The emperor, who was a devout Buddhist, invited a great Zen master to the Palace in order to ask him questions about Buddhism. “What is the highest truth of the holy Buddhist doctrine?” the emperor inquired. “Vast emptiness… and not a trace of holiness,” the master replied. “If there is no holiness,” the emperor said, “then who or what are you?” “I do not know,” the master replied.
Here we have a devout Buddhist emperor inviting a Zen master to his palace in order quiz him about Buddhism. It’s quite a common mistake for people to think that Zen and Buddhism are one and the same. The truth is that they are poles apart. Buddhism is an organised religion, although also a way of life, non-dogmatic and closer to the truth than most of the world’s major religions. Zen, in my humble opinion, is something that happens to you; it is an awakening. Most people experience their spiritual awakening in subtle stages that just happen without any prior warning. There is no such thing as Zen philosophy either, so the emperor was on a hiding to nothing in asking the master, “what is the highest truth of the holy Buddhist doctrine?”
The answer came, “vast emptiness… and not a trace of holiness.” This is very profound and clearly not understood by the emperor. Vast emptiness refers to the inner reality; infinite consciousness, which is One. The Indian yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, would on occasion refer to this as , “the uncreated wilderness of bliss”, which is the same as vast emptiness. What the master is saying is that the “highest truth” is to return to the state of “nothingness” from which we came. This is the non-dual state, therefore “and not a trace of holiness” means that in consciousness there is only consciousness and nothing else. In the dualistic world, if something is deemed holy, it implies that it will have a relative opposite somewhere that is deemed unholy. This is duality and ultimately an illusion, so in the vast emptiness there will be no trace of holiness.
The emperor then came back with, “If there is no holiness then who or what are you?”
“I do not know,” the master replied.
The master answered the emperor’s question in the most perfect way possible; “I do not know.” Enlightenment is the shedding of all knowledge. All knowledge relates to the past and is of the mind-created world. In “vast emptiness” there is no knowledge; only pure knowing.
Well folks, I’m back from my travels in Nepal, and it all seems just a distant blur now. I thought I would share some of my experiences with you, as well as carrying on with the, “Who Am I?” series. In truth I don’t know where to start, as there is so much to relate, however, I thought I would start by writing about my experiences on the Tibetan refugee camps in and around Pokhara.
There are three Tibetan camps in and around Pokhara; all completely different, both location wise and in terms of ambiance. The first one I visited was quite open plan and situated at Chorepatan. I was taken inside and dropped off by transport I’d organised through my hotel. The next day I visited again, this time I walked. There was a building with loads of photos and information about the Tibetan plight and the history etc. There was a building that was dedicated to the sale of carpets and rugs, which I avoided as I’m not a carpet and rug man, gift and souvenir shops and a few very basic cafes that sold Tibetan and Nepali cuisine. Apart from that there was the accommodation buildings, and the jewel in the crown; the monastery.
First of all the gift shops. I was greeted by Gorkan who informed me that all his wares were made by Tibetans. When I returned on the second day and had a closer look, I found that to be very debatable. The smaller items especially seemed mass-produced and had that tacky look about them, but I don’t doubt that some of the goods were made by the refugees themselves. I did make a few purchases, and I’m sure he overcharged me, but what I paid was pennies by UK standards.
On the first day I went and sat in the monastery while the young monks were reciting their scriptures. I found it fascinating and there was such a feeling of love in there. So much so that I went back again the next day for more of the same. However, on this occasion I arrived at around 2.00 pm in the afternoon. The monastery was actually closed as the monks were in their lessons, but a lovely monk asked one of the youngsters to open up for me so that I could sit inside. The photos below are from this wonderful monastery.
The next day I decided to find another of the camps. The local tourist map did not show this particular camp, but in a little handbook that I obtained from tourist information, it stated that there was a camp at Prithvi Chowk, which seemed to be a similar distance and quite central. I set off, and in anticipation of not being able to find it, I had a piece of paper with “Prithvi Chowk” written on it, so that I could thrust it under people’s noses if I needed directions. Although Pokhara is not as congested and polluted as Kathmandu, outside of the tourist Lakeside area, it must run Kathmandu to a close second. My route was extremely busy; the area was teeming with people and traffic. Also, the pavements were pretty much non-existent and full of lumps and bumps and holes that you could just disappear down if you were not careful. It was time to utilise my piece of paper!
