The Symbolic Significance of a 70th Birthday for the Buddha Wallah

April 22 (Earth Day), 2014 marked my transition from aged 69 to 70, as if a number has any strategic bearing upon the unfoldment of nature.

Yet, despite its irrelevance, the growing Sangha of Dharma practitioners took it upon themselves to remind this Buddha Wallah* that my birthday provided a reason, or perhaps an excuse, to express friendship and love to myself plus exceptional generosity. These gifts of money included fund raising projects for the beloved Prajna Vihar School in Bodh Gaya, school, India that had its first spark with my morning class for the poorest children in the village some 25 years ago. Friends also gave money for reforestation in Tiruvannamalai  and Himachel Pradesh, India  and support for farmers and families in the open prison of the Palestinian community.  The Buddha Wallah also found himself the beneficiary of wonderful financial donations plus books, DVDs, CDS and various other gifts.

I have been offering a retreat for the past 30 years at the time of my birthday – a refuge from a birthday party. It is a blessing to be out of earshot of “Happy birthday, dear Christopher, Happy birthday, to you.”  It is hard to imagine anything less significant than the self marking its birthday, despite loving all the attention for two and a half hours at the evening birthday event last month.

Friends organised the birthday gathering behind my back.  They know I have little interest in such situations. Mind you, I added names to the guest list.  I appreciated the initiative of my friends as it is valuable for those of us with some authority to have our authority undermined.  The interests of the Sangha take priority over the interests, or in this case lack of interest, of a teacher.

I would have been on retreat on April 22, 2014 but Tovana, the Israeli Dharma network, kindly switched my annual teaching programme in April in Israel to September so that Kye,  aged 13,  my grandson, could spend some of his  temporary liberation from school (Easter holidays)  at my home in Totnes.

April 22, 2014 demanded some reflection from me after the barrage of birthday goodwill messages. The friendship between a teacher and practitioners develops over weeks, months and years. Initially, the teacher may figure largely in the consciousness of the yogi. For example, the yogi can have endless inner conversations with the teacher. As wisdom and insight develop, the teacher will gradually fade into the background of the practitioner’s consciousness. So the yogi sees their teacher as an occasional resource, if at all. As time passes, there is a depth of friendship between the teacher and the practitioner, often informal. From time to time, the friendship will revert to the teacher-practitioner when appropriate and supportive.

The number 70 bears no true reality, but functions as a mental construct to interpret the unfolding process. Bound to time, the 70th birthday had a symbolic significance – a round number that served for the collective (the Sangha) to marshal together certain feelings and thoughts, and empower them with an action of love.  The number 70 consolidated a movement of the hearts of practitioners in appreciation of the service of this Buddha Wallah over the years to the Sangha in a trans-world:  transpire, transfer, transaction, transmit, translation, transformation. transcendence…  These kinds of trans-ferences reflect an ongoing dynamic between the teacher and practitioners through the passage of time.

What is the relationship, if any, between the 70 year old Buddha Wallah and a dynamic Sangha, frequently anarchic in its expression,  not needing to show (fortunately) any loyalty to this rapidly ageing figure, yet not ignoring his transmissions of knowledge through the quirky forums of retreats, workshops, public talks, inquiry sessions and inter-views?

As a symbolic number, the 70th birthday informs the Sangha of the finite signs of the Buddha Wallah, who now journeys into the winter of life, towards the fading away of the faculties until they become cold. Does the body/mind abruptly come to an end? Does   the body weaken first and the mind stays clear for a longer period of time?  Does the mind gradually lose its faculties first and the body stays healthy for longer?  Does the mind/body gradually fade together in an inseparable embrace? Even as the body becomes ever more vulnerable to the fortitudes of natural circumstances, the mind might lose whatever resilience and communication skills it has developed.

The number 70 makes clear that the dissolution of nama/rupa (mind/matter, psychology/physicality, and name/form) is in sight. To be born and to die requires belief in the notion of a self, a me, who is born and who dies. The grasper takes up the identity of the one who is born and the one who will die. The birthless/deathless reveals effortlessly in seeing the emptiness of the one who grasps.

