Camelford Ch’an Week Retreat (North Cornwall)

The author & Daughter - Mei-An
The author & Daughter – Mei-A

Under my guidance (as the current Custodian) of the Richard Hunn Association for Ch’an Study (RHACS), which is headquartered in London, UK, many of our Ch’an Retreats have tended to favour the Cornish countryside.  This type of terrain – with its fresh air and unusually good day light – often serves as a tonic to those brave few who manage to find out about our retreats, and then manage to convince us that they are legitimate seekers of the Dao.  Many show an ‘egotistical’ interest, but if this is allowed into an intensive Ch’an Week, the effect of the intensive concentration will be destroyed to the detriment of everyone, and the benefit of none.  The sincerity of those who attend is touching in the extreme.  One young man – a Christian priest – said that he wanted to get beyond just talking to god, as god tended to listened to his words, and laughed at his pain!  This problem was solved by another participant – who hadn’t spoken a word all Retreat, who said that he thought these words were amongst some of the best lyrics Robbie Williams had ever produced!  At the time, I did not know what this referred to, but the ‘gong an’ nature of the exchange ‘freed’ the blocked energy and strengthened the inner potential in the good person in question.  As a consequence, this practitioner ‘punched through’ his limited notion of ‘god’, (which turned-out to be his ‘ego’ talking), and as a consequence, emerged into a whole new light of awareness.  For him, the god he used to worship was a mimicry of what he now found.  It may seem surprising, but Ch’an Week Retreats – particularly in the West – attract their fair share of Christians, and why not, we all seek together without discrimination.

Mei-An seeking herself in a Wardrobe
Mei-An seeking herself in a Wardrobe

Numbers vary dramatically, but as we are not a commercial enterprise, this is of no interest.  There is always a strong inner core that keeps the teachings of Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) alive in the UK.  We have been asked to Hong Kong and China in recent years, and these are invitations we intend to honour in the near future.  Our last Ch’an Week Retreat (in the Sai Kung area) of Hong Kong, attracted over 50 participants in 1999, and we had to abandon the building and sit in the beautiful countryside.  Richard Hunn (1949-2006) was still alive at that time, and despite being in Japan – was not able to attend on the dates we had arranged – but we did see him shortly afterwards.  He sent some of his Japanese students to sit with us, and of course, he spiritually authorised the entire event.  This was the first time that myself, and other members of the British Chinese, and Hong Kong communities worked together in the name of RHACS.  Part of the Ch’an practice at that time was a visit to the Po Lin Ch’an Temple (寶蓮禪寺 – Bao Lian Ch’an Si), situated on Lantau Island.  This involved climbing the hundreds of steps that led up to the Great Buddha situated on the Divine-Sky Altar (天壇大佛 – Tian Tab Da Fu).  The superstition is that if these steps are climbed, bad karma is dissolved.  This view maybe juxtaposed with the observation that the sheer strain of climbing so many steps without a place to sit, or any type of refreshment, could well finish-off the elderly, infirm, or the disabled, etc.  Young children also find this pilgrimage difficult, with older children and youths seeing no point in doing it at all.  In this regard – all viewpoints are equally valid.  Perhaps a lift would be just as ‘divine’ if the mind was right?  Whatever the case, this Ch’an experience was unusual as it involved two family clans, (the Chan and Yau) visiting Hong Kong (the place of their origination before migrating to live in the UK), who mustered, through family ties, probably around 30 people to attend.  This has never happened again, as the social dynamics in the UK, at least outside the Chinese community, is premised upon individualism and not Confucian family ties.

Why Cornwall?  Although it is a beautiful county situated on the southwest tip of the UK, it is socially and economically deprived, whilst being run by a rightwing local council.  A Cornish news report last , stated that many local five year olds when first going to school in the area, could not even say their names, (compare this with my youngest daughter who is now two and a half years old, and can already say her name and hold basic conversations).  The deprivation for the local people is palpable.  Due to the lack of money amongst local people, much of the property is bought-up and rented-out by people from outside Cornwall – thus depriving the local population of the benefit of the value of Cornish property – the profit of which is leaving the county.  Some time ago, the previous Labour government brought-in a free bus pass for the elderly and the disabled.  This pass allows free travel over England and Wales on all buses for all elderly and disabled people.  Scotland is excluded from this scheme as its government has refused to dismantle its socialist system of caring for al its citizens.  In England and Wales, the bus pass was an attempt at ‘gesture politics’ whereby ruthless and vicious cuts is social care and welfare provision were camouflaged by introducing a free pass.  Whilst care home and medical services for the elderly and disabled were cut, the then Labour government sweetened the pill, so to speak, by saying it was all OK as now the victims of the cuts could now ride on a bus for free.  Well, as matters transpired, rightwing (conservative) local authorities have been looking for ways out of honouring this scheme at the county level.  Cornwall County Council – as a staunch supporter of the current far-rightwing Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties (i.e. the ‘ConDem Coalition), realised that they could penalise all those using these passes on Cornish buses by introducing an administration fee (approximately a third of the actual fare).  Although an illegal act, it has since been copied by local councils elsewhere in the UK.  These local councils understand that for their illegal policy to be stopped, the elderly or disabled bus travellers that use the pass would have to take the councils  to court – a costly process that could drag on for years.  Obviously this is unlikely to happen, as bus users generally do not possess the personal wealth to questions these matters legally.  Therefore the Cornish County Council’s policy toward the most vulnerable members of its society is a despicable example of class oppression in operation.  This policy of deliberate discrimination extends to making the disabled ‘pay’ for parking spots that their Blue Badge exempts them from having to do – for the same reasons cited above.

Another difficult equally perplexing issue is that of racism in Cornwall.  It is not an attitude that everyone holds – far from it – but the extent of its odious presence can be seen in the fact that the far-right movements of the British National Party (BNP) and more recently the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), are very popular.  At either local or national election times, many people in Cornwall (and in the adjacent county of Devon), unashamedly display campaign posters that are openly racist slogans.  As many members of the local council, judiciary, and law enforcement are either full members of these far-right movements, or secretly agree with their racist policies, no action is taken against this dangerous display of obvious fascism.  This idea that the Cornish constitute a separate and ‘mythical’ race was compounded earlier this year when the United Nations formally acknowledged that Cornish people constitute a distinct ethnicity.  This is a scientific absurdity that I have exposed in previous writings, that only encourages racism at a local level.  For our multicultural Ch’an gatherings we have experienced this racism a number of times – particularly from landlords whom we have rented property from, and from certain local shop-owners, as well as some people in the street.  It is the experience of raw race-hate.  I tell our students that is good for our training as it brings human ignorance out of the murky shadows and into broad daylight.  How can we fight ignorance if our lives are sanitised to the point of bland politeness?  Racism is ‘wrong’, of course, but the empty mind ground is correct.  Cornwall (and many of its people) is beautiful and poignant.  None of us can help the socio-economic conditions that have created us – these why we must forgive everything as we encounter it (even racism) – but we can use our combined intelligence to dig our way out of our own inherent predicaments.  Understanding and forgiving is not condoning or encouraging destructive ignorance, but is in fact a means to transcend it.  Let’s do it together!



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