Recently I was invited by a friend to be part of a Buddhist ceremony where she was going to become a ‘mitra’ – which means ‘friend’ in Sanskrit.
I had no hesitation in going for at least three reasons: I’d been privileged to accompany her through a three month sabbatical eighteen months ago, where her Buddhist journey began to take shape; I wanted to support her in this important step she was now taking; and I was curious!
I travelled to Leeds Buddhist Centre with her partner Alison, who is also a friend of mine, and we met her there. I was immediately taken by the simplicity and peacefulness of the rooms that made up the Centre. There is an open-plan space incorporating a place to leave coats and shoes, a lounge area with small library, and a kitchen. Then there is an attractive triangular shaped room for meditation, with a shrine area at the apex. Off this room is a small, partitioned quiet area for small groups or individual use. The whole centre was light and airy, simply but comfortably furnished, and felt very welcoming.
Once folk (about 30 of us) had gathered in the lounge, we were invited into the meditation room. There we chose to sit on chair or floor, helping ourselves to cushions and blankets from the well-stocked shelves at the back on our way in. My friend and one other person were there to be made a mitra, and they sat on the floor at the front. Near them, facing us, were 4 members of the Order, each wearing a simple white neck-sash, who would take part in the ceremony.
The ‘MC’ gave a simple explanation of what would happen in the next couple of hours, and then we began with 10 minutes of silence. What bliss! When were you last offered the opportunity for 10 minutes uninterrupted silence? The longest I’m ever offered in the church I attend is about 8 seconds if I’m lucky!
The end of the silence was signalled by 3 rings of a soft, gentle ‘bell’. I couldn’t see it from where I sat, but I guess it was a large singing-bowl, struck with a padded mallet. There followed a talk for about 15 minutes about what it means to become a mitra, and about the symbolism of the mitra ceremony. Then we broke for a tea-break!
Some tea-break! ‘Make your own and mingle’ was the order of the day. And what rich conversations! Within minutes, Alison and I were engaging with a lady who asked if we’d been before (Alison had been a few times, but it was my first experience of Buddhism firsthand), and then started to talk a bit about her tentative exploring of things Buddhist having grown up with, and been somewhat disillusioned by, Methodism. She talked about the things she found most helpful – the practices of sitting in silence, and of meditation. Especially she valued the meditation form known as Metta Bhavana, loosely translated as ‘Loving-Kindness’. “Ooh!”, I enthused, “Chesed!”, remembering the smattering of Hebrew I managed to learn at theological college 40-odd years ago. “That’s such a rich Old Testament word, also often translated ‘loving-kindness’, which fuels and inspires so much of what Jesus is about.”
And from there my sense of endless connections between Buddhism and Christianity accelerated!
‘Friend’ is a term Jesus used too. “No longer do I call you servants, but friends”, for example (John 15:15). And Jesus speaks of himself as a “friend of sinners”.
‘Inclusion’. I felt truly and absolutely included that evening. And wasn’t Jesus at pains always to include, rather than exclude people? “Those who are not against us are for us” (Mark 9:40)
Ritual that enables encounter with the divine. There is a rich heritage of this in the Christian church, but in my experience too often the Church now engages in ritual for ritual’s sake, losing the essence of it. Too often, it seems to me, we confuse the ritual with the divine and somehow think that in partaking in the ritual we have thus indeed encountered the divine whereas, in fact, we have encountered only the ritual itself.
My main connection that evening however was with ‘prayer’. My heart stirred as my new friend of Methodist extraction enthused and came alive with her tale of metta bhavana – ‘loving kindness’. As she outlined the five stages of this process of meditation, I grew more and more animated:
Metta, in the Pali language, is non-romantic love, friendliness, kindness.
Bhavana means development, or cultivation.
So metta bhavana is about cultivating a practice of loving-kindness.
Firstly, envisage and feel metta towards yourself.
Secondly, think of a good friend, and feel metta for them; phrases such as ‘May they be well’, or ‘May they be peaceful’ might help.
Thirdly, identify someone you neither like nor dislike; someone you don’t know well, but see around. Reflect on their humanity, and include them in your metta.
Fourthly, think of someone you dislike, or find difficult to like, or you are in conflict with. Try to think of them positively, and offer metta to them too.
Fifthly and finally, focus on the wider community. Start by embracing those you have already engaged with (in stages 1-4), then widen to your neighbourhood, town, country, continent, world, allowing waves of metta to roll outwards.
Wow! But isn’t this what I call ‘prayer’?
It reminds me of the ancient Celtic practice of Caim.
A caim is a circular sheepfold – the most efficient shape. And this Celtic way of praying simply holds those for whom you pray in the caim of the Good Shepherd – in the circle of God’s love. Caim is a practice of prayer that I have loved ever since Nan, a dear elderly lady (who was a valued part of the leadership team of the church where I was parish priest) came across it and introduced it to us at a leaders’ meeting. I was struck by its powerful and profound simplicity, and have been ever since. The attraction for Nan was that it gave her huge relief from the weight of what she had been taught about prayer for decades – to ‘pray’ specific things for people she neither knew, nor knew their circumstances. It gave her permission simply to hold the people, national situations, international issues or whatever, in the loving outstretched arms of a benevolent God who knew far better than her their needs and outcomes!
So my friend is now a mitra. She sees her involvement with Buddhism as being in parallel with her Christian faith. Complementary rather than contradictory. She is not a pioneer in this kind of multi-faith spirituality. I recently came across a book called ‘The Taste of Silence’ by a Belgian woman, Bieke Vandekerckhove where she writes, “Benedictine spirituality and Zen Buddhism became the two lungs through which I breathe”. Her story is well worth reading. And I hope you have enjoyed reading mine.
© Paul Booth : Spring 2017