Musings on creativity from Yorkshire's Gangliest Diabetic Buddhist Theatre Director

Category: Buddhism

Five Short Plays About Hope: 5

CONTAINS: Swears, Unreasonable expectations of empathy

(Best to read from the beginning if you haven’t already.)

I love theatre with something to say, which makes me think, gives me new ideas or ways of viewing the world. For example, last year, Rash Dash’s Two Man Show changed how I thought about gender (see it if you can!) However, I’m not in favour of hectoring an audience so I don’t think I would ever want the following piece staged! But as a companion piece to the previous four it throws up some interesting things for me. I’ll see you on the other side.


Half a tube carriage. Half full. Specifically UZMA, LAURA and AMINA are sat on three consecutive seats. AMINA is reading a book, LAURA is on her phone.

UZMA starts to cry.

LAURA notices but goes back to playing on her phone.

UZMA completely breaks down.

LAURA looks at UZMA and then looks around – no one else has noticed. 

LAURA tries to go back to her phone.

LAURA gives up, rummages in her bag and tentatively offers UZMA a tissue.

UZMA takes it with a nod but carries on sobbing. 

LAURA wavers then goes back to her phone.

LAURA looks up again and opens her mouth to speak – but then goes back to her phone.

AMINA suddenly looks up and says to us:

AMINA: So, you’re probably expecting that this young woman on my right will, eventually ask this other woman, the crying one, what’s up with her. Because this is a play, right? It’s the inciting incident. There’ll be a heart to heart exchange. Possibly a great, emotional speech for the crying woman which will show of the playwright’s talents and tug at your heart strings.

AMINA goes back to her book.

LAURA plays with her phone.

UZMA sobs.

This carries on for a good thirty seconds.

AMINA: (Suddenly looking up again.) Yeah, she won’t. The phone woman won’t. Ask the crying woman what’s up. So, there you go.


I know this because this happened on the tube yesterday and I’m just showing what happened. Phone girl does nothing for like seven stops. Then she gets off.


This isn’t on phone girl either. Like, nobody else does anything. So it’s not just her.

Reads a bit.

Fuck it, I mean I was there and I didn’t do anything either.


Would you have?


I heard a great phrase the other day. ‘We all just need a good listening to.’


It’s good isn’t it? Like ‘seeing to’?


I liked it, a) because it’s smutty but b) because it’s true. Most of the time, we don’t want people to give us the answers. We just want them to be with us. Not try to fix, or solve, or advise, but to just sit us in our pain, and let them know that if we want to talk, they’ll listen.


Fuck it. Let’s try it now.

Steps out of the train carriage, which is plunged into darkness. Lights up on the audience.

Right, find someone near you you don’t know.


I’ll wait.


No, seriously, get on with it.


Right, quieten down. Now label yourselves A and B.


Good, now A I want you to tell B a dream you’ve got. One item on your bucket list, something you’d love to do or achieve before you shuffle off. Yours is the easy job.

B your job is to listen. And maybe, if A starts to dry up, ask some good, open questions. But remember, mainly, your job is to listen. You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason, as the philosophers say. No advice, no thoughts of yours, just listening and questions.

You’ve got three minutes.

3 minutes.

Great. Now swap over.

3 minutes.

Now, go back to the first way around; A – what are you going to have to change to achieve that dream. Like, in your life, maybe your circumstances, but better still in you. What do you have to change about you to achieve that goal. And Bs, no judgement, no advice. Just good questions and some warm nodding. Maybe even repeat what A has said to check you’ve understood.

3 minutes.

Now swap.

3 minutes.

I reckon to change the world we need three things. Courage, wisdom, compassion. And I reckon compassion might be the easiest. But if we care about other people, like the nice girl with the phone earlier did care about crying woman, what good is it if you’ve not got the courage to take any action towards it? I mean, then you need the wisdom to take action in the best way, but that’s the subject of another play. This one’s about compassion and courage.

So, yeah, I didn’t have the courage yesterday. But I’m going to try harder tomorrow. And you’ve just spoken to a stranger now, so how hard can it be, right?

Wanders back to the tube, which lights up, sits.

LAURA turns to UZMA.

LAURA: Hey. Are you okay? Sorry, I mean, you’re obviously not okay. I just. . .  if you want to, you can talk to me about it.


For the record, I still wear massive head phones on public transport and avoid talking to anyone.

Hope has been very much on my mind of late; I was asked by SGI-UK to be Artistic Director of Generaton Hope, an event aimed at inspiring young people with hope in their ability to change the world (you’d be welcome to attend!)

It’s based on this remarkable poem by Daisaku Ikeda:

This is your age

The future rests in your hands

I hope you will make the twenty-first century truly wonderful

Please make it a century in which the life of each individual is cherished and respected to the utmost.

A century without discrimination, without bullying, war or murder.

A century in which no child cries with hunger, in which no mothers or children take their own lives in despair.

A century without environmental destruction.

A century free from academic elitism, greed and materialism.

A century in which human rights are upheld as the most precious treasure.

A century of true democracy, in which the people hold corrupt political leaders to account.

A century in which the people exercise sound judgement and pay no heed to the lies of the mass media.

