Solitude

From the Blog of Sr Isabel Smyth – Interfaith Journeys

arrupe-at-prayer_origThis week I went to an online interfaith meeting on solitude, something that has been a reality for some people during the self- isolation of this coronavirus period.  For everyone it’s been a difficult time. For some it’s been the separation from friends and family that’s been hard while for others it’s the juggling of working from home with home schooling and entertaining children that’s been stressful and exhausting. For others it’s been keeping alive their businesses and organisations. That has been true of the interfaith world. There have been so many possibilities to join in interfaith dialogues, not just at home but all over the world.  Sometimes it has felt that there have been just too many invitations and I’ve resisted a lot of them because I’ve appreciated the space and time for solitude away from diaries and meetings. I’ve resisted filling up my time with too much busyness. Of course there have been zoom and skype contacts so that I’ve not been at all lonely.

Solitude has a place in the Christian tradition. The celibate life of nuns and priests is seen as a legitimate calling which frees a person from the responsibilities of family to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation as well as service to the community. Being without a lifelong partner means there is a certain solitude about religious life, an aloneness even when living in community though that doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. We have probably all experienced a feeling of loneliness in the middle of a crowd and a feeling of connectedness when alone by ourselves. But not all faiths value solitude.

Judaism is a religion that focuses very strongly on the family and community. Private, individual prayer is not as important as community prayer or living according to a tradition that re-members the past and reinforces membership of a people in a particular relationship with God. The text chosen for our recent scriptural reasoning event on solitude was the story from the book of Exodus of Moses spending 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai in conversation with God and in preparation for the gift of the Torah. The interpreter on the passage asked: was Moses truly alone if he were in the presence of God and since this time of solitude was a preparation for the giving of Torah then it was directed towards community which is at the heart of Judaism.

The Muslim presenter talked about three kinds of solitude in Islam which connects well with the Jewish view: preparatory solitude, whispering solitude and forbidden solitude. All the prophets including Mohammed, Moses, Jesus spent some time in solitude, in prayer and fasting, as a preparation for revelation. For Moses this revelation was the giving of the Torah, for Mohammed it was the revelation of the Qur’an and for Jesus it was the revelation of his mission to preach the presence of the Kingdom of God amongst us.  Prophets are spokespersons, mirrors that reflect the greatness of God. To be effective they need to be purified, emptied of self and totally open to God’s voice and for this, a time of intense prayer and solitude is necessary. Whispering solitude occurs at moments when we can withdraw and disconnect from all around us to enter into the inner silence of our hearts to pray, listen to God, to remember that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Forbidden solitude is the kind of solitude that leads us to withdraw totally from family, community or society responsibilities. It’s the kind of solitude that stops us engaging with the reality of the world around us, rather than preparing us to enter into it and serve it.

The Christian presenter was from the reformed tradition which, he pointed out, didn’t, until recently, value solitude in the way that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions did. The text he commented on was the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus’ time in the desert after his baptism in the River Jordan.  We are told in Mark that is was the Holy Spirit, the One who is said to have descended on Jesus at his baptism who drove him into the desert where he remained for 40 days and 40 nights without eating, living among the wild beasts and ministered to by angels. In the other gospels there is an account of how Jesus was tempted during that time as to his identity and mission. This side of solitude shows the reality of having to face ourselves, our fears, compromises, our masks, our desire for ease and approval. Solitude is not just about communing with God or discerning His will. It is also about facing the wild beasts within all of us – wild beasts that we happily ignore or suppress in the busyness of life. But wild beasts that we need to face and even befriend if we are to be free and loving human beings.

For people of faith solitude is important but it has to be understood correctly. We’re never alone because we are in the presence of God and interconnected to all of creation; it’s good for us to face up to and be honest with ourselves; it’s important that our solitude does not lead us to disregard the world in which we live but becomes a preparation for honest and loving service, even if that be mainly through prayer. It’s an opportunity to see things afresh. Coronavirus has offered us that opportunity. I hope we haven’t squandered it.

Lockdown on Holy Isle

A Guest Blog by Niamh Margaret Dillon. Niamh is a parishioner of St Augustine’s Church, Milton, and has spent lockdown on Holy Isle during her gap year. Niamh will soon go to study law at Edinburgh University.

