Touring the Six Realms
I had arrived at the ‘traditional centre of England’, Meriden, designated starting point for my tour of the Six Realms. As described in an earlier post, the plan was to “physically visit the Six Realms described in some Buddhist traditions, mapped on to the realm I live in (England)…taking a popular image of the ‘Wheel of Life’ depicting the realms, superimposing it on a map of England centred on the supposed mid-point of the country, then getting to places sited within each realm and recording my impressions.
Image: P. Roelli
The psychogeographical technique to be used is the ‘Finding’ approach described by Duncan Barford, ‘decide beforehand the outcome of the journey, and then look to experiences during the journey as the provision of that outcome’”. Available time and money meant that this was going to happen inland, starting from the centre, rather than spending several days on the coast. The larger pier trip seemed to be imploding.
I spent the night at the Bull’s Head, which featured a brass plaque set into the parquet floor indicating that this was the spot. There was also a plaque on the nearby village green, by a market cross that had been relocated there as part of a programme of improvements to the green, during the Festival of Britain. I wasn’t too bothered about finding the exact centre, anywhere here was, as they say, ‘close enough for jazz’.
The inn was pleasant enough: an old coaching inn on the London to Holyhead road. I ate fish and chips, and drank Pure Ubu, the name invoking Alfred Jarry’s absurdist hero Ubu Roi/Pere Ubu, Jarry who once wrote “It is conventional to call “monster” any blending of dissonant elements. I call “monster” every original inexhaustible beauty.”
In the morning I looked at my map, on which I had sketched outlines defining segments that would be the ‘six realms’ for the purposes of this experiment. A provisional itinerary involved starting off by heading WSW into Animal Realm, then proceeding counter-clockwise to conclude in the Human Realm. I was flexible about how far I needed to go from the centre into each Realm and was taking into account points of access to public transport. Looking at the map, there was a bland segment of territory featuring roads, footpaths, rivers, farms, a railway. In a sense it didn’t matter which route I took as I had decided that whatever would be encountered would be the Realm in question – so there was no need to seek a particularly animalistic place. Neverthless, looking at a dead straight road on the map, I was reminded of Chogyam Trungpa’s description of the Animal Realm:
“The animal quality is one of purely looking directly ahead, as if we had blinkers. We look straight ahead, never looking right or left, very sincerely. We are just trying to reach the next available situation, all the time trying.” (Transcending Madness, p261.)
I could relate to this as a type of psychological habit, and also visualise an animal, or perhaps a zombie, simply taking the most direct route. Would there be a path alongside the road? If not, would traffic make it dangerous? I had no way of knowing, but decided to face any obstacles animal-style as they came up, and opted for the B4102 as the start of my tour.
I Walk the Line
Unseen dogs barked as I started walking by the road, into Animal Realm. I took this as a good sign. There was in fact a footpath, somewhat overgrown so that branches would sometimes scrape at me as I walked past, but otherwise unobstructed. I loped along, aiming to simply focus on the destination, a village called Hampton-in-Arden where I would have to change direction and decide how to travel onwards.
I noticed some things on my straight path. Several empty cans of Carling by the road, seemingly fallen at regular intervals, as if thrown from a car in a timed sequence. An invoice from Matrix Bathrooms. In a lay-by, a soft porn magazine that looked new but was in fact over ten years old.
I arrived at Hampton-in Arden and sat for a while beside their war memorial. I had found a practice for ‘Emptying the Six Realms’ in a book by Ken McLeod (Wake Up to Your Life, p236) and had decided to attempt it in each of the realms visited. And did so, starting in this quiet spot beneath large dark trees.
I could have caught a train to the Hell Realm, but as the next one was not due for 45 minutes I decided to walk. Heading south east, I crossed some fields, skirted a large body of water and got slightly lost in some marshy, tummocky ground in a nature reserve. I entered Hell, uneventfully, beside the entrance to the West Midlands Golf Club.
