Beer and Buddhism : Memoir

They say that smoking is no longer cool. A guaranteed way to usher you along life’s path to an early grave, but in London you have no choice. You breathe in the smoke of the obnoxious car fumes every day. Gulp in huge bowls of the stuff. If it’s not the smells from the bullying traffic. It’s the way too personal smell of other people when being stuffed along the tube line at some unceremonious hour in the morning. So as you can imagine it was with great relief that I had received a letter from my friend Mara who had recently taken robes as a Tibetan Nun.

She had been tucked away in a monastery hidden amongst the foothills of some nondescript Scottish town. I had decided that it was a good excuse to get out of London and visit my spiritual friend, hoping that some of her accumulated goodness would wash away the filth from this belching town. It was convenient for me that this monastery, in the heart of Scotland, was just a direct train ride from London. This was my chance to stock up on some good karma. Revive my work ethic and make amends for the wrongs that I had done in this unforgiving city.   Before I could say, ‘Avalokitesvara’, which I couldn’t, I was off on a train towards the foothills of Dumfries.

After a few hours of pre-packed sandwiches and over-expensive, non-

Beer and Buddhism

They say that smoking is no longer cool. A guaranteed way to usher you along life’s path to an early grave, but in London you have no choice. You breathe in the smoke of the obnoxious car fumes every day. Gulp in huge bowls of the stuff. If it’s not the smells from the bullying traffic. It’s the way too personal smell of other people when being stuffed along the tube line at some unceremonious hour in the morning. So as you can imagine it was with great relief that I had received a letter from my friend Mara who had recently taken robes as a Tibetan Nun.

She had been tucked away in a monastery hidden amongst the foothills of some nondescript Scottish town. I had decided that it was a good excuse to get out of London and visit my spiritual friend, hoping that some of her accumulated goodness would wash away the filth from this belching town. It was convenient for me that this monastery, in the heart of Scotland, was just a direct train ride from London. This was my chance to stock up on some good karma. Revive my work ethic and make amends for the wrongs that I had done in this unforgiving city. Before I could say, ‘Avalokitesvara’, which I couldn’t, I was off on a train towards the foothills of Dumfries.

After a few hours of pre-packed sandwiches and over-expensive, non-branded coffee. I arrived in the small town of Lockerbie. Without thinking I was expanding my lungs to Superman size as my body greedily took in as much real air as possible. Real air. Fresh air. Scottish air. I drank in my surroundings and noted the lack of skyscrapers allowing me a reasonable panoramic vision of the area. Beautiful. I still had one more leg of the journey to go until I reached a small town called Eskdalemuir which was where the monastery was located. I hailed a cab and settled into the passenger seat allowing the view of the low-slung hills of Dumfries to decrease the erratic waves of my city mind. The countryside was dotted with cows, sheep and small cottages. It was the kind of life I would view through Sunday night television programmes. Dream places I would never think of going to. I leaned my head back and smiled to myself feeling secure in the arms of mother nature once again. The taxi driver was one hundred per cent Scottish. Complete with an accent thicker than my winter gloves.

‘Where ya goin?’ ‘Samye Ling. It’s a Tibetan Buddhist place along the road. Have you been there?’ ‘Oh aye sure. It’s thon wee Buddhist place. Karma and all that. It’s a nice place,’ he said and returned to his driving.

A nice place I thought. The word ‘nice’ would get you a suspicious look in the city but nice was good enough out here far away from the self-centred competitive mentality of London. He continued along the roads at an uncomfortable speed as I tried my best to empty my mind of work. Karma. What actually was karma? It was funny to think that I had spent years sitting in a Zen centre in the middle of London and somehow had managed to escape any serious teachings on Buddhism.

Karma. Action. The ripening of seeds that would have been sown, not just in this lifetime, but the many lives we have had before. I wondered for a while about my previous lives. Indulged me with delusions of some grand Egyptian Pharaoh, and then settled for a marauding Saxon Viking. As I pondered on the ever more elaborate and glamorous lives that I could have lived, my eyes caught the fluttering of multi-coloured flags. Bright colours of red, white, blue, and yellow were flapping from the washing lines outside of the small cottages that lined the road we travelled along. The flags were flying not just from the washing lines but the houses and trees. Just as we turned a corner I could see a large golden turret sprouting into the skyline. I suddenly felt I had been transported into some dreamland with all these colours shouting at me. The golden turret was part of a white monument known as a stupa. A ceremonial building used for worship.
Things almost took on a more surreal shape as more gold from the Tibetan Temple rose into view fighting space with the blue sky and white clouds.
I was reminded of the first stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’ as the taxi turned into the gates of Samye Ling and parked up.

