“FAITHS IN SUFFOLK”.

BUDDHISTS

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Imagine you are a Buddhist

The Ipswich Buddhist Centre, 4 Friars Bridge Road

There are Buddhists and Buddhists and Buddhists….

Triratna Buddhist Order – neither monastic nor lay

The Order of Interbeing founded by a Vietnamese Monk

FPMT – Tibetan Buddhism in the UK, Europe and USA

Japanese Zen in the UK

Chanting Buddhists Soka Gakkai International (SGI)

Vipassana insight meditation of Theravada Buddhism (Burma)

A general introduction to Buddhism by Jnanamitra, of the Triratna Buddhist Order

Some aspects to consider:

There a few basic beliefs

What we do is more important

What does it mean to be aware, to get in touch with yourself?

There are regular festivals:-

Food

Removal of shoes

Religious artefacts

A personal reflection on Buddhism’s presence in Ipswich and its impact on Suffolk

Thich Nhat Hanh- Buddhist Monk

Words of wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh

The First Mindfulness Training:

The Second Mindfulness Training:

The Third Mindfulness Training:

The Fourth Mindfulness Training:

The Fifth Mindfulness Training:

Isabelle Wen’s Story

Nichiren Buddhism (SGI) - Joy van Helvert

Nichiren Buddhist (SGI) – Janus van Helvert

Living Life as a Buddhist

On being a transsexual and Buddhist

IMAGINE YOU ARE A BUDDHIST

Your religious tradition
derives from the teaching
of Prince Siddhartha Gautama,
who lived around 500 BCE in north-east India
and became the Buddha.

You are committed to the 3 Jewels:
the Buddha (the enlightened one),
the Dharma (his teachings),
and the Sangha (the Buddhist community).

You practise meditation and go on regular retreats.
Your religion is non-theistic
as you do not believe in a personal creator God.
You uphold the Four Noble Truths
concerning the cycle of desire and suffering:
Suffering exists;

Suffering is caused by worldly desires;

The cycle can be ended;

There is a path to end it.

This path is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

You believe that by following this path
all humans can become enlightened
and achieve Nirvana.

 

_Pic3The eight spoked wheel is a symbol for Buddhists.  The eight spokes represent the noble eightfold path which leads to enlightenment - right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  (The wheel is an ancient symbol in India for making things happen.)

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The Ipswich Buddhist Centre, 4 Friars Bridge Road

This building was previously the base of the Refugee Council in Suffolk and before that it was the premises of an advertising company “Chalk and Cheese”.  The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, now known as Triratna Buddhist Order, moved there in 2009 from their previous premises next to their Buddhist run Evolution shop in the Thoroughfare, Ipswich.

P1010559.JPGThe experience of this group highlights the challenges often faced by faith communities when they are attempting to establish themselves in suitable premises.  In 1986 they began meeting in people’s homes; in 1992 they were able to rent space in the Co-op Education Centre in Upper Orwell St.; in 1997 they relocated to the Unicorn Centre in Foundation St.  1992,; when this was demolished they became peripatetic again using the Ipswich library, the Town Hall, the SIFRE Centre within Suffolk College and so on.  In 2001, after much negotiation with the London landlord they signed the lease on the premise in the Thoroughfare.  When they later moved out to Friars Bridge Road, the Hindu community took on the premises in the Thoroughfare – for the time being!

*

There are Buddhists and Buddhists and Buddhists….

Below is a selection of the enormous richness of Buddhism in the UK – Every bit of Buddhism anywhere in the far East has something somewhere here – and there have been several ‘Western’ developments s under a number of teachers in the last 50 years, of which the Triratna is one. 

Full Member Organisations of the NBO – Network of Buddhist Organisations can be found at www.nbo.org.uk

Triratna Buddhist Order – neither monastic nor lay

Started by Sangharakshita in the 60’s, having spent 20 years in India, mainly as a monk.  Unique for starting Buddhist Centres in town centres, and for developing Right Livelihood businesses.  Now a worldwide Order with a large wing in India.  The altruistic work of the Order is the Triratna Buddhist Order   See http://thebuddhistcentre.com/ or  www.ipswichbuddhistcentre.org.uk

The Order of Interbeing founded by a Vietnamese Monk

Thich Nhat Hanh is an expatriate Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and peace activist was fully ordained as a monk in 1949.  He coined the term Engaged Buddhism in his book Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.  He created the Order of Interbeing in 1966, and established monastic and practice centers around the world.  Exiled from Vietnam for many years, in 1982 he and his colleague Sister Chân Không founded Plum Village Buddhist Center (Làng Mai), a monastery and Practice Center in the Dordogne in the south of France.  www.plumvillage.org

FPMT – Tibetan Buddhism in the UK, Europe and USA

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) is a network of Buddhist centres focusing on traditional Tibetan Buddhism.  Founded in 1975 by Lamas Thubten Yeshe and Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, who began teaching Buddhism to Western students in Nepal, the FPMT has grown to encompass more than 142 teaching centers in 32 countries.  www.jamyang.co.uk

Japanese Zen in the UK

The White Plum Sangha UK supports teachers within the lineage of the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi (1931-1995), founder of the White Plum Asangha and Dharma holder in both the Soto and Rinzai Zen traditions.  For more information and a list of Dharma successors in the White Plum Lineage please visit www.whiteplum.orgThere are other centres of Zen teaching in the UK

Chanting Buddhists Soka Gakkai International (SGI)

The invocation of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo was established by Nichiren on April 28, 1253 in Japan. 

Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a Buddhist association with more than 12 million members in 190 countries and territories worldwide.  For SGI members, Buddhism is a practical philosophy of individual empowerment and inner transformation that enables people to develop themselves and take responsibility for their lives.  www.sgi-uk.org

Vipassana insight meditation of Theravada Buddhism (Burma)

The Satipanya Buddhist Trust is grounded in the Buddhist Tradition of Theravada as practised in South-East Asia.  Satipanya is located in Powys, Wales, in UK, south of Shrewsbury and near the Shropshire border.  We run retreats devoted to contemplative living and vipassana insight meditation in the tradition of the Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma.  www.satipanya.org.uk

meeting with mayor

Some of Suffolk’s Buddhists meet with the Mayor of Ipswich (2011)

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A general introduction to Buddhism

‘Buddhism’ is a western term.  A Buddhist should really be termed “Follower of the Dharma or Way.” In Sanskrit, the language of Buddhism, it is Dharma Chari (or Fem Dharmacharini).

The word Buddha should be pronounced boodha not budha.  It means “One who is awake”. 

