My Journey of Discovery

How death sparked the beginning of a spiritual journey that led to Buddhism and a deep inquiry int

On my twelfth birthday I saw my grandmother’s body not long after she had died. I was puzzled: what had happened to her? She was alive and kicking yesterday, she could hear the ticking of that ancient grandfather clock in the living room yesterday, she was talking to people and eating her meals yesterday, but today . . . what? Now her body was just an empty shell. But where was she, the person? Where was the person that lived in that body? I couldn’t work it out!

I asked many people what death was, but no one seemed to know. Why not? Why didn’t people know? Some said what they believed, but it was all a bit airy-fairy; it was all just belief. Didn’t anyone really know what happened to someone when they died? A few months later I read a book on hypnosis and age regression and became fascinated by it. People were apparently recalling previous lives. Was it true? Did people really live more than once? Why hadn’t anyone mentioned it to me before? I didn’t realise it at the time, but my journey of discovery had begun and it was a very exciting time for me.

During my early teens I read many kinds of books on all manner of subjects to do with spirituality and religion. Somehow I came across Buddhism. Little was known of this strange Eastern religion in the 1950s and early 1960s. But I began to learn about the Buddha’s teachings and to me it was breathtaking.

Here was a religion which didn’t seem like a religion at all. There was no Creator God, and the Buddha was a man, a person just like me, just a human being who asked the questions I was asking about life and death. He diligently sought answers to those questions, first through the holy men of the day in India and then he sought answers within himself, within his own mind, and that was when he came to an amazing discovery.

At least I thought it was amazing, and I devoured every book on Buddhism I could lay my hands on. This was a man, not a god, who wanted answers about life and death, and set about finding them. And that was what I wanted as well. Gradually, over the years I realised I was a Buddhist, and my search became a spiritual journey; I discovered the Buddha’s path.

What struck me the most about the Buddha’s teachings was that life doesn’t end at the death of the physical body, and that what comes after physical death will depend on what went before it, in other words what kind of life we have led, commonly referred to in Buddhism as karma and rebirth.

It felt almost liberating to think that my present life was the result of my own actions in the forgotten past. `If the way I lived in the past has brought me to this situation,’ I thought, `then the way I live now will affect my future.’ That is how I reasoned it out and it felt empowering. It was rather a simplistic understanding, of course, as I was still very young, but it felt fundamentally right and brought a great deal of joy into my life; I just had that feeling that it was true.

I have since come to realise that karma and rebirth is all to do with our states of mind and very little to do with material gain or loss, and the best karma is to get insight into the nature of existence, that we are not the isolated, permanent individuals that we might think we are—that I now see is where our freedom lies from sorrow, and where we will find genuine happiness. And that, for me, is the core of the Buddha’s teaching.

Diana St Ruth has been a practising Buddhist since the early 1960s. A director of the Buddhist Publishing Group since 1983, she lived in a Buddhist Community in Devon from 1989-1993 and is the editor of Buddhism Now. She is also the author of several books on Buddhism.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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