Thought for the Day – Radio 4

‘Today’ and Thought for the Day

Chris Ward 4th Jan 2008

Those who listen to the Today programme each morning on Radio 4 will be very familiar with the Thought For the Day slot. For some this will be the prompt for them to stop listening, clean their teeth, have a shower, or undertake another useful step in the process between waking and starting work. Others might listen and be exasperated or moved by the sentiments expressed. TFTD is a rather curious institution that allows those from the recognised religions to speak for a few minutes to the nation. (There is certainly a case to answer as to why interesting non-religious speakers are not allowed to take part.)

There have been very few Buddhist speakers on TFTD. One of the few, and currently the only one, is Vishvapani, from the Western Buddhist Order. Vishvapani wrote some reflections on his TFTD experience back in July 2007 in his blog. Since then he has continued to contribute to TFTD and has written the following expanded observations.

The BBC have a TFTD archive here.

A Buddhist on Thought For The Day

Vishvapani

John Osbourne’s play Look Back in Anger starts with the hero cursing a Sunday newspaper column by the Bishop of Bromley in which he calls on Christians to help develop the H-Bomb. These days, when British Christians are usually a little more liberal, angry young men sometimes express irritation, rather than rage, at Thought for the Day, the daily religious comment that goes out at peak-time on Today. That’s BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme and for the last year-and-a-half I’ve been the sole Buddhist contributor.

While TFTD admirers love the cuddly Rabbi Lionel Blue, detractors splutter into their cornflakes at the latest talk by Anne Atkins or one of the many vicars and bishops. One splutterer – Peter Hearty – even runs an anti-TFTD website called ‘Platitude of the Day’ on which he posts a daily précis of the latest Thought that aims to reveal its essential banality. There’s a mark out of five on his platitude scale—‘0’ being ‘not platitudinous’, and ‘5’ being ‘extraordinarily platitudinous’. I seem to be in what approximates to Hearty’s good books, but you get the picture.

Such critics resent the privileged treatment religious people receive on TFTD — and who can deny that it is a privilege. While politicians get barely a few seconds before an aggressive interviewer interrupts their flow, TFTD contributors are given a full two-minutes forty-five seconds without interruption. Some Buddhists may also question why one of their number should line up in a parade of establishment rectitude, or why it’s a member of the Western Buddhist Order, or perhaps why the contributor happens be me.

For me, speaking on TFTD is an opportunity, in a modest way, to bring Buddhism into ‘the national conversation’. I’ve received more feedback from my fourteen talks than I got in the nine years I edited Dharma Life magazine (an FWBO publication aimed at a general readership). People do listen, and they notice if you say something different from the usual religious comment.

Writing TFTD scripts is hard (and I say this as an experienced writer). In four hundred words you have to get from a news story to a religious comment, remaining engaging and clear. As a topical comment it’s written the previous day and the subject depends on what’s in the news. So you look at the papers and try to catch a glint of your religion, and a substantial point to make. It’s easy to end up saying, in effect, ‘Things are bad. It would be so much better if things were better.’

Sometime’s it’s also possible to say something with real meaning that draws a moral or dharmic point from a news item. In September I wrote a Thought at the height of the Burma crisis, and it felt important to contribute a practitioner’s perspective on the monks’ heroism. In December one talk coincided with the start of the Bali climate change conference, and I was able to say something that many of us believe, but you rarely hear in the media. Global warming stems from consumption, which grows from craving, which arises in dependence upon dukkha. Hence, ‘the climate crisis isn’t just political, economic or even environmental. It’s spiritual.’

In my talks I want to show that Buddhism isn’t just about withdrawing from the world but that it also has a helpful perspective on its difficulties. One criticism of the slot is ‘preaching’, when clerics tell people what to think or how to live without arguing their position, relying instead on their religion’s claim to authority. Because Buddhism doesn’t work like this, I hope that the Buddhist perspective sounds and feels different. There’s also value in offering an (again hopefully) calm, thoughtful voice explaining simple Buddhist ideas on peak-time radio.

No doubt some Buddhists will like my talks and others won’t. The fact is that the BBC looked for several years for a Buddhist contributor to TFTD and no one else offered. I waited before putting myself forward and by the time I did so I’d edited a magazine on Buddhism and the modern world, given many short talks on the World Service and late at night on Radio 2, and gained a wide experience of the Buddhist world in Asia and the West, as well as studying and practicing the Dharma for nearly three decades.

When I explain Buddhist teachings on TFTD I try to focus on ideas and practices that are common to the whole tradition, usually by using the teachings of the historical Buddha as set out in the Pali Canon (though I’m also open to drawing on other parts of the tradition). I hope that Buddhists of all schools feel that what I say is in keeping with Buddhism as they understand it, but of course I can only express my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. I also don’t want to try to offer a ‘standard’ Buddhist view. When I hear the TFTD contributors I admire, I feel I encounter not a mere representative but a warm and thoughtful individual who brings moral depth to their response to the day’s events.

That’s a considerable challenge for an individual contributor such as myself. But the value of Thought for the Day is the opportunity it offers to people whose outlook is rooted in their faith to share the wisdom of their traditions through their reflections on the troubled events that fill the daily news.
VISHVAPANI
I’m a freelance writer on Buddhism and meditation as well as a teacher and a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1992. July 2006 saw the publication of ‘Challenging Times: Stories of Buddhist practice When Things Get Tough’ edited by myself (Windhorse Publications).

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