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Volunteers on a pilgrimage to St Molaise’ cave in celebration of his feast day. Photo courtesy of Kevin Curtis. www.kevintjcurtis.com

The Holy Isle lies across from Arran, spanning only two miles in length but 1000 ft high, and is, at certain times of the year, almost totally obscured by the mist and rain typical to this climate. Unassuming as it may sound, the small island is home to something very big: a vibrant spiritual community, with a remarkably rich history that marks it as having long been a sacred space, and a place where people – irrespective of background or faith – gather together on retreat, or to work in service of the land.

When I first arrived here in early March, expecting to stay for just three weeks, talk of coronavirus was barely on the radar. My thoughts were more directed on how I was feeling to be embarking on this new and wholly unfamiliar adventure. Yet not for a moment did I expect to love and be moved by it quite so much in the way I have, nor to still be living here two months on.

Upon reflection, as someone who had only known city life till this point, it was a much bigger transition than I even realised at the time- but an apt and welcome one. The island is populated more by animals – goats, soay sheep, and Eriskay ponies – than by people and, during March, the winter retreat was ongoing; meaning, for the most part, the centre and its inhabitants were in silence. So stirring was trying to process a completely new perspective on living, it’s easy to miss how this environment gradually moulds you over just a short space of time.

There’s a concept in Buddhism of ‘voidness’- the closest English translation from the original Tibetan phrase- fully explained to me by 80-year-old Yeshe Sid, long-time resident, as well as my only fellow Glaswegian on the island.

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80-year-old Yeshe Sid, originally from Glasgow, in the mandala flower garden

The best mediation is awareness,” he says. “[The principle of] voidness is recognising the empty space that exists within everything. The space that fills us is the same as the space that is in nature.

This relates to why many choose to spend their time on Holy Isle in silence.

By choosing not to speak, you become more mindful of your words and what you’re filling the empty space with. By not putting energy into filling this space, you allow yourself to direct your energy to your mind.

It allows you to look within, and is rooted in mindfulness in all you do- reflecting on the question of ‘Is it meaningful?‘ It’s easy to practice this when in meditation or prayer, but exercising these principles in everyday life is the real task for all of us. I feel, without even being fully aware of this development as it was happening, I’ve gained more clarity; a heightened awareness of my own habits and thought processes.

That sense of meaningfulness is palpable in all aspects of life here. One realises the gravity of even the smallest tasks when rooted in the value of service, and carried out in honour of the island. It’s been a real lesson observing the mindfulness and heart that volunteers apply to duties such as preparing meals, cleaning, and harvesting – to name a few. It’s a special way of making everyone feel involved and part of the holistic body of the land, showing us how powerful what we do and say can be; an expression of working together towards similar, yet simple, outcomes.

I’ve delighted so much in learning from the wonderful residents of the island, exploring with them skills that are as fulfilling as they are practical, but that seem to be dying out in modern-day life. There’s something spiritually significant and rewarding about relearning trades that would have been commonplace for our ancestors. Being able to source a material back to its origins in the earth – a hat made from gathering wool the sheep begin to shed at this time of year, or planting something you know will eventually end up on your plate – is a gratifying, significant process. It is fruit of the hard work and devotion of the Holy Islanders, and now, an important aspect of living I had never before considered. Lockdown aside, so greatly was I revelling in exploring all these new practices, and in the joy of the company, I had already begun thinking about extending my stay.

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“May peace prevail on earth.”

The coronavirus has brought the world to a halt. It’s further exposed the fragilities and unsustainability of an already-ailing system, and brought into focus what we really value. In amongst the inevitable fear and confusion have arisen heartening stories that speak to the resilience of communities. There’s a special synchronicity apparent to me here – both on Holy Isle and ‘the outside world’, communities were the thing that came to the forefront. Whilst it seemed like everything else our society knows was crumbling, community was the thing that demonstrated both effectiveness in dealing with an unprecedented challenge, and the staying power to match. It’s been uplifting hearing stories from my own area of Glasgow, about the generosity among neighbours, and to see the endless dedication of our local food initiative and similar projects in ensuring no one falls through the cracks during lockdown.

