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Word from Wormingford

07 September 2012

Ronald Blythe stops making breakfast to listen to a philosopher

NORMALLY, Thought for the Day is unthinkingly obscured by the scraping of toast and the bubbling of eggs. Half-heard, I wish it well. But, this morning, a Buddhist philosopher held my full attention. Not that I am able at this moment to quote him, for the effect of his thinking has driven his actual words out of my head. But they were very grown-up and beautiful.

Many years ago, I wrote a Buddhist-Christian sermon which the congregation has to listen to every five or so years, this being the best I can do. It is about the enlightened nobleman Siddhartha Gautama becoming awakened and going forth.

Helen Waddell, the daughter of Northern Ireland nonconformist missionaries in China, had to pass a great statue of the Buddha on her way to school every morning. Although she was taught nothing about him, his serenity affected her all the days of her life.

It is present in her novel Peter Abelard, and in her wonderful medieval studies The Wandering Scholars and The Desert Fathers. I often think that Westminster Abbey or Wormingford church might have such an effect, or influence, on the Far Eastern tourist, with his or her walled-in quietness and mysterious east-west layout, their bell-filled towers and captured sanctity.

What do we see in a foreign country? What do we hear? What do we know? The guidebooks will not be able to tell us. Waddell's parents were careful not to tell her about the Buddha, other than it was a heathen statue. On the mantelpiece in the guest bedroom stands a little papier-mâché or plaster cat or dog, given to me years ago by the Indian writer and dancer Prafulla Mohanti.

"He is a god."

"Really? I mean, thank you, Prafulla."

Hinduism sees Brahma as the supreme being among countless lesser gods. Why did the Israelites, fed up with God's intangibility, melt down their earrings and fashion a golden calf? I mean why a calf? The calves in Countrywatch have their ears pierced as I watch. There is calves liver for dinner. But I must not go. That way lies madness.

It is now late at night, and the almost full moon is silvery and is surrounded by its own special bank of clouds. The Stour valley is sunk in thought. I can smell sweet peas. I have been writing about being young in Aldeburgh, and, now I come to think of it, being very cold. And the sounds - so different. The sea everlastingly shifting the shingle, the wind eternally blowing through our hair. And, of course, through the rattling plate-glass panes, there being no double glazing in the olden days. There was always a light-ship in sight. It stood stock-still so that it didn't fall off the horizon. We sat on the sea wall and ate fish and chips, and shivered. It was too good to go in. Lovers passed, huddled into one another. And quite a few cats. And the old man who let out canvas wind-shelters to sunbathers, on his way to the pub.

I choose the hymns for Sunday before going to bed: John Bunyan's "Who would true valour see", because I intend to make it his day, come wind, come weather. Magnificent old man. In August, he rode to London in the rain to knock two quarrelling heads together, caught a chill, died far from Bedford, and was buried in Bunhill Fields. He knows he at the end would life inherit.

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