THE ISLAND, A Mirror for the Soul

As a photographer in war-torn Sri Lanka, travelling illegally into Tamil Tiger held territory, Beatty recalls the time before this brutal conflict when he stayed on a remote Buddhist hermitage island on the south coast. On a long retreat sharing the monks’ simple life he began a healing journey into the past.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part philosophical inquiry, this is a book of journeys, outwardly through the beauty and diversity of postcolonial landscapes, and inwardly through the nihilism of post-war Europe and Britain’s decline. Born after the Second World War into a family with close links to the imperial project, he gives an illuminating account of an emotionally unstable childhood, divided between America with its Cold War obsessions and Britain still afflicted with the myth of empire. A restless nature and an early broken marriage initiate a quest for authenticity. Immersed in the island’s natural rhythms, and with an injured owl he rescues as a feathered companion, he engages with memory, solitude and silence, while his vivid and searching travels through post-colonial worlds provide a scathing indictment of the project of empire. Employing the lens of Buddhist self-enquiry Beatty chronicles his own dissent from the values of the West, exposing the pathologies behind the narrative of progress.

This is a very personal, but also universal, journey that examines the contemporary relevance of the Buddhist Dhamma in our postmodern world. It asks what it means to come to terms with grief, loss, and impermanence, as well as Europe's history of racism and the genocidal violence that has been a constant feature of modernity's assault on non-Western cultures, on the earth and other creatures, while seeking an answer to the question Who Am I? 

At the heart of this exploration of the Indian mind he finds something profoundly challenging in the Buddha’s path to end suffering that offers valuable insights into overcoming our divisiveness. Wide-ranging, evocative, full of incident and deep insight into our global predicament, this is a passionate and honest engagement with a teaching that perhaps can provide a cure for the delusions and violent excesses of our age.


 Copies available on this website €15.00 or 1,800 KES and in local bookstores Nairobi.

Review by David Lorimer, The Paradigm Explorer (Galileo Commission) May 2022

The Island – A Mirror for the Soul: Journeys towards the heart of Dhamma

by David Beatty

Deep Centre Publications 2020, 559 pp., €15.00  p/b – ISBN 978-9914-9861-1-2

The island in the title is off Sri Lanka, where the author spent a prolonged retreat at a Buddhist hermitage that gave him the opportunity to delve into and heal his past as well as exploring the heart of Dhamma in terms of impermanence, transience, suffering and co-dependent origination. It is a chronicle for our time, a ‘search for stillness amidst the destabilising flux of greed, war and delusion that characterise modernity.’ It is informed by wide reading and represents a journey from the alienation, dissociation and self-division of aporia to a contemplative reawakening of wonder and reverence represented by theoria as embodied practice. The pessimism of civilisational decay, nihilism and violence is balanced by the hope of liberation through a different orientation of consciousness. Part of the background here is a privileged upbringing with its accompanying expectations of social conformity that ring hollow when it comes to matters of real substance (David’s grandfather was a famous admiral in World War I, and his father’s values were almost entirely materialistic). The 60s reacted against this, but without fundamentally shifting our trajectory, the consequences of which constitute our current polycrisis.

The author’s profession as a photographer is beautifully reflected in his limpid and evocative descriptions of life on the island, also in relation to the adventures of his owl Bakamuna. Readers will recognise their own longings for simplicity, solitude, silence and being in an extraverted society that fragments and dissipates our capacity for attention – though we can relearn how to attend to things with care. The way of life exhibited by the monks encapsulates this, but so does the poetry of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets (I also resonated with references to Rimbaud, Merton and Hesse). We all undertake our own processes and cycles of birth, death and awakening, all the more necessary in the context of our mechanistically oriented culture that has forgotten what it really means to be human in a deep contemplative sense that nourishes the soul and enables a degree of equanimity on the journey of life. Here the self becomes ‘an event within an interactive process on the field of experience, the background of which is an awareness that embraces both being and non-being….’ I read this insightful book over a period of months not only as a searing critique of modern western culture, but also as a companion along the way towards a deeper sense of integration and oneness with life.

David Lorimer

Chairman Steering Committee, The Galileo Commission

Editor, Paradigm Explorer

Order from website: € 15.00 1,800 Kes

Amazon uk  £ 13.44 paperback $16.10  paperback $9.99 Kindle

Author Annie Davison's Review 2nd September 2021

In his epic autobiography, interspersed with a vast intellectual sweep of history, philosophy, politics and literature from the post-war 50s onwards, David Beatty charts his extraordinary life.  As the sensitive Anglo American child of an upper class, dysfunctional family, emotionally threatened in a hostile world, he suffered the increasing alienation of a deepening, progressive disquiet about the world we live in.

 He first heard about Buddhism at the age of ten, when his clandestine friendship with Tom, a recluse living in the woods near his father’s house, further underlined the feeling of there being two worlds. The everyday contingent world and another secret spiritual world, of the imagination and mysteries.

