All posts by Andrew Taylor-Browne

There Is Always An ‘And…’

Bilberry a recent addition to the alpaca family.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for the local BBC Radio Cornwall which was about how sometimes when we want to help it is best to just do nothing – be there, but don’t rush in and try to make things, as we would see them, better. I illustrated this with the example of the best prescription for helping an alpaca to give birth. An authority on alpacas suggests we need two crucial items of equipment for helping at an alpaca birth – binoculars and a length of rope. The rope is to tie yourself to a fence a suitable distance away from the alpaca, the binoculars are so you can watch what is happening from a safe distance.

Well, this seemed to be a good point to make back then, and it does seem to be the case that with our expectations of how things should be we can often cause problems by jumping in and ‘helping’ when supportive and attentive inaction could be a wiser course.

Anyway, it is alpaca birthing season again here on the farm, and this year has been a fine teaching in how sometimes it is good to help.

We had four alpaca babies (technically known as cria) in four days – one a day in the short sunny spells between downpours. Unfortunately Julie (the real expert on our alpacas – I am not an animal person) was bedridden at this time having been thrown by a horse. So it was up to me to oversee birthing. The first cria made it out before I even knew anything was happening. The second needed membrane and fluid removing from over its mouth before it suffocated, the third presented with head and only one leg so needed a quick intervention to flip the other foot out in the right direction so the cria could make it out. All needed drying out and coats to cope with the challenging weather.

Which doesn’t mean the original advice about doing nothing was wrong – its just there is always an ‘and…’ Fortunately, in these alpaca births it seemed that if I was just calm and quiet, then when something needed doing it was pretty clear what it was that was needed. I’m not an animal person, so I’m not going to say the alpacas told me what needed doing, and yet…

Two week old Bilberry.


I have had a lifelong fear of being misunderstood. Perhaps then it was no accident that the large part of my professional life was spent studying and trying to overcome the ways in which misunderstanding arises between people, within organisations and across social groups. Unfortunately one of the consequences of this was that things I wrote were so meticulously precise that, while there was little room left for misunderstanding, this was mainly because no one could comprehend any of it in the first place. Perhaps this is why I ended up working with lawyers.

Over the last ten years I have relaxed a lot and started to accept misunderstanding as an inevitable consequence of communication. And partly to appreciate that we often can’t hold ourselves responsible for how people interpret what we say. Anyway, contributing to this site has re-awakened much of my previous fear – the potential for being misunderstood in this context could be quite vertigo inducing.

So I wanted to share with you one of the letters I recently received. I have been giving a class in Buddhism to some 12 year olds at local schools – they have been studying Buddhism and their teachers thought it would be good for the students to see a real life Buddhist and have chance to ask questions. So far I have given my talk to, and answered hoards of questions from, about 160 very lively students. Some time after one of the classes I received a large bundle of enthusiastic letters from the students expressing their thanks and describing what they liked about the sessions – it was truly heartwarming to receive. Amongst them – and in an enthusiastic, warm and supportive letter – one of the students had written:

I can imagine the way you live must be very relaxing, not worrying about anyone else.

Well heck, I thought, what on earth did I say that made them think I didn’t’t worry about anyone else? Had I given the impression that Buddhism didn’t care about others? – and should I give up trying to explain Buddhism altogether if I could be so misleading? It almost seemed on a par with the memorable line from the film A Fish Called Wanda: when Wanda tries to explain to Otto that The central message of Buddhism is not every man for himself.

Anyway, I told myself to forget about it and just get on with the next thing. But it has been niggling at me like these things often do when they have more to show. So I thought, with your (Mugo’s) voice echoing in my head, lets sit with this fear, lets look at it a bit closer, open it up and let the air in at it – let the rain fall on it a bit.

And that is what I’m doing – I’ll let you know how it goes.

First Post

Dear Reverend Master Mugo,

You have asked me to consider writing a regular contribution to your Jade Mountains. With some nervousness, and as usually seems to be the way with these situations, something is saying yes, ok; and then I’m trying to work out what it is I’ve said yes to, and if it is good to do then why is it, and how can it work for us? I know you better than to ask exactly what it is you were thinking of, so here is my go at what might work for me.

The first thing to say is that this clearly can’t just be an opportunity for me to tell people who read your site what I think about things. If I was going to do that then I’d be setting up my own site and doing it directly; and I’m not. So if not that, then what?

Well, I started to wonder what you think might be missing from Jade Mountains as it currently stands. And I came up with a couple of possibilities.

The first is that you’re a monk – and a very well established one at that: however understated about it you may be, you are a Zen Master. It follows that your life and experience may not express many aspects of what Buddhist training might be like for people who aren’t monks – although your honesty and humanity in what you write go a long way to showing that this difference isn’t as great as we sometimes might like to think.

Secondly, and perhaps more deeply, for me a great deal that is important in our training is about the dynamic between ‘teachers’ and those of us hoping to learn something and receive support in our practice. Zen in particular seems to be so much about someone asking a question and an answer coming back – often not the answer we were looking or hoping for but an answer that cuts to the core of what is being asked. Quite a few of your postings reflect this with you sharing some of the letters people have sent you and your responses. And wouldn’t it be interesting to see if some of the dynamic of how this continues over time could be illustrated by me sharing my thoughts, worries and questions with you, and through you with your readers?

So these thoughts led me to wonder – how about me writing to you on a regular basis through your site? Often it could be that no actual response is needed from you – there is something about the act of opening up and asking and sharing that frequently just by itself resolves the question.

When I look at your original request for me to contribute in this light then I can see a possibility of me writing about training and how that impacts everyday life without it being me expressing my opinions, or trying to inform or teach. It would really just be a continuation and development of what we have been doing for years.

You have been around and deeply involved in all of the nearly 20 years I’ve been training in this practice – from being the scary visiting monk who used to come to our home when we were running the London Meditation Group; through the years when you lived in the mobile home in our yard here on the farm; and with our ever evolving relationship with the OBC and the Lay Ministry. This seems like another opportunity opening up – perhaps unorthodox, but I suppose you often seem to find some particular energy in new approaches to things.

As ever I am left wondering maybe it will work? maybe it won’t? and cutting through all this nervousness echoes one of the hallmarks of your particular teaching – let’s get up and try it and maybe we’ll find out.

Does any of this make sense? Is it the sort of thing you were thinking of?

in gassho,