Hot Suburban Windows
I walked into Balsall Common, past a motel and into suburbia. There was no-one around, but I was naturally wary of a place where ‘nobody stays dead for long’ (McLeod, Ibid.); where ‘the only way hell beings deal with things that make them angry is through aggression — attack, attack, attack!‘ (buddhism.about.com) and where ‘people here are horribly tortured in many creative ways’ (BBC). However I was not walking through a scene from Bosch, just a normal suburb, similar to where I grew up and where I now live – but with larger houses. So how was this hell? I could conjure up some aggression about the houses being bigger and more expensive than mine, but that would be acting a part really. As I walked past endless houses and gardens I speculated that there could be a kind of codified aggression built in to all these homes, squatting behind their front garden displays and UPVC doors. I saw little evidence of the more spectacular descriptions of the Hell Realm, though a sign in a travel agent saying ‘We Sell the World’ provided a momentary glimpse of the Abyss.)
“The aggression does not seem to be your aggression, but the the aggression seems to permeate the whole space around you” – Chogyam Trungpa
As I walked up towards Berkswell station, large warm drops of rain began to fall.
I planned to take a train to Coventry. The wait was quite long, which gave me time to perform the McLeod meditation for Hell and to begin to think about the next realm I would encounter, that of Hungry Ghosts – a place of endless, unsatisfied consumption and continuous grasping poverty. After a while, people began to gather on the platform, building to a large group. Some of the Olympic games were being played in Coventry, and people were headed in to watch soccer matches. Recorded messages warning in general terms of potential delays played repeatedly. The train was a few minutes late, though as if to compensate no-one appeared at any stage to take fares. At Coventry station we were welcomed by people in ‘London’ Olympics livery, many with large foam pointing hands, and whisked along towards free buses. I considered going with the flow for as long as possible but decided to head for the town centre instead. Union Jack bunting had been liberally applied above the streets, and the annual Godiva Festival added to a carnival atmosphere.
I headed for a Waterstones (chain) bookshop, and wandered from floor to floor, focusing on the urge to consume the thousands of books. I breathed in the smell of the paper, remembering the sight of a hippy-type guy sensuously rubbing the pages of an open hardback on his bearded face, eyes closed in ecstasy, in Brighton WHSmiths circa 1974.
Rather than buy a book I joined a long queue in the cafe. As on most days I had a dull, time-specific craving for a milky coffee. Aping what I thought a Hungry Ghost would do, I ordered an over-the-top version of coffee with flavoured additives and a cream top, some artisan crisps and a cupcake. I found a quiet table, ate this sickening, empty and edible-glitter-specked lunch, and watched the bunting hanging against the bright grey sky.
No You Can’t Have That Sticker Album
Leaving Coventry, I got train to Bedworth, a town just south of Nuneaton. From there I planned to walk to a motel where I had booked a night’s stay. The train took me into the realm of the Jealous Gods, or Titans, or ‘nongods’ where envy, competition and paranoia permeate the landscape. The light was fading as I walked up the high street of a typical market town, devoid of quaintness. I stopped for a drink in The Bear and Ragged Staff, a Wetherspoons pub. Normally I like these, but the brand didn’t work for me this time – the beer was rank, the service unhelpful, the clientele seemingly over the horizon of drunkenness. I moved on through the town, steadily climbing a hill, stopping to buy mints at a convenience store beside a garage. A little boy wanted his mum to get him a sticker album, but she refused because you just had to carry on buying the stickers and it would be a waste of money. (Having failed to complete an Olympic sticker album in the 70s, I would have to agree.)
I arrived at the motel, a Premier Inn with adjoining Beefeater restaurant, which turned out to be a house where George Eliot once lived, the building and surrounding landscape the inspiration for elements of The Mill on the Floss: I was now in one of the texts I had walked past, unknowingly, in the hungry bookshop.
I had a meal and sat outside for a while with a glass of wine, watching cars and lorries circling the A444 roundabout. Beyond the shrubbery I could see the shallow steel angles of the Bermuda Business Park’s units.
In the morning I set off early and skirted the Bermuda Park, walking as a lone pededstrian on a delivery road. I was on the Centenary Way, a signed long distance path that I planned to use for few miles, to travel from this Realm of Jealous Gods into the Realm of the actual Gods. It crossed the A444 on weed-grown road that felt like the straggling end of roads; roads giving out having done their job. Then I was on normal streets again, in a modern housing estate. I saw two figures walking towards me – a surprisingly tall couple. The guy had dreads, rather like Ronon Dex in Stargate Atlantis, while the woman was blonde and so thin she seemed elongated. Their clothes were odd, something like Goth or fetish wear but with a utility, functional look, pockets and clasps configured for some unfathomable task. ‘At least these look like gods’ I thought, pleased to encounter a direct manifestation of the nature of the territory.
