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 The Journey

The lagoon stretches inland for two or three miles. It is surrounded by jungle concealing a few scattered villages, and the water is dotted with a number of small islands. Some of these have only a house or two buried in a grove of coconut palms. The people there make a living from fishing, or by brewing arrack from fermented toddy, the sap of the palm flower. The sea is not visible from the island I inhabit but at certain times, when an ocean breeze blows inland, the sound of the booming surf can be heard across the lagoon. Sometimes, especially at night, it sounds as if the sea is coming closer and closer, as if the surf has broken onto this island, beating against the darkness on the edge of sleep.

How to describe the quiet here, the moods of a day when nothing happens? First, the sky full of gold behind the crackling of palms; colours you can taste drop like fruit into the air and stain the waters of morning. Then the mango light; the jungle steaming after a light shower; blue dragonflies touching their own reflections in the mangrove-dark pools; the brief shudder of silence in the almost shadowless midday. Long afternoons, the waters changing from jade-green to marine-blue, the emerald leaves of the forest deepening in the horizontal light to a smoky topaz. And then, at dusk, a single flamingo-coloured cloud above a solitary fishing boat.

Living here I have entered a different rhythm where time ceases to have the significance we normally give it. The days neither lengthen nor grow short. There are no seasons to measure the year by. It would not be difficult to lose count of the days, or even the weeks. I have no watch and no calendar for measuring the passing of time. The clocks I have come to rely on most are the shadows cast by sunlight, the infrequent chime of the monks’ gong – the ring of wood on iron three times a day – the bird calls that have a recognizable pattern from dawn to dusk, and the tidal waters of the lagoon which, like a water calendar, track the lunar month.

Today I surprised myself by taking a photograph, the first I have taken since arriving. I had almost forgotten I had brought the camera, when I saw it lying at the bottom of my bag while searching for a pen: my old Leica Rangefinder, battered but still functioning, and my favourite lens the Summilux 35mm f2. And although I had vowed to put all thoughts of photography aside while staying here, it was a pleasure just to hold it after all this time. Looking through the viewfinder I felt some of the old excitement. How strange it is, that feeling, that tingle of anticipation simply bestowed by placing an artificial eye of precision-crafted optical glass between oneself and the world. An immediate shift in perspective accompanies this act, revealing a field of possibilities where habitually we are only dimly aware of a background of chaos to our daily activity. The process of image making; how much power that has acquired in the world, even in my own brief lifetime.

For many weeks I have been on the move through India, my senses assaulted by a seething, tumultuous, pluralistic world of colour, noise, devotional excesses, desperate poverty and modern urban chaos. Now I have settled here to rebuild my life, whose painful unravelling launched me on this journey. Perhaps ‘rebuild’ is the wrong word, for it is the shedding of illusions that I trace retrospectively, a process of relinquishment rather than of construction. After weeks of doing virtually nothing but absorbing my surroundings, exploring the lagoon by boat and walking alone on the beach, I have started to write. Nothing much, just simple word sketches, hardly a proper diary. I don’t suppose it will come to much.

The picture I took this afternoon was of a fisherman. I found him wading in the shallows next to his outrigger boat, looking for something in the water. He was wearing a straw hat and the light was reflecting off the water under the overhanging trees. It was a very simple picture, too picturesque perhaps. But it conveyed something of the serenity here. I took three frames. My presence was entirely ignored by the fisherman, who seemed oblivious to my activity. This, I recall, is how simple it once was, this business of taking a photograph; people hardly aware of their picture being taken. How that has changed. I may even take some more pictures here, and I remind myself to carry the camera on my walks; simple images to accompany my word sketches: stones, leaves, the changing light on water. Here is a new challenge: how does one photograph the silence?

Now, as I write, the evening is falling fast, turning the leaves at my window into a shadowplay of changing patterns. Twilight is brief in the tropics; colours running into each other like water tints, light draining rapidly from the sky as the planet spins towards another darkness. But here, on the lagoon, the light lingers a little longer, mirrored perhaps by so much water. And then, at the last drop of light, night falls like a blind.

Not a hundred yards away the monks have gathered in the temple, as they do every evening, to chant by lamplight, their strange incantations rising and falling on the darkness. I sometimes join them, but tonight I am content to listen from my hut.

Before lighting the small paraffin lamp, I pause to let darkness invade the room: the warm, velvet air, fragrant with the breath of flowers. Sitting here in the growing darkness, in the silence, it is as if you slowly become part of the night as it settles, as if it enters you to become part of your being. It is as though the night is listening to itself, the primal symphony of its music echoing back from a sky of black glass. Like the slow tuning of an orchestra, each sound gradually emerges with its own distinct tenor and rhythm, one interweaving with another to create a complex calligraphy of sound effortlessly inscribed upon the air to render the tropical night unique in its melody, archaic in its beat: the savage blood-beat of the equatorial dark.