The desolation of a failed marriage and the yearning for solitude and silence, led him to a long retreat at the hermitage on The Island, otherwise unnamed, in Sri Lanka. Here meditation became a focus for his life, the means whereby he could uncover, revisit and exorcise his past, alongside an intense enquiry into the reasons for our broken, violent and unequal world, and an ongoing discourse on the nature of consciousness, numinous experiences, and asking every question you could possibly wish to ask.

This book is a tour de force.  David Beatty for many years a photographer and film maker, sought the adventures of travel on many continents, before and after his retreat.  But his journey ‘towards the heart of dhamma’ – the cosmic order - was and is unending. At its simplest it is a book about Mindfulness – ‘the direct path to awakening’ - which he now practises and teaches in his current home in Kenya.

His desire ultimately, it seems to me, is for us to perceive the common ground of our humanity, which leads us all to take our part in changing the world.

It is a long read – but so worth it.

Annie Davison, Author and Integrated Channel Counsellor. Her first book The Wise Virgin, published under the name Annie Wilson, was regarded as a seminal work in the field of Transpersonal Psychology.

BOOK REVIEW THE STAR Kenya 12 Feb 2021

by Michael Asher FRSL                                             12 Feb. 2021

Book Review. The Island.  A Mirror for the Soul.  Journeys to the Heart of Dhamma, by David Beatty

David Beatty, best known in East Africa as a photographer, came to Kenya to work with the late Mohammed Amin, and has more recently established his name as a teacher of Mindfulness in Nairobi. The Island, an account of his life before Kenya, tells an unusual story — a reverse mirror image of the age of materialism and obsession with the individual self that his life spans.

Part autobiography, part travel book, and part philosophical enquiry, The Island is Beatty’s examination of his relationship with the societies he grew up in, both British and American, and a quest to find his true self. Cold-shouldering the system, and fleeing an unsuccessful marriage, he escaped in 1981 to an almost untouched island off the coast of Sri Lanka, where he lived, under the most basic of conditions, in a monastery with Buddhist monks.Using the physical island both as a base and a metaphor for the island he felt himself to have become, he intermingles vivid descriptions of the tropical setting, journeys to other parts such as Varanasi and Kolkata, his daily life with the monks, lessons learned through Buddhism and western philosophy, and detailed excursions into the past.

It is in this last field that his writing is most illuminating. Abandoned by his American socialite mother as a child, he turned to a father, whose serial marriages — one to a woman only a few years older than Beatty himself — provided little sense of stability. As a ‘diehard capitalist of the old school’, his father’s frustration with his reluctance to adopt the ‘manly arts of hunting, pursuit of profit, and the making of financial killings’ led to mutual estrangement.

Required to kill a stag as a rite of passage, for instance, Beatty shot the animal but felt ‘branded for life with the death of this magnificent creature’, leading to his conclusion that civilisation tends to ‘separate us from the world and …breed in us a perverted enjoyment of cruelty’.

Later sojourns in America with his mother, now remarried, made him aware of racism, of the double standards that prevailed in both Britain and the USA, and of the pretence of tolerance that concealed a ‘disparaging view of … cultural, racial, or religious difference[s].’ Some of Beatty’s most scathing criticism, though, is reserved for his schooling at Eton, where he experienced humiliation and fear. His four years there, he writes, had ‘little to do with learning, but was aimed at breaking my spirit and moulding me to the status quo.’ Beatty must be one of very few graduates of that venerated college — one thinks of George Orwell — for whom the ‘moulding’ project failed.  

Beatty is very adept at showing how his own experience of rebellion against tradition reflected the social turmoil that was a feature of his youth in the 1960s, when ‘the old, stuffy pre-war Britain was being swept away by popular music, outrageous clothes … psychotropic drugs and the discovery of oceanic consciousness.’

His inward journey in search of the dhamma (the Buddhist way of overcoming the dissatisfaction of suffering) is supplemented in the book by wide-ranging allusions to western philosophy. Beatty uses both as a kind of therapy, a means of working out for himself a better mode of envisaging his relationship with the world.

Though the reader can sometimes get lost in this erudition, persistence is rewarded, as Beatty’s dilemma is not far from any of us in industrial civilisation.  Indeed, the spectacle of a young man possessed from birth of all the things most people aspire to — wealth, celebrity, security — throwing them away in a bid to find happiness, is a savage critique of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our ‘brutal, competitive, utilitarian’ world.

Beatty teaches Mindfulness courses at the Kanga Yoga Centre in Loresho. For more details, see:

Customer Review (Amazon USA) 19 July 2022

5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute gem of a book

Reviewed in the United States on July 19, 2022

Beatty, who hails from an upper-class British family, traces through an amazing ‘smaran’(memorization) from his childhood to adulthood the true causes of suffering and pain (dukka). Dukka as well described by him is that latent everyday anxiety we feel about life, which was so clearly expounded by the Buddha. Beatty’s knowledge of Buddhism is perfect and stunning. The cause of the fracture of mankind is that by reliance on this culture of scientism, this distortion of ‘theoros’ from a culture of intuition and contemplation a la Plotinus, we have become a culture of judgement, of fragmented beings, and comparative bipolar minds, apparently in love with what we call ‘facts’ at the same time relying hypocritically on a thing we call the absolute.

Beatty slowly weaves in the beauty and novelty of the essence of the dhamma of Buddha. This supreme process of introspection and quietism that allows us to investigate the co-dependencies of the arising of our existential anxiety. What is giving rise to these feelings, sensations and conceptual thoughts? How can we step aside from bipolar ‘quick to judge’ beings into this silence, into the beauty of sunyata, to liberate ourselves from pain, hate, anger, greed, lust, without reliance on an absolutist divine Self (which we cannot grasp) but instead with a clear understanding of our own emptiness and the impossibility to know the absolute?

All through this process he details the need to be kind, loving, compassionate and joyful for others. It is only when we understand the emptiness of forms will we see all forms as empty. Isn’t the chaotic world heading into doom if we do not change our interpretation of it? Are we looking deeper, asks the author? A truly wonderful work of Art ! Buddham saranam gachami.

EXCERPTS from The Island

From Return to the World


Wonder is the foundation of all philosophy, inquiry its progress, ignorance its end. I’ll go further: there is a certain strong and generous ignorance that concedes nothing to knowledge in honour and courage, an ignorance that requires no less knowledge to conceive it than does knowledge.




My journey began in Greece, in Crete, on a mountain where Plato reputedly wrote part of the Republic. It began also as a state of existential despair, conventional reality providing nothing I could authentically engage with that would alleviate this condition. In the process I had betrayed others, and had betrayed myself. The journey I undertook was an attempt to resolve this condition, which I realized at some point was not exclusively a private matter, but the condition of the age I was born into. This affliction affected everyone, regardless of whether they recognized it or not. It was the disease of our times, in the literal meaning of the Old French word des-aise: lack of ease, a universal condition of anxiety. Now, as my time as an upāsaka on this island draws to a close, the return journey from silence and solitude beckons towards a new beginning in the world I had temporarily left. Two and a half thousand years ago thinkers from these contrasting locations, Greece and India, as well as China, in their own different ways opened the human mind to a new understanding of the world from the perspective of a transcendent reality in a period we have come to know as the Axial Age.

    The beginning of philosophy, according to both Plato and Aristotle, was that moment of wonder that stirs within us a primordial disquiet that at some point breaks through our everyday awareness, throwing us as it were into a realization that we are immersed in a mystery so profound and utterly beyond our conceptual grasp of the world, that we are invariably reduced to verbal incoherence in attempting to articulate it.

    But wonder, in its self-conscious mode, had come to me as a postlapsarian awakening, accompanied by a profound disquiet that for many years I kept concealed, as though this condition was a private stigma, an illness I could not confess to, and therefore was unable to share fully with others. This was the condition of alienation, whose only work is to provoke an inner response that deepens into a commitment to a journey of growth, one that inevitably entails undergoing sorrow and grief. The journey is undertaken with a kind of intuitive faith in a process that will liberate one from the condition of despair by way of a painful retrieval, through an accumulation of insight, of some primordial condition that cannot be reduced to any form of substance. It is what Thomas Merton called our original unity, an ancient and shared awareness as gratitude and love, or Buddha nature. The journey is a process that is neither purely deterministic, nor subject only to chance: it entails deep listening to a kind of music the mind-body sings as it resonates to the world, whose notes occasionally strike a deep chord to which one responds by taking up these echoing strands of a very ancient tune, and weaving them into one’s own unique song. This in turn acts as a mysterious guide that one comes to trust more and more, as one penetrates deeper through life’s continuous unfolding, as though some pattern were implicit in the very intertwining of the coloured musical threads as they sing with light’s spectral wings the endless song in honour of the fullness of the world. It is a task we can ultimately only undertake on our own, whose work would be to rejoin us to the body of the world in a transformed relationship. And it is firstly the via negativa, the way of solitude and silence, that must prepare the ground for the affirmation of the via positiva. Inevitably the journey becomes one of articulation, a territory always but only partially mapped by those who inspired us to explore the terrain. Where such attempts seem to fray at the edges, perhaps only the poet, or the mystic, can breathe new life into language, transmuting it with a verbal alchemy that once more renders the ordinary unfamiliar. Their gift, perhaps, is to humbly acknowledge what language owes to silence, reminding us of what as children we knew without words: the luminous unaccountable givenness of the world in which we naturally trusted, until we were persuaded otherwise and forgot the obvious fact that we lacked nothing from the beginning.

    In my case this retrieval of wonder necessarily entailed a journey through the complete and utter negation of life before it could be reaffirmed. Wonder then, as opening fully to the awesome beauty of the world and the gift of creation, comes at the end, not at the beginning, and not by way of the cognitive route, through any objective philosophical system nor by appeals to religious ideologies of lost paradise, or the dualistic formulae of guilt, shame and a purgative redemption. With the non-dualistic approach, exemplified in the Buddha’s teaching, the transformative power comes through creativity: it is dynamic and active. The subtleties of the Buddha’s non-theistic approach allows for a creative response to the dilemmas of modernity. In this age we are living through, it seems to me this can only come about by confronting the groundless ground of one’s own being, and a willingness to face the naked existential terror implied by this.