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Touching the Void

by Jnanavaca

... strong words; they're words by Albert Einstein. Einstein is a sort of
hero of mine (I've been reading about him over the last wee while) and he has some very,
very sound things to say about life – about the spiritual life, actually. In some ways he's a
mature hero, in the way that perhaps Joe Simpson, as he was setting out for his climb,
certainly wasn't, at the start. So I'm going to keep coming back to Einstein as a sort of
thread running through this talk.

But I just want to touch on my own experience of idealism. As a teenager, I used to read
about Buddhism – Zen Buddhism mostly – and be genuinely very inspired. But mixed in
with that there was quite a lot of – well – not just naivety, but egotism. I fancied myself
as a Zen master, wandering round hitting people with sticks every time they moved and
pronouncing on the nature of reality at every opportunity. I sort of thought, 'ah, yeah –
that's what I'll be when I grow up!'

And I can remember when I was about nineteen or so I did join a Zen group for a while,
and it was run by this very impressive man called Clive Sherlock. He was a doctor and he
ran this Zen group. And I used to go along of an evening and just wait – just be
convinced that he was going to recognise me as the next Zen master in his lineage! I was
just kind of waiting for that... and of course he never did! And I can remember one
occasion where – well, I used to park my bike outside his front gate, and my bike padlock
got locked or something – so I had to go back and knock on the front door and ask for
some hot water so that I could put it onto the padlock to thaw it, to put the key in,
etcetera. And he gave me some hot water, and then patted me on the back! And for days
afterwards I thought that was a sign... [LAUGHTER] ...He'd patted me on the back! That
was the sign that I'd been waiting for!... [LAUGHTER] ... So – yeah – that's a little

And another little aside, just about idealism... I do think that we have to look at how we
hold ideals. There has been much talk of this in our Order and in the movement over the
last few years; the last couple of years particularly. And – well – it is true that you can
hold noble ideals in an unhelpful way. We can hold them so tightly and so harshly that
they stop being helpful, either to ourselves or to other people. I think that is something to
watch out for. If we find ourselves in a situation, for example, where we're just getting
angry or resentful with ourselves or with other people in the name of idealism, then
something is going wrong. Something is not quite right. If we find ourselves sitting there
getting angry with ourselves because we can't feel enough metta in the Metta Bhavana,
then something's gone wrong, hasn't it – something's very amiss. So, that's just a sort of
warning caveat about holding ideals. It's not an easy thing to do.

To resume the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates... they navigate their way through
incredible dangers – and remember it's uncharted terrain; they don't really know what the
layout of this west face is. They find themselves on crevasses – on powder snow that
crumbles as soon as you touch it – huge walls of this powder snow that are completely
un-navigable. They manage to find their way, using all their skills and resources, up to
the top of the summit. They scale the West Face – a huge achievement.

And then of course they start to descend. And the descent proves not as straightforward
as they might have thought. They are trying to come down by a slightly different route
that looked like an easier route, and actually it proves pretty precarious and dangerous.
And quite early on in the descent, a disaster happens. Joe Simpson falls, and he breaks his
leg in really quite a nasty way: the knee breaks, and he talks about the bone sort of going
that way – it sort of slides up his leg – so that his knee is just completely contorted, and
bone is crunched on bone and slid up his leg.

So they are nearly at the top of this mountain – they haven't descended very far – and he's
broken his leg.

And, immediately, he realises that actually this is it. He can't get down. He is not going to
make it. All his mountaineering knowledge tells him that he's dead now. This is it. Simon
Yates catches up with him, and says: 'What's wrong?', and they look at each other, and
Joe just says: 'I've broken my leg'. He's in agony of course, but he manages to hold it
together and say, 'I've broken my leg'. And there's a look – they don't say anything – they
just look at each other for a little too long, and they both know what it means. And
neither want to actually say: 'Well, this is it'. Joe is waiting for the moment where Simon
will say, 'Ok, mate – I'm going to go down. I can't help you. I am going to have to
descend on my own and leave you here'. (And there's no way that a rescue party could
have got to them in time, etcetera.)

So they're waiting for that. Joe's waiting for that moment. But it doesn't happen; that
moment doesn't happen. Instead... well – what Joe starts doing initially is hopping. He
hops on the route that they were trying to descend. And of course he falls at every hop.
And when he falls, he can't help but fall on his broken leg, which is agony – and he gets
up and hops again... and falls again... until he works out a way of hopping that enables
him to stay upright long enough, using axes as walking sticks, etcetera.

And then they get to this point (and Simon's waiting for him) which is more of a sheer
drop, or more of a descent, that there's no way you can hop down. And what they do –
what Simon says – is that they've got rope, and they're going to tie... well, he ties himself
to Joe, digs himself a little sort of seat in the mountain snow, and winches Joe down three
hundred feet, which is what the extent of their rope is. So he winches Joe down, and they
decide that they're going to do this – they're going to lower themselves down the
mountain – and then Simon will follow, climbing down, and then winch Joe down
another three hundred feet.

Of course Simon is risking his life in this, because there's nothing holding him. He is
literally carrying Joe's weight – the weight of his body – as he's winching him down, sort
of holding onto snow; digging himself a seat and holding onto snow. And there's three
thousand feet to go... and they can do three hundred feet at a time, because that's what
their rope allows. And it's getting towards dark; they've got a few hours till dark.

So, Simon's doing this as fast as he can. Meanwhile Joe is in agony at every 'lowering' –
he's banging his leg against the mountainside and he's in agony, screaming out, and
Simon is just going as fast as he can. They do this 'lowering' nine times, each time then
stopping to dig a snow seat. Their fingers are becoming frost-bitten, so Simon is having
trouble holding on to the rope, let alone taking any weight...

So... yeah... I just want to pause there in the story... [LAUGHTER] ...

I find this – well – it's incredible, isn't it? All common sense would say that, you know,
he's dead... and neither of them give in to common sense, and it's very moving the way
that Simon is willing to risk his life; literally tie his life to the life of his friend. And it's
done in a very unsentimental way. I don't know if you have seen the film, but you get a
sense in the film of them being both very unsentimental, practical men, not given to
displays of very much emotion, or talking about their emotions... you know. They're from
Sheffield... [LAUGHTER] ...

But I think that this lowering, this tying themselves together and lowering, is the first
stage in their idealism being matured. No longer is it such a laugh to climb this mountain,
and no longer is it such a glorious adventure. Now, actually, they're up against something
far more dangerous and real. So, it's an image for that.

I also find it a very powerful image for our interdependence. For the first time they are
realising that actually they have to rely on each other – or at least Joe has to rely on
Simon. He can't do it alone – it isn't a single endeavour – which is very true, isn't it, of the
spiritual life, and probably of anything that we want to do in our lives.

But the other thing that it reminds me of is just not quitting at the first hurdle. How
tempting it would be to just give up then, and say, 'ok – well – that's it'. But heroes don't
do that, do they? Heroes don't do that in their stories. They stay with it against all the
odds. They find creative solutions against all the odds... and they're intelligent in how
they do that, so it's not just a bludgeoning on – although it does come to that later on –
but it's an intelligent way of working.

I was just thinking, in terms of my own life, how actually tempting it is to quit when the
going gets tough. When I left my job about seven years back and worked in the Centre
team at the London Buddhist Centre, raising money (at the time) for a retreat centre –
Vajrasana retreat centre – Vajrasana retreat centre was just an ideal that we in the Sangha
at the LBC talked about. Actually ...

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