Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

75th and 34th Birthday celebrations

(Deja vu. This looks like the start of the last blog... but click on the picture to open it and you'll see it's actually a mosaic made up from hundreds of classical paintings. This was produced with a great program that's free to download from Well worth trying!)

As if all the permanent attractions weren't enough, Sydney is one long series of events in the summer. I'm off to Ross Noble's show in the comedy festival soon and still hoping to see a film in the French film festival before it finishes. V-festival at the end of the month will be a real highlight for me, and a chance to see the Pixies, Beck, Groove Armada, Jarvis Cocker...

Sunday was the last day of Sydney Harbour Week (which actually lasted a fortnight if my arithmetic is correct) and the 75th anniversary of the opening of the harbour bridge. No fireworks, but some unusual lighting made for original pictures.

(Two hundred thousand people walked across the bridge, which was closed to traffic for the day.)

(A fire-boat in the harbour)

(There were plenty of 'events' on the day including fly-pasts by aircraft from each decade since the 1930s. The parachutists were a particular crowd-pleaser. In fact, the crowd seemed pretty easily pleased to me - there was a great atmosphere all day, which just proves that Australians really know how to hold a party.)

Talking of events, Chris' 43rd birthday (surely not 34??) passed off without serious incident at the weekend. Thanks to Caroline for cooking us all dinner on Saturday night. That kept us going until craving for kebabs hit us at 4am. Boy was I tired. I'm starting to pine for Glasgow's restrictive opening-hours legislation...

I've done plenty of work in the past week and I've also been working again on Chris' house. This time I was flooring the balcony. Given the precarious position and hard-manual labour, I did feel a kindred spirit with the builders of the Sydney Harbour Bridge... it was a disappointment when Chris refused to provide me with hob-nail boots and a billie-can.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Retreat and Advance

(the fabulous main pagoda at Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong)

I was feeling like a break from the big city last Friday. So I took myself out of Sydney for a long weekend and explored the South Coast of New South Wales.

(Coastal scene at beautiful Kiama)

My current obsession with photography led me to the Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong. This is reputedly the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere and so seemed a fantastic place to grab a few interesting photographs.

And so it was. I had a really enjoyable stroll round the pagoda and temples grabbing a few pics. As I was exploring I happened to notice a small leaflet advertising a one-day Buddhist retreat for the Saturday. On further enquiry, it emerged that this was the first one-day retreat they had run since the temple opened ten years ago and there was one place left on the course. This seemed to be somewhat fateful to me - so I signed up on the spot.

So, after an evening in the beautiful town of Kiama, just a little further down the coast, I returned to the Nan Tien Temple on the Saturday and had a very relaxing and enlightening day with the Reverend Ning and about a dozen fellow students. We didn't have to wear robes (that's the two-day retreat) but we did do sitting, standing and walking meditation, Tai Chi and contemplation of Buddhist paintings. The day was thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing, ending with the daily drum and gong ceremony.

There's something quite grounding about being reminded of the importance of: compassion, mindfulness, self-awareness, respect for others, appreciating what we have, living in the present and not the past… In fact, almost all wisdom in Buddhism – to me at least – sounds like something I’ve heard before. But it’s no less important to hear these things as it’s so easy to forget them day-to-day.

(I like this photo. The wide-angle lens makes it appear as if the pagoda is about to fall over backwards, or perhaps more as if it is about to launch off into the sky. This seems satisfyingly apt, given that Buddhism is about enlightenment, and the quest to reach a higher state.)

Buddhism is a quest to find enlightenment through looking within. Meditation is a method of stilling the everyday thoughts . I found this really quite calming. However, it had been a particular struggle in the morning as I managed to 'misplace' my wallet and spent much of the first couple of meditation sessions wondering whether I'd left it in the backpackers or dropped it on the train.

Luckily I didn't have much in my wallet and besides making embarrassing calls to credit card companies - and not for the first time - it wasn't too traumatic.

I should of course be getting used to this by now. If Buddhism is about mindfulness, then my chances of changing career to become a monk are somewhat limited, given my incredible capacity to lose my posessions (wits, marbles...I hear you say).
Lost to date at various times and in various countries: travel tickets, hotel room key (Easter Island), prescription sunglasses, prescription glasses (Belize), travel books, travel towel (Chile), penknive (confiscated as I was getting on the plane at Honduras airport), credit card (left in the cash machine at Honduras airport), sunhat, sunscreen, and most recently the legs for my trousers (they zip off), which lends credence to the idea that I would lose my own legs if they were detachable.

Interestingly, this just appeared on the BBC News site today!
A group of Buddhist monks in Malaysia is appealing for help to solve a problem with ants. Buddhism forbids devotees from harming any living creature. So the monks are looking for a creative and non-violent solution to deal with the insects, which are biting worshippers.
The chief monk at Ang Hock Si Temple in Georgetown on Penang Island told the BBC that the ants are dropping from the temple's sacred bodhi tree onto people meditating below - and when they bite it causes painful swelling. While the chief monk practises "letting go" meditation to "let go" of the pain, out of consideration for worshippers less far along the path to enlightenment, the monks are looking for ways to persuade the ants to go.
An attempt to remove them using a vacuum cleaner failed, so the Buddhist community is appealing for help. They cannot encourage anyone to harm the ants, but the chief monk says that if someone turns up unbidden and deals with them without the monks' involvement then that is the will of the universe.