The time when the Buddha lived, 500 years or so before Christ, is in the midst of a period described as the Axial Age, a time during which there was a spiritual awakening in the world both east and west.  There were great figures who have left a lasting legacy like Confucius, Lao Tse Tung, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the great Hebrew prophets. 

In north western India where Buddha was born the culture at the time was polytheistic but there was a tradition of forest renunciants (people leaving their families to live simply) and a large social quest for enlightenment.  The teaching of the Buddha attracted many disciples and through them and by other means it gradually spread far and wide.

We know from the Ashoka pillar inscription that a deputation travelled to Egypt, Syria and Greece and returned home again 200 years before Christ, and it is likely that his ideas also reached Palestine.  Wherever Buddhism spread it developed uniquely in forms related to its new context.

In the UK there now exists a branch or a temple for every kind of Buddhism from all over the world including – Sri Lanka, Tibet (several lineages), China, Hong Kong, Burma, Thailand and Japan (several lineages)  Some of them are more for the use of expatriates of their country, while some are predominantly for Westerners.  There is little now in India!

To say that Buddhism has no god is to apply a “cancelled” theistic framework to Buddhism, and is not very helpful to those of us who have converted to Buddhism having been brought up as members of the Church of England or of other religious traditions.  Many aspects of what God represents to Christians (as far as one can know) are a vital part of Buddhism, except they are not called God.

Western Buddhism (which has been translated and re-emphasised by Sangharakshita and also by Tich Nnat Hanh, and by secular organisations such as Insight Meditation Society(IMS) and Vipassana)

·        Believes that commitment is primary, lifestyle is secondary

·        Is critical of superficial monastic formalism in traditional Buddhist countries. 

·        Thinks that the lay/monastic split is very unhelpful to both

·        Established the Western Buddhist Order (now Triratna Buddhist Order) in the mid 60s.  (Ordination into this Order is equivalent to being ordained as a priest)

Although the initial followers were all Western, they were not all ex Church of England.  There were many Jewish and ex-Catholics and now Sangharakshita’s followers are all around the world.  A large proportion of the Order are in India amongst the scheduled Castes.  This is known as Engaged Buddhism

Some aspects to consider:

·        Buddhism engages with the Transcendental – beyond time and space, not with a personal God.  This experience is accessible by anybody with practice.  So Buddhists do engage with a higher reality, and they worship the Buddha and other famous Buddhists as exemplars. 

·        A main issue for Buddhists is feeling trapped in an endless cycle of painful life after painful life.  The Buddha found the escape route and encapsulated it in his teaching. 

·        Buddhism has an ethical framework involving Karma which is self regulating and does not require a judging deity.  Because the consequences of your actions follow “as the cart follows the ox”, Buddhists are very concerned for the quality of their ethical life.

·        While much of Buddhism can appear very Humanist there is the whole visionary, devotional, imaginative, transcendental aspect.

There a few basic beliefs

·        We believe that the Buddha was Enlightened

·        We believe that we too can become Enlightened

·        We believe that we can change to become less deluded and violent, and become more aware, kindly and wise

·        We do not have to believe in rebirth

·        We do not need a creation myth – rather the optimism of a creative mind instead

·        We believe in Karma instead of a punishing judging god.

What we do is more important

·        regular practice:  sitting meditation practice leads to transcendent experiences.

·        going on retreat: essential for enough time to meditate in good conditions.

·        practical ethical practice:  involving action, word and thought (e.g.  vegetarianism, kindly speech, no alcohol, or less alcohol)

·        Sangha or community:  a strong emphasis on friendship and Kalyana Mitrata  – mentoring or spiritual friendship

·        working together and living together: there is a strong emphasis on this but not many of us manage to do it.

What does it mean to be aware, to get in touch with yourself?

(even though there is no ‘self’ to get in touch with!)

·        Sit still -in the right posture (under the influence of Buddha’s posture)

·        Become aware of your experience as it is

·        Sit with the experience you are having

·        Do a simple body scan – engage with body-asbreathing. 

·        Engage with the flow of events coming into consciousness and leaving your consciousness.  Reflect on there being no substantial essence to any of that experience. 

·        Become aware of being aware

·        Acknowledge that there is more to be aware of than your awareness can encompass – ie awareness of Reality and of the Transcendent

·        Invite what is ‘more’ to inhabit what is ‘aware’.  Invite what is ‘aware’ to inhabit what is ‘more.  Finish slowly and gently. 

There are a few rituals

There is no baptism, but there can be a baby naming ceremony

There is no confirmation equivalent but there is the Mitra ceremony of full acceptance

There is no specific wedding ceremony as marriage is not a sacrament

A funeral more for those alive than for the dead, so there is no set text or ritual

We do not observe Christmas or Easter though some of us celebrate the Pagan Solar festivals and Full Moons and you cannot avoid the social paroxysm of Christmas!

Regular Puja or worship/devotion is a very important part of Buddhist practice

There are regular festivals:-

Paranirvana Day (marking the final passing away of the Buddha – not a ‘death’)

Buddha Day (celebration of his Enlightenment)

Dharma Day (celebration of the first teaching)

Sangha day (celebration of the Sangha or spiritual community)

Food

Attitudes to the ethics of food vary widely.  Some take the first ethical precept (avoid harming living beings) seriously and become vegetarian or vegan; others will say that they will eat what they are given with gratitude.

Removal of shoes

On entering Buddhist households and places of worship people usually take off outdoor shoes.  Attitudes to wheelchair users vary.  Some people see the wheels as outside shoes and won’t want the chair in the temple, others are more pragmatic.  If in doubt, ask!

Religious artefacts

Buddha Day shrine.jpg 

 

 

Households and places of worship may have a shrine with a picture or a figure of the Buddha – there is no concept of sacrilege or blasphemy in Buddhism so disrespect is seen as your ignorance, and doesn’t threaten anything.  It is important to Buddhists to show reverence to the shrine and make offerings of flowers, candles or incense.

Jnanamitra, of the Triratna Buddhist Order

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A personal reflection on Buddhism’s presence in Ipswich and its impact on Suffolk

As already stated, Buddhism is a Western term for a religion focusing on the transformation of self and the world through meditation practice, reflection, worship, and a peaceful ethical lifestyle.  To call Buddhism ‘non-theistic’ may be unhelpful as the qualities of the transcendental would be familiar to many theistic believers.  But we have noted that there is no judging deity, and fewer beliefs.  Karma takes care of actions having consequences, so no ultimate judge is needed.

