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Bringing Dharma to the Inner City
by Doublas Wade with Alison Murdoch Alison Murdoch has been director of Jamyang Centre in London, England, for a year. She lives with her partner, Simon, a committed Christian, who recently persuaded her to sing in his church choir. She talked to Douglas Wade at the offices of the housing charity she works for in London. Douglas: How would you describe your role as the director of Jamyang Centre?
I think I’m trying to explore my role all the time. I certainly feel very responsibe for the place. I feel that the buck stops with me, as it wre. If there’s nobody else to do omethng, or if a decision rally has to be made, or in terms of an overview as to how the center’s developing; I feel thos responsibilities very strongly. But, actually, my ideal role as diretor would be to delegate everything, and then simply be the person to hold it, give advice, give support…
Douglas: So, how’s the delegating going?
(Laughs) Well, erm, the job at the moment divides into two parts. One is the center as it is at the moment, and the other is the center is it is in the future. There’s potentially a very big contrast between the two. Rinpoche’s encouraging us to acquire a much, much bigger building, which is going to need a lot of revenue as well as capital funding. So we’ve got to greatly enlarge our activities simply to keep that building going. He’s encouraging us to develop work with elderly people, and also the work in prisons and he’s encouraging individual members of Jamyang to develop all kinds of skills that can be offered to the local community.
So we’re really looking at a very different kind of a place to the center as it is at the moment, which is basically a semi-detached house in north London. The building that we’re now attempting to buy, the Kennington Courthouse, is also very central, but it’s in a very poor area where we could be doing a lot to help people. And to do that we’re going to have to attract support from a great er number of people. If we succeed
Douglas: First of all, would you like to say something bout your motivation for giving this interview?
It’s almost like a drop in the ether to hope that what we’re doing here might be helpful or inspiring or thought-provoking for someone somewhere, and also that it might bring support for a project that I think is one of the most worthwhile things we could be doing.
Oh, we have many plans. We’re looking at assembling a big library. We want a really good Buddhist book shop. We’d like to run a wholefood cafe because there’s no healthy affordable healthy place to eat in the area. Right behind the courthouse there’s a place for people with learning difficulties; they’re very keen to have us move in and are interested in working with us.
We could develop, for example, a shop selling products that charities like that make. We could have all kinds of events — alternative therapy, for example. The local doctor’s surgery is interested n working with us. Simon’s church might be interested in working with us. There are all kinds of possibilities.
So, at the moment, I need to set up Jamyang as it is to carry on in a healthy, happy way, whilst I put a lot of effort into getting the new building. We have a fund raising collective, and I need to get advice on business planning. And then if we do obtain the courthouse we will have to do an enormous amount of renovation…
Douglas: So, what’s the state of play so far?
Well, it belongs to some property developers who want to turn it into luxury flats, but the community, community leaders, the local Mayor and the local Member of Parliament are all on our side. The local authority, Lambeth Council, has been holding out against giving the developers permission to go ahead, so they’ve now done a planning enquiry with the Department of the Environment, a central government body, and we have to wait and see what the results of that are.
Recently, the director of the developers told me that he is very interested in Buddhism and would be interested in helping us to buy some or all of the building from them.
Douglas: So you may be able to work in partnership with the developers?
Yes, but the big thing really is to raise the money to buy it from them. But if they lose the planning enquiry the results come very soon then I hope we’ll be able simply to buy it off them and get on with things. But this has been going for for two years. I mean, I cycled past the bulding and found it in the first place. I never expected working on this whole project started when bulding and found it in the first pl!I never imagined I would be learning planning law, property transactions, lobbying local councils…
Douglas: Say something about your other job, this housing charity you work for?
In the past I’ve done frontline work like running a day-center for homeless people, and setting up night shelters for peope to sleep in. I’ve also done some research; for example, last year I looked at people who beg in London, which was fascinating because that’s so clear to Dharma issues and I managed to bring those into it. We called it, We Are Human Too,” which was the campaigning line I was taking.
At the moment I’m doing second-tier work, which is helping the organizations that help homeless people. So I’m setting up a national network of day-centers for homelss people, developing resources for them, campainging on their behalf, making links with Members of Parliament and local authorities, raising money, getting people together…
It has extraordinary parallels with FPMT. They’re both organizations that are stretched to the limit, running on very tight budgets, usually with incredible motivation. Sometimes I feel I’m both a center director and in my other job a central office.
Douglas: They do go well together then?
Yes. I went through a phase a few years ago of continually asking Rinpche whether I should give up my work, and he always put me straight back in. I found ever since I came back from a stay in Asia in 1987-1988, and then again in 1990, that work has always happnd very quickly for me, and it’s been an incredible way of developing my own practice, even if only a millimeter.
Also, the skills I learn in my work are very pplicable to Dharma work. And even the contacts, for example the fund-raising, training, good volunteer practice, organizing groups and meetings and the skills that go with that. So I can see some of Rinpoche’s wisdom in keepingn the two together. It’s just a bit exhausting! Douglas: Do you get holidays occasionally?