Outside my window: the murmur of a thousand leaves, the lapping of water, the scuttling of an animal through dried twigs, the distant hoot of an owl. Then the far-off sound of a bell carries through the darkness, through the shrill orchestrations of the night. A bell that rings signifying… what? The emptiness of waves falling on the deserted beaches, the emptiness upon which we inscribe our lives like a fugue, or the emptiness we evade by clinging to some small corner of life? The bell is all of these perhaps, the bell that rings as the chants die away into the night air and the monks pass my window, smiling out of the same emptiness, their smooth shaved heads shining in the moonlight, the heavy scent of frangipani clinging to their dark robes. They nod goodnight, and I watch them moving silently down the path, swinging their oil lamps beneath a blue-black sky where a moon drifts like a paper boat launched on the tide of night. Above them, in the cicada-haunted darkness, the trees are full of fireflies.

I light my lamp now and watch the wick sputter and flare as the amber glow through the cracked, smoky glass, spreads a yellow circle of light on the table and sends oversized shadows leaping up the walls. The breath of night touches everything like the fluttering wings of a moth, and the small spire of flame gasps every time a papery wing flares to ash. A gecko chuckles from a roof beam.

                                             *                              *                               *                                *                              

From The Owl of Mindfulness:

The relative solitude I have become accustomed to in my hut has succumbed to companionship. The space is shared not by another monk but by a small brown owl. By day he watches over me from a window ledge, or sometimes perched on my writing table, with an expression that suggests on occasions bemusement, at other times derision. But his daytime stillness, like some feathered Buddha, helps focus my concentration in writing up this daily journal. I find I am captivated by his mysterious presence and the strange beauty of his features. His distinctive yet inscrutable face is a powerful incentive to deepen my mindfulness practice, as though at the heart of being might be found some common ground all sentient beings share. By night, naturally, he becomes restless, as my mind does in daylight hours. And so it is as if we inhabit circadian opposites, his nocturnal liveliness and my diurnal wakefulness, a reciprocal arrangement in which we might learn something from each other.

   A few days ago he had stumbled clumsily across my path into the undergrowth, one wing half extended at an odd angle, seeming unable to fly. On rescuing him gently from the thick undergrowth, where his wings had become trapped in a tangle of fallen branches, he seemed only a fledgling, with a body about the size of my hand and soft downy feathers. He hissed and took a stab at my thumb with his sharp hooked beak. The scaly talons were disproportionately large and he had tufts, like ears, on his head.

   At first, I wondered if he might be a baby forest eagle owl, but I am no expert. The eyes were brown rather than yellow. He made a sharp clicking sound with his beak. I let him go to see if he could fly. He made a feeble attempt and crash-landed in the grass a few yards away. He had not yet mastered the art of flying and perhaps had strayed from his nest, or there was something else wrong with him. In this defenceless state he was prey for any passing predator. And I was suddenly taken with this small brown owl with his round gaze and oversized talons, like a pair of shoes too big for him. Perhaps too I carried within a lingering guilt over the injured bird, which many years ago I had foolishly handed to the schoolmaster, who brutally wrung its neck in front of me, and here was a chance to rectify that error. And so, I carried him gently back to my hut in the hope that in my care he might grow stronger and soon be able to fly and hunt on his own.

It seems that owls have symbolized darkness and death for far longer than they have symbolized wisdom. For the ancient Egyptians they were synonymous with death, night and coldness. The Chinese associated them with evil, crime and horror, and they were frequently depicted on funeral urns. In Celtic mythology they are regarded as guides to the Underworld, helping to unmask those who would deceive you, and dusk is their time of power. In Christianity they symbolize Satan, the powers of darkness, solitude and desolation. For the Hindu the owl is the emblem of Yama, the god of the dead. And for the Japanese and the Mexican, owls are ill omens. Only in Ancient Greece did they come to be symbols of wisdom for they were birds sacred to Athene Minerva, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. She chose the owl as her companion for its ability to reveal unseen truths, perhaps through its supposed knowledge of darkness, or the power of the dusk’s half-light to reveal the hiddenness of Nature. The owl of Minerva, said Hegel, flew only at dusk. Perhaps it is their undoubtedly strange appearance along with their uniquely silent flight that gave rise to all this. Some people consider them beautiful, while others find them frightening. To me they are both terrible and beautiful, and I wonder what this owl will bring me as I carry him into my hut. I name him Bakamuna, which is Sinhalese for owl, meaning All-Seeing Face.

