Midwinter meditation: are heaven and nibbana the same place?

blackwhitepoolI love this time of year – the deep, liquorish dark, the clouded brooding nights,and the still, potent star-charged ones. When I lived in London I would often come down to Wales around now, hire a house with friends and walk, meditate, ponder, discuss the meaning of life. Now I live in Wales, it’s easier, especially as I have a bad back this year which has curbed my carousing tendencies. I have been spending a lot of time with a hottie pressed to my back, turning over some big questions.

Christianity – on the wain? Buddhism – on the rise? I feel an affinity with both, and recently have come across two men who symbolise the essence of each of these traditions for me. The first is an anonymous blogger – who blogs as liberationdiaries, providing insight, hints and tips for those (like me) are trying to know the nature of reality. The second is Eben Alexander, an American neurologist whose book, Proof of Heaven, is topping the New York Times bestseller lists. They share a motivation: having had an experience of realisation, enlightenment, they want to share what they know with others, to help us along the road to truth.

Eben Alexander succumbed to an attack of bacterial meningitis and hung on the brink of death for a week, his brain bathed in pus. While most of his fore-brain was knocked out he had a series of dazzling visions of both higher and lower realities. You can get a taste of them in his interview with Oprah. The message he returned with was one of hope and comfort: ‘you are loved, there is nothing to fear’ and a sense of the overwhelmingly vast scale of the whole reality enterprise, infused in every part by a loving God. He comes over as a sincere and unpretentious man who has no evangelical agenda, and has dropped his reductivist-scientific views after this Road to Damascus experience.

The Buddhist Blogger feels like a friend by now as I have asked him lots of questions on his blog and he has given me full and thoughtful replies. You can have a look at our chat here. After his realisation, he says he completely lost any sense of a personal self and now feels part of a oneness. When I asked him ‘what about love?’ he replied that you don’t feel ‘love’ for something which feels like part of yourself. ‘Would you feel love for your arm or your knee?’

So – are heaven and nibbana the same place – or not? For myself, I was feeling torn between the visionary ecstatic in me and the calm, cool meditator, between an intense feeling of love for the creator and the creation and an awareness that the suffering which human life brings to all of us can only be relieved by achieving detachment and equanimity. As Nai Boonman, who takes the Buddhist retreats I attend, mischievously puts it: ‘you want happiness or you want tranquillity? You choose!’

So it was that on Friday evening I set off to visit friends, Rachel and Toby in the remote Llantony valley. They had invited local priest, Father R, and I was looking forward to discussing my thoughts with him. It was a wild windy night and had been raining all day. My friend Val had volunteered to drive us both, since my twingeing back made switchbacking and reversing (when meeting another vehicle) down flooded and narrow lanes difficult if not dangerous. After bucketting through many teeming flood-pools we finally arrived at the ancient cottage in the remotest part of this secret valley, close to Llantony Abbey to a warm welcome in front of a log fire. (You can stay there too – they have holiday lets.) In spite of my reservations about priests, especially anglo-catholic ones (‘I smell priests!’ my Scottish grannie once said as we entered a holiday cottage), I warmed to Father R, who shared his licquorice paper roll-ups with me. But, when after the meal, I broached the subject of Buddhism, he displayed no enthusiasm, but instead leapt up and headed for the piano.

We sat in the radiant midwinter dark of the old parlour, Val curled up asleep on the sofa with a blissed out lurcher leaning up against her, while Father R played four short pieces on the slightly out of tune piano. Each note burst into my mind like a firework, spraying sparks of joy into the room. Everyone was smiling, including the dog. The priest played with precision and passion, making those tunes feel like they were coming direct from the mind of God. The room was on fire with the Christmas spirit of love and reconciliation, the child of light being born in the darkness, the end of conflict, the coming of the Prince of Peace. I didn’t want it to stop, ever, but he was anxious to get home to his beloved dogs, and soon took his leave.

I’m not going to draw any pat conclusions from this experience. These midwinter mysteries can only be understood by something beyond the ratiocinating, argumentative mind. I think all true Christians and Buddhists would agree on that. I shall be celebrating both Christmas Day and the solstice on the 21st because – oh yes – I am a pagan too.