I regard loyalty as lacking virtue since loyalty  easily inhibits development and transformation through dependency and identification with the past.  Through not submitting to a version of nama/rupa, the Sangha has the opportunity to explore a range of experiences through the offerings of different teachers, masters, gurus, mind/body workers, pilgrimages, yoga, solitude, texts, lifestyles, numerous disciplines and the wander lust.  Such a contemporary tradition safeguards the practitioners from becoming defined by a single teacher or system.  An adventurous Sangha protects the teacher from indulging in control issues, power building and notions of self-importance.  The Sangha knows it is free to come and go. This mutual arrangement keeps alive the inquiry for the teacher and yogis into meaningful undertakings different what the teacher offers.

The Buddha Wallah then finds time to explore further the relevance of the teachings to contemporary circumstances.

The Personal Past

We can employ the past to shed light on the present rather than have the past act as a shadow over the present.  The past can illuminate the present through personal reflection on experiences and events that we recall. The Buddha Wallah has some knowledge to transmit emerging out of these three score years and ten. This experience of a yatra (pilgrimage) through the fields of daily life, and the fluctuation of roles, serves as a useful support to express the Dharma.

Birth, childhood, religion, teenage life,   journalist, wanderer, monk, lover, parent, partner, activist, Dharma teacher and ageing man become resources for insights and understanding into the Dharma, and occasionally the drama, of daily life. The fusion of the personal and transpersonal through practice remind us that every arena of daily life, past and present, provide infinite opportunity for a liberating wisdom.

The drawing on the past by an ageing man must transmit applicable insights to meditators who may be, for example, 30 years, 50 years or more younger. As the subject, the Buddha Wallah speaks to subjects, namely the consciousness of the Sangha, not to transfer information about the past but in order to transform the consciousness of the Sangha in the present.  Otherwise, the past becomes an expression of self- indulgent nostalgia without a trace of significance for a Dharma Hall of practitioners inquiring into the living truths.

I recall mentioning in a Dharma talk a few years ago that as kids in primary school during the 1950’s, we played football and cricket on the streets, came home from the outdoors after dark and walked to and from school by ourselves.  One person whispered to me: “You’re getting old, Christopher.”  He was right. It was the nostalgic bleating of an old man. I told the yogis once: “If you hear me living in the past, then you have my permission to shoot me.  Do not think of it as violation of a precept. Regard it as compassion for the Sangha.”

The Past and the Tradition

The Buddha Wallah also draws upon the past of the Buddhist tradition, not for the perpetuation of the tradition, for it has no independent existence outside of varying perceptions. This kind of reference to the past also requires discernment.  Traditionalists easily identify with the past engaging in reproducing it for its own sake. This can become a mind-numbing repetition serving the unconscious needs of the lazy who sleepwalk through the Dharma of daily life.  Teacher and practitioner can keep repeating the same teachings, forms and methods as handed down from the previous generation, while becoming alienated from the urgent needs of the present.

Those who dismiss all religious traditions, and that includes Buddhist secularists, may find themselves more and more relying upon their own strain of thought.  They believe in their non-religious views and advocate them. They might well generate a new tradition devoid of the depths of the religious experience.  Like those who bear witness to a religious tradition, the secularists bear witness to their own strands of thought, equally burdened with the mumbo-jumbo of corporate consumerism and scientific materialism. The orthodox religious and the secular traditionalists resist change. Both end up directing a polemic against each other even though they have much in common, i.e.  – divisive opinions on the issue.

We can neither afford to uphold for its own sake the religious past, nor dismiss it. We can draw upon the knowledge, insights and wisdom of old and employ the spirit and the letter of some of the religious forms, methods and rituals.  The Achilles heel of the religious past shows itself as the blind adherence to the past, struggling against change in the contemporary world.  The Achilles heel of the secularist shows as adherence to the present without the capacity to draw upon the wealth of religious inquiry into the human spirit.

