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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump