To my left I noticed heaps of dried brown leaves on the ground, above them tender green leaves were beginning to uncurl in the sycamore tree. A robin jumped onto a fallen branch, moving in that clockwork way that birds have, and looked into my eyes before flitting away.
I was at the front of our single file mindful walk, and my thoughts about how quickly or slowly I was supposed to be leading the group had cleared enough for me to pay closer attention to the natural world.
It is not always true, but more often than not when I move slowly through the natural world my habitual busy mind begins to quiet and leave space for something else. Sometimes that something else is the natural world —the intimacy of experience that comes when we are really quiet and paying attention —and sometimes that something new is a thought or feeling that was previous hidden or unformed.
After half an hour or so of slow walking we came to the furthest point of the walk. There was a saddle between two hills on the right, a valley of scree and dirt and scrub between the peaks, at the point our path curved away to the left. We found places to sit here, in a kind of beach with the hills at our back, the view opening up between the trees in front of us, and the valley dropping away below.
As we settled into meditate here I felt like we were inhabiting a sacred place. The sky was clear, we could see for miles across Worcestershire, and the air was full of birdsong. A family walking past us fell into silence as they noticed us sitting in meditation, and this added to feeling of sacred space.
I already knew this curve in the path, and this view. There was a bench there that I had sat on before, and yet there was something particular special that day. I’m sure the act of walking mindfully to that place changed my experience of it.
On the slow walk back I began to notice the noise and smells of the town again. The air quality changed – got worse –the further down the hill we got, and the noise of the traffic became louder and more insistent.
Here was all this beauty and I was acutely aware of what has already been lost and the damage that we are continuing to do to the natural world, and that much of the comfort of my own life rests upon the progress that has created this suffering.
An ambulance passed on the road below. Will our efforts to take care of the earth be enough to make a difference, I wondered?
As we approached where we had begun I noticed pale yellow primroses coming up through the grass. There was a small flowering of hope in me then, seeing these wild flowers pushing up through the civilised straight edged lawn.
There are so many different kinds of suffering, and so many available teachers and teachings claiming to speak to that suffering. How can we know what to trust? How can we know what to do?
At one time the Buddha visited Kalama and was asked about what teachings the people of Kalama should follow. They had various visiting holy figures, which teaching should they trust?
The Buddha encouraged them to observe the result of practising those teachings, to test them and to observe the people who are practising them. If they lead to happiness for all beings, follow them. If they lead to suffering, reject them.
I think this advice works on two levels. We can consciously observe the practices and results and think through the teaching and the situation we are in. This kind of working out can be very useful and valuable.
There is also an intuitive process that becomes easier to access the longer we have been practising for. As our meditation or nembutsu practise deepens we occasionally receive guidance from something outside of our own small minds: the wisdom of the Buddha appears spontaneously and we have a deep confident sense of the next right thing.
Often this is so obviously the right direction that there is no need to question or test it. We can simply trust and follow the wisdom of the Buddha.
Sometimes we may doubt what we receive, and then we can test it by asking is it in line with the precepts? Will it lead to happiness? Is it in the spirit of generosity and compassion?
Rev Koshin Schomberg describes receiving wisdom at this deep level:
“From this position of meditative effort, one can entrust every problem to the Eternal, waiting patiently for the teaching that will help the need…
…We do not have to be any kind of special person to receive the Eternal’s Teaching. Nor is it ever far from us. Anyone who has sat down to meditate in some state of confusion about what is truly good to do in a situation, and got up from meditation less confused, has experienced the follow of Wisdom to need. — All we need to do is to settle down, stop running around in our head, and allow the Eternal to get a word in edgewise.”
How to Grow A Lotus Blossom: Reflections by Rev. Koshin Schomberg
In a complex world, where there are many difference teachings and many different kinds of suffering, knowing who to listen to, what to practise and what to do can be confusing. Using these two approaches — careful observation and thought, and developing our connection with ‘The Eternal’ —can help us find our way.
The Pure Land of Amitabha is described as a land without hell realms, without suffering. It is described as a place where enlightenment comes easily, where Amitabha sits radiantly in the centre. It is a land of jewelled trees, limpid bathing pools, giant lotus flowers and musical instruments that play themselves.