Spiritual, mystical and religious experiences contribute to the transformation of the consciousness.  Militant secularists will usually reject the spiritual, religious or mystical experience.  They will undermine religious observances, as well as the monk, the nun or the long term meditator in the monastery, forest or cave. Monasteries provide an important refuge for spiritual seekers. They offer resources for meditation, reflection and community. Many Buddhist monasteries make their facilities available for spiritual seekers on a donation (dana) basis or modest daily rate. Religious services provide a place of gathering of the faithful.  Religious life has an important function in society. Having identified with secular culture, secularists fail to see the relevance of religious practices and the capacity of such experiences to transform consciousness.

Neither religionists nor secularists remain immune from their belief system. We cannot put our faith in secular Buddhism because it marginalises, if not dismisses, the transformative power of consciousness through spiritual/mystical/religious events. We cannot seize upon old religious beliefs as they seem to have little connection with daily life.

The Meaning of Impermanence

The Buddha’s strategic emphasis on impermanence, on change, includes the capacity to witness change but also to implement change. There is the witnessing of impermanence and equally there is the willingness to make things impermanent- such as any continuity of the unwholesome, unhealthy and irrelevant. The witnessing of change and the making of change serve as mutual supports for each other.

I am regularly asked whether my teachings have changed in 40 years of teaching. I would like others to share my view, of course.  From this side of the transmission, I have kept faith in the past four decades with the exploration of ultimate/relative truth. The Dharma talks, meditations, inquiries, books, blog, articles, critiques and items on the websites remain  true, as much as possible, to the engagement with reality and in order to dispel any condition of  consciousness that inhibit wisdom about reality.

The Dharma teacher draws upon the past, not only of the Buddhist tradition, but the explorations, East and West and the long distant past of humanity of our species, so that we can see the present, as a confirmation of the past, and an interruption to the past as well.  We cannot absolutely separate the past from the present nor can we separate the present from the past. We can also see, to some degree, the way the past and present casually winds its way into the future. The future of humanity, and the Earth, finds its way more and more into public consciousness as we experience climate change and other consequences of human behaviour, for example, war, overpopulation, capitalism and its pathological obsession with excess.

This Buddha Wallah reaches back frequently to the discourses (suttas) of the Buddha and the contemporary commentaries on the suttas. Within some 10,000 discourses, there lies a wealth of wisdom, practices and offerings for humanity. Like diamonds buried in the earth, we can go deep into the text to find the jewels. Like early gold hunters, we need to swirl the tray to find the small nuggets of gold. As with some precious jewels, we may have to go deep into the mine underground.  We can discover jewels of wisdom in the ancient texts to share with others in daily life.

When reading texts of the Buddha, such as Middle Length Discourses (MLD) and Connected Discourses (SN), I use my Kindle to type in a word or phrase in the Search option to check its use and the context for its use.  I have discovered a wealth of precious jewels of insight in the past three years through this approach to passages in the suttas.  For example, I wrote a critique for the blog this month on Mindfulness and the Military. I used the Kindle to search words in the in the MLD and SN such as killing, harm, torture, wrong action, right intention, evil, hate cruelty and compassion. The Buddha showed an unwavering commitment to non-violence and the ending of violence upon humans and animals. The Buddha Wallah loves the Buddha.

The Pleasures of Growing Old

There are certain pleasures about getting old.  Yes, there is the happiness of having stayed faithful to a life free and adventurous throughout with enough thick skin to work with the necessary fault finding from others, without the pangs of guilt and failure that haunt far too many people.  As a servant of the Dharma, I rely upon the power of practice to deal with the bows and arrows of outrageous misfortune or outrageous good fortune.

There are the pleasures of the ageing father whose daughter shows incredible devotion to the marginalised members of society. There are the pleasures of the grandfather with his grandchildren.  Kye said to me a year ago that he wanted to live until he was 86 years old. I said:  “That’s a good age for anyone to say goodbye to this world.  I am 69. I will be happy if I have another 17 years to live.”

Kye said: “Oh, granddad that means I will be only 29 years old when you die.”

“Yup. That’s impermanence for the two of us.”

Every year for about 40 years, meditators have sat in the crowded and austere spaces of the Thai Monastery in Bodh Gaya for our annual 10 day retreat. The years pass by at a gallop.  Some sons and daughters have come to the retreat and sat in much the same spot where their parents sat years before. It is hard to explain why but this brings happiness, knowing one generation of Dharma practitioners leads to the next. Sometimes the parents have come to Bodh Gaya in the footsteps of their children. This also brings happiness.

