The unlikely turtle: swimming beyond beliefs

turtle

When I was a youngster in northern Britain, my father was a very strong calm influence in my life. One day, we were playing cricket during the leisurely lunchtime as we often did during school days, and listening to the radio at the same time. I can still remember those dark brown voices the BBC prided itself on, floating out into the perpetual sunshine of my child’s life.  The smoothness of the cricket bat handle wound immaculately with cotton, the ‘chonk’ of the hard ball as it struck, the moving forward of my body to strike in a straight line as I had been taught, and the indestructible sound of words which totally changed the direction of my life.

‘It is hard to be born a human being, and harder still to encounter a Buddha. It would be like a blind sea turtle encountering a floating log with a hole in it and poking its head through.’

At the time, I had no idea what a ‘Buddha’ was, as I was born an Anglican Christian from strong Catholic heritage on both my maternal and paternal side. But I could deduce that this encounter was extremely rare, and I could imagine the sea turtle in a vast salty ocean, suddenly spotting the hole in the log on the surface, and then swimming furiously upwards towards it to pop its green neck through and view the sky first-hand.

My parents kept their religious views quiet, but my younger brother and I were very religious, always inspired and fascinated by my devout grandmother’s faith. He served as acolyte, assistant to the parish priest, and later became head choirboy of a famous boys church choir. Meanwhile I, slightly resentful that the role of women was to step back and support the holy men, stayed quietly kneeling in the pews, watching his progress. But I remember feeling so comfortable in the darkness of our local stone church, content to listen to Latin reverberating around the white marble altar and the swish of robes, and entranced by the candlelight and fragrant incense.

For several years after hearing about the zealous turtle, I remember waiting for a ‘Buddha’ to appear, though I still had no idea what it was, and I desperately wanted to be a holy figure wearing robes in order to serve this ‘Buddha.’

I will never forget the experiences of deep Christianity I had with my grandmother. We offered candles together to various saints, spent a great deal of time bowing, genuflecting and making the sign of the cross. She almost always had tears in her eyes once we set foot inside a church. As a young child, I found this quite worrying because she was always so jolly in everyday life. So, I remember asking her once why she was crying, and if she was sad. She looked down at me from her constant gaze at the crucifix and statue of Mother Mary and said, ‘These are tears of deep joy that God loves me and protects me, and that I am special to him. One day you will feel this deep joy if you show your gratitude and respect every moment of your life.’ I was very moved by this, crying myself, at which she swept me up into her arms with absolute delight and passion.

Then in my early teens, my inspirational grandmother with such pure faith died, and I knew she had chosen me to carry on her legacy of strong Christianity. However, when I came to practise on my own, Christian practices, especially of prayer and confession, felt wrong, seemed dark and rather negative to me. It was at this point that I realised that out of adoration and awe of my grandmother, I had wanted her approval and so practised willingly with her, but that I could not be sincere without her by my side. So, I made a conscious decision not to practise Christianity, and instead to explore other pathways and take my grandmother’s spirit along with me. I was sure she would approve.

As my faith exploration became more determined, and my intellectual wings became strong, I was so shocked to find out just how lacking in peace most Judeo-Christian sects were. They seemed consumed with rage and revenge, and were power-seeking above all, having been at war for hundreds of years since the Crusades in Europe, and still continuing to fight. For a long time I couldn’t understand why my grandmother seemed not be aware of this aspect of her deep faith, but later I did come to understand, as I also did her tearful joy.

Soon I entered the turbulent waters of relationships, and found that I easily became involved with angry and disturbed people, even though I felt little of those negative emotions myself. My transient partners like the crusaders were also lacking in what I considered pure faith and instead invested themselves in intellectual analysis and wholesale rejection of the invisible world. I was saddened by this incompatibility and longed to find my life partner and settle down to sharing the magic and joy of existence that my grandmother had lived out. Usually and as a result of these strong pre-requisites, my relationships were short-lived and filled with numbing drama.

It was during this time, while studying as a performing pianist and cellist at a national conservatoire in northern England, and very much influenced by the great Russian Romantic composers like Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsy and Skriabin, that I finally found the Buddha of turtle fame!

One day, as a respite from my hard physical practice schedule, which often ran to 10 hours a day as I was ambitious, I attended a lecture simply called ‘The Buddha Shyakamuni,’ which recounted his life and outlined the basic Mahayana systems of karma (cause and effect), Bodhichitta (focus on enlightenment) and Sunyatta (emptiness). I turned these exotic Sanskrit phrases round and round in my mouth with the sudden realisation that the Latin of my churchgoing childhood had been a mistake.

I was so impressed to at last actually encounter the Buddha and his breath-taking methods of becoming permanent, for the first time, and to have some basic understanding of what he stood for. In fact, I felt like the sea turtle itself, so thrilled to find the hole in the driftwood, and to take in the whole of the heavens in one dazzling vista. Coming down to earth a little, I also noted that I should start to prepare my robes of servitude.

After this, I instantly recognised that this was my pathway, so I took my beautiful grandmother’s spirit with me and started out on the way. Of course, the Buddhist path was somewhat at odds with my immersion in Russian Romanticism, but I believe it brought about some realisations I would not have otherwise had. One such realisation was that I temporarily lost my mind while working to learn the whole of the famous Rachmaninov piano concerto 2, as he himself had done while writing this magnificent tour de force.

The well-known musical themes permeating this work are sublime; I think they are filled with the joy, renunciation and devotional gratitude, of a hugely religious nature. But creating these themes took its toll on him and he became exhausted and seriously depressed for many years as a result. The physical and emotional demands of this work left their mark on my spirit too, which led me to eventually renounce Romantic music altogether and turn to early vocal music of the troubadours of Europe. Its simplicity centred me, allowing my Buddha nature to shine brightly once again. My new musical obsession also had its roots hidden in my ancestry, connected with my grandmother and the mystical Cathars. But that’s another tale for another occasion.

It was while I was recovering from this period of musical breakdown that I discovered the power of meditation as opposed to prayer. I spent increasingly longer periods of time meditating with various masters. This part of my pathway healed me and moved me on, and soon I became a meditation teacher myself and would work with others to help heal them.

I later discovered through the Nirvana teachings, the final teachings of the Buddha at the end of his long life, and towards the end of mine, that my distant ancestors were healers. So, I have carried that legacy forward by using healing hands and working with energy fields in my life here in Japan.

In the evening of my life, padding between the pagodas and sleek temple roofs, a million miles away from cricket bats and the BBC, I became a Buddhist priest serving the Buddha in my robes. There was incense and chanting, and my grandmother was clearly ecstatic. She did indeed detest the revenge and warring of her devoted Christian faith, but now in the Buddha’s spiritual world, she is in a land of complete peace and bright joy.

Then, one day, the turtle led me beyond all this. Having found Nirvana, by progressing through all these necessary elements in the pattern of my long life, I realised they were a means to an end. I kicked away these supports and found myself in complete oneness with all. Concepts are no longer needed, and I fully understand the enigmatic instruction, ‘if you see a Buddha on the road, kill him.’ Formlessness, the vague flux and flow of constantly changing sensory phenomena and energies, are the great blue ocean, and I am the turtle.

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