I learned a few Nepali words but it is such a difficult language that I didn’t have any delusions about becoming fluent during my time there. A lot of Nepalese speak some English at least but I learned that the average Nepali is quite indifferent to foreigners, probably because the cultures are so different and we must seem extremely strange to them. So, I chose my “direction giver” very carefully. I saw what appeared to be a kitchen show room, and inside the shop there was a rather smartly dressed man; a prime candidate for my piece of paper I thought. I went inside and thrust the piece of paper in front of his nose and spluttered, “Tibetan refugee camp”. He gave me a big beaming smile and informed me that it was just a ten minute WALTZ in the direction I was already going. That really did put a smile on my face. I’m sure if everybody went about waltzing instead of walking, the world would be a much better place.
I nearly missed the entrance to the camp. I saw a Western woman enter in through a gap in some corrugated iron fencing and decided to have a peek. To my amazement it turned out to be the entrance to the camp. It was small and very compact. I spied the monastery straight away and noted that it was smaller than the first one. I saw the little monks scurrying around and wanted my photo taken with them. Also, a Tibetan lady made a bee-line for me, and I just knew that when the small talk had finished she would want to sell me something. It somehow didn’t seem appropriate to take photos and the monks were busy anyway. The lady invited me into her dwelling. It was extremely basic, but not a hovel. There was an older man, who I presumed was her husband, and a younger man who I would put in his mid twenties. I got the impression that they did everything in that one room. She got out what looked like an old biscuit tin, which contained a number of necklaces and bracelets that she informed me she’d made herself. I wanted to take a bracelet back for a friend and managed to haggle her down from Rs300 to Rs150. She offered me some food from the communal kitchen, which seemed to be where all the residents went for their meals, but I’d already eaten lunch so declined.
I arranged hotel transport a couple of days later to take me to the viewpoint at Sarangot, and also to the third Tibetan camp at Hemja. Unfortunately, the monsoon causes havoc with landslides so I wasn’t able to get to Sarangot due to the road being closed. The Jeep dropped me off at the camp and I went in for a wander. I again wanted my photo taken with the monks, but decided again that it was not appropriate. How would I like it if I was going about my daily business in the UK, and tourists from some far-flung land pestered me to have their photo taken with me? I feel that there is a tendency for foreigners to look on these people as some sort of novelty, and it somehow seemed so disrespectful for me to ask for photos, so I didn’t. However, I learned a lot from this visit.
I learned that monks are human too. After my experience in the first monastery, I was only really interested in the monasteries during these visits. The one at Prithvi Chowk had not felt very inspiring, so I was full of anticipation as I entered the monastery grounds and saw that it was by far and away the biggest of the three. There was a sign at the entrance saying you could enter with permission.There was another building further down where there seemed to be some activity going on. I entered the building and realised that these monasteries are not just places where monks do their “monking”, but they are also schools. It stands to reason, that these young Lamas are just kids really and they need their schooling. There was a lot of monks in a hall and two Nepali ladies who I presumed were school teachers brought in from outside to teach the kids. I asked if I could enter the monastery and one of the teachers got one of the monks to escort me. Having got my permission I entered inside. There was already two young Westerners in there, being given the grand tour by another monk.
It was a truly spectacular building and I was particularly impressed by the huge drums. I’d heard that the monks do Pooja in the afternoon. I suppose the easiest way to explain pooja (or puja), is to say that it is the Buddhist equivalent of a Western church service. I was keen to experience this, but I had an hour wait. I went outside again and observed what was going on. It was in those moments that I realised that the monks are no different from all of us. I saw the youngsters larking around, just as I did when I was at school. I even saw a little monk bullying another little monk. I also observed the monk who had been showing the young Westerners around spit as he walked across the courtyard (everyone in Nepal is constantly spitting, young, old, male and female); it never occurred to me that a monk would spit; how naive of me!
