Friday, 23 February 2018


"As long as some poets and thinkers and filmmakers write or make films also if not exclusively for angels, it is inaccurate to say that no angels exist -- indeed angels exist more as addressees of poetry, thinking, and filmmaking than as addressees of the exoteric prayers of religious people."
     -- Jalal Toufic

Having grown up in the West, where the established worldview says 'its just us and the animals, beneath an endless black sky', the ontologies of Tibetan Buddhism are breathtaking. The notion of 'deity' in all its various manifestations is one of the most philosophically challenging concepts I have ever had to deal with. Deities out ahead; deities in the subtle channels of one's nervous system; one's own self as a deity. Deities as operating system and instant download and para-architecture. The spaciousness of the mind as deity; one's deepest fears as deity.

For three years my interactions with people will be kept to a minimum, but each day I will be spending hours in the company of what I like to call The Invisibles. The Tibetan tradition says it is through ritual conduct that one has relationships with deities. Recitational speech, visualisations, mudra - these are the ritualised forms of speaking, seeing and acting that enable us to be in the presence of The Invisibles. That enable us to re-presence ourselves.

"The unseen and arrived is interlaced with the seen and the delayed, the blur is precisely this oscillation between 'what is' but does not yet have a name, and 'what might become' because we can give it a name in advance of its arrival."

That quote is from "The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty", a massive treatise detailing the arrival of planetary-scale computing. Computers - with all their speed and frictionlessness, their shape-shifting plenitude and their super-quiet sidestepping of the 'off' button - are probably the nearest thing that secular culture has to 'deity'. Three years of talking to computing's fairy godmother is going to make the return in 2021 very interesting.

Monday, 19 February 2018


"You're so quiet you're almost 
   -- Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds

I'm trying to imagine the door closing behind me. I feel it as an act of immense kindness. No anxiety at all. When it begins, so do I. What might be a little heartbreaking are the goodbyes across the next five months, beneath skies with too many stars, and no horse.

I remember reading, a long time ago in this room, a brief biography of a Korean Zen monk. It talked about a three year retreat he undertook, the first six months of which were confession and purification practices. But such was his sense of joy after six months of those practices that he decided to dedicate the whole three years to them. And as I sat there reading, something deep inside me shifted its coordinates very quietly, very precisely, triggering the GPS system that is my unconscious. I knew where I was going. And I knew that even if I forgot about it entirely for years at a time (and I did) I would still get there, eventually. That equation - of solitude and confession and purification equaling sheer joy - was now safe inside me, a living thing almost, locked into place by something as simple and untraceable as a brief moment of reading permeated by faith.

But there's a second level of solitude that extends beyond the confines of the three years of retreat. After the physical solitude comes a biographical one. It involves letting go of any sense whatsoever of 'becoming' someone - of becoming someone special, either in one's own eyes or in the eyes of others. How to come back out in 2021, 'with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone...' -- that's the real challenge.

Thursday, 15 February 2018


Our Tibetan lamas say that doing the three year retreat in the West, where there is no established tradition for it, is much more powerful than doing it in Asia where it is already an established tradition. But doing it in the West is expensive. And the kind of person who is willing to do a three year retreat is generally not the kind of person who has 21,000 pounds at their disposal! But equally, there are many people out there who deeply believe in the goodness of such a retreat but who don't personally have the freedom or confidence to undertake one, yet would love to support such a project. So the natural next step is to try and bring these two groups together.

Here's the link to my page on a crowdfunding site for Buddhist projects. I have five months to raise 21,000 pounds.

And just to be clear: you can support this fundraising project simply by wishing it well. Or mentioning it to others who may be able to help. It doesn't have to be financial. Wishing it well is actually a very powerful contribution.