To Transform

Throughout the past 40 years, the Buddha Wallah has endorsed meditation with an unbroken passion for its transformative capabilities, but has equally advocated action on behalf of others or against the oppressive systems impacting our lives.  The financial centres of our cities have become tall monuments to greed, and the wasteful and wasted lives of the rich and shameless. My spoken and written critiques on greed and consumerism have defined the duality of the separation of the haves and the have-nots.

I do not subscribe to the view “All is One.”  Such language rarely empowers compassionate action but instead easily serves as a band-aid to the brutal dualities of human conflict.   I do not believe in one world and that we are all created equal. I do not see the evidence for such sweeping and misleading beliefs. I do not see the evidence for a single world, since the world depends for its confirmation on consciousness, tendencies and numerous blind spots. The condition of consciousness for sentient creatures, including ourselves, appears similar and dissimilar. It is surely arrogance that claims to be living in the ‘real world’?

We cannot compare the world of the super-rich with the world of the desperately poor. We cannot compare the worlds of the varieties of sentient creatures, including humans, with the different senses and internal faculties of other creatures’ experience of the world.  We cannot compare the world of the peaceful with the world of these suffering a mental breakdown.   We experience altered states of consciousness within the waking state, in our dreams and in our sleep.  We know the experience of being very much in love with another and we know the experience of rejection.

There is a danger when we intensify the gap in all these different worlds.   The dependent arising nature of consciousness, under the influence of  underlying formations, impact on mind/body to generate countless worlds: heavenly, hellish, creatures, worldly and spiritual. Rather than attempt to subsume these worlds into a single world, we explore the gap between the worlds.  At a certain point, the gap can expand until it breeds violence between us and others, us and the world.  We reduce the gap through support to the marginalised, the disempowered and the troubled.  We show the privileged 1% to 5% that we work for their ultimate interest through pointing the way to ethics, depths of meditation, generosity, justice and wisdom.

The wise acknowledge differences and diversity without clinging to a view of equality. They know there are worlds of experiences with the potential for love and insights to bridge the differences. Sometimes, a pure truth emerges from the oddest of places. As you disembark from the underground train, you will frequently hear the recorded voice from the loudspeakers saying: “Mind the Gap.” Never was a more true statement made on the London underground!

As a group of noble and practising participants, the Sangha shares more in common with indigenous communities, networks of non-violent activists, people in engaged in forms of public service and those who dwell humbly as servants of nature. We delude ourselves if we think we are masters of nature, as the so-called ‘Age of Western Enlightenment’ has led us to believe.  Due to the vulnerability of human life, we could become extinct like the dinosaurs.

As a group in the web of humanity, we have the duty to support the range of thoughtful small groups, to applaud diversity and not to submit to the pressures of the predominant paradigm which seeks to make small groups subservient to the message of production and consumption as all that matters. The Sangha engages in the revolutionary act of sustainability, moderation of lifestyle, enduring friendships, endless discoveries and drawing upon the wisdom of our species.

A Matter of Death

We may find ourselves dealing with the matters of ageing, pain and death.  In the winter of our lives, conversations on sickness, pain and death enter with weekly regularity.

A Dharma teacher working intimately with the inner lives of the international Sangha, in and out of retreats, may have more personal friends and a deeper intimacy than Hollywood film stars, ageing rock stars or television personalities, who can experience anguish through numerous superficial communications with others.    The ageing person hears with regularity of the deadly impact of the forces of nature (cancer, heart disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease) on the mind/body process.  I hear regularly of the death of people in the Sangha who have sat in front of me on retreats since the 1970’s. I read, too, the obituaries in the media of the gods of secular culture, whose name and form were part of my world.  The death of friends or public figures may trigger some outburst of feelings, a sadness at the ending of such lives.  The death of others serves as a reminder of our impending mortality.

I feel the sense of loss mostly for those who have sat before me on a retreat or similar event. I have heard them laugh and watched them cry. I have dived with them into their stories, their experiences, their revelations and their realisations. There is no substitute for this kind of intimacy.

