Editorial from the Ch'an Hall

There appear to be two main ways of making statues. The first is to construct a supporting framework and then gradually to apply dollops of clay to its surface, carefully moulding them into the representation of a Bodhisattva or whoever. The flexibility of the approach allows very idealised forms to be presented in great beauty. The problem is that the finished product is fragile, easily cracks and is hollow inside. The second way is to take a log of wood or a block of stone and gently carve away the surface bringing to light a figure expressed from within. The sculptor's skill consists in negotiating with the underlying substance of the material so that the final representation is only in part the work of the artist and largely determined by the subtleties, distortions and inherent patterning within the material itself. What emerges is a disclosure of hidden potential.

There is a parallel here with spiritual training. Some people idealise a theme for its beauty or integrity and build up a frame of rules, prohibitions, injunctions and ritual practices upon which they shape a perfect image. The image may be beautiful and sustained for as long as the structure holds together but a sudden shock or blow may crack the perfect face or disclose an emptiness within. Followers of external rules who have not investigated their true nature for themselves are copyists, fundamentally followers of outer paths even if Buddhist ones. There is a shallowness of Dharma understanding here that can lead to upset and the appearance of the very opposite of an ideal image.

Others learn the hard way and realise that the image they seek is hidden within their own nature. No amount of application of external rules will bring this forth without a carving away of the surface of self. In reaching deeply within the hua t'ou, the Who? question, the true understanding of suffering gradually takes shape. Yet this shape retains the underlying patterns of karma, for these in truth are the very veins and sinews of the material to be worked. The result is thus inevitably idiosyncratic, not a perfect idealised figure but an often rough-hewn realisation from within, the forms of which retain beautiful distortions. The work has included a deep understanding, recognition and shaping. Knowing the shortcomings of his or her own material such a person is well equipped to help others on their own paths. Here there is no inner emptiness but a rock-like root.

When Jeff Love was teaching me how to lead groups using koans in the Communication Exercise, he once remarked to me that the most difficult participants were people claiming to be Buddhists! I wondered why this might be so. "Well," said Jeff, "their problem is that they think they know who they are... as a result of reading what the Sutras say or what some Dharma teacher has taught. They have never even begun to investigate themselves!"

Over the years I have appreciated increasingly Jeff's remark. Those who come on retreat from a confrontation with their own suffering or alienation investigate "Who am I?" with a searching honesty that is moving to encounter. Those who have adopted some Dharma ideology have terrible problems. One-time monks, for example, have been told what they ought to find but the external teachings always lead them astray. Having never recognised a Master, they have immense difficulty in examining their shortcomings and talk only of idealised experiences. At the Maenllwyd, officiously thinking they must know the answers - even though long disrobed, such a person may fail to look within. The question is either avoided or there are never-ending confusions. Nowadays, when I hear someone has been a monk, I feel pretty sure there will be problems. Sometimes such a person comes to reject the question and its relevance altogether and to resent my having faced them with it.

A true monk, long dedicated to exploring the path, has the advantage of being able to use both methods. The long-term training in rule-bound ritual eventually scrapes the surface clean and the true self begins to emerge. Monks and lay persons face the same task, only the context differs. Monks should not think they have any special knowledge but neither should lay people pity the monks' enclosed state. Each person's koan reflects their own karma. There is nothing to be proud about and nothing special to regret. There is the work to be done.


(To Carol)

Drifting clouds and in the purple light

white sheep stand emboldened 'gainst the green;

a flock of birds falls from the sky

hitting a tree in a murmuration,

the starlings are here again

alltogether fizzing and whizzing on the field;

ravens nonchalantly glide past

casting an eye on the farm;

a magpie lands on the back of a sheep.

Up there wet buzzards wheel

and somewhere in the ivy clad oak

last night's owl slumbers.


Beyond the high moors and the pine plantations

up a long gorge beside a lengthening lake

forgotten in the hills

the Flickering Lamp Hotel hides in the woods,

ivy clad oaks and dripping birches,

moss covered boulders, rushing streams, hart's tongued ferns.

The building, ordinary, nothing special,

front door ajar where the undimmed lamp

shows the way in

from the sound of water over the high dam

the silence of the unmoving lake

and the far off hawk's cries.


Power places in Wales are mostly small

hidden in woods, secret valleys, up rocky paths,

through bogs and streams, not easily found in the mountains.

Cwm-y-saeson, heather drenched in blood

Old Meg's grave high on Plynlimon's side

Taliesen's rock overlooking the ocean,

Ffynon garreg and Llangasty lake.

Find them

if you can !

Far from the weekending Brummy voices and damp

chapels of a sunny afternoon

holy wells in hiding from the world


drip yet with passion, blood, the veiled

bright-eyed cunning of the Welsh

and the roaring music stronger than the wind.



Dark light before dawn

no wind and in the silence

a fox barking on the hill;

suddenly in the candle lit room

the cold landscape unfurls

invisible rocks, burrows of badgers

trolling the turf for bulbs and insects

the starlit dome, dusk before dawn

Blue immensity.


Sunrise, far to the SSE

almost at the point of turning

a midwinter sky lined by the tracery of trees,

northern thrushes search the drab field

four, five steps in a run, stop,

look-about and on again

occasionally the unwary worm

sun blinking sky bell chanting

in the cold season.


Old lady in the village shop

hairstyle not seen in a hundred years

dropping in for her 'weekly'

emerges from the hills, her man

the shepherd, dour, grey as the rocks,

immovable, sunray hidden in his heart

drove the landrover, mud covered,

sheep shit and collie in the back.

"G'morning" I say

"G'morning to you"- they turn smiling

extraordinary innocence

in their eyes.



Cars, lorries, sheep liners moving up and down the road

stopping at pubs for a cheery one

where the coals glow, damp logs fizz

mid-daying the sun laced light

on the grey-grass hills

dark firs sentinel beside the farms

cheerful sheep eyeing the black foraging birds

red god firing a thousand hearths.


Today, Mrs Sims, the Post Office lady

bustles around in the rain to open the door. "Horrible weather!" she says,

"Starting a cold too -"

Two letters for Poland - I tell her

"Poland is it then?" she eyes them doubtfully

"Where's that then? Europe is it?"

"Not quite - a bit beyond - but will be someday!"

"Ah - yes!" she finds it in the book,

triumphantly "43 pee then it is twice over."



Already in the early afternoon

light fades grizzling the land no shadows now,

A giant owl perches on a fencepost - no

just a fencepost really,

presences swarm in the groves

the crannies of the hills,

the old Welsh spooks,

the powers reaching the not-quite fearful heart

greening in the dark light

fading, yellow flames

in the village houses far below.

December 1998