The greatest gift of all

In 13th century Japan, a low caste priest, Nichiren, who was exiled to a desolate snow covered island in the deepest winter after surviving a beheading ordered by the ruler due to a fortuitous arrival of a comet, wrote to a poor fisherman, Abutsu, who brought him some gifts of food-

Now the entire body of Abutsu Shonin is composed of the five universal elements of earth, water, fire, wind and ku…Therefore, Abutsu-bo is the Treasure Tower itself, and the Treasure Tower is Abutsu-bo himself. No other knowledge is purposeful…You may think you offered gifts to the Treasure Tower of Taho Buddha, but that is not so. You offered them to yourself. You, yourself, are a true Buddha who possesses the three enlightened properties.

I have often thought of these lines, particularly during this Christmas.  For many years, I have been receiving some terrible gifts or none at all.  While gift giving is part of the celebration of many religions, particularly Christmas, it can also be wasteful if you have received something that is not needed.  So many of these gifts ended up being regifted or sent to charity shops, which was probably not intended by the giver.  Also, at the time when everyone is receiving gifts, if you don’t receive them, it can be hurtful.  This year, I decided to do something I’ve never done before- give a gift to myself.  I realised I had never actually thought myself worthy of receiving a useful gifts. I also thought of some unkind ways in which I had dealt with givers of ‘useless’ or terrible gifts.  I also would buy lovely expensive gifts for others, and ask others not to give me anything- thereby creating a miserable and peculiar martyr syndrome which was ‘I love receiving good presents but I don’t really deserve any’.  Reflecting on this past history made me see how I had made myself less likely to receive good gifts- the ones that William Morris would described as beautiful and useful.

So I selected the most opulent gift bag I had kept intending to give to someone else as usual. In it I placed my best dark chocolates which I had again bought to give to someone else.  I also put in the bag, a lovely Christmas card which I had kept for someone else. You may think this is strange, but for me keeping the best things for others was perfectly normal!

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Yesterday during Christmas, I had the surprise of my life when I received the most beautiful and useful gifts ever!  I also received the most cards ever.  Although, by now I wouldn’t have cared about the gifts, they also revealed to me that if you don’t care or nurture yourself,  you will not receive that back from the environment.  Truly, you don’t give gifts to others, you give to yourself.  How you treat yourself is how others treat you.

The Flame of the forest

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This seems a pretty picture- it is of one of my favourite flowers- Flame of the forest (Butea monosperma)- a medium-sized dry season-deciduous tree, which grows in the tropics.  It is found in a forested part of Delhi, where I grew up and seeing these flowers reminded me of springtime.  In my native West Bengal, the poems and songs of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, likened its bright orange flame-like flower to fire. In Santiniketan, where Tagore lived, this flower has become an indispensable part of the celebration of spring. I used to love these flowers.

However, the same forest became associated with murder in late summer of 1978 when siblings Geeta and Sanjay Chopra were kidnapped and brutally murdered.  On their way to the radio station to present a youth programme, the children were kidnapped for ransom.  On learning their father was a naval officer, both were killed instead and the girl, Geeta, was allegedly raped before being murdered. Both were bright young people- Geeta was a 16 year old second year college student and Sanjay, was 14-year-old school student.

I was very young but I remember the impact of the murders.  Suddenly parents were cautious about where their children were going, suspicious of strangers and our world changed from being happy and carefree to fear and mistrust.  The city which had never experienced such a heinous murder was traumatised and all energy was directed to finding the killers. It was my first loss of childhood innocence- the flowers which I loved, grew in a forest where children had been murdered.  I came to associate these flowers with blood.  Years later as an adult, coming across these flowers accidentally, I wondered if I could change my fear to joy again.  So this was painted.

The ‘bark’ of the trees is made from newspaper cuttings about the murders and the stylised flowers, with their curved and spiky forms, represent my fear.  However by painting this, I have made my fear disappear and understand the sadness from those murders.  It may be because I am older and it may be because exactly 20 years later on the day when the culprits were caught, I had a son, who helped me to see the world in a different way.  So the painting is curiously sad but optimistic by its brightness and exaggeration.  Like these flowers that bloom in the spring and wither away in the heat, whose leaves fall in the winter, leaving a skeletal bareness, our lives are informed by sadness and joy, by gain and loss.  This painting connects me to my childhood and my adulthood and to that of my son.  The sadness of the loss remains but the fear has gone.  Art has become a therapy.

Life and death

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This week has been of immense sadness- from the  pain of the deaths of so many strangers that have touched our lives.  From the nearly 500 people killed in the Gaza and Israel conflict to the nearly 300 Malaysian airlines passengers shot above rebel held Ukraine.  The anger, pain and fear of families have been palpable, even in cyberspace.  People are shocked at the use of weapons that can kill so many so quickly and used with such impunity to reduce a person to just a ‘body’.  Those that fly regularly, families that go on holiday with their children and even those who live in war and conflict zones are beyond disbelief at what weapons can do.  We all like peace and security and all the cries from ordinary people this week have echoed that.  Yet the powers that be, go on- confident that weapons can always solve problems.

I have been struggling to make any sense of what is happening.  I thought world wars were over a long time ago and that my children (and grandchildren) would only face climate change as a major threat to their existence, not wars.  But now I see that I was so wrong.  I see sadly that we cannot live with each other and we cannot live on our planet, fighting over small bits of land. These poppies come up in my garden every year.  They give me hope.  As a Buddhist, I can only hope like these poppies, the lives of the 700 and more people whose natural lives have been cut short,  will arise again as messengers of peace and love.  That finally sense will return. That our future is without weapons. That future will be love for each other.  If you have been affected by the events of this week, do comment to let me know how you feel!

spare change for the soul

Research has revealed again and again that buying things does not make us happy. On the other hand, buying ‘experiences’ can make us really happy.  So for example, buying a piano might give you a great buzz and bring you attention from friends but playing that piano will give a greater and more lasting happiness. But the key is that you need love playing on a piano, otherwise nothing about the piano will give you happiness.  It will simply fill you with sadness each time you look at it, and it may even become something you can’t wait to get rid of.

According to an article in the Psychologist, ‘[the]… key to happiness is ‘identity expression’… i.e. Does a particular purchase express your personality and values? If it does, you are likely to feel happier.’  The author of the article says that a friend once said, “Happiness is being able to express who I am.”  So in other words, learn to know yourself thoroughly and then only give time and money to those things that enhance yourself.

Arian Huffington, the founder of Huffington Post, says that the key to happiness is knowing your limits.  This is another way of saying that the key to happiness is knowing ourselves fully (including our limits).  I used to think that running myself ragged, helping others would bring me happiness.  Fortunately I came across a Buddhist principle called Jigyo Keta which means happiness for ourselves and others, i.e. not one or the other other but both.  When we can respect ourselves truly, we can respect others truly.  Happiness just for ourselves is selfish and a ‘small goal’ while happiness that is just for other is martyrdom and sometimes not even wanted by the receiver.  Would you like to receive money from a street beggar?  I bet not.  But if you had some spare change, you could give that to the beggar.  So the key to happiness is knowing ourselves and then giving to others what we can give best.  A rich man can give away money, a musician can play for others and so on.  This is the contributive and balanced life.

Don’t run yourself ragged- always keep some spare change for your soul!