I found where the path left the estate for the more rural parts. As I passed through a gate, I saw a dark face peering at me from an upstairs window. I looked directly at the person, they looked back steadily. Then I was shielded from the gaze by bushes.
I walked on. The morning was grey and damp.
Seeing a hill beside the path, I scrambled to the top to get a better view. Looking back towards the Bermuda Business Park, I saw a huge building dominating the landscape.
I later discovered that this was a Dairycrest distribution centre, dedicated to the packaging and dispatch of Cathedral City, ‘the Nation’s favourite cheese’. According to te Dairycrest Annual report for 2011, the cheese is produced in Davidstow in Cornwall, which as is pointed out in Wikipedia ‘has neither city status nor a cathedral’, so this vast building is probably the most cathedral-like structure involved in the process. Although not technically a spiritual building, a kind of magic is accomplished there, as the raw material of the incoming cheese is rendered profitable by the addition of signs and symbols. The cheese is a hugely popular brand, so every day there are millions consuming the ‘cathedral city’ meme, the name and logo hyperlinking the cheese-eaters’ cortices to images of Barchester, Barchester, Starbridge, Felpersham, Kingsbridge, Polchester; airy cities of tradition, gulls wheeling above artisan-restored spires, bells ringing out over centuries and aged clerics hurrying along half-timbered streets. And the meme launches here – in the centre of a landlocked Bermuda Triangle.
The Centenary Way took me through fields and around the outside of a school. It became hot. Thirsty, I hiked through an outer limb of Nuneaton so that I could get water from a shop. Then I was climbing quite steeply towards Hartshill. In the country park I would cross into the Realm of the Gods.
Centre of Excellence
I sat on a bench on a hill in a light drizzle in Hartshill Hayes Country Park, for me also the edge of Deva-gati, the Realm of Devas and Heavenly Beings. This Realm sounds like the ‘good’ one, but these gods sound like deluded beings, living in bliss that is so comfortable they fail to attain enlightenment. They are also invisible, having evolved beyond mere corporeal form, so I did not look to the other people out walking for signs of godhood – the family group that walked past, grandchildren playing with a dog that had acquired burrs on its coat, were I thought, no more or less divine than I was. I performed the meditation, invoking the state of spiritual self-satisfation and static bliss described in the texts, gazing into the ‘magnificent view’ provided by my vantage point in the park, a recipient of ‘the Forestry Authority’s ‘centre of excellence’ award’.
Then I walked through the woods of excellence, across some countryside and into Atherstone, town of the Gods. The sun was shining past black clouds. I had a suitably nectar-like pint in the Market Tavern, then got a train to head for the Human Realm.
Arriving in Liverpool, the city nearest to where I live, I wandered towards Bold Street. I was back in familiar land, which seemed appropriate for the Human Realm, where ‘human beings…want to strive, consume, acquire, enjoy, explore’ (buddhism.about.com). Here, unlike in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, desire might temporarily be satisfied – hence the unending practical busyness of everyday life. I went into Leaf, a cafe decorated with an artfully mismatched profusion of retro-chintz filtered through a veneer of coolness. An Instagram kind of place. It had been suggested that this type of style could be used for an exhibition stand we were planning for work, so for a while I ran the mental routines of my employment, evaluating the applicability and utility of what I was seeing for a future purpose, judging, planning, sorting. Then I came back to where I was, tasting my coffee, letting the noise of the place wash over me, watching the powdery light from the street angling into the cafe. I did the meditation, drank the coffee until only a trace of foam was left.
And the trip was done. I had been to the centre and invoked the Six Realms, been to some places I had never been and returned, seen pierced Titans and walked in damp woodlands of the Gods. I had messed around in the Midlands, drinking beer and scribbling in a notebook. In the Buddhist tradition, the Human Realm offers the best possibility of liberation – every day I practiced, and for all I knew the quiet catastrophe of awakening was happening in my future, as natural an occurrence as the loss of milk teeth, as a strand of hair growing out silver. “Liverpool is the pool of life,” wrote Carl Jung, having dreamed himself into the city; “it makes to live.” Now it seemed that I was here too. Leaving Leaf, I walked towards Liverpool One as afternoon light faded. Bought myself a pair of shoes and thought yes, thanks, that’ll be fine for now.