Yes. I’m not doing very well on retreats at the moment, but I’m quite strong on play I’m afraid! I used to work in History of Art so I’m still interested in that, and opera, film and theater. Simon shares these interests too, so we work hard and play hard.
Douglas: Can you say something about the influences upon your infancy and childhood, particularly regarding Christianity?
I was brought up in a very intense and active family. My mother’s a doctor and my father’s a lawyer, and they do a lot of work for he local community, charity fud-raising and that kind of thing. I have one brother and three sisters who are tremendous kndred spirits. One sister’s alrdy taken Reuge and anothr’s attended teachings by Rinpoche, as has my mother.
Actually it was due to my mother that I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Ever since the 1950s when she was a student and had read Heinrich Harrer’s book she’s had this great ambition to go to Tibet. I certainly feel very responsibe for the place. I feel that the buck stops with me, as it were.
She and some friends decided this was what they were really interested in. So when I went to India the first time, she tol d me about her friend’s daughter who’d actually managed to see His Holiness. The story was that she’d taken him some chocolates because he had a sweet tooth! So this put the idea into my mind to try to see His Holiness. In fact, His Holiness was the first person I ever presented a kata to…
My mother’s a very strong link, but actually she’s a practicing Christian. We were brought up to attend church every week or two, but in a very nice way. So there was a very moral dimension to the way we were brought up. And my mother, when she’s under pressure, for example when she was in hospital recently, says that one of the things that sustains her is remembering how much worse off other people in the world are. And then I went to a school that reinforced that, a very academic schoo, and went on from there…
Douglas: So you never rebelled against Christianity?
Well, it went in phases. I had a very religious phase in my early teens, and then I was proud to be an atheist at university. Then I became very involved again, and when I went to India in 1987 I was actually considering ways that I could work full-time for the church. In those days I said I simply wanted to develop compassion. I mean, I’m aware now that one’s motivation is a lttle less pure than that. And when I met Lama Zopa Rinoche in December 1987 a the Kopan course, it was quite clear that he was someone who could help me develop compassion — more than anyone else I’d ever met.
Dougas: How was that clear?
I had a very strong reaction just from seeing him the very first time. I had to run away and cry. But then I listened to him teach for the second two weeks of the course, and he was saying a lot of things I’d always felt but never heard anyone say before. The course ended on the twenty-third of December, and on the twenty-fifth was the best Christmas I’ve evr, ever had. We got up at dawn for puja, which was about the time my friends would have been going to Midnight Mass, and then Rinpoche spent the whole day doing Chenrezig initations. And it was just extraordinary, because as far as i was concerned it was the closest to the spirit of Christmas I could evern have come across. I felt like I was sitting on a hill outside Jerusalem. I would either with it or turn my back on it.
Douglas: What an amazing reaction to your first sight of Lama Zopa!
Yes. I heard a very good talk in London last August called “Distinguishing between Emotion and Devotion,” about how we often confuse the two. Devotion is really understanding who or what the lama or the Dharma are and what they can do for you, and that can be a very committed but quite a cool process. Whereas the emotion is the overlay, and a lot of that is about personal need. It’s like Lama Yeshe said, Be careful about dreams. Dont get carried away, they’re simply projections of the mind.” For me it’s like realizing that everythng I’m doing is also about projections. I mean there’s a rght old mix going on and a lot of bad karma to harvest. My mind is very disturbed and confused sometimes.
Douglas: How about the teachings on the lower realms and the perfect human rebirth, for example? Do you find them worrying or threatening? How do you react?
Well, with the lam-rim, you reaction is different every five minutes. I think that’s what’s so extraordinary! I’ve always liked Hieronymus Bosch… To start off with, I really objected to being told about the lower realms, as a lot of people do. But the way I use them now is more about daring to get in touch with pain, and horror, and deprivation, which I see around me al the time in the way tht homeleess and impoverished people are suffering in London. I’ve experienced a lot of constructive effects from my daring to step into their pain. So the lower realms make a very constructive contribution to my working life.
Douglas: What about what some people feel, that Tibetan Buddhism is very male-dominated? Most of the lamas are men, and the Buddhas and bodhisattvas nearly all seem to have male bodies.
To be honest, that’s never been a huge block for me. I’ve got enough blocks already, so I’m not going to go looking for more! I think at both school and university I was given quite a male education, ad I’ve alway felt quite able to copete in what thinks is a male-dominated world. So it hasn’t been a great personal issue, and when I see something that’s really worth doing then I put all my effort into doing it.
Douglas: But do you see Tibetan Buddhism becoming more “feminized” in the future?
Yes. And I think the leadership for that is coming very clearly from His Holiness. I’ve read with great interest what he has to say on the subject. And certainly I’ve never picked up the tiniest hint of sexism from the lamas I admire most.
Douglas: Can you say something about your own Dharma practice particularly regarding Tara and your feelings for her?
Tara is a deity that Rinpoche seems particularly to have associated with the courthouse. We did an initiation with him and then a retreat recently into a wrathful aspect of Tara in order to help us acquire the building. We’ve always done a lot of Tara practice at Jamyang. Tara’s been a tremendous inspiration.
