I know what I like to eat. I like fresh, light flavours like coriander, lime and juicy tomatoes in the summer; warm, rich cinnamon and cumin to enrich the bounty of autumn and deep, indulgent, sustaining textures in winter. That’s what I like. Variety.
I spend much of my time buying and cooking food. I choose combinations to sometimes test, sometimes tease and sometimes simply satisfy the palate – but there’s always variety.
What has all this to do with spirituality?
I thrive on variety, choice and exploration. It’s about using my knowledge, experience and skill to find and prepare interesting dishes and then share them with my family and friends. Please don’t mistake my love of pick and mix for insincerity or lack of commitment – I just can’t imagine what it would be like to have the same meal whizzed up and spoon fed to me every day with the expression of choice or complaint not just frowned upon but punished.
This is the kind of theocratic tyranny that I grew up with and why I left prescribed religion behind me a long time ago.
These days, my spiritual exploration is much like a visit to an art gallery. And I’m not talking here about browsing the halls on the way to the coffee shop, I’m talking about really looking, thinking, leaving, reading, perhaps coming back, thinking some more. It’s about my response to what I’m seeing, how it relates to what I already know and what I’d like to experience more of.
Let me explain. I’m not a Buddhist but I’ve read several books written by the Dalai Lama (The Art of Happiness, is well worth a read if you haven’t already) and so when I caught wind that he was coming to Aldershot to open the new Buddhist community centre, I felt compelled to go see if I could catch a glimpse of him.
I was very nearly disappointed.
I arrived in town on my very easy-to-park bike and after having been asked directions by a very wealthy looking family in a particularly flash car I found myself in what felt like another world. Next to the football stadium, the once rather drab looking social club was painted and beribboned, with red, yellow and blue flags flying high above the road. Fresh from Glastonbury, HH was due to open the centre, lead prayers for the Nepalese lost in the earthquakes and then teach at the stadium.
I don’t know what I was expecting to see but the cacophony was something I’d not experienced before. On the lower side of the road, a large protest against the Dalai Lama by Shugden tradition Buddhists was in full swing. The usually quite pedestrian barriers running along the footpath were festooned with banners declaring their message. Behind this, monks of all nationalities used loud hailers and voices to make as much noise as possible.
I saw one monk amongst the crowd, settled on the pavement in front of a sign for tyres and exhausts, deep in meditation. Behind were the coaches they’d arrived on – I couldn’t help wondering what 50 monks wandering around Heston services would look like.
The pro-Dalai Lama camp on the stadium side of the road were also in full swing. There were drums, wide flags flying above. People danced in all colours: emeralds, ochres, saffron, azure blues – from the elderly shuffling to the music to the little babies wide eyed at the spectacle.
I locked my bike to a railing and set off to find out whether I could make sense of what was going on.
According to my watch and the timetable I’d read online, the man I’d come to see would be leaving the community centre sometime soon in order to teach at the ticketed event in the stadium next door.
My phone rang.
My friend, the jammiest of all my friends, had secured a space away from the crowds at the back of the community centre. I smiled.
And so, I found myself with a rack of press, my friend and three Nepalese ladies around the rear of the building where the Dalai Lama was praying inside. A pathway carpeted with ornate rugs ran from a small side door to a huge, black waiting car – the kind you might find carting a celebrity to a premiere. Under the bright colours and intricate paintings of the gateway were a swarm of butch looking security in black suits and high vis jackets. A photographer was making a last minute bargain with one of them to get beyond the wire fence barrier we were stood behind. He won and was allowed in, happily taking up a crouching position beside all the other lenses.
Excitement built as thumbs up were sent out between the security suits, and few people piled out of the side door followed finally by two monks blowing horns.
The moment was arriving. I felt like it was all too much. How disappointed would I be if I didn’t catch glimpse of him? What if the men there to protect him denied me of my once in a lifetime chance? The chants from the road were distant but ever present. The line of attendees for the stadium event filed past the bottom of the steps some way away, unaware of me, my friend and the three Nepalese ladies waiting with baited breath. The drums and the singing rang in my ears.
I felt faint.
And then out he came: small, smiley and utterly untouched by the cacophony around him. I’d had my cameraphone poised for the past five minutes but I calmly put it in my back pocket: I felt compelled to see this one event with my own eyes rather than mediated through a lens.
Did he see me? Probably not. Did he hear my quietly offered Namaste? I hope so. He was ushered into the car and whisked away in a moment.
As we turned from the fence and went to walk down the steps back down to the roadway, my friend commented that I looked like I’d been hit in the eye. It would seem my mascara had gone a little astray.
What did I take from the day?
That even though the spiritual so often has to sit within a secular environment for functional or security reasons it doesn’t mean that all is lost. From what I’ve read of his writings, the Dalai Lama himself is a largely down to earth man. His teachings are as applicable, in principle, to an atheist or a Catholic as they are to a practicing Buddhist.
But I couldn’t help wondering whether he would rather be wandering in the public park up the road where the elderly Nepalese residents of our town like to gather and talk. Or how he felt about all the security around him and whether he felt it was interfering with his work. He talks so much about how powerful an opponent to kindness and real understanding fear is.
My friend and I then did what any good tourist would and went to a coffee shop to ruminate on what we’d seen and heard. The Dalai Lama had radiated a smile that I wore all day.
I think I’m still wearing it now.
And so my tour continues – maybe I’ll find somewhere to call home at some point, maybe I won’t – but it’s not the arrival that’s important to me, it’s the journey.