My new companion prompts reflections on our problematic relationship to the world. Birds have long fascinated us, invoking some of our deepest yearnings, as well as our fears: they possess beauty, grace, and soaring through the skies above us have inspired our longing to experience the freedom of flight, to leave the bonds of this earth, while the story of Icarus reminds us of the dangers of hubris. We are moved by their displays of colourful plumage, by their range of instinctive behaviour, from playful to threatening and predatory, and by their variety of musical repertoires. What would our days be like if no more flocks of birds winged the empty skies with their elegant calligraphy, or if birdsong were to cease forever? I have never handled a bird of prey, or formed an intimate bond with one. This fortuitous chance encounter now offers something unexpected, and possibly instructive. It is as though the very presence of this bird has now infused my writing with flights of explorative thought, probing the human predicament to lay bare the roots of our modern malaise.

How we crave to affirm our lives, to receive the approval of others, demanding attention and recognition, to know that others regard us in a positive and favourable light, to know that what we do and what we aspire to are worth the struggle, the commitment to advancement, the sacrifices made, the long hours of work. Proud and ‘successful’, we would see ourselves masters of life and fate, chanting the joys of life atop our self-made perch, like this indulgent brown-headed barbet trilling wildly from the high branch of a sea almond, or the red-eyed koel proclaiming loudly from a hidden house of leaves, determined to outcry all other birds as his piercing whistle rises with every breath to a hysterical pitch of self-affirmation, only to be swallowed up in the dense green silence as he flies off at the first approach of any alien observer.

But driven by the instincts of nest-building, food gathering and mating the birds’ goals are limited to survival and prolonging the species, and the beauty and variety of their song as we experience it is perhaps incidental to the need it serves, though some ornithologists believe there is an element of creative play in the many variations of song in some species. The French composer, Messiaen, wrote musical scores of bird-song and composed extraordinary pieces of music based on their variety. Certainly, the constructions of the ritual mating bowers of the New Guinea bowerbird exhibit something like creative play. A bird’s particular form, its colour pattern, has evolved through a complex process of what ethologists call sign-releasers, meaning the colour pattern that releases instinctive behaviour in birds of a certain species. It has been suggested that the male bowerbird passed through an unusual mutation exchanging its once bright coloured plumage, now a dull ensemble, for the elaborate ritual of decorative bower building, collecting all manner of objects from the environment to enhance its desirability and attract a mate. Was this a unique example of how nature’s mutations of colour and form, designed to perpetuate this species, transmuted and became objectified into a new form with the characteristic of creative play?

Play is an observable factor since the mammalian phase of evolution, in particular among birds and mammals and extended due to our relatively lengthy post-natal period of nurture that takes the edge off survival-related activity among juveniles, perhaps allowing the brain to develop new neural pathways integrating emotional and cognitive realms in playful creative activity. Cultural forms develop from this realm of play, historically as ritual and later as theory, and are passed on and modified by succeeding generations as part of a process that institutionalizes these forms as ways of acquiring appropriate responses to the world by the whole group or society. This activity has two forms, which Aristotle distinguished as poiesis and praxis: the one instrumental, which serves survival-related forms, and the other artistic, which basks in a mode unconstrained by the demands of survival. In the former, the end may determine the means, but in the latter, the activity is an end in itself, which by its joyful unselfconscious immersion in creation may participate in the creative dynamic at the heart of life itself. Somewhere between these two lay the key to what we call freedom.

Creativity in this sense is the result of play; a joyful activity that is not a means to an end, but an end in itself, intrinsically capable of extending our aptitude for higher integration and coherence beyond the limitations and constraints imposed by survival-related activity.

Out of play we freely create forms. All form arises out of emptiness, and the creative engagement with form is accompanied by a sense of presence. All forms, whether personal or cultural, are impermanent temporary constructs that embody presence, but then out of habit and repetition they cease to evoke what originally inspired them, and in time become empty symbols. At the collective cultural level, by not realizing the temporary ephemeral nature of forms as mental constructs and as symbols, we easily become imprisoned within them, eventually mistaking our projections for reality. It’s as though consciousness, reflecting on itself, is seeing itself through a mirror, and the mirror appears to be reflecting not consciousness but an independent reality upon which we too easily become fixated thus forfeiting a more subtle understanding of the mutually reciprocal interplay between our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. When in relaxed mode we are able to playfully engage with them imaginatively we come to see them more deeply as a seamless whole. Watching mammals joyously at play, the often mesmerizing swooping flight of flocks of birds, is to be reminded of the naturally exuberant joy that is our birthright, and perhaps in the end our true purpose. Did the bowerbird’s mutation render him an aberrant victim of objectification, obsessively collecting objects to substitute for his once bright plumage? The metaphor says more about us than we can ever know about the bowerbird, but in a world degraded by objectification and driven by the profit motive, in which humans are dispensable, our humanity suffers from a deeply felt loss as though our true nature, like the bowerbird’s original beautiful plumage, has been exchanged for an endless array of substitute gratifications.

                                                          *                           *                          *                            *