There is talk around dying and death of those in and out of the Sangha. I am not surprised that others ask me with regularity about my views/experiences/perceptions of what happens to us when we die. Is it one life or many lives? Does transcendence dissolve the sting of death altogether? This dialectic between the one and the many or the one and the beyond has puzzled the consciousness of our species for generation upon generation. The Buddha Wallah wonders whether this particular question has gone past its usefulness.  Perhaps we need to address the process of change. We need to meditate and reflect on what is evolving on this Earth rather than the obsessions of the self around existence and non-existence.

The important questions for our time concerns the movement of nature and our relationship to this movement, with an ongoing inquiry into the forces of history, the current manifestation and where it leads.  While material nature, as a sweeping generality, seems indifferent to life and death, consciousness finds itself dwelling on matters of suffering and happiness, death and continuity. I regard the religious/scientific view of death as belonging to a worn-out paradigm that lingers around as a relic of old thinking. While we draw upon the past and see the present moment as a movement to the future, our life and death must find its inclusion in the large sense of the great movement of life. The transition from life to death, and it is a minor detail after all, can give way to a transmission that finds its expression in a liberated becoming.

We live in a world that prizes ownership and status.  For those filled with the desire for more and the holding onto what has been acquired, then death becomes the place of terror. Death takes away the opportunity to hold onto what we have and denies the possibility of getting more of what we want. Desire and death remain bound up together.

The Buddha Wallah has a trust that the depth of a human being, down into the very DNA, provides the natural resources to deal with a closely impending death. It would be surprising if the pit of the stomach did not release some intensely unpleasant sensations as death consciously approaches. We need to accommodate those waves of sensations until they fade. They will surely fade more quickly if the mind carries little in the way of baggage around existence and non-existence. In some respects, we can only know the death of the other, of somebody else. We cannot know our death. We will never be able to say: “I have just died. “

I remember in the Vipassana monastery in my time as a Buddhist monk, one elderly monk (aged around 70) quoted a philosopher: “When I am here, death is not. When death is here, I am not.”  It conveys a simple truth.  If understood, there is nothing to be concerned about. We shall see. The date of birth and the date of death belong to numbers. The gravestone has a hyphen between the two dates as the symbolic representation of a life.  That line sums it up in the vastness of it all.

An Eye on the Present, an Eye on the Future

Rather than cling to an ideology around the absoluteness of the here and now, we can employ our freedom to see that movement in time determined as past, present and future. Dharma teachers need to keep one eye on the Dharma future and the other eye open for those who may become Dharma teachers, managers, organisers and co-ordinators.

Just as awareness of slavery developed in the 19th century in the UK resulting in social change, Dharma teachers point out the slavery of the mind due to:

  • addictions
  • boredom with routine
  • conflicts with others
  • debts
  • despair over unemployment
  • endless hours of work 
  • financial worries
  • self hate
  • stress
  • and other issues

The Dharma and the practices will continue to transmit the Dharma to liberate people from the various forms of modern slavery to pleasure and pain and the political/corporate paradigms that contribute to such slavery.

Dharma teachers and practitioners need to keep alert to the practitioners who have the potential to serve the Dharma. Dharma teachers must not be afraid to encourage certain people to teach, to engage in transmission of the teachings.

People in the Sangha have spotted others in the Sangha who, they believe, have the capacity to share their wisdom. There is no point in drawing up the qualities that make a good teacher.  None of us can match the criteria. I have given a few dedicated practitioners with a wealth of Dharma understanding a metaphorical kick up the backside to get them to start offering the Dharma to others. Those who have been teaching consistently for several years have the responsibility to encourage new teachers.  A vibrant and creative tradition of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha then fuses with the flow of unfolding and evolving events.

Stay awake!



 *Wallah, a Hindu word, means worker,

such as chai wallah  (works in a tea stall)

or dhobi wallah (works washing clothes)

The Buddha Wallah is the title of a 90 minute documentary

 about my teaching and travels.

Made by Dieter Zeppenfeld and Georg Maas. 2007.