As for my personal practice, I have one deity practice that I really put my main effort into. And that is an incredible inspiraton for me. I never thought I’d ever commit myself to something for life; I’ve behaved in quite a dilletante way until recently. That’s one of the things that Dharma has helped me change. Taking these commitments to do various practices every day for the rest of my life was a big leap, but it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. That practice is there for me every day, whatever pressure I’m under, however busy I am, however impossible it seems to be to fit it in. And somehow it reconnects me particularly with emptiness, which is so important when you’re balancing such a busy life. I’m just unbelievably grateful!
But I’m not doing very well with retreats, although I love doing them. Apart from weekend retreats, the last one was a year and a half ago when I managed to take a month off. I did a Vajrasattva retreat at Lawudo in the mountains of Nepal. I’ve been there four times. It’s my inspiration and one of the places I visualize very often. And then I got to thirty thousand prostrations, but I was too lazy to do any more! Lawudo’s the most perfect counterpart to worldly life in London!
Douglas: Speaking more generally, how do you see the UK as a field for Dharma?
For myself, the Dharma is the most useful thing I’ve ever met in helping me to lead a happy and useful life. As Peter Kedge said recently in Mandala, “The Dharma has answered all my big questions.” I feel a burning wish to present the opportunity to meet the teachings to as many people as possible in the United Kingdon. I feel I met the teachings through enormously lucky conditions. The fact that my mother gave me that seed, that I had the karma to travel to Asia, to meet Rinpoche.
The inspiration provided by places like Kopan, Lawudo, Dharamsala, Bodhgaya is so intense! And I’m constantly in awe of people who have mt the Dharma over here and made a similar connction, so it shows it is possible. And maybe it’s especially possible when so many people are disillusioned with Christianity and with organized religion. So what His Holiness seems to be saying is that one can present Tibetan Buddhism both as a philosophy and as a religon. And I think its as a phiosophy that it could have en enormous on Britain at the moment.
Still, my particular path seems to be Dharma in the inner city. I see that in, for example, creating a place that isn’t dominated by money, where people can come and relax and experience in themslves a different set of values. I’d like that atmosphere to hit people the moment they walk in through the door of the center; a place where people can meet and inspire one another, and in some wa ys create an alliance against some of the worse trends of twentieth century materialism.
The specific teachings and methods, many of which are totally inter-denominational, such as tong-len, ought to be skills that are available and accessible to absolutely everybody. Then there’s Right Living and Ecological issues. We have to look at every aspect of our lives and integrate them. That’s important for how people see Buddhism from the outside. We have to live it in every single moment and in every aspect of our being.
Douglas: I do feel sometimes that Buddhist centers can be rather middle class places rather than serving the local community…
I think Rinpoche is pushing us in that direction, encouraging us to make a quantum leap. And for myself, I believe that one of the most important ways of imprivng the ocial conditions in this country is community regeneration.
At Jamyang, we’ve always had a lot of students who are out of work, which doesn’t stratfy us in a class way but it certainly does in an income way. We were laughing the other day and saying you’re more likely to be discriminated against at Jamyang for having money than for not having money. One of our most faithful students and enthusiastic volunteers is a busker, for example, who plays music on the streets for money.
Douglas: Do you have a favorite prayer?
Calling the Guru from Afar (recites). I think the reassurance and the joy that I’ve found in my practice is something most extraordinary, and the complete love and forgiveness and sense of being held. Whenever I can bear to think about it, I’m agonised to think that some people never experience that, and therefore, presumably, have to shut that part of their mind off. So there are people going round feling costantly guilty, with no method for dealing with it. They have no help in confronting pain, no help with death. It’s appalling to think that people are so bereft of teachings!
Douglas: Yes. It was said on the radio this morning that two and a half million people in Britain are dependent on alcohol.
One time when we were interviewing people in London who are begging, about a third of the 145 people we talked to were heavy drinkers. They said that they drank to forget, to block their minds off, to get through the night… And that made complete sense to me. I could see myself there so easily if I hadn’t met the teachings.
Douglas: A sense of gratitude arises from that kind of reflection.
It’s funny how being director of Jamyang this last year has intensifited all that for me. It’s intensified my prayer life. Tere are days when i think, can’t possibly get through all this!” And in a way you’re rduced to prayer. Metaphorially, you’re on your knees, saying,, Rinpoche, I’ve no idea how I’m going to get through today. I’ve no idea how I’m going to do this.” And I find that has an extraordinary way of clearing the clouds. Maybe it lets a little bit of grace throug. Rinpoche said once, the best thing you can do is retret. The secod best is to teach Dharma. The third best is service.” So I said, I;m not very happy doing number three!” and he replied, Anything you say in the spirit of Dharma is teaching Dharma. So my ego was a little comforted by that!
Douglas: Okay. Let’s stop here. Can you say something for dedication?
May any merit that has arisen during the course of this interview go to ease the suffering of sentient beings, and to bring help and succes to lama Zopa Rinpoche and the FPMT in every possible way, and that we may constantly be open to his leadership and inspiration, and be able to carry his wishes forward!
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