Tom Bulley, a regular participant in Secular Buddhist Network (SBN) online groups and a very good friend, died peacefully just before midday on Wednesday 10 May. Although we had only known each other for just over five years, a remarkably deep friendship was forged through intense and enjoyable conversations, largely on the telephone due to the distance between our homes (Toms’s in London, mine in Mid Wales), the Covid pandemic lockdown, and Tom’s rapidly deteriorating health.
We met in November 2019 at a Bodhi College course taught by Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, immediately recognising in each other very similar interests in life, including our motivation for becoming involved in the Secular Buddhist Network. For the next five years, a Thursday morning slot from 11.30 am to 1pm was reserved in our diaries for a personal and intellectual dialogue in which we sought together to develop a praxis related to the theme of the Bodhi College course: A Cure for the Soul: Early Buddhism and the Philosophy of Epicurus.
Our systematic joint enterprise began soon after we met, when Tom sent me a paper entitled Garden Conversation that was to be the introduction to a project that he had placed at the centre of his life in his last few years. I realised that I had found someone with whom I could happily travel on a journey that I had identified for myself some years earlier, during attendance at Gaia House Secular Buddhist retreats.
When Mike Slott asked me to write a memorial tribute to Tom for the SBN website, I decided that the best form it could take would be to extend to readers the invitation, in his own words, to the garden conversation that I had been so fortunate to enjoy myself. It stands both as a reminder of the intentions Tom steadfastly pursued throughout failing health and steadily depleting energy, and a testament to the witty and imaginative mind that made him such a delightful companion.
Garden Conversation No. 1: The Practice of Philosophy
by Tom Bulley
Participants: Gotama (the historical Buddha), Epicurus and Karl Marx
The conversation will need to warm up and develop. It will along the way find common ground in commitment to human flourishing as well as in atheistic and critical approaches to the participants’ own cultures, but at its core I see the question ‘and what do you bring to the table?’, ‘what is your USP?’.
Gotama brings a recognition of human suﬀering and how to respond to it; Epicurus brings rational understanding of nature along with a desire for happiness and friendship; Marx brings an understanding of alienation and of human engagement with the world as it is and how it could be.
Two men sit around a large round table in ‘The Garden’. One is dressed in a simple white toga, he is bearded with a long face and short hair and even in the seated position he is statuesque; the other is a big man dressed in a bulky dark suit and white shirt, he is very hairy, big hair, big beard, big moustache. A third man sits under a nearby tree, legs crossed and with an upright back, he wears a saﬀron oﬀ-the-shoulder dhoti, he is clean shaven with long hair neatly stacked is a bun on top of his head, he sits very still.
On the table is a crusty loaf of bread, a jug of water and a chunk of cheese, along with three glasses and three plates.
At the table the hairy man is animated, he looks towards the audience and then towards the man in the white toga, the hairy man looks back and forth but the man in the white toga stares straight ahead in stony silence.
The conversation opens with a long pause, [there is room for some ad lib visual comedy here depending on the mood of the audience] eventually the hairy one breaks the silence:
Karl Marx (KM): Come on Epicurus, stop pretending you’re a statue I know who you are. I know all about you, I wrote my PhD about you. I’m pleased to meet you in this beautiful garden.
The stony one come to life:
Epicurus (E): Yes you did rake me over, you were very critical in parts but quite complimentary in the end. I liked the bit where you described me as ‘the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment’.
KM: Well you certainly pulled the cat out of the bag when you came up with ‘the swerve’. Democritus got a lot right with his atomic theory, but your tweak broke the bonds of fate.
E: You could say that I’m the philosopher who opened the door to human self-determination. Not bad for an islander.
Epicurus looks pleased with himself.
KM: Yes, you opened the door but you didn’t go through it. You got stuck up your own . . you got stuck in the abstract, you turned in on yourself, you got stuck in abstract individuality, freedom from being, not freedom in being. I’m the guy who made the connection between our inner selves and the real world outside of our bodies. Mind you I loved the bit where you said ‘if the atoms were not to decline, neither their repulsion nor their meeting would have taken place, and the world would never have been created’. I wanted to cheer. No more need of gods.
E: Yes, if you stay clear of the gods, they’ll stay clear of you.
You did well to piece me together considering most of my writings had been lost.Thank goodness you found your way to Lucretius, he understood me well. He was clear about my materialist hypothesis for the natural development of the natural world. He did a wonderful job with that epic poem. It’s a pity that so much of my writing was lost.
The saﬀron dhoti awakens from his trance like state.
Gotama (G): [casually joining the ongoing conversation] Writing is not necessary. I am a teacher and a therapist. I make no written record of my work but people talk about my philosophies and teachings… [then with a sudden start, jumping to a standing position] Where on earth am I? I expected to awaken to the contingency of a new day, but this is something else. Where on earth am I? How long was I meditating?
E: Come and join us friend, join us at the table and enjoy some simple refreshment. [gestures towards the bread and cheese]
The saﬀron one joins the others at the table.
G: I received an invitation. I guess curiosity got the better of me. The invitation said ‘please come and chat with like minded fellows, enjoy simple hospitality, find common ground and let your diﬀerences spark co-operation’. I sat under a tree in Bihar to think about it, and now I’m here… [looks around him] …and it’s not Bihar. Where on earth am I?
KM: You are in London. This is my patch, I knew it well. I lived here from 1849 to 1883.
I’m buried just up the road.
[waves arm vaguely in the direction of Highgate]
G: [aghast] You are sitting here talking to me, but you are dead and buried up the road! Who are you? Are you a man so bad that you have been re-incarnated as yourself?
[WORK IN PROGRESS]