Buddhism is often identified by an image of a monk with shaven head and wearing orange robes – but ever since it was founded 2,500 years ago by the Buddha Shakyamuni, it has been a way of life and hope for all people, men and women, young and old, wearing all sorts of clothes and hair styles.  In its long history the faith has travelled great distances, and taken on the flavour of many cultures – and now in our post-colonial era, different flavours of Buddhism from all over the world, as well as new Buddhist religious movements, can be found in this country and in Suffolk.

The Triratna Buddhist Order, of which I am a member, is a new religious movement started in 1968 by an Englishman, ordained as Sangharakshita, who spent 20 years as a Buddhist monk in India.  One of the features of the Triratna Buddhist Community is that we base our Buddhist Centres, as we call them, in the heart of towns and cities, and we offer classes in meditation  and Buddhism to all who want to learn.

We started in Ipswich in 1986 in the front room of a house in Spring Road, then in various venues including the SIFRE hut at the College, and now have our own Buddhist Centre by the Axa building. 

I am delighted that, over 26 years, many hundreds of people have benefitted from learning how to meditate, and am proud of those who have gone on to commit themselves and have been ordained into the Triratna Order, which is open to women and men equally.

Buddha Day, or Wesak, is one of our main festivals, held on the full moon day of April or May, to celebrate the Enlightenment of the Buddha.  Last year we held our festival on the Cornhill, and invited other local Buddhist organisations to join us – we were very pleased to be able to celebrate the day with the Sri Lankan Buddhist community, members of Soka Gakkai International, and the Thich Nhat Hanh Order of Interbeing.

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Thich Nhat Hanh- Buddhist Monk

ThichNhatHanhOne of the best known Buddhist teachers in the West, Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings and practices appeal to people from various religious, spiritual, and political backgrounds.  He was nominated for the nobel peace prize by Martin Luther King.  He created the Order of Interbeing in 1964, and established monastic and practice centres around the world.  He offers a practice of mindfulness adapted to Western sensibilities and has provided us with a version of the Five Precepts (common to all Buddhist traditions) called the Five Mindfulness Trainings, that is a list of ethical guidelines Currently, his home is Plum Village Monastery in the South of France and he travels internationally leading retreats and giving talks.  He coined a term translated into English as "Engaged Buddhism." The Community of Interbeing UK website has more information about Thich Nhat Hanh and the Order of Interbeing.  Go to www.interbeing.org.uk

Words of wisdom from Thich Nhat Hanh

"Life can be found only in the present moment.  The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life."

"To be beautiful means to be yourself.  You don't need to be accepted by others.  You need to accept yourself"

"Waking up this morning, I smile.  Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.  I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion."

"My actions are my only true belongings."

"Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings.  By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species.  If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth...  This is the real message of love

"Life is available only in the present moment."

"Keeping your body healthy is an expression of gratitude to the whole cosmos, the trees, the clouds, everything."

"Until there is peace between religions, there can be no peace in the world."

Five Mindfulness Trainings can be used by anyone in today's world to create a more harmonious and peaceful life by Thich Nhat Hanh.

The First Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals.  I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

The Second Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well being of people, animals, plants and minerals.  I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need.  I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others.  I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

The Third Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society.  I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment.  To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others.  I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

The Fourth Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.  Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope.  I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure.  I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break.  I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

The Fifth Mindfulness Training:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming.  I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.  I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations.  I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations.  I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society.  I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

(Excerpted from "For a Future to Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts" (1993) by Thich Nhat Hanh,Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.)

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Isabelle Wen’s Story

I was born in Norwich of a French mother and English father.  After graduating from university I spent 6 years in China teaching English and studying acupuncture.  I only had a very vague interest in Buddhism then but I suppose I started to get my head around the Asiatic way of looking at things.

My first contact with the Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh's was a Day of Mindfulness organised by SIFRE at the Friends Meeting House in Ipswich, probably in the late 1990s.  Then in 2001 I went with my two daughters (then 7 and 9), to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's monastic community in the south-west of France.  We all had a fantastic time and I found my spiritual home.  There happened to be 5 people from Ipswich there that summer and we have continued to meditate together every week since then.

We now form the Ipswich Sangha of the Community of Interbeing which is the national organisation of people practising in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh in the UK.  We have several off-shoot sanghas in different parts of Suffolk including Dunwich, and Lawshall near Bury St Edmunds.

In 1997 I became a member of Thich Nhat Hanh's lay Order of Interbeing which entails a commitment to practice 14 Mindfulness Trainings, to represent Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition in this country and to help build the sangha.  We organise national and regional retreats attended by Thich Nhat Hanh, other monastics and Dharma Teachers, amongst other activities.

Buddhism is not so much a religion for me as a practice.  Beliefs don't play a large role, and in fact we are strongly encouraged not to take anything 'on trust' but to test out all principles in our own lives, and especially not to try to force them on anyone else.

Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings are eminently practical.  Mindfulness is his core practice.  Mindfulness leads to a better understanding of myself, and therefore everything around me including other people.  When I can see a situation clearly it's much easier to see the solutions to problems.  It's all about "keeping it real!", i.e.  seeing reality for what it really is.

Mindfulness of the breath is particularly helpful for the body and mind, and is the basis of most meditation techniques.

My daily meditation practice (supported by regularly attending the sangha) helps to keep me calm, grounded and resilient in times of stress.  I'm so lucky that Thich Nhat Hanh also very much emphasises the importance of sowing the seeds of mindfulness in children and young people so that now the practices are helping my daughters in the difficult process of growing up.

Now that my daughters have both left home I have more time to help teach these wonderful tools to other children by organising Family Retreats and visiting local schools to talk about Buddhism and mindfulness.

By starting the process of watering the seeds of peace in myself I can see the effect on everything and everyone around me: a wonderful manifestation of Interbeing, another core Buddhist concept (we are all so interconnected that there is actually no separation between us).

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Nichiren Buddhism (SGI)

I first met this practice 25 years ago, just after my first child was born.  Running up to her birth the burgeoning responsibility of parenthood seemed to add urgency to my search for answers to questions about the purpose of being alive.  Senses honed to all things spiritual, I started to read about different faiths and practices and to open my life to some new ideas.  It soon became apparent that Buddhism was my natural spiritual home; a deep respect for the dignity and sanctity of life, the cyclical nature of birth and death, and the notion that we ourselves are the divine “stuff” of the universe in contrast to being in a relationship with an external and omnipotent being, all seemed to resonate with me at the deepest level.  I read some of the classic Buddhist texts then finally decided to visit a retreat centre in Hemel Hempstead; it was a truly wonderful experience.  However, back in daily life the practice was difficult to sustain.  Enlightenment appeared to be a lofty ideal far removed from the realities of paying the bills, earning a living and bringing up children.  I was faced with a dilemma; on the one hand I felt the urge to detach myself from the maelstrom of the 9 to 5, the tensions of family life and the general social milieu, on the other hand, I had a good job that I enjoyed doing, a loving family I wanted to be part of, and many close friendships worth preserving.  So I put the journey on hold. 

