Hope you’re all doing okay in week ~something~ of lockdown. During the first few weeks I was intensely aware of time passing and how the virus was changing the world, more recently, as I have begun to get used to these new conditions, I find that I keep track of time passing in a different way. I notice more and more wildflowers coming into blossom, for example, the ever lengthening daylight, and I am slowly losing track of what the calendar says.
Below I share some thoughts about liberation, receiving compassion and making effort, and I also want to share the video of our talk from last Saturday: The Joy of Ordinary Things
During the last few weeks I’ve really been noticing the line between what’s within my power and what is out of my control.
One of the great teachings of Pureland Buddhism is of the liberation of failure. How enlightening it is to discover the limits of our power! There can be a real easing of anxiety as we come to terms with the many things we can’t change in the world. In our inner life, noticing the limits of our power brings us more into relationship with the Buddha, as we realise more and more deeply that we can’t liberate ourselves by lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps*.
The Buddha once spoke about the right way of holding a snake: take it by the head and you can use the venom for medicine, take it by the tail and it can bite you. He said the same is true of spiritual teachings: we can use them wisely, or we can use them to support and feed delusion.
When we hear about the limits of our power we might think that we don’t need to do anything, and fall into sloth, torpor and down that is the road of delusion (and of depression).
It is a great teaching, and a great correction to the idea that it is our own power that takes us from the shore of delusion to the shore of enlightenment, and it is not the whole story.
In Rev. Koshin Schomberg’s commentary on Roshi Jiyu Kennett’s How to Grow a Lotus Blossom he suggests that there are two boats that carry us across from one shore to the other.
One is the boat of compassion. This is the compassion that is offered to us from the Buddha, the light of loving kindness that inspires us, that accepts us and loves us just as we are.
The second boat he calls the boat of training. This is the boat of attending to the precepts, of engaging in spiritual practice and so on. Dogen might say it is the boat of playing our part.
If we only notice the boat of training we can fall into grandiosity.
Mature spiritual training appreciates both boats. Each boat supports our liberation from selfishness and supports us to become more loving.
The Buddha supports us and lifts us up, and invites us to join in with the great dance of enlightenment. How do we join in? By responding appropriately to whatever life is presenting us.
Although it is in some senses an arbitrary date, created by the whims of Emperors and Popes, we are at the cusp of the old year and the new. In many senses it’s more meaningful to mark the winter solstice, and yet here we are. We are steeped in the culture that made us and so naturally tonight feels significant.
As well as celebration the New Year is a time for reflection and contemplation. What was the old year like? What will next year be like?
I know the pitfalls of making resolutions. We fix our minds to some goal, put great energy into changing and then at some point it all falls apart. My rule of thumb is that if it requires a small push it’s probably okay, but if it takes a big push we should be mindful that other parts of us will probably push back at some point…
Perhaps more useful than resolution is inquiry. I recommend the question, “What is at the centre of my life?”
The first thing I notice is the gap between what I would like to be at the centre and what is actually there. One way of finding this out is to ask, “How do I actually spend my time?” There are a limited number of days in the year, and hours in the day. What do I give them to?
The second thing I notice is that there is more than one answer. I do not circle a single significant thing but rather follow a path circumscribed by the weight of different things, like a comet following the path that gravity dictates around the planets of our solar system.
For Buddhists the most profound thing to have at the centre is the Buddha. Or perhaps the essence of Buddha. What is that? It is unconditional love —a natural springing up of love that wishes only for the wellbeing of all beings.
If we find ourselves excluding some individual or community of beings from that love, then the Buddha has slipped from the centre and something else has taken its place. This is how it is to be human. Sometimes we centre around love, sometimes around fear and sometimes around some mix of the two.
There is real value in finding out what is actually there at the centre. Sometimes when we see clearly what we are circling — worldly status, money, permanence and so on —we see the value in letting it go. There is real value in keeping an eye on the Buddha as well. As we begin to trust that love, naturally we begin to swing into its orbit.
Some Buddhist practices are about investigating what is really there. Some are about giving our attention to the Buddha, and some are about celebrating that the Buddha is always waiting for us.
So tonight and tomorrow I will spend some time investigating this. I encourage you to do the same.
Acharya Susthama recounts the story of Queen Vaidehi’s vision of the Pure Land. She tells of the difficult circumstances that befell the queen, and how her acknowledgement of past heavy karma leads to her receiving a vision from the Buddha.
At nine o clock in the morning Satya and I were waiting in our house surrounded by cardboard boxes packed with all of our things. At midday we received the keys to the temple. Over the next few days lots of volunteers helped us to clean and sort things out and a week after moving in we hosted a retreat.
On that day I could hardly imagine five years into the future. It seemed like such a long way off. And yet I still had a vision of what we were aiming for: I pictured a shrine room full of people, joining their voices in chanting and sitting quietly in meditation a few times a week. I imagined those people coming together in shared celebrations and fellowship and I wondered what sort of leader I would be.
Five years later — does that imagined future match the reality?
The number of people coming to our events has remained pretty steady over the past five years, and maybe it’s even a few less than it was this time last year. And yet, that is far from the whole story.
This time last year or the year before Satya and I sent out a little survey, and one of the surprising results was that there wasn’t any correlation between how often people came to the temple, and how connected they felt to us.
Those connections have grown over the past five years, both in number and in quality. We are in a web of people inspired by Pure Land Buddhist teachings and that web is shining brightly.
Recently I wrote a paragraph about my activities for the Amida Trust annual report. Aside from the temple there was a long list of unexpected events, talks and projects. Satya has a similar list and I know others do as well, from the school visits that Dayamay organises and leads to the connections Khema makes with friends in other Buddhist communities. The Pureland dharma is alive in all of these places.
Personally my faith has deepened over the past five years, as I have come to know myself more deeply and seen the light of Amida shining into my darkest corners.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons of the past five years is how little control I have had over these outcomes, mostly it has involved saying yes to the good invitations that have come along, and saying lots of nembutsu.
This moment in time is not the end of the journey, and five years ago was not the beginning. They are both just moments in a conversation that has been happening for generations: teachers transmitting the dharma to disciples, the Buddha transmitting the dharma to disciples, the world singing with the dharma to those with the ears to listen.
So thanks to all of those that have gone before us and made this particular flowering possible, and thanks to all of those who join us and support in our current adventure, from Padma and the trustees, to our teacher Dharmavidya, to our temple-mates and the volunteers who lend their time and energy at the temple, and to those who do come and join their nembutsu with ours, whether near or far.