I've managed to live most of the last 9 years back in the West living on alms. I've stood outside supermarkets in the UK on hundreds of occasions and never gone hungry. In fact alms round practice has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life as a monk. The hitch-hiking to and from towns, the meditative high of just standing still for hours on the high street, the difference between receiving seven pounds or eleven, or thirty, the return to the forest with a bag full of food, the 'no direction home' tenderness of the whole thing. So it feels strange - painful, actually - to suddenly be required to act in a different mode, raising three years worth of support rather than just what I need for the next few days. Especially when most of the people I know personally are people without much money.

But the group in Germany who are hosting the retreat keep telling me not to worry, to just trust in the karma of the situation. And I remember, many years ago, smiling as I read an account of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh talking to his trustees in America, describing his extravagant vision of a new California ashram. After five minutes of descriptions of luxury accomodation blocks, swimming pools and shrines one of the trustees politely asked 'And where is the money going to come from for all this?" Rajneesh replied, with only the tiniest pause, "Well, from wherever it happens to be right now!"  And without even a single Rolls Royce on my wish-list, that's how I feel too - it will come from wherever it happens to be right now. My job is to prepare myself for the cosmonaut role, to step into the deep unknown as confidently as I can when all the conditions are in place, the catalyst for turning specific concrete acts of kindness - twenty one thousand pounds worth of kindness - into a three-year project of immeasurable goodness. And it's a scary role, actually. But that's my job.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018


"But why? What do you hope to get out of it?" This is a question I hear a lot, and perhaps the hardest to answer because it is loaded with preconceptions that simply don't apply. A three year retreat is not a career step. Its not even a strategy. Its more like birdsong. Or the timeless look in a horse's eye, the beautiful quiet horse that carries the fierce Tibetan protector deity Palden Lhamo as she rides through a river of blood beneath a starless sky. That horse has no agenda and neither do I. The spirit of three year retreat just looked me in the eye and I said yes. That horse is timeless, graceful and present. I only wish I could be likewise.

I believe - I imagine - that human beings are machines for creating works of art, and that the best works of art are nameless and invisible. For the world to be completely, blessedly itself, it has to befriend the nameless and the invisible. The world, plus the work of art, equals the world. For me, three year retreat is training in that spirit. Only by befriending the nameless and the invisible will I truly be able to meet everyone everywhere. "With diamond-clear intention instill faith everywhere. With mirror-like wisdom stabilise all chaotic minds."

In the passage that follows and which brings this post to an end, a passage from the illimitable pen of Roberto Bolano, for 'work of art' read 'this precious human life', for 'translation' read 'the Tibetan tradition', let 'the attic' be the 21st century and 'the kid' be Shenyen (or you, if you want to come with me), and let one of those battered pages be 'three year retreat', and you will sense what I mean, I'm sure. And for now let the Nightingale just be the Nightingale..

"How to recognise a work of art? How to separate it, even if just for a moment, from its critical apparatus, its exegetes, its tireless plagiarisers, its belittlers, its final lonely fate? Easy. Let it be translated. Let its translator be far from brilliant. Rip pages from it at random. Leave it lying in an attic. If after all this a kid comes along and reads it, and after reading makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, whichever) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its voyage to the edge, and both are enriched and the kid adds an ounce of value, then we have something before us, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings, not a ploughed field but a mountain, not the image of a dark forest but the dark forest itself, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale."

Saturday, 16 September 2017


Our lives are mostly invisible, and deeply connected, but somehow our lives seem bereft of this knowledge.

So the first year consists of practices (the “ngondros”) to purify this impoverishment: expressing one's commitment and openness to the (invisible, present, surrounding) buddhas through recitation of prayers, visualisation of buddha lands, prostrations, etc. Confession and purification of one’s negative karma accrued since beginningless time. Offering visualised Mandala universes to the buddhas on behalf of all wandering beings. Expression of one’s commitment to become a buddha as the best way to repay the kindness of all mother-like sentient beings throughout all those lives.

