Turning About Once Again

So here I am in Bodhgaya, India, after a gap of seventeen years, and it is good to be back. I’ve just been pedalling around, making the most of the local food, meditating when I feel like it, sleeping when the mood takes me, making new friends, sitting and thinking, reading things that come my way, and feeling pleasurably purposeless.

There is, however, one problem: in theory, I am in Bodhgaya do research. Before coming here, I filled in research proposals and even managed to get a modest amount of funding for this trip. These proposals were tied to a couple of book projects that I’m working on at the moment, both of which have some interesting connections with Buddhist themes, ideas and history. But as the days have passed, I have begun to realise that it doesn’t particularly look or feel as if what I am doing is research. Not only am I spending more time at tea stalls and in temple meditation halls than in libraries, but I also have to confess that I’m not even thinking about these books very hard.

This is, or should be, a problem. Had I filled in my funding proposal and said, ‘Look, I’m just going to meditate a bit, borrow a bike, cycle about, eat some food, read a bit. Does that sound okay?’, I would have not sounded very convincing. But on the other hand, that is precisely what I’ve been doing. Looking at it like this, it all seems pretty shameless, even fraudulent.

And yet… something is happening here (even if, as Bob Dylan might add, I don’t know what is is), and this something seems to me to be intimately connected not only with the whole business of writing, but to these two works in progress I’ve spent the last few days happily not thinking about.

Let me tell a story about this ‘something’… Yesterday afternoon, I headed up to the Japanese temple to join their evening service. The sun was already sinking in the sky when I slipped off my shoes and went inside. A number of meditators were already there. I took two cushions, bowed before the shrine, and joined them, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I could smell the scent of burning mosquito coils. Slowly, a few others came into the temple and took their places. There was the sound of wooden clappers, heralding the start of the service, followed by chanting. After that there was silence: just twenty or thirty of us sitting in the hall, as the sun set outside, and the mosquito coils put up fragrant smoke into the air.

At the end of the meditation, I massaged the stiffness out of my legs and left the temple. By now it was dark. I walked down the steps and put on my shoes, and then I collected my bike and unlocked it. I started to push it through the temple courtyard, back into the street. Then… well, then this something happened. Pushing my bike through the dark, I was suddenly choked with emotion. I had to stop to catch my breath and to wipe the tears away from my eyes. It was not that I was upset by anything. Nor did I have anything much on my mind. In fact, I’m not sure I had anything at all on my mind other than where I was going to eat dinner. But just at that moment, it was as if—how can I put this?—I was overwhelmed by the sheer fullness of existence.

I stood there for a few moments, allowing the experience to pass. Then I wiped my eyes a second time and wheeled my bike to the gate. I pushed the gate open and closed it softly behind me. Then I climbed onto the saddle and rode back to the guest-house.

As I rode home, it struck me: this was what I had been missing over the past months, whilst turning future projects over in my mind. This kind of quiet revolution in my sense of life, this anchorage in the deeper pulse of things, was exactly what I was waiting for so that I could better know where I should go next. And if research is, in etymological terms, a kind of re-circling, a “turning about once again”, then this was the moment that I knew that this research trip had been worth making.

But none of this is really how research is thought about in universities. Nor is it anything like what I said on that research proposal. I’ve written before about the strangeness—perhaps the impossibility—of trying to square the circle of fitting what writers do into the standard definitions of research used in universities. But when it comes down to it, what many writers do isn’t anything like what universities think of as research, even if many of us pretend it is. In our armoury we have various forms of low cunning — we talk about “practice-based research” and so on — and we use these to justify what they we up to. I too sometimes find myself spouting this stuff. But my heart is not really in it. When I talk like this, I smell bullshit. I suspect it is nonsense. I don’t believe a word I am saying.

What, then, do I believe? I think that what I believe is simpler and more basic than this. I believe that writing is indeed a practice that can help us “turn about once again”, and that can thereby help us get to grips with the fullness of existence. I believe that this turning about is something that cannot be programmed or anticipated in advance. Instead, it is something that necessarily involves a degree of wandering and purposelessness, a looseness of relationship to existence that leaves space for the unexpected to emerge. I believe that if we want to do our best to write things that matter—and to encourage others to do so—we need to keep open a space for this wandering, this purposeless and this looseness. And I believe that these projects on which I am currently working will somehow—even if I am not yet sure how—be better and more substantial for having come here to meander repeatedly between temple and tea-stall.

Sign up to my newsletter