Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

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The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

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The sea front at a quieter moment.

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It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.

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