Then begins a cycle of practices to stabilise, concentrate and open the mind through more meditative practices (the ngondros themselves are quite meditative and focussing, but they are primarily energising and cleansing). These include practices aimed at transcending one’s deeply ingrained delusional tendency to see oneself and the world as ordinary.

The final year is quite specialised tantric work whose aim is to accelerate the attainment of buddhahood: working on the subtle body, dream yoga, emptiness meditations, techniques to transfer consciousness to a pure land at death, to remain conscious during the dying and post-death state, among other things.
I’ll unpack some of this in greater detail over the coming months. And if there are any specific questions, just ask. I’m happy to talk about it.

Friday, 9 September 2016


"Burying things in a first glove of words, a second pocket of writing, a third screen of printed matter, a thousand names..."
         -- Michael Serres, 'Biogea' 

A friend sends me URLs that she has 'orphaned' from their seamless one-click digital environment. She writes them by hand: scrawled in semi-legible pencil on the back of a 20 baht note, or neatly penned in gold ink on glass and then photographed. She draws the outline of a Fra Angelico painting and writes one around the angel's halo, or finger-draws them over photos of darkened rooms that come to me via Instagram.

And then, slowly typing these unclickable unpronouncable URLs into the address bar, I am reminded once again of something that our digital culture ís straining to forget: that there are many, many different ways to approach things, and that love and attention have their own unique velocities.

And I find myself watching things like this:

This beautiful short video documenting the reconstruction of a shattered sculpture unintentionally yet effortlessly seeps outside its immediate concerns, leaving me thinking about robotics, slow time, extreme medical intervention, dance, crime scene investigation, and even William Gibson's Bobby Chombo (the 'Spook Country' GPS geek who chalks out a grid of metre-wide squares on his warehouse floor and refuses to sleep in the same space twice...)

And the vimeo one? Well that isnt too difficult to type in yourself, is it...?

Wednesday, 3 August 2016


"We thought to engage in a very old-fashioned gesture, or one so modern as to still be, like music, in its infancy.  We acted according to a new complex mathematics, one dependent upon the tiniest initial tweaks..."
    -- Richard Powers.

“We laughed, but as little as we could, because we knew it was a solemn thing to burn a house down.”
    -- Marilyyne Robinson

In a dream 30 years ago an angel taught me the secret of photography. She said there are two essential rules: be sure to find the correct distance and always stay as close to the ground as possible.

And for a while I lived inside the wider ambience of those instructions. I turned my home into a soft-logic laboratory, an architectural equivalent of what in India is called ‘frugal engineering’. I had no furniture. The floors were covered with small sculptures and the debris of a nomadic intelligence (books and photocopied fragments, beautiful letters from my friends in Japan). I remember how the act of constantly stepping over things slowed me down and changed the rhythm of my thinking, making it more nuanced, attentive. I remember a Korean zen monk talking about the importance of ritual: he said, when you do something every day your manners become pure, your face shines. 

I remember photographing the books lying on the floor, the corners of rooms that had been ‘softened’ by small piles of cotton wool, subtitled tv images, the radiator in my bedroom. I made audio tapes with seventy minutes of silence wrapped around three or four songs. I understood that the object-world was about to start talking, and that we humans were about to stop doing so, out of a sense of balance, or harmony, or relief. I remember reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping” during those years. And when I re-read it recently I was amazed to see how much it has influenced my subsequent life. 

I remember waking up one morning with a small poem in my head, a tiny thing no bigger than an address on an envelope: "The young Tibetan monk comes west. He will walk through the whole of Western civilization as if it were snow." But isn't that what all poetry aspires to - being an address on an envelope? Anyway, I got the message and I started walking towards the address, towards my future self, beyond the limits of my imagination and rationale.

Suddenly thirty years pass.

But even now I dream of living in similar experimental spaces: a house with wi-fi but no running water, or running water but no internal doors. A three year solitary retreat - with webcam and ambient OS. Those Hulme years, electrified, reincarnated.