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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times