When my daughter was a few months old I came across some literature produced by the lay organisation Soka Gakkai International (SGI) about Nichiren Buddhism.  At first I was intrigued by the pictures of very ordinary relaxed smiling people that seemed somehow to be lit from the inside.  The ever-present cynic in me wondered how they’d managed to orchestrate such natural looking images.  There were no monks, nuns, robes or sandals, people seemed to be from a very diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, and a wide range of ages. 

 I made some enquiries and eventually decided to attend a local discussion meeting.  So with no idea what to expect and a certain amount of trepidation, I found myself knocking on the front door of a small semi-detached house in Braintree one evening.  After a warm welcome I was ushered into the living room where six or seven people were chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo in front of a scroll with odd looking characters on it that was hung inside a small cupboard, not much bigger than a box of A4 paper.  It seemed strange but also somehow familiar and uplifting.  The chanting was followed by a discussion based on Buddhist principles in which people talked about their personal experiences of practicing of Nichiren Buddhism.  I was moved by their openness and honesty and inspired by the way they faced and overcame the issues they encountered in daily life. 

By the end of the evening I’d come to understand that Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo is the name of a natural principle or Law governing the workings of life in the universe and that chanting is an expression of our personal determination to live and act in harmony with this Law.  When I asked why there were no statues of the Buddha, I was told that rather than chanting or meditating in front of an image representing the life of the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni), Nichiren had instead directed his followers to focus on a scroll called the Gohonzon (honourable object of worship) which represents the Buddha qualities (wisdom, courage, compassion and life energy – our greater self) existing in our own lives and in the lives of all others without exception.  The Gohonzon, then, is a kind of mirror, and chanting to it helps us reflect on and develop our own lives and our concern and compassion for others in society.  Thus, from the perspective of Nichiren Buddhism, Buddhahood is a dynamic state we can choose to manifest and cultivate; it’s not something beyond the reach of ordinary people in their current life time. 

Over the years, this profound and pragmatic practice has become part of my daily life.  Its values and philosophy have been the tree under which my husband and I have brought up four children, two of whom have chosen to practice themselves.  It has given me a sense of purpose and enriched my life by taking me down paths and connecting me to people and experiences I could never have imagined.  It has changed the way I look at the world, how I feel about myself and what I see in others.  Of course, life is sometimes difficult and the inner cynic still exists but for the most part it occupies a much less dominant role - I gossip less, slander less, face my problems and sleep better at night!  

Small, friendly discussion meetings, like the one I attended in Braintree twenty five years ago, happen in cities, towns and villages all over the country on a monthly basis.  For more information see www.sgi-uk.org

Joy van Helvert

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Nichiren Buddhist (SGI)

Some background

Don’t be fooled by my name, I’m a Suffolk man, this has always been my home.  I was born in 1961 to working class parents, coming into the world in the bedroom of our council house.  Children have been described as the flowers of their culture, so I guess I was a flower of the “Spirit of ‘45”, the post-war Labour landslide that created the NHS, built our solid home with its sizeable garden on Ipswich’s Chantry estate, and gave me a good education.  The jewel of education was planted by two primary school teachers (Mrs Massey & Mr Grimwood); it’s been a pillar of my life - I went on to University, ultimately gaining six HE awards in very different subjects.

In my teens I saw the film Akenfield.  Its portrait of village life, rooted and entwined in this Suffolk landscape, had a profound impact on me and illustrates a second pillar of my life – a deep connection to nature.  I spent twenty years of my adult life in Suffolk villages, six of these living in an organic farming community (I’m a life member of the soil association and believe industrial farming to be a grave, inhumane error which will come back to bite us all).  I’m a committed environmentalist and work in this field (formerly for Friends of the Earth, latterly for local government).  I’ve been a Morris dancer for 22yrs; the dance and music is for me, not only performance and community, but also a spiritual practice in its own way, that helps connect me to land and life.

And a third pillar - my wife and family: a daughter, two sons, a stepdaughter, a grandson; and a granddaughter arriving in a month’s time.

So how come I’m a Buddhist?

There’s a quote in the documentary film ‘An Ecology of Mind’:

“You might think you’re thinking your own thoughts; you’re not, you’re thinking your culture’s thoughts.  The major problems in the world result from the difference between how nature works and how people think.  What does it even mean to change the way we think?”

Through my 20s I became aware I’d been socialised into my culture’s Western Enlightenment way of thinking, and that despite its technological achievements, this thinking had some serious limitations.  Its machine metaphor, reductionism and dualism offered me no profound insight into the nature of life, consciousness and meaning.  And its materialist ideologies (communism, capitalism) seemed to cause as much if not more inhumanity and suffering than any that went before.  The crisis in Western Enlightenment civilisation and thinking is well illustrated I feel by its impotence in addressing two problems that threaten our very existence: environmental degradation and nuclear weapons.  (Stephan Harding’s ‘Animate Earth’ and Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘’The Science Delusion’ are recent books exploring some of these issues)

Western religion (with its creator god and a deified Jesus) failed to address these issues for me, in fact seemed to be the seed of the Enlightenment cul-de-sac.  I was drawn instead to eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism; but many Buddhist writings seemed to have a tendency toward nihilism and escapism.  Then, through my second wife, I found the writings of Daisaku Ikeda and the SGI movement that had grown around the world under Ikeda’s leadership.  I’ve been a member of this movement now for 20 yrs.

What has Nichiren Buddhism and the SGI given me?

I’ve found not only a profound philosophy which addresses the issues I mentioned above, but also a daily practice chanting nam myoho renge kyo that helps develop inner strength, courage, wisdom and compassion to embrace others.  It’s not some magic panacea but a tool to use in our continuing struggle to create meaning and value in our lives (breaking through our delusions, anguish, fear, lack of self worth and depression).  Some days I win, some days I lose, but the teachings and practice I’ve found, and the support of my faith community, are treasures in my life.

I’d been working in ICT for a number of years when I met the practice (initially in the city, then in local government).  My Buddhist practice helped me develop the courage to change direction, initially into teaching and then into the Environmental field.  In my personal life it has helped me develop deep respect for my first wife, despite the differences that led us to part, as we continued to share the up bringing of our two children.  It also helped me in my step parenting and helped me cherish and support my mother during her final years.  And last but not least, coming back to my name, my practice has helped me transform my experience with my father, as follows.

