For the last two spring seasons I have watched with intrigue as new Holly leaves form on my walks around Malvern. They emerge small, waxy and surprisingly soft to the touch. Over the course of a few weeks they harden up, gradually lose their softness and their edges turn from soft points to the prickly spikes iconic of the Holly plant. If I look down whilst stood by the Holly, I can often see a few fallen old holly leaves on the floor; their hard adult bodies now skeletal, withered, dried and crumbly. Their prickles that were once painful to stand on barefoot, now crumbling grains of leaf matter. The whole life cycle present in one moment, individual holly leaves and branches forming and dying whilst the plant as a whole persists.
This reminds me how soft and vulnerable we are when we emerge from the womb and how, over time our many edges harden to form the necessary protections and defences against the world. Sometimes those barriers soften with age, sometimes they become more deeply entrenched as they continue to be needed and the value of getting close enough to others to be vulnerable and connected is weighed up against the cost of getting hurt.
I’ve found that, over time, spiritual and therapeutic practise has profoundly altered my prickles. Some edges and defences have melted or fallen away entirely, others have become like an adult cat’s claws; able to stay contracted or to extend dependant on the situation. My fluid sense of self persisting as the many strands that make it up rise and fall, solidify and wither. Each move towards openness allows me to feel more intimately in touch with love and presence, with interconnectedness and the Ultimate. As I experience this more frequently and come to trust their existence, in the times when my protections extend and I feel more distant from them, I can still know that they’re there.
Kaspa has written an article/Dharma Glimpse for the XR Buddhists website based on his dharma talk from last night’s practice session. How can we welcome all of our reactions to the climate crisis, and move towards compassionate action without expectation of results?
As part of last year’s Bodhi Day I sat with fellow sangha members and Extinction Rebellion activists at a regular vigil for the Earth in the middle of my home town. Round our necks we wore the placards that said ‘in Love and Grief for the Earth.’
At some point during the hour I sat there, I leaned into the Malvern stone façade of the wall beside me and suddenly experienced a profound and physical sense of what two elements of that phrase meant to me –even if not actually in the order they were written on my chest.
First of all I felt acutely the separation of those stones from their bedrock only a few miles away where they had developed over deep time and remained undisturbed – until humans tore them from the hills with destructive tools and probably dynamite. People far more knowledgeable than I am about Earth Mysteries posit that the history of quarrying leaves a psychic scar on the land. I thought about that and found myself apologising to those stones for their violent relocation.
And then I realised I was on familiar territory. Here was a lesson to me in the pervasiveness of dukkha – that to build something required damage to something else, that there was an inevitability about that and that, as always, I needed to find a way of sitting with this and accepting it.
And then I had a second experience of the Earth that those stones represented. As their coolness seeped into my shoulder and maybe a tiny part of my human warmth seeped into them, I was reminded that stones can also represent connection. In recent years it has become increasingly popular to paint stones and either gift them or leave them for people to find. One of our former temple residents is very well known for this locally!
I have a pebble that was painted for me by a dear friend and former boss. She did one for each of her staff before she left. Though she is not herself a Buddhist she researched Buddhist art before painting a mandala on one side of the pebble for me and telling me to carry it with me to help me feel grounded when I needed it.
Such stones can represent many images and ideas, but the underlying theme is that the givers and receivers care about each other and want to connect. And we use a small part of the Earth as our medium to do so. In doing so, we bear witness to our universal connection, or love, just as the Buddha did in reaching down and touching the Earth on the morning of his Enlightenment.
Which brings me back, full circle, to what made me choose to sit on those steps in the middle of town on a December afternoon.
At the beginning of the week the IPPC released its sixth report. You’ve probably seen the headlines in newspapers and on the radio and television. The headline from the IPPC press release is: climate change: rapid, widespread and intensifying.
This is a longer post than usual. But it’s an important topic to address. Perhaps the most pressing issue of the day. I also wanted to share with you the video from last Saturday’s practice session, which included our first refuge ceremony since the temple’s change of name: Practice, Sh*t, and refuge.
Over the past few weeks the news has been full of flooding in Europe and wildfires around the world, in Turkey, Greece, California, Siberia and so on. The fire in California now covers 724 square miles. There have always been forest fires there, but the climate crisis means they are bigger, more damaging and more unmanageable.
On Monday morning I sat and watched the beginning of the live-streamed press conference from the IPCC. I listened to a couple of speakers and then I couldn’t listen any more. I stood up and decided to get on with the day’s work. I went into the bedroom to change into my painting clothes, collapsed onto the bed and sobbed.
After a minute or so I picked myself up, got changed and carried on with my day. Throughout the morning the grief and upset sat just behind my other thoughts and feelings.
Later that day Professor Kimberly Nichols tweeted and asked: How do we find the courage to face the climate crisis?
She suggested there are five stages of Radical Climate Acceptance:
All the Feels
I guess I was in ‘all the feels’.
I’m fortunate to have spaces where I can share my emotional response and be heard. I’d encourage you to find those spaces as well. (Like our listening circle on Saturdays at 6pm) It’s so important to be able to hear and feel our own reactions to what’s happening in the world. Being listened to with compassion, or listening to ourselves with compassion can help move us through those stages outlined above.
I’m also fortunate to have found a community within XR Buddhists that has a shared purpose in facing the climate crisis. But I still sometimes wonder how other Buddhists might or might not face this emergency.
Some might say that what’s important for Buddhists is to become awakened. We know this world is one of suffering, and the Buddha taught either to leave this world of suffering by entering nirvana after death, or to become enlightened within this world of suffering depending on who you ask. He didn’t say much about making the world a better place.
There aren’t many/any examples of the Buddha being an activist. The advice he gives to kings is very good advice, but he delivers it in a very diplomatic way, and unlike some of us he was never arrested for meditating in the road and stopping traffic.
But over and over again we are implored to be kind. We are taught to make compassionate responses to each other and the world.
We are now in a state of global emergency – and what can be more kind and compassionate than facing that together?
The most important thing we can do is talk about the climate crisis and to put pressure on our leaders to make and enforce the changes we need. 67% of carbon emissions come from fossil fuel. Whilst personal change is important, personal change along won’t mitigate that.
Satya is travelling to London in a couple of weeks to demonstrate on the streets again, some of us from the temple community will go up and join her for a day. Satya and I will be on the streets again outside the international conference on the climate in Glasgow in November.
How? As Buddhists we are fortunate to have practices and teachings that support us to do the inner work that is required to both be effective responders and to demonstrate a way of being that is not based on greed, ill-will and ignorance.
When we make our responses to the climate crisis it is important to bring both of these aspects together: To choose wise, effective action and to do that action in a way that embodies compassion and loving kindness for all.
I encourage you to have courage and to find your own compassionate response to this emergency. There are lots of resources on the XR Buddhist website. Or drop us a line if you want to talk things through.
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.