‘In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a stately pleasure dome decree.’

This miracle dream was rudely interrupted by a not uncommon London phrase.
‘Oi Dave you asshole.’
I turned to see my friend Mara’s bald head and welcoming smile beam at me through the taxi window. I got out and retrieved my suitcase paying the taxi driver for his service. ‘Are you allowed to swear? Aren’t you supposed to be holy?’ I enquired jokingly.

‘I’m struggling. I’ve only been in robes for four weeks. I need to practice more.’ I went to give her a hug but she pulled back. ‘Oh so you can swear like a trooper but I can’t hug you. Nice one Mara.’ She looked at me funny.

‘I’m not Mara anymore. Sorry if I sound a bit anal but can you please call me Ani Padma.’
‘Ani Padma. Bloody hell. No problems Ani. Let’s drop my stuff of and go for a beer.’
‘Dave there’s no intoxicants here. This isn’t the world of Zen where all is allowed. You need to refrain from a few things when living on, or near a Monastery.’

My heart sank as Ani Padma led me to the Tibetan Café. Clearly there were some big differences between the world of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. While in the Café I was introduced to a very different crowd of people from the ones I knew at work. They used names such as Planet, Ranjung and Sky. They were all well-meaning modern-day hippies who lived and breathed the organic lifestyle. They were a million miles away from the friends I’d spend a Saturday night in with; all engrossed in popular game shows, a medium Chicken Tikka, and a couple of beers. This lot had spent years following the Buddha, travelling to India and Nepal for Buddhist teachings.

After a couple of cappuccinos I was given the A – Z of Tibetan Buddhism. In Zen it’s simple. You sit on your ass and one day you’ll become enlightened, or maybe one lifetime.

Tibetan Buddhism uses all things on the path to enlightenment; sight, sound, and colours are utilized to support and transform the thoughts and emotions of the mind from negative to positive. While in Zen you have Zazen. In Tibetan Buddhism you have mantras, visualizations, mudras, and prayers. Anything to get you there. After way too much coffee I joined my friend for a walk around the courtyard and into the main shrine room. I was immediately struck by the riot, splendour, and magnificence of all the colours that were displayed inside the shrine room. I watched as my friend fell to her knees and then spread her arms out in front of herself and then came back up again.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked. Almost whispering. But she hadn’t finished and kneeled down a further two times.
‘They’re called prostrations. The same as bowing. It’s about offering respect to the Buddha, but ultimately about bowing to the Buddha within yourself.’

I considered doing a few myself but was conscious of ruining my clothes. I continued to look around the shrine room while Ani continued with her duties. The beauty of the place made me feel uneasy. It wasn’t just the two foot high golden statue of the Buddha that put me in awe. There were hundreds of other smaller golden Buddha’s encased in glass, either side of the main statue.
I imagined myself bowing to all of them. Saying hello in my own way. I was surrounded by brightly coloured religious paintings known as Thangkas. They depicted a variety of deities that to me appeared quite terrifying. Some had four arms, and more. Some wielded swords. Some deities faces wouldn’t look to out of place on Halloween night. I was reassured by Ani Padma that the deities, some wrathful, some benevolent, were just manifestations of my own fears and poisons. They were here to help us on our path. I settled on one deity who appeared more cheerful. His name was Chenrezig. He only had four arms. He was the Lord of Compassion. Four arms I could handle.

Whatever my beliefs or motivations for coming here, Samye Ling had an air of goodness about the place. People came from all backgrounds. Some to learn Buddhism. Some just to escape from the stresses of their busy lives. It had the fresh air from the countryside and the fresh effort from the people who came here trying to understand themselves better. I settled in for the next few days taking walks around the grounds, and gulping up the fresh air. When you live in London you don’t realize how reluctant you are to fully stretch your lungs out. I had decided to stay a few days extra to gather my thoughts and try abstaining from beer for as long as I could. I sat in the café drinking my double mocha cappuccino with cream spiralling upwards, and a chocolate flake to the side. In no way was my increase in sugar relative to the decrease in alcohol. I think it was more boredom and the lack of everyday distractions that drove me to ever fancier and elaborate coffee drinks. I wondered briefly whether I could obtain nirvana just by increasing my sugar intake.

