It’s a hot summer’s day in the mayoral offices in Worthing, pictures of the late Queen and commemorative plaques dot the wood-panelled walls. An unlikely place, perhaps, to be discussing the finer aspects of Buddhism. But then the new Mayor, Jon Roser, is no ordinary mayor.
Quiet and softly spoken, Roser is not the hail-fellow-well-met type one might expect. He admits “I am no extrovert. I’m not a mingler”. His immediate predecessor, Henna Chowdhury – the town’s first female Muslim mayor – was more outgoing, he concedes and would be “a hard act to follow. She created many positive links in the community that I hope to maintain.”
Since taking over the job, the new mayor has launched himself enthusiastically into his role, attending an 100th birthday celebration, hosting guests from Worthing’s twin town Les Sables d’Olonne and launching some children’s sports.
He joined Labour in 2015, enthused by Jeremy Corbyn, who he saw as a “breath of fresh air”. But Buddhism came first. Brought up as a Congregationalist, he initially came to Buddhism thanks to sibling rivalry.
Meditation and mindfulness
“Back in the early 1980s my brother spent three months working in a Buddhist community in Croydon in a vegetarian restaurant. I started reading Buddhism so I could get into best debates with him. I could argue my case. Then I just realised I was a Buddhist.”
One of the seminal texts that guided him, he says, is the Heart Sutra, popular in Mahāyāna Buddhism, which teaches that enlightenment can be obtained in a single lifetime.
Roser met his wife through Buddhism and taught meditation and mindfulness during four years at a retreat centre near Uckfield. He later worked in Evolution, a Buddhist gift shop in Brighton, since going on to a career in retail.
In Buddhism is everyone on a spiritual path?
“Personally, I don’t like the word ‘spiritual’,” he said. “It sounds a bit too airy-fairy. Another way of putting it is ‘personal development’, becoming a more rounded person, becoming more human really.”
“You don’t have to believe in reincarnation, but, if it makes sense to you, you can follow it. If you don’t believe in re-incarnation,” he jokes, “you just have to work a bit harder in this lifetime.”
If Buddha was alive today, would he become a politician or social worker perhaps?
“I think he would be someone who stood outside these things. He never told people how to live their lives. He acknowledged there was suffering in the world, that life is unsatisfactory. Because we don’t accept life as unsatisfactory, we constantly try to make it satisfactory. We’re trying to keep ourselves happy and not understand it is part of the texture of life.”
Does suffering improve people?
“Suffering is bit of a loaded term,” he responds. “It could be anything from physical pain, or being not quite as happy as you’d like to be. I would never say suffering is essential to the good life. But if you don’t acknowledge the fact you are suffering, you can’t move on from it in a sense.”
It is hard to imagine Jon, so softly spoken, holding his own as a public speaker. But it turns out he’s far braver than me.
“I did a lot speaking in public when I was more involved in the Buddhist movement,” he says. “It’s something I need to refresh.” One of the challenges in training was what was called “spontaneous talks”: you’re given a subject and then, on the spot, have to talk about it for a full five minutes.
Roser is reluctant to talk too much about politics now: “It’s important for me as mayor not to be flashing my ideological colours.” But under the robes, along each arm, are symbols of his commitment to the cause.
On his right forearm is a tattoo of a Labour red rose and the words “For the Many”. And on his left, a quote from Shelley that inspired the Corbyn-era slogan:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew.
Ye are many – they are few.
Beside it is a tattoo of the Guy Fawkes mask, an image originally created for the 2005 film V for Vendetta, and since adopted by protesters everywhere.
The film is set in a dystopian future where the chief protagonist, known as V, tries to blow up Parliament. It is Jon’s favourite film. But it doesn’t represent his politics, which he describes as democratic socialism.
‘Taking it on the chin’ for Corbyn
We talk about the challenges of political campaigning. Roser is mayor because in May 2022 the people of Worthing dispensed with Tory tradition and for the first time elected a Labour-run council.
It took a lot of hard campaigning by the party and, Roser says, “listening to what people had to say”. His first activism had been in the 2017 and 2019 elections when he often had to “take it on the chin” when confronted by voters who wanted anyone else but the then leader Jeremy Corbyn.
‘“One of the central ideas of Buddhism.” he explains, “is that we act on our views and the views we pick up from those around us, how we respond to our family and friends, how we filter what’s going on in the world.
“My role is to question views, to say: what’s behind that view? I’m not attacking them, but to see them as another human – they’re not the enemy so to speak.”
In other words, it works better than being confrontational?
“Yes, the best experience I’ve had on the doorstep as an activist is listening to people. And measuring my own views against theirs. And to see if my views are enough to counteract theirs.” And, he adds, to question whether his own views are in fact correct.
Worthing’s new listening mayor may also be a hard act to follow.