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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.