Many people have commented how glad I must be I didn’t opt to spend my gap year in Thailand, or some similar quintessential destination, and they’re right. However, this isn’t just because of the uncanny timing in relation to the pandemic. How fortunate we on Holy Isle are to be some of the only people in Europe who can be close to one another, share meals together, and be in nature as we please is not lost on me for a moment. But, moreover, because connecting with the communities and cultures on my doorstep, in my own country, has been infinitely more fulfilling and fruitful than travelling to a far-flung destination ever could have been. Sitting so close to home just off the west coast of Ayrshire, to me this enchanting island is an exciting hub of interfaith work in Scotland. Both an accumulation and inspiring vision of all our nation can be and has to offer, epitomised in the warmth of the community – devised of residents, notably, from all walks of life and parts of the world-, the enigmatic energies that have been recurrently and inexplicably drawn to it throughout the ages, and the story of St Molaise himself – the son of Scottish and Irish royalty – who spent ten years here in solitude.

Until 1992, Holy Isle was in possession of a devoted Catholic woman who, following visions from the Virgin Mary, handed it over to the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery. These origins are, in themselves, magical. The co-operation and unspoken understanding between two different faiths has led to the development of a project as wonderfully blessed, healing, and steadfast as this one.

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Volunteers working in Lama Yeshe’s garden

I have been so impacted by this little island. I think often of how loud life will seem when I step off the train at Glasgow Central Station- whenever that day may come- into a changed post-coronavirus world that I have been so removed from. Yet I’m assured in the knowledge that the lessons and stillness of this precious time on Holy Isle during lockdown is something I’ll carry with me always.

Mindfulness

By Anthony MacIsaac

Lately, over the past few years, the practice of “Mindfulness” has gained credence in the domain of psychology and general wellbeing. It’s been one of the new crazes, with people keen to know more about it and incorporate it into their routine. To be sure, there are various benefits to this, and it is worth realising how closely tied it all is to religion and faith life.

Throughout the world religions, there is great agreement about the necessity of meditation within prayer life. Taking the time to centre oneself, to let go of worries and concerns, and to feel union with God. For Christianity, this meditation has long been associated with finding His presence amidst the Sacraments. The ancient phenomenon of Eucharistic Adoration in the Catholic Church is making a comeback, and the faithful might sit before the Consecrated host for hours. Sometimes they might even fall asleep! Not out of disrespect, but out of the sheer comfort and peace they feel in the Lord’s company. Some of them might focus on intercessory prayer, asking for Blessings, and others might simply want to reflect on God’s goodness – either in the grand narrative of Biblical history, or in how it has played out in their own lives. In the Monasteries the slow reading of the Scriptures – “Lectio Divina” – has long been a staple of the Monks’ routine. Allowing the Word to enter in to the soul, allowing it to digest within, and to give inspiration for the present. Here we might think of the symbolism in the Bible, with Prophets from Ezekiel to Jeremiah to St. John the Divine, commanded to “Eat the scroll” given them by God’s Angel. If Scripture is to have any effect in religious life, it must be approached reverantly, with reflective spirit and gentle mind. Here there can be no room for violent or coarse interpretation, which so damages the religious life.

In Islam too, we have a rich tradition of meditation in prayer life and in approaching the Qu’ran. The Sufis exemplify this best, maybe, but there are also many examples in the mainstream. Whether on pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca, or whether taking time out of the day to pray slowly in the Mosque, there are various opportunities for meditation. In the Islamic tradition, the central tenant within this reflection is surrender to the Will of God. Practically, this might mean accepting and assimilating difficult experiences in life, and building resilence for the future. In other words, we find much of the same net result here as we do with traditional Christianity. There might be small differences in how we understand the Divine Will, altering how we approach difficult situations, but these have little effect on the experience itself of meditation. With the Scripture, often the Qu’ran is sung in beautiful Arabic verse, and while many Muslims across the world don’t understand Arabic – just as many Catholics don’t know Latin – the experience of listening to such rendition is cherished. The mystery of the Book, and its profundity, is encapsulated in such “Lectio Divina”. Occasionally, we hear the Bible sung at Mass in Orthodox and Catholic Churches also – though this is reserved for the most solemn of occasions.

