Keeping it real

Among the unreported atrocities of these times is the cleansing of Tibet by China of every vestige of its ancient culture.

Monasteries are bulldozed, sacred texts destroyed and those who do not conform to the official state version of Buddhism put into reeducation camps. The Tibetan people do not, on the whole, resist or fight back, and seem by western standards to accept this fate passively, apparently indifferent both to their suffering and the great tragedy befalling humanity. There is in the east a different sense of causality from the ideas we accept here in the west about how and why things happen. We like to believe we are authors of our own destiny, agents of social change, in control of events. We regard our conduct to be the crucial cause of events, without reflecting on the consequences of these events, nor seeing that all events are a consequence of other events, that our conduct is itself an event which is caused, and that everything we do has effects we do not anticipate, all of which lead to further unanticipated consequences, and so on, in great ripples throughout the passage of time.

Central to Tibetan society and culture is the idea of reincarnation, which is why Tibetans do not react against Chinese oppression. For if they did, they would be affected in future lives by the negative consequences of their reactions. Quite apart from avoiding any instant karma meted out by Chinese state power, they believe it is always better to act in such a way as to bring about positive consequences, and that reacting with any kind of violence or without thinking is almost always guaranteed to have negative consequences, which will usually come back to bite you on the bum, whether in this life or the next.

The great Lamas began escaping the forthcoming carnage in 1959, bringing with them their wisdom, traditions and texts, ensuring hereby that these would not be lost completely, anticipating Chinese state efforts to sanitise Buddhism and to put it to use as an opiate for its people. Consequently, we are now fortunate in the west to host many centres of Tibetan Buddhism, while many of the basic principles of its philosophy have become commonplace in our mental environment, from inspirational internet memes to a proliferation of mindfulnesses. In Scotland we are furthermore particularly privileged by having within our borders at Eskdalemuir, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside Tibet, founded in 1967 by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Akong Tulku Rinpoche. In these circumstances, it is the responsibility of those of good conscience in the west who have been touched by these events, but who have been brought up with a different sense of causality, now to bear witness and to share what we have learned from what has not been lost. For if we do not, it most certainly will be.


About a month ago, I thought I had worked my last shift as a bicycle messenger. It was a day like many have been this winter, cold, wet, windy, grumpy traffic, awkward job combinations, a day that tested to the core an old bit of messenger hubris, that the worst day on a bike is better than the best day in an office. The following week I started working at a local organic farm on a glorious spring day at the beginning of a lunar cycle. It seemed like a auspicious transition to a perfect new adventure. And yet I always had a feeling of doubt, that it was too perfect.

In 2003, I took part in the European Cycle Messenger Championships in London, England. I was still a relative rookie, with only six winters under my belt, and I was still using gears. In the information booklet issued to participants, there was a potted history of London messenger culture form the mid nineteen eighties. At the end of the entry for almost every year was the same announcement, that a certain well respected member of the community had retired, again. Fifteen years later I have a more intimate understanding of exactly what this means, having experienced many days that I thought would be my last as a messenger. And now again. Another one.

The weather has not been kind to anybody working the land. It has been very wet and it is far too cold for the time of year; the long range forecast does not inspire optimism. Despite the sunshine on my first day, following days were awful. The boss was twitchy. Costs are increasing, outstripping declining income. I was the last in, so I would have to be the first out. The farm cannot afford to pay me. The boss would have to do the work he hired me to do himself. Others in other departments will also be affected. I was disappointed, but understood his position. I have done the same myself. He was professional and sincere. He told me after morning break that this would be my last day and said I could work out the rest of it.

There was a fine drizzle, sometimes turning to larger more frozen drops, carried on a stiff easterly. I could have walked away, got into the car and driven home angrily, thinking up lots of clever words to throw at him, to persuade him he had made a mistake, that I had rights and signed a contract. But I remembered the Tibetans and carried on with the work to be done.

Towards the end of the day, as I was still pulling up a combination of mud, roots and agricultural sheeting from an derelict strawberry and potato field, my wellied feet heavy with clay, the boss approached to shake me by the hand and say he was sorry it had not worked out. I told him that I would treat it as just another challenge. He then remarked upon my attitude, that it reminded him of a friend who had overcome a cancer and who thought now of every moment as a precious gift. I smiled and said that of course the disappointment is no less intense, but that there are worse things in the world – I am after all alive, fit and healthy.

But of course suddenly I am also unemployed, shifted suddenly into a different gear, looking for work, thinking about a new CV, seeking out places that I might like to work or might be prepared to employ me. Of course I also got in touch immediately with the man who organises messenger shifts in the city, saying that I was available again if there was work going. By coincidence there is a shift open this week. Although I have not quite worked my last shift as a messenger, I already decided that this time I really would be retiring, with no more unretiring, that I would continue to live and work in the country, quietly and unobtrusively, for whatever time I have left.

This was the deal I struck with karma for being able now to be living with(out) cancer, that in exchange for being alive at all, I get an ordinary life, full of ordinary trials and tribulations, like being laid off and having to find work.

In the great scheme of things, none of the challenges that come across my path are as atrocious as those suffered by the people of Tibet.


Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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