Deeply appreciating my heritage

For my first eleven years Dad was the most important person in my life; then he was gone, coronary heart disease through smoking too much.  It wasn’t just the pain of his loss, but also not having him around to help me explore who I was, that used to cause me great suffering.  He’s been dead 40 yrs, but my relationship with him has continued as I’ve explored the ancestry he gave me, and learnt more about the events that shaped his life.

Dad was born and grew up in Suriname when it was a Dutch colony.  It’s in the tropics on the South American mainland and has a Caribbean culture.  His father (my namesake) was Dutch.  His mother was Creole, relatively light skinned (since her father was a poor German immigrant and her maternal grandfather a Dutch Jewish immigrant).  She was the daughter of a woman born into slavery who became free as a child following abolition.  My twin half sisters, my cousins and I are the first generation of our grandmother’s line to be entirely white.

My Dad was drafted into the Dutch army at the start of WW2, fought from Suffolk and settled here.  He helped liberate his father’s home town, won the Netherlands’ highest award for bravery, had his left leg blown off two days before the war ended, suffered post traumatic stress which saw him attempt suicide and led to the failure of his first marriage (my twin half sisters grew up in the States, I was 30 and they were 44 when we first met).  Dad won through though – worked on building sites as a painter and decorator for 20 yrs (despite having only one leg), married my mother, was a good father to me, but couldn’t give up the fags; he needed them to hold it together.

I’ve come to realise that not only my father’s ancestry, but also his premature death, was a great gift.  It’s driven me to understand my personal and our collective history.  I’m the son of an immigrant; I’m a mongrel, personally connected to issues like colonialism, slavery, racism, the fight against fascist thinking, and the horrors of war.  This has opened up my heart and mind to many things.

Twelve million very different individuals, one common cause

I’ve shared this picture of me, a Buddhist here in Suffolk, to help dispel any stereotypes people may have.  I suppose those who read it might now think all SGI members are just like me, but we’re actually a very mixed bunch.  There’s a few famous names (Orlando Bloom, Howard Jones, Sandie Shaw, Roberto Baggio); but for the most part we’re pretty normal!

The SGI movement has around 50 members in Suffolk, 11k cross the UK (from all walks of life and all ethnic groups), 100k across Europe and 12m worldwide.  We’re ordinary people living alongside everyone else in communities and countries around the world (see: www.sgi.org and www.sgi-uk.org for more info); there’s nothing that particularly marks us out.

Ikeda is in his 80s now and has led an amazing value creating life.  He is our inspiration and our mentor.  You might not have heard of him (see: www.daisakuikeda.org for more info) but to illustrate the esteem in which his accomplishments are held around the world, the university attended by Martin Luther King, when creating an award to honour King, eventually settled on calling it the Gandhi, King, Ikeda award.

The heart of our faith is belief in, and respect for, all life.  This includes respecting freedom of thought, religious freedom, and a commitment to dialogue (these values are written into our constitution).

Janus v.  Helvert, Ipswich, April 2013

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Living Life as a Buddhist

I was born in Basingstoke to Indian parents, grew up in Calcutta (now Kolkata, India)  and lived in London for a while before moving to Suffolk 14 years ago.  My childhood was spent discovering Indian traditions, culture, food, heritage and especially the many religions.

I went to a convent school and so had to understand Catholic teachings and I was also influenced by Methodism.  Growing up in India, in a secular country, we had to embrace all religions and it brings tremendous awareness of different forms of worship and so I was exposed to Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and of course Hinduism from my family.  To this day, I still respect all religions and celebrate all festivals from various religious cultures, despite being a practising Buddhist.

I have always been attracted to the teachings of the Buddha and found calm and peace in the sanctuary of a Buddhist temple, stupa or monastery whilst visiting Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim and Bhutan, when spending my summer school holidays there.  These places and parts of Leh, Ladakh in the Himalayan region practise the Mahayana tradition of Tibetan form of Buddhism and since those early days, even whilst in Calcutta, I have preferred the smiley monks at the monasteries to the hullabaloo of the temples.  As a child, I have always loved listening to the stories of Prince Siddhartha and how he renounced everything to become the Buddha, especially The Four Sights.  I still love reading them and reciting them to my 8 year old niece, Angelica.  I have also loved learning about how Buddhism has influenced certain kings and rulers in India and brought about transformation in them and their kingdom, for example, Ashoka and his conversion to Buddhism and how he helped to spread Buddhism to other parts of the world and his legacy still lives on in present India (Ashoka pillar).

I haven’t converted to Buddhism; instead I follow the Buddha’s teachings in my everyday life.  To me, Buddhism is not so much a religion – but a practice in beliefs and principles in our own lives.  It is a deeply personal journey I wish to follow – a spiritual belief and progress in life to live a good life and do good to the community.

I am committed to the 3 Jewels and seek refuge in the Buddha (the awakened/ enlightened one), the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (the community).  If I feel I am in danger or am extremely worried about something I say the 3 words (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) and it gives me strength and focus.  I uphold the Four Noble Truths concerning the cycle of desire and suffering and accepting the daily changes, disappointments and expectations in life.  I believe if you train the mind and become aware of your actions, thoughts and words, you are able to deal with adverse situations and develop a more healthy balanced living.

_Pic3 In everything I do, say, think or behave, I follow the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path -  having the right view or understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration/meditation.  To me they give me guidance to live life whilst I am at work, at home or being with friends and family or in the community and in the outside world.  Just like the wheel which propels motion, similarly the teachings of the noble eightfold path propel me and give me guidance and structure in life.

I have a shrine with figures of the Buddha and show reverence to the shrine and make offerings of flowers, candles and incense almost every day after I return home from work.  I may sit and reflect on the day’s activities for a few minutes or may wish to meditate longer, depends on my busy schedule !

I believe life can be found only in the present moment because everything is impermanent and everything changes each moment.  If you are aware of this principle then you are better able to deal with things and let go and better able to influence the process of pain, suffering and happiness states of mind.  I prefer the Buddha’s Middle Way (not too little and neither too extreme) of choosing to do things in life so am not a vegetarian ( my body needs protein as I am a dancer) and I drink in moderation (so I do not cloud the mind).

I can also cite another example why I practice Buddhism and feel a sense of deep connection … my name Sujata originates in Buddhism as she was the person who gave rice milk to the Buddha after he gained enlightenment on that full moon night.