I had been attempting to read a book on the nature of emptiness and my head was aching. Of course I should have gone for something more straight forward ‘an Introduction to’ etc but just the name ‘emptiness’ drew me in with its esoteric allusions. It’s always nice to have something deep and profound to wave around while drinking coffee but if I was honest I was struggling with the introduction, let alone the chapters on the non-existence of the self. Lucky for me a more experienced Buddhist beside me noticed my confusion and came to my rescue.

‘That’s a fantastic book you have there. So lucid in its explanation on the meaning of emptiness,’ he said.

I smiled knowingly. Doing my best to hide my ignorance. I reached for the chocolate flake to take away the dull pain in my head. It looked like I was about to be enlightened by North London’s answer to Deepak Chopra. He leaned towards me as if he was about to reveal the mysteries of the universe.

‘Although the cup exists. It’s actually empty. What we mean by empty is the concept of the cup exists only in the mind, and the object that you see is made of many things which are dependent on each other.’

His voice trailed off as he started to look as doubtful as I did about his explanation. We both looked at the cup. I held its firmness. Observed its round curve. The fact that it was made of a base, and a handle, and on looking inside, he was right. It was empty. To save us any further embarrassment I ordered another deluxe chocolate drink, and it was very full indeed. After another super choc drink arrived my teacher had felt rejuvenated enough to try a further explanation.

‘It’s like this. We see the cup as a whole cup. An individual thing, much as we see ourselves as whole and separate, but in fact we are made up of many different things. All dependent on each other.’

We both stared at each other believing we had both grasped something quite important. This was actually the most focused I had been since I last took cocaine. He continued unabashed.
‘The cup is made of a handle, a base, the wall; much in the same way that you are made of your legs, arms, body, bones, blood, emotions, and thoughts. Together we see them as one whole thing when in fact they are many things taken as a whole. Emptiness on a relative level is seeing that the cup like yourself, while appearing whole. Is actually empty of these things.’

I stared at him quite stunned as my mind tried to understand what he was talking about. The best I could do was imagine myself as Mr Potato Head from Toy Story and each of the plastic parts falling of me one by one. I excused myself and went outside for some fresh air. My mind was being bombarded with teachings. To many teachings. Everything is empty but it’s not. Reality is just an illusion. Your ‘self’ exists but it doesn’t exist. Nothing was clear to me in this Buddhist world. Either things were real or they were not. I thought it was best to remove myself from the monastery for a while and head to a place no Tibetan monk could find me. The pub. I heard a rumour of a pub existing a couple of miles away, so when the rest of the camp was involved in meal time prayers. I jumped ship and headed to the waterhole.

‘A pint of lager please.’ I asked. Plonking myself on the bar stool. I watched the golden syrupy liquid bubble its way to the top. I felt myself refill just as quickly as the glass did.

‘Are you here on holiday sir?’ asked the barman. ‘Sure. Just staying at the local Buddhist place for a while,’ I said. ‘Oh yes I know it very well. In fact I’ve been reading this book about The Two Truths.’ ‘What do you mean two truths?’ ‘You mean they haven’t told you about the absolute and the relative truths?’

I excused myself very quickly before I was about to be enlightened again. I sat in the alcove studying my pint. Noticing the glass. Its roundness. The fact that it tasted so good. Then ordered a second and gave myself a pat on the back for abstaining for so long.

branded coffee. I arrived in the small town of Lockerbie. Without thinking I was expanding my lungs to Superman size as my body greedily took in as much real air as possible. Real air. Fresh air. Scottish air. I drank in my surroundings and noted the lack of skyscrapers allowing me a reasonable panoramic vision of the area. Beautiful. I still had one more leg of the journey to go until I reached a small town called Eskdalemuir which was where the monastery was located. I hailed a cab and settled into the passenger seat allowing the view of the low slung hills of Dumfries to decrease the erratic waves of my city mind. The countryside was dotted with cows, sheep and small cottages. It was the kind of life I would view through Sunday night television programmes. Dream places I would never think of going to. I leaned my head back and smiled to myself feeling secure in the arms of mother-nature once again. The taxi driver was one hundred percent Scottish. Complete with an accent thicker than my winter gloves. 

‘Where ya goin?’ ‘Samye Ling. It’s a Tibetan Buddhist place along the road. Have you been there?’ ‘Oh aye sure. It’s thon wee Buddhist place. Karma an all that. It’s a nice place,’ he said, and returned to his driving.  

