Recently I’ve started practising outdoors now and again. I long to go out to a truly wild place and sit in meditation there, but under current lockdown guidelines we are only supposed to go outside for exercise including a short rest of up to a minute…
As I wondered down to the bottom of the garden this morning I was conscious of the many human hands that cared for and curated this space as well as the non-human forces that have shaped it.
It had rained overnight and everything was damp. I noticed the wetness of the lawn but not the quality of solidity of the earth beneath. When I was out meditating at the weekend the ground was frozen solid and the hardness of the earth. There must have been more give and softness to that solidity today, but I wasn’t paying attention. It’s easier to notice the unusual states.
At the beginning of my practise I noticed the smell of damp wood. It could have been the deck I was sitting on, or dead branches stacked up beneath the hedge behind me. A little later I noticed the smell of fox, and then it was gone again, appearing and disappearing as the wind changed direction.
My attention was drawn to the bird-song, and then to the rough bark of the silver birch tree, and then to our dogs playing on the lawn. I noticed some part of my mind wanting to make connections and to find some lesson or wisdom that I could bring out of the practice and share with you all.
In that act of noticing my mind quietened and my body settled more deeply into the chair. I was aware of my weight and of the reliability of the earth supporting me. Thoughts arose telling me that we could destroy the natural earth completely and yet there was still something deeply reassuring about sitting there.
I was aware of the changes in the garden even in the last few days, buds growing on trees, the weather changing, and new flowers opening. In the midst of noticing all of that change, I also had a deep intuitive sense of something permanent or eternal.
Over the last few weeks I have found myself looking deeply into the Buddhist teachings and trying to discover what ‘real’ or ‘true’ Buddhism is.
Lots of teachers through the ages claim that what they are teaching is real Buddhism, or that what they are teaching is exactly the same as what the Buddha taught, and in some historical cases even presenting their own words as the Buddha’s words (like some the later Sutras, for example, which scholars suggest were composed many years after the Buddha’s death).
One approach to discover what true Buddhism is might be to look at how it’s taught and practised around the world right now. But with so many different styles and traditions, and teachings that occasionally diverge on essential points, making something coherent from all of this is an impossible puzzle to solve.
Another approach might be to carefully examine the pali cannon, the closest thing that we have to the Buddhas own words. On Twitter I follow a sanskrit scholar who sometimes does just that. Reading his articles two things stand out to me. Firstly, that academics and teachers often subtly shift the meaning of pali or sanskrit words for two reasons: 1) to suit their own biases and practise styles and 2) to make sense of something that was originally incoherent. That second reason for changing the meaning of words during translation points to the second overall thing that stands out for me: that sometimes it’s difficult to make a coherent philosophy from these oldest of Buddhist teachings. In one place they appear to say this, in another place they appear to say that. In the face of all of this the one thing that continues to make sense is my practice.
Sitting chanting nembutsu or the Quanyin mantra the many words of teaching fall away. I find myself relating to something that feels loving and wise and occasionally offers guidance. What else could I ask for?
Despite their occasional incoherence there is much wisdom in those old Buddhist teachings, so I’ll keep reading and studying them, and I’ll keep listening to contemporary teachers. And rather than trying to point myself in the direction of ‘proper’ Buddhism, the heart of my practice will be my continuing relationship to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.