I follow right livelihood and work in the public, charitable sector and community enterprises only.  My life is embedded in doing good work in the community and helping people.  Apart from doing full time work, I give my time and skills and volunteer in many charities in Suffolk as well as supporting various community events.  I continue to give presentations and talks in various schools and playgroups in Suffolk on Buddhism and Living Life as a Buddhist.  I met my fiancé, Julian whilst attending lunchtime meditation classes in Ipswich and we continue to enjoy exploring aspects of Buddhism and its teachings.

I complete every equal opportunity monitoring form or a survey proudly stating I am a Buddhist and most people in the community seem to be aware about Buddhism, so I do not feel the need to explain why I am a Buddhist.  I know many Buddhists in Ipswich and Suffolk and access different Buddhist community centres locally, in London or in UK or overseas, wherever I happen to be.  I listen to talks and teachings and love visiting Buddhist places and architecture.  I do not feel the need to attend a centre to practice meditation or go on retreats, as I can do this at home or just sitting in my garden – I want to train my mind to “switch off” no matter where I am as this I found was the most difficult aspect of meditation.  I continue to access and embrace the teachings of the Dalai Lama ….  “Achieving genuine happiness may require bringing about a transformation in your outlook, your way of thinking, and this is not a simple matter”

Sue Raychaudri

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On being a transsexual and Buddhist

Two shaven headed men wearing colourful yellow robes, draped to their toes, walk mindfully down ancient steps, along a path made from large worn stones, and enter a huge wooden building with curved gables and heavily carved eaves.  Taking their shoes off at the entrance they enter the dark interior where sounds of deep male voices can be heard chanting something mysterious and unintelligible.  The camera pulls back revealing the building in its landscape of steep woods and mountains, threads of mist giving depth and mystery to the scene.  The leaves of the trees are touched by autumn colours.

She leans back in the sofa laughing to her friends and presses STOP and EJECT.

"If only it was as simple as it looks in a Kung Fu movie!" she says  "How can we convey the experience of what we Buddhists are without having to explain everything?"  The question is met by smiles and nodding of heads, because she spends hours every week doing just that, talking to people who have come to her meditation class about what meditation really is, and how it can be done by ordinary people, in casual clothes, in our ordinary homes in our towns in the UK today by anyone who is willing to learn and to practice, never mind in misty temples, which are for men only, far far away.

Those people coming to the meditation class do not realise that she is a post-op male-to-female transsexual, not that there is any real risk of the kind of violence we see in the film `Boys Don't Cry' about the short life of female-to-male transsexual Brandon, as ‘he’ mixes going out dressed as a man (whilst still having an untreated female form beneath), with being sexually active picking up women and acting rough and tough with the lads, amidst much beer and fags in redneck boondocks USA, with fatal consequences.

In contrast the Buddhist community we find here is relatively civilised, non-violent, alcohol free and kindly.  Everyone who has become more seriously involved knows that she is TS, but that knowledge is part of knowing her well, and the core of the community have known her all through the process, and are familiar with it to the point of boredom.

I will now let her tell her story

I remember a time when I wasn’t Buddhist (I had a middle class English Church of England upbringing), and I really hoped I wasn’t transsexual, but that’s a long time ago and you can read it in my book, when I write it.  Back then I was interested in learning to meditate because I thought that, if I was able to concentrate more easily, I would be more effective in my life.  At the same time I was opening up to my transsexualism by attending a self-help group in Islington, London.  I saw them as two quite different things.

The Buddhism I encountered was a second generation form led by an Englishman who had been a monk in India for 20 years and who has really tried to pare away the cultural accretions of the centuries so that modern Westerners could engage with Buddhist practice in a way that is relevant to our lifestyle, culture and experience.  But that didn’t mean that the movement he started was ready for the modern West in the form of a transsexual.

I like Buddhism because it is relatively free of beliefs, it is very pragmatic and practical; it involves doing things, practising.  It says you can change, because everything is impermanent and it changes anyway, so by engaging with it through awareness you become able to influence the process.  Meditation practice is fundamentally about sitting still, being open to your experience as it is, and meanwhile making an effort to focus on, say, the sensations of your breath (different meditation practices involve focusing on different things through progressive stages).  What you quickly become aware of is two things, firstly it’s incredible difficult to do, because in no time you find you've been thinking about something else, and secondly when you are able to concentrate, to focus, it is blissfully enjoyable.  Once you experience that bliss you want more. 

The snag is that you need to be able to focus in a wholehearted relaxed way, and this is very difficult if a part of you is jumping up and down saying `hey I'm a girl, I've gotta change to being more like a girl, like this!, and this!'

So I have had no choice in the end but to pursue a resolution of my transsexualism whilst at the same time deepening my practice of Buddhism.  Going back to popular images of Buddhism in the movies it appears that all you have to do is to say you are a Buddhist, sip tea mindfully, and all your emotions have gone and you are calm as Dr Spock.  It’s actually more like sailing a fragile canoe down wild rapids, your raw experience is like the rapids, turbulent and with rocks in, and your new awareness, born of meditation, just manages to hold its own but can crumple on a rock at any minute.  Meditating is a skill which you learn and the learning never stops because life never stops changing.

Whenever I meditated I was aware that my transsexualism was there, and I realised it caused me a lot of suffering.

Buddhism says that life involves suffering.  I found this a relief because I realised that I was suffering, and that that wasn’t my fault.  I think our times can be difficult because we are supposed to enjoy life, and if we are not it’s because we are not doing something right, we have a problem which needs fixing - by buying some new product, or a new dress, or a new therapy, or by ending this relationship and starting another. 

Buddhism says that suffering inevitably follows all of these solutions because they are based on craving, and they are also impermanent.  But the great thing is that impermanence also means there is a freedom for new things to grow; things can change, you do not have to be stuck with how you are.  True change is not so much tinkering with your external life, it’s more being able to change your attitudes - the really basic views that you have built up through your life which act as a filter, through which you see the world, which distort how you perceive things and other people affecting you, leading you to respond inappropriately, giving rise to yet more suffering, for others as well as yourself.  It’s a chain reaction thing, everybody’s doing it.  Buddhists see it as a wheel of misjudgements leading to inappropriate actions leading to further misjudgements, a constant movement of frustration and pain.  But if you become more aware through practice, if you become interested in changing your deep-seated attitudes, then you cease to misjudge so much, you respond appropriately and you taste the wonderful taste of freedom.

Right from the beginning, I enjoyed learning about these ideas, which seemed to articulate what I had always felt, and I enjoyed exploring meditation.

What really attracted me was listening to talks on the theme of radical transformation - since I really disliked my current experience; the idea that I could change radically to become something else was exciting.  Buddhism held out a promise that I could overcome suffering, including apparently my transsexualism, by achieving insight into the nature of Reality, by changing my `filter' so that I saw the world more how it really is. 

