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This is a blog based on notes for a short talk I gave here on the New Hampshire Seacoast to help launch the Urban Retreat. It was supposed to be about internationality in our spiritual community and the conditions that support it. I hope, in the end, it was.
I’ve been working a lot of late. It’s an amazing privilege - one I’d do well to recall at every opportunity - to get to travel around the Triratna world for my “work”. But I’ve been away for 7 weeks of the past 3 months in connection with The Buddhist Centre Online, and spent much of the rest of the time working on the new version of Free Buddhist Audio, and on preparing this Urban Retreat (with the fabulous Mokshini). And I’m a bit tired!
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the shrine room of Chintamani Retreat Centre in Mexico at 7am, meditating - or trying to! I’d been up till midnight working on our coverage of the Pan American Convention via a 3G mobile connection. The material was great - fascinating interviews with lovely people, all in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. I felt very lucky and it hardly seemed like effort to be documenting Dharma practice and inspiration while taking part in such a cool gathering of Order members from all over the American continent and beyond. Still, I was pretty tired.
So I sat there, drifting a bit after the echoes of the Tiratana Vandana died away. I was listening to the birds mainly. The birds in Mexico are not the same as the birds in Britain, where I grew up. Are not the same as the birds in New England where I live. Are not like any other birds I’ve ever heard outside of nature documentaries. Mesmerising. (They remind me now I’m writing it of the beautiful ‘Song Of the Bell Bird’, a translation of the extraordinary Paraguayan harp piece Pájaro Campana.) And suddenly some words came into my head. They were just a few words of dialogue from a book I hadn’t read in years - The Farthest Shore by one of my great heroes, Ursula Le Guin. They were words spoken by a dragon to a boy in greeting. Which is a rare thing. Then I saw in my mind’s eye the eye of the dragon, amber and huge, and only to be glanced at sidelong. You should never look a dragon straight in the eye. I’ve no idea why these words appeared in my heart or in my “consciousness” or what have you. There is an old piece of lore that says if you eat the heart of a dragon you’ll understand the languages of birds. But it was sort of like that in reverse. And suddenly I was so focussed, so deeply in touch with - something. Something personally important and earthing and deeply absorbing - and the birds were still carolling around the open shrine room and the world smelled of refreshing rain.
I went back to my room after the meditation bell rang some time later, and expended a bit of my data allowance on downloading the first of the Earthsea stories, A Wizard Of Earthsea. And since then I’ve basically done two things: work as hard as I could on the various Dharma projects I’m involved in (with my brilliant colleagues at Dharmachakra who make up the rest of the Triratna web team); and read my way through the six books of Earthsea. I haven’t had too much time for it, but the presence of that dragon hasn’t been very far away and it’s been just the spirit ballast I needed to keep going with the more mundane side of setting up conditions for an online retreat. I’ll let you investigate the wonders of those books for yourself if you like, but I’d like to say a few things about my deep admiration of Ursula (K) Le Guin and her evocation of dragons.
I’ve always admired Ursula Le Guin for more than her literary merits, which are very many indeed. Whether I agree with what she writes with a deep sense of relieved assent, or wrinkle my nose at (parts of) some of her more challenging perspectives, I’m always stimulated by her mind as it flows through stories and worlds, galaxies and ages. That she does so, neatly avoiding cliché at every turn and refusing to cede the territory of fantasy writing either to sub-Tolkien, dully patriarchal warmongers (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones) or to the patronising judgments of snobby literary reviewers who refuse to credit her ‘genres’ (she does astonishing sci-fi too) as capable of revealing important human truths – is in itself hugely creditable. But more that that. UKLG is a thinker, a sustained thinker, about societies. It’s surely an odd comparison but I think there’s something in it: you could write quite a lengthy piece on the similarities between aspects of her thinking about imagined societies and Sangharakshita’s ideas on the subject of Buddhism’s potential to impact and change the culture of the West. Discuss!
Whatever, it’s important to say that UKLG doesn’t do Utopias. She does flawed worlds, presumably because this one is. She does complex characters who don’t behave the way they are supposed to, and not always well. Because her readers know what that is like too. And she has clearly thought a lot and in detail about all aspects of re-imagined universes: economic systems, folk traditions, cultural accretions, music, dance, poetry, song, mythologies, histories, futures, teleologies, gender relations, politics, power, religion, love, wisdom, foolishness, history, hope, oppression, liberation, ordinariness, cooking, making, animals, humans, loss, grief, depression, youth, age, psychology, death, magic, dragons. I could go on. But this is already long enough - so let’s stop at dragons.
In the Buddhist tradition you have nagas, which are sort of like dragons. But in that shrine room in Mexico it was definitely Ursula Le Guin’s dragons. Which like her wizards (as David Mitchell boldly and righteously points out) are arguably richer than Tolkien’s. Regardless, having that dragon called back from the far west of my mind these past weeks has been very significant for me. I’ve no idea why it came, exactly. But it did come. I didn’t call it, it called me! But now I can call too, turn my attention to it whenever I need to. And that’s all I really wanted to say with respect to the idea of the ‘Greater Mandala’ and carrying the work we do on retreats like this one on into the rest of our lives: you’ll need your dragons.
Perhaps your dragons won’t look like dragons. What do they look like? (It’s also worth asking why you might not want to look them straight in the eye, however they appear to you). Still, you do need to call them forth - or let yourself be called. It’s not going to be inspiration all the way. You might soon forget why you were ever bothering with more explicit Dharma practice this week. Maybe you have doubts about all sorts of things (I hope so!). As Joseph Brodsky once said, “Confusion is not a dishonourable position.” But the presence of dragons from the farthest west (or east or north or south) is what I need to keep going through (and see the less obvious lessons in) the boring bits of living in reality, of “Buddhist work”, of personal/communal commitment as part of a sangha. You can’t control them (if you mess with a dragon it’s likely just to burn you up). But if you pay attention in the right way, they may just speak to you. And then their words should echo for a long time on the wind.