Within Buddhism there is arguably one of the strongest traditions of meditative life in the world. Certainly with Zen Buddhism, the whole emphasis is on reflective living. People might take some time out in the Monastery to meditate and find inner peace, over a few weeks or a few months. Very rarely would they stay for a lifetime. Come what may, however, the idea is to come away from these retreats refreshed and better able to live in Enlightenment. This may simply mean to live with gentle consideration, thoughtfulness in all that one does, and reverence for everything life has to offer. One subtle difference in the meditative practices of Zen, as compared to the Abrahamic monotheisms, is that is often seeks the void. It focusses, quite deliberately, on nothing. Or, in some traditions, on absurdities such as the “sound of one hand clapping”. The idea is that there is peace and understanding to be found in this void, devoid of any ideas, words or dogma. There is the debate to be had as to whether “Nothing” actually exists. Some would argue, from the mathematical point of view, that “Nothing” is just an empty set and therefore “Something”. Is God to be found in the void? Indeed, for the Abrahamic faiths, He created out of nothing. However, leaving these questions aside, the net effect of such Buddhist meditation seems also to be positive in its own way. As much as the self is negated within this tradition, it finds more and more actuality in being at one with Nature. This self-negation is perhaps just what our Muslim brothers and sisters are aiming for when surrending to the Divine Will, and what Christians are doing when they unite in Communion with the source of all reality – God. In the end, God seems to become all, and we subsumed within Him.

So for the secular practice of Mindfulness, what can we say? It seems that the central similarities are already there – though perhaps with more points of contact to the Buddhist tradition, in that there aren’t any doctrines attached to the practice. That being said, with Mindfulness, there is a crucial point of departure from this. In Mindfulness, we are encouraged to pay attention to our thoughts and our mind, as we relax and begin to meditate peacefully. We are not necessarily exhorted to abandon all thought entirely, or think about irrational phrases like the “One hand clapping”. The focus is on mental and physical well-being, so the whole therapy seems designed to reap the corresponding benefits attached to the apparently exclusive religious practice of meditation. It stops short with spirituality, and in many ways it might provide a good gateway into religious life for some people. Or at least help them understand what it might be like to pray. Some scientists have argued that we might find common neurological states, within the brain, for prayer across all religious traditions. This may well be the same for Mindfulness.

Holidays

By Sr Isabel Smyth

The holiday period has come to Scotland and with it some sunshine which is a welcome change.  Everything and everyone looks so much brighter, happier and friendlier.  Holidays are important in our lives.  Originally they would have been associated with holy days –  festivals which would have given a break from work to allow families and communities to come together to celebrate and remember significant moments in their community’s life.  This was a way of reconnecting, of enjoying a change of routine and often diet, of taking time for fun and laughter away from the drudgery of normal living.

Today holidays are often an opportunity to visit new places and meet new friends.  But they have not lost their sacred significance as moments to renew and refresh our spirit as well as our bodies.  Today life is so hectic that people find it difficult to switch off even on holiday or their holidays themselves become a frantic pursuit of new experiences and new challenges. The Jewish community can teach us something  about switching off.  Every week Jews observe the Sabbath, a day on which they rest from normal work to spend time with their family and, for those who are religious,  to give time to prayer and study of the scriptures.  They do this in imitation of God who, according to the scriptures, rested on the seventh day of creation and commanded His people to do likewise.

Resting for the Jewish community, and for all those who follow the Judaeo-Christian tradition,  is a divine act, an act of worship, an act of renewal and celebration.  This celebration of Sabbath tells me that often there is a deeply human truth hidden in what seems to be a religious belief or ritual. We all need Sabbath times, holidays and holy days to renew and refresh our spirit, to savour and enjoy life. Without these our work will be ineffective and we will be in danger of suffering burn-out or some other illness.  But we also need Sabbath moments—moments when we can be quiet, still the mind and return to the space within us to restore our spirit and get in touch with our inner wisdom. And Buddhism offers a practice for doing just this. Mindfulness, focusing on the present moment is now used by the NHS to help people who are depressed or have a mental illness.

It is something we could all do with practising.

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