This promise was very attractive because I didn’t like being transsexual, it seemed to really mess your life up.  What I had seen of other TS's didn’t inspire me with confidence, they lost their families, their jobs, too many ended up depressed and on sickness benefit, they were often rather neurotic, and were resistant to the idea that anything about them could profitably be explored or changed

This was where I was at for many years - I meditated daily, I attended my local Buddhist Centre where I found many friends, I went away on retreats at beautiful rural retreat centres for several weeks a year.  I loved it, I felt I was going somewhere.

The problem was that after many years of practice I realised that the suffering emanating from my transsexualism was as strong as ever, it was like a turbulent rush of waters deep in my being.  I could bury that experience temporarily, or I could sometimes transcend it in a rush of bliss as my meditation, suddenly released from the turbulence, soared into higher realms of consciousness, but in the end I had to get on with life, and that life included being transsexual.  I tried all sorts of different strategies - tried just being it (how on earth do you do that?), I tried being open about it to my mystified friends, I tried writing the fantasies, or even some judicious acting out, which all helped a bit, but I kept coming back to the same point that whatever I did, the rushing turbulent waters were still there and my suffering led me to being grumpy and difficult, moody and preoccupied.  And that meant that, as I saw it, there was a ceiling, a limit, on the effectiveness of my practice of meditation and on my ability to live an effective Buddhist life.  However, up to this point I had earned the approval of my Buddhist seniors by, as we say `Being aware of it and working on it'.  I was able to keep going because I still held out hope that somehow I could crack the thing through intense meditation practice.

What happened was the opposite - I did crack it, but by realising that although all things are impermanent, my transsexualism was part of my body (At this point I hear you all laughing and saying `Yea she finally got it!')  The hope I had of change ‘through the inside’ vanished, along with my motivation to continue to endure things as they were.

So having realised that my transsexual experience was there because it was part of my body, not a view or a belief or past Karma, and that it would pass when I died, but in the meantime would continue to give me hell, I thought that maybe I could reduce the suffering it caused by going to the doctor.  So then began the next phase where I hoped to be able to manage things just by taking hormones,  just to reduce the pain and suffering a bit, and meanwhile I'd carry on as normal. 

Having already had the Charing Cross experience* I decided to go Private, and went to see Russell Reid in London.

I feared that I had released the brake on a hugely powerful underground process and I feared the consequences for me and the life I had built up within the Buddhist movement - I had so much invested in my life as it was, and I was not confident that the Buddhist Order of which I am a part would be open to me transitioning from the men's part of the Order to the women's.  (At least our Order was different from tradition in that there was ordination for women)  The fear I felt was quite something - one bizarre effect, which took me quite a while to understand, was I started having stomach trouble, I kept burping.  I would have episodes which would go on for hours - often half the day or more which would only end when I went to bed.  I tried diet changes, fasting, I went to the doctor, had tests at the hospital, it was really uncomfortable.  It felt like my whole insides were full of air and no way could I get it out, I'd do these burps like a seal’s bark, very embarrassing. 

The doc said I was swallowing air but I had no feeling of doing that - or that it was a response to fear.  Eventually a friend said maybe, when I felt wind in my stomach, I should concentrate simply on breathing evenly and let the sensation die away and it worked!  What was happening was that the action of trying to release air from my stomach did the opposite and drew air down!  It led me to practising being more mindful of the sensations in my stomach and that led me to becoming aware of the effects on me of coping, which I will come to later.

The hormones definitely helped for a couple of years but by then my appearance had begun to change and I was beginning to be taken for a woman in public - for example when paying for some clothes with my Debit card one day the cashier said `This is your husband's card madam' (Get out of that one!)   It really is very weird never quite knowing how you are being perceived, and having to avoid public loos (Thank goodness for the increasing number of unisex disabled loos!)  I finally cracked when I was in a big gathering of men Order members and just felt so deeply in the wrong place, and so many of them were beginning to respond to me in a funny way because they could see my increasingly womanly looks.  I just phoned for a taxi and left.  I couldn’t cope with living the lie of being a man any more.  The problem was that as far as others were concerned, they saw it the other way round, that my being a man was true, and my emerging femaleness was an artificially constructed lie.

I managed to give about 6 weeks’ notice that I was going to Transition which didn’t go down very well in the wider order, even locally with my friends, because they saw me all the time, they couldn’t  see what I was making all the fuss about.  I think they were fearful of me somehow being a shocking spectacle.  There was a feeling amongst the more senior members of the women’s wing of the order that I had presented a fait accompli, that I had put myself in a difficult position and that the women's wing of the Order should feel no pressure to accept me.  One of the senior men wrote to me saying he was baffled by my action and surely I was taking the conflict I felt within myself and projecting it out onto everyone else.  I felt that these responses were a bit rich considering I had always been open about being transsexual and about how I was trying to work with it, and the situation I was in was partly a result of the culture in the Order and prevailing beliefs about gender.  There is disbelief about the transsexual process.  We are western Buddhists, and yet are we really open to the civilisation of which we are a part? a civilisation which has, through medical developments and social change, brought about the phenomenon of gender transition. 

I mentioned above how inspiring I had found the talks about radical transformation, but I think that may lead to an exaggerated idea of the scope of change that can be brought about by meditation practice.  When I look around me at my Buddhist friends, whom I have known for many years, I can see the effect that their practice has had, but it’s radical in the sense that they have become kinder, wiser - they are still the same kind of person, recognisable, having the same character traits.  If anything their uniqueness and individuality is more apparent, but nowhere do I see changes that are out of character, such as a non-numerate person becoming numerate, or a chronically untidy person becoming tidy.  Those who had health problems back then still have them.  The changes are qualitative, their quality of life is improved and they are more effective in their lives.

So you see my story of being a Buddhist and a Transsexual has moved through a number of episodes.  My transition in the ordinary world was straightforward because I am very lucky to be small and I pass easily, and I had waited until the effects of the hormones proved that I was passing in public whilst making no real effort to do so (contrary to the Charing Cross model), but amongst the people I cared most about it has not been at all easy.  The ideas and beliefs about gender held by my Buddhist friends meant they just did not believe me.