I hope you will make it a century in which each of your precious dreams come true and your unique individuality blossoms to the fullest.

To realise these goals, it is vital that you achieve victory, that each of you

grow into people of philosophy and compassion, into people who possess

both real ability and the sincerity to understand the hearts of others.

Your victory will be the victory of the twenty-first century.

You are our only hope.

It’s an unprecedented event; thousands of guests meeting simultaneously in Manchester, Bristol and London. It’s the biggest, more bonkers project I’ve ever worked on, either as a Buddhist or a director. In order to make it, everyone working on it has had to dig deeper than ever before to really believe in the potential of the next generation to be able to stand up and clear up the messes of the previous generations. I’ve noticed that many of us have been confronted by the doubts and fears we hold in our hearts in the process of making it; we’ve been shown the things we don’t believe we can change in our own lives and the world. And sometimes, when those things are getting me down I read this poem and it’s terrifying; living up to it’s expectation feels like an impossible responsibility.

But then I dig deeper  than I ever have before, and strive to believe in the infinite potential of myself and every other living being, and I become more confident than ever that we can make the world a better place, that there is still hope if we are prepared to change and grow ourselves, and take action based on that spiritual growth. Then we can have a human revolution.

Thank you for reading Five Short Plays About Hope! Normal fortnightly service will now resume.

Five Short Plays About Hope: 1

CONTIANS: Swears, British and American politics, depression.

February 2017 was quite a fun time for me, I was taking part in 28 Plays Later, I was directing Handbagged, a play I loved with a great cast. I had a cold and was contending with the tube every morning (as we were rehearsing in London – a city I haven’t lived in for 7 years – oh how quickly one forgets what it’s like)  but otherwise my life was good. But, like many I know, I was also in shock at what 2016 had revealed about the world; the rising to the surface of the hatred which I now must acknowledge was always there, but which I was protected from seeing by my privilege.

After my country had an ill-advised referendum, I spent every waking moment, when I wasn’t working, on social media, reading articles, trying to understand how the basis of my reality had shifted so suddenly. Then The Man Whose Name Has Meant I Have To Find New Words For The Card Which Beats Other Cards In Card Games was elected, and I realised that I was in danger of making myself seriously ill. So, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, I stopped visiting news sites. For two months I stayed news free. Ignorance, it turned out, really was bliss. I could get through my day without facing the growing panic of the world I lived in.

Eventually though, I heard some words by Robert Harrap, General Director of SGI-UK, where he said words to the effect of, ‘I want to read about the world as it is, so I can see how our spiritual practice needs to change it.’ So I upped the amount of Buddhist chanting and study I was doing and started buying the Week. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a very soothing experience – it has a neutral tone and reports what different papers are saying. For example, one might read; ‘Yesterday one thousand people died of plague in the UK. The Guardian thinks this could have been avoided by reversing the under-funding of the NHS while the Daily Mail points out that some of those who died were asylum seekers, so it’s not all bad.’ You see? Much easier to stay calm reading that.

As I started to feel bolder my mind started to turn to what could I actual do to make a difference. This preoccupation bubbled up repeatedly throughout the plays I wrote, so this week, to shake things up, I’m going to publish one of those plays a day, as Five Short Blogs About Hope


Lights up on an extremely lanky Yorkshireman in jeans, blue shirt, and a crumpled jacket. He looks up at the audience slightly startled.

ME: So, there’s this thing I’ve been thinking about. I’ve not fully got my head around it yet, but I thought I might as well share it with you and see where it goes. You find you’ve gone back in time to Germany, 1932. Hitler’s a big deal but he’s not yet Chancellor. Oh, and you can speak German. You’ve met up with some of your new friends, nice, well-meaning, middle class, vaguely artistic types. Not full-on Weimar republic hedonists, but still, pretty open. Not the sort to go smashing Jewish people’s windows. And they say to each other, and you, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do! I’m scared. Scared for me, scared for my country, scared for my family, scared for people who are different from me, but who will suffer under what might come. I’m so scared I can’t really function, I’m struggling to work properly, I can’t concentrate, I’m getting depressed. I’m not really present, (except they wouldn’t say that, as that’s a late 20th Century thing at best, but for now, go with it, you get the gist), I’m not really present in my work, or with my family. I’m barely present here now. I’ve got all this worry, not sleeping at night, but I don’t know what to do. I’ve been on some polite marches, signed some petitions, I’m voting for other parties, I’ve even put their posters in my window, so, you know, I’ve stuck my neck out. But I know it’s not enough. So, do I not worry about it? Do I go back to focusing on being the best employee, family member, friend I can be, and block all the rest out? Or do I go all out and try and stop this evil? And what would that even look like?’ And you know, that in a few short months, Hitler will be Chancellor, then there’ll be a fire, and – boom – within a month, no more democracy. Nazis’ are the only party. And for millions of people it’s too late – a highly efficient system of killing will be developed – they are fucked. And the fate of the planet has changed, dragging in France, Britain, Russia, Japan. Bombs are developed, bombs are dropped. And you know all of this is coming. You know it all in detail, from books and endless documentaries and Oscar-bait films. And your new friends turn to you and say, ‘What should we do?’ They want to be good people, and if they can’t be good, they want to be happy, but now they’re just miserable and impotent. And what do you say to them? ‘Do something?’, ‘Do Everything?’ ‘Do Nothing?’