The time came for pooja to begin; and what an amazing experience it was. The chanting, the young monks banging those huge drums and the crazy sounding brass instruments that blasted out every time one sequence came to an end, paving way for another. Eventually I felt it was time to go. I was collared by a lady on the way out who sold me a bracelet; this time I got it for Rs100. My experiences on the Tibetan refugee camps now seem to be nothing more than distant memories, but they are memories that will remain with me forever. Enjoy the photos!
It most certainly is nearly that time of year again; when the Christian Church dusts the cobwebs off its story and peddles it once again to the unsuspecting masses. I must say that I do find the whole “epic” just a tad ironic. First of all, let me just mention that I have no doubt in my mind at all that Jesus Christ actually existed; and I have no doubts at all that he was a truly incredible soul. However, the story that organised religion wants us to believe just does not stack up.
We have to understand that Christ was not a Christian; Christianity is the man-made religion founded by unscrupulous religious leaders in an effort to control the naive and the gullible through fear. Christ was strictly non-religious, however, if you really had to pigeon-hole him, you would have to say that he was a Buddhist. He studied the teachings of Buddha in the monasteries of the Himalayas and he also hung out with the Essenes and the Nazarenes, who were religious sects that practised a form of Buddhism. Christ was attracted to these people because their religion was non-violent. It was common practise in those times for live animals to be sacrificed in the temples, and Jesus was against this (and made his feelings known in no uncertain terms). Christ was the original hippie activist and was considered to be a subversive by the religious leaders of the time.
It’s worth noting that it is because of his association with the Nazarenes that Christ is often incorrectly referred to as, “Jesus of Nazareth”. Historically, Nazareth was nothing more than a tiny hamlet that Jesus may or may not have passed through at some time or other. So, why do I find the whole Christmas story a tad ironic? It’s because the church peddles their messiah as being, “the one and only begotten Son of God”. According to Christians, God is an all-powerful entity that is separate from us mere mortals, and Jesus is his son. This theory completely contradicts the Buddhist teachings, amongst other belief systems, that Christ followed. Buddhists do not believe in a deity as such, rather in a Creative Force, or infinite consciousness that permeates the whole creation. Christ’s message was simple. He said that we are all the same as him, we are all Gods and that we will find the Kingdom of Heaven within ourselves; it is not a place we can go to.
So the Christian messiah is marketed by the church as something that he would never have considered himself to be. I also can’t help thinking (cynically perhaps) that the reason the church marketed their messiah as a meat eating wine drinker, which he wasn’t, was simply so that they could justify their own gluttonous desires.
Today is a very exciting day for me because I have another opportunity to host an extra-special guest on my blog. On this occasion I’m very privileged to welcome American actress, jazz and blues singer and writer, Elaine Thomas. Elaine should be here any minute, so while I go and put the kettle on and crack open a packet of chocolate digestives, here is a little bit of background on her.
Currently residing in Hamburg, Germany Elaine has performed with some of the greatest names in international black American music: B.B. King, James Brown, Randy Newman, The Black Gospel Pearls (as lead vocalist), Alphonzo Mouson, Achim Kück, Jean Carne, Norman Connors, Sun Ra, Harlem Jazz Band, Gil Scott Heron to name just a few. Elaine started her career at 14 as a hip hop and breakdance competitor; achieving 3rd in a “Best Breakdancer in the USA” competition when she was 17 and No. 1 female breakdancer in the USA.
At 15, Elaine, (then known as Camille Thomas) auditioned for the famed Workshop for Careers in the Arts in Washington D.C., becoming one of the first graduates from the Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, also in Washington D.C. This earned her positions with The Touring Co. Theatre West, Robert Hook’s Black Repertory Co., Back Alley Theatre – A Raisin in the Sun, Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes, Jesus Christ Lord Today.
Elaine has performed in Germany in over 15 Musicals and as an actress in just as many theatre drama plays including Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Chicago, West Side Story, Man from La Mancha, Kiss me Kate and with Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Cab Calloway in The Blues Brothers. She has also worked with Claus Peymann and Heiner Müller.
