Talk at the British Museum


One of the lovely things about being a teacher for a while is that ex-students pop up in unusual places.

I was really incredibly flattered to be asked by my ex-student Freddie Matthews, who heads up the events at the British Museum in London, to co-present an evening event at the Museum on the subject of the Buddhist path and the experience of mind.

Even more delightful was the fact that I will be sharing the podium with Ajahn Sundara from Amaravati Monastery in Hemel Hempstead.

When I started out on my Buddhist path back in 2000, I took refuge at the Tibetan monastery in Scotland and then – for geographical rather than doctrinal reasons – ended up doing almost all my formative practice at the Theravadan monastery at Chithurst in Sussex. The difference in flavour between these two great schools of Buddhism (Tibetan and Theravada) would be a little like the differnce between High Catholic ceremony and Wee Kirk presbyterianism. Tibetan is all bells and whistles, flaboyant brocades and ceremonial horns. Theravada (at least in the Sussex iteration) was all simple oak halls with silent sitting and one stick of incense. At the time, the purity and impecability of the Theravadan school was much more tonic for my mind. Latterly, I have moved back to the modern version of Tibetan practice offered by Reggie, but I have alway had enormous respect for the monks and nuns of what is known as the Forest Sangha, rooted in Thailand but beautifully cultivated on the Hampshire/Sussex Border and in Hemel.

So it was a mix of reminiscence and rediscovery that I tuned into a recording of Ajahn Sundara on the train up to London to meet her and the Museum team. Sundara is a senior nun in the Sangha with more than 30 years of practice. She’s French and deliciously pithy in her talks and it was a real treat to spend the morning together in the Great Hall, riffing on the themes that inspire her and me and might be interesting to talk about on the 22nd.

The impetus for the talk is the display of an extraordinary fragment from one of the great Buddhist archeological sites in Indian. During the first continent-wide flourishing of Buddhism, some 200 years after the historical Buddha’s death, a magnificent stupa was built in the south-eastern state of Andrha Pradesh. The sculpture that surrounded it has been spread all around the world in various museums and many of the panels found their (always dubious) way to the British Museum. Nonetheless, the double-sided door panel that forms the centre-piece of the exhibit is extraodinarily significant. (You can see the 3D imaging of it here). The earlier image, now the reverse, shows the early way of representing the Buddha, as an empty throne or a pair of footprints or the space below a tree. Like Islam, early Buddhist imagery was aniconic – it refused to reduce the enlightened quality of the Buddha to any limited image. Almost 300 years later the fashion and culture had changed an the trend was to represent the Buddha as we now think of him: a handsome, aristocratic noble human form. The original door panel was spun round and the new image was carved onto the reverse. So in one amazing piece of art from more than 2000 years ago we see the trasition of imagination from the formless to the human.

Ajahn Sundara had much to say about this literal imagining of ‘no-self’ one of the core concepts of Buddhist dharma and for me it sparked, once again, a sense of real deep appreciation that the teaching of this man from more than 2.500 years ago still resonates and transforms lives (my life, the Ajahn’s life) as it did in the heyday of the Stupa which now lies in fragments in museums all around the world.

I suspect that Sundara and I could talk almost all night about the various facets of this piece of art. What it meant for practioners historically. How the dharma was spun round and reimagined by practioners in India, in Thailan, in Tibet and in the UK over the centuries. And how personally the teaching of no-self still disrupts and liberates human practioners in the 21st century, still struggling as the Buddha struggled with the vicissisitudes of a human body in a shared world.

However, sadly, we only have an hour and a half. Please come along. It’s ticketed (£5) but I think you have to book.

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