They believe that changing from a man to a woman is not possible.  I have been as clear as I can that I have not changed from a `man' to a `woman' in the full sense of what is meant by being a man or a woman.  I think that by being transsexual we are something different, we are in another place biologically; so for convenience I talk about myself as having been a transsexual living as a man, and I am now a transsexual living as a woman.  There's no point me shouting out that I AM a woman and have always been, which is what I feel, because why should they believe me? They don’t believe in the whole business of gender identity contrary to external sex, and the consequences to a person of having Gender Dysphoria, which is the medical term for the condition I was battling with, because they have a simplified idea of what gender really is – “a man is a man, and a woman is a woman”.  (*See *2 below)

I've just mentioned the idea of consequences.  One of the core insights of the Buddha was that actions have consequences, or rather, that your experience now is the consequence of an infinite network of previous actions by yourself and everything and everybody in the environment.  So I have thought quite a bit about the consequences of being transsexual.  Firstly there is the deep, deep underlying experience of uncertainty about what you are.  It’s like a sort of wobbling, you do not stand on firm ground, it wobbles.  A common misunderstanding about Buddhism is that it involves going beyond the `Self'; actually it’s more that you cannot find a `self', no matter how hard you look, but we do need to have a healthy sense of ourselves in order not to walk into things or walk all over others.  I think being transsexual affects how our sense of self develops when we are children, because we have this wobbling, this uncertainty, which makes it very difficult to develop a healthy stable sense of self.  It then follows that because our sense of self is unstable, uncertain, it’s very difficult to develop healthy relationships with others.  We mustn’t get this out of proportion, because relatively few people develop a healthy sense of self anyway, but I put this forward because I'm trying to understand how I tick and most of my friends just don't seem to have to deal with an uncertain sense of self in this way.  If you've grown up with this weird sense that you feel one thing about yourself inside, but the world around you keeps mirroring back the opposite, it has all sorts of consequences.  I think it’s hardly surprising many of us are a tad neurotic and obsessive.  I think that what we discover is that the way to resolve uncertainty is to become certain, to be definite that you are the gender you feel yourself to be, regardless of what the world mirrors back to you.  My Buddhist seniors wanted me to hang on in there with that uncertainty as my working ground.  As my teacher said "Why don't you work with your divided sense of yourself?"  Well, it just leads to too much suffering, and I'd had enough.

Having Transitioned there then followed a lengthy consensus process within the women's side, or wing, of the Order, which went through several stages, over three years, where gradually I was accepted.  I didn’t enjoy being both the messenger for something and at the same time its ambassador.  It wasn’t very nice for me as I continued to be the focal point of others’ uncertainty of me, but gradually it has evaporated.

You must be wondering why I didn’t just do a runner and get out from amongst these people!  I was very tempted, frequently, and was often despairing and bleak, and I still do get like that at times but I see it as an unavoidable part of my particular life experience which I need to ride out.  The order is really my family, my best friends are there, many of whom I have known for 20 years.

I feel a caution from my sisters in the Order, even now, around the role I can play in teaching women who are new to the movement.  In most jobs one's gender is not important as long as you can do the job, but here everything is gender specific, and so gender is a core part, women teach women, because they have more in common, a common life experience even though they may have very different ethnic backgrounds.

My life experience has been so unusual, I have not had to work with the sort of issues that most women face when trying to commit to a Buddhist way of life.  At the same time the issues I have had to work through, and what I have learned in the process, is so particular, so unusual as to not have much value, much currency.  I may be wrong here but this is what I suspect.

However, I have been able to stay in the Order for which I am very glad. 

Now, 7 years after `going to the doctor' and three years after surgery, the question is have I been able to break through that ceiling I felt was there in my practice?  Has it made the crucial difference?

From one point of view, the more physical and social, it has definitely worked.  Testosterone did seem to do something horrible to me, and I felt instantly better without it.  I am happy enough with my body as it is now; after surgery I felt an immediate improvement, although some aspects took some getting used to, like not having orgasms, and feeling so vulnerable.  I was expecting to be quite sexually wild after surgery, but was unprepared for the intense feelings of physical vulnerability I felt during recovery and still do now.  I'd need a very patient lover!  How I am `down there' is so utterly different, to how I used to be, that it takes a while to get to know how it works, and part of that was waiting for everything to heal properly and get over the fear that all my insides were going to fall out if I sneezed.  Also the surgery is so much more intricate and detailed than I thought was possible – it’s like being given a gift.  There's no comparison.

From the spiritual point of view I think transitioning and surgery has made my experience even more particular and individual – it’s difficult to put into words, and difficult to share with my friends.  The post-op experience is so, so different from the previous stages, it’s like changing from being a powerboat with its engine on the wrong end to being a sailing dingy, it just doesn’t compare.  So I am practising with a very different living experience. 

Part of this is to do with coping.  I think we become very good at coping - being transsexual is so lonely, so unspeakable when we are young that we learn to cope with it.  If you are coping with something unspeakable on a daily basis, you can get armoured, and other aspects of your experience disappear under the guarding layer too.  Meditation practice meant I became aware of those coping mechanisms, but the Op dissolved the final really big concrete block - what I called my Coping Stone, so now there isn’t any part of my experience held back, buried, suppressed.  But what has been revealed isn’t very refined, so in meditation for much of the time I still experience a lot of turbulence but now it’s more ordinary things like paranoia (nobody loves me!), anger and resentment and craving for a new kitchen.  I don’t feel the old gender angst any more which is lovely. 

One big fear I had was that I was giving in to craving, that my feeling that I was a woman, and my desire to be physically like a woman, was really just craving, a fantasy, and that when I had got it I would experience disappointment.  This has not proved to be the case thankfully.  It was the right thing to do.  It would be good to be able to change my birth certificate; the continuing state of affairs in this country is a great cruelty and fuels people's doubts about the gender reassignment process (*2)

I think that having to face up to this experience, and stand alone and face the loss of everything and come through it has made me more of a true being, a good Buddhist.  And hopefully I still have many years left to me in this lifetime, as a (hopefully) wise old woman, to continue to deepen my practice.

*1 The Charing Cross approach is the care model used by the Charing Cross hospital, the main Gender Identity clinic in the UK, which insists that their patients transition and do a ‘real life test’ for a year before they will prescribe hormones.  This consigns poorer people to living as a transvestite without the benefit of the physique changing effect of hormones.  Many people resort to acquiring hormones on the internet to bypass these gatekeepers.  Surgery is only available after the approved period of ‘real life test’ which involves proving you have been in a job – which may be an insuperable obstacle to many.

*2 I have now been able to change my birth certificate because the government, after years of lobbying from pressure groups, passed the appropriate laws to enable me to do that.  I now have a new birth certificate.  There is also an official method to enable me to do CRB checks whilst preserving my privacy.  As a friend said – I was transsexual and have got better, it’s not something I identify with, yet it’s not a secret either.  The support from this legal change has helped to soften the disbelief I had felt from my friends.

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