A nice place I thought. The word ‘nice’ would get you a suspicious look in the city but nice was good enough out here far away from the self-centred competitive mentality of London. He continued along the roads at an uncomfortable speed as I tried my best to empty my mind of work. Karma. What actually was karma? It was funny to think that I had spent years sitting in a Zen centre in the middle of London and somehow had managed to escape any serious teachings on Buddhism.

 Karma. Action. The ripening of seeds that would have been sown, not just in this life time, but the many lives we have had before. I wondered for a while about my previous lives. Indulged myself with delusions of some grand Egyptian Pharaoh, and then settled for a marauding Saxon Viking. As I pondered on the ever more elaborate and glamorous lives that I could have lived, my eyes caught the fluttering of multi-coloured flags. Bright colours of red, white, blue, and yellow were flapping from the washing lines outside of the small cottages that lined the road we travelled along. The flags were flying not just from the washing lines but the houses and trees. Just as we turned a corner I could see a large golden turret sprouting into the skyline. I suddenly felt I had been transported into some dream land with all these colours shouting at me. The golden turret was part of a white monument known as a stupa. A ceremonial building used for worship. 

Things almost took on a more surreal shape as more gold from the Tibetan Temple rose into view fighting space with the blue sky, and white clouds.

I was reminded of the first stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’ as the taxi turned into the gates of Samye Ling and parked up. 

‘In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a stately pleasure dome decree.’ 

This miracle dream was rudely interrupted by a not uncommon London phrase.  

‘Oi Dave you asshole.’  

I turned to see my friend Mara’s bald head and welcoming smile beam at me through the taxi window. I got out and retrieved my suitcase paying the taxi driver for his service. ‘Are you allowed to swear?  Aren’t you supposed to be holy?’ I enquired jokingly. 

‘I’m struggling. I’ve only been in robes for four weeks. I need to practice more.’ I went to give her a hug but she pulled back. ‘Oh so you can swear like a trooper but I can’t hug you. Nice one Mara.’ She looked at me funny.

‘I’m not Mara anymore. Sorry if I sound a bit anal but can you please call me Ani Padma.’ 

‘Ani Padma. Bloody hell. No problems Ani. Let’s drop my stuff of and go for a beer.’  

‘Dave there’s no intoxicants here. This isn’t the world of Zen where all is allowed. You need to refrain from a few things when living on, or near a Monastery.’ 

My heart sank as Ani Padma led me to the Tibetan Café. Clearly there were some big differences between the world of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. While in the Café I was introduced into a very different crowd of people from the ones I knew at work. They used names such as Planet, Ranjung and Sky. They were all well-meaning modern-day hippies who lived and breathed the organic lifestyle. They were a million miles away from the friends I’d spend a Saturday night in with; all engrossed in popular game shows, a medium Chicken Tikka, and a couple of beers. This lot had spent years following the Buddha, travelling to India and Nepal for Buddhist teachings. 

After a couple of cappuccinos I was given the A – Z of Tibetan Buddhism. In Zen it’s simple. You sit on your ass and one day you’ll become enlightened, or maybe one lifetime.

Tibetan Buddhism uses all things on the path to enlightenment; sight, sound, and colours are utilized to support and transform the thoughts and emotions of the mind from negative to positive. While in Zen you have Zazen. In Tibetan Buddhism you have mantras, visualizations, mudras, and prayers. Anything to get you there.  After way too much coffee I joined my friend for a walk around the courtyard and into the main shrine room. I was immediately struck by the riot, splendour, and magnificence of all the colours that were displayed inside the shrine room. I watched as my friend fell to her knees and then spread her arms out in front of herself and then came back up again.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked. Almost whispering. But she hadn’t finished and kneeled down a further two times.  

‘They’re called prostrations. The same as bowing. It’s about offering respect to the Buddha, but ultimately about bowing to the Buddha within yourself.’ 

I considered doing a few myself but was conscious of ruining my clothes. I continued to look around the shrine room while Ani continued with her duties. The beauty of the place made me feel uneasy. It wasn’t just the two-foot-high golden statue of the Buddha that put me in awe. There were hundreds of other smaller golden Buddhas encased in glass, on either side of the main statue. 

I imagined myself bowing to all of them. Saying hello in my own way.  I was surrounded by brightly coloured religious paintings known as Thangkas. They depicted a variety of deities that to me appeared quite terrifying. Some had four arms, and more. Some wielded swords. Some deity’s faces wouldn’t look too out of place on Halloween night. I was reassured by Ani Padma that the deities, some wrathful, some benevolent, were just manifestations of my own fears and poisons. They were here to help us on our path. I settled on one deity who appeared more cheerful. His name was Chenrezig. He only had four arms. He was the Lord of Compassion. Four arms I could handle.