Elaine has since worked on several Compilations – Dance Floor, Classic Soul, Jazz, Pop & Gospel. The last Project, a CD – from Mr Confused Do you Realize was released in July 2012.
Elaine is currently working on her first short story compilation book of black American folktales and inspirational stories for kids.
Hi Elaine and welcome. Thanks for nipping over from Hamburg to be with us.
Hi Richard, thank you so much for inviting me here.
I must admit that when I first approached you for an interview, I thought I would be interviewing a very accomplished jazz and blues singer “only”. I was amazed when I read up on your career and realised that you have done so much in your life. We will come to that later, but to kick off, can you tell us where it all started? Where were you born and did your parents have any influence on the direction you took?
I was born and raised In Washington DC; strict catholic parents…private school, strong disciplined daily life with lots of housework chores! I think that all influenced me to rebel.
How did you start singing and do you remember the first time you sang?
I started singing as a very young child, everything I heard on the radio, which was on constantly. Especially gospel and soul. When I was punished or depressed or even very happy…I would close the door to my bedroom, which I shared with 2 half-sisters and two aunts, and just sing my feelings out!
What brought you to Hamburg?
I previously lived in Hannover, where I raised my two Black German sons and did my touring from. Saw Hamburg and fell in love with the architecture, the wharf, the multitude of bridges! Wow! An absolutely amazing city.
Who are your main musical influences and why?
I think everything that I heard as a child, the influences of my religious background. My stepmother was Baptist, so every Sunday after Mass, we would go to the Baptist church for the rest of the day.
Then during my high school and college days, I started listening to a lot of jazz, fusion…
Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, the Stax folks, Motown Sound, all of that!
For me, music, at first was a way to escape the mundane of an overly protective family. Work out emotions, have fun…party, dance…that kind of stuff.
I note that you have worked with some incredible people over the years, so I hope this doesn’t sound like a stupid question, but have you ever worked with anyone who was also a great idol of yours?
I was once on the same show with Dionne Warwick. But we just happened to be on the same festival…as with BB King and a couple of others. Gil Scott Heron was an idol. Worked with him. He used to come by our house. At that time, I was just out of the High School for Performing Arts and lived with 24 other artists in one house! We’d jam and he’d let us come on with him and perform.
How does spirituality influence your work?
I left the Catholic Church at 17 and turned Buddhist. What I learnt during my Buddhist studies….ridding your mind of mental poisons, using kindness towards others every day, gave me a guideline for everything.
What is your favourite song or album of all time?
Wow! That keeps changing. Used to be Patches by Clarence Carter, Love Child from Diana Ross,
Donny Hathaway’s Someday we’ll all be Free.
Are you currently working on any projects?
Actually, I’ve started working as a Storyteller! Really excited about this! I love books. Have a pretty large collection of fairy tales and fables from all over the world. Storytelling kind of prods the actress in me and of course, the cultural side is very important-
I also have a new Band named Elaine Thomas & the Poets Messengers.
We do poetry to fusion jazz, some of our heroes, especially people like Gil Scott Heron or even Marvin Gaye. Try to bring a positive awareness while having a good time at the same time.
OK, I’ve got to do this to you; what was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you whilst on stage?
Going back to my drama school as a young professional and falling on stage during a jump! I could have died!
Well thanks for sharing that gem with us Elaine. I said at the outset that I was amazed at the amount of things you have done in your life. But what I find incredible is that in amongst all the singing, acting and writing, you are also an English teacher. So, tell us a bit more about your work away from the stage?
I got tired of always being on the road. My second son also needed more of my time…English has always been a passion of mine…so I started teaching it too. Keeps me on my toes, Richard!
Well, once again time has beaten us. All that remains is for me to thank Elaine once again for a very enjoyable and insightful chat. Before you go Elaine would you just like to leave us with a few words of wisdom; maybe a favourite quote?
From me- Contemplate life, stay kind, accept and believe in yourself, live now and get closer to Mother Nature.
And most important, laugh, dance and enjoy what you have. Be thankful.
Thanks so much for that Elaine. I don’t want you to miss your bus so I will say bye for now, and hey, take some of those digestives for the journey!