Interview: Alison Murdoch, author and student of Tibetan Buddhism

15 September 2017

‘In many ways I’m a reluctant Buddhist’

I was fortunate to grow up in a loving family in Sussex. I had some powerful spiritual experiences as a child, and in my teens used to take myself off to church during the week, as well as on Sundays.

 

In my mid-twenties, I became involved with St James’s, Piccadilly, where Donald Reeves had brought together a rich and diverse community of people and values. This is where I first encountered meditation, in Penelope Eckersley’s Julian group.

 

I gave up work when I was 27 to explore what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. At the time, I described it as “making my life a blank sheet of paper for God to write on”, a­­nd bought a single to Delhi. I then found the teachers, tools, and travelling companions that I’d been looking for within Tibetan Buddhism instead.

 

In many ways, I’m a reluctant Buddhist. I’ve never been particularly drawn to hippy or Buddhist culture — I still love Christian churches and music and the liturgical year, and was always clear that whatever I learned in India, Nepal, and Tibet was for the purpose of bringing back to the West. What I most wanted was to develop kindness and compassion. That’s always been my driver: to be useful to people.

 

As I got further into my Buddhist studies, I realised that the main source of my problems is a false sense of who I really am; so my search to become more compassionate also became a wisdom quest. Every day, it becomes increasingly apparent that, whatever positive things I do, and any positive results I create for others, all depend on how I think and feel at the deepest level of my being.

 

I enjoy exploring the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism, and have done this through supporting my husband, Simon Keyes, when he was director of St Ethelburga’s, and through SACRE [Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education], interfaith organisations, and events. For over ten years, I’ve been a regular contributor to radio programmes such as Prayer for the Day, Good Morning Sunday, Beyond Belief, Pause for Thought, and The Moral Maze. My background in both traditions makes this relatively comfortable for me. I sometimes wonder if it’s a calling. I’d be happy to do more.

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I recently went to a talk by Brother Martin from Father Bede Griffith’s sangha, where he was asked the question: “Are you a Christian?” His answer was: “That wasn’t a word that Christ used. I describe myself as travelling on Christian Airways.” I’m travelling on a Buddhist airline, and it’s impossible for me to know for sure what the destination will be. If it takes me to the pearly gates, I can only apologise, and explain that I did my best.

 

For ten years, I was director of the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London. After that, in 2005, I helped establish the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom (FDCW), an international non-profit organisation that enables positive personal and social change for people of all ages, cultures, and traditions through education and resources, based on universal human values. The Dalai Lama is the patron, and it’s very much about putting his vision into practice.

 

FDCW draws on insights from all religions, but is honest about coming from the Buddhist tradition. Workshops take place — without Buddhist iconography or using Sanskrit names for ourselves — in hospices, schools, and other community venues.

 

FDCW’s programmeThe 16 Guidelines for a Happy Life”, used on five continents, is a set of ethical precepts for modern life, inspired by a text from seventh-century Tibet. Its strength is that it consists of 16 fundamental human qualities that we’re all familiar with, divided into the four themes of how we think, how we act, how we relate to others, and how we find meaning in life. You can select one of the “16Gs” each morning as your theme for the day. I created the 16G app for people who might not have a daily practice or open a book.

 

The Buddhist definition of compassion is very precise. It’s about wishing the suffering of all beings, including one’s own, to cease. Wisdom is about gaining deeper insights into the nature of reality. One of my guiding quotes from Lama Thubten Yeshe is: “Dwelling deep within our heart, and within the hearts of all beings without exception, is an inexhaustible source of compassion and wisdom.”

 

Is happiness enough? It depends on how we define happiness. I find it easier to talk about avoiding unhappiness or suffering, which we can do only through understanding at first-hand what unhappiness is.

 

At the moment, I’m doing a six-year course in basic Buddhist philosophy in London, and editing a 365-page handbook on the lam-rim teachings, with the aim of making a Tibetan Buddhist teaching that dates back to the 15th century accessible to more people. I’m also involved in a local housing and homelessness initiative.

 

I recently wrote Bed 12, when my husband, Simon, fell into a life-threatening coma. Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, a Christian hospital chaplain, suggested that I write a daily journal for Simon, so he’d know what happened if he recovered. Simon made an extraordinary recovery, and, a year later, I returned to my journals to make sense of five long weeks in intensive care, and the time after, supporting his recovery. Various friends thought it might be helpful for people going through a similar experience, or as a patient-perspective for medical staff.

 

I wrote Bed 12 as a thriller — as the sort of book I’d want to read myself; so it’s also reached a more general audience. What seems to interest people most is how crisis and trauma deepened our relationship, and Christianity and Buddhism gave us strength.

 

I discovered that the teachings of Buddhism, and my own daily practice, had given me a very effective training to cope with trauma and heartache. For example, my teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche often tells us: “A day where you don’t remember death is a day wasted.” I also gained deeper insights into the human condition, appreciating the wonderful people around me, and becoming more aware of the limits of my knowledge and capabilities.

 

Lama Zopa has been the biggest influence on my life. He has an extraordinary ability to open my mind to fresh perspectives, press my buttons, and keep me on the path.

 

My favourite and most reassuring sound is the Cantique de Jean Racine. It takes me to a place where my mind is naturally quiet, joyful, and peaceful, and the future is full of kindness and positive potential.

 

I live in a beautiful old house in Frome with Simon and a springer spaniel, Lola. When I’m not working, I love walking through the fields or forest at dusk with them, followed by a quiet drink in an undiscovered country pub. Or getting to know a place where we’ve never been before, preferably without using a car.

 

There’s a prayer, the Four Immeasurables, that I use every day, which goes: “May all beings be free from aversion and clinging, feeling close to some and distant from others. May we have happiness and the causes of happiness. May we be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May we never be parted from sorrowless bliss.” That seems to cover most bases. I particularly like the opening line about equanimity, which seems a direct antidote to our contemporary political, social, and economic ills.

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I rarely get angry these days. There’s a plethora of Buddhist teachings designed to help us get anger out of our system, because it’s seen as an own goal that disturbs the mind, clouds our judgement, and creates a ripple of harm around us. Neuroplasticity also proposes that being angry will simply create the habit of being angry again.

 

I love the quote from Plato “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Even Donald Trump, even the leaders of Isis, even Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot can be approached with compassion rather than anger. There’s righteous anger — but it’s a high-level skill.

 

Seeing other people happy makes me happy. Lama Zopa encourages us to spend some time every day consciously training ourselves to rejoice in other people’s happiness. I’ve found this extraordinary powerful.

 

The Buddhist teaching of karma proposes that if we do good we create future good. I’m surrounded by people doing positive things; so that gives me hope for the future.

 

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose St Francis. He’s the ultimate crossover saint for Buddhists because of his humility, renunciation, and compassion, and dedication to the welfare of all beings.

 

Alison Murdoch was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. http://www.compassionandwisdom.org

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