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.
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.
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.