It is called Sukhavati, which means place of joy.
Some people take these descriptions literally; many take them as an attempt in words to evoke something transcendental: a realm of love.In classical Pure Land Buddhism devotees go to Sukhavati after their death. But could this world be the Pure Land?
Amitabha’s Pure Land is a place of no hell realms and no suffering. The first noble truth of Shakyamuni Buddha was that of Dukkha — that to be born into this world one inevitably suffers. Is it possible to reconcile these differences?
Buddhism often breaks suffering into two halves: in the first half the suffering in the world, the external conditions that change, loss and illness and death; in the second half our own response to that suffering. If we practise diligently we can transform how we respond to suffering.
Perhaps that offers a way of seeing this world as the Pure Land? When we are enlightened, nothing we experience creates suffering. Is that really true though? Practice can ease anguish, and soften the highest peaks and deepest lows of our emotions, but it shouldn’t undermine the appropriate sadness, grief and recognition of real suffering in the world.
I think the distinction between Amitabha’s Pure Land as a place of pure joy and our world is an important one. We stand here and are inspired by our vision of the Pure Land. We know there is a world that will receive us just as we are, and that a world where all beings are loved by each other is possible, even if it isn’t here.
But Buddhism speaks of many Pure Lands, many Buddha fields, not just the world of Amitabha, and some of those do contain hell realms.
Is this world the same as Sukhavati? No. Could it be a Pure Land? Yes.
A Pure Land is any place with a Buddha in the centre. It is the field of influence around that Buddha. The land and the living beings around that Buddha are transformed by its presence: by its love.
Amitabha lives in Sukhavati, but their light reaches to all worlds. If we centre our lives upon that light, we begin to experience the effects of being close to a Buddha, and a Pure Land begins to appear.
If we strip out all of the Buddhist language where does that leave us? That there is a realm of pure love and joy that exists alongside ours, and that the more we let that love into our lives, the more the world around us comes to resemble that place.
Listening to one of Kaspa’s talks recently started me thinking about the epic commitments and sacrifices that we make when embarking upon the Spiritiual path. Certainly for me there was a sense of letting go of many different crutches and allowing myself to be slowly immersed in all of the stuff that I’d been avoiding for 30 odd years; Leaning into a power that I had very little understanding of(Amida)and had yet to develop the kind of trust that I needed for a lifetime of faith.
It’s as if, on some unconscious level, or maybe even partly conscious, I had somehow understood the deep paradoxes and mysterious meaning of my prior predicaments and the difficulties that they entailed. The anguish of struggling against the onslaught of Samsara had opened me up to another dimension of possibility in this world and beyond. This seems, to a lesser or greater extent, to be true for some of the other guys that accompany me on the journey as well. As if we had already surrendered to the fact of what must be done if we are to be truly free! The fact that many of us had previously devoted our lives to the pursuit of pleasure and gratification and the avoidance of our pain, makes it even more fascinating that, all of a sudden, we are ready and willing to be exposed to the dark recesses of our minds, exactly what most of us had been running from.
I have always been encouraged by my various teachers to try to cultivate a philosophical attitude towards my suffering, and have found that this has formed a sort of mechanism which has become ingrained in my psyche. Suffering is as terrible or profound as the attitude with which we approach it.
One of the sayings that used to get banded about in some of the institutions that I frequented on my journey towards recovery was, “we’re not coasting into paradise, we’re backing out of hell”. In other words, don’t get too cosy with your projections about an idyllic future, there’s a lot of work to do. Which neatly subdued some of my more erratic expectations about what the spiritual path should look like, and helped to frame the pressing question of “what next?” After all, not many people expect that their self improvement efforts will need to be extended into the rest of their lives. There can be a heartbreaking illusion that it’s possible for us to leave the pain behind and start again, which takes many people back to where they began. The truth is that, for many of us, the pain itself is the foundation for the future. The basis of our ongoing healing and the means by which we extract ourselves and others from the suffering realms.
Part of the nourishment that I get from my faith is that I can better accept the sobering realties of my life, which is actually and, again, paradoxically, much more interesting than it ever has been. I use the lessons of my past as a grounding for the present whilst moving carefully towards a healthy future. Namo Amida Bu( :
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.