The Generositree at Buddhafield

There’s a definite feel of Autumn in the air, and at long last – perhaps in some elegiac longing for summer – I’m getting down to writing about Buddhafield Festival.

Before I get into what the Generositree (and I) got up to there, I want to say a few things about Buddhafield, itself. In Buddhism, a Buddha-field (Sanskrit: Buddhaksetra) is a place that is in the sphere of influence of a Buddha, or awakened being. That isn’t to say that this being behaves with a god-like omnipotence, but rather that his or her presence influences the place… kind of the way a great teacher creates a certain vibe in which students flourish. In the Mahayana, this vibe definitely carries with it a certain sense of magic, of potential, of transformation.

Amitabha’s pure Buddha-field

So Buddhafield Festival, you might say, is a place in which that vibe, which enables a flourishing of the creative and spiritual life, is present. It’s full of Dharma talks, workshops on art, movement, music, transformation. Lots of yoga, meditation, ritual, storytelling, musicians, poetry and dancing. A whole section on permaculture, a fantastic sauna. Kids running around with no shoes, dirty clothes, messy hair, having a great time. There’s an openness between people that enables authentic connection to take place very quickly. I was surprised, coming this year, how many people I recognised from last year – and how memorable our conversations had been (I do think this kind of connection is very much enabled by the fact that it is a dry festival. People are just more present).

2016 festival opening parade. Credit:


I brought the Generositree to Buddhafield Festival, and for two afternoons I set up in the Village Green area, and played with the passers by. I had decorated it a little more, and changed the rules a bit. Previously, I had drawn people in by offering a gift, and invited people to make offerings to the tree… but this seemed a too transactional. Instead, I put up a sign inviting people to join me… And I did… well, whatever I wanted! I vocalised (improvising), I danced, I meditated… and amazingly, people did step into the space. I tried not to use words – only gestures and sounds. I paid attention to their presence, and used that as a basis for where to go next.

With one man, I simply sat with him, and sang quietly.

With a little boy, I danced, and offered him a dancing soldier toy.

One guy and I found many different uses and ways of interacting with a fish-shaped rattle.

And one man was brave enough to let me blindfold him, and we experimented with abstract sounds and embodied movements.

Ecstatic play beneath the Generositree

When each person left, I offered them something from the tree that was connected to our experience together. This seemed to really amaze people – in a way that somehow giving the gift in the beginning hadn’t. Some spontaneously came back with gifts (in fact, one man who had simply watched what was happening for a couple of days, decided to offer something!).

I felt that in taking the risk of stepping into the space (and it was really a risk), they had made the greatest offering – offering up their self-consciousness, surrendering to whatever may happen, and freely giving their presence and creativity, without which I would have had a long afternoon of singing on my own.

The Generositree with the other trees at Buddhafield…

The Generositree about town

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks for the Generositree, with a return to Hackney Downs, a workshop in Eastbourne House Arts Centre and a debut in Brockwell Park, as well as an invitation to Buddhafield Festival in July! (Buddhafield is vast and glorious and deserves its own blog entry, but briefly said – I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of it!)

I’ve started hanging paper cranes and swans from the tree and offering them to passers by, which has been great for introducing them to the concept. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received (and passed on) some pretty amazing gifts – including an Evil Eye pendant, and some lace knickers! The communication that happens is revealing and humbling. Instead of hurrying past, people stop, chat, exchange, play, and inspire. Some of the people I have met have been:

– a Headteacher on her lunch break. She said that she would get the kids at school to make paper cranes to hang on their tree of good deeds – which she would now call the Generositree!

– An Italian woman who said she wants to learn how to meditate, and will use the swan I gave her as a reminder.

– A little boy who gave me the star sticker, which his teacher had given him.

The lovely Anna Marie Franklin came along to Brockwell park to sing, frolic and take video footage.

Even when I’m not actively standing in the park and singing around the Generositree, it seems to be working its magic… Last week, I transported it in pieces from Brixton to Walthamstow (stopping in a few shops along the way), and then back to Hackney. Literally everywhere I went, people wanted to talk about it (even on the tube – where Londoners typically avoid contact at all costs).

Probably the best instance was when bus driver asked me about it as I got on. I said it was an installation for a performance art piece. He said, driving away, “Can you explain it to me? I’m not that good with art…” So I told him the idea – that I exchange small gifts – anything – with people, as a way to start dialogue, and make connections. He said: “Huh. I guess it’s working then, even now!”

These connections remind me of a post that went viral a few weeks ago, about a woman in a niqab and a drag queen sitting next to each other on public transport, minding their own business. (The American Conservative angle: “This is Liberals’ vision of America…” The Liberal angle: “Actually, yes it is! A diversity of people leaving each other alone!”)

I understand that (and hooray for the amazing responses to the above post!). London can be full on, and sometimes I just want to shut out the barrage of noise and advertisements. But there is something about the Generositree that feels gently countercultural in the fact that it doesn’t subscribe to the “mind your own business” ethos. It actively cultivates an attitude of not just talking to strangers, but exchanging with them, playing with them, and – if I’m very lucky – getting them to sing with me.

The Generositree makes a public appearance!

I took the Generositree to the park this afternoon – I thought it would like to be with its own kind. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures as I didn’t want to worry about looking after my phone while I was in this experimental phase.

To get things moving, I hung on it things that in some way represented gifts I had been given:

  • A hairbrush with a painted handle, from the Ukraine.
  • An origami swan
  • A sprig of ivy
  • An Anubis mask
  • A bit of yellow string
  • A card

I set up, and began vocalising – found I was “singing” more than using extended technique. Kids and dogs were particularly interested in what I was doing, and were great to play with – vocally and in movement. The Generositree attracted a lot of interest – and the vocalising felt like a very natural thing to be doing.

I had a couple of noteworthy interactions. The first was with a pair of street drinkers. One of them immediately asked me if he could have the mask. This presented a sort of dilemma, as I had originally wanted to give things to people… but there was something in his manner of asking which made me reluctant to give that to him. So I played with him. I asked him what he would give me in return. Whether he would sing. He was half-hearted. I wanted real person-to-person engagement. I wanted him to get out of himself, out of his wants and his desire to manipulate, and engage with me. If he had, the mask would have been his. As it was, he got annoyed and left. His friend stuck around though, and we chatted for a while. I gave him the origami swan. He gave me a hug (and a pound – though I hadn’t asked for money).

Another guy stopped while I was having a break, and asked what it was. I told him about the project, and he said, “You’ve chosen an interesting spot to do this. You know Andre Previn used to live right over there!” Then he spent about 15 minutes telling me all sorts of local history connected to the park, to the area. I found out that there’s a river running underneath the park, that three sisters were hanged as witches from a tree over in the corner, and that the council is are talking about turning the historic bowling green into an orchard. That kind of giving knowledge and time is such a powerful form of generosity, and I feel really grateful to him for stopping to chat. I used the idea of the underground river as a way into the next improvisation.

Altogether, the experience gave me a few points for reflection about generosity, engagement, and my own practice.

  • Generosity isn’t about giving people whatever they ask for. It’s about meeting the other person with a sense of spaciousness.
  • I would like to have more things to give – it felt wonderful to be able to give the man a swan… and I would have liked to give the man who told me about history something as well… but I didn’t think he’d want a bit of yellow string.
  • I had not so much a feeling of being observed, as a feeling of observing. It’s fascinating how people react when you’re doing something unusual in public. Who engages, who looks away. You could do a whole study on it.

I’m now looking forward to the Generositree’s next outing!