Because we know. Like they did, in their hearts of hearts, those nice well-meaning Germans of 1932. They know what’s coming. And we know what’s coming. So I’m asking you, as a nice, well-meaning man in the UK in 2017. What the fuck should I do?




Inspiring Things in My Room: 8 The Ultimate Object of Devotion

I’m writing this on my way back from watching a friend of mine receive her Gohonzon. Receiving Gohonzon is to my form of Buddhism as Confirmation is to Christians. You might have been chanting for a while (I’ve know people receive after three months and others after seven years; I took just under two), it’s an act of commitment (not a binding legal one) akin to getting married. It’s like getting married to your highest wisdom and potential and making a promise to work together, through good times and the inevitable bad ones, no matter what.

Gohonzon receiving ceremonies really are like weddings in that I tend to well up during them and afterwards there is sometimes cake. I’ve been lobbying for Pimms as well but that hasn’t caught on yet.

Anyway, that’s the receiving ceremony. But what is it you are actually receiving? A scroll, written in classical Chinese,  modeled on the original one made by Nichiren Daishonin, the monk who spread the practice of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.

He lived a remarkable life. At the time (12th C Japan) the country was divided into parishes and if you were a peasant you were forced to support the temple of that parish, regardless of what form of Buddhism the temple may belong to. Imagine you were Church of England and you got a letter from the government one day saying that due to your post-code you were required to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Like that. Additionally, these temples and their different sects of Buddhism encouraged the locals to donate to support the monks there, on the promise that, if the peasants kept their heads down in this life, they would be rewarded with Enlightenment in one of their future lives (or if you were of low social status you might come back rich. Or if you were a woman you might be fortunate enough to come back as man.) There was no sense that people could achieve enlightenment in their current life or that there was any point in changing the world they lived in, or that people are equally wonderful regardless of social rank or gender.

The Daishonin stood up against all that and taught people that they already had all the wisdom in the Universe in their lives and that by having faith in their own potential and that of others, they could reveal it. And the key to developing that faith was chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Obviously, this rattled a few cages. It rattled the cages of everyone who had something to gain by persuading people not to fight for a better world now, but to put up with their poverty and injustice. It annoyed everyone who was kept very comfortably and in positions of great power, by the donations and worship they received. It vexed everyone whose political position depended on the support of powerful Temples and Priests.

Unsurprisingly this pissed off loads of powerful people and as a result they heaped persecutions on the Daishonin, including repeatedly trying to kill him, and finally they exiled him, despite already frail health, to a freezing inhospitable island, full of other exiles, most of whom were ardently opposed to his beliefs. It was practically a death sentence.

Remarkably, his faith kept him alive through these various persecutions, sometimes miraculously. Finally, living in a barely-standing shack in the middle of a field where the locals left their dead to be eaten by birds and worms, starving and ill, he remained unbeaten in spirit. And he knew that this was because he was revealing the great potential inherent in his life, tapping that energy we all have access to.

Up until then many sects prayed to statues of Buddha. The original intention may have been to reflect that they too could manifest the qualities of the Buddha, but over time that got lost and it became, ‘Oh please help me Buddha, because you are way more amazing than I could ever be, and I am rubbish and incapable without your help.’ Which is exactly the opposite of what the Buddha would have wanted.

So the Daishonin, in his freezing shack, wondered what object could people pray to; what would be the ‘ultimate object of devotion’, which, when chanted at, would connect people in to their own immense power, rather than seeking salvation from some external force. So he made the Gohonzon; he wrote Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, representing all the amazing power of the Universe, down the middle, and around it he wrote the names of Gods and Demons representing all the different aspects of life, positive and negative. The Gohonzon was a diagram, showing the truth of our lives; that, amidst the varied realities of our lives, the heart of our being, is this amazing capacity of wisdom, courage and compassion.

In that sense the Gohonzon is a mirror which shows us back our highest potential. Crucially, it is not in itself magic, or able to sort out our problems for us. The Daishonin warned ‘Never search for the Gohonzon outside yourself.’

The respect we show the Gohonzon, then, is the respect we show to our own highest potential. So we keep it in special box, we don’t take photos of it, we make offerings of fruit, incense, water and greenery (I’m using cacti because my greenery kept becoming brownery), we keep the area dusted, etc. We are offering those things to ourselves; they are metaphors which have meaning because we imbue them with meaning. On those days when I can’t believe in my own potential, when I want to curl up and for the world to leave me alone, the act of caring for and respecting the object which represents my higher self enables me to reveal the self-respect which I would otherwise struggle to muster.

And then when you chant, with the Gohonzon reflecting back the truth of your life, then you can start, sometimes painfully, to see the things you can change, the ways you can grow.

So, this would be most inspiring object and I’m very grateful to my younger self for deciding to make that commitment. It’s been an eventful marriage so far, which has required a great deal of work, but one I’m very glad I entered into.