Whatever my beliefs or motivations for coming here, Samye Ling had an air of goodness about the place. People came from all backgrounds. Some to learn Buddhism. Some just to escape from the stresses of their busy lives.  It had the fresh air from the countryside and the fresh effort from the people who came here trying to understand themselves better.  I settled in for the next few days taking walks around the grounds, and gulping up the fresh air. When you live in London you don’t realize how reluctant you are to fully stretch your lungs out. I had decided to stay a few days extra to gather my thoughts and try abstaining from beer for as long as I could. I sat in the café drinking my double mocha cappuccino with cream spiralling upwards, and a chocolate flake to the side. In no way was my increase in sugar relative to the decrease in alcohol. I think it was more boredom and the lack of everyday distractions that drove me to ever fancier and elaborate coffee drinks. I wondered briefly whether I could obtain nirvana just by increasing my sugar intake. 

I had been attempting to read a book on the nature of emptiness and my head was aching. Of course I should have gone for something more straight forward ‘an Introduction to’ etc but just the name ‘emptiness’ drew me in with its esoteric allusions.  It’s always nice to have something deep and profound to wave around while drinking coffee but if I was honest I was struggling with the introduction, let alone the chapters on the non-existence of the self. Lucky for me a more experienced Buddhist beside me noticed my confusion and came to my rescue. 

‘That’s a fantastic book you have there. So lucid in its explanation on the meaning of emptiness,’ he said. 

I smiled knowingly. Doing my best to hide my ignorance. I reached for the chocolate flake to take away the dull pain in my head. It looked like I was about to be enlightened by North London’s answer to Deepak Chopra. He leaned toward me as if he was about to reveal the mysteries of the universe. 

‘Although the cup exists. It’s actually empty. What we mean by empty is the concept of the cup exists only in the mind, and the object that you see is made of many things which are dependent on each other.’ 

His voice trailed off as he started to look as doubtful as I did about his explanation. We both looked at the cup. I held its firmness. Observed its round curve. The fact that it was made of a base, and a handle, and on looking inside, he was right. It was empty. To save us any further embarrassment I ordered another deluxe chocolate drink, and it was very full indeed.  After another super choc drink arrived my teacher had felt rejuvenated enough to try a further explanation. 

‘It’s like this. We see the cup as a whole cup. An individual thing, much as we see ourselves as whole and separate, but in fact we are made up of many different things. All dependent on each other.’ 

We both stared at each other believing we had both grasped something quite important. This was actually the most focused I had been since I last took cocaine. He continued unabashed.

‘The cup is made of a handle, a base, the wall; much in the same way that you are made of your legs, arms, body, bones, blood, emotions, and thoughts. Together we see them as one whole thing when in fact they are many things taken as a whole. Emptiness on a relative level is seeing that the cup like yourself, while appearing whole. Is actually empty of these things.’ 

I stared at him quite stunned as my mind tried to understand what he was talking about. The best I could do was imagine myself as Mr Potato Head from Toy Story and each of the plastic parts falling of me one by one. I excused myself and went outside for some fresh air. My mind was being bombarded with teachings. To many teachings. Everything is empty but it’s not. Reality is just an illusion. Your ‘self’ exists but it doesn’t exist. Nothing was clear to me in this Buddhist world. Either things were real or they were not. I thought it was best to remove myself from the monastery for a while and head to a place no Tibetan monk could find me. The pub. I heard a rumour of a pub existing a couple of miles away, so when  the rest of the camp was involved in meal time prayers. I jumped ship and headed to the waterhole.

‘A pint of lager please.’ I asked. Plonking myself on the bar stool. I watched the golden syrupy liquid bubble its way to the top. I felt myself refill just as quickly as the glass did.

 ‘Are you here on holiday sir?’ asked the barman.   ‘Sure. Just staying at the local Buddhist place for a while,’ I said.   ‘Oh yes I know it very well. In fact I’ve been reading this book about The Two Truths.’ ‘What do you mean two truths?’ ‘You mean they haven’t told you about the absolute and the relative truths?’ 

I excused myself very quickly before I was about to be enlightened again. I sat in the alcove studying my pint. Noticing the glass. Its roundness. The fact that it tasted so good. Then ordered a second and gave myself a pat on the back for abstaining for so long.

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